Messianic Expectations

"...Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist;..." Mk 8:27b-28a

...or Elijah, or one of the prophets, they continue, setting the stage for Peter's confession on the way to Caesarea Philippi. But here again the Baptist's name crops up in a baffling way. Were there followers of the Kingdom preachers who believed that Jesus was John redivivus? Were they the same followers whom the Christian gospels portray as mistakenly believing John to be the Messiah? The fourth gospel indicates that some of Jesus' disciples had been among the followers of John; does the existence of this belief in John redivivus accompany a shift in allegiance to Jesus? Finally, and most perplexing of all, does this verse indicate belief among the Baptist's followers in his resurrection?

For more on this subject, Mark 6:14-29 has an unabridged report on the threefold misconception from an unlikely oracle: King Herod. His advisors informed him concerning Jesus, "'John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him.' But others said, 'It is Elijah.' And others said, 'It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.'" Confronted with these ambiguous options, Herod displays little doubt..."John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." v. 16 We have elsewhere suggested that there are in the gospels "no casual misconstruals". Each misconception is mentioned for a purpose: most likely to correct views current with the gospel writer's time. Then follows the sordid account of John's execution which ends at verse 29 with a scene suggestive of the passion, "When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb." Also parallel with the passion account is the exoneration of the civil authority; Herod held John to be "a righteous and holy man", whom he "kept safe" until the treachery of Herodias proved his undoing. Like Pilate, he is exempted from direct blame for the death. The same motive which demonstrates such care on the part of the evangelists to exhonorate civil officials is operative in each case. As in the fourth gospel, where the resurrection of Lazarus has parallels to that of Jesus, this account of the death of the baptist also receives influences from that of Jesus. Can we say which tradition came first? Since John's death preceded Jesus' and there were those who believed Jesus in the days of his ministry was John redivivus, the possibility exists that BEFORE Golgotha there were followers of the Kingdom preaching who mourned the death of their master and looked for his reappearance!

The intertwining of the lives, ministries and followers of John and Jesus poses many possibilities. Did John's disciples, those who dutifully laid his body in a tomb following his death, preserve this story along with their master's teaching, the prayer he taught them and the baptism he practiced? The New Testament sources clearly state that the sect persisted and continued as a rival to early Christianity for a long while. But those who, like Herod, believed Jesus to be John raised from the dead would no doubt have abandoned such a group to become one of the followers of Jesus! The inclusion in Mark of this account may indicate cognizance of just such a group in the Christian circles. The normative confession of Peter to Jesus' messiahship severs any lingering thoughts of John in the Markan account and sets the stage for the Christian passion. His confession would be doubly significant to those who knew Peter to have been one of the baptist's followers. For Mark the baptism of the spirit overlays the baptism of water. But even in the Christian gospels, thoughts of the baptizer continue to resurface.

Goguel observes, following Dibelius, that the "diverse hypotheses" of Herod's advisors concerning the identity of Jesus is an account without a conclusion. It poses the Herodian threat but does not explicate it. Dibelius believes a statement to the effect that Herod "sought to see Jesus" had dropped out of the accounts of Matthew and Mark. Goguel believes the menace to be an outright threat to the life of Jesus, and sees the account of the death of the Baptist as diverting the narrative from the lack of a proper conclusion. This menace motivates the movement from Galilee to Jerusalem and the Passion. Luke alone, in a curious sidelight to the Passion, has Herod visit Jerusalem and hold a hearing for Jesus in which he finds no fault in him. In this way the story is resolved, but not to the satisfaction of the readers of Mark or Matthew. "It is, however, impossible to see for what reason Mark and Matthew would have insisted on the omission as anything so vague as Luke's ending to the story; we must conclude, therefore, that, in its primitive form, the episode ended differently." (Goguel p.355)

A look at Mark reveals more than the mere content of the Herod threat and death of the Baptist account. Just before, the twelve had been sent out with their instructions. Just following, they return with their report. Placed in this position, the account with Herod seems even more disjointed. At its conclusion at Mark 6:2-30, the text reads: "When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught." Matthew (14:12) has, "And his disciples came and took the body and buried it; and they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a lonely place apart."

A question emerges from this context. Upon the imprisonment of the Baptist, did his disciples endeavor to continue his ministry? At some point, an affirmative answer must be given, since his tradition persevered as we know. Then a second question emerges. Did the Baptist tradition enshrine an account of the charter of this continued mission? Finally, do we in this account see the imprint of this charter account? Goguel notes the "early" character of the instructions to the disciples. They must take nothing but a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts. They are to wear sandals and only one tunic. "And if any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them. So they went out and preached that men should repent." (Mk 6:11-12) If this is the remnant of a Baptist account, as the above verses could easily indicate, the disjointedness disappears. The mission of the Baptist's disciples is curtailed by his death; they return to bury him and Jesus is informed. The Herodian context is also resolved, for it was the Baptist who he had killed, and not Jesus. That he remained a menace and a threat to Jesus and his disciples goes without saying. If Jesus only commenced his ministry at John's death, this would be the point of beginning. Since the story has already proceeded in advance of this account it can not have Jesus as one of John's followers here, but it does associate with the call of his own disciples. The baptism has taken the place of the beginning of the story for Mark. As usual, the additions which Matthew makes to this account make it far more difficult to observe these underlying possibilites except for the immediate report to Jesus and even more Baptist-like instructions such as the exclusive Jewish scope of the disciples' charter. The similar sending of the seventy is reckoned by Goguel and others as a couplet with the sending of the twelve, suggesting the arbitrariness of the number but also indicating the possibility that one of the two events may have come from another source originally. That some of Jesus' disciples came from the circle of the Baptist prompts us to reckon that a memory of the teaching of each master surely overlapped in their minds. The oral traditions originating in such a source would surely be interwoven and in some sense interchangeable.

John and Jesus

Since the contents of the Manual of Discipline and other Qumran documents have entered the consciousness of Biblical scholars, the notion of a double Messiahship has been present. To the Qumran community, a priestly and a royal Messiah combined to carry out their eschatological scheme. Such a double Messiahship strikes our ears as completely foreign to our scriptural tradition. Further reflection on the relationship of Jesus and John which appears in the gospel may cause some second thoughts about the possibilities of this theme in illuminating Palestinian Christianity. It is not in the ritual washing theme, which for Qumran was repetitive and for John a singular rite,(acording to the gospels...the Mandaeans also practise repetitive washings) nor in the scheme of light and darkness which Qumran held closely in common with the fourth evangelist, but in the curious evidence regarding the relationship of John and Jesus which emerges in the gospel portrayals. Although Goguel is quoted as holding that there was a break between John and Jesus in which John viewed Jesus as "almost a renegade" (LIFE OF JESUS, p. 279), the sense of his text is much more to cast the two as peers. Any attempt to reconstruct a rivalry between the two is frustrated by the fact that each speaks only in the highest terms of the other. The questioning comes from unidentified disciples, and then reflects curiousity or the interests of the evangelists. Neither John nor Jesus was hesitant in their polemic against those who opposed them, usually the Pharisees and scribes. It is significant that in spite of this, not one word of reproof exists to suggest a rivalry between them. On the contrary, what we have from the earliest traditions passed down by their followers is a harmonized ministry of proclamation of the kingdom, in which John proclaims and prepares and Jesus "binds the strong man" by exorcisms, wonders and final exaltation to heaven.

Here the similarity to the Qumran scheme comes into focus. Moses receives a promise that a prophet like unto himself will come to work a miraculous deliverance to Israel in the last days. That prophet was Elijah, who the Pharisees taught must precede the royal Messiah's appearance. The Baptist, who fills the role of Elijah in the gospels, then could be seen as the priestly member of the Messianic court (Elijah also being a priest), while Jesus claims the royal Messianic throne, now heavenly but ultimately earthly upon his return. This is the theme of the vision of the Transfiguration which we discuss elsewhere. In this way the faith of the followers of Jesus in the Palestinian community could be paralleled with that of Qumran. It is not necessary to add that in the diaspora, Christian teaching of Pauline character could lose such bifurcation of Messianic roles. The more complex vision of the Transfiguration, joining Moses, Elijah (the Baptist), Jesus and the other disciples is replaced by the simple vision of Christ to Paul. The influence of this simplified gospel, embodied by the evangelists, leaves the Baptist tradition scattered throughout the accounts under the rubric supplied by the fourth gospel, "I must decrease but He must increase." The fact that only three verses are attributed to the Baptist directly (by Luke) from all of the Messianic teachings in the gospels indicates the extent to which the "increase/decrease" rubric controlled the form which our gospels assumed.

It would be difficult to imagine how the dual Messiaship of Qumran would have fared in league with the Divine Man theme of Hellenism. It might appear ironic to an observer of the history of religions that an unconditional monotheism produced a divided Messianism, while Christianity evolved a monistic Messiah, but part of a divine Trinity!

A Prophet and More