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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:

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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?

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Comments

  1. tompicard
    tompicard  February 2, 2019

    Any ideas why John would deny being Elijah?
    or why Gospel of of John author would say he denied it (John 1:21)?

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

      In a note I quote Walter Wink’s excellent book on John the Baptist in the Gospels: “For [the Fourth Evangelist] the idea of a forerunner is anathema; note how carefully he has already applied the antidote to it in 1:1, 15. John is not the forerunner, for the Logos is already πρωτος (1:15, 30) and can have no forerunner.”

  2. Avatar
    brenmcg  February 2, 2019

    *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.*

    If the tradition found in Matthew 11 contradicts the christian claim that John knew Jesus was the messiah and this tradition is excluded from Mark, doesn’t this suggest the gospel of Matthew was written earlier than the gospel of Mark? That is if Gospel A contains a tradition which causes difficulty to later christian beliefs and Gospel B does not contain that tradition, shouldn’t gospel A be considered to have been written earlier?

    Matthew excluding “for the the forgiveness of sins” from Mark wouldn’t actually change the meaning. The Baptism of repentance found in Matthew means “forgiveness of sins”. Better instead to think of Mark and Luke removing the phrase from from Matthew 26:28, which *does* change the meaning, and making the “baptism” Jesus will bring about so much more than John’s mere baptism of the forgiveness of sins.

  3. Lev
    Lev  February 2, 2019

    I loved your book, Proffessor Marcus. I was especially delighted with your second chapter on Qumran, and the section on possible reasons why John left. The section on gentile inclusion was very gratifying to read.

    I wonder if you’ve read James Tabor’s thoughts on 4Q521 and the linkages to the Q saying found in the gospels? https://pages.uncc.edu/james-tabor/archaeology-and-the-dead-sea-scrolls/the-signs-of-the-messiah-4q521/

    In your book, you acknowledge that this is “remarkably similar” (p.83) to 4Q521, but that’s about as far as you go.

    There appears to be an internal piece of evidence that Jesus was referring to the contents of 4Q521 – the odd saying at the end of the Q passage where Jesus says “And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me”. I’ve always wondered why that was added – why would John take offence at Jesus healing the sick, raising the dead and preaching the good news to the poor?

    I wasn’t until I compared this Q saying with 4Q521 that it suddenly hit me. The one item from the list of Messianic activity found in 4Q521 but missing from Jesus’ reply to John was the Messiah who “liberates the captives”.

    John was in prison at the time, and perhaps was hoping (asking?) that if Jesus really was the Messiah, that he would fulfil the Essene prophecy and liberate John from prison. It seems to me that Jesus sends John’s disciples back to him with a message that he’s fulfilling everything else on the Essene list, but springing John from prison won’t be one of them – so please don’t take offence!

    I’m curious if you considered this, and if so, the reasons why you rejected the interplay between 4Q521 and this Q saying?

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

      Don’t think I rejected a link between the Q saying and 4Q521, which I agree is a remarkable and important text, but thought that others–not only Tabor, but also Dale Allison–had already noted a lot of the parallels. But I agree that there’s more to think about here.

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      • Lev
        Lev  February 2, 2019

        Many thanks for your response.

        It seems likely to me that John taught the coming Messiah would fulfil the Messianic prophecies contained in 4Q521, Jesus heard this teaching whilst a disciple of John and later Jesus repeated (most of) this list back to John’s disciples.

        If this is true, then Jesus seems to be sending a message when he omitted “liberates the captives” from his list and added, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me”.

        The sequence of events could have run like so:

        1. Instead of John having a dark night of the soul in prison, wondering if Jesus really was the Messiah, he is asking “IF you really are the Messiah I predicted, why haven’t you liberated me from my captivity?!”

        2. Jesus responds “I’ve fulfilled most of what you predicted, I am the Messiah, but I’m not going to liberate you – please don’t take offence.”

        What do you think of this theory?

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        • Joel Marcus
          Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

          Interesting but speculative.

          • Joel Marcus
            Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

            But what I do like about the way you put things together is that there is a mismatch between the sort of Isaianic prophecies Jesus cites in his reply and the traditional view of the judgmental Davidic Messiah, which is probably what John meant when he asked about “the Coming One.” Therefore he may not have viewed Jesus’s answer as addressing his question; hence the failure of the tradition to record that he subsequently became a believer in Jesus. I hadn’t really thought this through in this way before, so thank you very much for pushing me.

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  4. Avatar
    brenmcg  February 2, 2019

    *I argue, however, that the original form of this saying was, “I baptize you in water, but he will baptize you in fire.” *

    If this is the original form it would point to Matthew being first.

    The development of the phrase being

    Historical John the Baptist “I baptize you in water, but he will baptize you in fire.”
    Gospel of Matthew “I baptize you with water …He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”
    Gospel of Mark “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

      Matthew agrees with Luke here, so the “he will baptize you with the Spirit and with fire” formulation goes back to Q.

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      • Avatar
        brenmcg  February 3, 2019

        But would this not imply Mark had access to and edited Q?

        • Joel Marcus
          Joel Marcus  February 3, 2019

          No, not necessarily. This is one of the so-called “Mark/Q overlaps.” Mark and Q are two independent streams of tradition, but sometimes have material that overlaps. Another example is the parable of the mustard seed.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  February 5, 2019

            Maybe, but I think taken on its own this goes against the idea of markan priority. The simplest editorial sequence being either

            Historical JB >> Matthew >> Mark
            Historical JB >> Q >> Mark

  5. Ali Sharifli
    Ali Sharifli  February 2, 2019

    Dear Professor Joel Marcus, I still can’t understand why John the Baptist had rebuked Herod for marrying Herodias, the ex-wife of his brother. Was it against Jewish Law? Don’t some christians claim that mother of Joseph (“father” of Jesus) married to brother of Joseph’s father according to Levirate marriage? Sextus Julius Africanus, in his 3rd-century Epistle to Aristides, reports a tradition that Joseph was born from just such a levirate marriage. According to this report, Joseph’s natural father was Jacob son of Matthan, as given in Matthew, while his legal father was Eli son of Melchi (sic), as given in Luke.

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

      I argue in the book that the legality of Antipas’s marriage was a matter of controversy in first-century Judaism, because it is not clear whether or not the ban on “uncovering the nakedness of your *brother’s* wife” in Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21 includes your *half-brother’s* wife. John, then, was taking a controversial legal position, but one that in this case agreed with Qumran and the later rabbis. His willingness to intervene in legal disputes goes along with the idea that he saw himself as the returning Elijah, because Elijah was expected to solve controversial legal conundrums.

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      • Ali Sharifli
        Ali Sharifli  February 2, 2019

        But what about mother of Joseph (“father” of Jesus) who married to brother of Joseph’s father according to Levirate marriage? Would it also be condemned by John the Baptist or according to John only when someone’s brother is alive, it is unlawful to marry his wife but when that brother is dead, it is okay to marry to his wife?

  6. Avatar
    Icanoedoyou  February 2, 2019

    Thank you Joel, for a thought-provoking post!

    Regarding John’s doubts about Jesus being the Messiah in Luke 7, is it possible that his doubts arose due to his discouragement from being in prison? Could he have once believed in Jesus as Messiah, but in his state of mind/body was now having doubts? When I was questioning my fundamentalist views, I used this passage as encouragement that doubts were OK. Jesus did not rebuke him, but praised him (Luke 7:28).

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

      This is a common view; Alfred Edersheim in the late nineteenth century spoke melodramatically of John’s “day of darkness and terrible questioning.” But the Q passage in Matthew 11//Luke 7 doesn’t give the impression that John was just beginning to doubt, but that he was just beginning to think about the possibility that Jesus might be the Messiah.

      1
  7. Avatar
    nbraith1975  February 2, 2019

    If the Bible is actually historically correct, John/Baptist and Jesus were both apocalyptic preachers. The difference being that John’s movement had already gained traction with many followers before Jesus came on the scene.

    A couple of things interest me about this situation.

    What was Jesus’ motive for associating himself with John’s movement by being baptized into “John’s” baptism of repentance. Was Jesus laying the groundwork for his own movement by using John’s baptism for credibility and to legitimize his own movement? Or… Did Jesus intend to team up with John after his “temptation” in the wilderness but couldn’t because John was put in prison? (Matthew 4:12) And since John was in prison, was Jesus’ plan B to start his own movement? (Matthew 4:18-22) And what happened to John’s followers after he was put in prison? Since they didn’t join up with Jesus, did they choose a new leader?

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

      In reply to the last question: some of John’s followers joined up with the Jesus movement, but there continued to be an independent Baptist movement for several centuries, as shown for example by the Pseudo-Clementine literature. Even today, the Mandaeans revere John as the True Prophet but disparage Jesus.

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  8. Avatar
    Hngerhman  February 2, 2019

    Prof Marcus –

    Just purchased the book – looking forward.

    Quick questions:
    – If John is an Essene, is Jesus then (in a very relevant sense) an Essene missionary?
    – if one were to stipulate that John at some point did believe Jesus was the Messiah, would John have likely bent towards an adoptionist understanding?

    Appreciative in advance.

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

      Thanks for buying the book. But just because John was an Essene, and he was Jesus’s teacher, that doesn’t necessarily mean Jesus was an Essene; I don’t find the same close and irrefutable connections to Qumran in the Jesus tradition that I do in the John tradition. And I don’t think John did believe Jesus was the Messiah, so the other question seems to me to be beside the point.

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  February 2, 2019

        Fair enough on the second question – the counterfactual is probably a step too far down hypothetical lane.

        On the first: completely agree that such a relationship doesn’t follow in the sense of logical necessity. Coming at it from another angle, what to your eye would be the key aspects of Essene tradition that (a) John clearly embodies (and as such qualify him as Essene) that (b) Jesus clearly and simultaneously lacks?

        Thanks for the generous and fascinating insights!

        • Joel Marcus
          Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

          Use of Isaiah 40:3 to interpret their presence in the same area of the Judean wilderness. “Brood of vipers” as a term for enemies, to which there is a close Qumran parallel. A water ritual associated with the new age, forgiveness of sins, and the Spirit. Things like that.

          1
          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  February 3, 2019

            Thank you very much

            1
      • Avatar
        AlanK  February 21, 2019

        Do you think it’s an omission that Essen sect was the only one out of 3 main religious sects that Jesus never rebuked in the gospels? Or that he had some favorable connections with them. My personal view agrees with the latter, because of his close connections with the Baptist.

  9. Avatar
    JohnKesler  February 2, 2019

    Professor Marcus,
    Since you say that Mark 1:4 was modified in Matthew 3:11 because “early Christians” wanted to remove evidence that John the Baptist’s baptism was for forgiveness, why was Luke 3:3 not altered, since it, like Mark 1:4, say that John’s baptism was “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”?

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

      Well, not all early Christians thought the same way. Luke didn’t see the same problem in Mark’s statement that Matthew did. Maybe he took the reference to forgiveness of sins as prospective, looking forward to the coming of Jesus, as many interpreters have done since. In any cae, I don’t think Luke’s as much of a systematic theologian as Matthew is.

      • Avatar
        JohnKesler  February 2, 2019

        Thank you for the reply. Above you say that John “regarded himself as the returning Old Testament prophet Elijah,” but later you say that John simply “[thought] of himself in Elijan terms.” Did John/early Christians think that John and Elijah were the same literal person, or just that John was fulfilling the role of Elijah? If the former, did John experience a form of cognitive dissonance because the real Elijah was a hairy man, and this led to John’s hairy attire? Did any literature arise, a la 1 Enoch, which purports to be Elijah’s/John’s account of what he saw/did in heaven for hundreds of years?

        • Joel Marcus
          Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

          I can’t think offhand of any such literature, though there may be some; if not, it is a surprising absence, and worth thinking about, since there’s so much literature associated with Enoch, whose life ended in a similar way. And I don’t know in exactly what way John thought he was Elijah–i.e., how close he felt the identification to be. It’s really a fascinating question. Certainly there have been lots of people who have claimed to be various ancient figures returned to life. But such beliefs are usually not articulated very carefully or logically. I suspect that we’re more in the realm of folk belief than official theology–i.e., there’s no mechanism for explaining how somebody can come back from the dead and be born and grow up with a different name and identity.

        • tompicard
          tompicard  February 4, 2019

          Dr Marcus

          As I understand most scholars agree that John’s baptism of Jesus is *historical* BECAUSE it is
          a) somewhat embarrassing to early christians and
          b) widely known by all/many, so it would cause problems if left out
          therefore they (christians) would not have made it up.

          Would being baptized by John really be so bothersome to early christians (I mean all of Judea went to John Mark 5:1, why is it embarrassing for a religiously conscientious man like Jesus to have also done so)?

          Secondly how widely would this event in Jesus life likely have been known, as the incident is usually placed before he even called his first disciples, UNLESS JESUS HIMSELF RECOUNTED IT TO HIS DISCIPLES ?

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 2, 2019

    Dr. Marcus: If you are a Christian can you tell us how you made that decision? Since the Gospels are filled with so many historical discrepancies and contradictions, it seems to me that one ends up with a historical Jesus who existed, but whose life “story” has been so embellished with legend that it is almost impossible for us amateurs to separate the historical from the legendary even using the historical criteria we have learned. This seems like a rather unsolid foundation (shifting sand) on which to become a Christian. I know that this is not an easy question, but if you can take a stab at it I would deeply appreciate it. Why spend our time asking easy questions? Thanks

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 2, 2019

      Well, I do spend the last few pages of the book struggling with precisely these questions, so I could just say: Buy the book! But, briefly, I think that while the Gospels have embellished the historical memory of Jesus, there is still a historical core that can be discerned, especially in the Synoptics. After all, Matthew and Luke preserve the Q story about an unconvinced Baptist, which goes against the grain of what all the Gospels want to imply about John’s recognition of Jesus. The other thing is–I don’t think Christian faith really depends so much on historical certainty about everything the Gospels narrate as it does on an existential encounter with Jesus.

      3
  11. Avatar
    plparker  February 3, 2019

    What do you make of Luke’s treatment of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Luke, especially the “leapt in the womb” story?

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 3, 2019

      A lot of legendary material in Luke 1. Much of it, I think, probably goes back to Baptist circles–it exalts John very highly. The one exception is the Visitation scene 1:39-56, which includes John leaping in his womb when Mary comes into the house. This obviously reflects the Christian interest to subordinate John to Jesus.

      • Avatar
        godspell  February 15, 2019

        I’m reading your book now, and that explanation of why Luke tells this story linking Jesus and John from birth really clicks. Luke has a different nativity story than Matthew, in part because he’s incorporated a story about John that was meant to prove his birth was miraculous–which for all we know was inspired by the Virgin Birth stories beginning to be told about Jesus–or could be the other way around. Interactive myth-making. Each cult influencing the other. Moving further and further away from who their respective inspirations had been as men, which is what always happens. Men die. Myths live.

  12. Avatar
    rburos  February 3, 2019

    Dr Marcus

    Thanks so much for your commentary on Mark. I bought them last year and going through them has been necessarily slow. Dr Ehrman said you spent 20 years writing them, and I surely won’t finish them in a weekend. They are a treasure, and I am blessed with the opportunity to return some shred of my gratitude for your work.

    Alas, now I have to interrupt moving on to the second volume and get this work!

    But a question regarding the above, knowing that you can’t put your entire argument into a blog post, but you appear to be explaining something *assumed* to be true (that JBap wore a hairy coat, as narrated in the Gospel). Does your book tackle the assumption of truth as well as the explanation?

    From the comment string you also seem to agree with Crossan that although there is a good deal of theological tweaking of the historical facts in the Bible, the work of Christ (and what it calls you to do) is above all, *true*?

    Again, more thanks than I’ll ever be able to send,

    Randi

    • Joel Marcus
      Joel Marcus  February 3, 2019

      Don’t understand what you mean by “the assumption of truth as well as the explanation.” AS for Crossan: I think the Gospels are closer to history than he does, especially with regard to the passion narrative accounts, which he thinks are mostly anti-Jewish fantasy and creations from the Old Testament. As for the question of their “truth”: I don’t have time to get into this right now, because I have to get to church!

      3
  13. Robert
    Robert  February 4, 2019

    Professor Marcus, thank you, not only for your books and post here, but also for your thoughtful replies to our questions. If you’re still around and don’t mind an off-topic question: how have other scholars responded to your preference for and discussion of the longer reading in Mk 14,62 (συ ειπας οτι εγώ ειμι) in your commentary on the gospel of Mark? Obviously, ‘though poorly attested, it makes a lot of sense from a source-critical perspective. Have you gotten any push-back or changed any minds? Or do most scholars just ignore each other’s work for the most part?

  14. fefferdan
    fefferdan  March 11, 2019

    I wonder if John may have expected a priestly messiah [son of Aaron] instead of or in addition to the political one [son of David], since he came from a priestly family. I also speculate that John may have rejected Jesus’ messiahship because Jesus was too lax on certain issues of lifestyle [drinking, which John reportedly did not partake in] and Jewish law [I picture John as more strict than Jesus]. Perhaps the saying “blessed is he who takes no offense at me” about John was Jesus’ way of hinting at this.

    Less speculative is the fact that John’s disciples continued their own ministry and didn’t join Jesus’ movement, except for perhaps those mentioned in the Gospel of John.
    Question to Dr. Marcus [if you are still here] — do you think the present-day Mandaens, who claim John as their Teacher and denounce Jesus as a heretic, are historically linked to the Baptist? Or did they lay claim to him after the fact? [or feel free to claim ignorance as I do 🙂

  15. Avatar
    kennwrite  June 20, 2019

    I love Joel Marcus’ depiction of John the Baptist. It could be argued that he may be in error, but this is so easy to do because hermeneutics is not a precise ‘science’, per se. Nevertheless, with so little written about the Baptist, this passage, and the book, is one of the best presentations of the figure of John I have read. I find myself less concerned about questioning his premises and proofs than I do entering into the world of John the Baptist as Joel Marcus has painted him. What makes the Bible so fascinating to believers and non-believers that examine the writings is the stories, and those who engage us in new tellings of the stories are one of the reasons we are drawn to reexamining them. Joel Marcus has certainly succeeded in this engagement.

  16. Avatar
    spazevedo  June 29, 2019

    Dr. Bart, spiritualists often say that the passage from Matthew (12-13) indicating that Elijah came as John the Baptist refers to reincarnation (John being the reincarnation of Elijah). I do not particularly think that Jesus, as a Jew, preached anything about reincarnation or had any contact with this kind of doctrine. However, we can not be sure of this with regard to the author of Matthew, especially in a context of Greek culture, where Orphism, and later Socrates and Plato believed in something similar to the destiny of souls.
    Do you think there is any chance of the author of Matthew referring to reincarnation in that account?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2019

      If so, it would only be of John — not as a doctrine of reincarnation for everyone, I should think.

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      • Avatar
        spazevedo  July 1, 2019

        In a Jewish concept, what does it mean for someone to return through another person (considering that Elijah would be “alive” by Jewish belief)? How could that be?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 2, 2019

          In the Old Testament it was predicted that Elijah would come before the “terrible day of the Lord” (Mal. 4:5-6; the final verses of the Old Testament). Elijah had never died. He will return. Christians said John was the one.

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          • Avatar
            spazevedo  July 2, 2019

            I got it. What I do not understand is, if Elijah did not die, how can it come to be someone else (and not Elijah himself who just come back)?
            This is interesting because if Christians admit that Elijah came back as someone else (John the Baptist) then the Second Coming of Jesus could be through another person (not the same Jesus who simply returned).

          • Bart
            Bart  July 3, 2019

            Hey, time changes us all….

            1
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            spazevedo  July 3, 2019

            Dr. Ehrman, thank you for your attention and patience.

            I think that for the Jews, Elijah, who did not die, must return in his own body (not as another person – just as Christians wait for Jesus to return). Therefore, for non-Christian Jews, this idea of ​​John Baptist being Elijah makes no sense.
            For Christians, however, as Jesus being the Messiah, the prophecy of Elijah’s return would be fulfilled. And since they had no news of any prophet descending from heaven on a chariot of fire, the Christians fixed this by saying that John was Elijah. I think they were pushing it.

            Thanks again.

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