Friday, April 24, 2009

John the Baptist Leads the Way?

It is good to know at least a little about the fertile climate for the proclamation of many would-be Jewish Messiahs which existed around the time when Jesus supposedly entered the picture. The Roman occupation, with their Pagan practices, exploitation of resources, and often brutal governing, gave an impetus for Jewish unrest among pockets of the populous. Revolt and rebellion were constant threats, and such acts which were squashed unmercifully when possible.

The Jewish Messiah was to be an Anointed King, one which would rule the nation of Israel in a manner such that all the nations of the world would come to know God. Much, much more was associated with the coming Messiah, but I can't cover it all here. Suffice it to say, people were looking for him with desperation. In this vein, some rebels claimed to be the Messiah, either because they were deranged or in order to solicit support for their cause, such as one man who had claimed to be Moses resurrected, Simon of Peraea, and Athronges the shepherd.

Aside from the two major Jewish sects, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, several smaller ones splintered off; such as the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Nasaraioi, a.k.a. the Nazarenes (which would seed the Mandaeans). The Essenes were an ascetic, communal sect which shunned wealth, sex, and other carnal pleasures. John the Baptist is thought by many scholars to have been an Essene whom had left the communal life.

John the Baptist Leads the Way?
The first point on which all four Gospels converge is on how John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus' coming. Per Luke 1, we are told that John the Baptist is Jesus' cousin and we find the miraculous story of his birth. John 1:6-8 and John 1:15 record a couple of brief lines subjugating John the Baptist under Jesus. But, finally, all four accounts focus on John the Baptist at Matthew 3:1-12, Mark 1:2-8, Luke 3:1-19, and John 1:19-28. So what exactly do they agree on? Let's find out.

Let's start with Mark, the shortest account. In this segment, Mark is the only one of the four Gospels claiming that “It is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send My messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way"”. That's good thing, because Mark is wrong. This is actually a mis-quote from Malachi 3:1, not Isaiah, and the “you” should be Me; with Me referring to God. The other Gospel reference for this quote is Luke 7:26-27, where Jesus is talking about John the Baptist. Jesus wisely leaves off the origin of the quote.

Does the Malachi 3:1 prophesy apply? If you will, take a moment to read Malachi 3. What you'll find is something which would be difficult to directly apply to Jesus. In fact, the entire first verse shuts out such an interpretation: “See, I will send My messenger, who will prepare the way before Me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to His Temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty.” This verse, and the remainder of Malachi are quite clearly referring to how God will reenter the Temple of Jerusalem and dwell there like He used to do, and will provide judgement of the evildoers while He is there. God, through Malachi, even tells the Israelites that they should offer proper sacrifices in order for His return to occur.

In Malachi 4, God goes on to implore the Israelites to follow the laws which He gave to Moses, and He reveals that the messenger who will come before “that great and dreadful day of the LORD” will be Elijah, a Jewish prophet who (reportedly) had previously ridden to Heaven on a whirlwind (2 Kings 2). Contrary to this prophesy, John the Baptist openly admitted that he was not Elijah (John 1:21) and when Jesus appears, it is not a “great and dreadful day” because Jesus didn't dwell in the Temple passing judgement and He didn't restore Israel as the prophesy predicts.

Proceeding in the prophesy department, all four Gospels quote Isaiah 40:3 to some extent. Luke 3:4-5 goes two verses further, covering and misquoting Isaiah 40:3-5 with an obvious bias. Is this an applicable prophesy? Check out Isaiah 40. You'll see how this “voice” is supposed to be a comforter to the Israelites, to speak tenderly to them, and to tell them that the nation's sins have been paid for (twice!) and so God will come and rule them with His omnipotent glory. This is not exactly Jesus' intention revealed later in the Bible. Plus, if you look at Matthew's and Luke's quotes of John the Baptist, such as “You brood of vipers!”, you see that John the Baptist was reportedly not a gentle and comforting messenger, and his message was quite different than what one would expect from a fulfillment of Isaiah 40.

When you look at Isaiah 40:4, which Luke almost quotes correctly, this “voice” is supposed to do some major works; filling in valleys, leveling hills, etc. Even if that text is meant to be figurative, it speaks of awesome achievements, and perhaps even miracles. Contrary to Elijah, who raised a dead boy and parted the Jordan River among other miracles, John the Baptist is not noted for great achievements or miracles. Even the extent to which he reportedly prepared the Jews to receive their Messiah is questionable, given how the Bible records the Jewish reaction to Jesus.

Moving on, Matthew (3:1 + 3:6 + 3:11), Mark (1:4), and Luke (3:3) record that John the Baptist's baptism was for repentance and forgiveness of sins, while John's Gospel is silent on the reason for baptism. But when you think about it, this is an affront to Jesus' offer of salvation. After all, God had already created a way to atone for sins through the Temple sacrifices. So John the Baptist's baptism was essentially offering the same deal repackaged. John the Baptist's baptism provided the same type of forgiveness of sins, because we are told that only Jesus could permanently forgive sins.

If John the Baptist was really trying to prepare the way for Jesus, he should have been telling the Jews that the atonement through Temple sacrifices was imperfect, as sins will continually need sacrifices. He should have been urging the Jews to look to God to provide an ultimate sacrifice for the remission of all sins once and for all. The words of Hebrews 10 should have been rolling off his tongue, but they weren't. John the Baptist is reportedly inexplicably silent on how Jesus will revolutionize the forgiveness of sins.

Instead, Matthew (3:11), Mark (1:7), and Luke (3:16) record that John the Baptist's significant contribution in leading the way for Jesus was the baptism itself. (John's Gospel is again silent on the matter.) The water baptism which John the Baptist was performing was stated as a parallel of the baptism of the Holy Spirit that Jesus would provide, but this is incongruent for a couple reasons. The need for a foreshadowing parallel is strange in and of itself, as John the Baptist was a same-age contemporary of Jesus. Why foreshadow something which (relatively speaking) already exists? Also, it's a rather poor parallel when you consider that John the Baptist's baptism reportedly washed away sins while the baptism of the Holy Spirit supposedly fills you with the presence of God giving you Holy powers. These two are just a little different, don't you think? You could call the water baptism a prerequisite for the Holy Spirit baptism, but then that negates the utility of Jesus' death on the cross.

Curiously, Matthew's account (3:1) is the only Gospel claiming that John the Baptist said “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” What makes this even more curious is that Matthew's Gospel is also the only one which records Jesus as saying this exact same line (4:17 + 10:7). However, while Mark and John are relatively quiet about it, both Matthew (3:7-12) and Luke (3:7-9 + 3:15-17) expound upon this apocalyptic theme in John the Baptist's message in identical words (except for a slight sandal variance), as if they came from the same source. We find words like “the coming wrath”, “the ax is already at the root”, and “His winnowing fork is in His hand”, imparting a sense of urgency that God's judgement is going to occur within the lifetime of John the Baptist's audience. Amazingly, close to 2000 years later, we're still waiting for that to happen. According to Deuteronomy 18:14-22 on discernment of false prophets, I guess that John the Baptist deserved to be killed.

As you can see from reviewing these Gospel accounts, while they mostly agree with one another, the associated prophesies (mis-quoted by the Gospels) don't seem to mesh with the Gospel accounts. At best, you could take the lines of the prophesies out of their context and applied some nuanced meanings to bring them into alignment. Yet still the effectiveness and utility of John the Baptist's efforts are questionable in preparing the Jews for Jesus. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke paint John the Baptist as claiming a very-soon-coming apocalypse, which never happened, and therefore brands him as a false prophet. So, did John the Baptist prepare the way for Jesus? In a word: No.

Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian, records in Jewish Antiquities (c. 94 AD) that John the Baptist worked to promote “righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing would be acceptable to Him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.” This is not exactly a message in line with Jesus' plan. Note that Josephus wrote long after these events had occurred, so his accuracy could be questionable. Plus, he was Jewish, not Christian, and therefore may have skewed the record with Jewish bias. And finally, some scholars believe that his original texts have been altered where they regard anything relating to Christianity.

It is peculiar that, if John the Baptist was really only there to promote Jesus, a sect would develop which would hold John the Baptist the greatest prophet of God while considering Jesus to be a false prophet. Such is the case with the Mandaeans.


  1. An excellent and very important post. You have made some great comparisons between the claimed prophecies fulfilled in John the Baptist.

    The point that really stuck for me was how baptism replaced sacrifice. It truly was a rebellion against the sacrificial system God had given His people. It would be like Christians turning away from Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and "believing" in something else. It just makes no sense why John would do this.

  2. Thanks Nate!

    Even I was a bit shocked at that when I studied John the Baptist. The mis-connected prophesies and John's own brand of sin atonement unrelated to Jesus or God's Law was a surprise to find in the account of a man who was touted as the undisputed forerunner for Jesus.

  3. Hi TWF,

    I think that one can build a conclusive case that Jesus was utterly wrong in his eschatology as follow:

    - Jesus tells his audience that not everyone will be dead when the kingdom of god will come (Mark 9.1), which would postulate that the day of the lord, Armagedon (Revelation 16.12-16) have already happened.
    - Malachi, as you have noted makes Elijah the forerunner of the glorious day of the lord (Malachi 4.5), but tradition have seen him like the forerunner of the Messianic age.
    - Because of this the synoptics are in dire need for an Elijah, therefore they pretend that John the Baptist lead the way. (Mark 9.13 & Matthew 17.13) make Jesus claim that the Elijah has already come, therefore the Messiah Jesus is here too, and even Elijah knows that the wrath is at hand (Matthew 3.7).

    Yet the day of the lord, Armagedon, did not come, only Jerusalem was destroyed, and presumably some of his audience has witnessed this. Many of them got scoffed because they still thought to live in the last days (2 Peter 3.3), making it obvious that the kingdom did not come as predicted.

    Because of the very reason the gospel of John makes the Baptist admits not to be Elijah (John 1:21). This writer did break with Judaism already, so he does not even expect an Messianic age, like the one of the olivet discourse, and certainly don't need the problems with the Elijah dude.

    All in all, the public to whom Jesus preached is gone, and we still have the same old world.

    Kind greetings.

  4. Indeed agema-makedonin! There are many issues with Christianity and within the Gospels, but I personally see the John-the-Baptist-link as one of the most condemning of them.

    -looking at how much the prophetic verses were cherry-picked, and even altered, regarding the Messianic forerunner makes it,

    -comparing them to what the prophesies actually say verses what occurred,

    -looking at the legacy that John the Baptist left behind which is contrary to that of Jesus

    -looking at how a baptism of repentance is redundant and yet insufficient compared to Jesus' offer of forgiveness

    All of these factors make it fairly obvious that John the Baptist was not the forerunner, and, in turn, Jesus was not the Messiah. It also explains why the ritual of baptism is so important in Christianity... that tie-in to John the Baptist is critical. Yet this connection is obviously built on a foundation of sand. ;-)