Over the next few weeks I will be browsing through the references we have regarding the man known as John the Baptizer. I have become interested in this individual ever since I spent some time trying to understand why the author of the Book of Acts felt obligated to mention the conversion of some of his disciples to Christianity in 19.1-7. In order to reach some sort of conclusion I had to give attention to the references mentioning John in the Synoptics as well as the Fourth Gospel. It appears to me from the data that we very well may have had an expanding, competitive group of ardent followers of the Baptizer who has not come around to accepting Jesus as Messiah.
Why would I say this? It has been well-documented that if we assume the chronological order of the canonical gospels (Mark first, followed by Matthew and Luke, then John) we get a picture of John the Baptist that becomes less and less favorable. As regards Acts we can assume that it was written after Luke, since it appears to be a sequel to this gospel, but before John. Interestingly enough, Acts, as the only book of this series that addresses the story of the post-resurrection and ascension Christian community, includes a group conversion narrative about disciples of John the Baptist.
The author’s inclusion of this narrative has led me to argue that it has a polemical purpose. In other words, there was likely a group of people who still followed John the Baptist to some extent and who claimed something important about him. The author of Acts found a need to mention the conversion of some of these disciples in the same manner–large groups being filled by the Holy Spirit accompanied by signs and wonders, including glossolalia–as he narrated the conversions of Jew in Jerusalem, Samaritans, and the first group of Gentiles at the home of Cornelius. When I get to Acts in this series I will address why I find this to be an odd literary decision.
By the time of the Fourth Gospel it seems that the stakes are even higher. In the first part of the book the author clarifies that John is not the Light that he only came to testify to the Light. Could it be that some had begun to understand John as a Messianic figure? Maybe.
I will end the series by briefly examining places where John is references outside of the canon. This will include the mention by Josephus as well as mentions in other non-canonical Christian works. It should be outlined like this:
Part Two– John the Baptizer in Mark
Part Three– John the Baptizer in Matthew
Part Four– John the Baptizer in Luke
Part Five– John the Baptizer in Acts
Part Six– John the Baptizer in John
Part Seven– John the Baptizer in Thomas
Part Eight– John the Baptizer in Other Extra-Canonical Literature
Part Nine– Summary and Conclusion
If you have written anything on John the Baptist feel free to leave a link in the comments. Likewise, if you have any books on this subject that you’d like to mentioned you can do so.