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John the Baptist

by James Eglinton

At the outset of each Gospel, an extraordinary character is introduced[1] – an unkempt, austere preacher heralding in the wilderness with remarkable spiritual poise and focus.  In the Gospel of John, the evangelist writes; “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”[2] This man, John the Baptist[3], is a Biblical character of immense significance rarely studied with the contextual eye warranted by his fascinating life.

Commonly regarded as the forerunner of Christ but as little else, the cultural impact of the Baptist in the first century is oft overlooked in contemporary Christian thought.  F.B. Meyer, the 19th century divine, astutely wrote; “John’s influence on the world has diminished as men have receded further from his age…”[4].  The underestimation of the Baptist in modern Christian thought has few peers in the ranks of the crimen falsi.

The birth narrative of John the Baptist is found in the Gospel of Luke.  A devout and elderly couple, Zacharias (a descendant of Abijah) and Elizabeth (a descendant of Aaron) were visited by the angel Gabriel[5], who foretold the birth of their son – revealing that he was to become a type of Elijah and a Messianic forerunner.  Zacharias was also instructed to raise the child in a Nazirite-like manner[6].  This child was born and named (in a somewhat unconventional manner[7]) John.

At this point, the evangelist concludes the pre-ministerial experience of the Baptist in summary fashion – “So the child grew, and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.”[8]

The contemporary reader is left with an incomplete picture – blanks must be filled in if one is to grasp the true significance of the Baptist in the transitional phase between the intertestamental period and the time of Christ[9].

To properly understand the role of John the Baptist in relation to the ministry of Jesus, the Baptist must be viewed through Jewish eyes – from the vantage point that takes into account the vastly different nature of two thousand year old Judaism.  The religious spectrum of the Baptist’s day must be examined and correspondently scrutinised alongside the ascetic preacher’s life and doctrine.  Reasoning that suggests a continuity of Judaistic practice over the last two millennia is false – it cannot even be accepted cum nota.  The Judaism of the Baptist’s time must be viewed as all historic religions must – de die in diem, always being mindful of the influence and interaction that takes place between socio-geopolitics and religion.

In the Baptist’s day, spirituality and politics were closely intertwined.  Judaism of this period can be roughly divided into a trichotomy that mirrors the current spiritual vogues of Christendom: Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes. 

Elitist and aristocratic, Sadducaism can be accurately viewed as the early-Jewish theological equivalent of Arminianism[10].  Central to both Sadducean and Arminian religion is a strong belief in free will – Arminianism teaches ‘conditional predestination’ (based on God’s foreknowledge of how an individual will or will not accept Him)[11], and Josephus notes that the Sadducees shared this belief (“They maintain that each man has the free choice of good or evil, and that it rests with each man’s will whether he follows the one or the other”[12], [13]).  Much confusion surrounds the Sadducean belief concerning the canonicity of Scripture – common understanding[14] suggests that they rejected all Old Testament Scripture barring the law[15].  VanderKam, however, suggests that this is inaccurate;


            “[I]n legal matters, the Sadducees rejected the unwritten regulations of the Pharisees … there is no evidence that the Pharisees and Sadducees differed regarding which books were scriptural.”[16]

As a priestly group[17], the Sadducees would almost certainly have incorporated the Psalms in worship – this likely use of non-legal Old Testament literature adds weight to VanderKam’s argument.

Acts 23 records that the Sadducees did not believe in “the resurrection, or angel, or spirit”[18].  This is an unusual stance, given that angels and spirits are explicitly mentioned in the law of Moses[19] and other parts of the Old Testament writings.  Perhaps Sadducean doctrine was an overreaction to the unusual Essene belief that, in worship, people became like angels.

At the centre of the theological compass were the Pharisees; mentioned by Josephus in his writings[20], having numerous exchanges with Christ[21] and being inextricably linked with the Apostle Paul (who was, prior to his conversion[22] Saul of Tarsus, a ‘Hebrew of the Hebrews, concerning the law, a Pharisee’[23]).  Concerned largely with the exposition and application of the law of Moses, they were a band of ‘moral policemen’ represented (in soteriological terms) today by mainstream evangelicalism through their (theoretical) belief in an element of Divine sovereignty and simultaneous human free will.  The practical causa causans of this juxtaposition was a vague, disjointed system of theology where the will of the Creator inevitably transpired as subservient to the will of His creation.  Usually remembered for their disproportionate focus on ritual purity and hypercritical attitudes towards others, the name ‘Pharisee’ is generally regarded as being rooted in the Aramaic passive participle ‘pĕriš, pĕrišayyā’, meaning ‘separated’.  Interestingly, the Pharisees were regarded by the Essenes (a contemporary Jewish sect) as being somewhat liberal in their application of the law[24], referring to them as ‘halaqot’ (seekers of the ‘easy way’) rather than ‘halakhot’ (those who seek the law).

Due to their role in teaching the laity to apply the law of Moses in everyday living, the Pharisees exerted considerable influence[25] despite their relatively small numbers[26].

To the right of the religious spectrum lay the Essenes – a highly significant conservative Jewish sect that co-existed in Palestine with the Pharisees and Sadducees.  This puritanical reform sect can (due to its ideology concerning predestination, pre-existence and the spirit world) be fairly regarded as the Jewish equivalent of the Christian Calvinist movement[27], [28].  Secondary information[29] on the Essenes is comparatively sparse, the most valuable sources being Philo’s Apology for the Jews[30] and Every Good Man is Free; Josephus’ Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews and Pliny’s Natural History.  These sources fairly easily reach a common consensus in substantively defining Essene life and practice.  Abstemious living was perhaps the great hallmark of the Essenes – mirroring the Christian Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites by living communally[31] and avoiding any kind of luxury while unequivocally bowing to the notion of Divine sovereignty in the same mindset as the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century. 

The Essenes opposed the Sadducean[32] denial of the afterlife and the Pharisaic application of the law. 

Within this context of religious tension and political undercurrents, John the Baptist began his ministry, ‘preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins’[33].  Prior to the beginning of this homiletic and sacramental ministry, Scripture records that the Baptist was ‘in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel’[34]

Where does the Baptist fit in this confusing spiritual jigsaw?

As a consequence of being born to elderly parents, it is likely that John was orphaned in his youth[35], leaving a young adolescent orphan wandering (at some point) into the wilderness of Judea[36]

Two questions must be asked, however; and these questions (or rather, the answers to these questions) have a significant role in examining the impact of the Baptist’s life and ministry; amongst the Jewish people, and on the ministry of Jesus.

First, where was the Baptist while in the wilderness?

At the outset, it must be noted that there is no definitive evidence that de facto states the wilderness experience of John the Baptist – there are, however, facts that, when taken together, provide rational inferences hinting at where the Baptist may have been.  The Gospels provide a character profile of John that yield interesting results when examined in the light of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The impact of the discovery of the Qumranic texts is startling when researching the life of the Baptist – a wealth of additional historical information has led to a new maturity of empirical understanding in studies of the Baptist.

F.B. Meyer’s biography of the Baptist[37] provides a typical example of pre-Qumran understanding of John the Baptist.  Section three of chapter three (titled ‘The school of the desert’) deals with the Baptist’s wilderness experience.  Meyer admirably details the harshness of the Judean wilderness and the strength of character needed for a young man to survive therein, but is unmistakably vague in stating anything more than that John was in the desert and that it was a difficult and character-building experience.

Compare then, a good example of a post-Qumran study of John the Baptist – B. Witherington III writes[38] a list of points connecting John the Baptist with the Essene community at Qumran. 

The Essenes frequently adopted orphans[39]; it is likely that John was orphaned at an early age.  John spent his adolescence in the Judean wilderness; the Essenes were locally based at Qumran in the Judean desert.  The Baptist and the Essenes had a shared interest in priestly matters and a priestly Messiah[40] and a shared focus on Isaiah 40:3[41] (albeit with different interpretations).  Both parties adhered to Spartan diets and ascetical behaviour[42].  Similar interests in sacramentology also link the Baptist to the Essenes (in that John’s water rite was comparable to Qumran ablution rights).  Of the three main Jewish sects, John the Baptist’s eschatological orientation is closest to the Essene position.

However, there are also several points of incongruity between John and the Qumran community noted by Witherington; the most obvious being that in the Gospels, John the Baptist is not (or is no longer) part of the Qumran community.  The reclusive mindset of the Essenes (to withdraw from the sin of society) is vastly different to the mission of the Baptist (to call the nation to repent from their sin).  John allows ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ people to come into contact with him[43] and did not believe in a ‘righteous remnant’ existing prior to repentance.  The Baptist was seen as a political threat[44] in a way that the Qumran were not.  John’s diet was typical of any eremite in the Judean wilderness, at most suggesting that he took a mantle on himself[45] or was performing a Nazirite vow. 

Fasting, prayer and austerity were not unique to the Qumran community.  Josephus writes of one Bannus[46], who was similar to the Baptist in most respects but was not connected to the Essenes.

Neil Fujita[47] also writes of the connection between the Baptist and the Essenes; noting the same arguments for and against as Witherington.  Fujita does add more weight to the arguments against in that he writes of the Baptist’s dress being distinct from the priestly white robes worn at Qumran.  He also points out stark differences between John’s sacramentology (a ‘one-off’ baptism) and that of the Essenes (a daily task).

On the basis of evidence presented by the Qumranic texts and the profile of the Baptist shown in the Gospels, it seems reasonable to conclude that the similarities between the Baptist and the Essenes were caused by John having been (at one time) a member of the Qumran community; and the differences being because (when the Baptist begins his ministry as recorded in the gospels) he has left the Qumran community.  This conclusion must be taken ex hypothesi, however.

Second, how did the Jews view the Baptist?

Jewish history is dotted with messianic figures – men who drew crowds in remote areas[48], performing actions with messianic overtones (for example, Jesus feeding thousands in the wilderness).  In this respect, John the Baptist may have been viewed by some Jews as a messianic figure[49] (in that he preached to crowds in the wilderness while baptising people).  The Baptist was quick, however, to denounce claims of his own divinity[50], preferring instead to state his calling as a messianic forerunner.

The Gospels look at the Baptist as the fulfilment of the Elijah redivivus hope[51] and the association between Elijah and John is something clearly shared by the early Christians.  John’s denial of this identification in John 1:21-25 is likely to be the Baptist quashing Jewish expectation that the messianic forerunner would literally be the resurrection of Elijah.  The Baptist’s admission of being Isaiah’s ‘voice in the wilderness’[52] seems to show his attachment to the role of immediately foreshadowing the coming Messiah.

In the Gospel of Mark, the evangelist writes concerning John the Baptist; “for all counted John to have been a prophet indeed”[53].  Viewed through Jewish eyes, John the Baptist was a prophet in the most unique sense of the word.  Jewish intertestamental tradition was that the Old Testament prophets were no more[54] (the Talmud explicitly states that Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi were the last prophets).  The arrival of the Baptist’s ministry was at around AD 28[55], some 540 years after Haggai and Zechariah and roughly 450 years after Malachi.  In the sense that the Jews viewed him as a prophet, John was received as a new and different figure (in the mould of Isaiah and Jeremiah).  To them he was a transitional figure held in the highest regard by the Jews.

To the first century Jew, John the Baptist was an enormously significant figure – held as potentially messianic and definitely prophetic, bearing the hallmarks of one-time Qumranic membership but leaving the religious establishment to herald the coming of another, ‘held as a prophet by all’.   Coupled with the fact that the Baptist pointed to Jesus of Nazareth and proclaimed Him to be ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’[56], John the Baptist becomes arguably the most significant person (apart from Christ Himself) in the earthly ministry of Jesus.

Indeed, this thesis is in-line with Jesus’ own statements concerning the Baptist – “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist.”[57]   It must then be asked, if the question “What was the role of John the Baptist in relation to the ministry of Jesus?” is to be answered, how did Jesus view John the Baptist?

When explaining His own ministry, Jesus clearly linked Himself to the Baptist[58], quoting Malachi 3:1[59] in the process – confirming His belief that ‘John is the one who prepares the way for God’s eschatological activity’[60].  Jesus viewed John as His immediate forerunner, sent; to prepare Israel for the coming of the Messiah, and to reveal the Messiah to Israel.  Jesus declared that ‘the prophets and the law prophesied until John came’[61] thus highlighting the role of John the Baptist as an important transitional figure, linking the Old Testament era of prophecy with the coming of the Great Prophet, Jesus Christ.

Just as the Baptist claimed Jesus was the One he was preparing the way for, Jesus claimed the Baptist was the one who prepared His way – each recognised the divine origin of the other’s mission.

Jesus did, however, make efforts to distinguish Himself from the Baptist.  Unlike John, Jesus had no successor.  Despite preaching the same message and suffering the same rejection, John and Jesus had remarkably different methodology[62].  The ministry of John was characterised by baptism and preaching, whereas Jesus’ preaching ministry was accompanied by miracles[63].

Despite the evident differences between Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist, some thought they were the same person[64] - whether this is resigned to the people having a dim view of Christ or euphoric estimations of John, we shall never know.

In conclusion, it can be said that John the Baptist had a manifold role in the ministry of Jesus.  A noteworthy figure in his own context, this respected prophet’s affiliation with Jesus of Nazareth would have borne repercussions among the Jewish people (adding considerable credence to Jesus’ messianic claims) and the Gentiles (who viewed John as some kind of political insurrectionist).  In leaving the Jewish religious establishment[65] to announce the coming of Another, John’s role was to highlight the need for the completion of God’s promises to Israel in sending the Messiah.  In furtherance of this role, the Baptist pointed the people to Jesus Christ – ‘behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’



  • Meyer, FB John the Baptist, Christian Literature Crusade, 1993
  • VanderKam, James C An Introduction to Early Judaism, Eerdmans, 2001
  • Fujita, Neil S. A Crack in the Jar: What Ancient Jewish Documents Tell Us About the New Testament Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1986
  • Taylor, Joan E. The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997
  • Kendall, RT Understanding Theology (Volume II), Christian Focus Publications, 2000
  • Pinnock, C The Openness of God, IVP, 1994
  • Witherington, B in ­Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, IVP
  • Laurin, RB “John the Baptist” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (2nd ed.), edited by Walter A. Elwell
  • Taylor, S “Essenes”, “Sadducees” and “Pharisees” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (2nd ed.), edited by Walter A. Elwell
  • Grider, JK, “Arminianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (2nd ed.), edited by Walter A. Elwell
  • Stephen, J Theophany: Close encounters with the Son of God, Day One Publications, 1998
  • New Combined Bible Dictionary and Concordance
  • ­The Holy Bible: New King James Version, Thomas Nelson, 1982


[1] Matthew 3:1, Mark 1:4, Luke 1, John 1:6

[2] John 1:6

[3] ‘The name Baptist simply means “one who baptises”’ – The New Combined Bible Dictionary and Concordance, p. 258

[4] “John the Baptist,” F.B. Meyer, p. 12

[5] Luke 1:11-20

[6] Luke 1:15a, cf. Judges 13

[7] Luke 1:59-64 – naming the child ‘John’ was a remarkable break from Jewish tradition of noteworthy significance, but is outwith the scope of this essay.

[8] Luke 1:80

[9] These ‘gaps of knowledge’ of course, would not have existed in the time of the Gospels, as the knowledge lacked by the modern reader (without specific research) would have, at that time, been gained by the laity through common life experience.

[10] Arminianism being the Protestant Christian school of thought founded by James Arminius in the 16th century.

[11] For a fuller definition, see J.K. Grider’s article in the “Evangelical Dictionary of Theology”, pp. 97-98.

[12] Josephus, War 2.165

[13] Sadducean doctrine does, in places, resemble contemporary ‘Process Theology’ or ‘Openness Theism’ – the belief that God can be shaped by the will and choices of man (cf. The Openness of God by Clark Pinnock; Understanding Theology Volume II, RT Kendall, pp. 264-265).

[14] Most likely based on Josephus Ant. 13.297; cf. 18.16: “They own no observance of any sort apart from the laws”.

[15] Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

[16] VanderKam, p. 190

[17] Evidence of the priestly nature of Sadducean belief is overwhelming – their name is probably taken from Zadok, a leading priest and contemporary of David and Solomon; Josephus records that the high priest Annus was a Sadducee.

[18] Acts 23:8

[19] For example, the many theophanies recorded in Genesis – where Christ is usually accompanied by angels (cf. Gen. 32:1 & 24-30; also see “Theophany: Close encounters with the Son of God”, Jonathan Stephen).

[20] Examples include; War 1.162-63, 166 and Ant. 18.12-15

[21] For example, Matthew 15

[22] Recorded in Acts 9

[23] Philippians 3:6

[24] VanderKam, p. 189

[25] Josephus, Ant. 13.289 – “The Pharisees have the support of the masses.”

[26] Josephus estimated there to be some 6,000 Pharisees, Ant. 17.42

[27] John Calvin being the second generation Protestant Reformer who taught predestination (or ‘unconditional election’) as being central to salvation.

[28] However, the Calvinistic and Essene beliefs concerning the ‘spirit world’ must be distinguished as they are unmistakably different – the Essene believing that, in worship, they became almost ‘angelic’ beings, which has no Calvinistic direct equivalent.

[29] The discovery of the Qumran scrolls has provided an abundance of primary information on the Essenes.

[30] Philo’s Apology for the Jews is a work that has been lost but is preserved in part by Eusebius in Praeparatio evangelica 8.2

[31] The most famous Essene community being found at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

[32] S. Taylor writes interesting comparative studies on the Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Reference Library.

[33] Luke 3:3

[34] Luke 1:80

[35] This theory finds almost universal acceptance in the scholarly community and is similar to the belief that Jesus’ father Joseph died while Jesus was young.

[36] The entrance of the Baptist to the wilderness is qualified by ‘at some point’ because there is considerable debate among scholars over whether Luke 1:80 implies that John the Baptist entered the wilderness while young or for a short time before beginning his public ministry.  VanderKam seems to believe the former, whereas J. E. Taylor holds to the latter position (see “The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism”).

[37] “John the Baptist”, Christian Literature Crusade

[38] See B. Witherington III’s article on John the Baptist in the “Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels” IVP

[39] Josephus, War 2.120

[40] 1QS 5.2

[41] 1QS 8.14

[42] Damascus Rule 12.13-14 specifies how to eat locusts and honey.

[43] Possibly even Gentiles?  Cf. Luke 3:14

[44] By Herod Antipas

[45] cf. Zechariah 13:4, 2 Kings 1:8

[46] Life 11-12a

[47] “A Crack in the Jar: What Ancient Jewish Documents tell us about the New Testament” (pp. 109-117), Neil Fujita

[48] cf. P.W. Barnett’s observations (1977)

[49] Luke 3:15, “Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not.

[50] Luke 3:16

[51] cf. Luke 1:11-17 and Mark 9:11-13

[52] cf. John 1:23 and Isaiah 40:3

[53] Mark 11:32

[54] Psalm 74:9, 1 Mac. 9:27

[55] Luke 3:1

[56] John 1:29

[57] Matthew 11:11a

[58] cf. Matthew 11:5 and 11:7-14; cf. Matthew 11:17a, 19 and 17b, 18

[59] “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.”

[60] B. Witherington III, “Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels,” IVP, p. 388

[61] Matthew 11:13

[62] Matthew 11:17-19

[63] Matthew 11:2-6

[64] Mark 6:14, 16

[65] In that John had probably been a one-time member of the Qumran community and was openly critical of the Pharisees and Sadducees.