How did John the Baptist and Jesus relate to each other? Did Jesus hold John in high esteem, as a respected teacher and prophet? Or did a certain amount of rivalry develop between them?
At a very basic level, Jesus and the Baptist clearly had much in common. Both emerged in Herod Antipas’s Galilee in the 20s CE, both shared the prophetic hope for the restoration of Israel, and both expected God soon to intervene decisively in human affairs. Not surprisingly, Jesus took an interest in the Baptist’s mission and came forward to be baptized. No scholar doubts this event: not only is the story found in both Mark and John but the embarrassment felt by the Gospel writers regarding the obvious conundrum of a sinless Jesus’ baptism for the forgiveness of sin (see especially Matt 3:14-15) suggests a long-established tradition.
What we don’t know is how long Jesus stayed with the Baptist—either before or after his baptism. Part of the difficulty here is that the evangelists present differing pictures. Writing as Christian believers, they all wanted to bring the Baptist into the story of Jesus, but they do so in different ways. Mark (followed by Matthew and Luke) presents John as the Hebrew prophet Elijah who would come before God’s anointed one (Jesus) to restore all things. In this presentation, Jesus waits until John’s mission is at an end before embarking on his own. John, however, is quite clear that the Baptist isn’t Elijah; instead, his primary role is to bear witness to Jesus. So in this Gospel the missions of John and Jesus overlap for a while—allowing the Baptist plenty of time to proclaim Jesus as the “lamb of God.” It’s difficult to know which tradition to believe here: Did Jesus strike out on his own only after the Baptist had been arrested? Or were the two of them active at the same time, and if so were their missions complementary or rival?
Much of the Baptist’s preaching has undoubtedly been lost to us, but it is quite likely that Jesus joined his circle of disciples for some time, learning from the prophet and working out his own views. At some point, however, Jesus decided to lead his own mission. The impetus for this may well have come from his own baptism, which clearly had a profound effect on him (see Mark 1:9-11 and parallel passages). Whatever we make of the dove and the divine voice that reportedly appeared, it is clear that he underwent some kind of a mystical experience. The closest analogy is the prophetic call in the Hebrew Scriptures, a sense of a special commission by God for a particular purpose.
Jesus’ mission was rather different from John’s. Where John lived a frugal life in the wilderness, preaching imminent judgment and offering baptism as a sign of inclusion in his movement, Jesus enjoyed socializing among the Galilean towns and villages, telling all who cared to listen about the revolutionary nature of God’s kingdom. Perhaps most remarkably, Jesus found that he was a skilled healer and exorcist, and it was these abilities—perhaps more than his teaching at first—that drew huge crowds. It is clear, though, that Jesus continued to respect his mentor the Baptist. In several passages he declares that John was the greatest person born on earth, even if his own movement was the dawning of a new age (Luke 7:24-27, which parallels Matt 11:7-10, Matt 11:14-15).
The Gospels remember John sending disciples to Jesus to ask if he was the coming one (Luke 7:18-23, which parallels Matt 11:2-6). If this saying is authentic (as many scholars suppose), it suggests a doubt on John’s part regarding Jesus and his mission. In the end, John’s execution cut short any emerging rivalries between the two men, many (though by no means all) of John’s disciples joined Jesus, and Christian thinkers began to transform John from mentor into prophetic forerunner and witness.