Jesus and John the Baptist

Let’s continue this attempt to take a look at the Jew, known as Jesus of Nazareth, ‘unbaggaged’ from 2000 years of dogma and creeds. Let’s stop being people of the 21st century. Let’s become 1st century Jews, and try to see and hear as they might have done. My intention is to explore an alternative way of looking at Jesus, which may be of interest to those whose minds are open to a different approach. I’m not discounting or disparaging other points of view, however, since no one can know for sure which representation of this man, if any, might be closest to the ‘truth’.

Sometime around 27 CE, in his early thirties, it would seem that Jesus heard about crowds gathering in the Jordan Valley to listen to the preaching of a man called John, who was baptising people in the Jordan river. He went along to see what was happening, and clearly liked what he heard. He became a follower of John, and was baptised by him.

That this happened, seems to have been well known, but was doubly embarrassing for the Gospel writers. Firstly, it makes Jesus appear to be a follower rather than a leader, especially since he is reported as having said, “John the Baptist is greater than anyone who has ever lived” – presumably himself included at that point in the development of his own thinking! Secondly, he was said, in later Christian thinking, to be ‘without sin’. Why then was he being baptised “for the forgiveness of sins”? If you read the Gospel accounts, you’ll see the writers going out of their way to ‘explain away’ these awkward anomalies. We hear John, very publicly and repeatedly, insisting that he’s the lesser figure, and Jesus strongly insisting on baptism, “in order to fulfil all righteousness”, whatever that might mean – the wording does seem somewhat vague and contrived.

What, then, was the message from John that Jesus went along with? In common with many Jews in 1st century Palestine, John believed that the “kingdom of God” was about to be set up. After centuries of Israel’s domination and exile by the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans, God was about to restore Israel to the ‘glory days of empire’ that it was said to have enjoyed under the kings David and Solomon. According to the Jewish scriptures, all the lost and scattered tribes of Israel would be gathered together again, and would become the hub of God’s Kingdom on Earth, centred on the Temple in Jerusalem. Its earthly king would be a ‘Messiah’, someone ‘anointed’ (which is what ‘messiah’ means) to take on that role.

John was very concerned to get across his belief that the occurrence of this overwhelming, supernatural event was very near. He’s reported as saying, “The axe is already at the root of the trees.” It was a matter of the greatest urgency that his hearers should get themselves right with God because, “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” – which makes this an ‘invitation’ rather hard to refuse!

Why is this preaching of John the Baptist so important? Because, as we’ve said, Jesus of Nazareth clearly agreed with it, when he cast in his lot with John, and the implications of this call for some further exploration …

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