John the Baptist is almost unrecognizable in the Gospel of John to those who have known him only from the Synoptic Gospels.
Apart from the Gospel of John’s Baptist never baptizing Jesus, (and apart from the possibility that in John’s Gospel Jesus himself uniquely does some baptizing for a time), one major difference between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics is that in the latter there is a clearly laid out sequence while in John’s Gospel Jesus and John work alongside each other.
The reason that the Gospel of John treats John the Baptist so differently from the way he is depicted in the Synoptics is, I suggest, because that sequential pattern in the Synoptics implies something about the nature of Jesus that the last evangelist flatly rejected. So this post looks firstly at what that sequence implies about Jesus and that might have been at odds with the theology or Christology of the Fourth Gospel.
In the Gospel of Mark, first John the Baptist appears to Israel; John is then imprisoned; only then does Jesus appears to Israel. In the Gospel of John, however, John the Baptist and Jesus are carrying out their respective baptizing ministries in tandem. The only difference is that the followers of Jesus are increasing while those of John are diminishing. So the Baptist is said to explain:
He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:30)
That’s not how it is in the Gospel of Mark. In Mark a sequence is clear. First John the Baptist, then Jesus who announces the Kingdom of God, then (we must wait for it) the Kingdom of God is about to arrive (at hand).
Ronald F. Hock argues that that sequence in Mark mirrors the social conventions surrounding the visit of a high ranking notable — at least as we learn of them from the popular literature of the day. Hock’s case is found in a chapter in Reimagining Christian Origins, “Social Experience and the Beginning of the Gospel of Mark”.
Hock sees a similar sequence of announcers or messengers in the popular second century novel, Daphnis and Chloe, by Longus. In the final chapter of this novel we read a “remarkably detailed and complete” account of a visit of a high-ranking landowner to his estate in the countryside of Mitylene after hearing that brigands had caused much damage to his properties in the region.
The landowner first sent a slave of equal rank (homodoulos) to Lamon, the goatherd guardian of his estate, to advise him to prepare for the visit. This slave announces (angellein) that his master will arrive shortly before the vintage. Lamon accordingly begins to prepare for the visit, “preparing the countryhouse . . . cleaning the fountains . . . carrying out the manure from the farmyard . . . . and lavishing attention on the garden.” His foster son is set the task of fattening the goats as much as possible.
While busy with these preparations a second messenger (angelos) arrives with orders that the grapes be harvested as quickly as possible. This second messenger is clearly of a higher rank than the homodoulos or first slave messenger. He is honourably named Eudromos and described as a homogalaktos, “or one who had shared milk with his master’s son; in other words, he is the syntrophos of the master’s son, a privileged slave role in an aristocratic household.”
This messenger, Eudromos, also announces that just before the landowner arrives, his son, Astylos, will come first.
Next messenger, the son and heir
Astylos, the son and heir of the landowner, arrives on horseback. The workers at the estate bow to him as his suppliants. Dramas had been developing in the story and this son and heir has the authority to make decisions about the justice or otherwise of what has been taking place, and promises to intercede on behalf of the innocent to his father when he arrives on the scene. He even offers to take some of the blame for damage to the garden — by telling his father his horses did the damage — in order to save the workers from an unjust punishment.
The landowner arrives
Finally the landowner, Astylos’s father, arrives. “He is gray-haired, tall, handsome, wealthy, and virtuous . . . . and he is accompanied by a host of other men and women, slaves, and animals.”
We can now appreciate the importance of the sequence as well as the increasing rank of the messengers who precede the house-holder in this important social event. The sequence in this visit included two slave messengers, then the son of the householder, and finally the householder himself. More specifically, the rank increases from that of a mere homodoulos, to that of a more privileged syntrophos, to that of the powerful son and heir of the household, and to that, finally, of the most powerful person of all, the householder, the one who will inspect and judge the slaves and tenants who work on his estate, punishing them for their shortcomings or rewarding them for their accomplishments.
These conventions regarding sequence and status — indeed the entire event itself from announcement through preparation to inspection and judgment — were, I submit, the social experiences that help to clarify not only the extent and structure of, but also some of the terms used in, the opening of Mark’s Gospel. Put simply, the activities of John the Baptist, then of Jesus of Nazareth, and (imminently) of God himself are presented as analogous in the divine sphere to the visit of a householder to his estate on the social level. (p. 319)
Against this context, it is important that the Son of God, Jesus, comes after John the Baptist. John must be imprisoned before Jesus can begin to deliver his message.
Contrast the nature and role of Jesus in the Gospel of John
I think it’s here — when we understand the significance of this narrative sequence — that we can begin to see why the author of John’s Gospel rejected it and even substituted a counter-narrative to oppose it.
In the Gospel of John Jesus is far more than the subordinate Son of God who is a messenger of his Father whose kingdom is about to come. Jesus is himself the revelation of God, the glory of God himself; he and his father are one. Those who have seen Jesus have seen the Father. Abiding in Jesus is abiding in God the Father, also. Jesus does not announce a future kingdom to come in this gospel. He gives his disciples rest in him and the Father now.
So to the author of the Gospel of John, the Synoptic concept of Jesus being an inferior messenger to the One to come, announcing the future coming of the King and his father, — this was quite at odds with “John’s” own view of the nature and role of Jesus.
Jesus’ came to give those called by the Father life and rest through faith. He was the glory of God itself and this was best demonstrated by placing his baptizing ministry alongside that of John’s, and depicting the waning glory of John’s mission beside the one led by Jesus.