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A book by Rich Van Winkle

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An Amazing Life: Jesus and the Nozerim

Appendix XI – John the Baptist

The accounts of John the Baptist (“Yochanan the Immerser") in the New Testament (“NT”) are well known and often discussed. However, as Dr. James Tabor says[1], “It is only through the consolidation and consideration of all ancient sources: New Testament, Gnostic scriptures, traditions, church historians, independent and secondary materials (complementary and contradictory) that scholars can discover the original, historically accurate picture of John as a member, believer, and righteous leader.”

From the New Testament accounts (Esp. Matthew 3:13-15 and John 1:29-36; 4:2), John was a reforming zealot in a midrashic[2] extension of Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6; note Matt. 17:11-13). He preached an imminent arrival of divine judgment; he castigated hypocrisy (especially amongst the royals, demanded repentance, and “prepared the way” for the coming of the Messiah. Much of John's doctrine resembles teachings of the Qumranians and many scholars believe that he once was a Qumranian[3].

In short, John was the unexpected only child of Zachariah, an elderly priest (of the Abijah Course), and his wife Elizabeth (a “daughter of Aaron” who had previously been thought to be sterile). (Note Appendix VIII for some discussion of John’s lineage and the Abijah Course). According to Luke, Elizabeth and Mary were related and therefore, John and Jesus were cousins (although some think this was a fabrication by Luke). John was presumably born in Beth Kerem (just outside of Jerusalem) around 7 BCE (six months before Jesus) and would have been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps to become a priest. Instead, according to both the NT and Josephus, John became a famous “preacher” who practiced baptism rituals along the river Jordan. He was an ascetic and zealously pursued righteousness in anticipation of a soon-to-come end-of-times. He argued against hypocrisy and the corruption of Judaism. He was willing to openly criticize Herod Antipas for adultery with his niece Herodias (the wife of his half-brother) and that led to his arrest, imprisonment, and execution.

Of his life and character Josephus ("Ant." xviii. 5, § 2) says:

"He was a good man, who admonished the Jews to practice abstinence [ρετν ="perishut" or Pharisaic virtue], to lead a life of righteousness toward one another and of piety [εσέβειαν = "religious devotion"] toward God, and then join him in the rite of bathing [baptism]. For, he said,  baptism would be acceptable to Him [God] if they would use it not simply for the putting away of certain sins or in the case of proselytes, but for the sanctification of the body after the soul had beforehand been thoroughly purified by righteousness. The people flocked in crowds to him, being stirred by his addresses. (From the Jewish Encyclopedia).

Josephus adds this account of John’s demise:

Herod [Antipas], who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he 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 he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure to him. (Jewish Antiquities 18:5).

Added to these basic facts are an interesting array of historical asides and “factoids” that make John of great interest to Christians and students of Jesus’ life. First and foremost are the NT accounts of the missionary relationship between John and Jesus – especially John’s baptism of Jesus[4].

Because we hear of this in the NT and it creates numerous doctrinal problems for Christians, it’s a good bet that this was a fact: Jesus went to John to be baptized. The significance of this lies in the presumed meaning of the baptismal ritual:

                If it was for the remission of sins, then the sinless Jesus shouldn’t need to be baptized,

                If it was for initiation into John’s sect (or even Judaism), then Jesus was subordinate to John,

                If it was for ritual purification (of the body), then why baptism by John?

Relevant here is the unexplainable divergence between the NT concept of baptism[5] and that offered by Josephus: “…for [John’s baptism] would be acceptable to him not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness” (Ibid; see also Mark 1:4)[6].

Given the voluminous discussion and publication related to this matter, there is no need to repeat or extend such. What is apparent is that at some point Jesus was a leading follower of John who eventually branched off to start his own ministry. This is clearly evident in the fact that the first words of Jesus’ ministry given in the NT are the same as John’s most basic teaching: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”(cf. Matt. 3:2 and 4:17). John and Jesus shared disciples and purpose, but chose different methodologies. Other than that, we should take most of what are told about John in the NT with great skepticism since it was plainly the intent of the early Christians to show John’s inferiority to Jesus.

If the NT presentation of John was accurate and complete, we would wonder why they felt it necessary to diminish John – especially given the amazing acclaim for John attributed to Jesus: “For I say to you: Amongst those that are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist." (Luke 7:24-28). But then, if your claim is that Jesus was God, then even the greatest prophet would be lesser. The problem was that John’s followers didn’t generally accept Jesus as divinity (after all, they knew him as a human subordinate to John).

Two interesting ideas are likely: some followers of John though that he was the Messiah[7] and other disciples of John thought that they (themselves) were divine. Both ideas countered the emerging doctrines of “Christianity”. Those followers of John who became followers of Jesus were kept “in the fold” and their recollections and ideas made the NT writers acknowledge John’s significance. Those who rejected Jesus as Messiah became the major heretics of the early Catholic Church. Key among them was “Simon”; aka Simon Magnus (= the Great or Magus = magician).

Simon was a Samaritan follower of John[8] who became a fascinating character in the Book of Acts, the Apocryphal “Acts of Peter” and the writings of St. Clementine.  While he is made to be villainous, he is said to have accomplished some incredible things:

                He establish numerous churches,

                He healed the sick and performed miracles[9],

                He was deemed to be an "uncanny magician” and was the Court Magician for Nero.

                He was self-proclaimed as and accepted as divine[10],       

And, he was aligned with Phillip and opposed Paul. It is easy to understand why the early Christians found the need to disparage him. Perhaps he reflects little of John’s influence, or perhaps plenty. It certainly seems worth consideration.

If his followers tell us anything surprising about John, it is that he was a Gnostic (see Appendix XVI). But there is far more to John than what has been offered by the Christians, and although the primary source for the other side of his history comes from his followers, the Christians could hardly fault such.

We should begin by re-assessing John’s social position (as we must for Jesus) based upon the most obvious of facts: for any Jew to have even hinted that John was the Messiah would have meant that he met all of the most basic and necessary requirements. (If someone was proposed as a serious presidential candidate, we may presume that he was born in the United States). The most basic of those requirements are well known:

                He had to be a Jew – his mother had to be Jewish,

                He had to be in the lineage of David and qualified for the Davidic throne,

                He had to be viewed as a righteous leader.

John’s qualifications as a Jew and righteous leader are well established. As a relative of Jesus, it may be easy to see how he would qualify for the Davidic throne. That topic is fully developed in Appendix VIII. As a direct result of his family relationships, John was unquestionably a Nazorean (Don’t miss Appendix I) and his Nazorean ties are well established in ancient sources. Almost as well established are his ties to the Essenes and Qumranians (as below). And, of course, his parents had well known ties to the priesthood. Like Jesus, John came from a powerful family with diverse ties to several groups with common beliefs and interests.

As with Jesus, we know little about John’s youth. However, once we understand the context of his life – especially the position of his family – we can re-frame our thinking. As indicated in the related Appendices (mentioned above), the reign of Herod I was perilous for anyone who might have a legitimate claim to the throne of David and someone with both Davidic and priestly ties would have been in double jeopardy. If, as I contend, Jesus was at risk because of his Davidic lineage, then John would have had even greater risk. It is because of this that we can give some credence to an early legend[11] regarding John’s parents – that in response to Herod’s pogrom against the Davidic heirs, Elizabeth fled with John while Zacharias was captured and told to give over his son. When he refused, he was killed leaving Elisabeth and John hiding in the “desert[12]”. Soon thereafter, the elderly Elisabeth died, making John an orphan. This legend combined with the New Testament account[13] had left us with a long-standing mystery: how would a child live "in the wilderness?"

This begins a series of suppositions built from odd coincidences. The first two of these coincidences are geographical and social: that Qumran was in “the desert” (which was in the wilderness) and that the Essene Qumranians were known to take in orphans (Josephus 2:8:3). According to Mark, “John came immersing in the wilderness(Mk. 1:1, 4), apparently near the area of Bethabara (Jn. 1:28) a town just eight miles from Qumran[14]. So, at the very least, there is a close physical connection between John and the Qumranians.

Both the Qumranians and John quoted Isaiah (40:3) as a prophecy foretelling their preparation for the coming of the Messiah (Mt. 3:3; Mk. 1:3; Lk. 3:4; Jn 1:23; Dam. Doc. viii, 12-14; ix, 20). Whereas this verse appears in the New Testament (most translations) as: “The voice of o­ne crying in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of YHWH; make straight in the desert a highway for our God," the cantor markings in the Masoretic Text give us a different meaning: “The voice of o­ne crying "In the wilderness prepare the way of YHWH; make straight in the desert a highway for our God." In this interpretation of the verse, both John and the Qumran community referred to themselves as being "in the wilderness" and both the Qumran community and the early believers in Jesus called their movement "the way". (See http://depts.drew.edu/jhc/RaskinCrucified.pdf).

This connection is even more firmly established in the “Protevangelion of James”: [at the time of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents], "Elizabeth took [John] and went up unto the mountains, and looked around for a place to hide him… And there appeared to them a messenger of YHWH, to preserve them." (Protevangelion 16:3-8). This tradition may very well preserve an ancient tradition that John and his mother were taken in by the leader of the Qumranian community (the “Teacher of Righteousness”)[15].

The connection between John and the Qumranians goes well beyond geography and the unusual practice of adoption: John’s actions and teachings strongly reflect an association with the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls (our “Qumranians”).

Both Matthew and Mark tell us that John ate locusts[16] (Mt. 3:4; Mk. 1:6). The Dead Sea Scrolls tell us that the Qumran community ate locusts and the DSS even tell us how they were to be cooked (Dam. Doc. xii, 11-15). However, many scholars believe that the “locust” and “honey” that John ate were actually the pods and syrup from the Carob or “Locust Tree” (Ceratonia siliqua)[17].  The strange diet and clothing of John may have arisen from two Qumranian ideas[18].

First, the Qumranians (per the Essenes) took an oath when joining the community that imposed grave restrictions upon those who were kicked out of the community or who chose to leave. Former sect members were no longer at liberty to partake of the community food and were obliged to eat only wild foods and herbs (an antediluvian diet), often leading to famish (Josephus). The additional oddity of John’s clothing is indicative of his acceptance of a specific role. As Peter Lemesurier states:

"The details of John's mission had, we may be sure, already been spelt out for the Teacher of Righteousness. At the appropriate time John must identify himself as Elijah by adopting Elijah's outlandish garb (Elijah wore a camel hair robe as did John). Longhaired and unshaven, he must proceed to the spot on the east bank of the Jordan... where the river emptied into the Dead Sea. (to perform baptisms) This, after all, had been the site of Elijah's dramatic and legendary disappearance in a 'chariot of fire' some eight centuries before. Thus doubly identified as 'Elijah returned', he must then proclaim the imminent appearance of the Messiah himself." (“The Armageddon Script” by Peter Lemesurier (1981)).

Although a few scholars assert that John actually was the Teacher of Righteousness, I’m confident that they’re wrong. (The two most likely candidates are Onias III and Onias IV). Whoever was the leader of the Qumran sect during John’s time, he was not the original Teacher of Righteousness and he had different ideas than John. With that in mind, it is worth exploring the likenesses and differences between the two.

The views of the Teacher of Righteousness are known from the Dead Sea Scrolls (“DSS”) where either he wrote them himself or they were attributed to him. Our knowledge of John’s views are largely derived from the New Testament, however the groups that followed him give some indication as well. In the DSS/Qumranian “Community Rule” the purpose of the community is described as: "To prepare the way for the Messiah in the desert wilderness... to prepare a people to meet the Lord." John declares: "I am a voice crying out in the desert wilderness, prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, prepare to meet the Lord." (John 1:23). (Both are referring to Isaiah 40:3, "A voice is calling, 'Clear the way for the Lord [YHWH] in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God."

The most obvious parallel between John and the Qumranians is the importance given to the practice of water immersion/baptism (Heb: טְבִילָה, T'vilah/tevilah = "immersion"). The Torah requires "washing" for "uncleaness" (Lev. 16-18)[19] and "uncleaness" can result from sin (Lev. 18:1 et seq). For the Qumranians, cleanliness was given great importance (Man. Disc. iii, 4f; v, 13; Dam. Doc. x, 10-13) and they believed that T'vilah was symbolic of the cleansing of impurity or wickedness (Man. Disc. iv, 12-13). Their frequent practice[20] of the ritual also served as a reminder to members of their commitment to righteousness.

For John, water immersion (“Baptism” from the Greek βαπτίζω or baptize = "ablution immersion") had  ritual significance[21] that was central to John’s message and mission (Mt. 3:6, 11; Mk. 1:4-5; Lk. 3:2-3, 7; Acts 19:3-4). It symbolized both the desire to be ritually clean and the willingness to commit to righteousness.

The Qumranians believed that the heavens and the earth, and all that is in them, would obey the Messiah, who was due to arrive. “Take strength in his service, you who seek the Lord. Will you not find the Lord in this, all you who wait patiently in your hearts? For the Lord will visit the pious ones, and the righteous ones He will call by name.” But the Qumranians thought that the “pious ones” were restricted to Jews and those who followed their specific ways. The Manual of Discipline specifically commands its adherents to "bear unremitting hatred towards all men of ill repute... to leave it to them to pursue wealth and mercenary gain... truckling to a depot." (Man. Disc. ix 21-26).

At some point, it appears that John’s life at Qumran[22] was interrupted when "the word of God came to John... in the wilderness" (Lk. 3:2). John believed that all who would repent and accept the call of righteousness would be offered the Kingdom of God." (Mt. 3:2). John (and those who agreed with him) left Qumran and relocated to Bethabara (just eight miles north of Qumran along the Jordan River where Elijah[23] ascended to heaven, 2 Kings, 2:8). This new group soon became an identifiable “sect” which drew crowds large enough to pose a threat to Herod.

Since our focus is on the life of Jesus, we will devote more time discussing the relationship between these cousins. Many authors have found a Qumranian connection between them, but it is surprising that few authors have noticed a connection at Mt. Carmel. I would propose that Jesus’ primary connection to the Qumranians was through John, but that they both had ties to the Essenes at Mt. Carmel. The best indication of John’s association to Mt. Carmel comes from later writings by groups that revered John:

"John has left his body, his brothers make proclamations, his brothers proclaim unto him on the Mount, on Mount Carmel. They took the Letter and brought it to the Mount, to Mount Carmel. They read out the Letter to them and explain to them the writing, - to those of Yaqif and those of B'nai-Amen and those of Shumel[24]. They assemble on Mount Carmel." (Mandeaen “Book of John the Baptist”, 26).

Of course, Mt. Carmel was closely associated with Elijah (See I Kings 18:20-40) and so it should not be surprising that John – assuming the mantle of Elijah, would have some ties there.  Unfortunately, we have almost nothing to work from in that regard. But while we’re on the subject of Elijah, we may as well look at some relevant details.  During the convocation at Mt. Carmel, Elijah demanded to know how much longer the people would continue with two contradicting views about God: “If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him!” (I Kings 18:21). At I Kings 18:36-39, we are told: “And it came to pass, at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near and said, ‘LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word.” God set the altar ablaze, and cleansed the people of their confusion with fire. One of the most unique quotations attributed to John is related to that scene on Mt. Carmel: "I indeed baptize you with water; but there shall come one mightier than I [who] shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire." (Luke 3:16). Christians presume that John was referring to Jesus since he was clearly referring to the Messiah. However, it is far from clear that John believed that Jesus was the Messiah. We will return to that again after we examine the likelihood that Jesus was a disciple of John.

In discussing John’s baptism of Jesus (above), one of the possible reasons for this ritual was as an induction ceremony into John’s sect (that I refer to elsewhere as “Baptists”). Putting aside the later Christian additions regarding angels appearing at the baptism scene and John’s premature acknowledgement of Jesus’ divinity (Luke 3:22; John 1:34), we have a clear indication of John’s superior position – he does the baptizing.

It then appears that Jesus remained a disciple of John (although he had his own group of followers) until John was arrested, whereupon, Jesus assumed leadership of the sect (fleeing back to Galilee? - Mark 1:14). Later, as Jesus and his disciples (including John’s disciples Andrew and John[25]), were heading to the village of Caesarea Philippi, he asked them point blank: "Who do men say that I am?" Their first answer was "John the Baptizer" and the second was “Elijah” (Mark 8:27-30). How strange it is that people would think that Jesus was John[26].

First of all, this is another strong indication of John’s importance during his time. Secondly, it is indicative of the similarities of their ministries (and some say of their appearance). And thirdly, it shows that some thought that Jesus was the precursor of the Messiah - John.  It was Jesus' disciples who came to him and asked to be taught the prayer John taught (‘the “Lord’s Prayer” - Luke 11:2-4). In this, we see both the reverence and respect for John and that it was clear to Jesus’ closest followers that John would have taught Jesus this prayer.

John’s ministry is best summed in his profound declaration: “Repent, for God’s Kingdom has approached!” (Matt. 3:2). When Jesus began his ministry (or assumed leadership of John’s), his first teaching was: "The time is now! The kingdom of God is near! Repent, and have faith in the good news.” (Mark 1:15). Later, Jesus poses a question to the crowd (and his disciples): “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold?” (Luke 7:24). There are three answers discussed: a reed shaken in the wind, a man clothed in soft raiment, and a prophet. The answer Jesus was looking for was Prophet: "A prophet, yes, I tell you, and more that a prophet." (Luke 7:26). But how could one be more than a Prophet since “Prophet” is the highest rank a mortal can obtain in Judaism? (Moses was the greatest “Prophet” and Jesus put John above Moses).

As if that was not enough, Jesus continues: "I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John."[27] Jesus, being born of Mary, must have been including himself. Regardless of Jesus’ ideas about himself (supposedly considering himself to be the “Son of Man”), he clearly believed that John was greater[28] – at least at that point[29]. (Luke 7:28).

A person held in such high esteem by Jesus is deserving of our closest attention. I contend that John was the most influential teacher in Jesus’ life and that several of the great teachings of Jesus were those of John (or had their roots in John’s teaching). We should take a minute to look at the few of John’s teachings that are well established and a few that aren’t[30].

We should begin with the only major teaching of John that scholars ascribe to him with a high degree of certainty.

“John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9).

I would read this as:

You who have turned to unrighteousness, you wish to escape the judgment of God because of fear. Instead, repent; and do so in meaningful ways. Do not assume that you are one of God’s chosen people as God can choose anyone. The time is NOW! If you fail to return to righteousness and act accordingly, God will judge you as the worthless beings you are (vipers).

It is a powerful message that clearly rang true to most of those who heard it. It countered traditional Jewish thought that tokenized (ritualized) “righteousness” was sufficient to earn one favorable judgment before God and that Jews were given special favor as the “chosen people”.  John taught with certainty that the only path to righteousness was through “good deeds” and that there is no time to waste in making that choice and beginning to act accordingly.

John answers the people’s query for specifics: If you have two coats, share one with someone who has none (and the same goes for food). (Luke 3:10-11). As a teacher, I would call that a clear, concise, and complete teaching. While not new or unexpected, it was profound and influential (and, of course, a teaching adopted and professed by Jesus).

John offered a couple of teachings that could not have been popular. When some (hated) tax collectors asked what they should do to repent, John told them to only collect what was fair. While everyone would have accepted fair tax collection as a desirable improvement over the customary gouging, it was the implication that was profound: that even a tax collector – a serious sinner – could be favorably judged by God (and enter the Kingdom) through repentance/baptism. John repeated this teaching for soldiers who commonly extorted money by making false accusations. (Luke 3:10-14). “And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.” (Luke 3:18).

We cannot know which other of Jesus’ teachings originated with John, but the most likely candidates are:  blessed are the poor (Luke 6:20), be merciful (Luke 6:32), a blind man cannot lead the blind (Luke 6:39), do not be anxious about your life (Luke 12:22), and no servant can serve two masters (Luke 16:13)[31].

We don’t know why Jesus began a separate ministry from John, but we know that they did have their differences. A couple of references state that John came eating no bread and drinking no wine. (Luke 7:31-34; the Slavonic version of Josephus[32]; cf.  Matt. 11:18-19). “This shows the reader that John was a vegetarian and abstained from wine,”[33] whereas Jesus was considered a glutton and a wine bibber. (Luke 7:34). From John’s disciples, we learn that they observed frequent fasting and the followers of Jesus didn’t (Matthew 9:14). Their difference aside, it is also possible that John was so pleased with Jesus as a disciple that he wanted him to expand their ministry (under the watchful eyes of Andrew).

As noted before, it appears that several of John’s followers went to Jesus upon John’s being arrested. It also appears that some chose otherwise, including a few who also started their own ministries (e.g. Simon). Clement offers us a record of a discussion (between him and the Apostle Peter) regarding Jewish sects and the disciples of John the Baptist: "Now the pure disciples of John separated themselves greatly from the people and spoke of their teacher as if he were concealed." (Clementine Recognitions 1.54:1-3, 8; see Tatum, W. Barnes. John the Baptist and Jesus: A Report of the Jesus Seminar. Sonoma, California: Polebridge Press, 1994, p. 94-95). Some of John’s disciples did not believe that he was captured (or later, dead), but was concealed and preparing to return as the Messiah.

We have two important clues regarding John’s relationship to Jesus as viewed by Jesus’ followers. The first occurs when Jesus admonishes the Pharisees (and the scribes) for rejecting God's purpose when they rejected the baptism of John (Matt. 21:32; Luke 7:29-30). The second is explained in Luke 16:16: "the law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it forcefully" (the word translated as “forcefully” is “Βιάζω”/biazó which might be better translated as “through pressing effort”). Here, John’s role is not as one preparing the way for Jesus, but as one fulfilling God’s Will and offering us the means to righteousness – repentance, baptism, and pressing one’s duty to God.

The end of John’s life is a compelling story – even if the NT account is less than historical. What is clear is that John refused to change his message even though it could (and did) lead to his arrest and execution.  John could not have expected his vociferous objection to Herod Antipas' marriage[34] to Herodias as an act of adultery[35] to have a pleasant outcome. Herod’s predictable response was to have John arrested and imprisoned (at the desert fortress called Macherus).

According to Matthew, Herod wanted John the Baptist dead, and the only reason that he refrained from killing him was fear of the crowd: “For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been telling him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet”. (Matt. 4:3-5). However, Mark says: “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. 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. (Mark 6:17-20).

If Herod feared John’s popularity, he probably wouldn’t have arrested him. Besides, John was right – the marriage was illegal. John undoubtedly had powerful friends, relatives and allies. Herod may have arrested him just to see how strong the reaction would be. That he didn’t execute him promptly is the key issue[36].

Here, we should take a moment to study John’s captors. Herod I (“the Great”) had numerous offspring by at least seven wives. The two sons that were expected to inherit the throne were his Hasmonean sons, Alexander and Aristobulus IV. But Herod had both of them executed in 7 BCE. Aristobulus’ daughter Herodias was thereby orphaned as a minor (along with her brother, Herod Agrippa). Her Hasmonean bloodline was greatly valued, so Herod forced her engagement to her half-uncle, Herod II (“Boethus”, the son of Mariamne II, aka “Bernice”, daughter of the High Priest Simon Boethus - supporting his right to succeed Herod). They lived together in Rome[37].

While on a visit to Rome Herodias' uncle and brother-in-law, Herod Antipas, fell in love with (or was seduced by) Herodias and proposed marriage, to which she readily assented. (Jewish Encyclopedia). Herodias already had a reputation for her incestuous relationships and adultery, so it was just another shocker to have her leave a marriage (with a husband whose fortunes were in decline) and take up with her married uncle. He, in turn, turned out his wife who was the daughter of King Aretas IV.

 

Herod Antipas was one of the few sons of Herod I to survive (his mother was Malthace, a Samaritan). As "Herod the Tetrarch" (Matt 14:1) he ruled over Galilee and Perea for over 40 years (4 B.C. - A.D. 39), largely because he was cunning and careful in taking action. Before he met Herodias, he had developed a pattern of staying “out of sight” and unthreatening. His first marriage to the daughter of the desert kingdom abutting his own was typically expedient and safe. But his marriage to Herodias was a major change of “style” for him and brought about his ruin[38].

We guess that Herod arrested John in or around the year 34 CE[39] and held him as a prisoner about a year. It was during his imprisonment that one of the strangest stories in the New Testament occurs. When he was asked whether he was the Messiah, John answered that his baptism of repentance[40] could only prepare the people for the time when the Messiah would come – and that he was not the Messiah.  So, he sent some followers to Jesus to ask whether he was the Messiah (Luke 7:20).

Jesus replied 'that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them' (Luke 7:22). This is almost certainly a quote from a Qumranian text (DSS 4Q521)[41] that Jesus knew to be dear to John. It is actually the clearest statement in the NT regarding Jesus’ belief in his own Messianic status – assuming that Jesus is referring to his own results. It is also possible that Jesus was trying to offer his friend, cousin, and beloved teacher some good news and hope.

For whatever reason[42] – Herod eventually had John beheaded. Aretas attacked and defeated Herod soon thereafter (36 CE) and many believed that Herod’s ill fate was directly tied to his killing of John (thus reinforcing the dating of John’s death as 35 or 36 CE). As Josephus tells us:

But to some Jews the destruction of Herod's army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man…” Josephus' Antiquities  (18.116-118).

The influence and power of John continued after his death, and for some time afterwards, his fame was not obscured by that of Jesus. Indeed, Herod (and others) assumed that Jesus was actually John risen from the dead (Matt. 14:1-2; Mark 6:14; Luke 9:7). John’s teachings and his baptism created a movement which by no means ended with the rise of Jesus. There were those who, like Apollos of Alexandria in Ephesus, preached only the baptism of John, and their little band gradually merged into Christianity (Acts 18:25; 19:1-7). Some of John’s disciples placed their master above Jesus and others placed themselves above either (e.g. Simon Magus - Clementine, Recognitions, i. 60, ii. 8; ib. Homilies, ii. 23).

Of the groups that arose after the death of John who revered him and honored his traditions, none is more prominent than the Mandæans. Mandæan (Mandayya) means “to have knowledge”, from the Aramaic word for knowledge, Manda. This would be the same as the Greek “Gnosis”, suggesting Mandaism is related to Gnosticism, and much in Mandæan thought seems to hark back to gnostic ideas. As we shall see, there were also Mandæan links to the Essenes.

The Mandæan word “Masbuta”, from the same root, is used for baptism. Eusebius and Epiphanius knew of related Jewish sects called Masbuthaei  (or “daily bathers”) and Sampsaeans (aka Haemerobaptists or Elkeasaites[43]). Epiphanius incorporated the Ebionites, the Nasoraeans, the Nazaraeans, and the Osseans with them[44]. Hence, we find a connection between several of the divergent groups or sects of the period – “baptism”[45].

These groups shared more than the practice of ritual water immersion, they: 

  • became either a Christian sect or a Christian opponent,
  • believed in intervention by angels,
  • accepted the one God as Heavenly father,
  • had no canonical law,
  • no longer lived in the manner of the Jews,
  • had ritualized prayer,
  • were later deemed heretics by the Catholics.

Like the Essenes, The Mandæans performed elaborate baptismal ceremonies on all religious occasions and daily before sunrise[46]. Their attachment to these lustrations led to their also being known as Subba or Sabians (= “baptisers”). Unlike Christian baptisms, Mandæan lustrations had to be in “yardna” or running water. They also used repeated immersions instead of the single one used in Christianity. (Also common ground with the Essenes).

The Mandæans denied the divinity of Jesus – or even his supremacy over John. Two decisions of Jesus separated him from these followers of John:

    1. Jesus decided there was no time for his converts to be fully initiated into Essene practices, so the initial baptism had to suffice provided that repentance was sincere.
    2. Jesus decided to opened his baptism to all comers (John 4:13,14). The Mandai restricted their baptism to those who were specifically qualified.

John the Baptist was known by the Mandæans as “Enosh”, the reborn grandson of Adam[47]. Enosh in Hebrew means “Man” the “Man” and the “Son” of “Man” or, in Aramaic pronunciation, “nash” and “bar nash”.

Mandæans specifically call their priestly caste Nasurai—Nasoraeans, (Nazarenes)—those wise in religion—to distinguish the priests from the laity. More broadly, Nasurai is also the doctrine of the Mandæans, the true words which come from the “Place of Light”, and it is their own name for themselves. In the the Haran Gawaita, “Mandæans” is used only once, the word used otherwise being “Nasoraeans”. Mandæans claim the meaning of the word is those who “watch over”, “guard”, “take care of”, or “protect”. Moreover they are “keepers” and “observers” of the sacred and therefore secret knowledge.

“Nasoraeans of the Mandæan type “keep and observe” ritual law with zealous fidelity and “keep back”—even from their own laity—mysteries considered deep and easily misunderstood by the uninitiated.” “The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran: Their Cults, Customs, Magic, Legends and Folklore” by E.S. Drower  (2002) pp.540.

All of this sounds remarkably like the classical descriptions of the Essenes, and the testimony of the Dead Sea Scrolls. That is the view of Robert Eisenman: “there seems little to doubt that their origins were Essene. The “Children of the Dawn” in the Scrolls were perhaps “Daily Bathers”. The Mandæan Book of John the Baptist has common features with the Genesis Apocryphon of the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

Summary:

John’s place in history has been largely written by Christians whose ideas and rituals differed from his. They were compelled to acknowledge his importance due to well established traditions and gave him a place of prominence in the NT. However, careful reading shows that the dispute between the Johannine and Christian sects were not resolved even though many of John’s followers eventually became Christians. John’s disciples claimed that their master had been greater than Jesus and that John was the true messiah. This led to a long rivalry between John’s followers and those of Jesus that continues to this day (the modern Mandæans).

John taught a dualistic philosophy of truth and error, light and darkness, and life and death by burning fire which consumes all wrong. He was a gnostic Essenes with ties to the Qumranians. He ordained apostles/prophets to teach and sent them out from Judea to continue his ministry – including Jesus. Those “disciples” continued his legacy despite the fact that a few of them later claimed to be greater than him.

Additional references:

"The Teacher of Righteousness in the Qumran Texts" by F. F. Bruce, (1957).

 “The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Personages of Earliest Christianity” by Arthur E. Palumbo (2004).

“The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist” by Robert Eisler (Ed. By A.H. Krappe) 1931.

“The Mandaeans: the Last Gnostics” by Edmondo Lupieri (2001).

Additional Notes:

AN1: “Now the unnamed disciple of John the Baptist who attached himself to Jesus along with

Andrew (John 1:35 ff.) has been identified, very reasonably, with the disciple whose witness

attests the record of the Fourth Gospel (John 21:24). If the beloved disciple was indeed at

one time a follower of John the Baptist, this may indicate an indirect contact with Qumran.

For, among all the theories which have been propounded to establish a connection between

the Qumran movement and primitive Christianity, the least improbable are those which find

such a connection in John the Baptist, on the ground that he may well have been associated with Qumran before the day when the word of the Lord came to him and sent him forth to preach his baptism of repentance for the remission of sins in view of the approach of the

Coming One. If there is any substance in such theories, John’s baptismal ministry must

imply that he had discovered that the way of Qumran, noble as its ideals were, was not the

way in which preparation should be made for the divine visitation.” “Qumran and the New Testament” by F.F. Bruce, Faith and Thought 90.2 (1958) pp. 98-99.

 



[1] From http://www.religiousstudies.uncc.edu/JDTABOR/johnessay.html.

[2] "Midrash" is both a form of exegesis and mode of thought which goes beyond the literal or superficial to penetrate into the spirit of the matter, thereby deriving broader interpretation and deeper meaning. The Talmud  compares midrashic exposition to a hammer which awakens the slumbering sparks in the rock (Sanh. 34b).

[3] His unusual lifestyle (as portrayed in the New Testament) is consistent with that of a Qumranian who has left the sect.

[4] Because Luke (3:1) writes that Jesus came to visit John in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, Jesus’ baptism can be dated. This corresponds to August of 14 or 15 CE.

[5] The Pharisees and scribes refused to accept John’s baptism, on the grounds that baptism, as a preparation for the kingdom of God, was connected only with the Messiah (Ezekiel 36:25; Zechariah 13:1), Elias, and the prophet spoken of in Deuteronomy 18:15. John's reply was that he was divinely "sent to baptize with water" (John 1:33). Jesus agreed later (when the Pharisees were trying to ensnare him) by implicitly declaring that John's baptism was from heaven (Mark 11:30).

[6] The text of Josephus’ work is available at http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-18.htm.

[7] Clement: Recognitions 1,60:1-4, 63:1.

[8] Described by Clementine as “the first and most esteemed by John.”; Clementine Recognitions and Homilies (Rec. II:11); http://www.compassionatespirit.com/Recognitions/Introductory-Notice.htm.

[9] Early ecclesiastical writers recorded these: that he could make himself invisible when he pleased, assume the appearance of another person or of one of the lower animals, pass unharmed through fire, cause statues to come alive, and make furniture move without any visible means of imparting motion. An account ascribed to St. Clement states that upon the arrival of Peter, Simon flew gracefully through a window into the outside air.

[10] Simon [] bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying: This man is the Great Power of God. (Acts 8: 9, et seq.)

[11] Based upon the Protevangelion of James: http://ministries.tliquest.net/theology/apocryphas/nt/protevan.htm

[12] This “desert”“stretches from Jerusalem and Bethlehem eastward some 20 miles down to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea”; it includes the region of Qumran. (See “Word Meanings in the New Testament” by Ralph Earle (2000), p. 30). Both the "Dead Sea Scrolls" and the NT use the phrase "in the wilderness"(Is. 40:3), to describe this area.

[13] "...the child [John the Baptist] grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel."( Luke 1:80)

[14] The location of Bethabara is in question. It must be "beyond the Jordan" (John 1:28). John later moved to Ennon, "near Salim"(John 3:23), eight miles south of Scythopolis. (See Lagrange, in "Revue Biblique", IV, 1895, pp. 502-05).

[15] There are a number of parallelisms between the Hebrew Matthew and the Protevangelion, "which cannot be accidental." (“An Old Hebrew Text of Matthew's Gospel” by Hugh Schonfield (1927); p. 25-30, 40).

[16] According to Lev. 11:20-23, these insects are “kosher”. Eating locusts was not only common in the Jewish culture of the time, they were even considered a delicacy. (See "Locusts and Wild Honey in Synoptic and Patristic Interpretation” by James A. Kelhoffer (2005)).

[17] Ceratonia siliqua or “Carob” is an eastern Mediterranean evergreen tree also known as St. John's Bread. Its leguminous pods contain a sweet, edible pulp favored by wilderness prophets and its seeds yield flour and sweet syrup. It may be that the Greek word “κρίδας “/akris, translated as “locust” was originally “αρουπιά”- that for the carob, or perhaps it was misunderstood from “egkris”, the Greek word for cake/pancake (as in the Gospel of the Ebionites). See “The Diet of John the Baptist: Locusts and Wild Honey in Synoptic and Patristic Interpretation” by James A. Kelhoffer (2005), pp. 19-21.

[18] John’s diet was typical of any eremite in the Judean wilderness, at most suggesting that he took a mantle on himself or was performing a Nazirite vow. Note: “The Diet of John the Baptist: Locusts and Wild Honey in Synoptic and Patristic Interpretation” by James A. Kelhoffer (2005).

[19] Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. Nevertheless a spring or a cistern collecting water shall be clean and he that is to be cleansed shall wash his garments, and shave all his hair, and bathe in water, (Lev. 14:8-9; 11:44).

[20] Josephus says of his Essene instructor, Banus, "bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day" ("Vita," § 2), and that the same practice was observed by all the Essenes ("B. J." ii. 8, § 5).

[21] The word "Baptism" comes from a rite found in many ablution rituals of ancient religions. It is related to the purification rituals found in the Jewish Bible (and other Jewish texts). Mikvah yielded qualification for full religious participation in the life of the Jewish community (Num. 19:1; Ezekiel 36:25; B.Talmud, Tractate Chagigah, p. 12).

[22]As a result of the new light shined o­n the NT by the Dead Sea Scrolls, we may conclude that John the Baptist was raised in the very community which wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. That the word of God came to John, and he began teaching an evangelical message of repentance.” See http://depts.drew.edu/jhc/RaskinCrucified.pdf. As a Levite, John would have held a prominent place in the Qumran community, which favored the priesthood heirs.

[23] The Hebrew Bible states, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD." (Malachi 3:19-24). In Judaism, this is taken to mean the return of Elijah will precede the Messiah.

[24] The names “Yaqif” (Jacob/James), “B'nai Amen”("Children of God"), and “Shumel” (Samuel), together with “Elijah”, represent different branches within the main Essene-Nazorean group at Mount Carmel.

[25] Andrew is named in the NT, John is not. Deciding who the second dispel was is based upon the process of elimination and textual clues that are far from certain.

[26] Josephus tells us that Herod thought that Jesus was John re-incarnated.

[27] The Gospel of Thomas at 46:1-2 reads, "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'. Elsewhere in this Gospel, Jesus is recorded as offering John high acclaim: "his disciples said to [Jesus] '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..." (Gospel of Thomas 52:1-2 - not a certain reference, but if not John whom)?

[28] Jesus' also is also quoted as saying that John is the person referred to in Malachi 3: "Behold, I will send my messenger who shall prepare the way before me." (Luke 7:27). Christians assume that Jesus is referring to himself as the Messiah here.

[29] In a work credited to Clement of Rome (first century), the disciples of John (talking with the disciples of Jesus) say: "[John] is the Christ and not Jesus…just as Jesus spoke concerning him, namely that he is greater that any prophet who had ever been." They go on to say that John is greater than Moses and Jesus and therefore he is the Christ.( Pseudo-Clementines 1.60.1-4).

[30] It is also important to understand John’s relationship with the Gnostics. For details, see Appendix XVI.

[31] See http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/qumran_bruce.pdf where several ideas in this section were triggered or supported.

[32] As recorded in this interesting version, John would not allow wine or intoxicating drink anywhere near him and that his lips "knew no bread," such that he did not even eat the traditional unleavened bread at the Passover feast.

[33] Bruce, ibid.

[34] Jesus was sent to Herod Antipas (as the Galilean ruler) after his arrest by Pilate (Luke 23:7-12).

[35] Herod divorced his wife Phasaelis and took his brother Philip's wife while Philip was still alive.

[36] At least it’s the key issue for us – Herod had other issues: his divorce of Phasaelis, the daughter of the neighboring Nabetean King Aretas IV was one basis for a war between them.

[37] The gospel writers were apparently confused when they identify Salome's father--the first husband of Herodias-- as "Philip" (Matt14:3; Mark 6:1) instead of Philip's half-brother, Herod II. (See Josephus, Ant.  18.136). Josephus gives no hint that Salome's father, Herod, was ever called Philip but claims Philip's mother had another son named Herod, whom he tells nothing about. (Ant. 17.21).

[38] King Aretas (with the help of Philip) attacked and defeated Herod in 36 CE forcing Tiberius to send Roman troops to his aid. When Caligula became Emperor in 37 CE, Agrippa accused him of plotting subversion against Rome and Caligula banished Antipas to Gaul (39 CE). Surprisingly, Caligula offered Herodias a dispensation (since she was the sister of his friend Agrippa) so that she might continue to live in Judea and retain some of her possessions, but Herodias proudly refused and accompanied Antipas into exile.

[39] Antipas went to Rome in 34CE and married Herodias that year.“The Herodian Dynasty” by Nikos Kokkinos (1998) p. 268,277. Some argue an earlier date to support the NT (theological) based trial and crucifixion dates, but they deny strong evidence to the contrary. See Appendix X for more information regarding dates.

[40] Again, John viewed baptism as a symbolic re-commitment to righteousness, not a means to purify the body or wash away sin since the soul could only be cleansed by acts of charity and justice.

[41]  “Over the meek His spirit will hover, and the faithful He will restore by His power. He will glorify the pious ones on the throne of the eternal kingdom. He will release the captives, make the blind see, raise up the downtrodden. Forever I shall cling to Him, and I shall trust in His loving kindness and His goodness. [...] of holiness will not delay [...] And as for the wonders that are not the work of the Lord, when He [...] Then he will heal the slain, resurrect the dead and announce glad tidings to the poor. He will lead the holy ones; he will shepherd them; he will do [...] and all of it [...]” (DSS document 4Q521).

[42] There are several theories that make sense including one that suggests Herod and Herodias staged the dance/promise scenario presented in the NT as a way to get rid of the popular and powerful John.

[43] "[A]s we know from the recently edited Cologne Mani Codex, a Greek text from fourth or fifth century Egypt… this community [Elkesaite] had specifically Jewish traditions, apparently going back as far as the Qumran community. Though rooted in that tradition, it regarded itself as a Christian community as far back as its founder Elchesaios, who must have preached his message around 100 A.D. Gnostic tendencies may have already had an impact on the thinking of the community…", “Gnosis on the Silk Road” by Hans Joachim Klimkeit (1993).

[44] Epiphanius identified Nazarenes with the “Daily Baptists” or Hemerobaptists. (Note Appendix XVI).

[45] Close examination reveals that Sampseans and Mughtasilah-Haemerobaptists, and  Nasoraeans-Nazerini, and  Elchasaites-Elkasaites, and Mandaeans-Sabians were the names of the sects within a greater Gnostic movement (see Appendix XVI).

[46] Per Lucian of Samosata (2nd Century).

[47] John’s diet was viewed as a return to the antediluvian diet of Enosh.

 


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