Catherine M. Murphy, John the Baptist: Prophet of Purity for a New Age (Interfaces; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2003). (


Aim of the Book:

Catherine M. Murphy’s John the Baptist: Prophet of Purity for a New Age is part of a series called Interfaces where each volume “focuses clearly on a biblical character” in order to “open up a set of worlds for consideration.” In this book the character is John the Baptist and the world being investigated in purity movements in early Judaism. This book is designed to guide students in their reading of the relevant texts—in this case the Gospels and Acts—not to replace the primary texts. In fact, it is as much a book on how to do research on John as it is about John himself.

Summary of the Content:

Chapter 1 (Will the Real Baptist Please Stand Up) introduces students to the relevant sources: Josephus, the Gospels, and Acts. Then Murphy explains her methodology for doing historical research. This includes discussions on why texts differ from one another, various “criteria” such as multiple attestation and embarrassment, and a short word on critical methods.

Chapter 2 (Redaction Criticism: How and Why Authors Shape Their Stories) compares various stories related to John as they appear in the different Gospels. The discussion focuses primarily on the Synoptics and how Mark, Matthew, and Luke both align and differ in their accounts of John. The reader is introduced to the Two-Source Hypothesis as well as methodology fro Redaction Criticism.

Chapter 3 (Baptists Vignettes in the Gospels: A Redaction-Critical Approach) builds on Chapter 2 going through each story of John in the Gospels and Acts using multiple columns to compare the stories (again, primarily in the Synoptics) so the student can see similarities and differences which helps one better understand the unique account of each Evangelist. At the end Murphy shares her results.

In Chapter 4 (Another Angle on the Baptist Movement: Social-Scientific Criticsm) Murphy doesn’t repeat the multiple column approach, but she does use the findings of Chapters 2-3 to discuss how the data mined from these sources helps us understand the Baptist Movement in its historical context. Murphy discusses Social and Cultural Systems, the Axes of Social-Scientific Inquiry (e.g., temporal ranger, focus, scope) and how a student must decide to focus upon particular aspects of history when doing research. She outlines an example approach of her own so readers can see how one might put into practice the various methodologies she espouses.

Chapter 5 (Purification Movements in First-Century C.E. Judea) brings everything together. She uses Redactional and Social-Scientific criticism to establish a context for the Baptist Movement then she compres it to Purity Movements of that era. This chapter ends with a more precise juxtaposition of the Baptist Movement and that of Qumran, both Purity Movements with many similarities, but also some stark differences. Chapter 6 is merely a three page summary of the book.

Concluding Thoughts: 

This book’s main function would be for either (A) a class on the historical John the Baptist; (B) a class on early Judaism centered on studying the topic through the lens of a particular individual; or (C) a class on the Synoptic Problem and/or historical research of the Gospels. It seems to me that (A) is the best fit. For those doing their own research on John this may be valuable if you are a newer student. Murphy’s work is more about methodology and guidance than a discussion of John, per se. In other words, it isn’t like Taylor’s The Immerser or Webb’s John the Baptizer and Prophet which are written primarily by scholars for scholars. Instead, this is a book by a scholar for students making it more useful for the classroom that say thesis or dissertation research, or even a general historical study of John. If I were to teach a class on John at the undergraduate or seminary level I’d consider using this as a textbook, especially if you want to make sure students are learning how to research the primary sources. This book will help them do that very thing.