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

There is a theological, traditional and strongly liturgical story the church tells about John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. John came as a forerunner to prepare the way. He pointed people to Jesus. They started following Jesus, and John’s mission was accomplished. However, even a superficial reading of the gospels gives reason to question that.

“When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

(Matt 11:2-3, compare Luke 7:18-20)

Quite some way into Jesus’s ministry, John the Baptist still has his own disciples, as well as entertaining doubts whether Jesus is the promised Messiah. Clearly the version reflected in liturgy and hymnody doesn’t do justice to the complexities of history, nor even the surface narrative of the gospels.

In this and two subsequent posts, I want to explore that more complex relationship. However, it will be helpful to begin with some more general reflections on how we read the gospels to do history (not their main purpose), as opposed to reading them for developing our relationship with their central character (which latter purpose is why they were written and collected into the biblical canon).

For much of the twentieth century, quests for the historical Jesus involved establishing criteria by which we could “know” what went back to Jesus. This gave the quest a pseudo-scientific air of certainty that real history always lacks: every “historical Jesus” remains a construct of the historian. That criterion-based approach is now out of fashion, nonetheless some of the approaches that were once elevated to a false degree of precision remain useful tools in seeking to uncover the history behind the texts we have, when they are deployed more modestly.

For example, it remains true that where something appears refracted in multiple independent sources we can work with those refractions to explore what historical happenings might best explain them. One of the problems for historical Jesus research is that people disagree about the independence of the sources. Matthew clearly has sources other than Mark. He may share one or more of those with Luke (the most common, as well as my preferred, explanation), or Luke may use Matthew, as well as Mark, as a source (the next most commonly held view). Other explanations are possible.

This complicated picture of overlapping sources means that part of what we do when we read them for history rather than theology, is look for the ways they interact with one another, and with common, supplementary or perhaps contradictory traditions, and (re)purpose them for the story they are telling. I shall, in common with the almost universal view of critical scholarship, work on the basis that Mark came first, and was a source for Matthew and Luke. I also go with what is probably still the majority view that Matthew and Luke used at least one other shared source1, mainly sayings mixed with some stories.

Then we have John, and again there are shifting scholarly fashions about the relationship between the fourth gospel and the synoptics. In my view, John certainly used Luke, and probably knew Mark, and Matthew as well. John has a complicated relationship with history, but (again in my view) is often most useful as a historical source in his incidental details. For much of his main narrative, his writing is so heavily loaded with symbolism and meaning, all articulated in a very distinctive voice, that I would hesitate to give much historical weight to it. For someone who can describe Jesus as true bread or true vine, the question of true meaning is much more often one of inner symbolic core than outer surface fact. But there is history there to be mined, as much as anything from odd details mentioned in passing, and John helps fill out the picture of the other gospels.

That brings me to another one of the failed criteria that nonetheless points to an important way of reading. It was called the criterion of embarrassment: the idea that the gospel writers were embarrassed by this or that story or saying. Of course, the fact that they mention something at all puts a question mark against just how embarrassed they actually were, but the idea points to something useful. The historian reads texts not just for what they want to tell us, but also for what they may be (partially) concealing from us. Sometimes this is portrayed as reading between the lines, and sometimes against the grain.

Whichever metaphor we use, the basic point is that there are gaps, inconsistencies or unexpected outcroppings in the terrain of the text, and exploring them helps us understand not only the story the narrator is trying to tell, but also what aspects of the story they are trying to downplay, or even conceal. This is often most apparent when we put our different stories side by side, and see how a later retelling of the story treats an earlier version.

The stories around John the Baptist, and his relationship with Jesus of Nazareth provide a good illustration of both these approaches. First there seems to be Baptist material in Mark, in the material common to Matthew and Luke, and in some of the traditions related only by John. These are not strictly independent sources, since they come to us through writers that know Mark, but they are sufficiently separate for us to see that we have knowledge of the Baptist in several different layers of tradition. And, as I shall go on to argue in tomorrow’s post, the later versions of the story show a degree of discomfort with the earliest one, and that can help us get closer to a more complicated history than the typical story the church remembers and celebrates, as it will again on this coming Sunday.

  1. This putative source is usually called Q, from the German word for “source” – “Quelle”. ↩︎

By Doug

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