Who was John the Baptist?
John the Baptist’s identity has been the subject of intense debate ever since this captivating individual appeared along the shores of the river Jordan in the first century C.E. Eating locusts and wearing little more than a tunic of camel’s hair, John would have cut an imposing figure as he preached to his fellow Jews about the importance of atoning for one’s sins and preparing for the coming kingdom of God. In tandem with these pronouncements, John immersed many of his contemporaries in the Jordan as an outward sign of their inner repentance, thereby initiating a practice that would go on to become one of the central rites within the Christian tradition: baptism.
It goes without saying that Jesus of Nazareth was the most famous individual to be baptized by John, but Jesus’ willingness to participate in a ritual symbolizing a person’s inward repentance from sin has presented numerous difficulties for theologians and biblical scholars alike. After all, if Jesus was God incarnate and free from sin, as many Christians believe, then why would he agree to place himself under the authority of John and be baptized? While some have argued that Jesus was originally a disciple of the Baptist or that it was Jesus who needed to sanctify John’s baptismal ministry, not the other way around, one thing is certain—John was a highly influential figure who inspired many Jews to embrace his teachings and who challenged the authority of the religious and political leaders of his day.
As a literary figure, John the Baptist is the ultimate chameleon, which can make it difficult to pin down the man behind the myth. Depending on the context, John is described in the New Testament as a teacher, a preacher, a religious reformer, an ascetic, a critic, a mentor, a priest, a foil, a messenger, a rival, an apocalypticist and Elijah redivivus (revived). And it is precisely this flexibility that makes it so hard to answer the question of who he was. Perhaps this is what Jesus was referring to when he said of John the Baptist, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?…A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet” (Matt 11:7-9).
What did John the Baptist teach?
Like all biblical prophets, John the Baptist was keenly aware of the relationship between the past and present and how an individual’s actions in these timeframes affected their future. For John, the kingdom of God was nigh; preparing for the Lord’s impending judgment meant that he and his contemporaries needed to seek forgiveness for their prior deviations from the law. Atonement was affected internally through prayer and supplication, and the outward sign of this inward purification was John’s baptism.
Although John held that baptism was an important and necessary first step toward salvation, the absolution of one’s previous sins did not necessarily ensure that an individual would acquire God’s favor at the end of days. Rather, argued John the Baptist, a person’s deeds must be a reflection of their inner virtue for the remainder of their lives. Walking on the path of righteousness was, for John, about continuing to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8)—sharing food and clothing with those who are without, taking no more than what is lawful, and refraining from using one’s position in society to oppress those who are less fortunate.
The future, as described by John the Baptist, must have been simultaneously exciting and terrifying to his fellow Jews. On the one hand, John spoke of the coming Messiah who would baptize the faithful with the Holy Spirit and usher the righteous into the Lord’s loving embrace. On the other hand, this same messianic figure would also punish the wicked and incinerate those who had deviated from the path of righteousness in an unrelenting fire. A terrifying image, to be sure, and reason enough for many of John’s contemporaries to seek God’s forgiveness for their past transgressions, but it is the Baptist’s message of social responsibility and justice that is at the heart of his teachings and it is this gospel (Luke 3:18) that truly solidifies John’s status as a precursor to Jesus of Nazareth.
Ian Werrett, "John the Baptist", n.p. [cited 7 Jun 2020]. Online: http://www.bibleodyssey.net/en/people/main-articles/john-the-baptist
Associate Professor, Saint Martin's University
Ian Werrett is associate professor of religious studies and director of the Spiritual Life Institute at Saint Martin's University in Lacey, Washington. He specializes in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Judaism and early Christianity. Werrett is the author of Ritual Purity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Brill Academic, 2007).