The following is adapted from a 1975 article by Morton S. Enslin, John and Jesus. Enslin argues that the evidence in the gospels does not support the common view that Jesus began his career as a disciple of John the Baptist. In fact Enslin argues that when we examine the gospel narratives in sequence it is far more probable that the paths of John and Jesus never crossed.
Enslin, relying upon the account of John in Josephus, believes John was a preacher who stood completely apart from Christian origins. This presumed historical John was considered to be a powerful threat to the authorities who had him executed.
From this starting point Enslin sees the evangelists writing alongside an independent John the Baptist movement and each one (at least after Mark) in succession contrives in his own way to make this John more “Christian”.
The Gospel of Mark
John suddenly appears without explanation. He is preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
John did baptize . . . and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. (Mark 1:4)
Jesus appears and is baptized.
There is no hint that John recognizes Jesus as the greater one who is to come after him.
After emerging from the water God announces to Jesus (no one else apparently hears) that he is his son:
Thou art my beloved son…. (Mark 1:11)
The Gospel of Matthew
John recognizes that Jesus is the greater one to come after him and protests the need to baptize him.
In Matthew Jesus was introduced as being born as God’s son so there is no need at the baptism for God to declare to Jesus his status. Nor is there any need to inform John who recognized him prior to baptism.
Therefore after Jesus emerges from the river the voice from heaven informs the surrounding people:
This is my beloved son…. (Matthew 3:17)
Matthew also removes John baptizing “for the remission of sins” and places that concept later so that sins are remitted instead through the death of Jesus:
For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matthew 26:28)
In Matthew John merely preaches repentance but there is no reference to remission of sins as there is in Mark.
The Gospel of Luke
John recognizes Jesus as early as his time in the womb at the meeting of their prospective mothers.
When Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb…. (Luke 1:41)
Luke also takes the prophecy of Malachi 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.
which equates the Lord to come with Yahweh (the LORD) and reinterprets the Lord to refer to Jesus, before whom John comes:
And thou, child [John], shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord [Jesus] to prepare his ways (Luke 1:76)
Luke thereby doubly subordinates John to Jesus. John recognizes Jesus from the womb and understands him to be the Lord for whom he is to prepare the way.
The Gospel of John
No longer is John an independent preacher. He is but a voice, or, to change the figure, a finger pointing to Jesus. The baptism story is not told, although it is referred to (John 1:32f). But the baptism of Jesus is deprived of any significance for Jesus — not surprising since the latter has just been introduced as the preexistent Christ, who had been the effective agent responsible for the world’s creation. Thus the baptism, with the descending dove, was for the sole benefit of John, to indicate to him the identity of the “greater successor”, whose advent it is his one function to proclaim. (Enslin, p. 4)
Enslin, M.L. 1975. “John and Jesus” in ZMW, 66, 1-18.
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