I continue now with a post that was produced for us by a fellow scholar in celebration of the ten-year anniversary of the blog. James McGrath has made several intriguing posts for us, and this one is particularly interesting. Is it possible that stories about Jesus — especially in the birth narratives were *originally* told about the future messiah, John the Baptist?? That the followers of Jesus took accounts originally told of John and edited them so that they now refer to Jesus? Very intriguing! Here’s James’s post.
The Birth of John the Baptist:
Detecting a Source from John’s Followers Behind Three Early Christian Gospels
James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature, Butler University, Indianapolis
Anyone who has read my previous guest posts here, or who has read academic publications by Bart and myself, will know we share a great many interests in common: the historical Jesus, the development of Christology, extracanonical texts, and many more. As I have begun to turn my attention to my next major project, which is about the historical figure of John the Baptist, I find that my work falls once again at points of intersection between Bart’s interests and my own.
John the Baptist is the starting point of far more early Christian literature than readers today tend to notice. Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus and then immediately turns to John. John’s family and the prediction of his birth is the focus in Luke’s Gospel before equivalent material about Jesus occurs. John’s name appears in the prologue to the Gospel of John before Jesus gets mentioned. The first detectable content in the hypothetical Q source is about John the Baptist. Among the sayings attributed to Jesus, one has him say John is the greatest human being to ever live (Matthew 11:11//Luke 7:28) while another links Jesus’ authority to that of John (Mark 11:27-33 and parallels).
One area that I have worked on which Bart hasn’t (yet, as far as I am aware) is the Mandaeans. They are the only Gnostic group to have survived continuously from ancient times down to the present day. Their sacred texts in a dialect of Aramaic hold John the Baptist in high esteem, while not viewing Jesus favorably. (That’s presumably why their texts do not feature in Bart’s work on extracanonical Christian texts: the Mandaeans aren’t Christians.) The Mandaean Book of John features an infancy story about John the Baptist that is in some ways similar to that in the Gospel of Luke. Comparing and connecting the New Testament Gospels, the second century Proto-Gospel of James (which Bart has written about before here on his blog), and Mandaean sources, it starts to seem likely there was an infancy story about John the Baptist before any was written for Jesus, and which influenced those about Jesus.
I won’t include texts from the aforementioned works here, which I am certain blog readers can look up online (there are public domain translations freely available online) or consult in one of Bart’s books that offers a translation. With respect to the Gospel of Luke, take a look at the first chapter and try to read it as though you are reading it for the first time. Skip the parts about Jesus. (That may sound shocking to some but it shouldn’t. After all, Luke tells Theophilus that he is going to write about important recent events that he has investigated and then immediately starts talking not about Jesus, but about John.) I suspect you’ll be surprised by just how easy it is to remove the Jesus-focused parts, as well as by the fact that we are left with a coherent infancy story about John when we do so. It is hard to know just how much of what is in the early chapters of Luke came from such a source. In some manuscripts, it is actually Elizabeth who utters the Magnificat! We can also remove the name “Jesus” in a few other places and be left with references to mother and child, or child and parents. Conceivably in Luke’s source about the birth of John those sections might also have been present but in their original context referred to John rather than Jesus. It is difficult to tell. We will return to this, however, once we note an intriguing connection with the Proto-Gospel of James. Before leaving Luke, however, had you noticed before that Zechariah says with reference to his son John that God has “raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:69)? Hold that thought as well.
When we turn to the Proto-Gospel of James, the narrative is focused on Jesus, but then suddenly shifts gears in 22:3 which says, “But when Elizabeth heard that they were looking for John, she took him and went into the hill country to look for a place to hide him.” This is in the context of an expanded version of the story of the Magi and Herod the Great that up until this point has been focused on Jesus! Why does the story suddenly become one about John, born in Bethlehem, identified as the one Herod is seeking to eliminate? This too seems like it must be lifted straight out of a source available to the creator of the Proto-Gospel, a source that was about John the Baptist. Might the author of Matthew’s Gospel, like the author of Luke, have been drawing on a source about John in creating his infancy story about Jesus?
Now let’s bring some of the loose ends from our discussion of Luke back into the picture. In the Proto-Gospel, Herod sends people to ask Zechariah where his son is, and when he insists he doesn’t know, Herod gets angry and says, “His son is to be king over Israel” (23:2). As in Luke, here too we get the sense that John is a royal messianic figure. How that is to be reconciled with his priestly ancestry is unclear, but it would no more have stood in the way of convinced adherents of John’s than Jesus of Nazareth’s hometown prevented his supporters from finding a way to insist that he was really from Bethlehem. Perhaps the Christian authors drew on stories about John the Baptist in doing so. They may also have sought to give Jesus a more impressive miraculous conception than John’s. In the process, something that explained how John the priest could also be king would have turned into a potential liability, separating Jesus from David as ancestor by way of his paternal lineage. Presumably competition with John’s supporters and seeking to win them over was a more pressing concern at this point.
We also need to return to one other question we left unanswered when discussing Luke, the question of whether other material that in its present form now refers to Jesus might originally have been connected with John. Near the end of the Proto-Gospel Zechariah is killed. (The author adapts a story about the Zechariah who was martyred in 2 Chronicles 20:20-22 in a way that is interesting in its own right but we don’t have room to explore that here.) The Proto-Gospel goes on to say that after Zechariah was killed, they cast lots to find a replacement and as a result Simeon was chosen, adding that he is the one who had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before seeing the Christ in the flesh (24:3). Simeon has not been mentioned before in the Proto-Gospel, and his abrupt introduction here suggests that he probably was mentioned in the Baptist source used. This may be an indication that Simeon appeared in the nativity of John the Baptist known to all the early Christian authors we have been discussing, and that Simeon and his Nunc Dimittis originally referred to John.
I will be spending the 2022-2023 academic year researching the figure of John the Baptist. The infancy traditions about him are only one of the many aspects of his life and activity that are deserving or more attention than they have received. Even though a number of scholars have touched on this topic over the decades, there are still relatively few book-length treatments and articles specifically focused on it. I expect that most readers of this blog will agree that there is more to be said on the topic, since I am guessing few of you have encountered the idea that there is a nativity of John the Baptist detectable behind these early Christian texts, much less an effort to reconstruct it. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this topic!
[For a sketch of what the reconstructed nativity of John might look like see the post on my blog “A Hypothetical Infancy Narrative of John the Baptist.”]