I’ve spent a good deal of space on this blog critiquing the Old Testament portrayal of God and also looking at some of the “big picture” issues that cast doubt on the Bible’s consistency and clarity. In my reading tonight I came across something which kind of surprised me, so I’m going to take a bit of a detour away from the Old Testament and instead focus on a New Testament problem that I never noticed while I was a Christian.
The problem is this: Why does John the Baptist have different information about Jesus depending upon which gospel you read?
In the Gospel of Matthew (GoM) John apparently knows who Jesus is and perceives him to be a person who is superior to him. This is what GoM says when Jesus comes to visit for his baptism:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” — Matt. 3:13-17 (all quotes in this post are from the NRSV)
The verses just preceding this passage (Matt. 3:1-12) make it clear that John did not want to baptize Jesus because he viewed him as the promised Messiah, the one that he was commissioned to proclaim and prepare for.
In the Gospel of Luke (GoL) we receive additional information which seems to provide a more thorough backstory for both John and Jesus. A plain reading of GoL strongly implies that these two characters would have known each other quite well. Luke 1 narrates the prediction of John the Baptist’s birth, John’s birth and then the prediction of Jesus’ birth (immediately followed by the famous account of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2). The two miraculous births are tightly intertwined in Luke’s narrative. Both births are foretold by angels and tied to Israel’s expectation of a coming Messiah. To top it off, Mary and Elizabeth are close cousins. Luke even adds the detail that “Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months” while she was pregnant with Jesus.
From this passage we learn three important things about Luke’s depiction of Jesus and John the Baptist:
- Their mothers were extremely close.
- These men were very close in age.
- John and Jesus both had miraculous birth stories…stories which the evangelist seems to be directly linking in his telling of events.
- Both John and Jesus’ mothers knew each other’s miraculous birth stories.
Note: Luke is the only gospel which mentions Zechariah, John’s father, or says anything about John the Baptist’s birth and physical relationship to Jesus. Luke tells us that Zechariah was a priest in the temple and that the story about his silence and subsequent prophetic words were well-known events in Judea (this is based on a quick search–if you know of a passage in another gospel which has this info or implies it, then let me know).
In the Gospel of John (GoJ) (which scholars believe to be the latest canonical gospel) we don’t get any of this backstory about the connection between Jesus and John. None of it. If you just read John you would not know that these two characters are cousins or that they had intertwining birth stories. Instead, this is what GoJ narrates:
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said,
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” — John 1:19-34
As we can see in the last verse here, according to GoJ, John’s testimony about Jesus does not rest upon any prior knowledge or personal prophecy (like the ones given to Mary and Elizabeth in Luke) about Jesus. What he is apparently telling the Pharisees is that the Son of Man (a term for Messiah) was miraculously revealed to him the moment immediately after Jesus was baptized and not before. Not only does this directly contradict what GoM says (the plain sense and context of Matthew 3 makes it clear that John believed Jesus was the Messiah before he consented to baptize him and heard the voice) but GoJ also leaves out any mention of John and Jesus’ physical relationship.
To make things even more complicated, according to GoM and GoL, while in prison John the Baptist waivers in his belief that Jesus is the promised Messiah. In Matthew 11/Luke 7 (parallel passages) John sends some of his disciples to Jesus in order to confirm that Jesus is in fact “the one who is to come.” So apparently, according to two evangelists, John was not fully convinced by the miraculous announcement from heaven and his previous encounters with Jesus. This circumstance is especially strange considering that in Luke’s version it can be assumed that John would have known about the angelic message to Mary and how the miraculous story of his birth coincided with that of his cousin. Elizabeth was even granted the revelation that Jesus would be the Messiah before he was born, so how on earth could it be that the designated prophet and ‘forerunner’ of the Christ–a man supposedly filled with the Holy Spirit–could be doubtful about his identity!?
Between the differences and contradictions in these accounts and the strangeness of John’s testimony about Jesus (going from adamant to unsure in two gospels) it seems that something fishy is going on behind the text. I’m not sure what exactly is going on here myself. It could be that either John or the gospel writers are practicing some sort of deception, or it could be that someone simply gave one of the gospel writers bad information. It could be the case that the original account of John the Baptist in Mark was legendary and that all of the later versions build on an uncertain foundation of unsubstantiated rumors and competing claims.
What brought these passages to my attention was reading chapter IV of Ecce Homo!, where Baron d’Holbach points out these inconsistencies and puts forward his own theory to explain these ‘loose ends’ between the gospels. I’ll be honest and admit that this was a new one for me. I had heard countless sermons that referenced John the Baptist and I had read through each gospel multiple times. It’s amazing how even though these gospel stories are so familiar and so beloved by millions, the simplest problems can escape our notice if we are not careful to compare the texts we are reading (a quick scan of Google shows that these discrepancies have not escaped everyone’s notice).
What are your thoughts on John the Baptist and Jesus? Have I missed some important detail which ties these conflicting accounts together?