Last week I received an email asking me what books I’d recommend for someone wanting to study “the historical John (the Baptist)”. Since I am beginning my own inquiry into the subject my recommendations are limited, but even then, there does not seem to be many book length studies of John that don’t delve quickly into weird speculation. This is what I’ve engaged (or began to engage) thus far:
Daniel S. Dapaah, The Relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth
Catherine M. Murphy’s John the Baptist: Prophet of Purity for a New Age
Joan E. Taylor’s The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism
Robert L. Webb’s John the Baptizer and Prophet
Walter Wink’s John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition
James D.G. Dunn’s The Christ and the Spirit: V.2, Pneumatology contains several chapters to John (as he relates to the Spirit). Other books like The Historical Jesus in Context edited by A-J Levine, D.C. Allison, Jr., and J.D. Crossan has a chapter dedicated to John (Craig A. Evans’ “Josephus on John the Baptists and Other Prophets of Deliverance”). I’ve heard good things about Michael Bird’s chapter “John the Baptist” in Jesus Among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Jesus of the Gospels edited by Chris Keith and Larry W. Hurtado. The foot/endnotes in these chapters can provide further direction.
What about monographs? I hear that Joel Marcus from Duke Divinity School is writing one. Those that are available tend to address particular aspects of John’s life and memory, e.g., James A. Kelhoffer, The Diet of John the Baptist and Jaroslav Rindos, He of Whom It is Written: John the Baptist and Elijah in Luke.
What about journal articles? Well, those are more numerous, but more precise in their focus, so it depends on what one might want to know about John. For a quick place to start BiblicalStudies.org.uk has a page dedicated to John with several articles in PDF form.
If you’ve read a book that you’ve found to be helpful—especially an academic monograph that tends to be harder to find—let me (and others who are searching) know about it in the comments!
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Brian, given your preliminary work, is there enough there to get something of a handle on the ‘theology of John the baptist’?
Do you mean the historical (i.e., the historian’s) John the Baptist’s theology or a unified theological understanding of John found in the Gospels and Acts? If the first, I think our task is far more difficult. It is obvious that he was a popular figure, but it seems that this was so mostly around the common people, so we have little about him. Other that the Gospels and Acts all we have is Josephus. If it weren’t for early Christianity’s attempt to tie Jesus and John together John would be a blip in the mind of historians.
If the latter then I think we have more to go on. John is obviously seen as a prophet—more than a prophet according to Jesus—who is the last voice proclaiming repentance before the Kingdom of God begins to be established. His baptismal acts build on other washing rituals, but appears to have been far more apocalyptic. His “voice in the wilderness” vocation parallels what we see in 1QS of the Qumran community: a group going to live separately as a remnant of sorts until YHWH makes himself known to the people. And first-and-foremost, for the Evangelists, John was Jesus’ forerunner. This second category takes less work: all one must do is pick out all the John related stories in the Gospels and Acts. The historical “behind the text” work is far more difficult.
Thank you. I was thinking about the first, and I suspected that it might be difficult.
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