Walter Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968). (Amazon.com)

Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition
Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition

Message of the Book:

According to Walter Wink the monographs on John the Baptist that came before his 1968 contribution dealt with the Baptist “from the point of view of historical biography.” [1] This was unsatisfactory because “…when the bare facts about John are known, they nevertheless fail to answer the very questions about him which we must have answered in order to make any sense of the New Testament record.” [2] This is still true of research into the “historical John”. In recent months I have read some of the better attempts at reconstructing the historical Baptizer—most notably Robert L. Webb’s John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Socio-historical Study and Joan E. Taylor’s The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaismand these books have been quite insightful, yet it remains notoriously difficult to say anything conclusive about the man behind the text/tradition because all we have before us is the Baptizer as remembered and interpreted by the Evangelists and the historian Josephus.

Wink’s book proves to be a helpful alternative because it examines the tradition itself rather than using the tradition in order to get back to a more “original” Baptizer. In doing this we begin to arrive at a picture of a man that is similar to that presented to us by Webb and Taylor, but one whose transmission is not hindered by the Gospel tradition as much as preserved by it. In fact, according to Wink, the Church has become John’s most notable survivor and heir because of the Evangelist’s efforts to Christianize and adopt the memory of the Baptist. [3]

Contents:

The book includes an introduction, a conclusion, and five chapters of content. There are four chapters dedicated to the canonical Gospels: Chapter 1, John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark; Chapter 3, John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew; Chapter 4, John the Baptist in the Gospel of Luke; and Chapter 5, John the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel. Wink builds his discusion upon the widely accepted order of Markan Priority followed by GMatthew, GLuke, and GJohn. Chapter 2, John the Baptist in Q examines is the only chapter not dedicated to a canonical Gospel, though it obviously is interconnected with the chapters on GMark, GMatthew, and GLuke.

The chapter on GLuke is divided into two parts: one on John in the body of the Gospel and one on John in Luke’s infancy narrative. This is by far the largest chapter because not only does GLuke have more material, but there have been more form critical investigations into a so-called “Baptist Source” (or multiple sources) which may have contained traditions about John that were worked into GLuke. Also, the chapter ends with a brief discussion on the Baptist Tradition in Luke-Acts.

One of threads that weaves throughout Wink’s presentation is a rebuttal of the idea that John was discussed merely for apologetic or polemical purposes. He interacts with scholarship that suggested this thesis and he maintains that the Evangelists were most concerned with preserving John’s legacy as it relates to Jesus than they were refuting a remnant of John’s disciples. Quite telling is how the Gospels seem to focus on the Pharisees as the central opponents and never a Baptist sect. While I agree that we need to be cautious when suggesting that there was a Baptist Sect competing with the early Church I am less hesitant to emphasize the increasing emphasis on John from GMark to GMatthew to Luke-Acts then to GJohn where the Johannine Prologue is very aware of the need to juxtapose Jesus with John using the most lofty of language for Jesus while downplaying most of what we come to know of John in the Synoptics. Also, I found Wink to be a bit dismissive of the idea that Acts 19:1-6 was written to address a contemporary Baptist Movement. He shoves this aside indicating that the Lukan reformatting of the narrative presents this as a past problem. This may be true, in part, but we must be careful when suggesting that it was merely a historical problem, especially when we realize that the four group conversions of Acts—Jews in Jerusalem, Samaritans, Gentiles as represented by the household of Cornelius, and finally the “disciples” of Acts 19—seem to be addressing the need for catholicity and solidarity around the apostolic Gospel shared by Peter and Paul. This being said, I prefer Wink’s cautious approach to overly speculative ones.

Concluding Thoughts:

If I were asked where one might begin their study of John the Baptist this would be the book I’d recommend followed by Webb’s then Taylor’s. While it is important to try to understand John in his historical context we can’t even begin that project without understanding John as he is presented in his literary context, most importantly the Gospels, then Josephus’ passing mention. The effort being made by the Evangelists to remember, interpret, and present John tells us a lot about the man and it gives us a glimpse into the kind of questions that were asked of him in relation to Jesus. Wink is correct: to understand John we must investigate the questions being asked about him by the early Church because it was there memory of John that allows us to continue the investigation today. We must start with the remembered Baptizer.

__________

[1] p. x

[2] Ibid.

[3] p. 110

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