Prophets serve a literary function throughout the Old Testament. Their role is to demonstrate to readers/hearers of the word the stubborn rebellious hearts of Israel in history, and through that mechanism to show the greatness of the mercy of God who promises to love and restore such wretches in the end.
They are worked into the plot to suffer rejection by their own, persecution, mockery and sometimes martyrdom. Their loyal followers are always the few. And their authors always ensure they perform their assigned roles as foils for Israel to the letter.
One of these, Elijah, was prophesied to come again.
But there is the strangest of twists. When he does “come again”, the people are expected to actually listen to him this time. And the people do listen to him. Nothing like it had happened since the Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah.
Historical reading destroys the story
Mark tells us that the whole of Judea and Jerusalem came out to be baptized (Mark 1:5), so we must presume they were all prepared as per the prophecy. To deny this by suggesting Mark is merely exaggerating is to miss the point of the story and the author’s portrayal of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi. Trying to historicize the tale merely destroys it. Mark is creating an ideal scene here, one as ideal as that of the survival in the wilderness with wild beasts and angels. All the land of Judea and those of Jerusalem went out confessing their sins. Picture an ideal Israel following Moses into the wilderness, or all of Israel repenting at the preaching of Elijah.
Elijah is promised to prepare the way of Israel for God — lest God comes and strikes the earth with a curse (Malachi).
We must presume he succeeded through John the Baptist, because when God came in his Son, it was the Son of God who was cursed, thus sparing the earth (or land of Israel – at least for a generation).
Getting prepared — then waiting
But how did he, in John the Baptist, prepare the way for God? How do we see the preparedness of these people in action?
I used to think it was a narrative failing of Mark that he had the people prepared for Jesus in the opening verses of the Gospel but in the very next encounters with “the people” they fail to recognize him. Someone should have tapped me on the shoulder to wake me up and notice that the people who were prepared, as per the prophecy, were those connected with the Temple, the people of Judea and Jerusalem.
When Jesus came he did not go to those people of Judea and Jerusalem straight away, but went instead to people of Galilee.
Jesus does not come to these people of Judea and Jerusalem just yet. Mark constructs a kind of inclusio setting for his gospel. The scene opens with the people of Judea and Jerusalem, and will close with the same people. In the meantime, however, Jesus bypasses them and works with others in Galilee. His time is not yet. The people of Judea and Jerusalem have been prepared, but Jesus won’t come to them until his grand entrance in Mark 11. When his time does draw near, the reader is privileged with a vision of the transfigured Jesus, and three prophecies herald his personal doom and salvation.
Having been prepared (at least within the narrative’s frame of reference — it is not historical realism), the people of Jerusalem welcome Jesus into their city with hopes of the restoration of the Kingdom of David. When questioned over his authority to do the things he was doing there, Jesus reminds them he is acting on the authority of John the Baptist who prepared them for his entry and “sudden coming to the temple”. A leper opens his house for him and an anonymous woman prepares him for burial (Mark 11:3-8).
Saving the land from a curse
The crowds are a narrative device. The author is attempting to create a narrative that can be seen as a fulfillment of prophecy, and is consequently forced into a few inconsistencies. But the overall intended impact works, nonetheless. So the crowds are also there to call for Jesus’ crucifixion. In so doing, Jesus is the one who is cursed (Mal. 4:5-6), and Elijah is once again invoked by the narrator at that moment (Mark 15:35-36).
The land is saved from the curse, at least for the time being. Later it will be the remnant who are saved (Mark 13:20), as is always the case throughout the Old Testament writings of Israel’s failures and restorations.
Story, not history
There is nothing historical about John the Baptist in Mark’s Gospel. (One is entitled to think of an historical JB elsewhere if one likes, but Mark’s character is entirely literary.) As Paula Fredriksen writes in another context:
Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly.
One criterion sometimes used against historicity is that of fulfilled prophecy (see Robert Funk’s criteria):
Anything based on prophecy is probably a fiction.
And John the Baptist and his role in Mark’s Gospel is a paradigmatic fulfillment of the prophecy of the Elijah to come. John, like Elijah, lives in the wilderness and by a river there. Like Elijah, he also wears a hairy prophet’s garment and a leather belt. And like Elijah, he calls for repentance.
He does fit the literary prophet paradigm by having his head chopped off. But he also, unlike the other prophets, has the unique role of being listened to by the people of Israel who repent at his message. This prophet had to fulfill Malachi for the most coherent way to introduce Jesus.
So both in his conformity to type and in his exceptionality of function, he is the literary tool of the Gospel author.
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8 thoughts on “John the Baptist, the Strangest of Prophets”
Of course, as obvious as all of this is, I think we will soon hear the sound of gnashing teeth.
Thanks. Thoughts like these are my favourites, but no one but you and me reads ’em 🙂
Of course, all this was so embarrassing to Mark that only the fact that it was historical information well known to his readers forced him to include it.
Paul, naturally leaves out all mention of John the Baptist. It was all so well known to his readers that he had no need to go over what what they already knew.
Or, of course, Paul simply didn’t have a copy of Josephus handy.
The John the Baptist story has good parallels in Josephus:
CONCERNING THEUDAS AND THE SONS OF JUDAS THE GALILEAN; AS ALSO WHAT CALAMITY FELL UPON THE JEWS ON THE DAY OF THE PASSOVER.
1. NOW it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, (9) persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. This was what befell the Jews in the time of Cuspius Fadus’s government.
1) persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet
2) They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem
Paul’s theology said that Jesus’ history was in the Jewish Bible. So “Mark” uses the Jewish Bible to give Jesus’ supposed history in his narrative. We all agree on this. But did “Mark” also use this technique to find Jesus’ history in Josephus? I think he did.
I find the full story of JtB in “Matthew” and “Luke” especially intriguing because you have the great Markan irony of JtB prophesying that the non-repentant will be chopped down and subsequently JtB is the one who gets his head chopped off. So why isn’t the head chopping in “Mark”?
Interesting. (A Sheffield biblical scholar might argue that Mark simply assumed the head chopping was part of JtB’s message, thus proving that the gospel was written before any disputes arose over this which had to be clarified by Matthew and Luke.)
All I know is that I don’t want the rapture to happen. How can Christians look forward to such a day where Jesus will be allowed to turn the entire earth into a firey slaughter house; persucuting and torturing all who grew up in the “wrong” religion. It’s such a sadistic fantasy. Just because Jesus supposedly suffered on the cross for one day (if he existed at all) does not justify the torture of billions of human beings for simply not believing in him because the evidence for him fails to convince a healthy adult brain.
The concept of Hell should never be taught to a child. That in itself is psychological child abuse. I’t has been a slow and painfull struggle for me to dislodge my paranoid delusions.