Rethinking Jesus (03) and John the Baptist

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Let’s return to that day in the late 20s CE, when a 30 year old Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, appeared on the banks of the river Jordan, where a charismatic preacher was baptising people in its waters. Since Jesus was obviously attracted by what he was seeing and hearing, even to the extent of casting in his lot with John, and being baptised by him, once we know what John believed and preached, we can get a glimpse of what was going on in the mind of Jesus.

John apparently saw himself as belonging in the tradition of Jewish prophets, not only in his words and actions, but also his dress. He “proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. His fellow Jews had not been loyal to their God in obeying his Law. John cites failure to share food with the hungry, and clothing with the threadbare, as well as cheating and stealing, intimidation and greed. He makes it clear that this has to be put right immediately, because their God is on the point of taking punitive action – “Even now the axe is at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

His audience would have known where he was coming from. Their scriptures warned them of the coming “Day of the Lord”, when God would destroy all powers of evil and disobedient people, set up his kingdom on the earth, and gather his faithful people into it. There was no escape – the dead would be raised and also called to account. The time for his hearers to sort themselves out was now, without any delay. Jesus clearly agreed, as he showed by submitting to this “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”, and here where we encounter the presence of different ‘layers’ of tradition as mentioned in a previous post in this series.

In my view, what I’ve said so far, represents the earliest tradition. Later on, however, as the interpretation of Jesus developed, this earliest one became rather embarrassing. Once Jesus was thought to be divine, it followed that he was ‘without sin’. Why then would he submit to John’s baptism for the remission of sins? This was a problem, and it’s why the story now has other ‘layers’, later traditions, claiming that the Jewish scriptures ‘prophesied’ John as the one who was to “prepare the way of the Lord”. These later traditions have John insisting on his subordinate status, and trying, unsuccessfully, to dissuade Jesus from being baptised. Maybe so but, for myself, I see here a later ‘explaining away’ of a seemingly undeniable, but embarrassing historical occurrence.

What were the thoughts of Jesus? I can’t believe that, standing there on the banks of the Jordan, he thought he was the Jewish God. As a devout Jew, any such claim would have stuck in his throat. Another later tradition, however, opens the heavens so that God’s voice can thunder out a declaration of Jesus’ divinity, and at the end of the first century, John puts such a claim into Jesus’ mouth. I think not, but you may think differently. 

And what about the Kingdom of God? Jesus clearly shared John’s belief that its arrival was imminent. What implications did he think that might have? In the Jewish scriptures God had promised the great king David, that an ancestor of his would always sit on his throne in Jerusalem. That promise took a fatal hit when the Kingdom of Judah was defeated by the Babylonians, and Jerusalem and its Temple razed to the ground. There was no throne now for any descendant of David to sit on. 

The prophet Isaiah, however, believed that in the future, someone descended from David would appear, and reign over a newly established Kingdom of God. This is the origin of the belief in a coming Messiah, and it had implications. The Messiah would seem to have to be a powerful military and political figure who would oversee the defeat of the Roman Empire, along with all other opponents of God. I don’t think that Jesus, at this point in time, saw himself as such a Messiah.

So, we have a very human Jesus, demonstrating agreement with the message of John the Baptist, declaring his loyalty to his God and His Law, and being baptised for the remission of his sins. Where does he go from here?

4 responses to “Rethinking Jesus (03) and John the Baptist”

  1. Lots of conjecture here. We have to put ourselves in the minds of the gospel writers who had lived to see Jesus the healer as shown by Mark as much as John-not described as a feature of John’s work and then while both were put to gross death only one was raised-which they would have sincerely believed. Therefor to see John as a fore-runner-and he may well have seen himself as such-was not an undue reflection along with finding the appropriate prophecy-prepare the way. If Jesus mission starts from this point it is presumably because the gospel writers saw the experience of baptism as a significant calling experience. Jesus is hardly likely to have thought of himself as God-the temptations succeed this baptism in the synoptic gospels but that the experience of baptism was a turning point is a reasonable assumption.and the gospel writers a couple of generations later had every reason to think Jesus more significant.

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    • Hi Alan, thanks for your comments – always good to get a different slant. Yes, to try to put oneself into the mind of a first century Palestinian Jew has to be conjectural, but it seems to me that conjecture is in any case inescapable when it comes to the ‘historical’ Jesus.
      I find it difficult to think that any of these highly educated Greek gospel writers in various cities in the Empire, might have “lived to see Jesus” whose earliest followers were mainly illiterate Galileans, but that’s an unprovable personal view.
      I have problems with so called ‘prophecies’ relating to the appearance of John the Baptist. Mark 1:2 cites Malachi 3:1, which seems to me to forecast the arrival, *not* of a forerunner to, but of a fully messianic figure who will “proclaim God’s covenant”, exercise “judgement” and “purify the priests” which doesn’t suggest John to me. Similarly, Mark 1:3 cites Isaiah 40:3, which is about the return of a remnant to Judea from exile in Babylon, and gives no indication that it has any other, future, reference. Just to be pedantic, the Hebrew Bible says, “A voice cries out, ‘Prepare in the wilderness a road for the Lord’”. This is made to refer to John the Baptist by turning it into “A voice cries in the wilderness”. That seems like cheating to me, but then it would, you might say!
      I’m not questioning here what was thought after “a couple of generations”. I’m simply suggesting that if one strips away all later interpretations, one sees the basic fact that a man came to hear a preacher and submitted to baptism by him, suggesting that he joined his movement. That seems to me to be the most simple, natural and obvious way to describe the bare facts of what was happening. As I indicate, the relationship between Jesus and John, as it developed, seems to have an element of ambiguity about it, which can never now, once again, be anything but conjectural.

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  2. Thanks for this. A couple of brief points. “Illiterate Galileans”-Modernist critics do find it so difficult to understand how deeply developed an oral peasant culture might be. I am sorry you are so ready to accept this prejudice.The passed on traditions from oral sources the gospel writers had available deserve more respect. .The”basic facts” school which you seem to align yourself with forgets the power of the shaping imagination in understanding the implication of “facts”. So conjecture? But as Collingwood reminded us all history is imaginative recreation-or nothing.

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    • I wonder, Alan, if you are calling one view of things a “prejudice”, without seeming to recognise that alternative views may be equally “prejudiced”. We all bring our own baggage along with us.
      Far from being “so ready” to accept any old “prejudice”, I’ve absorbed Bart Ehrman’s thorough study of this subject in his “Jesus Before the Gospels”. You might say that he’s “prejudiced” (which would itself, arguably, be a “prejudiced” statement) but I would say it’s a work of careful scholarship by a historian of repute which should be read by all who have an interest in this subject.
      I’d also repeat that however “developed an oral peasant culture might be”, (which is not a matter of fact, but of opinion), we’re talking about transmission out of that culture and its Aramaic language, into the Greek of a very different pagan Hellenic culture, in an age before checks on authenticity and accuracy were possible. We’re not talking here about any simple, straightforward, localised process.
      Finally, I’m not “aligning myself” with any “basic facts school”, whatever that might be. I’m *starting off* from what I see as basic facts, to discover where that will, in due course, lead me – given time and space.
      You speak about “forgetting the power of the shaping imagination”, but in several of my recent posts I’ve talked about precisely that in the context of the Jungian view of the psyche, in which its conscious and personal unconscious aspects, are a key component in the work of every creative artist or story teller. I wonder if you sometimes “see” some of the things I write, but don’t “see”, or “forget” some of the others? At any rate, I plead ‘not guilty, mi’lud’. Cheers.

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