John Beversluis, "The Gospel According to Whom? A Nonbeliever Looks at The New Testament and its Contemporary Defenders" 6

I'm posthumously posting six chapters from an unfinished book sent to me for comment in 2008 by the late John Beversluis (see Tag below). This is chapter 6, his last chapter on John the Baptist.

The enigmatic figure of John the Baptist bursts upon the scene abruptly and without warning in each of the synoptic Gospels. Mark opens with a sentence that reads like a newspaper headline: “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). Matthew and Luke introduce him just as abruptly right after their accounts of the genealogy and birth of Jesus, thereby skipping ahead thirty years. We are told next to nothing about what happened during those years. Matthew bypasses them without a word. Luke is almost as mute, relating only a single incident when the twelve year-old Jesus went missing for several days and was eventually found in the temple “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:42-50). Luke compresses everything else into the enthusiastic testimonial that Jesus “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). He is equally reticent about John the Baptist, saying only that he “grew and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel” (Luke 1:80). What he was doing out there, when this reclusive tendency first manifested itself, and what the elderly Elizabeth and Zacharias made of their son’s unsocial behavior—such questions do not detain Luke. Mark is so eager to introduce John, whose baptism of Jesus marked the beginning of his public ministry, that he does not waste time with the genealogy and birth of Jesus. He has no interest in shepherds, magi, stars, or massacres. He does not even share Matthew’s and Luke’s minimal interest in the geographical and political circumstances surrounding his birth. Ignoring all these apparently inconsequential details, he immediately directs his reader’s attention to John—a man so “filled with the Holy Ghost” (Luke 1:15) that he “leaped for joy” in his mother’s womb when he heard the voice of the still pregnant pregnant Virgin Mary greeting his mother Elizabeth (Luke 1:44)—and proclaims him as the “forerunner” and “voice crying in the wilderness” whose task was to “prepare the way of the Lord,” as prophesied in Isaiah 40:3.

1. John the Baptist’s Public Ministry

Mark is all business. His account of Jesus’s public ministry, escalating problems with Jewish and Roman authorities, crucifixion, death, and resurrection is fast-paced, episodic, and characterized by a marked lack of continuity. His Greek is pedestrian. He wastes no words. He has no sense of climax. His transitions are weak. He supplies no dates. He provides very little context. He has little eye for detail. His account of John the Baptist is very brief, very selective, and confined to main points. He tells us neither how old John was when he began his public ministry nor how old Jesus was when John baptized him. He starts with John’s appearance on the scene and his baptism of Jesus, then says nothing more about him until chapter six where he recounts John’s murder (18-29). The intervening chapters contain a series of disconnected episodes that depict Jesus choosing disciples, casting out demons and “unclean spirits,” curing Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, provoking a discussion about the forgiveness of sins, explaining why he does not fast, offending the Pharisees by desecrating the Sabbath, destroying a herd of pigs, healing assorted physical maladies, raising a young girl from the dead, and delivering various homilies and parables most of which are miles over the heads of his baffled disciples—all this with a minimum of detail and absolutely no connecting thread. Surprisingly, his account of the beheading of John and the events leading up to it is presented in considerable detail—which proves that Mark can tell a better story when he feels like it. On the whole, though, he writes like a man in a hurry. Readers of his Gospel constantly find themselves in medias res—almost completely on their own and at the mercy of Mark’s somewhat disjointed narrative of the Baptist’s appearance and divinely appointed mission (Mark 1:1-11) and his violent death (Mark 6:16-28).

Matthew is almost as unhelpful about dates and chronology. The best he can do is to report that John started preaching in the wilderness of Judea “in those days” (3:1). That is not only hopelessly vague; if taken literally, it leads to an absurdity. If there is no chronological gap between the last verse of chapter 2—which says that Joseph and his family settled in Nazareth after Herod’s death—and the first verse of chapter 3—which says that John started preaching “in those day”—the natural conclusion seems to be that, by “those days,” Matthew means immediately (or very soon after) Joseph and family arrived in Nazareth. However, we know from Matthew that, at the time, Jesus was only two or three years-old. And we know from Luke 1:26 that John was about six months older. So if John started his ministry immediately (or very soon after) Joseph and his family settled in Nazareth, his ministry would have started when he was two or three and a half years-old—which is absurd. We are therefore forced to conclude that there must have been a considerable chronological gap between the arrival of Joseph and family in Nazareth and the beginning of John’s ministry, although Matthew’s account does not enable us to determine its length.

Luke does. According to him, John the Baptist first appeared in the Jordan countryside in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1). Since his predecessor, Caesar Augustus, died in 14 C.E., the fifteenth year of Tiberius’s reign in Jordan can be fixed with reasonable precision between 28 and 29 C.E. Luke adds that when Jesus came to John to be baptized, he himself was about thirty years-old (3:23). So John began his ministry when he was between thirty and thirty-one. Of course, all this presupposes that Luke got the dates right. But did he? Since he was wrong about the dates of the census and the death of Herod, it would seem that his date for the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry should be viewed with suspicion. However, the likelihood of his being correct in this case is increased by the fact that he cites several other events contemporaneous with the fifteenth year of Tiberius’s reign which, except for one exception, have been independently confirmed by secular historians: Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip was tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests (Luke 1:1-2). The only mistake here is Lysanius.

Even if John did start preaching in the vicinity of Jordan between 28 or 29 C.E., it does not follow that this was the start of his ministry as such. In fact, there are several good reasons for thinking that it must have started somewhat earlier. For one thing, a forerunner’s task cannot be accomplished in the space of a few weeks or months. It takes time. Second, if Jesus’s baptism by John at the age of about thirty signaled the beginning of his—Jesus’s—ministry, the origin of John’s ministry and Jesus’s would have been (more or less) simultaneous. Finally, according to Matthew 11:2, Luke 11:1, John 1:35, and Acts 18:25 and 19: 3, John had disciples of his own whom he had taught and baptized—which suggests that he had been preaching long enough to attract widespread attention. That this was so is also borne out by Acts 18:25 and 19:2, which reveal that Paul had found people who had been taught and baptized by John in places as far removed from Judea as Alexandria and Ephesus.

2. John the Baptist and Elijah

Before discussing the man, his mission, and his theology, a few words need to be said about his identity and parentage. Luke identifies him as the son of Elizabeth and Zacharias who reacted to the news that he was soon to become a parent with astonishment on the ground that both he and his wife were “old” and “well stricken in years” (Luke 1:18)—a heartfelt observation which I find rather touching but which seems to have left the punitive angel Gabriel cold. Their parentage has become the received opinion in spite of the fact that the synoptic Gospels contain at least three other passages that seem to call it into question.

As we saw in chapter six, when Gabriel appeared to Zacharias in a vision, he instructed him to name his son John (Luke 1:13). However, there is a problem here. Although the child was, in fact, named John and was also said to be the son of Elizabeth and Zacharias, two passages in Matthew seem to tell a different story. Here is the first:
And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? . . . A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yes, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare the way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of woman there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist . . . For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 11:7-15).
In short, John the Baptist was Elijah (the KJV calls him “Elias”).

The second passage contains the same claim:
And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:10-13)
A parallel passage in Mark repeats this claim (again the speaker is Jesus): But I say unto you, That Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed. (Mark 9:13)

If we take these passages seriously, we must conclude that, according to Jesus, John the Baptist was the prophet Elijah.

On the other hand, if we take John 1:21 seriously, we must conclude that, according to John, that was not the case. When explicitly asked, “Art thou Elijah? Art thou that prophet?” he replies, “I am not . . . No.” In short, the very proposition affirmed by Jesus three times is categorically denied by John. Clearly, both statements cannot be true. Either John the Baptist was Elijah or he was not. However, the synoptic Gospels teach both. In short, Jesus and John flatly contradict each other.

Predictably, evangelical Christians insist that there is no contradiction here. In support of this unpromising contention, they offer two arguments: first, to say that John the Baptist was Elijah is to say that Elijah was reincarnated in John, but “the Bible” does not teach the doctrine of reincarnation, therefore John could not have been Elijah; second, according to Luke 1:17, John will not be Elias; rather, he will be filled with “the spirit and power” of Elias.

The first argument can be disposed of very quickly by pointing out that it begs the question. If the synoptic Gospels contain even a few passages in which John the Baptist is said to have been Elijah, which they clearly do, then “the Bible” does teach (or imply) the doctrine of reincarnation (or a doctrine very similar to it). One cannot deny this on the ground that “the Bible” does not teach the doctrine of reincarnation.

The second argument fares no better. Two points must be conceded at once. First, it is true that, according to Luke 1:17, the angel Gabriel does not say that John the Baptist will be Elijah, but only that he will be filled with “the spirit and power” of Elijah. Second, it is also true that, according to John 1:21, John the Baptist denies that he is Elijah. The fact remains, however, that, according to the three other passages just cited—Matthew 11:7-15, 17: 10-13, and Mark 9:13—Jesus said that he was Elijah. One cannot appeal to the passages from Luke and John to refute the claim made in the passages from Matthew and Mark. One could equally appeal to the passages from Matthew and Mark to refute the claim made in Luke and John. So unless there is independent confirmation for one set of passages as opposed to the other, neither can be used to refute the other. Since there is no such independent confirmation, we are left with two sets of contradictory claims: John both is and is not Elijah.

Those who deny that there is a contradiction here insist that Jesus’s words should not be taken literally but figuratively, as when he says “I am the vine, ye are the branches” (John 15:5) or “I am the door: by me if any man enter I, he shall be saved” (John 10:9). According to them, the same is true here. John the Baptist is Elijah only “in a manner of speaking.” He was a “type” of Elijah. He was “reminiscent” of Elijah. His role was “similar” to Elijah’s. Just as no sensible person would ever conclude that when Jesus said “I am the vine” or “I am the door,” he meant that he was actually a plant or a piece of wood, so also no sensible person would ever conclude that when he said “John the Baptist was Elijah,” he meant that he was actually Elijah.

This interpretation is open to two objections. First, every native speaker of a language intuitively grasps the distinction between literal and non-literal usage, and can easily recognize examples of each. However, there is no such intuitive difference between “John the Baptist is the son of Elizabeth and Zacharias” and John the Baptist is Elijah.” To insist without argument that the first is literal but the second is figurative is an arbitrary maneuver motivated solely by the desire to establish the desired solution. Second, in addition to offering no argument, sponsors of this interpretation offer no textual evidence for thinking that the first “is” is literal whereas the second is figurative. They merely refer us to Luke 1:17, point out that, according to it, John will be filled with “the spirit and power” of Elijah, and vigorously assert that this is what Jesus meant too.

How do they know that? Jesus does not breathe a word about the “spirit and power” of Elijah. He categorically states that John is (estin) Elijah. To collapse this distinction is another spurious attempt to read between the lines motivated by a desire to “resolve” another contradiction by “harmonizing” two passages that cannot be harmonized.

As a matter of fact, there are textual, contextual, and even grammatical reasons for thinking that Jesus was speaking literally. In Matthew 11:13-14, he prepares his disciples for the shock he is about to administer by candidly acknowledging that the claim he is about to make will seem strange to them. Having said that “all the prophets and the law prophesied until John,” he prefaces his next claim with the hypothetical clause: “And if ye will receive it, this [i.e., John the Baptist] is (estin) Elias, which was for to come.” The Greek is even more clearly hypothetical: “If you are willing (ei thelete) to accept it.” Jesus concludes with the exhortation: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear”—a phrase he frequently uses to emphasize that not everybody will accept the “hard saying,” i.e., the difficult truth or paradox, that he is about to enunciate.

His meaning is clear: on the condition that you are willing to accept something that seems decidedly contrary to fact, John the Baptist was Elijah. If he had meant that John was filled with “the spirit and power” of Elijah, why did he not just say so and forgo this elaboration preparation? Other “hard sayings” include:
"If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. (Matthew 19:21)."Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not away." (Matthew 5:42)
The meaning of all three passages is perfectly clear. And many others could be added. Yet Christians do not hate their families, give away their life savings or even one entire paycheck, or loan money on demand. However, instead of admitting that, in failing to do these things, they are acting in blatant disobedience to these passages, they insist that the passages do not mean what they seem to mean—a paradigmatic example of claiming to be a follower of Christ in the very act of distorting his unambiguous teachings whenever following them is difficult or inconvenient. The same distortion of Jesus’s meaning is in evidence in this attempt to establish that Jesus could not possibly have meant what his words reveal he most certainly did mean.

3. The Man and His Mission

Although the four Gospels allot comparatively little space to John the Baptist, he is one of the vividly characterized figure in the whole New Testament. The synoptic Gospels all contain most of the same material, much of it word for word. Each portrays John as a menacing and even terrifying figure. His appearance and manner were anything but inviting. According to Mark, he was an ascetic who went about clothed with “camel’s hair and a girdle of skin about his lions” (Mark 1:6). In these respects he was reminiscent of Elijah the Tishbite—another “hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins” (2 Kings 1:8). Luke describes him in the same terms. I cannot help thinking that the young who responded warmly to Jesus’s words, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is that kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14) would have burst into tears and fled to their mothers at the sight of John the Baptist. Nor would his diet of locusts and wild honey be to everyone’s taste. According to the angel Gabriel, he would “drink neither wine nor strong drink” (Luke 1:15). Jesus goes even further; according to him, “John came neither eating nor drinking” (Matthew 11:18), which is surely hyperbole. Like everybody else, John had to eat—if only modest fare like locusts and wild honey.

A wild man if there ever was one—many thought he was demon possessed (Matthew 11:18)—John spent most of his time in the wilderness of Judea (also called the desert)—a stretch of rugged and barren land extending from Jerusalem and Bethlehem on the west to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea on the east—a distance of about twenty miles. It is unknown how long he had lived there before he started his ministry but, according to Luke 3:2, the “word of God came unto [him] . . . in the wilderness.” He periodically emerged, urging people to repent “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:2-3). However, a good deal of his preaching must have taken place in the wilderness, requiring prospective audiences to seek him out. That this is so is borne out when Jesus reminds “the multitudes” that they had not gone out into the wilderness to see “a reed shaken by the wind,” but to see “a prophet” (Matthew 11:7 quoted earlier). As the paradigmatic doomsday evangelist, John the Baptist is the spiritual ancestor of all those zealous fundamentalists who “witness” on street corners, earnestly confiding that “the end of the world is at hand” and asking passers-by whether have “found Christ.”

All three synoptic Gospels describe John’s baptism as “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Matthew 3:6, Mark 1:5, Luke 3:3). “Remission” means “forgiveness” or “pardon” or “cancellation.” It was John’s practice to insist that baptism must be preceded by, and was conditional on, repentance. The Greek term for “repentance” is metanoia which means a fundamental change of mind—not just in sense of assenting to certain propositions, but also in the sense of a fundamental change of heart and overall life orientation. For John, repentance was not just a backward looking action, that manifested itself in remorse for past misdeeds, it was also (and equally) a forward looking action, that manifested itself in a firm resolution and fixed disposition to shun sin in the future. The saying “Bring forth fruits worthy of repentance” means “Prove that you are really sorry for what you have done by not doing it again.” In short, repeated the same offense are indicative of having just gone through the motions—of having putting on a sorry face, confessing one’s sins, but not “meaning” it. From the earliest days of Christianity, baptism was understood as a cleansing or purifying ritual in which the water symbolically “washed away” the baptized person’s sins. Interestingly, although Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost (Matthew 28:19), he himself did not baptize anybody (John 4:2).

Matthew invests John the Baptist with an off-putting vehemence bordering on rage that is absent in Mark. Matthew’s John is an explosive man given to verbal abuse and name-calling. He insults the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a “generation of vipers,” and wonders who had warned them “to flee from the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7). Matthew explains neither why John disapproved of them so strongly nor why he thought they had been already warned by somebody else. In view of the fact that he was the forerunner, calling people to repentance, who could that somebody else have been? That is yet another question that occurs to every attentive reader but for which the authors of synoptic Gospels seldom provide an answer. Not content with this presumptuous outburst, he upbraids “the multitude” with ominous rhetoric about how the axe will be laid to the root of every tree that does not bring forth good fruit after which it will be “hewn down and cast into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). His rage is surpassed only by that of Jesus himself whom he obviously influenced and who also denounced the scribes and Pharisees in identical terms (Matthew 23:33) and with denunciatory rhetoric of even greater ferocity. Luke repeats John’s spleen-venting practically word for word (Luke 3:7-9), but adds that he also had a less severe side that prompted him to advocate charity and justice, exhorting those who had two coats or surplus food to share what they had with those who did not; exhorting publicans to exact no more than is appointed; and exhorting soldiers to do no violence, to refrain from false accusations, and to be content with their wages (Luke 3:11-14). (In the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist lacks this severity and vituperativeness, and is a gentler, kinder, and more appealing figure.)

4. The Relationship Between John the Baptist and Jesus

The vivid depictions of John in the synoptic Gospels should not be taken as an indication that their authors were interested in him for his own sake. They were not. Their sole reason for paying so much attention to him was that they took him to be the promised forerunner of the Messiah. Each of the Evangelists makes that very clear:
[T]his is he that was spoken of by the prophet Elias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4, John 1:3)
John the Baptist saw himself in the same way. Not only is he unfailingly deferential to Jesus himself; when speaking about him to others, he explicitly downplays his own importance, saying "He must increase but I must decrease. (John 3:30) He also unambiguously assures perhaps overly impressionable followers that he is not “the Christ” (Luke 3:15) and that his role is only preparatory:
I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and fire. (Luke 3:16)
That this “mightier” one should not be taken lightly is emphasized by the ominous and eschatologically charged language with which he is described:
Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable. (Luke 3:17, Matthew 3:11-12. Mark, 1:7-8, and John 1:27)
This vindictive (and almost chop-licking) rhetoric needs to be emphasized as a corrective to the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” nonsense that many still believe to be definitive of Jesus’s character. The doctrine of eternal hell, that “furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:42) and place of “outer darkness” in which there is “only perpetual weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30), is often dismissed as later interpolations by some agenda-driven scribe. The fact is, however, that it is present in the synoptic Gospels from the very beginning—indeed, even before Jesus begins his ministry. As we will also see in a later chapter, hell and the threat of being cast into it, is never far from Jesus’s mind and often on his lips. Like John, fear of hell is the most common—and usually the only—incentive he gives his hearers to “repent and believe.”

5. The Baptism of Jesus

As we have seen, when he was about thirty years old Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. All three synoptic Gospels depict this momentous event—some in greater detail than others. John alludes to it very obliquely (John 1:29-34) In Mark everything goes smoothly: Jesus asks John to baptize him and he does (Mark 1:9-11). Immediately after he is baptized, he heavens open, the Holy Ghost descends upon him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven is heard pronouncing a benediction on the proceedings. What the voice said is reported differently. According to Matthew, it said, “This is (Houtos estin) my beloved Son in whom (en ho) I am well pleased,” implying that God was addressing those present and informing them that he approves of Jesus. However, according to Mark and Luke, it said, “Thou art (Su ei) my beloved Son, in thee (en soi) I am well pleased,” implying that God was addressing Jesus and assuring him of His approval. (The KJV mistranslates Mark’s “in thee” as “in whom” (v. 11).

This objection cannot be dismissed with magisterial assurances that all three authors agree about the main point—that God approved of Jesus—and so these trivial discrepancies do not matter. In fact, that reply is not available to evangelical Christians. According to Geisler, as we have seen, the doctrines of verbal and plenary inspiration guarantee the complete accuracy of every individual statement in the Bible as well as the complete consistency of each individual statement with every other. This accuracy and consistency extends even to matters of syntax and grammar. Every word is “God-breathed” and exactly the word God wanted the authors to write. If those doctrines are true, there should not be any discrepancies—not even trivial ones. In fact, given those doctrines, there is no such thing as a trivial discrepancy. While the discrepancy between “This is” and Thou art” and between “in whom” and “in thee” might seem trivial, when considered in themselves, when considered in relation to the doctrines of verbal and plenary inspiration, they are momentous. Any discrepancy, however tiny, undermines those doctrines, according to which there are no discrepancies. But there they are—clearly and undeniably. The problem can be posed in the form of a dilemma: Either the voice from heaven addressed those present and spoke about Jesus in the third person or it addressed Jesus himself and spoke to him in the second person. Since not even an omnipotent God can address two different audiences in two different grammatical persons at the same time, He had to employ either the second or the third. If he employed the second, Matthew got it wrong; and if he employed the third, Mark and Luke got it wrong. Although there is no way of knowing who got it wrong, sheer logic compels us to acknowledge that somebody did.

There is another discrepancy in the respective accounts of the baptism of Jesus. As we have seen, in Mark and Luke Jesus asks John the Baptist to baptize him; and he does. However, Matthew’s account contains a further exchange between them that complicates the picture. The exchange occurs between Jesus’s request to be baptized and his baptism. John responds to Jesus’s request with an objection that Jesus peremptorily brushes aside:
But John forbad (diekoluen) him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. (Matthew 3:14-15)
John thereupon withdrew his objection and did as Jesus had asked.

Why was John reluctant to baptize Jesus? The usual explanation is that Jesus was without sin and John knew it. Since he preached “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” and would baptize only those who had confessed their sins, he was reluctant to baptize Jesus because he knew that he was sinless and, therefore, had no sins to confess. Although this view is endorsed by most evangelical (and orthodox) Christians, it is pure speculation. Nothing in the passage suggests that this was the reason for John the Baptist’s reluctance. He just expresses his misgivings, thereby affording pious readers the opportunity to ascribe Christological beliefs to him based on later theological developments and to anachronistically assume that John already held them. That is not exegesis, it is wishful thinking.

This explanation also has two logical consequences that, given their own theology, evangelical (and orthodox) Christians should find repugnant. First, it makes Jesus guilty of dissembling or dissimulation. If he was really without sin, why did he submit to the ritual of baptism, thereby voluntarily participating in a ritual—“baptism for the remission of sins”—whose condition was a confession of sin? Dissembling is pretense, and pretense is a form of lying. Second, it makes John the Baptist guilty of logical inconsistency and moral wrongdoing. If he held that repentance and confession of sin was a condition of baptism, as all four Evangelists report, then, in baptizing the allegedly sinless Jesus, John waived this necessary condition and hence nullified the efficacy of the ritual. In short, either Jesus repented of his sins or he did not. If he did, he was lying; and if he did not, John’s baptism was null and void. Either way, “all righteousness” could not have been fulfilled. However, the most serious objection that can be lodged against the evangelical Christian-orthodox interpretation is that it does not take into account all the relevant texts. It is based solely on Mark and Matthew and ignores John whose account of the baptism of Jesus is not only radically different from theirs but incompatible with them. Allow me to explain.

Matthew’s account suggests that this was not the first time the two had met. This impression is reinforced by Luke who elsewhere reports that Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins, that they were born only six months apart, and that their births were preceded by angelic annunciations to Zacharias and Mary from which they learned that their sons both figured prominently in God’s redemptive plan. In view of these remarkable celestial communications, it seems natural to assume that Zacharias would have told Elizabeth what the angel had said and that she and Mary would have talked about these matters themselves as well as with their sons as they were growing up. Since the boys were cousins and did not live far from each other, it also seems natural to assume that they would have known each other fairly well and that, as they came to maturity, would also have talked about these matters. Finally, it seems natural to assume that both gradually came to understand that Jesus was the promised Messiah and that John was to be his forerunner.

Are these assumptions warranted? Not if we stop relying solely on Mark and Matthew and take the Gospel of John into account.

The easiest way to see that is by returning to two incidents which were discussed in the previous chapter. Both are reported by Luke and him alone. Both are intimately connected with Jesus’s allegedly unique status as divinely-conceived and virgin-born. And both seem odd and even unintelligible in light of the information allegedly imparted to Mary and Joseph by the angels. The first incident is the reaction of Mary and Joseph to Simeon’s hymn of praise to God for allowing him to see “His salvation” (Luke 2: 28-30). The second is their reaction to the twelve year-old Jesus’s remark in the temple that they should have known that he must “be about [his] Father’s business” (Luke 2:49). As we saw in chapter six, their reaction was the same in both passages: amazement bordering on complete bewilderment. The unanswered question is: Why? Would not the angelic annunciations have provided the obvious answer to these (and all other similar) questions once-and-for-all? As we also saw in the previous chapter, textual considerations like these convinced Strauss that the angelic annunciations to Mary and Joseph (and to Zacharias as well) never occurred and that these alleged events must be relegated to the realm of mythology. Of course, that solution is unacceptable to evangelical Christians who cannot reject Luke’s account and continue to endorse it. What they do not seem to realize is that, if these angelic annunciations did occur, Mary and Jesus turn out to be very forgetful or very obtuse or both.

Now assume that the angelic annunciations to Mary, as reported by Luke, and to Joseph, as reported by Matthew, never occurred. Suddenly everything falls into place. That would explain why they were amazed by the words of Simeon and the twelve year-old Jesus. They were completely in the dark in both situations because nobody had ever told them that their child would be the Son of God. Far from being puzzling, their amazement is perfectly normal. Furthermore, if these angelic annunciations never occurred, there would have been nothing for Zacharias to tell Elizabeth and hence nothing (concerning that at least) for her and Mary to talk about—either between themselves or with their boys. There would also have been nothing (concerning that at least) for the boys to talk about. Indeed, there would no longer be any reason for thinking that Jesus and John even knew each other before Jesus approached him to be baptized.

I realize that the previous sentence might strike some readers as too bizarre to be taken seriously. If so, I submit that it is because such readers have placed far too much weight on the synoptic Gospels accounts of Jesus’s nativity and baptism and largely ignored John’s. One of the unsolved mysteries of the synoptic Gospels is the fact that whereas both the synoptics imply that John the Baptist not only knew Jesus but also knew that he was the Son of God, the Gospel of John explicitly says that he knew neither. That is not just a discrepancy, it is a straightforward contradiction. Let us examine John’s account of Jesus’s baptism more carefully.

Having opened his Gospel by describing Jesus as the Word (logos) that was in the beginning with God and was God, John reports that John the Baptist had borne witness of him by saying:
This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. (John 1:15) He adds that when the Jews sent priests to ask John whether he was the Christ, he told them that he was not. When they asked whether he was Elias, he again told them that he was not. When they asked who he was, he told them that he was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23). He thereupon explained that whereas he baptizes with water, there is one standing among them one, “whom [they] know not,” whose shoe’s latchet he is not worthy to unloose (John 1:27-28).
One of most puzzling passages in John’s Gospel follows. It starts like this:
The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him and said, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. (John 1:29-30)
Notice that this passage says only that John saw Jesus coming towards him; it does not say that he recognized him, i.e. that he knew it was Jesus. And the next verse makes it very clear that he did not recognize him:
And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water (John 1:31).
However, although John did not know that the man approaching was Jesus, he apparently did know that there was something unique about him because he immediately adds:
This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me” (John 1:30).
Having said that this is the man of whom he had spoken—the man “that should be made manifest to Israel”—John repeats that he did not know who he was: “And I knew him not” (John 1:33). He then divulges how he found out:
[H]e that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw and bare record that this is the Son of God. (John 1:33-34)
Precisely what is going on here is far from clear. Indeed, on the face of it, the story seems incoherent. The sequence of events is as follows: John the Baptist sees Jesus approaching (not knowing that it is Jesus) and declares, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” He adds that this is the man of whom he had prophetically spoken and of whom he himself was the forerunner. So far, so good. However, at this point confusion ensues. Having identified the approaching man as the “Lamb of God,” John admits that he did not know who the man so identified was. In short, John knew the man’s Messianic identity, but not his personal identity. How does he find out? Actually, he never does. Although the author of John’s Gospel makes clear to his readers that the man is Jesus, that is never made clear to John. That is to say, John never learns that the man he had identified as the “Lamb of God” is, in fact, Jesus. In the verses that follow, John learns something about him, but not that. He learns that the man he had seen approaching and had identified as the “Lamb of God”—“he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost” (John 1:33)—is the Son of God. However, the Son of God is never explicitly identified in John’s Gospel as Jesus. So John the Baptist’s fund of information about Jesus is still astonishingly meager. He knew along all that somebody would turn up who would baptize people “with the Holy Ghost.” And he now knows who it is. But although he knows that this man is the Son of God, he still does not know that it is Jesus.

John’s account of Jesus’s baptism ends ambiguously: “And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God” (John 1:34). The ambiguity is traceable to the fact that it is impossible to tell (even from the Greek) whether the person referred to by “I” is John the Baptist or the author of John’s Gospel. In the previous verse (v. 33), the individual speaking in the first person is clearly John the Baptist. However, it is impossible to tell whether v. 34 contains his words and that he is “bearing record” that this is the Son of God or the words of the author of John’s Gospel saying that he bore witness to this. The next day John stood looking at Jesus accompanied by two of his—John’s own—disciples and said once again, “Behold the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36). One of them, a man by the name of Andrew, soon left John and became a disciple of Jesus.

Luke’s account of Jesus’s baptism (Luke 3:21-22) is the most curious of all. The previous twenty verses are devoted to John the Baptist: the beginning of his ministry, his description of himself as a voice crying in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord, his call for repentance, his distinction between his baptism—baptism with water—and the baptism of the one who is to come—baptism with the Holy Ghost, his preaching and exhortations, and his continuous baptizing. This section of the chapter (v. 19-20) concludes with the observation that Herod Antipas—son of Herod the Great and tetrarch of Galilee—had imprisoned John the Baptist because he had condemned Herod’s marriage to Herodias as adulterous. The next two verses abruptly drop the subject and return to John whose violence again surfaces as he denounces those present as “a generation of vipers” (Luke 3:7). Unlike Matthew, who depicts him as directing this insult at the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7), Luke depicts him as directing it to “the multitude” who had shown up to be baptized. He thereupon baptizes them after which Jesus appears on the scene:
Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased. (Luke 3:21-22)
This passage is not only confusing but confused. The natural assumption is that Jesus was baptized by John. But he is not mentioned in the passage. Furthermore, the previous verse says that Herod had imprisoned him. But if John had already been imprisoned before Jesus was baptized, as the narrative seems to imply, then obviously John could not have baptized him. But then who did? The only way to make sense of the passage is to read v. 21-22 as a continuation v. 1-18, and to recognize that v. 19-20 (about Herod imprisoning John) have been clumsily inserted by the author of Luke or some later scribe. In any event, the whole passage is a stylistic hodgepodge. There is no evidence of verbal and plenary inspiration here, only of astonishing carelessness and remarkable inattention to chronology and detail.

6. The Execution of John the Baptist

John’s execution is reported in each of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew 14:3-11, Mark 6:17-29, and Luke 9:9. Mark’s account is the most detailed, Matthew’s is somewhat less so, and Luke’s is completely superfluous, consisting of a single sentence which reports only that Herod had John executed.

Matthew and Mark disagree about one important detail—the question of who wanted him dead. According to Matthew, it was Herod and his wife Herodias. Herod had imprisoned John “for Herodias’s sake,” i.e., for the sake of domestic peace. Previously married to Herod’s brother Philip, she was furious at John the Baptist because he had disapproved of her adulterous marriage to Herod and wanted Herod to execute him. Herod wanted John dead too, but was afraid to execute him because he feared “the multitude” who looked upon him as a prophet. Herodias finally got her way. She arranged for her to dance for Herod at his birthday party, knowing that this would please him. In fact, he was so pleased that he promised to give her anything she wanted. Previously coached by her mother, she asked for John the Baptist’s head on a “charger”—i.e., a dish. Matthew reports that Herod was “sorry” to hear this, but kept his promise and had John beheaded. Soon after, his head arrived and was given to Herodias’s daughter who gave it to her mother. Mark tells a somewhat different story. According to him, it was not Herod but his wife, Herodias, who wanted John dead. Herod himself had no desire to execute him: not, as Matthew says, because he feared “the multitude,” but because he feared John and looked upon him as a “just and holy man”—a man to whose words he had often listened gladly (v. 20). Herodias again got her daughter to dance for Herod who again promised to give her whatever she wanted. She again wanted the head of John the Baptist. Unlike Matthew’s Herod, who is “sorry” to hear this, Mark’s Herod is “exceeding sorry,” but he kept his promise and had John beheaded.

We do not know how much time John spent in prison before being beheaded, but we do know that it was long enough for him to despair and even to wonder whether Jesus was really the promised Messiah (Matthew 11:2-3). When the news of his death reached his disciples, they claimed his body and buried it. When the news of his death reached Jesus, he had nothing to say about the sad fate of the voice crying in the wilderness who had prepared the way for him, but just went into seclusion (Matthew 14:13, Mark 6:30-32). Nevertheless, his high opinion of John is well known: “He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing to walk for a season in his light” (John 535). In sum, “Among them that are born of woman there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).

--Dr. John Beversluis, 1934-2021. He will be missed!


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