John the Baptizer was a popular figure for the early church. He is mentioned by all four evangelist as well as a few non-canonical authors. Yet his image seems to have changed over time. He was never depicted as anything less than a prophet who had an important role in revealing the Messiah but there does seem to be increasing concern to qualify that he was nothing more as we move further down the chronology of our written sources. Today we will examine the Gospel of Mark, which most scholars argue is our earliest written source, in order to prepare for a comparison next time with the Gospel of Matthew, which is our second earliest.
John the Baptizer According to Mark
The Gospel of Mark (1.1-3) begins with an introduction of John the Baptizer as one who was foreseen in Scripture. A hybrid quote of Malachi 3.1 and Isaiah 40.3 depict John as one whose voice announces the arrival of YHWH God to the people. He can be understood as nothing short of a prophet in the tradition of Isaiah; he is a herald of good news to those waiting for God.
John’s ministry is to call Israel back to God. Much like other prophetic odd balls, John is one who wanders around the wilderness wearing garments of camels hair while eating locust and honey. He is like Elijah in that he is a “outsider”. Like other prophets his actions are symbolic. His placement in the desert and his baptisms in the Jordan are a protest of the Temple system and the organized baptism rituals of the priesthood. He re-enacts the Exodus crossing of the Jordan by asking the people to return to the place where they began to be a real, unified people of God (1.4-6).
The author is quick to note that John did not see himself as anything other than a forerunner. John is not worthy of the One who is coming. At best, John can perform the ritual of water baptism drawing people toward repentance. The one coming brings the New Covenant (Joel 2.28) promise of the Holy Spirit that would be “poured out on all flesh” (1.7-8).
Nevertheless, John does have the authority to baptize and he does baptize Jesus in 1.9-12. The superiority of Jesus is noted as the Father speaks from heaven and the Spirit descends anointing this Messianic figure. As much as this passage does magnify Jesus it does not detract from John. In fact, one can point to the likely authenticity of this event based on the criteria of embarrassment. Why would Mark depict Jesus as submitting to John without qualification unless something like this actually happened?
The fate of John the Baptist in 6.14-32 is that of Elijah had he not descended into the heavens on a fiery chariot. Herod–the Ahab/Jezebel of his day–succeeded where his fore-bearers did not. He successfully murdered the prophet.
Yet it doesn’t seem Herod wanted to murder John. He was a fool whose lust caused him the promise anything to the sensually dancing daughter of Herodias. He did not know that Herodias–the new manipulative-though-not-as-powerful Jezebel–had said such a promise should result in the head of the Baptizer. He had to follow through on his promise and John was executed.
What is odd about this story is it begins with Herod thinking Jesus is John raised from the dead. It is obvious that this is not so but two points should be made here: (1) Herod thought for some reason that John may raise from the dead. Why? Is this a superstition of sorts? How does this incorporate into the common view of resurrection at the end of the age? Why would Herod think this possible? (2) Were there any rumors that Jesus had been John raised from the dead? Did the author feel the need to qualify that this was not so? Why include this story at all. I don’t have any answers but I do think these are questions that we should ask when we are thinking about the impact of the historic John.
The final account where John is given any attention in the first gospel comes in 11.27-33. Jesus preaches in line with John that forgiveness of sins can take place outside of the establishment. No priesthood is needed. Rather, you forgive others and you are qualified to approach God yourself to receive forgiveness. When the chief priest ask Jesus where he received the authority to say such things he asks where John received the authority rather than providing a direct answer. Jesus asked if it was from “heaven” or “men” that John received the authority. The priest knew that to answer “heaven” was to suggest that John, and Jesus after him, had been given authority as prophets from God. If “men” they were somehow denouncing the prophetic status of John and this would enrage the people against an already increasingly unpopular priesthood. They opted to say, “We do not know”
What is interesting in this account in Jesus follows John’s prophetic lead and situates himself in the same tradition. He acknowledges John’s authority. He builds on John’s message just like John seemed to have indicated he would do.
In my next post I will explore the continuation and discontinuation between Mark and Matthew’s depiction of John. What does Matthew alter and why? If you have any thoughts on John the Baptizer’s depiction in Mark or you would like to say something before I address it in Matthew feel free to comment.
See part one here.