- Isaiah 40:1-11 and Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
- 2 Peter 3:8-15a
- Mark 1:1-8
John, the prophet of the Coming One
Each year at this time we focus on the traditions about John the Baptist. These are overwhelmingly Christian traditions, and John is thoroughly integrated into the Christian story when he makes his first extant literary appearance in the texts set for this Sunday:
The early Christian traditions about John the Baptist (down to the time of Mark) may be scanned as follows.
Paul makes no mention of John. Despite the description in Acts 18, where Paul disputes with the disciples of John, Paul's own writings give us no reason to think that traditions about John played any part in his activities or theology.
The Q Gospel
The Sayings Gospel Q, which seems to have developed around the same time as Paul but in a very different milieu, does pay considerable attention to John:
1Q: Luke 3:7-9
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
= Matt 3:7-10
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
2Q: Luke 3:15-18
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
2Q: Luke 7:18-23
The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" When the men had come to him, they said, "John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'" Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
= Matt 11:2-6
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
2Q: Luke 7:24-27
When John's messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'
= Matt 11:7-10
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'
2Q: Luke 7:28
I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."
= Matt 11:11
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
2Q: Luke 7:31-35
"To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.' For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children."
= Matt 11:16-19
"But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."
1Q or ?2Q: Luke 16:16
The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force.
= Matt 11:12-14
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.
This body of material is the core of the Christian tradition about John, and later writers would only elaborate the narrative without really adding to our substantive information about John.
Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel of Thomas, which may preserve early traditions from around the same time as Paul and Sayings Gospel Q, mentions John in 5 of its 114 sayings:
Jesus said, "From Adam to John the Baptist, among those born of women, no one is so much greater than John the Baptist that his eyes should not be averted. But I have said that whoever among you becomes a child will recognize the (Father's) imperial rule and will become greater than John." [Complete Gospels]
Jesus said, "A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows. And a slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise that slave will honor the one and offend the other. "Nobody drinks aged wine and immediately wants to drink young wine. Young wine is not poured into old wineskins, or they might break, and aged wine is not poured into a new wineskin, or it might spoil. An old patch is not sewn onto a new garment, since it would create a tear." [Complete Gospels]
His disciples said to him, "Twenty four prophets have spoken in Israel, and they all spoke of you." He said to them, "You have disregarded the living one who is in your presence, and have spoken of the dead." [Complete Gospels]
Jesus said, "Why have you come out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind? And to see a person dressed in soft clothes, [like your] rulers and your powerful ones? They are dressed in soft clothes, and they cannot understand truth." [Complete Gospels]
They said to Jesus, "Come, let us pray today, and let us fast." Jesus said, "What sin have I committed, or how have I been undone? Rather, when the groom leaves the bridal suite, then let people fast and pray." [Complete Gospels]
Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Mark seems to belong at about this point in the early Christian tradition, and its treatment of John is as follows:
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,make his paths straight,’”
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1-8, NRSV)
1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" Jesus said to them, "The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then they asked him, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" He said to them, "Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him."
Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, "By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?" Jesus said to them, "I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me." They argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But shall we say, 'Of human origin'?" --they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."
We shall stop our review of John in the earliest Christian texts at this point, since the purpose was to seek some sense of how Mark's account (read without any influence from the later accounts in Matthew, Luke/Acts and John) treats John the Baptist. It should already be apparent that Mark's portrait lacks both the focus on John's message found in the Sayings Gospel Q and the more sophisticated speculation about the relationship between these two pivotal figures that we find the later gospels.
W. Barnes Tatum (John the Baptist and Jesus. A Report of the Jesus Seminar, 1994) sums up Mark's portrayal of John as follows:
Simply put, Marks presents JB as the prophetic, Elijah-returned forerunner to Jesus the Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ. ... In fulfillment of God's scriptural promises, the rejection and death of JB prefigures the rejection and death of Jesus. This recognition, however, comes to the readers of the text rather than to the actors in the story, with the possible exception of JB and Jesus themselves.(p. 32f) (italics original)
Other points made by Tatum about Mark's treatment of John include:
- John lives in the wilderness areas as an ascetic
- John's characteristic activities are preaching and baptizing
- John seems to enjoy positive acceptance by the general population
- Religious authorities grant John only a begrudging recognition
- The political response by Herod is negative and leads to his execution
- John initiated a religious movement which survived his arrest and death for at least a period of time
- Jesus was one of those baptized by John
- Jesus receives a theophany at his baptism
As Jesus does not return to Galilee until after John's arrest their missions do not overlap
- John the Baptist in Matthew
- John the Baptist in LukeActs
- Josephus and the execution of John the Baptist
- 051 Into the Desert - (1) GThom. 78; (2) 2Q: Luke 7:24-27 = Matt 11:7-10; (3) Mark 1: 2-3 = Matt 3:3 = Luke 3:4-6 =(?) John 1:19-23
- 213 John the Baptist - (1a) Mark 1:4-6 = Matt 3:1,4-6 = Luke 3:1-3; (1b) GEbi. 2-3a
- 115 Johns Message - (1a) 2Q: Luke 3:15-18= Matt 3:11-12; (1b) Acts 13:24-25; (1c) John 1:24-31; (2) Mark 1:7-8
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt's web site
Other recommended sites include:
See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre: