Introduction to John the Baptist

Readers of the gospels encounter the person of John the Baptist early and often. Placed in a role of precursor and herald, his story quickly gives way to the story of Jesus' life and ministry. "I must decrease, but he must increase," says the fourth gospel. But this would not be the plea of a mere herald; rather there is the hint of more. The herald received disciples of his own, commanded a large following of listeners who submitted themselves to the baptism of repentance, and left a legacy of tradition which extended beyond Palestine and well into the era of early Christianity. The study of the formation of gospel tradition has not overlooked this phenomenon. The book of Acts reports that Apollos, "mighty in the scriptures," taught among the Jews at Ephesus (18:24) but knew "only the baptism of John." Coming from Alexandria, it has been speculated that Apollos may have brought a particular fascination with divine birth motifs of the Hebrew scriptures suggestive of the thought of the Jewish scholar, Philo. In this light he has been suggested as a source for the divine birth motifs of the Baptist and of Jesus in Luke's infancy narrative. The fourth gospel records several instances which have been taken as polemical with the followers of the Baptist, indicating the coexistence of such a group with the Christian circle in which this gospel took form.

The Mandaean sect cites John the Baptist as authoritative, leading to speculation that it grew from the soil of the early followers of the wilderness prophet. For the most part, Christians have followed the cue of the evangelists to allow the Baptist an ancillary role as precursor to the main events. But it is the very undercurrent of his influence and following reported by the gospels that compels a closer look. Indeed it is the very content of the Christian gospels which may provide an expanded picture of this significant figure. Next to Jesus himself, John the Baptist is the subject of more New Testament material than any other figure. Explicitly and implicitly, by tribute and apparent rivalry, the Baptist figures from beginning to end in the Christian story. If Jesus himself heard this message, if other followers of John became his disciples and if they shared a common public, it would be likely that a spectrum of common tradition should arise around these central figures. There is evidence that this commonality may be even greater than the superficial indications, weighty as those indeed may be. We know of the life, death and ministry of the Baptist and hints of his heritage even among gentile followers. What we have very little of is a deposit of teaching; merely a few verses in response to pharisees and tax collectors who seek out his teaching. Even those teachings have no distinguishing characteristics which could prevent them from being ascribed to Jesus. But there are a number of Jesus' teachings, particularly woes, apocalyptic utterances and "hard sayings," which one could readily associate with the fiery reputation of the wilderness baptizer. One could justifiably ask the question whether the common audience, the common disciples and, indeed, the common purpose of the ministries of John and Jesus may not have also given rise to a common tradition of teachings. It is an observable fact that preachers proclaim the truth in common illustrations as a matter of course. It would be a much stranger occurance should Jesus never have repeated a teaching of John than that he would, as his successor, do so. And as for those followers of either or both teachers who followed the custom of preserving an oral tradition of their teachings, the matter of distinguishing who said what would be even more problematic. That the followers of Jesus should hear teachings familiar to them from their earlier exposure to the proclamations of the Baptist would be expected. Whatever shape any oral tradition from exlusively Baptist sources might take must remain speculative. From the infancy account in Luke it must be concluded that a Baptist oral tradition had proceeded into written form. But what of a written teaching tradition?

As a working hypothesis to pursue this possibility of a Baptist, or more accurately a common Baptist/Dominical deposit of teaching we take a cue from the two source theory of synoptic formation. The Mark/Q scheme, while critically scrutinized with regularity at many levels for a century, has proven durable. It has become so familiar and acceptable that one question of premise has dropped from view. That question is why Mark did not include material from the Quelle (source) in his gospel. That he did not know of it is the traditional explanation (although Harnack maintains that he did). An alternative explanation is the point of departure for our hypothetical Baptist/Dominical teaching exploration. That Mark was ignorant of the Q material becomes less easily defended upon reflection, considering the power and influence of his gospel story. The alternative, of course, is that it was excluded deliberately. To set the theme of the hypothesis, Mark was concerned to record only those matters exclusively attributable to Jesus himself and not any "common" traditions of teaching also overlapping the Baptist tradition. This would be particularly focused should the common Baptist/Domincal tradition be extant in an already written form (such as the infancy story in Luke) and be in the partisan hands of the Baptist sect. Conversely, such hesitancy would be seen to be overcome in both the case of Matthew and Luke, both a step further removed from the times and personages (Peter?) of their subjects. The task to be performed, then, is to examine the contents of Q with an eye to its potential reevaluation as a written Baptist/Dominical teaching tradition, possibly emerging from Baptist sources.

Wellhausen delineates the Q source in this way:

	M 3:1-12	the mission of John the Baptist		L 3:1-7
	M 4:1-11	baptism and temptation of Jesus		L 4:1-15
	M 5:1-12	Beatitudes				L 6:20-23
	M 5:38-48	counsels of perfection			L 6:27-36
	M 6:19-34	heavenly treasure; cares		L 12:22-34
	M 7:1-6		judge not				L 6:37-42
	M 7:7-11	ask and you will receive		L 11:9-13
	M 7:15-27	false prophets; hearing and doing	L 6:43-49
	M 8:5-13	centurian in Capernaum			L 7:1-10
	M 10:1ff	instructions to disciples		L 10:1-12,
								L 12:1-12,
								L 12:49-53
	M 11:1-19	about John the Baptist			L 7:18-35
	M 11:20-24 	woes on various cities			L 10:13-15
	M 11:25-30 	invitation of Jesus Wisdom		L 10:21-24
	M 12:22-37	question about Beelzebub		L 11:14-23
	M 12:38-42 	the sign of Jonah			L 11:29-32
	M 12:43-45 	the fate of the unclean spirit		L 11:24-26
	M 22:1-14	parable of the wedding banquet		L 14:16-24
	M 23:13-36 	woes against the Pharisees		L 11:37-52
	M 24:1ff	apocalyptic predictions			L 17:20-35,
								L 12:35-46
	M 25:14-30 	parable of the entrusted funds		L 19:11-27

Of those characteristics which distinguish these logia from the picture of Jesus in Mark, perhaps the most noteable is the absence of miraculous deeds. Only one healing, a hallmark of Jesus' ministry in Mark, appears in the healing of the Centurian's child (or slave.) A closer look at that event shows that the healing is not typical, since no direct contact between "healer" and subject occurs. The restoration is completed at a distance, and is attributed to the faith of the Centurian, which is exempified as a model scarcely to be found "in Israel." The logia could be held as Baptist without disturbing the convention that "John did no signs," and so does not alter the character of Q as prophetic teaching. Although not listed as belonging to Q by Wellhausen, the teaching on prayer is recorded by both Matthew and Luke independently of Mark in ways that suggest Baptist influence. In Matthew, the prayer is followed by instructions on fasting which is to include washing, both uncharacteristic of Jesus and his followers as reported elsewhere. In Luke, the more brief form of the prayer is given, along with the revealing "as John taught his disciples to pray." Christians have through the ages repeated a prayer believed to have come to them from Jesus which does not include specifically Christian characteristics! If Mark had not written his gospel along restricted lines, Luke might not have felt obliged to add the words "as John taught..." and we might have missed its ultimate point of origin. The disciples' prayer gives a strong indication regarding the mystery of the absence of recorded Baptist teaching. That indication is, of course, that such teaching may not be absent at all, but "baptised," by the later evangelists into the form we label "Baptist/Dominical."

A Prophet and More