I am pleased to publish a short series of posts on John the Baptist by James McGrath,  Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University (see James F. McGrath – Wikipedia) based on his TWO new books (one coming out next month, June 2024; the other in October).    The books, as you will see, make some controversial claims — see his first sentence below!

James will be happy to respond to your comments and queries.  So what do you think?


John the Baptist was probably the most significant religious innovator in the history of religion. We’ve failed to see this because of the extent that he has been overshadowed by his followers. This is perhaps the most important point made in my new books Christmaker: A Life of John the Baptist (Eerdmans, June 2024) and John of History, Baptist of Faith: The Quest for the Historical Baptizer (the latter due out in October). In this three-part series I offer an overview of John’s influence based on and incorporating some material from Christmaker so that readers of this blog can get a sense of what awaits them in these books, especially the biography which will be out very soon and which is aimed at a general audience.

Part 1: The Splash John Made

"'John of History, Baptist of Faith' inaugurates a new phase in the quest for this elusive historical figure. It is a major scholarly achievement" -Paula Fredricksen, Boston University; The Hebrew University of jerusalem

Depending whom you ask, you’ll inevitably get widely varying answers to the question “What one person had the biggest impact on human history?” Even focus in on one area such as politics or religion and you’ll still encounter disagreements. Yet a person who ought to be the strongest contender for top place may not even make most people’s top ten list. I’m referring to John the Baptist.

Obviously it is hard to know how far back one should attempt to go. The further back, the more difficult the historical questions are that arise. Monotheism was a major innovation but to whom should credit go? Akhenaten? Moses? Hosea? Josiah? Deutero-Isaiah? Would the idea have become not just important but literally world-changing without it having become coupled with the proselytizing impulse of Christianity? Can we even know? Certainly even apart from questions about the origin and spread of monotheism, many would point to Jesus as having made the most significant impact, and after or alongside him perhaps also Paul. Yet John the Baptist was a direct influence on Jesus and thus a significant indirect influence on any and all of his followers. Indeed, if some credit for the impact of Christianity must go to Jesus’ circle of followers, then you’ll find that many of them are also supposed to have started out as part of John’s movement, so that John was a direct influence on them as well. Jesus himself, for his part, said that John was the greatest human being to ever live (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28).

For those who would point to Muhammad as having the most significant impact on history, there is good reason to posit John the Baptist’s influence on him and early Islam. On the one hand, we see the influence of Christianity on Islam very clearly, which represents John’s influence at one step removed. On the other hand, the Qur’an makes reference to another people of the book alongside Jews and Christians, referred to as Sabians. Many scholars understand this to be a reference to “Baptizers” and to denote the group better known today as the Mandaeans, or at least the movement that was precursor to the Mandaeans. They are the only ancient Gnostic group to survive down to the present day, and they consider themselves followers of John the Baptist.

Anyone who has read the so-called Gnostic Gospels will be aware that baptism played a major role in that tradition. Less well known is the fact that, in addition to the Mandaeans’ own literature, we have other ancient sources attributing the development of Gnosticism to followers of John the Baptist from Samaria named Simon and Dositheus. It isn’t just the Pseudo-Clementine literature, which on its own might still carry some weight, but not as much as if we have confirmation. It turns out that we do, in the surprising form of the first Syriac author to quote extensively from a Mandaean text, Theodore bar Koni. One of the terms he uses for the group we recognize as the Mandaeans (but to which he does not apply that label) is Dostheans, i.e. Dositheans. We also have a Samaritan source (the Chronicle of Abu l-Fath) about a Dustan (= Dosithean) sect whose practices included praying while standing in water.

Essential reading for all interested in Jesus' spiritual formation as will as the later 'parting of the ways' between John.s teachings and Jesus', this highly accessible work walks us through a little-known story of a relationship that no one previously has brought to light with such clarity and insight. - Nicola Denzey Lewis, Claremont Graduate University

Thus we have John influencing Christianity, Gnosticism, and Islam at the very least. If you thought he was a lone hermit, you’re not alone, but this view of him, despite being widely held, clearly must be wrong. He had followers far and wide. Acts 18-19 has Apollos from Alexandria, as well as some local followers of “the Way” in Ephesus, know only John’s baptism. We are thus given to understand that John’s impact had reached these places and these individuals before anything that was becoming distinctively or recognizably “Christian” did so. No wonder the political and religious authorities in his time were concerned about his message and influence. It is not plausible to imagine that he was an isolated hermit whom a surprisingly large number of individuals independently admired and sought to emulate. John gathered around himself some of the most creative minds of his era. Whether you’re a fan of mainstream Christianity, of Gnosticism, or neither, you can hopefully agree that the influence of both on history has been a powerful one starting in ancient times and continuing to the present day.

Although the Mandaeans are not that familiar to most people today, if you were to go back a century or so you’d find that wasn’t the case, at least in certain circles. The Theosophical movement was sparked at least in part by the translation of the Mandaean sacred text known as the Great Treasure into Latin. Theosophy, if you’re not familiar with it, was a major precursor to what became known in the twentieth century as the New Age movement, an eclectic approach to spirituality that draws on Eastern religions as well as those that historically predominated in Europe and the Americas.

If you never noticed how these movements ancient and modern all connect back to John the Baptist, you’re not alone. Even so, there’s more to be said, and I’ll save that for tomorrow’s post. In the meantime, what surprised you most about John’s impact as described thus far? What questions do you have?

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2024-05-29T11:31:38-04:00May 28th, 2024|Public Forum|

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  1. crt112 May 28, 2024 at 6:47 am

    I’m very interested in a book that explores the role of John the Baptist. The gospels seem to underplay John’s role as they seek to elevate Jesus. I’m not convinced he was “was probably the most significant religious innovator in the history of religion” as it seems like there were many prophets and preachers who were predicting end times and God’s intervention if only God’s people could repent and pay closer attention to God’s laws.

    But I do wonder what drove Jesus to seek John out and subsequently, how deep was their relationship ? Does Jesus respect for John suggest Jesus knew a lot about John ? Is it likely they were on an apocalyptic mission together ? At least at some point ?

    • ReligionProf May 28, 2024 at 10:39 am

      Thanks for your comment! I would ask whether any of those other prophets and preachers had the range of impact John had, and how many of the other figures that we know about were themselves influenced by John. There’ll be more about that in this series’ other posts. It brings us to your question, the answer to which is that Jesus joined John’s movement, answered a question about his authority by asking a counter-question about John, and describes John as the greatest human being to ever live. For that reason I think that we can use Jesus as a source of information about John to a greater extent than we have.

      • AngeloB June 10, 2024 at 3:06 am

        Is the beheading of John the Baptist undisputed by mainstream scholars?

        • ReligionProf June 10, 2024 at 8:52 am

          The details of Mark’s story are of doubtful historical value, but Mark and Josephus agree on Herod Antipas executing him and so that seems very likely.

  2. rezubler May 28, 2024 at 8:16 am

    James, I agree that the Baptist has been underappreciated. The challenge we have had in the NT is with the uninspiring story of John’s death. It is not a very inspiring demise. How do the Mandaeans find hope from John’s death? Are there alternate epilogues (written or oral tradition) that kept John competitively ‘elevated’ with Jesus? (I have not read the Great Treasure.) I know the Eastern Churches keep John as required (initial) part of their imagery.

    • ReligionProf May 28, 2024 at 9:38 am

      In their account of John’s death he dies peacefully, essentially having his spirit set free and his body laid to rest in the Jordan River by a lightworld being. The agreement of Mark and Josephus on John’s execution by Antipas makes that likely. The Mandaean version can usefully be compared to the Christian martyr accounts in which the martyr has a spiritual experience that portrays their death on a spiritual level as being different in manner and significance from what happens on the human plane.

  3. jlantz974 May 28, 2024 at 8:56 am

    Interesting! Does a sufficient amount of evidence exist to conclude that John was indeed a real historical figure, as opposed to the offspring of fabricated stories that found their way into the New Testament canon?


    • ReligionProf May 28, 2024 at 9:34 am

      I consider the evidence sufficient to indicate that John was a real historical figure. The texts that mention him in the New Testament are unlikely to have invented this figure whom their own central figure Jesus esteemed more highly than himself.

  4. edecter May 28, 2024 at 11:54 am

    I know this wasn’t addressed in your post today, but I am interested in learning more about the Mandaean symbol of the drabsha, which looks so similar to the draped cross that some churches put out, particularly around Easter. Given all the ties between Jesus, John the Baptist, and these two religions, is it really possible that they ended up with two practically identical symbols independently? Or did one influence the other, and if so, which direction did the influence run?

    • ReligionProf May 28, 2024 at 3:51 pm

      Great question. I do wonder about the possibility of influence, whether in one direction or back and forth. Of course, for the Mandaeans the drabsha is the banner which is symbolic and the crossbeam is merely there to support it. I wonder for instance whether John had a practice of draping his outer garment on a staff in this manner when performing baptism, and/or provided such a place for others to do so. Christians baptized naked early on which Mandaeans do not. Both on the other hand have investiture in white garments at some point in the process.

      Another possible connection, given the evidence for pre-monotheistic Israelite ideas being incorporated into Mandaeism, whether this may have been influenced by a symbolic representation of the serpent on a pole that was part of ancient Israelite religion (and still persisted in a distant community until the modern era, in a little-known story that I include in John of History, Baptist of Faith).

      If John utilized a crossbeam, then after Jesus’ crucifixion this would have been viewed as foreshadowing what was to come.

      Nevertheless, given that the draped cross symbolism is not particularly ancient in Christian history, the convergence of the two may be coincidental.

      I also wonder whether those Western artists who painted John holding a crossbeam draped with a white scroll were influenced in some way by the practice of Mandaean baptism.

  5. Stephen May 28, 2024 at 1:55 pm

    However we intepret him, surely John was one of the most fascinating characters in the NT! So here is my question. Prof McGrath, do you have any intuitions about how you think baptism worked? Functionally I mean. Ritual bathing? Total immersion? Did John personally baptize each person himself? The answer I ususally get from scholars is that we just don’t know but I’m wondering if you have any ideas based on your own research.


    • ReligionProf May 28, 2024 at 3:50 pm

      Excellent questions. The two books between them will answer many of those questions. John’s baptism could not have been a purity immersion since proclaiming the benefits of what many people were already doing would not earn one the nickname “the baptizer.” Baptism does seem to have involved one person actively baptizing another. John would have had emissaries, apostles if you prefer. If only John himself baptized it is hard to envisage his movement spreading as far and as quickly as it did. In the big monograph I triangulate back from Christian, Mandaean, and other baptisms that are based on John’s baptism to see what other details can be added into the picture and with what degree of probability. I think that, while there is much that we still don’t know, we can deduce more than has been previously realized or acknowledged.

  6. Starwoman May 28, 2024 at 5:08 pm

    I look forward to reading your book. 2 Questions:

    1. Any ideas about why the Templars revered John the Baptist?

    2. In your research, have you seen any evidence that John the Baptist was married to Mary Magdalene?

    Thanks so much.


    • ReligionProf May 31, 2024 at 7:45 am

      There is a lot of relatively recent connection of John the Baptist and the Knights Templar. There certainly were churches and hostels in the Holy Land dedicated to John (as to many other figures) and most movements were named after and dedicated to saints, so it isn’t impossible that there was an association, but it is far from clear that any of the historical evidence justifies the modern storytelling about this – as much as I’d love to be able to show that the Mandaeans had this kind of impact!

      There is no ancient evidence at all that John the Baptist was married to Mary Magdalene. In the Mandaean tradition John was married but not to someone by that name.

  7. FocusMyView May 28, 2024 at 6:58 pm

    The major aspects of John in the gospel were his baptism to forgive sins, his baptism of Jesus in the Jordan as Jesus received the Spirit, and his death due to intrigue by royalty who conducted themselves in ways that were less than respectable.
    The passing of the Spirit from a master to a great follower is found in the Elijah-Elisha narrative as well as Jesus son of Nun receiving the spirit from Moses. Elisha did twice as many miracles as Elijah.
    John is dressed to seem like Elijah. Matthew makes clear that John is Elijah.
    When John dies, it is at the request of the queen, and the king seems powerless to prevent it. Elijah fled from death threats from a powerful queen, Jezebel, where Ahab seems hapless.
    My points are that a) there are at least some use of OT Jesuses in the gospel construction, and b) these reuses are enough to explain John’s life events away.
    Is John based on myth or is legend added on to him?

    • ReligionProf May 31, 2024 at 7:38 am

      This view, that imagines people spent their time inventing new stories about supposedly historical individuals based on characters from earlier literature, really has very little to commend it. If we look at literature about well-documented historical figures, the effort to cast them as like someone famous who preceded them is all-pervasive.

  8. Serene May 29, 2024 at 2:13 am

    You’re talking my language James!!

    The Mandaeans wrote in *cuneiform* into the First Century, and their ideas resemble those found in Babylonian Akkadian cuneiform — it’s my hypothesis that Aramean Babylonian King Nabonidus excavating ancient Babylonian Akkadian cuneiform (what the Book of Daniel polemicizes with the ‘Writing On the Wall’) revives the Sargon of Akkad dynasty traditions, like his grandson, the first “Living God” King.

    Nab-onidus had his stelae topmost over Sela, the original capitol of Nab-ataea (the name I believe is just his dynasty formed from a Quedarite alliance.)

    So when John the Baptist shows up in a CAMEL HAIR coat (the camel is the symbol of Nabataea on the denarius), the same camel wear as Elijah who lived in historically Midianite territory (King Midian’s dynasty was replaced by Nabataea) , and *who mishna says returned from Heaven dressed as an Arab dispensing
    charity to Jews*. It seems a continuance of what Josephus reported, that “Aretas [III] united the forces of the Jews and the Arabians”.

    A Transjordan, Abrahamic movement.

    So, the name Sabians is claimed to have a different root, but how is it not related to Sabaeans and Saba, the Queen of Sheba (Saba), and Bathsheba/Bathshua? Which can mean “daughter of Saba” — and she likes immersing

    • ReligionProf May 29, 2024 at 9:00 am

      I don’t think I’m talking your language from the sound of it. But I’ll be interested to know what sources from the first century in a form of cuneiform are connected with the Mandaeans or their precursors.

      • Serene May 29, 2024 at 2:08 pm

        You don’t know how much I appreciate your response, Dr. McGrath.

        Yes, I know that tying in the excavated Akkadian cuneiform that 6th C BCE Nabonidus had translated and built two museums for, to the “Knowledge” sect is unique to me (if I’ll be honest I got tipped off haha).

        I will look for the citations now, and start with the lay explainers as discussion points:

        Please excuse the BOLDING for easy LOCATING:

        “So far no dialectal forerunners of Mandaic are known, since the Aramaic relics of the pre-Parthian times and Parthian period in Babylonia and neighboring Ḵuzestān are rather limited (a few scattered inscriptions, Middle Iranian ideograms, AN INCANTATION IN SYLLABIC CUNEIFORM SCRIPT…


        “The last known Akkadian cuneiform document dates from the 1ST CENTURY AD.[12] Mandaic spoken by Mandean Gnostics and the dialects spoken by the extant Assyrians (Suret) are three extant Neo-Aramaic languages THAT RETAIN AKKADIAN VOCABULARY AND GRAMMATICAL FEATURES AS WELL AS PERSONAL NAMES.


        My premise is that Abram and Sarai are Akkadian names — Ibarum and Sarrai are descendants of Sargon of Akkad, and you can see when lineage starts being diluted in Canaan by names.

        For example, John the Baptist knows Herod Antipas is patrilineally Edomite.

  9. TimOBrien May 29, 2024 at 12:55 pm

    Who was arguably “the most significant religious innovator in the history of religion” and which among the contenders “had the biggest impact on human history” are very different questions.

    Measured in numbers of adherents, both Jesus and Mohammed were overwhelmingly impactful. This is unsurprising given that the followers of both proselytized at swordpoint (and eventually gunpoint) and denounced the unpersuaded as “heretics/infidels,” thus, expanding their religions by the push-pull of adding converts while simultaneously exterminating rivals. This approach to “evangelizing” also made Christianity and Islam the leading contenders for “biggest impact on human history” when measured in terms of mass slaughter and wanton destruction.

    But there was nothing particularly innovative in their underlying theology — at least, not as the teachings of Jesus and Mohammad came to be interpreted by their self-proclaimed adherents. Both are offshoots of the primitive animal-sacrifice cult of Yahweh — largely preserving Jewish theology intact, starting with its worship of a jealous, vindictive, genocidal deity.

    Early forms of Christianity that embraced the more innovative (i.e, spiritually sophisticated) teachings of Jesus were essentially exterminated in the 4th century by the aborning, imperially-empowered RCC. And AFAIK the prophet Mohammad was not a “significant religious innovator” (in the spiritual sense.)

  10. jhague May 29, 2024 at 2:17 pm

    Some questions regarding Jesus joining John’s group:
    1. How did Jesus know about John’s group?
    2. When Jesus went to be baptized, how did he know where to go and did he go by himself?
    3. When he went to be baptized, this would have likely been a two week trip. Does it make sense that Jesus could/would leave his family for two weeks?
    4. Did Jesus’ own movement not start until John was dead?
    5. How was Jesus part of John’s group after he returned to Nazareth?

    • ReligionProf May 29, 2024 at 5:52 pm

      We are not told in any source how Jesus knew about John’s group. In one early Jewish Christian Gospel the family of Jesus is going to be baptized and his mother invites him to go with them.

      I suspect that John made his way to Galilee or its vicinity, but even if not, his main activity was along the route people followed in parallel with the Jordan River running north-south and so Galileans passed that way regularly. Of course if they were related then that also may have played a role. When Jesus was baptized by John he most likely joined John’s movement. Not everyone that went to John for baptism stayed with him, and whether Jesus went planning to become John’s disciple, or had a profound experience that led him to pursue that, we cannot say for certain, since the Gospels’ depiction of the latter does not rule out the former.

      Jesus probably stepped into the role of leader of the Baptist’s movement after John was imprisoned. His occupation of that role may not have been undisputed. Luke says that John proclaimed a baptism, whereas Matthew depicts everyone coming to John to be baptized. The former seems more likely. There is no way to envisage his movement spreading to someplace like Ephesus if the expectation was that everyone went to John to be baptized by him alone. At the very least he had emissaries, or apostles if you prefer.

      • crt112 May 29, 2024 at 8:07 pm

        Some real interesting ideas here.
        We’ve all been taught that John was just a side-show to Jesus. John’s main role was to baptise Jesus, and at that point God made various statements about Jesus ( which vary depending on which gospel you read).

        But the possibility that John started this apocalyptic movement, and then maybe Jesus took up the role when John was imprisoned sounds quite possible, maybe even probable. Sure we cant prove it but I’ll go with ‘probable’ 😉

      • jhague May 30, 2024 at 11:11 am

        Thank you for the reply. Since John had apostles why did Jesus become the new leader of the group after John was imprisoned?

        • ReligionProf May 30, 2024 at 3:10 pm

          Perhaps because he was John’s “right hand man.” Perhaps simply because he had the courage to regather John’s scattered followers in Galilee after John’s imprisonment. Perhaps both.

          • jhague May 30, 2024 at 4:56 pm

            Thank you for the reply. I am assuming that Jesus and John are not related and Jesus did not know John until he went to be baptized. For the scenario of Jesus being John’s right hand man, is this possible if Jesus went back to Nazareth and did not stay and spend time with John?

          • ReligionProf May 30, 2024 at 6:17 pm

            What leads you to believe that Jesus immediately went back to Galilee?

          • jhague May 31, 2024 at 7:28 am

            “What leads you to believe that Jesus immediately went back to Galilee?”

            My thoughts would be that it doesn’t say he did not go back to Galilee, it says he went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, which I do not think is historical, it seems that Joseph may be dead at this point and Jesus would need to help support his family…
            Do you believe Jesus stayed with John and if so, why do you believe that?
            Thank you

          • ReligionProf May 31, 2024 at 7:50 am

            The Gospel of John indicates a period of overlap between John and Jesus. While it reads later competition between Jesus’ followers and the rest of John’s group back into that early period, the timing makes sense. In the Synoptics we get the sense that Jesus was baptized and then as Mark 1:14 puts it, at some point “after John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” It makes sense that John’s arrest might lead to Jesus having what we might metaphorically call a wilderness experience, and to him pondering what path it might involve for him to regroup the followers of John and continue his work (which the temptation story depicts symbolically in a manner that you rightly point out cannot be taken as historical).

          • jhague May 31, 2024 at 8:53 am

            Thank you for the quick reply.

            “as Mark 1:14 puts it, at some point “after John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.”

            Is it your thought that Jesus stayed with John until he was imprisoned and then went to back to Galilee as the new leader of the group?

          • ReligionProf May 31, 2024 at 9:20 pm

            John must have sent out emissaries, to attract crowds to wherever he spoke. And so as long as this envisages the possibility that Jesus may have been sent out thus, then I’d say that Jesus stayed with John or at least remained in close contact with him and was associated with his movement. Even towards the end of his own activity, according to the Synoptic Gospels, when asked about his authority to do what he did Jesus is said to have responded by asking about John’s authority to baptize.

            (For those who mentioned purity immersions, the question about John’s baptism, and the special authority needed to baptize (see John 1:25), all indicate that what John was proclaiming was clearly distinct.)

          • jhague June 1, 2024 at 10:10 am

            Do you think that Jesus’ main disciples were a combination of John’s plus some new recruits?
            It seems the NT indicates that most of Jesus’ disciples were from Galilee.
            It also seems that some passages have Jesus and John competing so this would be before John was imprisoned.
            In this scenario, it seems that Jesus would have returned to Galilee, formed his own close group of followers and had a movement that was in competition with John.
            Do you see this being something that may have happened?

          • ReligionProf June 1, 2024 at 11:37 am

            I think a portrait that emerges by considering information from all of the Gospels is more likely. Jesus was part of John’s movement, then after his arrest Jesus regrouped John’s followers and attracted still more. The sense of competition in the Gospel of John, like the concern about being cast out of the synagogue, probably involves reading concerns of a later time back into the story of Jesus.

  11. mini1071 May 29, 2024 at 10:50 pm

    Q. “What one person had the biggest impact on human history?”
    An opinion: A. Alexander the Great.

    With respect to impact on religion:
    Alexander conqured,
    Antigonus, Cassander, Ptolemy, and Seleucus. Ruled after his death.
    Seleucus I Nicator ended up with the Levant which was handed down through generations to Antiochus IV Epiphanes…. Who persecuted the Jews to the extent they questioned whether YHWH had given up on them leading to apocalyptic thinking that he had not abandoned them but was waiting for … it to get worse before stepping in. Apocalypticism flourished in Judaism, at least with the Pharisees And the Essenes leading to John the Baptist et al….

    So, can I really lay the two of the largest religions in the world at the feet of Antiochus for being a tyrant? Would Jewish apocalyptic thought have developed without Hellenic influence and Seleucid persecution? Well, no Alexander, no Antiochus, no drive for Polis’, slower Helinization and perhaps no apocalyptic thought?

    • ReligionProf May 30, 2024 at 3:43 am

      Yes, I think a strong case can be made for Alexander deserving the prize. I hope I gave enough hints that there’s never going to be one clear contender. Hopefully my suggestion of John the Baptist accomplished what I intended, namely to raise the question of why John’s name doesn’t spring to mind as a possible candidate and at least worthy of being a finalist.

      • mini1071 May 30, 2024 at 9:20 am

        No John, no Jesus? Hard to say. Rivkin (Shaping of Jewish History, [perhaps dated?]) saw apocalyptic beliefs as common across at least the Pharisaic And Essene factions. The Essenes kept to themselves leaving Pharisaic influence dominant but probably urban and more interested in their oral law. One wonders how many (other) apocalyptic preachers would have reached the hamlet of Nazereth?

  12. Serene May 30, 2024 at 2:57 am

    Your query for sources helped me find cool stuff! Great Ptahil Ptah-El syncretization hypothesis btw.

    Correction: the Mandaeans don’t write in *cuneiform*, they preserved knowledge *translated* from ancient-to-them Akkadian cuneiform. Closest to Babylonian Jews.

    Source: https://brill.com/display/book/edcoll/9789004400566/BP000051.xml

    The ability to read Akkadian cuneiform is lost in the 1st Century and doesn’t return till the 20th Century:
    (um we discover vassals like the administrator of Jerusalem addressing the empire leader as “My God”)

    The Mandaean philosophical difference with Abraham and Jesus seems like it could be summed up with one word: Melchizedek. Abraham leaves Ur in Babylon’s *separatē* King and High Priest tradition and tributes Melchizedek, Great King-High Priest combo. Theocracy.

    And Jesus is Great King-High Priest like Melchizedek in Hebrews 7. Mandeans don’t mix earthy and spiritual.

    Jesus outranks John the Baptist as son of a handmaid to a Lord (that regnal nāme ‘Immanuel’ outranks Ishmael too, another son of a handmaid to a Lord destined for Great King) but still has to be initiated by John the Baptist because Zechariah has priestly Jewish lineage. Maybe Zadokite?

    i guess my biggest curiosity is:

    Did scholars think John found camel hair in the wild?

    No wild camels in Judaea’s wilderness afaik. They were watered from covered cisterns.


    • ReligionProf May 30, 2024 at 3:41 am

      Great question about where one would find camel hair! It is important to point out that he is not said to have dressed in a camel hide the way many movies and some paintings portray him. I think a more interesting question is whether he made his own clothing from camel hair, which seems unlikely. Later storytelling had an angel provide John with Elijah’s own original clothing to wear. There’s probably more useful research to be done on the practicalities of John’s clothing, as also his diet.

      • Serene May 30, 2024 at 4:02 am

        A camel hair coat, leather belting and locust eating just seems like a typical Bedouin lifestyle he picked up in the desert.

        • ReligionProf May 30, 2024 at 5:00 am

          More widespread than that, and the sources we have suggest that John’s wilderness was not primarily if at all what we would call desert, but the wildernesses all around the Jordan River.

  13. Serene May 31, 2024 at 1:11 am

    Thank you, Professor McGrath!

    I think my mind went to desert and not just the broader wilderness because of its role in deutero-Isaiah, and deutero-Isaiah is quoted to introduce John the Baptist.

    So, all mentions of camels in the Old Testament link thēm to Arabs afaik.

    Might you maybe have sources for a First Century *Jewish* camel culture?

    Genesis 37:25 (Ishmaelites, Gilead) 1 Chronicles 5:21 (Hagarites), 1 Kings 10:2-3 (Saba), Isaiah 6:60-1 (Midianites), Judges 7:12 (Midianites, Amelikites), Exodus 9:3 (Midianites), 1 Chronicles 27:30 “Obil the Ishmaelite was in charge of the camels.”

    The nomad Patriarchs of Jews and Arabs — storied around 2000 years before John the Baptist — get some camel scenes (perhaps anachronistically, because the Bible is thought to be written ~6th C BCE). But since the name “Arab” starts as the commoner word for “nomad” — “on foot”, that makes the Patriarchs Arab in that context.

    For instance, Genesis 45:10, the Land of Goshen given to the Patriarchs in Egypt was historically called the “Arabian nome”.

    Elijah had a camel-hair coat and lived in Arab Gilead. First Century Jewish High Priest Hyrcanus was protected by Arab Nabataea, so why wouldn’t we assume that for protestor John the Baptist?

    • ReligionProf May 31, 2024 at 5:39 am

      There is a long history of thinking that John’s wilderness was the desert, often assuming that it was more specifically the vicinity of Qumran. At least Idumea/Transjordan were on his itinerary and so I’m not ruling out a Nabataean connection, just emphasizing that at the very least his extent of activity was broader.

  14. sLiu June 1, 2024 at 12:24 pm

    I look forward to reading this. As Jesus, Jesus Christ, St Paul are not consistent.
    Bottomline if Mary mother of Jesus hung out at Cousin Elizabeth’s house while pregnant. Shouldn’t John the Baptist & Jesus be very close [as brothers, closer than James].
    One thing consistent is God, the Lord in Genesis, etc all have lousy communication skills.

  15. petrejo June 1, 2024 at 7:52 pm

    John the Baptist (JBap) has been named as a possible author of the Book of Revelation chapters 4-12 by Dr. Judith M. Ford (Anchor Bible, Revelation, 1975).

    JBap was also named as a possible author of the so-called Q-material, by Dr. Clare Rothschild (Baptist Traditions and Q, 2005).

    It seems to me that JBap’s reputation is due for a scientific, historical renewal. If so, we might also ask why JBap was killed. Mark’s Gospel and Josephus disagree on that.

    Perhaps JBap was killed partly because his Baptism for the forgiveness of Sins was a challenge to the Temple tradition of animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins.

    Are any of these ideas part of your new research, Professor McGrath?

    • ReligionProf June 1, 2024 at 8:02 pm

      I don’t get into the question of possible authorship of Revelation in detail since that would, I think, require a monograph of its own. There are definitely what we might call Baptist influences in it that deserve another look. I have much more sustained engagement with Rothschild and Q.

      Since it was Herod Antipas who executed him, there is no reason to think that his baptism for forgiveness of sins was the main factor. Josephus and Mark don’t disagree that much, when we consider that Aretas defeating Antipas and conquering the fortress Machaerus where John had been imprisoned and executed was the culmination of a war sparked by Antipas’ divorce of his first wife Phasaelis, who was Aretas’ daughter. It may be that all Mark does is to emphasize the supposed illegality of the remarriage when in fact it was Antipas’ self-serving divorce of Phasaelis, dragging the people into unnecessary conflict with Nabataea, that was every bit as much central to John’s concerns and public criticisms of the tetrarch.

  16. FrankLoomer June 2, 2024 at 6:03 pm

    Prof McGrath, what do you think of John being portrayed as Jesus’ cousin in Luke, and the apparently close relationship between Mary and Elizabeth, with both children having miraculous births? None of this shows up in Matthew. I was much more struck to the exaltation of Mary in Luke, while wondering “where was Matthew” in all this. The encounter of John’s disciples with Paul’s followers, years after his death, in the book of Acts really struck me. Apparently they had never really heard of Jesus’ following, but spoke in tongues once receiving the “spirit” following their on the spot baptism. Interesting, considering Luke is the apparent author of both Luke and Acts.

    • ReligionProf June 3, 2024 at 8:19 am

      Matthew does have an infancy story albeit one that is very different from Luke’s and has a few points of significant intersection with it coupled with many incompatibilities. In the larger book coming out in October I work on reconstructing a “Baptist” infancy source that seems to have influenced early Christian literature as well as the Mandaean account of John’s infancy.

      No one other than Luke has the relationship between John and Jesus, but it’s not inherently implausible. Movements spread by means of networks of family and connection more than in any other way.

      The presence of adherents to John’s movement (“The Way”) in Ephesus and perhaps also Alexandria before the Jesus-focused version of that movement reached there is an important piece of evidence about the extent of John’s impact. I don’t think we should take the claim that these members of John’s movement had “never even heard that there is a holy spirit” at face value, as it more likely reflects the apologetic aims of this Christian author who wishes to depict baptism in the name of Jesus as guaranteeing provision of what John’s baptism had clearly already led some to experience.

  17. Serene June 3, 2024 at 3:18 am

    Yep, yep, the ʻlegalistic’ explanation for the war is that it was about Herod Antipas retaining towns in Moab in the divorce. Just like John the Baptist has a legalistic opposition to Herod Antipas marrying Herodias.

    Herodias just also happens to be the last female Hasmonean heir, a militaristic, non-Davidic dynasty. And Josephus may not be unbiased in his report on John the Baptist, because Josephus claims Hasmonean descent, and gets info from books of Herod the Great’s close friend, Nicholas of Damascus.

    Luke 11:31
    “The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here”

    John the Baptist = Elijah
    Jesus = Solomon
    Phaesalis = Queen of Sheba

    We get that Jesus is comparing himself to Solomon, a Davidic King, and we get that John the Baptist is compared to Elijah, a Jewish prophet, but why haven’t scholars connected the Arabian Queen of Sheba with the Arabian Queen of Galilee?

  18. sLiu June 3, 2024 at 9:23 am

    ” John the Baptist has a legalistic opposition to Herod Antipas marrying Herodias.” thanks for bringing this up! this was NOT John the Baptist’s calling or responsibility.
    What was he, a prude!
    John the Baptist’s calling was to have Jewish folks repent & give glory to God! NOT to dictate to rulers their SINS.
    Maybe that’s where Jesus learned to disrupt the Jerusalem Temple- a bunch of trouble makers.
    John the Baptist & Jesus must have grew up closely, bunch of renegades!

  19. TimOBrien June 6, 2024 at 12:10 pm

    Both “most influential religious innovator” and “in history” are sweeping superlatives in a very big world. What about Siddhartha Gautama?

    Better known as the “Buddha,” Gautama was born in Nepal (and into Hinduism) some 6 centuries BCE, and founded what is now the world’s fourth largest religion.

    Calling him an “innovator” is a massive understatement. The only crucial precept he both inherited from his natal tradition and retained after becoming “awakened” is the premise that ultimate, spiritual attainment (“salvation”) is a lengthy process that requires numerous lifetimes to achieve.

    The Buddha averred that the ONLY way one can be “saved,” i.e., escape this temporal plane to a higher, spiritual eternity (“heaven”) is by attaining ”enlightenment.” Thus, he taught reason as the sine qua non of salvation — and utterly repudiated the idea of having “faith” in anyone or anything (including *him* and his *own* teachings BTW! 😳) He advised seekers to simply reject any postulate or argument they found unpersuasive.

    The Buddha’s theology was so foundation-shattering — not only vis-à-vis Hinduism but *every* other religious paradigm, before or since — that “religious revolutionary” would be a better descriptor.

    And his epistemological reconceptualization of “religious belief,” was merely the “Intro to Buddhism” prereq…

    • ReligionProf June 6, 2024 at 1:09 pm

      I used the superlatives somewhat tongue in cheek, knowing that in fact there are plenty of equally strong contenders and no one will ever agree on a #1 in such a competition. My point was to highlight the fact that John might not even make the list for many people and yet more than one of those who would make the list for them were likely influenced by and to some extent derivative of John.

  20. TimOBrien June 6, 2024 at 12:16 pm

    Gautama propounded a universal, transcendent, spiritual interconnection among ALL living things — and outright rejected the concept of an omniscient, omnipotent, “personal God.” 😮

    He denied the very existence of a Zeus or Yahweh (or Vishnu, Odin, etc.) — or any pantheon of eternal divinities. Nor did he care about such issues as how, when or why the universe arose, dismissing these as unanswerable questions, making any speculation pointless.

    The Buddha was, instead, entirely focused on the undeniable fact that “life is suffering,” and concerned himself exclusively with how one might best live to reduce (and ultimately) eliminate it.

    He offered a specific and detailed “Eightfold Path” to do so. But his teachings essentially came down to two, overarching admonitions:

    1. Avoid becoming attached to anything temporal — including vocation, possessions, and even family — as these are inherently transient, their inevitable loss necessarily leading to more suffering.

    2. Have equal and universal compassion for all living things, especially all sentient beings, loving and caring equally for everyone — friend and enemy alike — passing through this same “vale of tears” as you.

    Hey, wait… That sounds familiar! Was it John the Baptist? I know I’ve heard these same (*very* counterintuitive) teachings somewhere… 🤔

  21. ReligionProf June 11, 2024 at 7:37 am

    Today’s the day – the official release of Christmaker: A Life of John the Baptist. When you read it, please do let me know what you think. Stop by your favorite local bookstore and ask if they have it, and/or recommend it to your local library. Hope you find it as meaningful to read as I found writing it!

  22. AngeloB June 14, 2024 at 12:47 am

    What are the attitudes of Christians and Mandaens to each other?

    • ReligionProf June 14, 2024 at 7:23 pm

      Christians usually don’t even know that Mandaeans exist. Mandaeans, despite negative depictions of Jesus in some of their sacred texts, are friendly towards Christians and indeed other religions in general.

  23. Zhongqing Zhu June 17, 2024 at 10:22 am

    The success of Christianity is related to being designated as the state religion by Rome (with the aim of preventing the true Messiah?), so it cannot be entirely attributed to the influence of John the Baptist.

    Furthermore, about the nature of the influence of John the Baptist, Jews at that time clearly had a different view: if they believed that Jesus was a cult scammer who performed false miracles to impersonate the Messiah and deceive money, then John the Baptist who influenced Jesus was clearly an accomplice of the scammer Jesus.

    In my book “Doomsday for Jesus: True Messiah Judges Scammer Jesus”, I analyzed the financial income and expenditure of the Jesus team, supporting the Jewish view at the time that the Jesus team did indeed deceive money by impersonating the Messiah and demanding charitable donations from others.

    Of course, these objections do not hinder the academic status of your book. I believe that the most detailed information and systematic organization it provided will qualify it as an important reference book with high citation rates in this field.

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