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Tamás Visi





John the Baptist – A Jewish Preacher Recast as the Herald of Jesus





APA e-journal

Tamás Visi





John the Baptist – A Jewish Preacher Recast as the Herald of Jesus








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John the Baptist – A Jewish Preacher Recast as the Herald of Jesus

The historical John, יוחנן, was a thoroughly Jewish religious preacher, who had little if any relation to Jesus and his movement. Here is the story of how John and his central rite, baptism, became part of Christianity.


John the Baptist – A Jewish Preacher Recast as the Herald of Jesus

The Preaching of St. John the Baptist, Rembrandt, ca. 1634. Wikimedia

In the third and fourth decade of the first century C.E., a charismatic Jewish teacher in the Jordan Valley took on the mantle of prophecy, and attracted the attention of a sizable audience. The preacher’s name was יוחנן, Yohannan, transliterated in Latin as “Johannes,” hence the English name “John.” People referred to him as “the immerser” or “the baptizer” since he requested people to immerse in the water of the Jordan as a sign of repentance and conversion to God.

John the Baptist plays an important role in Christian historiography, but it is important to remember that John was not Christian—there was no such thing at the time—and his “baptism” was not the same thing as the later Christian ritual of initiation. Instead, it was a variation on the popular Jewish practice at the time to immerse in water to achieve ritual purification.[1]

The earliest extant source about him is preserved in the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark (early 70s C.E.):

Mark 1:4 John baptized in the wilderness and preached the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 1:5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 1:6 John wore [a garment made of] camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. (NIV adjusted)[2]

John’s appearance is reminiscent of the description of prophets in the book of Zechariah:[3]

זכריה יג:ד וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יֵבֹשׁוּ הַנְּבִיאִים אִישׁ מֵחֶזְיֹנוֹ בְּהִנָּבְאֹתוֹ וְלֹא יִלְבְּשׁוּ אַדֶּרֶת שֵׂעָר לְמַעַן כַּחֵשׁ. יג:ה וְאָמַר לֹא נָבִיא אָנֹכִי אִישׁ עֹבֵד אֲדָמָה אָנֹכִי כִּי אָדָם הִקְנַנִי מִנְּעוּרָי.
Zech 13:4 On that day every prophet will be ashamed of their prophetic vision. They will not put on a prophet’s hairy mantel in order to deceive. 13:5 Each will say, “I am not a prophet. I am a farmer; the land has been my livelihood since my youth.” (NIV adjusted)

This verse attests that prophets could be identified by a special article of clothing that was made of hair.[4]

The mantel, and especially the leather belt, is associated with the prophet Elijah. When the King of Samaria wishes to learn the identity of the man who sent him a prophetic message, he asks the messengers what he looked like:

מלכים ב א:ח וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו אִישׁ בַּעַל שֵׂעָר וְאֵזוֹר עוֹר אָזוּר בְּמָתְנָיו וַיֹּאמַר אֵלִיָּה הַתִּשְׁבִּי הוּא.
2 Kgs 1:8 They replied, “He is a hairy man, and had a leather belt around his waist.” The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.”

Elsewhere, Elijah is described as wearing a mantel, referred to as אַדֶּרֶת אֵלִיָּהוּ, “Elijah’s Mantel” (2 Kgs 2:12–13), though it is unclear if it was “hairy.” John’s unusual clothing reflected his prophetic status and may have been reminiscent of Elijah.

John the Baptist in the Context of Second Temple Judaism

John’s teachings were summarized by the Hellenistic Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, as follows:

[T]his good man, who commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God. For only thus, in John’s opinion, would the baptism he administered be acceptable to God, namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies, inasmuch as it was taken for granted that their souls had already been purified by justice. Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words.[5]

Yohannan’s use of immersion in water (“baptism”) as a symbol of purification of sins occurs in the sectarian literature found in the caves around Qumran.[6] For example, in the Serech HaYachad, or Community Rule, we are told that ritual immersion is part of a person’s spiritual cleansing (1QS 3:6–9):

כיא ברוח עצת אמת אל דרכי איש יכופרו כול עוונותו להביט באור החיים וברוח קדושה ליחד באמתו יטהר מכול עוונותו וברוח יושר וענו{ת}ה תכופר חטתו ובענות נפשו לכול חוקי אל יטהר בשרו להזות במי נדה ולהתקדש במי דוכי
For it is by the spirit of the true counsel of God that are atoned the paths of man, all his iniquities, so that he can look at the light of life. And it is by the holy spirit of the community, in its truth, that he is cleansed of all his iniquities. And by the spirit of uprightness and of humility his sin is atoned. And by the compliance of his soul with all the laws of God his flesh is cleansed by being sprinkled with cleansing waters and being made holy with the waters of repentance.[7]

John the Baptist and the Dead Sea sectarians share the use of water immersion for purification of the spirit. John may have been a member of the sect who went off on his own;[8] alternately, John may never have been part of the Essenes community, and this idea of spiritual purification through immersion was more widely known among Judeans during the late Second Temple period.

John’s Downfall: Crossing Herod Antipas

John’s growing popularity contributed to his downfall. He was active on the east bank of the Jordan, called Peraea, and perhaps in the Galilee. These territories were not under direct Roman administration but were governed by Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great.[9]

Herod Antipas feared that John’s movement would eventually develop into an uprising, and had him arrested and executed. Our main source for this is Josephus:

Herod [Antipas], who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly, John was sent as a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Machaerus, the castle I already mentioned, and was put to death.[10]

The gospels, however, suggest a different reason that Herod Antipas had John killed.

John the Baptist’s Death According to Mark and Matthew

According to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, John objected to the fact that Herod Antipas married Herodias, his brother’s former wife:

Mark 6:17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 6:18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”[11]

Josephus Flavius confirms the information that Antipas married Herodias, which he describes thus (Ant. 18.135­–136, LCL trans.):

…Herodias, taking it into her head to flout the way of our fathers, married Herod [Antipas], her husband’s brother by the same father, who was tetrarch of Galilee. To do this, she parted from a living husband.

Josephus is more critical of Herodias than Antipas, but the situation and the problem is the same: marrying the ex-wife of one’s brother violates a Torah prohibition (see Lev 18:16, 20:21).[12] Josephus’s opposition to the marriage likely reflects what most tradition-minded Jews of the time would have thought, and it seems likely that John would have reacted similarly, and that the story preserves some historical truth.

Herodias’ Grudge

The Gospel of Mark continues with a colorful story of how John met his end. The arrest of John is not sufficient for Herodias, who bides her time until an opportunity comes to get her husband, who respected the prophet, to have him executed.[13]

Mark 6:21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 6:22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I'll give it to you.” 6:23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”[14]

This final verse has Herod Antipas echoing the words of Ahasuerus to Esther (Esth 5:6; 7:2) when speaking to his step-daughter. This offer is the death-knell for John:

Mark 6:24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. 6:25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”[15]

Herod Antipas is cornered:

Mark 6:26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 6:27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 6:28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother.[16]

The story ends with John’s burial:

Mark 6:29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.[17]

This story does not appear in Josephus, and some of the details may be legendary, but it is likely that John criticized Herod Antipas for transgressing the laws of incest, and that this contributed to his finding himself on Herod Antipas’ bad side. This concern for incest alongside Herod Antipas’ concern that John was becoming a seditious leader, contributed to the elimination of this troublesome prophet.

Interpreting the Prophet’s Death

The untimely death of a prophet or religious leader often brings about a crisis for his (or her) followers. Was his death a sign of divine disfavor? Was he a false prophet? Did he sin? The circumstances that followed on the heels of John’s execution offered an answer to these questions. To understand the point, we need to look briefly at the sequence of events involving Herod Antipas’ controversial marriage.

Josephus relates (Ant. 18.109–115) that on a trip to Rome, Herod Antipas fell in love with his half-brother’s wife, Herodias. The two of them decided to marry, but since Herod Antipas was already married, Herodias insisted that he must divorce his wife first, which he did. This wife, however, was the daughter of the Nabatean king Aretas, and the king, who already had territorial disputes with his son-in-law, treated the divorce as casus belli.

The Nabatean army roundly defeated that of Herod Antipas, whose troops were effectively annihilated. Having lost the first major battle, Herod Antipas asked for Roman help, and Emperor Tiberius ordered his legate Vitellius, the Roman governor of Syria, to lead troops against the Nabateans to support Herod Antipas.

Although Vitellius did begin preparations for the campaign, Tiberius died before the Roman troops were ready to engage. Since Vitellius’s mandate as the emperor’s legate automatically ended upon the death of his patron, military preparations were cancelled, leaving Herod Antipas unsupported in his conflict with the Nabateans.

Reflecting on Herod Antipas’ spectacular defeat, Josephus wrote (Ant. 18:116):

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God as a just punishment of what Herod had done against John, who was called the Baptist.

As New Testament scholar Wolfgang Schenk points out, the humiliation of Herod Antipas rehabilitated John: God was not displeased with John at all—on the contrary, God avenged his death![18] The military disaster proved that John was indeed sent by God.[19]

John’s popularity among Jews is attested in Mark (11:32), “everybody believed that he [John the Baptist] was really a prophet.” This could not have been written about Jesus of Nazareth!

John the Baptist in Christianity

The first followers of Jesus were eager to connect their master to the legacy of the widely respected John the Baptist. Thus, in the gospel of Luke (11:1–4), the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples!”[20] In reply, Jesus teaches them the Lord’s Prayer:

Luke 11:2 Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.[21]

While no independent source preserves John the Baptist’s prayer, the Gospel here states explicitly that Jesus is praying as John did. And this is only one of the possible examples of Jesus traditions adopting those of John. In fact, according to Clare K. Rothschild, many of the sayings that are attributed to Jesus in the gospels may have been said originally by John the Baptist.[22]

A Forerunner of Jesus

Instead of viewing John the Baptist as a prophet with his own mission, the Gospels see him as the herald of Jesus, making use of the imagery in (Deutero-)Isaiah of a voice calling in the wilderness (see Mark 1:2–4, Matthew 3:1–3, Luke 3:4–7):

ישעיה מ:ג קוֹל קוֹרֵא בַּמִּדְבָּר פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְ־הוָה יַשְּׁרוּ בָּעֲרָבָה מְסִלָּה לֵאלֹהֵינוּ.
Isa 40:3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for YHWH; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”[23]

Jesus Learns He Is the One John Predicted (Mark)—According to the Gospel of Mark, when baptizing people, John predicted that someone greater than he would follow him, to accomplish the work of salvation:

Mark 1:7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 1:8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”[24]

When Jesus himself comes to John to be baptized, he (Jesus) learns that the prophecy about “the one more powerful than I” refers specifically to him:

Mark 1:9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 1:10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 1:11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”[25]

John Knows that Jesus Is the One He Predicted (Matthew)—The story is further embellished in the gospel of Matthew, which had Mark as its source. In Matthew 3, both Jesus and John already know that Jesus is the predicted savior:

Matthew 3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 3:14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 3:15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.[26]

John Is Jesus’ Elijah (Luke)— Luke is the only Gospel to add a birth narrative for John the Baptist. In that story, an angel told John’s father that his son “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous” (Luke 1:17).[27]

This is based on the conclusion of Malachi:

מלאכי ג:כג הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא לִפְנֵי בּוֹא יוֹם יְ־הוָה הַגָּדוֹל וְהַנּוֹרָא. ג:כד וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל אֲבוֹתָם פֶּן אָבוֹא וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת הָאָרֶץ חֵרֶם.
Mal 3:23 [4:5] See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of YHWH comes. 3:24 [4:6] He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.

In Luke’s exegesis, the day of YHWH refers to the coming of Jesus, and thus the person preparing Israel for this day, Elijah according to Malachi, is none other than the prophet John the Baptist, who, as we noted, dressed the part.

John the Baptist’s Mission Was to Find Jesus (John)—According to the Gospel of John, John the Baptist’s entire mission was to use baptism to help him identify the savior and announce him to the world. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist describes himself as a witness of Jesus the Messiah (Christ):

John 1:29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God,[28] who takes away the sin of the world! 1:30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 1:31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”[29]

Yet, none of the gospels says that John the Baptist became a follower of Jesus.

Why Didn’t John Join the Jesus Movement?

In all likelihood, it was a well-known fact among those living in the first-century C.E. that John remained an independent spiritual leader until his violent death. He never submitted himself to the authority of Jesus or anyone else. This left the Christian narrative about John open to a challenge: If John’s prophecies indeed announced the coming of Jesus, why didn’t the Baptist himself join the Jesus movement?

The author of the gospel of Mark offers a simple but elegant solution to this problem: the Baptist was executed before Jesus began his public mission. Thus, John simply lacked the opportunity to join Jesus’ movement. Similarly, although Matthew and Luke assume that John was still alive at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry,[30] they too have John executed before Jesus’ crucifixion, thus also implying the John didn’t have the opportunity to join the movement that he otherwise certainly would have.[31]

Historical evidence, however, suggests that John the Baptist lived about five years after Jesus was executed.

Dating the Executions of John and Jesus

John’s execution must postdate Herod Antipas’ marrying Herodias and pre-date Herod Antipas’ loss in battle to King Aretas of Nabatea. Given that the death of Tiberius on 16 March, 37 C.E. put an end to the preparations for a second battle, we can assume that the original battle was fought not long before this, in 36 C.E., and that John was executed shortly before that, say in 35 C.E.[32]

Jesus was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, who was the governor of Judea between ca. 26 C.E. and 36 C.E. Hints in the gospels as well as in the Pauline Epistles strongly suggest that Jesus’ mission and passion took place in the middle of this period, sometime in the late 20s or early 30s.[33]

In other words, Jesus’ public mission and violent death took place several years before the Baptist died. Thus, we must discount the explanations in Mark, Matthew, and Luke for why John didn’t join the Jesus movement: John was alive and well in this period, and his attack on Herod Antipas’ marriage hadn’t even occurred yet.

Remaking John the Baptist as Connected to Jesus

The historical John the Baptist had little if any relation to the historical Jesus and his movement; indeed, the contemporaneous Josephus Flavius, who discusses both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, never connects the two in any way.

Jesus may indeed have met John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry. He may have been baptized by John and inspired by him. But John does not appear to have recognized Jesus, nor did he have any special beliefs about him. John had his own ministry and teachings, completely independent of those of Jesus.

The idea that John was a forerunner of Jesus, first attested in the Gospel of Mark, originated in the Jesus movement, probably in the late 60s or early 70s C.E., several decades after both had died.[34] Having John the Baptist die first helps to explain why he never actively joined the group of Jesus’ disciples, allowing the earliest Christ-believing historiographers an opportunity to create a strong bond between the two Galilean charismatic masters. This made their savior more appealing to the many Jews who venerated John the Baptist, and probably paved the way for John’s former disciples to join the Jesus movement.[35]

The posthumous incorporation of John the Baptist and his teachings into the Jesus movement brought with it his central ritual: baptism, and John’s baptism of Jesus in the waters of Jordan is widely considered as the prototype of baptism as a central rite of Christianity. Though it sounds paradoxical, a thoroughly Jewish religious teacher eventually became a central saint of Christianity.


December 23, 2020


Last Updated

June 17, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Tamás Visi is an Associate Professor at the Kurt and Ursula Schubert Centre for Jewish Studies at Palacky University (Olomouc, Czech Republic). He earned his doctorate with a dissertation on the early Ibn Ezra supercommentaries at the Central European University in Budapest in 2006. In 2012 he was a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Recent publications: “The Chronology of John the Baptist and the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth: A New Approach,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 18 (2020): 3-34; “Berechiah ben Naṭronai ha-Naqdan’s Dodi ve-Nedi and the Transfer of Scientific Knowledge from Latin to Hebrew in the Twelfth Century,” Aleph 14.2 (2014): 9-73; “Ibn Ezra, a Maimonidean Authority: The Evidence of the Early Ibn Ezra Supercommentaries,” in James T. Robinson (ed.), The Cultures of Maimonideanism (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 89-131.