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.
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4 thoughts on “Why the Gospel of John Depicted John the Baptist So Differently”
The Fourth Gospel’s presentation of Jesus and John the Baptist working alongside each other is a problem. But I’m not convinced by Hock’s solution, for there is still a sequence in gJohn. It does still make clear that Jesus came after John. And that John had been active and baptizing before Jesus came on the scene. And John had been around long enough to make disciples before Jesus started doing the same. Two of John’s disciples decide to go over to Jesus and become his initial followers.
No, the problem, as I see it, is that if JtB was free and active when Jesus started his ministry, why did he not himself become a disciple? In the Fourth Gospel, JtB does not have the synoptic excuse that he was in prison when Jesus started his ministry. The existence of simultaneous ministries is awkward and leads me to think that it was in the original version of the Fourth Gospel. Likewise for the absence of a baptism of Jesus by JtB. And likewise for JtB’s confession—-contrary to the synoptics—-that he was not Elijah (Jn. 1:21).
In general, I tend to be very skeptical about all the Fourth Gospel passages that involve JtB. There are just too many indications—-many acknowledged by mainstream scholars—-that some at least of the passages are subsequent inserts. The problem starts right with the Logos prologue. Many scholars think that JtB was forced into it. And in conjunction with that insertion, the reference to John’s testimony in Jn. 5: 33-35 is suspect. Loisy, for example, writes:
Wellhausen sees Jn. 1: 22-24 as a later addition. And on and on it goes. If these passages are what they look like—-forced testimonies of the Baptist to Jesus—-I have to wonder: What kind of gospel was the original, that it needed this kind of supplementation?
My answer, as you know, is: the kind of gospel that was written by an ex-Marcionite named Apelles. This would explain why the reworked canonical version needed to have some friendly testimony from JtB added to it. From a Marcionite perspective, JtB belonged to the Jewish Creator God and not to the Father of Jesus. Understandable then that both ministries were going on simultaneously. And a Marcionite type Jesus would not have received baptism from the last in a long line of Jewish prophets. And according to Apelles, the Jewish sacred literature consisted largely of fables and falsehoods. From this perspective the touted return of Elijah in the last days could just be another falsehood, and that is why John was not Elijah.
John appears first on the scene in all Gospels, but, as you also point out, the difference with the Gospel of John is that John is still present when Jesus is working and the two run parallel projects.
The point is that this breaks the social convention model (as found in Mark) of John and Jesus appearing as successive messengers in preparation for the Lord’s coming. Such a model, I think, also would also explain why John the Baptist was not a candidate for baptism by Jesus, would it not? They are both messengers sent from the one Source. (I’m not saying it is a superior explanation to yours. I
I should protect Hock’s reputation, however, and clarify that Hock only discusses the sequential messenger convention, relating Mark’s structure of Jesus, the Son of God, coming “after” John (who was far less worthy), to the convention elaborated in Daphnis and Chloe. He did not discuss the Gospel of John.
And Mark uses this sequence in gMark 12:1-12 to construct Jesus’ prophecy about his own death in parable form, only this time the vinekeepers themselves are the brigands! GMark 12:4 is a clear allusion to the beheading of John the Baptist. It was astonishing to me that given the apparent virulent Antisemitism in gJohn, Apelles / John would not use this sequence. But with Jesus being being presented as the co-equal personage of the Godhead, or even God Himself, I should have known why.
How did the Gospels confuse the Yom Kippur ritual with the crucifixion? In the Atonement ritual there was no lamb, only two goats, and the one who “took away the sins” of the people was not sacrificed but released into the wild to die there. The one that was sacrificed was not a lamb but a goat.