Death of John the Baptist

After the disciples of John the Baptist "came and took his body and laid it in a tomb" (Mk 6:29), the thread of reference to him in the gospels is carried by his disciples and the startling disposition of popular opinion and even of Herod that Jesus now embodied his spirit. The parallel in Hebrew tradition which carried the spirit of Elijah into his successor, Elisha, has been noted. This is not exactly the case, since Elisha is not represented as Elijah himself reborn, but suggests the theme which augments the Messianic role of Elijah who is to reappear as antecedent to the promised one. The identification of the Baptist with Elijah is represented variously by the evangelists, but even when they explicitly deny this identity they establish this question as current in the early Christian circles.

It is Matthew (17:13) who has Jesus' disciples recognize the identity of the two after the transfiguration, which may supply a clue to yet another dimension to that much analysed appearance on the mountaintop. As with the Elijah-John question, there is variance in the chronology of the ministries of Jesus and John. Mark and Luke draw a clearer line between the ministries while John and Matthew have indicated simultaneous parallel ministries for a time. The notion of Jesus' embodying John's spirit is better served by the more distinct separation of ministries, and would better approximate the views of the followers of John. While speculative, it is tempting to cast the transfiguration event as a part of the Baptist tradition. Peter, James and John accompany Jesus onto "a high mountain apart by themselves." There Jesus garments become glistening, intensely white and there appear two figures, Moses and Elijah! As at the baptism, a voice from the cloud pronounces, "This is my beloved son, listen to him." Peter is confused, but realizes when Jesus states that Elijah has already come and "they did to him whatever they pleased" that "he was speaking to them of John the Baptist." In the vision itself are the elements of a conclusion to the Baptist saga. Moses, the prophet of Yahweh, appears with Elijah. John the Baptist is identified with him by Jesus. John the Baptist has been taken up into the heavenly realm to await the Messianic events about to unfold. The evangelists mark this epiphany as one of Jesus to his disciples, but the presence of the Baptist theme is striking once again. As a finale to the Baptist story the event plays a dramatic role but in the Jesus story it seems a bit out of place and redundant. Many analysts therefore suggest the transfiguration account arose as a post-Easter tradition. If it is seen as having Baptist origins, it would continue the theme of parallel traditions between the two, regardless of which account came first.

The disciples of John continue to figure in the gospels along with those of Jesus. Remarkably, they are not cast as adversaries. But the distinction is artificial in this regard: we know that some of the Baptist's followers became followers of Jesus, even among "the twelve." Presumeably there were followers of John who did not transfer their allegiance but continued in some kind of hope that John's teachings would come to fruition. But it is the third perspective; that of Baptist followers coming over to Jesus that is not articulated for us. Those who did come over would have a kind of dual allegiance: interest in and reverence for the Baptist (as indeed Jesus' words display) as well as vested hope in Jesus' Messianic fulfillment. It is this third point of view which is in evidence so often in the gospel records. It must be remembered that at the outset of the oral traditions, the followers of John, Jesus, and those who had followed both confronted the situation of the deaths of their beloved teachers. If there were those who held Messianic expectations for John, they were in the same straits as the disciples of Jesus who faced a world and particularly a religious hierarchy skeptical of their continued faith.

One reference to Elijah remains to be noted. In his last words from the cross according to Luke 27, Jesus is heard (mistakenly?) to call out to Elijah. Was this understood by the followers of the Baptist to be a last grieving call to the one by whose baptism and spirit Jesus' ministry had begun? (The Making of Luke-Acts, Henry J. Cadbury)

In this bronze by Paul Manship, the daughter of Herodias is pictured over the head of the Baptist. Manship's most famous work may be the Prometheus at Rockefeller Center. The work shows relative restraint in the context of many lurid imaginings of this legend.

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