In the small Roman province of Palestine, ca. AD 30, during the reign of Caesar Tiberius, a Jewish prophet was out in the area of Bethany beyond Jordan (John 1:28 CSB). God had been silent for nearly 400 years, and suddenly, someone new came on the scene proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was coming near, that the people of Israel needed to be cleaned with water, repent, and accept God’s Messiah (Mark 1:4-8; Matt 3:1-2; Luke 3:2-3; John 1:26-28 CSB). God’s people had been waiting for this moment, His Messiah was finally coming. Israel was going to be restored to her Golden Years, as under David. The notions of who and what this Messiah was, was very misunderstood. The historical Jesus did not come to bring a war, free the Jews from their current exile under the Romans, He, as the Christ of faith (was also the Jesus of history), came to free His people from Satan, death, and sin. The historical Jesus came to set His people free, to reconnect them with their God, YHWH, through His death and resurrection.
Why a Prophet in the Wilderness and how does he Connect to the Historical Jesus?
Around the year 4 BC, while Caesar Augustus was the Emperor of the Roman Empire, John the Baptist was born. His parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were in their older age when they gave birth to John. Zechariah was a priest in Jerusalem, officiating in the Temple when Herod the Great was still the King of Judah. Zechariah was from the line of priests of Abijah and Elizabeth was a daughter from the family line of Aaron (Luke 1:57 CSB). Luke is the only author who gives us any internal information on John. It is Luke who gives us the angelic introduction to Zechariah, telling us that Elizabeth was barren and unable to have children (Luke 1:7 CSB). Luke also gives us the angelic understanding of who John was in connection with the story of Jesus:
he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people (Luke 1:13-17 CSB).
It is, though, in the Synoptics that we learn of John’s wilderness ministry (Mark 1:1-8; Matt 3:1-12; Luke 3:1-18 CSB). Mark and Matthew tell us that John wore camel’s hair, a leather belt, and ate locust and honey (Mark 1:6; Matt 3:4 CSB). John’s message was one of repentance, to be baptized “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; Matt 1:1-2; Luke 3:3 CSB). Outside of the Evangelists, Josephus tells us about John the Baptizer:
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.2).
Josephus wrote his works as an apology, as well as an explanation, of Judaism (along with their history) to the Romans (Keener 2009, 167). Josephus wanted to show to the Romans that his people, the Jews, were not all about rebellion they were not all a threat to the peace of Rome (Sanders 1993, 93). This is part of the reason why Josephus and the Gospels differ in their statement of who and what John was and did. There is an underlying historical connection—John was called by God to preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
In most of the critical scholarship, secular, and Jewish worlds, there’s a thought that the Gospels have actually tweaked the story of John (DeMaris 2002, 138;* Keener 2009, 166-167; Chilton and Good 2011, 26-31; Bock 2012, 28-29). What this means is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and, even, John have all diminished the role of John the Baptist and increased that of Jesus’ (Bock 2012, 28-29). Inside this view is an argument that Jesus was actually a disciple of John’s and that once he was imprisoned Jesus took on John’s message and ministry for Himself (Sanders 1985, 91; Sanders 1993, 94; Theissen 2003, 15; Keener 2009, 166-167; Chilton and Good 2011, 26-31; Bock 2012, 28-29). The truth is, as Keener (2009, 167) holds, that the Gospel authors, whose material is much older than Josephus’, are actually more authentic than that of Josephus.
As we have seen, most of modern scholarship has tried to place John the Baptist as the rabbi of Jesus (for a humorous version see Chilton 2000, 41-43+), we need to get behind the real John, the one that history, through the Gospels, tells us about.
As mentioned above with the Gospels’ narratives, let’s look a little more deeply at John the Baptist. First, John was not an Essene (Bruce 1980,153-154; Wright 1996, 276; Keener 2009, 167). Second, what John was was a prophet. John not only baptized, he even prophesied that the Messiah was coming, saying: “One who is more powerful than I am is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8 CSB). Third, John, as a prophet, preached an eschatological message—from the Greek meaning the study of the end times (Bruce 1980, 154; Sanders 1985, 92; Sanders 1993, 93; Keener 2009, 167-169; Sproul 2009, 61-69; Bock 2012, 33). Fourth, and lastly, John was a baptizer. Baptism was simply a ritual washing, however, we need to understand what kind of ritual washing this was.
First thing, John’s baptism was something new, Israel had never had anything quite like what John was doing (Bruce 1980, 155; Bock 2012, 31). In Leviticus 14, Moses is given commands from God in how to purify the people of Israel from skin diseases and contaminated objects. It deals with bathing, mostly after the ceremony which included being sprinkled with a mixed concoction of bird’s blood and water. The closest thing to what John was doing is from Numbers 19. Here, God tells Moses that a red cow is to be completely burned and its ashes added to water for purifying someone as a sin offering. Most importantly, Ezekiel declared that God was going to clean Israel of her impurities with water and place his Spirit within them, restoring them to their former glory making a new covenant with them (Ezek 36:24-30 CSB). During John’s day, the Pharisees added certain details to being ritually clean. For them, the washing of hands was not hygienic, it was a necessary ritual to help those who were once prevented from gaining access to God by being unclean the ability to stay connected to Him (Bock 2012, 31). The Essenes would bath daily in hopes of keeping their access with God, also it replaced their use of the sacrificial system at the Temple (Bruce 1980, 120). What John was doing, however, was completely different.
John’s washing was one that a proselyte was to do when converting to Judaism (Bruce 1980, 156; Sproul 2009, 67; Sproul 2014, 284). This is important to understanding John’s baptism, message, and Jesus’ connection to him because to a Jew they were already a part of the story (Sproul 2009, 68; Sproul 2014, 285). For Gentiles to be converts to Judaism they needed to do three things, says Sproul (Ibid), profess their faith through the Laws and the Prophets, be circumcised and go through a ritual baptism to become clean. Essentially, what John was proclaiming, to all of Israel, was that Judaism was completely unclean, they needed to repent, be baptized to be made clean (Bruce 1980, 156; Sproul 2009, 68; Sproul 2014, 285; Limbaugh 2017, 123). If this was John’s message, then what did it have to do with the historical Jesus?
What does the Baptism of Jesus have to the do with the Historical Jesus?
To break it down, John’s baptism of Jesus and his message are important to the historical Jesus due to the fact that He accepts John’s baptism, calling, message, mission, and prophetic ministry (Bruce 1980, 159; Keener 2009, 175-176; Bock 2012, 34-36; Limbaugh 2017, 124). Jesus tells John to allow His baptism, that it is necessary “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15 CSB). By taking on John’s baptism, Jesus was saying to him, that He would take on the very obligations that God required of Israel—hence the need to fulfill all righteousnesss—at the same time proclaiming that John was correct in requiring all of Israel to repent, be cleansed, and ready for God to return as their King (Sproul 2009, 68; Keener 2009, 175-176, Bock 2012, 34-36; Limbaugh 2017, 123-124). That Jesus had to humble Himself to be baptized in a ritual for repenting was something that is seen as being embarrassing for the early Christians (Keener 2009, 176; Bock 2012, 28). Because of this, then, historically the situation must have happened, or else why would the authors even put it in their story (Ibid.)? The historical Jesus is the Christ of faith, taking on the baptism of John, becoming our Messiah and the King of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ baptism marked that the new covenant had been established, that through Him would God’s Kingdom come and be ruled by Him (Sproul 2009, 68; Sproul 2014, 286-287; Limbaugh 2017, 124).
* Richard E. DeMaris, a social-Scientific scholar in Jesus studies, tries to argue that the visual experience of Jesus at His baptism has more historicity to it than His actual baptism. DeMaris (2002, 138), states “Jesus’ baptismal vision has a stronger claim to historicity than the baptism itself…Jesus’ baptism has no claim to historicity.” This is the type of arguments that are making it into our churches and seminaries, arguments that contradict themselves. There are a few fallacies that DeMaris is making here. The first one is the post hoc ergo propter hoc, also known as the faulty cause fallacy, which states that because one thing happens, another one follows it. DeMaris makes this fallacy by arguing that Jesus’ baptism did not really happy, but because of the view of Jesus being possessed by the Holy Spirit, Jesus went through some kind of ritual, without actually going through it—in other words, because Jesus was a holy man, He had to receive His purpose from something. Another fallacy he makes is known as inconsistency, which means that an argument is made in which the premise stems from a self-contradiction. DeMaris makes this one with the argument that Jesus’ physical baptism did not happen, yet His baptismal vision has some factual historicity to it. When we do studies into the Gospels and Jesus’ life, we must be very careful of the types of arguments we are making.
+ Bruce Chilton, in his biography of Jesus, believes that Jesus separated from His family, to seek a rabbi who would help Him to understand His vision of the Kingdom, through the Temple, by following John at the Jordan River. Even giving a complete conversation:
“Shelama, rabbi,” he would have said. He [Jesus] opened his hands by his sides in a gesture of vulnerability, went down on one knee, bowing his head, holding breath, waiting to see if John would acknowledge him. “Show your face,” John finally said to this strange beggar-boy. He saw a young man, dirty and disheveled. “Who are you?” John asked. “Jesus from Nazareth.” “Why are you not then in Nazareth?” And Jesus found his voice by telling his story: how he had left his family because the Kingdom he intuitively discerned was palpable for him in the Temple, how he needed to remain near its center (Chilton 2000, 42).
Bock, Darrell L. 2012. Who is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith. New York: Howard Books.
Bruce. F. F. 1980. New Testament History. New York: Galilee Book, Doubleday.
Chilton, Bruce. 2000. Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography. New York: Image Books, Doubleday.
Chilton, Bruce and Deirdre Good. 2001. “Movement of John the Baptist.” In Studying the New Testament. A Fortress Introduction. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
DeMaris, Richard E. 2002. “Baptism of Jesus: A Ritual-Critical Approach.” In Social Setting of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Wolfgang Stegemann, Bruce J. Malina, and Gerd Theissen, 137-157. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Keener, Craig S. 2009. Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Limbaugh, David. 2017. True Jesus: Uncovering the Divinity of Christ in the Gospels. Washington D. C.: Regnery Publishing.
Sanders, E. P. 1993. Historical Figure of Jesus. New York: Allen Lane, Penguin Press.
________. 1985. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Sproul, R. C. 2014. Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
________. 2009Who Is Jesus?. Vol. 1. The Crucial Questions Series. Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing.
Theissen, Gerd. 2003. Fortress Press Introduction to the New Testament. Translated by John Bowden. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Wright, N. T. 1996. Jesus and the Victory of God. Vol. 2. Christian Origins and the Questions of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.