The Baptist in the Fourth Gospel

In his essay "Logoi Sophon : on the Gattung of Q" in the landmark work, TRAJECTORIES THROUGH EARLY CHRISTIANITY, James M. Robinson says of Rudolph Bultmann:

Hence it was the Gospel of John, rather than the synoptics, or Q with its close correlation to the sayings tradition, that provided Bultmann with what one might call a christological explication of the connection between the sayings of the Lord and the wisdom literature. Just as further application of form criticism moved from the synoptics to kerygmatic confessions and hymns embedded in the letters, and as Bultmann moved from his "Jesus and the Word" to his "Theology of the New Testament," just so in this case what was first seen in Q and came to expression in the concept "wisdom teacher" was not further pursued in the context of sayings of the Lord. Such passing insights, which Bultmann has not himself followed up, are left for our generation to pick up and work through. Only when we honor such hints by treating them as topics for further research are we able to honor a scholar so much more absorbed in the issues than in himself as is Bultmann.

The last paragraph expresses the indebtedness which the ongoing labor to identify and distinguish the elements of the apocalyptic and the wisdom traditions in the New Testament to this day owes to Bultmann. We are applying this also to the subject of the Baptist movement. It also speaks of "honoring." In the decade of the sixties, some of the writer's generation of students and teachers were enthusiastic about the possibilities of expressing our church tradition in terms of the kerygma as understood by Bultmann. No one seemed to provide a better tool for interpreting the call to individual faith and decision than he. The bridge between the first century and the twentieth seemed well constructed. In a bewildering turn of events, part of the "old guard" of our denomination condemned this enthusiasm of ours in a way which called to mind the Scopes trial. It was indeed a legacy of fundamentalist excess which stifled and drove underground a promising way of thinking about our faith tradition. We remain determined to honor both that tradition and Bultmann's insights, in the present instance regarding our understanding of John the Baptist.

Perhaps the most far-reaching suggestion of Bultmann concerning the fourth evangelist is the following:

In John the first disciples come from the Baptist's following, and he it is who directs them to Jesus; whereas in Mk (1:14) the calling of the disciples does not take place till after the arrest or the death of the Baptist, and then it occurs on Lake Genesareth, where those who have been called give up their trade as fishermen. Principally the difference lies in the basic idea of the call-narrative in Mk., that the disciples are suddenly called away from their normal occupations in every day life. Further in Mk. the first disciples are called to be apostles, whereas in John there is no mention of their apostleship. The two narratives cannot be harmonized as historical accounts; indeed any attempt to do so destroys the specific intention of each narrative. Yet since the two scenes related in Mk. 1.16-20 are not historical accounts, it is possible that the Johannine narrative contains reliable historical tradition, namely, the fact that there were erstwhile disciples of the Baptist among Jesus' first disciples, who perhaps joined him when he broke away from the Baptist. This however is uncertain, whereas it may be taken as certain that there is in the account a reflection of the fact that, in general, a part of the Baptist's following went over to the Christian community. It is probable that the Evangelist himself was among these disciples; for this would explain the way in which he deals with the Baptist tradition. (THE GOSPEL OF JOHN p. 108)

Here again Bultmann is similar to Goguel. Finding historical tradition in John against Mark was not so common at that time. (The final sentences are in large part the charter for these essays.)

There are two obvious variations in the John story as we find them in the fourth Gospel. Mark sharply sequences the ministries of John and Jesus, and the other synoptics soften this separation only slightly. In the fourth Gospel, however, the ministries of John and Jesus run in parallel for a time, and are even seen to spar somewhat with one another. Secondly, disciples of Jesus are seen in several cases to have "come over" from among the disciples of the Baptist. Our conclusions about these variations support the increasing estimate of historical accuracy on the part of the fourth evangelist, for both of them contribute to a more consistent picture of the formation of the tradition. Mark and the other synoptics are undertaking the "increase/decrease" program by this sequencing/separation of the ministries of Jesus and the Baptist. The fourth evangelist does the same thing, but in a different and more direct way. He separates the "messengers" in the explicit statement, "He was not that light." And his directness throws two questions into focus. Who might have thought that the Baptist WAS that light? And, HOW parallel were the ministries? Then there are two less obvious variations. One, the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan as seen in the synoptics does not occur...although Bultmann holds that it could be assumed. Second, at the last supper there is no institution of the sacrament of holy communion but rather a footwashing. Again, the sacrament can be assumed, but remarkably not associated with this event.

Since the Baptist had a following of disciples, would it be unrealistic to imagine a tradition evolving from their circle? Since even the latest strata of Gospel formation such as the prologue to the fourth gospel concern themselves with the role of the Baptist, would it be unrealistic to suggest that this Baptist tradition was alive still? If these are the case, the next step would be to imagine the Baptist viewpoint against the claims of Jesus followers. And to imagine how this viewpoint might appear...even in writing. And to go beyond even that, how might one's perspective change if the "increase/decrease" program were to be inverted?

For one thing, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan would either be unremarkable, being common to them all, or regrettable, considering it issued in the formation of a rival group. Surely at some point the very fact of its happening would have been disputed by the Baptists. Variations in the Gospel pictures of this event are often attributed to embarrassment that Jesus should have undergone a baptism of repentance. It is not considered that the event would have been a sore point as well for Baptist followers coming in to the Jesus movement.

A second phenomenon is the remarkable recasting of Jesus' disciples. The New Testament luminaries Paul, Stephen, and James the brother of Jesus are not shaded with reproach as dull, bungling characters. In the Gospels, Jesus' disciples are. Might this be because they are too closely associated with the Baptist and his following? Might they carry too much weight on the wrong side of the "increase/decrease" ledger? This is a problem that ever lingers. If we consider a climate of concilication and reconciliation between the two groups at the time of the Gospels, the following somewhat complex picture might appear: these former associates of the Baptist are included in the story...for the simple reason that they were known to be...but they are seen as dull and bungling. This a compromise that could suit both parties. The fourth evangelist improves this awkward situation by introducing a more satisfactory disciple...the Beloved Disciple.

Third: our twenty-century perspective that "some of John the Baptist's teachings may be preserved in the New Testament teachings of Jesus" would become: "some of Jesus' teachings preserve the teachings of John the Baptist".

These all imply a rivalry between two groups that went on for some time and yielded parallel traditions which had to be resolved. Much evidence points in this way, but there is a variation equally likely which might also go to explain much. That would be that some scribe or scribes belonged in turn to each group. That is, such a person would be thinking through both traditions and knowing first hand allegiance to each one. Such a person would be the ideal conciliator between the two traditions and could forge a new, modified tradition out of the existing elements which might knit the two groups together for their mutual benefit. Bultmann's fourth evangelist would be such a person. Luke has employed much Baptist material in his Gospel. There is much about Q, which Matthew also encorporates, which could be expected from Baptist sources (moral teachings, eschatological warning). These scribes with dual allegiance might be among several of our Gospel writers and their sources.

If such accords were made, their effectiveness must be seen as nothing less than monumental. There is simply no motive beyond the curiosity of the antiquarian to open the breach again. The Baptist is enshrined forever in Christian veneration, with no other figure save Christ himself receiving more mention in the Gospels. Not a glimmer of animosity remains, in a setting rife with animosities. Priests, scribes, Pharaisees, Herodians, Romans, all come in for their lumps...but the Baptist stands secure. None could reopen the rivalry. Indeed: "He must increase, I must decrease." The program worked! This is the Baptist/Dominical perspective.

A further word on the specific disciples who "came over." For this we are going to cite the words of the respected New Testament scholar and senior statesman, Bruce M. Metzger. An acquaintance of the writer deals in religious books and libraries, and has been in close contact with Metzger for the purpose of acquiring some of his collection...with some success. For that reason we feel, I suppose, a special interest or point of contact with him. On the public ministry of Jesus, in THE NEW TESTAMENT: ITS BACKGROUND, GROWTH AND CONTENT,1965, Metzger states:

Among Jesus' early followers were several who had formerly been John the Baptist's disciples. Notable among them were two pairs of brothers, Andrew and Peter, and Philip and Nathanael (Jn 1.35-51). With his small band of disciples Jesus ascended from the valley of Jordan to the high country of Galilee. (p. 114)

There, at Cana, he changes the water into wine. Is it the water of Baptist fellowship for the wine of the spirit of Christianity? Notably, Metzger uses the term "small band" rather than the classical "the twelve." This stylized way of describing the disciples must come from very early on, but has a way of separating the events reported from credibilty and giving them the character of legend. Even the question, "how many of the twelve came over?" which we almost reflexively ask, is victim to this stylization. If we are willing to admit that Jesus himself in some sense "came over", why not consider the possibility...that they all, however many there were, did? If any did not, they are surely not identified or commended for this in any of our Gospel materials. Before leaving Metzger we must report this sentence concerning the beginning of Jesus' ministry: "His own preaching at first echoed the Baptist's call to repentance (Matt. 4:17, Mark 1:15). In this sense the beginning of Jesus' ministry was merely a chapter in the history of the Baptist's movement." (p. 110)


This axiom is to be applied to the questions asked in the opening of the fourth gospel by "the priests and Levites from Jerusalem" who are sent out to question the Baptist. This axiom implies that their mistaken notions are not mere aberrations but represent points of view which the evangelist is at pains to correct. These points of view are less the quaint misconceptions of a bygone time, but are real alternatives and rivals to the view he and his own circle hold. They might function as teaching units for catechumen, or they might simply be his own operating thesis. Simple wrong answers are soon forgotten by the human mind once the correct answer has been determined. These "wrong answers" are something more. By attributing these mistakes to "the Jews," the fourth evangelist is casting the strongest aspersion he can on their falsity. But what are these misconceptions which the Baptist by his answers corrects?

"I am not the Messiah " (1:20)

From our point of view after twenty centuries of Christianity it is almost impossible to fathom that contemporaries of the Gospel writers could hold that John the Baptist was the Messiah. Were it not for texts such as this, we might never suspect it. This viewpoint takes us behind the "precursor" texts and indeed introduces that notion a few verses later. This viewpoint also takes us behind the "increase/decrease" program which follows as well. It points to a situation where rivalry and not commonality still can be identified.

In recent years a group of Hasidic Jews in New York became convinced that their leader, a Rabbi, was indeed the Messiah. The media was fascinated by this story and so it reached national news coverage. The Rabbi insisted that this was not and could not be so. The followers were not disuaded. A point to be illustrated is that Messianic candidates typically do not promote themselves. The Baptist in this text does not, and there is much material in the Gospels that have Jesus downplaying or eluding this identification on the part of his followers. But they are not easily deterred. But the point here is not the reluctance of the candidates, but the propensity of the followers.

"...are you Elijah? I am not."

When the precursor image is attached to the Baptist, this is exactly the conclusion suggested. Either the fourth evangelist is reporting an exchange which antedates the Elijah imagery for the Baptist or disagrees with it. The power of this imagery must be adduced for every picture of the Baptist which has him clad in leather and feeding upon locusts. There is scarcely another picture available. This is the picture from the synoptics. The fourth evangelist's picture of the Baptist is one which is something more than the reappearance of an ancient prophet. He is the first witness to the eternal logos.

"Are you that prophet? And he answered, No"

Moses would seem to be "that prophet" so venerated as to warrant an oblique rather than direct reference. Matthew with his five sections and new covenant emphasis embodies well the picture of the Messiah as the "new Moses." But here the question is posed not to Jesus but to the Baptist. It reinforces the seriousness and scope of the earlier Messianic question. For more insight into this particular question we reviewed the magisterial work of Sigmund Mowinkel; HE THAT COMETH:

According to the Fourth Gospel (i, 21; cf. vi, 14; vii, 40) the Jews of the time of Jesus also believed in 'the Prophet' (the True Prophet), who was to appear before the Messiah, but who was explicitly distinguished from Elijah. This expectation could be based on Deut. xvii, 15, where, as we have seen, reference is made to a future prophet like Moses... The thought of one forerunner could easily have arisen from conceptions peculiar to Judaism; but the Old Testament presuppositions do not explain why three such forerunners are spoken of as following each other. This seems to be connected originally with an idea which occurs in Persian religion and in several doctrinal systems in Jewish Gnosticism, the notion of several 'saviors' (Messiahs); and this, in turn, is associated with the doctrine of world-periods, which is also of Iranian and Chaldean origin (p. 301 ff.)

Mowinkel is also among those who tie the "new Adam" idea with Persian sources as well:

Indirect testimony to Jewish speculations about the Primordial Man is provided (with an eschatological turn) by the Mandaean figures of the Primordial Man and redeemer, Anosh or Enosh (the Man); for there can be little doubt that Mandaeism goes back to a Jewish-Christian or Jewish sect. Paul's ideas about the First and the Second Adam are also indirect evidence of corresponding ideas in Judaism. Further evidence is provided by the many Jewish, or Jewish-Christian, Gnostic sects, where the Primordial Man Anthropos, Protanthropos, the Soul (Psyche), or Wisdom (Sophia), plays the part of a cosmogonic potency and of the redeemed redeemer. Thus it is established that Judaism was familiar with many varying conceptions of the Primordial Man and the god Anthropos. (p. 426)

So three questions have been asked of the Baptist with the fourth evangelist's three answers. Other questioners will come not to the Baptist but to Jesus in other Gospels with similar questions and receive a startling variety of wrong answers. But "there is no casual misconstrual" in any of them.

Other Baptist Themes in the Gospel of John

Outside the continent of Europe, Biblical scholarship has not supported an interest in the Mandaean religion or the science of comparative relgions generally. Consequently it would seem worthwhile to remember some of the hints and suggestions, as Robinson would call them, from Bultmann's book on the fourth Gospel, mostly in the footnotes, concerning the Mandaeans. He finds parallels in Jn. 12 with material from the book of Revelation and the Mandaeans. (p.421) In chapter sixteen of the Gospel he draws parallels from the Ginza Ryba of a cosmic judgement. (p.562,564) In chapter ten a "good shepherd" appears parallel to that image in Mandaean scripture. (p. 367ff.) Similarly a Mandaean "tree (or vine) of life" (p. 530)and the persecution of the righteous by "the world" (p. 549) appear in chapter fifteen. The discussion of the "paraclete" in chapters fourteen through sixteen is distinctively parallel to the "helper" Jawa-Ziwa (p. 570ff). The Ginza Ryba similarly contains the phrases "many mansions" as does Jn. 14 and "I am the way" in several places. One must wonder if the discrediting of Mandaean parallels in more recent New Testament scholarship is not due for a reappraisal. Finally, in the concept of "doxa" (light, or glory) there is found the common foundation of community:

This idea is expressed twice, to stress its importance: he has given to his own the doxa which the Father had bestowed on him in order that they should be one, as he and the Father are one (v.22); he is in them and the Father in him, so that they may be perfect in unity (v.23a) The meaning of both sentences is the same; they state that Jesus' work finds its fulfillment in the existence of a unified community. His work is described first by saying that "he has given his own the doxa bestowed on him by the Father. Here again the language of the myth is used to describe his work as revealer; (footnote) The idea that the messenger "glorifies" the believers, i.e. equips them with the brilliance or light which he himself possesses, is common in the Mandaean writings;..."He revealed hidden mysteries and laid his splendour on his friends" (Mand Lit 128) "Be my splendour, and I will be your splendour; Be my light and I will be your light". (p. 515)

Placing the Gospel of John on one hand and the Mandaean Ginza Ryba on the other would seem to have two effects. One, the ideas which Bultmann and others point out seem to give the latter book a familiarity in spite of its strange differences. Two, some of the concepts of the fourth Gospel seem suddenly foreign in spite of their familiarity.

The surviving religion of the Mandaeans is one filled with water symbolism. Consider then a list of the appearances of water symbolism from the fourth Gospel. (we have already mentioned "water to wine" at Cana) The "rich young ruler" is instructed that one must be born "of water" as well as "the spirit" (3:5). Baptism (3:23). The woman at the well (4:7-28). The healing pool (5:7) "If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water'." (7:38). And at the spear thrust (19:34) blood and water emerge.

Why are there so many baptist themes in the fourth Gospel? Was Bultmann right?

A Prophet and More