Jesus and John the Baptist

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.

john baptizing jesus
John Baptizes Jesus

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:

  1. Their mothers were extremely close.
  2. These men were very close in age.
  3. John and Jesus both had miraculous birth stories…stories which the evangelist seems to be directly linking in his telling of events.
  4. 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?

2 thoughts on “Jesus and John the Baptist”

  1. Hi Ken, I appreciate all your passion and research. I thought you might like to hear what I see when I read the GoJ and GoM side by side comparison in your post….

    I may be misunderstanding what you’re saying, and if so, please correct me,… you seem to be saying that there is an inconsistency with the timing, between the two books, of when John recognizes Jesus and the descending of the Holy Spirit. I was trying to honestly compare the two and this is what I came up with… GoM ( in order) 1. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” = John recognizing Jesus, 2. “Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized” = Jesus baptized, 3. “..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.” = Holy Spirit descending. GoJ (in order) 1. “he (John, correct?) saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God” = John recognizing Jesus, 3. “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” = Holy Spirit descending. John didn’t mention Jesus being baptized here, but I think the point remains that John recognized Jesus before the Holy Spirit descended, which is the same as GoM. Now, your Bolded portion…”I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me,…” as I see it, in this part of the passage John is talking about the moment in time when “the one who sent him,” or God, was “filling John in” on what would be happening in the future…when John would see the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus. So it looks like the “I myself did not know him” is referencing the time and place of John’s discussion with God (John did not know who Jesus was during that discussion), and not the time and place when John was with Jesus at the Jordan. At the Jordan, John recognized Jesus right away “he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God.’ ” Now, I see that you’re saying Jesus and John’s families were close, as if we should assume that they knew each other, but is there a Biblical reference to them knowing eachother in a close relationship? Because being extended family does not guarantee that you have met that person and even if they had met, or had relationship, John still could have not known that God’s reference to “the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” was supposed to be Jesus, until the moment John saw Jesus at the Jordan.

    I didn’t reference any other studies on the passage by other Christians, which may or may not have helped me or proven me wrong, but simply from reading the Bible passage, this is how I see it. I hope this was enjoyable for you, because you seem to enjoy discussion. I intended this to be a respectful, enjoyable and honest response, so I hope you feel I was respectful, enjoyable and honest :). I’ll try and check in to read your post back to me, but I can’t promise how timely that will be,… you know…kids!

    Sorry I do have to add in that when I wrote “the moment in time” I giggled to myself because it made me think of Dr. Who…TIME!

    I love you brother, and the rest of the Hoods!… take care!

    1. Hey LeAnne!

      Huge caveat: Comparing the gospels is never a completely straightforward task (just check out any “Harmony of the Gospels” and you’ll see what I mean). Sometimes events are given in different order and this can imply a change of chronology…or it can simply be sometimes an author wanted to group certain events according to topic, rather than strict chronology. While there is a lot of overlap between the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, Luke) there is a lot less consistency between those texts and John. Also, some gospels contain events which appear between other shared stories. All of this is to say that at some level it’s kind of impossible to reliably recreate an accurate “Life of Jesus” that completely combines all of the stories in the gospels. So, our task may be daunting and ultimately impossible, but let’s try and press ahead :)

      I’ll try to break down the narrative a bit more here so you can see what I mean when I say that GoM, GoL and GoJ explain this overlapping scene differently.

      In GoM we get a third-person account of Jesus’ baptism. It’s pretty straightforward the way this gospel tells it.

      Here’s the full context from Matthew 3:
      “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

      “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
      ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
      make his paths straight.’”
      Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

      But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

      “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

      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.””

      So GoM tells us what John’s mission was. The Messiah’s role in Judaism was (and still is in more conservative sects!) to usher in the Messianic Kingdom…this is the Kingdom that John is talking about when he says “repent, for the kingdom of deaven has come come near.”

      The key point is the dialogue between John and Jesus. Why doesn’t John want to baptize Jesus? The text does not explicitly tell us this, but (just focusing on the content of this gospel) it’s hard to come to any conclusion besides ‘John knew that Jesus was Messiah.’ John viewed himself as an important prophet, but of course he would view the promised Messiah as even *more important* than he was (and for readers who didn’t understand that relationship, this text works as a good instruction). Messiah is not just *a prophet* but the ultimate prophet in God’s plan for the Jewish people. At this point any person knowleadgeable in the OT can track what is going on…no complicated NT theology here!

      So to recap GoM: John recognize Jesus as Messiah then baptizes Jesus and receives a sign confirming (in a very dramatic way) that Jesus is Messiah.

      GoL follows the same outline as GoM, but with a bit more content added in. Luke’s account of the baptism takes place in Luke 3 (just noticed that I did not explicitly point that out in my blog post). Also (I just noticed this) Luke doesn’t talk about “the Pharisees” in his version, but instead focuses on “the crowd” who have questions for John about their religious duties and about the Messiah (this doesn’t contradict Matthew’s version, but it is interesting how each author chooses to frame what is basically the same scenario). GoL includes the baptism and voice from heaven in the same order but doesn’t mention the bit about John not feeling worthy enough to baptize Jesus. In my view, the context of Luke 1 and Luke 2 makes it clear that John (according to this version) already knew exactly who Jesus was. He was expecting this particular character to come and be announced as the Messiah. At the beginning of chapter 3 we are reminded that John is the son of Zechariah, the same Zechariah who prophesied about the coming of Messiah and John’s role in announcing him (and remember, the chapter marks are later additions, the text just ‘flowed’ all together before…they didn’t even have paragraph marks like we are accustomed to in order to break the text apart). From Luke 2, here is what Zechariah prophesied (note the wording near the end):

      “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
      for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
      He has raised up a mighty savior for us
      in the house of his servant David,
      as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
      that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
      Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
      and has remembered his holy covenant,
      the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
      to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
      might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
      before him all our days.
      And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
      for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
      to give knowledge of salvation to his people
      by the forgiveness of their sins.
      By the tender mercy of our God,
      the dawn from on high will break upon us,
      to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
      to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

      Zechariah addresses part of his prophecy to his newborn son (“you child”, which to me strengthens the case that Luke intends to draw a close connection between John and Jesus. Luke wants us to know that from the very beginning these two were “meant for each other” like almost no other pair in history. Thus, John’s revelation of Jesus is founded upon this close history between them and the prophetic words given to Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah. Right after Zechariah’s prophecy GoL says “The child [John the Baptist] grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” Now, it doesn’t say explicitly that he was told these prophecies…but I think it’s a safe bet from the context. I certainly don’t think that Luke wants us to think that John was sent away before he could speak or understand anything! If John had some time to grow up before beginning his seclusion and ministry in the desert then he would have almost certainly been exposed to these prophecies. Luke never says that these prophecies were kept secret. In fact, he says the opposite “Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea.” Even if his parents did not tell him these prophecies themselves (which I find unlikely) GoL indicates that John would have surely heard it from others. GoL seems to present this as “public knowledge,” in that area. Everyone is primed to expect John’s ministry…but it is still up to John to reveal the Messiah. How does John reveal Messiah? He gets the sign, but he also should (in my view) have this knowledge from his mother who expected that the Messiah would be his cousin Jesus. Of course, a lot of commentators notice that even in the womb John seems to recognize who the future Messiah is!

      OK, now how does GoJ fit into these events? My argument is that the story itself is told very differently and it is told to give the impression (or that John the Baptist wanted to give the impression if you are very cynical) that John and Jesus were basically strangers to each other and John did not know that Jesus was Messiah until after the baptism. (also for purposes of these readings I am assuming that the terms ‘Son of God’, ‘Son of Man’ and other titles are equivalent to Messiah…why that is exactly would require a lot more presentation)

      Notice that in GoJ we don’t get a straightforward narration of the baptism. What we get instead is John’s retelling of the baptism. Instead of a 3rd-person perspective, we switch to a 2nd-person perspective with John recounting “how it happened” to the Pharisees that come to visit him.

      Here is what GoJ says (shorter version)

      “The next day [after his initial chat with the Pharisees] 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.””

      So according to GoJ, John talks with Pharisees, say he isn’t the Messiah but that Messiah has already been revealed to him. John says “I myself did not know him” indicating that Messiah has (at this point) already been revealed to John. Then, the next day (it’s not clear if the same Pharisees are still in the audience or if they had left already…the text works whether we assume they are or not) Jesus himself shows up! John takes the opportunity to point him out and say [my paraphrase] “hey, this is the guy I was talking about! The guy who was [past tense] revealed to me!” Then John adds onto that the story (also past tense) about how God revealed the Messiah to him. It wasn’t revealed in *that* moment in which they are speaking, but it was a recent past event. John is testifying about what had already occurred and insisting that he didn’t know who the Messiah was until it was miraculously revealed by God’s voice (which happened after Jesus was baptized).
      ———————

      Now, I’ve tried to lay out a pretty thorough reading here that explains how these three gospels (Mark’s account is much shorter and not really worth going into here) portray the interaction and relationship between two characters. The setting is shared by all three. Several characters are shared but some are absent and some are “swapped out” for other characters (Luke gives us “the people” but no Pharisees in this section).

      A question that an evangelical Christian might have at this point (I’m talking about someone who would say that the gospels are “inspired and without error”) is “why should we assume that the gospel writers are telling different stories?” I mean, wouldn’t it be silly of John to come along and try to totally rewrite what Mark, Matthew and Luke had already done? Shouldn’t we assume that John would simply be giving his own “twist” to the same tale and that he didn’t intend to write anything which conflicted with the earlier versions? He’s just adding in some more details and choosing to omit others…right? Well, this brings us into a much bigger area of questioning than just the words on the page. We have to consider how ancient literature functioned, what the context of the earliest Christians was and what were the historical circumstances behind how these four gospel accounts ended up in the same collection.

      (WARNING – Crash course in NT scriptural formation ahead!)
      An important concept is “canon.” The “Biblical Canon” is the accepted list of books that make up Bible. These books are all supposed to originate from the same supernatural source, even though they have different authors and were written at different times. The complication is that none of these works started out “in the canon.” None of the books of the New Testament were originally seen as explicitly belonging together…they were each written individually (though we have evidence that authors must have borrowed from each other…especially that Matthew and Luke borrowed from Mark and also borrowed from a lost source that they both shared). There are similaritiess between the gospel accounts that nearly all scholars (evangelical and otherwise) agree are too close to be accounted for simply by referring to “oral history” (that is, we know that the gospel writers didn’t just interview witnesses and happen to come up with the same stories that way…the gospel writers after Mark had access to Mark’s gospel and to at least one other source text).

      Now, none of this is necessarily problematic to the evangelical believer…but it does imply that we should think about reading the texts differently than we might be used to. In church and in our own Bible readings we tend to see these gospels as being “harmonious” and “put together.” They’re like buddies that just always hang out together and therefore always tell the same jokes and stories. The problem is that this wasn’t always the case…originally they were probably more like distant neighbors. Each gospel was likely written for a relatively small community at first and later (as it was copied by hand and spread abroad) became part of the broader Christian (and Jewish) community that was spread throughout the Roman Empire. If you were an elder named “John” and you lived in a certain part of Palestine or Syria, you might not want to present your congregation with a gospel (Mark) that was written in Rome, leagues away from where the actual events occurred and also addressing believers in a different cultural context. Instead you might say “oh this is valuable information about Jesus. We too are ‘followers of the Way’ (this new sect) but we have a bit of a different take on Jesus and his mission.” If you were “John” (I mean “John” the gospel writer who may or may not have actually been named John and may or may not have actually been one of Jesus’ direct disciples…we lack good information about who actually authored the gospels) then it might make a lot more sense for you to put together your own gospel for your congregation or specific group. At the time this would not have been frowned upon as “plagiarism” even though “John” does not cite his other sources or refer to them. Think of it like this. Where did The Refuge get their hymn collection? You guys have a unique collection of music that guides your services…you borrowed parts of it from various sources and some of it may even be unique to your group. You rearranged the songs as they suited you. No one would accuse you of “ripping off” the songs that you sing or of “ripping off” similar collection of contemporary worship songs! In the same way the gospel writers borrowed and adapted from each other and other sources…but when I say that “GoJ changed the story” I’m not saying that it was necessarily malicious or that he perceived that he was doing anything wrong. For all we know, GoJ has good reasons for presenting the story in the manner that it does. The point I want to make though is that if we assume that all of the gospels must be ‘equally true’ then we may end up flattening out some of the important differences between them…differences that show how the theology and understanding of Jesus varied from gospel writer to gospel writer. In other words, we don’t want to lose what Luke is saying or what the author of John is saying by trying to force them to be fully compatible. Sometimes a round peg just doesn’t fit into a square hole. For the non-Chritian and for many “liberal” believers this is not a problem. When they read the text with this eye (looking for *differences* between the gospels and acknowledging those differences and contradictions) it opens up the world of the New Testament to them and helps them to see the gospels in a fresh way. What was once befuddling can now gain context and clarity. I am seeking a better understanding of these texts; my aim is not to poke holes or tear things down purely for the sake of being critical (not saying this is your view of me, but I want to make sure that concern is addressed for anyone reading this).

      EDIT: Oops, already messing things up here! I made a minor mistake with the first version of this comment so hopefully didn’t confuse you too much (if you read this comment after 2 PM on Saturday you should be good). In order to keep things straight I recommend opening up each passage in a separate tab on your browser: Matthew 3, Luke 3 and John 1

      In the earlier version of this comment I said that the Pharisees asked John if he was the Messiah in GoM. That is incorrect as GoM does not actually have that explicit question. GoL and GoJ have that question, though as I present in my blog and above the question and the context surrounding it is handled differently by the gospel authors. Also, these details aren’t super important (in my opinion) but in GoJ it isn’t the Pharisees who directly question John, rather the Pharisees (who were a specific sect within Judaism) sent priests and Levites (specific positions, not sects within Judaism) from Jerusalem to question John.

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