Robert L. Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Socio-historical Study (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2006). Reprint. (Amazon.com)
Prior to reading this book I was told by a few people that Robert L. Webb’s John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Socio-historical Study might be the best book ever written on the historical John the Baptist. While that is a difficult thing to determine it can be said that this is a very thorough work. It may be the standard study on John in the English language.
Message of the Book:
Webb borrows the criteria used by historical Jesus scholars to study John the Baptist from a historical perspective. As the title indicates he doesn’t aim to say everything that can be said about John. Rather, he focuses on how John would have been understood as a baptizer and a prophet in his socio-historical context.
The book is divided into three parts: (1) The Traditions Concerning John; (2) John as Baptizer; and (3) John as Prophet. It is eleven chapters long, 370 + pages of content. In part 1 Webb focuses primarily on (A) John in the writings of Josephus and (B) John in the canonical Gospels, extra-canonical Gospels, and Q. This section is exegesis heavy.
In part 2 Webb examines abultions in the OT, other works of Second Temple Literature, and the DSS. Once he has established a historical context for baptism(s) in early Judaism he revisits John’s baptism in relation to the broader culture.
In part 3 Webb does the same thing with prophets. This section is especially helpful for understanding John’s message, especially as regards the Coming One.
As I said above this may be the best historical-critical study of the person of John. Webb has a strong handle on the sources and he does a fine job establishing the role of baptisms and prophets in the Second Temple Period. All of the imagined problems of the historical Jesus enterprise are applicable to this study though, especially as people rethink the effectiveness of the various “criteria” established to get “behind the text.”