Disciples of John, Disciples of Jesus, Disciples of both

Bultmann holds that the Baptist's following was a numerous and surviving element in the early Christian era (HST 164) and follows M. Goguel as authoritative on the subject. The Westar group (Jesus Seminars) has rediscovered this theme and J.M. Ford in the Anchor Bible series even attributes the substance of the book of Revelation to Baptist sources. The case seems thin if based only on the Apollos incident in Acts, often the point of departure for the Baptist sect discussion, but gains credence when weighed in the many examples in the gospels where the disciples of John figure. Bultmann also observes that the gospel reading of the Baptist is a divided one; on the one hand venerating and on the other diminishing, even hinting at rivalry. Of the reported teachings of John in Luke, he observes that they might well have been attributed to Jesus, and that Luke 1 "comes from the Baptist sect" (HST p. 295).

In a remarkable reading of this question, Albert Schweitzer adamantly and outspokenly denies that the Baptist's proclamation of the one who is to come referred to the Messiah at all! Rather it is Elias (Elijah) who is expected on the basis of Malachi and 4 Ezra 6:23-26. John makes no claim to this title, and the question of his disciples to Jesus, "are you the one?" is misunderstood by tradition. Their query was to discover whether Jesus was Elias, not whether he was the Messiah, whose appearance would presumeably have been unmistakable. "That the view that the Baptist meant the Messiah by the designation 'He who is to come' should have held its ground in the critical interpretation of the New Testament down to the most recent times, shows how difficult it is even for scientific study to displace the traditional view in favour of the right one." complains Schweitzer (MYSTICISM OF PAUL THE APOSTLE p. 162). So for Schweitzer the assignment of the role of Elias to the Baptist comes from Christian sources. It should be noted as elsewhere that one answer to Jesus' question, "whom do men say that I am" was Elias. That assignment is ambiguous even in gospel sources: Matthew 11:14 makes the identification conditional ("...if you will receive it..."), the fourth gospel denies it and Luke joins Mark in silence on the question.

A corollary question concerning the "one who is to come, who will baptize..." is whether Jesus himself did baptize and why the gospels also exhibit ambiguity on this issue. The return to Galilee follows the Pharisee's discovery that "Jesus was baptizing more followers than John," and the parenthetic disclaimer that, "Jesus did not baptize, but his disciples" is obviously just that. The concern of the Christian community to distinguish between post-Pentecostal baptism of the Spirit and any pre-Pentecostal baptism (especially John's, but also Jesus?) creates the ambiguity. It is instructive to return to the Apollos story in Acts at this point. When it is discovered that he knows only the "baptism of John," the deficiency is made up by baptism in the "name of the Lord Jesus" and the conveying of the Spirit by the laying on of hands. There is no animosity, nor scarcely criticism of these twelve Corinthian adherants of the Baptist. Their's is not condemned as a false faith, nor is there the implication of conversion or reversal. Indeed the gospel polemic against scribe or pharisee would have been more harsh. This indicates that even in the missionary era of Acts, the linkage with followers of the Baptist was one of openness and collegiality.

If the Baptist sect is present in the diaspora, how did it get there? Luke, who has preserved for us the extensive Baptist nativity tradition discussed elsewhere, may have provided us with another Baptist-related tradition which models the answer to this question. It is the account in Acts 8:26-40 of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Taken by itself, it has a peculiarity and individuality which sets it apart from other missionary accounts. The official of queen Candice is portrayed as a student of the prophets, and queries Philip concerning the victimized servant of Yahweh in Isaiah 53. While this text is known to us as a primary Christian messianic reference, could there be any doubt that followers of John the Baptist would claim it as their own as well? Since Philip was one of the Baptist's followers, one who came over to "the twelve", and since the outcome of the encounter is the baptism of the eunuch, only a minor revision is necessary to bring the account into the Christian fold. Without such a revision, it provides the model of an avenue for the propagation of the Baptist sect to the gentile world. The gentile here has come to the source, to Israel and to scripture, rather than being reached by a missionary effort, to find "the one who has come" to herald the kingdom. It is this peculiarity, along with the association with Philip, which suggests this account may be Baptist in origin.

Kirsopp and Silva Lake observe that this passage in Acts is the first instance Isaiah 53 is linked with Jesus, and that the gospels, while citing Psalm 22, do not (INTRODUCTION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT p.75). They also identify a puzzling series in this section which they call "the 'Philip-Peter' or the 'Jerusalem-Samaria-Caesarea' tradition." In this section converts are made by baptism, but there is considerable ambiguity in this baptism as the stories stand. Philip again figures as the emmisary who baptizes Samaritans "who had received the word of God." (Acts 8:14) But some deficiency must be made up by Peter and John who make a follow-up visit to confer "the Spirit" by the laying on of hands! In the last of this trilogy, Peter visits Cornelius with the visionary conviction concerning gentiles and again administers baptism.

The most difficult point in the story is why Peter ever baptised Cornelius. He recognised in the gift of the spirit to the centurion the fulfillment of the prophecy attributed by Luke to Jesus, 'John baptised with water, but ye shall baptise with the Holy Spirit,' but then went on to baptise Cornelius with water. Why did he? Or did he not do so, and this is merely a reflection of church practice? Is there any importance in the fact that Luke in his narrative relates the baptism of Cornelius, but omits it in his account of Peter's report to the Church in Jerusalem?(Lake p. 76)

The puzzle is removed if we see this series as a redaction of a Baptist tradition in which the baptism of John is extended to the gentiles by Philip and Peter (another likely Baptist disciple) now Christianized by Luke as in the nativity account. This is particularly evident in the case of the Samaritan converts, where the parenthetical explanation to Peter and Johns' follow-up, "they had only been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus," would more logically read "the baptism of John." This appears to be a redactional dilemma.

In 1946, Carl Kraeling delivered the Haskell Lectures at Oberlin on the subject of John the Baptist, which he then developed into his book of this title, filling a lacunae in American treatment of the subject and providing a window to Continental scholarship such as that of his mentor, Martin Dibelius (University of Heidelburg). Although he holds that the existence of a written Baptist tradition is unlikely (p. 5), his idea concerning the period of collegiality between followers of John and of Jesus is remarkable.

"The fraternization of Christian and Baptist disciples in Judea in the early years of the Church provides a welcome solution for a series of problems in our knowledge of the life of the early Church and finds therein its validation. A group of three passages in the early chapter of Acts suggests that the number of Christian believers grew rapidly during the early years of the Church,...the simplest solution is that large numbers of Baptist disciples entered into or were counted as members of Christian fellowship..." (p. 172)

The evidence for this conclusion is as follows:

"...It is clear, for instance, that during his lifetime Jesus rejected as inappropriate the Baptist and Pharisaic practice of fasting. Yet it is also clear that fasting soon became a regular feature of Christian observance... Since fasting was, as we have already seen, a regular feature of Baptist observance, it is entirely possible that, whatever the explanation of the particular day chosen, the practice itself entered the life of the Church as the result of the entrance of extensive Baptist elements into the Christian fellowship." (p. 174)

"If the largest increase in the number of the "believers" during the first days of the Church came from the Baptist circles of Judea, and if, as we have suggested, baptism had been perpetuated in these circles as a requirement for admission to them, the mere fact that most of the members of the expanded Christian fellowship had themselves been baptized may have given rise to the conviction that all who aspired to admission to it must be baptized also. This would account for the initiatory character which the rite had in early Christian usage." (p. 175)

The case is convincingly made that the place of John the Baptist in earliest Christianity goes beyond the role of forerunner, but narrows the avenue by which a continuing Baptist tradition would survive beyond Palestine as we know it did. If the mainstream of Baptist following came over to Christianity, there would be "only a remnant" to continue as witnesses to John, baptizing and developing "his legend" (p. 165). The strain of this tradition extended eastward down to the present day in the Shiites of Iran, but is of interest only in the degree that most ancient historical traditions might be preserved by them. To the best of our knowledge, the scriptural accounts remain for both Baptist and Christian traditions the best source for this.

But the notion of a collegial period between followings in Judea endorses the theory of a Baptist/Dominical tradition of teachings, and opens the possibility that in this way a written Baptist tradition does survive. The "Q" or "second source" would be the place to look for such a Baptist/Dominical tradition since it is devoid of the "signs and wonders" which distinguished Jesus from John and was omitted in toto from Mark, the earliest gospel. Luke, who with Matthew includes the "Q" material and the Baptist infancy narratives as well, reflects another or later posture toward Baptist tradition and in Acts makes clear the deficiency among believers who know "only the Baptism of John," always bringing them within the Christian fold. At the same time, distinctively Baptist tradition has apparently also been brought into the Christian fold. (Since this was written, I have been delighted to find the same suggestion by Joan V. Taylor in her book on the Baptist, p. 300)

Johannes Weiss puzzled over the Apollos account in Acts, wondering:

What kind of Christianity then was his? Messianism without belief that the Messiah had come, a disciple of the Baptist and of Jesus, though probably only by hearsay, from the period before the death of Jesus, one of those, like Joseph of Arimithea, who waited for the Kingdom of God (Mark 15:43). This means moreover that the special character of Pauline Christianity, the teaching on the sacrificial death, on death and resurrection with Christ, on the mystic meaning of baptism and of the reception of the Spirit was, ipso facto, still lacking for Christians like Apollos...

We put down nothing but question marks for we are unable to give a definite answer. In any case this episode warns us how extraordinarily little we know of the various forms which the Messianic movement and propaganda assumed as it passed out from Palestine after the days of the Baptist. (EARLIEST CHRISTIANITY p. 317 ff)

Mystery certainly remains, but if the scheme of Luke is to meld the two traditions into a seamless robe, his description of Apollos and the other Baptist disciples takes on new meaning. The setting is the diaspora, but the story reaches back to Palestine in motive and import. The followers of John are encorporated into full Christian status; we suggest that certain Baptist teachings, or Baptist/Dominical if you will, are also afforded such status.

We follow with great interest J.D. Crossan's penetrating analysis of Q research in which he cites Kloppenborg and Koester primarily. (BIRTH OF CHRISTIANITY, 1998). Here we have opportunity to engage the material from the Gospel of Thomas, which is collated with Q to press back to a yet more primitive level which Crossan calls "Common Sayings Tradition." He is unable to concur with those who remove the eschatological element. Here is what he has to say about the unit "Into the Desert" (Q 7:24-27)

What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet...
Here are some of Crossan's remarkable observations: -Thomas does not attach this saying to the baptist...Q has appended "This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'" It is already the picture of an apocalyptic prophet. "Maybe even the Messiah," says Crossan (307). But the appended verse makes him the "preparer for Jesus" (the Elijah theme). Then the question becomes; did Q add the last verse or did Thomas remove it? Koester thinks Q added it; Thomas is more original. Crossan rather follows the theory of Gerd Theissen that reference to "the reed" is a cue to a specific Herodian referent and ties the saying to John. He also takes seriously the next unit "Greater than John" though he calls it "very, very unusual." He sees in the diminishing of John in this way a diminishing of the apocalypic by the Q redactor.

Now the above unit from Thomas:

Why have you come out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind? And to see a person dressed in soft clothing, [like your] rulers and your powerful ones? They are dressed in soft clothing, and cannot understand truth. (78:1-3)

Let us rather look at Koester's option. If we let the Thomas unit stand as original we are pointed to a prophet's words without the agenda of forerunner. We have the viewpoint of a kingdom of God proclaimer, even before Q has possibly attached it to the Baptist. Bear in mind that both Thomas and Q represent these as dominical sayings. That, as Crossan likes to say, will not work. Let us suggest this solution. The original saying was indeed attached to the Baptist (the wilderness setting seems to point this way, as does the dress contrast) , but was not dominical. Q has worked out the way to encorporate the Baptist into the story as forerunner while reattributing the words to Jesus. After the perspective shift effected by the Gospel of Mark, Matthew and Luke can bring Q into the story. We would prefer to say they did the reattribution, but they agree on this unit and so it cannot be argued that it was not in Q.

There is another scenario which, if seeming even more unlikely, might be mentioned simply because it could be possible. The Baptist disciple whose words are here preserved in the Common Sayings Source might be Jesus. But this is the "pre-dominical" Jesus, if you will. He would be speaking as a disciple of the Baptist and not of one who is his own forerunner. It is significant that he never speaks in such a way. Jesus' words about John are always more like those of a disciple than those of a master.

A Prophet and More