Taking the Gospels seriously, part 2 (What John Baptist supposedly meant to Jesus)

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by Neil Godfrey

I often find myself wishing some knowledgable scholars who write about “the historical Jesus” would take their Gospel sources more seriously.

To take just one illustration, I don’t know if I have read any scholarly work addressing the baptism of Jesus that fails to make some reference to the “influence of John the Baptist on Jesus”, or to the “calling of Jesus”, or such. The presumption is always that Jesus was some sort of spiritual “seeker” who was profoundly moved in some way by John the Baptist and as a direct consequence was catapulted on his own solo career.

Here is one example of this:

What we do know past doubting is that John had a crucially important impact on Jesus. According to the synoptic tradition, Jesus in some sense received his calling during or just after his baptism. (p. 191 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, by Paula Fredriksen)

And another that is within easy reach on my desk:

We can now see what attracted Jesus to John. John exercised a large-scale and highly successful prophetic ministry of repentance to Israel. . . . He offered salvation and predicted judgement in terms which recreated the Judaism of the prophetic tradition. This explains why Jesus underwent John’s baptism. . . . Jesus thereby joined this vigorous movement of prophetic Judaism. . . . On the occasion of his baptism, Jesus had a visionary experience. . . . (p. 176 of Jesus of Nazareth by Maurice Casey.)

Such claims are usually surrounded by several paragraphs of discussion. This discussion nearly always involves arguments for accepting a rationalization of the Gospel narrative. And that is what conclusion — as illustrated in the above quotes — always is: a rationalization of the supernatural tales found in all of the Gospels. There is not a single shred of evidence, not even a narrative hint, that Jesus stood around listening to John preach or made a conscious decision to “join a movement” led by John.

The power of the gospel narratives lies in their supernatural dimensions. John appears out of nowhere, suddenly, in the “biblical” wilderness by the “biblical” Jordan, as per the prophesied Elijah in Malachi, bringing people to repentance. His success has nothing to do with any proven psychological techniques but is entirely the result of the authors directing the scene in fulfilment of the prophecies of Malachi and Isaiah, two prophets that are deftly joined to introduce the scene in the synoptic gospels.

3:1 Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the LORD, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.

4:5-6 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. (Malachi)

40:1-3 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah)

The whole rhetorical thrust of the John role in all the gospels is to announce the grand entrance of Jesus. This is what the authors are doing. There is no reason to think they are filtering or restructuring oral reports or historical traditions. Such an assumption is entirely gratuitous. Just read the gospel narratives and the literary function of the John the Baptist scenarios is scarcely avoidable. Some literary analysts have compared the Baptist introductions to the prologues or roles of the chorus in other forms of literature where the main character is introduced by preliminary announcements like this. The audience is informed of the coming role of the hero, and that same chorus or narrator voice may from time to time re-intrude in the later narrative at key points.

This is the best explanation for the complete absence of the sorts of details the scholars are fishing around to find to “explain” the nature of John’s movement, its attraction for Jesus and influence on his spiritual outlook etc. To look for historical rationalizations is simply to trample underfoot the literary artistry one reads while searching for something dusty and prosaic that really exists nowhere except in modern minds seeking rationalizations of the tales of the miraculous or supernatural.

To continue with the supernatural, which is the core of the John the Baptist scene —

The literary and functional role of the characters and event is demonstrated by the absence of explanation of how Jesus and John meet, how John knows Jesus, etc. The reader is given just what the author is creating the scene wants to give. It is a dialogue between the old and the new. The way of the prophets and the way of Jesus and the new covenant to which the prophets testified.

Then comes the rending of the heavens, a spirit like a dove, an entering into (or upon) Jesus by the spirit, a clear voice from heaven, being possessed and driven to the wilderness to meet Satan. That is what it’s all about. The baptism is part of the tradition of new life, new beginnings, that goes back to the separation of waters leading to a new world creation in Genesis, to the flood leading to a new age post Noah, to the Exodus, the Jordan crossing, etc.

There is nothing unique or novel in the message of John the Baptist. The motif of the world being turned upside down by the judgement of God is as old as the oldest of the Old Testament books. That’s how God works when he judges. Fredriksen attempts to find the difference in John and Jesus stressing the “at hand” urgency of the new Kingdom message. But the Day of the Lord is also well known in the Old Testament to come suddenly and quickly. Isaiah, Malachi, Zephaniah all call on readers to repent before it is too late:

Isaiah 13:6 — The Day of the Lord is at hand

Ezekiel 30:3 — For the day is near, even the day of the Lord is near

Zephaniah 1:14 — The great day of the Lord is near, it is near, it hasteth greatly

Zephaniah 1:7 — the day of the Lord is at hand

Joel 1:15 — for the day of the Lord is at hand

Joel 3:14 — the day of the Lord is near

Obadiah 1:15 — the day of the Lord is at near upon all the heathen

The whole scenario is most economically explained as a collage from the literary and theological tradition of the Jewish scriptures. The scene — its prophetic introduction, its geographic setting, the wardrobe and menu of the Baptist himself, the dove, the water, the voice — all are dripping with Jewish literary tradition.

Jesus is introduced as someone who is more than a man. That is, he is introduced as someone who is NOT historical in our understanding of what that means.

It is a meaningless objection to say that other historical figures have been hailed as more than human, too. The difference with Jesus is that he is portrayed from start to finish as more than a man. To insist on him also being a man is to fly in the face of all the testimony of the gospels, and epistles, too.

I wish more scholars would take the gospels seriously. Those fundamentalists who favour some degree of inerrancy do have a point when they object to “liberals” adding to or taking from the text. They do have more respect for the gospels, though they do not respect the gospels for the right reasons. They assume the story told in the texts is true and are naively following that story as “true”, rather than reading with a genuine understanding of these works as just another form of literature.

The first step towards a serious regard for the gospels is to acknowledge and understand their nature as theological literature.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Taking the Gospels seriously, part 2 (What John Baptist supposedly meant to Jesus)”

  1. Fredriksen and Casey both speak of tradition. The very word in relation to biblical studies I find obnoxious. Usually its use can be attribtuted to an inability to get to grips with the text in relation to real history. And a knowledge of the Greek (or Aramaic) is almost a waste of time, because in most cases the text is pretty obviously a fabrication. Tradition used in a biblical sense is not about truth or history. It sweeps truth under the carpet, covers it up. Tradition is the opium of biblical scholars.

  2. Good stuff. Also, the same verb is used in Mark for the rending of the heavens at the baptism and the tearing of the temple veil at the crucifixion.

  3. “Jesus thereby joined this vigorous movement of prophetic Judaism.” What does Casey know about prophetic Judaism? Were the prophets “seekers of smooth things”, as in the DSS?

    1. Geoff: “What does Casey know about prophetic Judaism?”

      Apparently Casey “knows” more than the evangelists. The synoptics say that Jesus walked up, got baptized, and was immediately was driven into the wilderness. John says Jesus didn’t even get baptized; apparently he was just there to poach disciples and get noticed by the forerunner.

      So the New Testament says Jesus did not join John’s prophetic movement and was not influenced in the slightest by him, but NT scholars are smarter than that. They know how to read “behind the text.”

      Once again we have a case of scholars trying to salvage as much of the text as they can while creating a plausible story. They discard the miraculous and assume the rest must be an echo of the oral tradition, which must go back to events that really happened.

      You’re allowed to be skeptical of the claim that Jesus was not a disciple of John. In fact to do so proves you’re very astute. But you’re not allowed to be skeptical of the baptism itself, because that would place “an unfair burden on the text.”

  4. Tim wrote:”which must go back to events that really happened.” Talking about salvaging text: Do you mean like: many of the priests became obedient to the ‘faith’? (Acts 6:7) How can one obey ‘faith’? The priests were changing their allegiance to what was in effect a different type or view of God that was being followed by prophets, prophets legislated for by Moses. A key word is “obedient”. Casey is not so knowledgeable about prophets, who were classed as “seekers of smooth things”.

  5. Pingback: The End of the World part 4 - The Books of Zephaniah and Joel

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