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Guest Post! Joel Marcus on His New Book on the John the Baptist

Many readers of the blog will already be familiar with my long-time friend and colleague from Duke, Joel Marcus, one of the top New Testament scholars in America (or anywhere else, for that matter).   Joel and I have known each other for over thirty years — since he started teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary, soon after I finished my PhD there.   He is especially well known for his massive and learned two-volume commentary on the Gospel of Mark for the Anchor Bible commentary series.

Joel has now produced a full book on John the Baptist, both as he is portrayed in our Gospels (and Josephus) but also, of even more interest, as he can be reconstructed historically.  What can we actually know about him?  The book is the most authoritative account ever to appear, and will be the standard study for our generation.  It is called John the Baptist in History and Theology.

Joel has kindly agreed to post a summary of the book and its key findings (some of them gratifyingly controversial) for us here on the blog.   He will respond to comments and questions you have, either as they appear or in a separate post — to be determined.  For now, here’s what he has to say:


John the Baptist is portrayed in the New Testament primarily as Jesus’s forerunner and witness. He prophesies that one superior to him—the Messiah from the line of David—is about to enter the stage of history, and he recognizes Jesus as  that Messiah when Jesus comes to him to be baptized and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. John’s attitude of self-abnegation in relation to Jesus is epitomized by his statement in the Gospel of John: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

My book, however, argues that this picture reflects Christian theology as much as, or more than, historical memory. It is unlikely that John saw Jesus as the Messiah on the basis of what happened at Jesus’s baptism. If he had, it would be difficult to explain a tradition found later in the Gospels of Matthew (11:2-6) and Luke (7:18-23) according to which John, in prison under sentence of death, sent messengers to Jesus to ask whether or not he was the Messiah. The tradition gives the impression that this was the first time that question had occurred to John, and it does not record that he was convinced by Jesus’s answer. John, then, probably did not become a believer in Jesus’s messiahship, either at Jesus’s baptism or subsequently.

Rather than being focused on Jesus, John saw his own ministry of preaching and baptism as the turning point in salvation history. He himself was the “main man.” When people came to him at the River Jordan and received baptism at his hands, they entered into the new age of God’s dominion, in which they experienced forgiveness of sins—as symbolized by the “washing” of baptism. Early Christians were uncomfortable with this memory, since it challenged the centrality of Jesus, so they disconnected forgiveness from John’s baptism and connected it instead to Jesus’s death and resurrection. Matthew, for example, removes the phrase “unto forgiveness of sins” from the description of John’s baptism (compare Matt 3:11 with Mark 1:4) and inserts it instead into a saying of Jesus about the purpose of his death (compare Matt 26:28 with Mark 14:24).

Forgiveness of sins is not the only thing the Christian tradition took away from John and gave to Jesus. Since eschatological cleansing and forgiveness are linked to the Holy Spirit in a well-known Old Testament passage, Ezekiel 36:25-27, it is probable that John and his followers thought his baptism conveyed not only forgiveness but also the Spirit. This is one of the more radical claims in my book, since it contradicts a saying attributed to John in the Gospels, which contrasts his baptism in water with that of “the Coming One” (= the Messiah) who will baptize in the Spirit and in fire (Matt 3:12//Luke 3:16-17).

I argue, however, that the original form of this saying was, “I baptize you in water, but he will baptize you in fire.” The saying did not, in other words, mention the Spirit explicitly, and John probably thought that his water-baptism already imparted the Spirit. John saw his ministry, then, as one of atonement, salvation, and spiritual blessing. After him there would be only a mopping-up operation–the Messiah would arrive to enact judgment, separating the wheat (those sealed by John’s baptism for salvation) from the chaff, and consuming the latter in unquenchable fire. Those scholars and theologians who have contrasted John’s proclamation of judgment with Jesus’s proclamation of grace, then, have gotten things exactly reversed, at least as far as John was concerned: in his view, he was the apostle of grace.

That John interpreted his ministry through Ezekiel 36 is especially likely because that passage played a prominent role in the theology of the Dead Sea Sect, the Qumran community, and John probably belonged to that sect before striking out on his own. Other scholars have noted similarities between John’s theology and that of Qumran, but they have usually refrained from saying that John was an ex-Qumranian. I argue, however, that the similarities are too close to be explained by anything other than actual influence. Both John and the Qumran group, for example, use the same Old Testament passage, Isaiah 40:3, to interpret their presence in the same area of the Judean Wilderness, and both link this passage with water rites that are central to their theology. These are unique and distinctive feature of John and the Qumran group, and they point not only to a common setting in Second Temple Judaism but also to a direct connection.

Who exactly, then, did John think he was, and what was his relation to Jesus? I accept the Gospel tradition that he regarded himself as the returning Old Testament prophet Elijah, who according to 2 Kings 2 was taken up to heaven while still alive. Because Elijah had not really died, he was expected to return at the end of the age. Some scholars, however, have suspected this identification of being an invention of the early Christians, since it fits so well with Christian theology: Elijah was expected to precede the Messiah, and Jesus was the Messiah; therefore Jesus’s forerunner John must have been Elijah.

But I offer a simple and elegant proof that John did think of himself in Elijan terms. Elijah is described in 2 Kings 1:8 as a hairy man wearing leather shorts, while John is described in the Gospels as a man wearing leather shorts and a coat of camel’s hair (Mark 1:6//Matt 3:4). The Gospel tradition is obviously modeled on the Old Testament one, but why the difference—hairy man versus hairy coat? My answer: because John was not hairy, yet wanted to model himself as much as possible on Elijah. If the Gospel tradition had instead invented the description of John out of whole cloth, it would have portrayed him as a hairy man, exactly like Elijah; the “close but no cigar” description of him wearing a hairy garment therefore probably reflects the historical record. And if John did think of himself as Elijah, he may have seen his star pupil Jesus not as the Messiah but as Elisha, the successor figure who inherited a double portion of Elijah’s spirit when the latter was taken up to heaven.

In a short concluding chapter, I take up the question of the implications of my findings for Christian faith. If John’s self-estimate conflicted with the estimate of him by Jesus and the early (and later) Christians, does that invalidate the faith that has portrayed him as Jesus’s forerunner and witness? Not necessarily, I argue, comparing this Christian revisionism to the Christians’ new way of reading the Old Testament as a prophecy of and testimony to Jesus. New revelations reconfigure old ones, just as great poets (like Dante) create their own predecessors (like Dante’s Virgil). And, after all, which of us really knows the truth about our own purpose in the world?


How Do We Explain the Messianic Secret?
If Jesus Wasn’t God, Was He Necessarily Either a Calloused Liar or a Raving Lunatic?



  1. Avatar
    Brand3000  February 1, 2019

    Drs. Ehrman and Marcus,

    One of the most debated topics is the empty tomb. Dr. Ehrman says no, Dr. Marcus says yes or likely. What do you think is one of the main arguments that your friend/colleague doesn’t fully take into account? This should be very interesting and helpful to many.

    Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  February 3, 2019

      My sense is that we both know all the arguments inside and out, but evaluate them differently. I put a *lot* of weight on what we know about Roman burial customs for criminals and lowlifes; Joel Marcus, I would guess, puts a lot more weight on multiple attestation.

      • Joel Marcus
        Joel Marcus  February 3, 2019

        Yes, multiple attestation is important–not only Mark and John, but also the story in Matthew 28, which shows that at least by the time Matthew was written, some Jewish opponents of Christianity assumed the factuality of the Empty Tomb (but had a different explanation for it). But I also think that Joseph of Arimathea is key: this figure is only remembered because of the tradition that Jesus was buried in his family tomb.

        • Avatar
          JohnKesler  February 4, 2019

          Don’t you think that this is reason to suspect that Joseph of Arimathea is a fictional character? He seems like a deus ex machina, who then disappears after burying Jesus, never to be heard from again, even though his testimony could have proven invaluable to further the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

        • Avatar
          Celsus  July 30, 2019

          Dr. Marcus, but how do you know the narrative in Mt. 28 wasn’t just a response to the Markan *claim* of an empty tomb that had been in circulation before Matthew wrote? If some Jewish opponents of Christianity had just heard the *story* of the empty tomb from Mark, then this wouldn’t be evidence that they were responding to an *actual* empty tomb. It’s only evidence that they heard a story/rumor and made their own counter claim.

  2. Robert
    Robert  February 1, 2019

    Great book! The aspect of your construction that I find most intriguing is John’s openness to Gentiles. At first glance, it seems that your evidence is rather meager, God raising up children of Abraham from stones and the axe laid at the root in the Q 3,7-10 logion and your interpretation of the ‘others’ in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities 18,118 as Gentiles (cf pp 37, 135-136), but you argue your case very convincingly and the potential implications for Jesus’ subsequent openness to Gentiles during his active ministry would be profound.

    I wonder if you would be able to convince our fearless leader here of this view. He’s pretty stubborn, as I’m sure you know, but he has a good heart and he can very occasionally change his mind about stuff.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 1, 2019

    Thanks. It is quite interesting that John would see Jesus as the Messiah when he baptized Jesus, but then would later send messengers to Jesus to ask Him if He were the Messiah.

    • Avatar
      scissors  February 3, 2019


      Doesn’t that depend on how certain John was? Is it possible that John thinks he’s the messiah, but retains some doubt? Not that I think this is the case and the whole Elijah, Elisha thing is REALLY interesting.
      For me the real clincher is that Acts portrays the apostles running into followers of John who know nothing of their masters pronouncement. If your waiting for the Messiah and your own guru says here he is, it’s pretty odd that they wouldn’t have joined the new movement.

  4. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  February 1, 2019

    Thank you. You really packed a lot into this post. And of course, it sheds new light on John for many of us “civilians”.

  5. Avatar
    rivercrowman  February 1, 2019

    “When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.” Desiderius Erasmus … To enhance my chances of a good read, I note books mentioned by Bart Ehrman.

  6. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  February 1, 2019

    Very intriguing. I added this book to my Wish List on Amazon. Thanks!

  7. epicurus
    epicurus  February 1, 2019

    Great stuff, I look forward to reading it!

  8. Avatar
    spartymanjb  February 1, 2019

    This sounds like a great book. Any chance it will be available on audible any time soon?

  9. cheito
    cheito  February 1, 2019

    Your Comment:

    Who exactly, then, did John think he was, and what was his relation to Jesus?… I accept the Gospel tradition that he regarded himself as the returning Old Testament prophet Elijah, …Elijah was expected to precede the Messiah, and Jesus was the Messiah; therefore Jesus’s forerunner John must have been Elijah…

    My Comment:

    I accept the tradition recorded in the Gospel of John…The Gospel of John clearly teaches that John the Baptist himself said, that he was NOT Elijah.

    John 1:19-And this is the witness of John when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?…21-And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.”

    Mark, Matthew, and Luke are historically unreliable sources…. The tradition that you accept is founded on false knowledge.


  10. cheito
    cheito  February 1, 2019

    Your Comment:

    …It is unlikely that John saw Jesus as the Messiah on the basis of what happened at Jesus’s baptism. If he had, it would be difficult to explain a tradition found later in the Gospels of Matthew (11:2-6) and Luke (7:18-23) according to which John, in prison under sentence of death, sent messengers to Jesus to ask whether or not he was the Messiah. The tradition gives the impression that this was the first time that question had occurred to John, and it does not record that he was convinced by Jesus’s answer. John, then, probably did not become a believer in Jesus’s messiahship, either at Jesus’s baptism or subsequently.


    My Comment:

    According to John, the one who commissioned him to baptize in water, SAID to him, before the day in which Jesus was baptized, that he, i.e., John the Baptist, would know who the Messiah is, because he would witness the spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove, and John testifies that He witness this, when He baptized Jesus in water….

    John also testified that Jesus was the son of God! (1:34)

    With all due respect, according to (John 1:29-34) your believe is WRONG, because, again. your ‘belief’ is based on dubious sources, i.e., the synoptic gospels.


    John 1:29-The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30“-This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me, comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ 31-“And I did not recognize Him, but in order that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water.” 32-And John bore witness saying, “I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him. 33“And I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ 34“And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  February 4, 2019

      And (the gospel of) “John” is a reliable source?

      • cheito
        cheito  February 5, 2019


        Your Question:

        And (the gospel of) “John” is a reliable source?

        My Answer:

        Yes, I believe the Gospel of John is a reliable source. John 21:24 clearly records for us that it was written by an eyewitness…

        John 21: 20,24- unambiguously states that it was the disciple whom Jesus loved that was testifying and had also written the accounts in the Gospel of John… (note the present tense in the word testifying,… it implies that the author of the accounts in John is still alive with them, and is testifying of the things published in John). Furthermore, they say, “and WE KNOW that his testimony is true’…

        I believe John for various other reasons…

        John 21:24-This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

  11. Avatar
    Apocryphile  February 1, 2019

    Interesting analysis! I’ve often wondered about a possible connection between John and the Qumran cult/community. There also seems to have been a cult of John the Baptist that developed after his death, complete with a rite of baptism. Just wondering what you think of this “Baptist cave” that was excavated by Shimon Gibson west of Jerusalem, and how likely the figure depicted in the cave is a crude image of the Baptist himself?

  12. Avatar
    chixter  February 1, 2019

    My reading list is growing……

  13. Avatar
    James Chalmers  February 1, 2019

    So the Elijian notion of religious leader not dying but being taken up to heaven was very much in play among followers of Jesus? A resurrectionist notion of sorts, a notion that eased the way to the belief proclaimed by Peter and a few others, he is risen–I have seen him, here on earth, but halfway to heaven to whence he is bound as was Elijah before him?
    And if Peter could conceive of Jesus’s death as preceding his exaltation to heaven, could Jesus have done the same? And during his ministry hinted or said to his disciples that he did? Was Jesus’s self-conception messianic or Elijian or both?

  14. Avatar
    darren  February 1, 2019

    I must have this book! The historical relationship between John and Jesus is fascinating. Does the fact John baptizes anyone — in stark contrast to the sectarian Essenes — indicate his rejection of the idea of only the select few would be saved? Does it imply it’s the main reason why he would have split from the Essenes?

  15. Avatar
    dankoh  February 1, 2019

    Interesting points, particularly in the idea that John B may have seen himself (or been seen) as Elijah with Jesus as Elisha. I think it unlikely that John B would have seen Jesus as any kind of divine, given his Essene background.

    To what extent, if any, do you think that the Essenes influenced Jesus and the Jesus Movement through John the Baptist? Do you see the similarities in their asceticism (particularly sexual) and their communistic attitude as evidence of influence? Or more coincidental?

  16. Avatar
    Jim  February 1, 2019

    Is it possible that some of Jesus’ better known teachings actually originated with John the Baptist and were then later attributed, by the gospel writers, to Jesus; sermon on the mount?, others?

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

      As my teacher, Lou Martyn, used to say: many things are possible. The difficult historical task is trying to determine which are probable.

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  February 3, 2019

        So… do you think it probable? What teachings would you think most probable that Jesus inherited?

  17. Avatar
    godspell  February 1, 2019

    I’ll have to read this one. I’ve long wanted to learn more about The Baptist. Obviously we have much less information about him than Jesus (and most of what we have is the result of Christians simultaneously memorializing and co-opting him), so a real challenge to tease out clues from the little we do have.

    We can all think of situations where the memory of a famous dead person is used to promote an agenda he/she might not have necessarily agreed with. Jesus’ own respect for John seems to have been very great, and unlikely he’d have agreed to the depictions of John in the later gospels, but he wasn’t around either.

    In a sense, he got co-opted as well.

  18. Avatar
    Stephen  February 1, 2019

    Prof Marcus thanks for participating in this forum. I have learned a lot from your commentary on Mark (recommended by Our Host) and am actually reading your new book. You have an interesting discussion of the significance of John’s baptism but I’m also interested in the mechanism, its logistics. Did the candidate ritually bathe in the river like Hindus do in the Ganges? Did they wade across? Would John have personally supervised an immersion or sprinkling? Could you comment on what we know (or suspect) about how it worked in practice?

    Thanks! ..

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

      I’m kind of in the dark here, but I think it likely that John at least supervised; otherwise “I baptize you with water” wouldn’t make much sense.

  19. Avatar
    clongbine  February 1, 2019

    I was wondering what your thoughts were on the story of John’s arrest and execution in Mark? It strikes me as more than coincidental that it seems to mirror so closely Jesus’ own arrest and trial, making me think this particular story about John is more symbolic than historical. This is not to say John is not a real person, only that the story of his arrest and execution are embellished to foreshadow, highlight or enhance the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus.

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019
    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

      I agree that there are a lot of parallels between the story of John’s death and the story of Jesus’s, and this causes some historical suspicion. I also think that “unto half my kingdom” has been influenced by the story of Esther. But I think it’s historically plausible that John got in trouble for denouncing the legality of Herod Antipas’s marriage–in a theocracy, such a challenge would be seditious. I try to work through all this stuff (and Josephus’s in some ways contrasting narrative) in the penultimate chapter of the book.

      • Avatar
        b.dub3  February 3, 2019

        Dr. Marcus, thank you for using the correct Grammer of the possessive, *Jesus’s*, not Jesus’! Finally someone gets it technically correct.

        • Joel Marcus
          Joel Marcus  February 3, 2019

          I’ve recently converted, because the Society of Biblical Literature Handbook of Style told me to. But old habits die hard.

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 3, 2019

      Art imitates Life, but the opposite is also true. There are many eerie parallels in the life stories of real historical figures, so we can’t assume everything we read in Mark is mere storyteller’s artifice. He may simply be seeing parallels that genuinely existed between these two very similar men, one of whom was probably the other’s disciple. They both spoke truth to power, and the fate of those that do that is often unpleasant, and not just in ancient times. We of the modern western world are accustomed to being able to say whatever we want about any powerful public figure with near impunity. We shouldn’t take that right for granted. It was hard to win, and would be very easy to lose.

  20. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  February 2, 2019

    I look forward to reading your book. Sounds like a great read with a lot of important scholarship behind it.

    If, as you point out, that John had originally been a member of the Yahad at Qumran, then you know he expected that the Messiah would come to lead a decisive fight against the Sons of Darkness and their allies, both earthly and heavenly.

    Is it possible that John recognized Yeshua as that promised Davidic Messiah but as he awaited death, developed doubts since Yeshua was not fulfilling the prophecies in the manner that Yahad at Qumran and then sent his two followers out of doubt to seek reassurance as he awaited his soon death? Seems to me that not only is this explanation possible but also consistent with long-held beliefs AND the Scriptural evidence as presented in the Gospels.

    Or so it seems to me.

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

      I agree that John expected the Davidic Messiah to be a fiery, judgmental figure. But the thesis that he previously saw Jesus as this figure, then began to doubt, seems unlikely to me. The Q story in Matthew 11 and Luke 7 gives the impression that he first began to consider the possibility that Jesus might be the Messiah when he was near death, not earlier. And it conspicuously fails to record that John was convinced by Jesus’s reply.

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