I held in my hand an old and well-worn book. It was Carl Kraeling's book on John the Baptist, and it was like seeing an old friend. The seminary library which had been a favorite haunt in the sixties was recently razed in the inevitable march of progress, replaced by a spacious new edifice nearby. The exact spot in which my first encounter with Kraeling and so many others had taken place is now defined as in condominium law: a space in the air. I looked up at it wistfully. But forty years later, the book had survived as had my fascination with its subject. The new library soon proved as welcoming as the old. One might desire a more cathedral-like setting for such treasures as it contains, but just as the old library was utlitarian in outward appearance, so this one bowed to the efficiencies and economies of the age. Soaring towers of stone and the tones of a carrillon marking the pleasant passing of hours can be supplied by the imagination when stimulated by books such as these. Once many hundreds of miles distant I had held the book in hand yet another time, thanks to the much-appreciated library loan program graciously extended to ministers yearning for such reacquaintences. The postal system had delivered it to my box in Iowa for an eager reviewing and gleaning of notes, and after too brief a time had dutifully returned it to its rightful place on the shelves. Now I must try to explain this enduring fascination.
Kraeling is one of a small group who find in the Christian Gospels a peculiar fascination with John called the baptizer. Apart from the devotees of saints in general who in the long and fruitful course of church history have revered and extolled such figures, certain scholars have found fascination with this particular individual and his following. Among these are Maurice Goguel, who Bultmann cites prominently, Kraeling, Scobie, and recently, Joan V. Taylor. What they have seen has been focused by the new methods of understanding the Gospels; the disciplines of form and redaction criticism and the light this work has shed on the formation of the documents of the New Testament. What they have seen has gone beyond the ordinary exegesis of texts which tell of the Baptist's appearance, words and deeds in each of the gospels. What they share is perhaps a "suspicion" attendant upon such phrases as "He was not that light..." (Gospel of John, prologue), or "I must decrease, he must increase." These are phrases which carefully delineate a proper understanding of the specific relationship between the Christ and his "precursor." But why is such a delineation so important? What they seem to suspect is that in these and other texts the gospel writers are engaged in a program of exegesis themselves, behind which a somewhat different situation in fact may have existed. Goguel may have prompted this suspicion most strongly when he offered the conclusion that at some point there was a distinct rivalry between the followers of John and of Jesus, indeed between the teachers themselves!
What the implications of such a notion might be, and whether these suspicions lead to any better understanding of Christian beginnings are the questions which follow. But first, a word must be said about perspective. Reflection at length on one's perspective can be revealing. Is it possible to imagine a hypothetical point of view for the sake of experimenting with perspective? Might it be possible to imagine such a point of view as that held by the disciples of the Baptist, for example? I first propose to consider as an example the simple, or perhaps not so simple, issue of the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. We set as a baseline the account of Mark. Immediately there arise issues for the gospel writers to explain why the Son of God should submit to a baptism of repentance for sin. In Matthew, John objects to the idea, and is reassured that it is "part of the plan." In Luke and John the theological event overshadows the ritual itself, to the extent of omitting the watery details completely. But, if one could imagine the perspective of a disciple of the Baptist at some later date upon hearing this story, what would it be? And particularly what would it be should that disciple be either unsure of the claims of the followers of Jesus, or even be conscious of rivalry? I would suggest that given the popularity of the Baptist, the extent of his following and the loyalty which surely would have grown up among his disciples, this hypothetical perspective would have taken a dim view of such a story. It would have meant a validation and authentication which could only serve the interests of a rival group and usurped the legacy belonging to John. Does this seem such a strange or misguided point of view? Remember, we are hearing this story as a disciple of the Baptist. We are hearing it before Mark has written his gospel. We are in the prehistory of the gospel. We do not know "He was not that light", nor "I must decrease..." Ironically, the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan has now become difficult for both groups! But before going further it is simply to be noted that experimenting with a different perspective can be at the same time strange and revealing.
The sensation of strangeness might prompt several responses. The question, "why revisit (or repeat) an error by taking up the point of view of ill-fated disciples of John the Baptist?" is a fair one. I can only say that this experiment has lead to a better understanding of Christian beginnings in my experience. That in fact is the only worthy goal. Strange and revealing ideas, especially in the field of religion, make one wish to flee along the well-travelled pathways of convention and orthodoxy. But if one is willing to examine this perspective illuminated by the scholarship of critical methods and the history of religions, I believe the picture will be found very revealing.
Another enduring conclusion of gospel studies is the perspective of "sitz im leben," the present situation of the believer at the time the gospel was written which at very least is a selection process for which particular words and events from the life of Jesus, having special relevance for the present circumstances, are chosen to be reported. Words against the Pharisees, for example, relate to the Christians' conflicts with this group or warnings to Israel relate to the Christians' issues with Judaism. A picture of the evangelists' own communities is often drawn by the emphases and selective inclusions of their respective gospels...with enlightening results.
Given that the Baptist is more often spoken of in the gospels than any person other than Jesus himself, there emerges a contradiction between the "early" placement of Baptist themes and the continued appearance of these themes throughout the gospel narratives. Apparently there remains more than a retrospective or reflective concern or the life situation of the gospel writers would not include this much Baptist material.
More than any other single factor, this fact may have contributed to the "suspicion" of Baptist scholars that something more is afoot in these texts. There would appear to be more currency and relevance in the words about the Baptist than mere antiquarian interest. Indeed, Jesus himself is speaking many of these words and as we shall see, these words are often remarkable. A groundshift in perspective is suggested. Rather than seeing Baptist issues as limited to the earliest days of Jesus life, they now appear current in the later days of the first century in which the gospels were written!