Although John the Baptist may have been one of the most influential figures of his time and place he has been minimized by the Christian tradition over the years. John is a figure mentioned in the Gospels, the Book of Acts, and by the Jewish historian Josephus. While many historians have sought to understand “the historical Jesus” far less have asked about “the historical John.” Taylor’s book is an attempt to investigate the person of John using the tools of historical-critical study.
While there is not a lot written about John this doesn’t prevent Taylor from using what we do have available to reconstruct a plausible depiction of the man many perceived to be a prophet. Taylor shows a breadth of knowledge regarding the literature and customs of early Judaism. She uses her expertise to address pressing questions about the person of John such as the question of whether or not John was a member of the community at Qumran or an Essene. Taylor examines the what and why of John’s prophetic message, his reason for baptizing people, and how he might be understood in his socio-political context.
After Taylor has introduced readers to her thesis in Chapter 1, justifying her study of the “historical John,” she moves directly into the question of whether John was an Essene or a member of the community at Qumran in Chapter 2. She gives reason for doubting that this is the case. Then Taylor compares John’s baptism to other rites of immersion and to ideas surrounding purity in Jewish thought. Then Taylor transitions in Chapter 3 to a discussion of John’s teachings and predictions, investigating the memory of John as a prophetic figure, an Elijah. Taylor juxtaposes John with the Pharisees in Chapter 4. In Chapter 5 she asks why people might oppose John and explores what lead to his death at the hands of Antipas: an event that is given different meaning by the Evangelists than by Josephus. Finally, and most importantly, in Chapter 5 Taylor seeks to remind readers that the Evangelists had an agenda when they minimized John’s significance in light of Jesus’, but then aims to ask questions as a historian about John in his own time.
This book is solid. It is well researched. Taylor asks the right questions for someone investigating John’s life and death from the perspective of a historian. Those who have questions about John either as a person, or as a figure in early Christian memory, ought to consult this book.