a traditional site for John's baptisms - on the border between Israel and Jordan

This is the last of three posts on John the Baptist and Jesus, leading up to the third Sunday in Advent when we celebrate John’s ministry of baptism in preparation for the restoration of Israel. The first is here, and the second here. I’ve already noted how John the evangelist manages to glide over the actual baptism of Jesus entirely, talking only about John the Baptizer’s vision of the Spirit descending on and remaining on Jesus (“remain” – also translated “abide” or “dwell” is a key word in the gospel’s vocabulary). I’ve also noted that John’s gospel has a very distinctive voice. Most people sound remarkably like each other, and like the narrator. You can’t, for example, in 3:5-21, tell where Jesus stops talking and the narrator picks up the thread again. Likewise in 3:25-36, you can’t tell where John the Baptist stops talking and John the evangelist takes over. On the one hand, these traditions have been heavily worked over by the evangelist, on the other, he provides more than enough surplus information to allow us to read against the grain of his narrative intent.

The evangelist’s message is clear: John the Baptist’s role is to point to Jesus – “I came baptizing with water for this reason” (1:31) – and having done so, to get out of the way and let Jesus take over – “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (3:30). However, while, as we’ve already seen, some of his disciples go after Jesus, many do not. Some indeed, complain to John that lots of people are following Jesus, and that Jesus is baptizing them.

They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

John 3:26

At the start of the next chapter, the evangelist both repeats and corrects this information.

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John”— although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee.

John 4:1-3

This is a completely different picture to the one we get in the first three gospels. There, immediately after Jesus is baptised, he’s away, first to the wilderness, and then off on tour. The picture John provides is of an apparently substantial amount of time spent loitering around the Jordan baptising people, either himself, or through his disciples. It is probably both, and the likelihood of Jesus baptising people helps explain why baptism with water continued to be, as far as we can tell, the more-or-less universal practice of the church.

Despite the verbal emphasis on John as signpost to Jesus, there is a narrative background where the incidental details show that there are some (many?) of John’s disciples who do not understand this. They do not think that being a follower of John requires them in any sense to follow Jesus. Instead, they show indignation that Jesus might be baptizing more people than John. This is baptism as competitive sport.

Part of the evangelist’s response to this uncomfortable picture is to double down on emphasising the true calling of John the Baptist, and the curious phrasing he employs itself seems to betray his anxiety about a rather more ambiguous reality.

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.”

John 1:19-20

This is not the normal way we use this language. Typically, we confess that something is true with a positive expression. We deny things with a negative expression. Here John does the opposite: he confesses the negative, and denies the positive. It’s only because we’re so used to reading the Bible with our clear picture of the relationship between John and Jesus that we don’t hear how odd an expression that is: “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’” This is the constant tone of John’s testimony in the fourth gospel: he must rebut any suggestion that he is equal to, or even superior to, Jesus, especially to those among his followers who are resentful that Jesus is staging a takeover bid on John’s trademark baptism. It is not to avoid the conclusion that, as Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude puts it, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” (Hamlet, III.2)1

The historian, putting all this together, will first of all conclude that John’s baptism of Jesus is one of the most certain facts that we can know about Jesus, on a par with the fact that he was crucified by the Romans. But the historian must also suspect that the evangelist and his intended audience know of continuing groups who esteem John but do not follow Jesus.

Some of John’s disciples came to see John as uniquely pointing the way to Jesus, and being his forerunner. Others did not, but continued to keep the memory and message of their sponsor alive. Indeed, for them, the fact that John baptised Jesus would have made John superior to Jesus in at least some respects. That is why Matthew, Luke and John’s retellings of the story try in one way or another to rebut that understanding. Both John and Jesus shared a great deal of restorationist hope, although Jesus shaped it differently. For some time there was probably some overlap between these groups, while the distinctiveness of Christian belief in Jesus emerged – in him as the one around whom the coming kingdom was growing into shape, and after his resurrection, its final agent and vindicated king.

As for John the Baptist, he must have said things that at least some people interpreted as pointing to Jesus as the agent of the kingdom for which he was preparing. But, even on the surface reading of the gospel, he also had doubts when he saw what sort of ministry Jesus was exercising. It looked too different from the shape of the kingdom bringer he was envisaging.

For those of us who try to be disciples now, this history is a reminder that life is nearly always more complicated than the stories we tell about it. Discerning the hand of God in history looks more straightforward with the benefit of hindsight than it ever does at the time. Even those who followed Jesus, who were sure that he was the one the Baptist meant, still found him a baffling master at times, and failed repeatedly to understand what he was about. Yet discerning God’s presence and activity in the world, and responding to it, remains at the heart of the Christian calling, and perhaps it should be a comfort that even those called to a unique place in that activity should have found it hard to see as clearly at the time.

  1. There are variations of this line, Here I follow the reading of the Second Quarto. ↩︎

By Doug

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