A New Perspective on John the Baptist’s Failure to Support Jesus

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 1, 1997 - Pages 71-92

“At the heart of all dialogues between Christians and Jews there is, inevitably, the question of the Messiah: ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we wait for another?"

-Jürgen Moltmann

Applied to the New Testament, some of the tasks of the historical-critical method are to separate layers of redaction work in the Gospels, to determine the oldest strata of tradition, and to present the most probably authentic words of Jesus and the events of his life. Conservative evangelical Christians are generally hostile to such an approach and insist that the complete New Testament is inspired and historically true. One possible meeting point between conservatives and historically-minded liberals which has gained some recent support is to assert that since Christianity is founded on the resurrected Jesus, it need not be threatened by historical inquiry into Jesus’ earthly ministry.

One reason is sufficient, in my eyes, to justify the historical-critical method as part of Unificationist studies. Unificationism claims to rely not only on revelation, but also on science, and it cannot be denied that archeology and critical exegesis, the basic tools of historical research, are scientific in nature. Beyond the polemic that they generate, most scholars involved in the “quest for the historical Jesus” are honest and skilled historians using the same methods that have enabled history to make tremendous progress in other areas. Moreover, many churches are already welcoming and practicing this approach and dealing with its challenges. This is the case of the Catholic Church since Vatican II. Indeed, the best of today’s Catholic exegetes do not hesitate to question the historicity of many words and deeds of Jesus, even in Bible comment­aries addressed to a large public.

Moreover, the historical-critical approach has proved to be key to the dialogue between Jews and Christians. Indeed, the providential pressure of this dialogue has done much to encourage it. The reason is obvious: only through historical, rather than theological eyes, can Christians rediscover the Jewishness of Jesus, reflect on the tragedy of the rupture between Jews and Christians and, perhaps, solve it. Since interreligious dialogue is a priority of Unificationist ministry, critical exegesis cannot be ignored. As a general rule, I would say that Unificationists can hardly dialogue with Catholic, Jewish or liberal Protestant leaders while ignoring the findings of historical criticism.

Finally, as this article will show, Unificationism has nothing to fear from critical exegesis. Here I apply it to the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, which happens to be a crucial part of the Divine Principle’s argument about the partial failure of Jesus’ mission. Unificationist readers can judge for themselves that, on this point at least, objective historical investigation confirms the view of the Divine Principle, even going beyond the classical Divine Principle arguments.

To be more precise: most biblical exegetes agree that John the Baptist did not support Jesus. It is also widely known that Christian scriptures and traditions were shaped in part by a persisting conflict with the sect initiated by John. Few scholars, however, have found in these findings any special significance for Jesus’ fate; after all, no other known saintly men of his time even recognized Jesus. The question therefore needed to be researched, that of Jesus’ expectation and possible disappointment concerning John.

*Aside from the Introduction, this article was first published in The Downside Review, April 1996, and is reprinted with their permission.


1.The post-mortem Christianization of John the Baptist

The Christian tradition, based on the Gospels, presents John as the prophet chosen by God to prepare Israel for the coming of the Messiah, and, in addition, for blessing and revealing the Messiah to Israel. This same tradition affirms that he did in fact recognize and point Jesus out as the Messiah, thus being the first witness to Christ, after which he was imprisoned and beheaded by Herod Antipas, thus becoming the first Christian martyr. For the last two centuries, this traditional view of John has been ruthlessly submitted to historical-critical analysis, which has shown that it is, at best, an exaggeration on the part of the authors of the Gospels (specifically Matthew and John).[1]

To understand the historical reality of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, we must start from the following observation : whereas we find in the New Testament a reliable historical tradition according to which Jesus testified to the importance of John the Baptist, calling him the greatest prophet of all times, there is no reliable historical tradition according to which John the Baptist testified in favor of Jesus (relevant passages from the first and fourth Gospels being highly suspicious).

In order to explain the ‘post-mortem Christianization’ of John the Baptist, we must consider the fact that Jesus’ first disciples, for the most part, came from the followers of John. They were convinced that their former master was truly the precursor of Jesus, in the sense that God had led them to John only to lead them eventually to Jesus. Matthew and John, writing many decades after the events, transformed that subjective interpretation into an objective story, telling that John had voluntarily and explicitly directed his disciples to Jesus.

Certainly, this shift answered a missionary need. First of all, it was embarrassing that John, although he had baptized Jesus, had not recognized him as the Messiah. Secondly, to claim that, in spite of his infamous death and the non-realization of the Kingdom of God he had proclaimed, Jesus was indeed the Messiah (a “scandal” for the Jews, noted Paul), the opinion of a prophetic figure of such national renown as John the Baptist was a weighty argument. John’s influence on the nation is confirmed by all sources, including and especially Flavius Josephus. The fact that Josephus, of priestly stock and Pharisaic tradition, expressed sympathy for John, whereas he shows only contempt for other desert and apocalyptic prophets, is a strong indication that the prophetic authority of John was not accepted uniquely by the lower classes, as Luke seems to indicate in Luke 7:29-30. Claiming John as precursor of Jesus, and inventing John's testimony in favor of Jesus, was surely intended toward all those who had believed in John or who respected his memory. Justin still used this argument in his Dialogue with Trypho (8.3).[2]

This Christianization of John the Baptist is found in Matthew, but it is most characteristic of the Fourth Gospel. It is possible that this Gospel was written in part because of the challenge that the persistence of the Baptist’s movement represented for Christianity. Confronted with these hard-line “Baptists” who were reluctant to accept Jesus and probably thought of the Church as a dissident movement, the Evangelist’s motivation was not only evangelical, but also, it would seem, polemical. He tried to enlist the Baptist as a Christian in order to counteract the claims of the movement which saw him as its founder.

Of course, creating the Christian image of John the Baptist giving loyal testimony to Jesus was only possible because John was dead, years had gone by, and the story was being circulated far from Palestine. However, I wonder if the Evangelists would have felt the need to convert John the Baptist posthumously had the issue not come from Jesus’ disciples, that is, those who had known both Jesus and John? In effect, traces of a controversy between the movements of John and of Jesus during their lifetime suggest that the fact that John did not recognize Jesus represented, for Jesus’ ministry, a serious handicap. Was not Jesus himself, in regards to John, in the same situation as were the first Jewish Christians after his death? To advocate to Israel his divine election and his national mission (whether or not one qualifies that mission as “messianic,” it remains indisputable that Jesus hoped to win the loyalty of Israel), did Jesus not hope to benefit from the influential testimony of John?[3]

In this article, I shall propose an affirmative answer to that question. The hypothesis that I will defend is that Jesus was not only disappointed by John's indifference or hostility, but saw in it a failure—a “scandal”—hindering the divine strategy for the emergence of the Kingdom of God.


2. Preliminary remarks

To my knowledge, Jesus' expectations concerning John have not yet been the subject of thorough research.[4] This is probably due to the simple and indisputable fact that is was Jesus who left John’s movement, and not the opposite. From this, historians assume too quickly that the rupture between the two men—and between the two movements—was the will of Jesus. The historical scenario generally offered can be summarized as follows: during an undetermined period and until his baptism, Jesus had been nothing but a simple disciple of John. Afterwards, he realized, either suddenly or progressively, the superiority and specificity of his own mission compared to John’s, and at, the same time, the shortcomings of John’s ministry. At that point, Jesus voluntarily separated himself from John, the desert and asceticism. According to another version, based on Mark only, Jesus decided to take up John’s mission—only with a different style—after he heard of John’s death.

In my opinion, this theory has too many psychological overtones. It tries to interpret the chain of events as being the result of an evolution in Jesus’ thinking, in his self-consciousness, and in his view of John. But Jesus’ words concerning John do not support that hypothesis. While developing his ministry separately from John, Jesus had only admiring praise for him (Matt 11:7-10). If he had founded an independent mission, this was not in any case because he doubted the divine legitimacy of John’s ministry. (Matt 21:24-25) Moreover, Matt 11:11, which fulfills most criteria of authenticity, shows that, in Jesus’ mind, it was not he who left John, but rather John who did not follow him into the Kingdom of God. And it is clear that, in the relation between John and Jesus, it was John who did not believe in Jesus, and not the contrary. It is from that base that we should start.

There might be another reason why historical research on Jesus has scarcely questioned what Jesus expected of John: the considerable influence since Weiss, Schweitzer and Bultmann of the theory of “the eschatological Jesus.” If Jesus was waiting for the imminent and supernatural end and renewal of the world, then his quest for influence, just as his code of ethics, were only secondary and temporary. In that case, John’s response to him made no real difference. In this paper, I follow the recent trend of American scholarship, which rejects this ‘pan-eschatologism,’[5] and I even consider that Jesus had openly criticized apocalyptic expectations (e.g. Gos.Thom. 3, found in shorter form in Luke 17:20-21). The rediscovery of the non-eschatological Jesus happens to be an important key for understanding the divergence between Jesus and John the Baptist, for: “John the Baptist, not Jesus, was the chief advocate of an impending cataclysm, a view that Jesus’ first disciples had acquired from the Baptist movement.”[6]


3. Clarifying the chronology

Before launching into an analysis of what we can know about Jesus’ expectations regarding John, we must clarify the chronology of their relationship. In order to do that, let us first look at the episode of the Baptist delegation which came to Jesus. “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” (Matt 11:2-3) We are in the presence here of a tradition which has a good probability of being historical, as Charles Scobie sums up:

The fact that it is a Q passage favors its authenticity; the terms of the question agree with John’s messianic expectation; Jesus’ refusal to give a direct answer, and the way he leaves John to make the leap of faith bears all the marks of authenticity; and the very fact that the passage appears to contradict the general New Testament view suggests that it is not an invention.[7]

Many exegetes, however, rightly question whether John could have communicated with his disciples from his prison (in the fortress of Macharerus in Perea, according to Josephus), since Antipas had arrested him in order to defuse his movement (again, according to Josephus). The solution of this problem is surely that the mention “in prison”, which is absent in Luke (7:18) did not exist in the original Q document. Matthew probably added it out of a concern for consistency, because he had already mentioned John’s arrest in 4:8. Most probably, this passage from Q actually referred to a period in which John and Jesus’ ministries were developing separately, with a certain tension between them. The Johannine account on the parallel and rival ministries of Jesus and John (John 3:22-4:3) thus gains credibility.

Now let us look at the chronology of Mark. According to him, Jesus went to Galilee “after John was arrested.” (Mark 1:14) If we read his account well, it is clear that, for Mark, John disappeared completely from the scene from his imprisonment onwards. The account of John's execution, which is found further on (Mark 6:17-29), is only a flashback. This appears clearly from the sequence:

1. Mark 6:7-13: Jesus sends out the Twelve across Galilee.

2. Mark 6:14-16: Having heard of Jesus’ reputation, caused by the missionary activity of his disciples, Herod thought: “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised!”

3. Mark 6:17-29: A long explanatory digression, starting from John's arrest (“For Herod had sent and seized John, and bound him in prison...”) and ending with his burial (“When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.”)

4. Mark 6:30: Return to the main account, interrupted by the above digression, and continuing with the meeting of disciples, just returned from their mission: “The apostles returned to Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.”

It is clear that the detailed report in Mark 6:17-29 is only an explanatory flashback which points back to Mark 1:14. We cannot, under the pretext that John's death is reported between the sending out of the twelve disciples and their coming back together again, suppose that it happened during that interval.

It is Matthew, and Matthew only, who modified this. In Matthew, the story of John the Baptist's execution is no longer a digression inserted in the middle of the main story, but part of the main story. First of all, Matthew transfers the sending out of the twelve disciples four chapters earlier than its corresponding place in Mark (in Matt 10:1-16). Then, after the passage concerning John's execution (Matt 14:3-12), Matthew continues by “Now when Jesus heard this...”, which leads us to believe that the withdrawal into a “lonely place” just followed, and was even motivated by, John's execution. By this subtle alteration, Matthew introduces a long interval between the arrest and execution of John. It is in that interval that he inserts the episode of the delegation sent by John to Jesus, which he borrowed from Q (here, Luke did the same). At the same time, Matthew supplies John with an excuse for not going himself to question Jesus: he was in prison.

To sum up, the most probable chronology can be established based on the following points:

1. For the chronology, we must rely primarily on Mark, since Q gives very little chronological references.

2. According to Mark’s chronology, Jesus did not leave Judea to go to Galilee until after John’s arrest.

3. When he says that John had been “arrested” (Mark 1:14), Mark means that he disappeared from the public scene and, probably, that he was executed shortly after. (In the discussion about fasting in Mark 2:18-22, when John's disciples clashed with Jesus, nothing indicates that John was still alive.)

4. We must therefore date the Q story of the Baptist delegation to Jesus before the arrest of John. This indicates a period when Jesus and John both worked in Judea, independently of each other.

5. We conclude that Mark skips completely that first Judean period of Jesus. Obviously, apart from his baptism and retreat into the desert, Mark only knows about Jesus’ mission from the time of Galilee, where he assumes Jesus gathered his first disciples. (Here the fourth Evangelist may use some better information, when he tells about the first disciples coming from John’s group, before the departure to Galilee).

John 3:22-4:2 confirms this chronology, deduced from a more reasonable combination of Q and Mark than the one supposed by Matthew. Of course, provided this story has any historical foundation, John’s praise for Jesus (John 3:27-30) must be eliminated as the Evangelist's own composition, no doubt inspired by Mark 2:19-20 with its theme of the “bridegroom” and meant to turn the situation in favor of John.[8] Concerning the mention of the baptism given by Jesus or his disciples, it is difficult to evaluate its historical value. Nevertheless in this passage there may be the memory of a rivalry between John's movement and Jesus’ while both masters were alive on the question of “purification”—that is to say, on the necessity of the ablutions as practiced by the Baptists (which recalls the discussion on the value of fasting found in Mark 2:18-22).[9]


4. Jesus' baptism and the question of John's testimony in favor of Jesus

Numerous details strongly suggest that Jesus' movement was, at the beginning at least, “an outgrowth of the Baptist movement.”[10] For example, when Jesus asked, “What did you go out into the wilderness tobehold?” (Matt 11:7), he was speaking to a crowd that had previously responded to John’s call. When his disciples asked him to teach them to pray “like John taught his disciples to pray” (Luke 11:1), we can suppose that they were speaking from experience. Clearer still, Acts 1:22 indicates that the Twelve had all received the baptism of John. Furthermore, the possible Baptist origin of some of the traditions recorded in the first chapter of Luke,[11] and the persistence of the rite of baptism in the early Church, are convincing indications. The Fourth Gospel supports the hypothesis of the Baptist origins of the first disciples (which does not mean that they were not also Galileans, as Mark indicates).

If Jesus attracted his first disciples from the Baptist movement, we naturally conclude that he himself was a member for a period of time.[12] That is of course also suggested by his receiving the baptism of John, which is one of the most certain historical facts in the New Testament. Actually, that Jesus put himself in an inferior position to John was so greatly embarrassing to the Evangelists—and the Church Fathers—that we can exclude the possibility that they invented this idea. The only question is: what importance and significance did this baptism have in the minds of the two men?

In order to make a preliminary evaluation, we need to rely on Mark's narrative. According to Mark 1:9-11, the vision and heavenly voice manifested at the moment when Jesus “came out of the water” were meant for Jesus only. They were heard and seen internally. There are two possibilities: either that interior experience was part of a legend invented by the Church, or it was Jesus himself who spoke to his disciples about it and it became part of the oral tradition. I prefer the second solution for the simple reason that the narrative shows none of the characteristics of a legend; legends usually emphasize miracles and supernatural events, not internal realizations.[13] Regardless of the origin of this theophany, the important point is this: Mark leaves no room for us to think that John witnessed it. Basically, John the Baptist is only the unconscious and involuntary instrument of God’s blessing and anointing on Jesus.

Matthew does not add any reliable historical precision on Jesus' baptism. He only transforms Mark's narrative in three ways:

1. He omits that John's baptism was “for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4), a formula which, for obvious theological reasons, he transfers to the Last Supper (Matt 26:28). Instead, he puts in the Baptist’s mouth the exact same message that Jesus will later proclaim: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2, see Matt 4:17), thus presenting John as the forerunner of Jesus.

2. He inserts a short and rather theatrical dialogue between John and Jesus (Matt 3:14-15), which serves to invert the impression of Jesus' humility toward John and to change John into a willing witness to Jesus' messiahship.

3. He turns the heavenly voice from a subjective and internal experience into an objective phenomenon, witnessed by all.

In the Fourth Gospel (John 1:29-34), the change is complete: John's baptism is reduced to “a screening process by means of which he was able to recognize Jesus among all the candidates for baptism,” as Hendrikus Boer puts it.[14] “It is so that he could be manifested to Israel that I have come, baptizing with water.”[15] Here, the baptism is not the occasion for a messianic experience of Jesus, as it is in the synoptic Gospels, but the occasion for a prophetic experience of John.

In the case of Luke, things are more complex. If the theological motivations of Matthew and John are clear in their handling of the baptism narrative, the motivation of Luke is less clear. Since Luke gives great importance to John in his first chapter and creates a legend around his prenatal testimony to the equally unborn Jesus, why does he eliminate John from his brief baptism narrative, instead of adding more legend, as Matthew does? The only reason I can adduce is this: the fact that John had not testified in favor of Jesus while alive was too well known in the circles around Luke to be contradicted. (If Luke incorporated Baptist materials in his first chapter, as many scholars believe, this tends to confirm that he was in contact with Baptists of former Baptist Christians.) Such a situation can explain why Luke never says that John recognized Jesus as “the one who is to come,” even when it would have been convenient to do so. For example, in Acts 19:4, a sentence attributed to Paul, Luke writes: “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” The “that is” here is important: it makes it clear that John merely announced the coming of “the one” and that it was Paul, speaking in the name of all Christians, who interpreted this prophetic announcement as fulfilled in Jesus.[16] The way in which Luke treats the episode of the Baptist delegation (Luke 7:17-19) confirms that this is clearly his view of things: it was only in hearing about the miracles of Jesus that John considered, for the first time, Jesus as a possible candidate for the role of “the one who is to come.” Obviously, Luke's sources did not tell him of the slightest testimony of John in favor of Jesus, and Luke did not dare to invent one. This is probably what explains, at least in part, two elements of the first chapter of Luke:

1. By the prenatal meeting between John and Jesus, through their pregnant mothers, Luke creates in legendary time what did not happen in historical time. He invents, before his birth, the testimony that John did not give while he was alive.

2. Luke places Anna and Simeon, two seers who were present at the time of Jesus' circumcision, in the position of prophets recognizing the messianic child—the role that John did not fulfill.[17]

One more aspect of Luke’s baptism account deserves to be underlined. An independent reading of Luke does not allow us to conclude that Jesus heard the voice of God and saw the Holy Spirit at the moment of his baptism. All that we can learn is that this theophany was given after he was baptized. It could have been a few days after, or even weeks after. This is also the impression we get from Acts 10:38. In addition, the precision given that Jesus was in prayer is important: it suggests that God's appearance was an answer to his prayer and not to his being baptized. If we read Mark now, we can see that it does not necessarily contradict Luke. We know that Mark has a strong tendency to contract history. He repeats nine times the word “immediately” in the first chapter (in verses 10, 12, 18, 20, 21, 23, 29, 30, and 42). We are not expected to take this word literally in “and immediately, when he came up out of the water,” any more than in the scene showing his first disciples responding instantaneously to his call (Mark 1:18) or in the description of his quick visit to the synagogue of Capernäum (Mark 1:21 and 1:29). It is quite possible that, in the oral tradition before Mark, the baptism and the theophany were not considered simultaneous, and that they were later united under the theme of the messianic anointing.


5. The Baptist delegation to Jesus

Having dealt with the question of its chronological place, we shall now analyze the narrative of the Baptist delegation, starting from the content of John's question. If Scobie supports its authenticity, Carl Kraeling rejects it, under the assumption that John was not waiting for a Messiah in human form.[18] Based on extensive comparative studies, the judgment of Robert Webb is probably the best we can attain:

John’s expected figure is described in terms of the coming of Yahweh himself to judge and restore his people. But John did not actually expect Yahweh himself, but rather, he expected an agent of Yahweh who, acting with God’s authority and power, would come to judge and restore.[19]

Along the same line of thought is the thesis of J.A.T. Robinson, who suggests that John awaited Elijah.[20] Although Elijah had been taken into heaven alive, it is clear that many people thought that Jesus was Elijah (Mark 6:14 and Mark 8:28). To oppose human and supernatural categories is a modern rationalist attitude foreign to the mentality of the time.

Traditional interpretations concerning John's intention in sending this delegation to Jesus are of three kinds, which I will call : feigned doubt, real doubt, and sincere questioning.[21]

Feigned doubt is the most common interpretation among the Church Fathers. It was Augustine’s interpretation and was taken up by Luther and Calvin. It is the idea that John knew perfectly well that Jesus was “he who is to come,” but that he pretended ignorance in order to give his dubious followers the chance to realize Jesus’ messianic identity for themselves. This interpretation is in total contradiction with the Gospel narratives; for example, it is clearly to John that Jesus answers: “Go and tell John…”

Real doubt is the interpretation of most conservative modern exegetes. It says that John had already recognized Jesus as the Messiah, but he was disappointed, astonished, impatient or disturbed by the way in which Jesus manifested his divine authority. Real doubt is the picture we get from reading Matthew.

Sincere questioning was the interpretation put forth by David Strauss. It assumes that in hearing Jesus speak, John considers, for the first time, the possibility that Jesus was the one he had been waiting for. As we have seen, that is certainly the interpretation that Luke had in mind.

But neither real doubt nor sincere questioning are possible interpretations when we realize that, in all probability, John the Baptist was still free when he sent the delegation to Jesus. The fact that he sent a delegation rather than sought to meet him personally is revealing: if he had seriously considered Jesus as a possible messianic candidate, it is hard to imagine that he would have been reassured or convinced simply by an affirmative answer from Jesus through his disciples.

We must therefore go further and offer a fourth interpretation, which I will call skeptical challenge. John sent messengers to Jesus because he wanted to be informed, not as to who he was, but as to who he pretended to be: did Jesus consider himself as a messianic or eschatological character, or was he waiting, like John, for such a figure? This fourth interpretation fits well with what the sources report about the secrecy (Mark) and the ambiguity (Q) often fostered by Jesus concerning his claim to messianic identity.

But it is especially Jesus' answer to John which confirms this interpretation. It can be explained only if John's attitude was skeptical or even hostile.

Go and tell John what you hear and see; the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me. (Matt 11:4-6)

Jesus here quotes freely from the prophet Isaiah.[22] We recognize in this logion the ambiguous and indirect manner in which Jesus often answers those who put in question his authority. This style is characteristic of Jesus and “bears all the marks of authenticity.”[23] The similarity of style—ambiguity, refusal to answer directly, challenge turned against the one who doubts—between that answer of Jesus to the Baptist's question, “Are you the one who is to come?” and his answer to the priests’ question in Mark 11:27-33, “By what authority are you doing these things…?” is striking. It leads us to believe that the attitude of John regarding Jesus was scarcely different from that of the priests.

We should now turn our attention to the conclusion in Jesus’ answer, “blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” The Greek verb skandalizo (from the noun skandalon) is a Greek translation of a Hebrew verb which means “to stagger” or, in a figurative sense, “to be induced to sin” or “to be mistaken in the understanding of God’s will.”[24] These words were often used by Jesus, sometimes in the strongest meaning of “to betray” or “betrayal”:

¾ Matt 13:21: In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus speaks about the man in whom God's Word cannot take root, “when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.

¾ Matt 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away.”

¾ Mark 14:27-29: "This very night you will all fall away..." Jesus said to his disciples, foreseeing that they would all flee when he would be arrested.

¾ Matt 18:6-7: “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

¾ Matt 13:57 and Matt 15:12: The people and the Pharisees “were offended” in hearing what Jesus had to say.

Paul also used the term skandalon, in the same way as Jesus.[25] All this leaves little doubt as to what Jesus meant when indicating that John was “scandalized” at him.


6. John the Baptist not in the Kingdom

What follows Jesus’ answer to John is a collection of declarations, drawn from Q by Matthew and Luke as they were, but which were in all probability pronounced independently. Verses 7 to 10 are praises of John; their superlative character excludes any possibility that they had been invented by the early Church (for whom John was not more than a prophet). We can note in passing that, in the last phrase, the quote from Malachi 3:1 has been altered for the needs of Christians: there is not anymore God and his messenger, but God, his messenger and the Messiah.

The logic of verse 11 is clear: Jesus explicitly declares that John has not entered into the Kingdom of God. “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Theologians are generally not inclined to read into this any kind of judgment. They understand that John is outside the Kingdom by the very nature of his mission, because he was called to close the Law and the prophets. On the side of critical exegesis, opinion is divided. Some, like Wink, think that the second part of the verse had been added by a writer to soften the first part, which was too laudatory for the Church. That is, Jesus also being born of a woman,[26] the first part could lead one to consider Jesus as being inferior to John. This is exactly what anti-Christian Baptists did claim, if we are to believe the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions 1:60. But this solution poses more problems that it resolves, because we must still explain why the Church would have gone as far as to exclude John from the Kingdom, that is to say, to excommunicate him. I believe that on the contrary we have here an authentic statement by Jesus, characteristic of his enigmatic style of speaking. And there is only one way to interpret his words: by his faith in God, his moral strictness and his prophetic charisma, John was the greatest; however, he did not enter into the Kingdom of God, of which Jesus had opened the door, was the door.

In order to understand this remark, we must consider two things. First of all, according to Jesus, being privileged enough to enter into the Kingdom did not depend on religious merit primarily, but in one's faith in him (Matt 13:16; Matt 21:31). Secondly, no Jew was a priori excluded from the Kingdom of God, which was the fruit both of God's grace and of human effort. The Kingdom could only be won by a total, unconditional decision made by all of one's being. Jesus insists on everyone's responsibility to “seek first his Kingdom” at the sacrifice of everything else (Matt 6:33). The urgency of establishing the Kingdom of God means that one cannot even take the time to bury the dead (Matt 8:22). Moreover, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62) In his parables, particularly the shortest ones which have the least chance of having been edited by the Church, Jesus often emphasizes human responsibility in creating the Kingdom. The Kingdom is like a treasure which one should buy by selling all that one owns (Matt 13:45-46). To enter the Kingdom one must make a change of attitude, for “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3) It is difficult, but not impossible, for a rich man to enter it (Matt 19:23-24). To the person who understood that the two most important commandments were to love God and love one’s neighbor as oneself, Jesus said, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:34) To those who welcomed his disciples, Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.” (Luke 10:9) In his attacks against the Pharisees, he made it clear that man had the power to close the doors to the Kingdom as well: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the Kingdom of heaven against men….” (Matt 23:13)

All of these declarations by Jesus are in direct contradiction to the eschatological theory of Weiss and Schweitzer. The Kingdom that Jesus was waiting for is not to come down from Heaven. Certainly, it is given by God, but it can only be established by people’s total response to God's invitation. This conforms with the notion of the Covenant, the axis of the Jewish religion which has remained unchanged across the centuries. From Jesus' point of view, the relation between John and the Kingdom followed this same principle of human responsibility. We must conclude that John was not excluded from the Kingdom by divine decree, but that he excluded himself by his own initiative. It was John who kept himself out of the Kingdom, not the Kingdom which was closed to him. Charles-Harold Dodd saw clearly here (even though he retreated somewhat a few lines later):

To be in the Kingdom, to receive it, to receive Christ, to confess to him, are concepts, if not identical, at least so tightly linked that it would be impossible to say of someone who confesses Christ that he is outside the Kingdom. Now, John is outside the Kingdom. There can be only two solutions: either he never confessed Christ, or, having confessed him, he then denied him.[27]

It is instructive to compare Matt 11:11 with Matt 18:3: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” The ideas of these two verses are combined into one in the Gospel of Thomas 46:

From Adam until John the Baptist, among those born of woman, no one is greater that John the Baptist to the point of not lowering their eyes before him. But I say to you, the smallest among you will know the Kingdom and will be higher than John.[28]

Was Jesus suggesting that it was John's lack of humility that kept him out of the Kingdom? What we know about the importance of purification rituals in the conflict which opposed Jesus to the Baptists (Mark 2:18), could lead us to assume, as David F. Strauss, that John “must assuredly, with his disciples, have stumbled at the liberal manners of Jesus, and have been hindered by them from recognizing him as the Messiah. Nothing is more unbending than ascetic prejudice.”[29] Certainly, Jesus taught that when they become ends in themselves, ritualism (Mark 7:1-23) and asceticism (Mark 2:18-22) were perversions of the true religion. The contrast between “fasting John” and “feasting Jesus” has been well expressed by John Dominic Crossan.[30]


7. John the Baptist and those who take the Kingdom by force

Special attention must be given to Matt 11:12, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.” The question of its authenticity is difficult to answer, notably because it exists in a very different form in Luke 16:16. But we can see in this variation a sign that “we are dealing with a very primitive tradition, already unintelligible by the time of the Evangelists.”[31] Originally, this verse was probably an independent logion in the Q document. While incorporating it in a speech, Matthew rendered it incomprehensible by its juxtaposition with the following verse, “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.” As for Luke, he rephrased these two verses, combining them to give a new meaning in conformity with his Pauline theology in which the Law was abolished by Jesus: “The law and the prophets were until John, since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently.” (Luke 16:16) Apart from the fact that the change from Matt 11:12-13 to Luke 16:16 (combining two sentences into one) is more natural than the opposite, the version in Matthew seems more authentic because the theme of violence, which represents the most obscure and embarrassing aspect, has been greatly softened in Luke.

In Matthew, the union of the terms biazetai (assailed), biastai (violent people) and arpazousin (plundering or looting) in the same sentence “surely denotes an act of violence in a negative sense,”[32] and it would be quite a feat to give this verse a positive meaning. According to the most natural reading of Matt 11:12, Jesus did not rejoice in the fact that the Kingdom was taken by force; he complained bitterly about it. A possible interpretation would be that Jesus was making reference to the violence which came against John the Baptist. There is, however, no certainty that John was already dead, nor even in prison, when Jesus spoke thus, since that phrase is found in Matthew and in Luke (and probably in Q) in the context of the Baptist delegation. Also, the plural, “men of violence,” does not fit John's death, which was due to one man.

A more natural interpretation would be to attribute that word to the political-messianic violence which was ever in the background of the time. Let us not forget that Jesus' ministry took place between two particularly bloody periods: the massive popular revolts which followed the death of the tyrant Herod the Great in 4 a.d. and the Jewish war against Rome in 66-70 a.d. It is scarcely imaginable that Jesus would have spoken about violence without wanting to evoke armed struggle against Rome, which was an ever-present possibility during his lifetime.

In addition, we know that Jesus openly opposed nationalistic, anti-Roman tendencies. It is remarkable that he did not blame the Romans even once for his own tragic end, when he clearly accused the Pharisees and the Sadducees of preventing the realization of God's will (although it is true that any words of Jesus against the Romans might have been censored). But even more characteristic of Jesus is that he commanded his fellow citizens to love their enemies (Matt 5:43-45), which obviously applied first to the Romans: like the word “violence,” the word “enemy” needed no explanation in the political context of the time. What also separated Jesus radically from the Zealot movement was his position regarding the tax due to Rome, the supreme vexation for nationalistic Jews (Matt 22:21).

But what, in Jesus’ mind, did political-religious violence have to do with John the Baptist? Certainly, Matt 11:12 does not say, “because of John the Baptist,” but “since the days of John the Baptist.” Jesus did not blame John the Baptist for the political violence. However, he pointed out a connection between the two. This connection has some historical basis. As John Dominic Crossan has shown, John was “dangerously close to certain millennial prophets” described by Flavius Josephus, and whose movements (often attracted by the desert and the Jordan) caused popular revolts ending in bloody repression.[33] In addition, what Josephus tells us about John the Baptist shows that he had indeed been arrested because he posed a threat to public order.

Herod [Antipas] feared that John’s so extensive influence over the people might lead to an uprising (for the people seemed likely to do everything he might counsel). He thought it much better, under the circumstances, to get John out of the way in advance, before any insurrection might develop.[34]

Josephus’ explanation is certainly more credible than the “bazaar gossip” (says Walter Wink)[35] told by the Gospels, according to which Antipas would have executed John only to satisfy a promise, made while drunk, to the daughter of Herodias who had charmed him by her dancing.[36] In the light of John's apocalyptic style (obvious in Q), Crossan concludes: “Antipas was not paranoid to consider a conjunction of prophet and crowds, desert and Jordan, dangerously volatile.”[37] It is a permanent feature in history that apocalyptic faith, which hopes for God to destroy the wicked, easily calls forth social violence. Nothing illustrates this better that this phrase, drawn from the Commentary ofHabakkuk found in the Qumran library: “From the hand of his chosen ones, God will judge all the nations.” (1QpHab 5:4) In other words, the final judgment will indeed come from God, but man will participate in its fulfillment.

With these elements, I think we hold the most probable interpretation of Matt 11:12: Jesus, who we know disapproved of apocalyptic expectations and revolutionary endeavors, felt that John’s ministry had deviated from its original vocation by contributing to a climate which, he could feel, would soon degenerate into an open war and lead the country to its downfall.

We are encouraged in this interpretation by the fact that among the first disciples of Jesus, the brothers James and John, sons of Zebedee, most certainly came from John the Baptist’s circle, as is explicit in the Fourth Gospel. They were reprimanded twice by Jesus for their views: once because of their obsession to bring fire down from heaven to consume the ungodly (Luke 9:54), a theme directly inspired from a speech by the Baptist; and another time by their self-seeking political preoccupations (Mark 10:35-37).


8. John the Baptist, a missing link and stumbling block for Jesus

Jesus saw John the Baptist as the greatest of prophets, perhaps even as the Elijah announced by Malachi. There is no doubt that for Jesus, John was the key person, after himself, in the divine strategy for the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Jesus thought in this manner, not only while he was a disciple of John, but up to his last days in Jerusalem; that is proven by his answer to the question about his authority in Mark 11:27-33.

Moreover, when we recognize that, for Jesus, the Kingdom of God would not come down from Heaven, but would be established through people's response to God's will (and, particularly, to Jesus’ call), it becomes necessary to ask about the cooperation Jesus expected from John the Baptist. I will present here the hypothesis which seems the most probable to me, based on the factors I have already assembled.

In my opinion, Jesus’ strategy for leading Israel to seek the Kingdom of God, is revealed entirely in Matt 9:35-38, when Jesus, seeing the crowd come towards him, remarked: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matt 9:35-38) He also compared the Pharisees to tenants responsible for God's vineyard, i.e. the people of Israel (Mark 12:1-12), and he accused them of preventing God's harvest by rejecting his Son. Other passages confirm that Jesus distrusted mass movements (John 2:23; Mark 1:44; Mark 8:26). He was primarily concerned with gathering around him a spiritual elite.

For Jesus, John the Baptist represented the supreme reaper—the same metaphor that John used to describe his role in Matt 3:12. John not only mobilized the people to wait for the Kingdom, but he was, if not accepted, at least respected by the religious elite of Jerusalem. It is important to put in perspective the Evangelists’ view (especially Luke’s) of the Pharisees unanimously rejecting John. As I have already said, Josephus’ sympathy for John contradicts this idea. The fact that the rabbinic Judaism of Jamnia rejected John’s heterodox Judaism should not make us presume this to be true of the situation before 70. There is much that leads us to believe that John's spirituality was quite close to that of the Pharisees (whose name meant “the separated ones.”) He shared their legalism and their emphasis on ablutions and ritual purification. John’s movement should be regarded as a fundamentalist branch of the Pharisees. From this point of view, the situation described in Mark 2:18-22, showing the Baptists and the Pharisees united against Jesus’ apparent liberalism, is entirely credible.

For this reason, John’s support of Jesus would have greatly influenced the way the Pharisees regarded Jesus. It would be surprising if Jesus had not thought of that. In John 7:49, the Pharisees rejected Jesus under the pretext that none of the “authorities” believed in him, but only the “crowd” of “accursed.” This situation, which may correspond to the period of the Evangelist, was certainly also real during the lifetime of Jesus. With John’s public support, Jesus would surely have been received more favorably by the Pharisees. And, with more support from the Pharisees, Jesus would obviously have been better protected against the Sanhedrin. Compare with the situation described in Acts 5:34-42, where Gamaliel, “a teacher of the law, held in honor by all the people,” stood up in the Sanhedrin saved the lives of the apostles. To sum up, John's support was a necessary condition for Jesus, a Galilean peasant, to have the least chance of being taken seriously in Judah and of gaining influence on a national level, which was most likely his goal.

On the contrary, the lack of unity between John and Jesus had a disastrous effect on Jesus’ public image. In the eyes of many, starting with the Baptists, Jesus appeared to be no more than a dissident disciple of John. This is what made David Strauss say that instead of leading the Jews to Jesus, John the Baptist “detained a circle of individuals on the borders of the Messiah’s kingdom, and retarded or hindered their going over to Jesus.”[38] The polemical anti-Baptist themes in the Fourth Gospel, the signs of the persistence of the Baptist movement in Acts 18 and 19, as well as traces of hostility on the part of the Baptists against the Christians in the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions show a situation which may have its roots in lifetime the of John and Jesus: while John's movement was supposed to clear the ground for Jesus—this was the opinion of Jesus' disciples and, I believe, the opinion of Jesus himself, he had actually become an obstacle.


9. Conclusion

Today, a majority of exegetes agree on the following two points:

1. Jesus was driven, up until the last days of his life, by a national mission which involved, in his mind, neither his rejection and death, nor the exclusion of Israel from the Kingdom of God which he announced, but rather Israel's faith in him.

2. John the Baptist, a nationally renowned apocalyptic prophet and Jesus’ contemporary, did not recognize Jesus’ authority or support his project.

Between these two “revelations”—or perhaps “bad news” for some—of modern historical research, I am drawn to propose the following link: by not testifying to Jesus, John hindered Jesus' mission and was in part responsible for the failure of his project.

In order to presume that Jesus saw things in this way, we need a proof that Jesus was really waiting for the support of John which he did not receive. This proof exists, in my opinion, in Jesus’ words, which, by their ambivalence, indicate both John's irreplaceable role in God’s providence and his failure to enter the Kingdom.

Against this thesis of John the Baptist’s failure, one could object that even if there had been a parallel period of activity and rivalry between John and Jesus, John was dead long before Jesus came up against the most violent opposition in Jerusalem, and John was even in prison, if not dead, during Jesus’ entire mission in Galilee. This cannot be denied, but we must also recognize two things: first of all, Jesus would have started his public mission on a totally different foundation if he had received public legitimacy from John the Baptist. Even after John's death, Jesus would have kept such an aura, which would have changed everything in his life, starting with, of course, his relationship with the Baptists.

Hearing him preach in the synagogue, people were astonished: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3) Soon after, “they took offense at him” and, according to Luke 4:28-30, tried to assassinate him. Imagine what Jesus' life would have been if instead, people had said about Jesus: “Is not this the one John anointed as the Messiah?” or simply: “Is not this the one John said we must listen to?”[39]



[1] Such was the conclusion of David F. Strauss as early as 1853; see David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (repr. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972). This view has been affirmed even by rather moderate exegetes such as the French scholar Charles Guignebert (1933), who spoke of a “complete annexation of John by the Christian sect.” Recent authors on the Baptist who accept this view include Charles H.H. Scobie, John the Baptist (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964); Walter Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1968); and Robert L. Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Socio-Historical Study, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 62 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991).

[2] The method was somewhat similar to the attempt of making the ancient prophets of the Scriptures speak in favor of Jesus, which was more difficult since their words were recorded and they had never spoken of a defeated Messiah.

[3] In this case, the Church’s interest in John the Baptist would have been in line with Jesus’ own interest, the main difference being that Jesus could not act as if John had testified in his favor, whereas the Church, fifty years later, could do just this—and even make Jesus say, regarding John, “If I bear witness to myself, my testimony is not true; there is another who bears witness to me, and I know that the testimony which he bears to me is true. You sent to John, and he has born witness to the truth.” (John 5:31-33)

[4] Strauss had hinted that Jesus might have been disappointed that John did not send his own disciples to Jesus.

[5] “The liberation of the non-eschatological Jesus of the aphorisms and parables from Schweitzer’s eschatological Jesus is the fifth pillar of contemporary scholarship.” Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1993), p. 4. See also Marcus Borg, Jesus: A New Vision (San Francisco: Harper, 1987), pp. 8-17, and the good critique of the eschatological theory of Schweitzer by T. Francis Glasson, “Schweitzer's influence: Blessing or Bane?” in The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus, edited by Bruce Chilton (Philadelphia: Fortress).

[6] Funk, Hoover and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels, p. 4.

[7] Charles Scobie, John the Baptist, p. 143.

[8] Willingly or not, the Fourth Evangelist here reverses the situation of the delegation sent by John to Jesus. “It is no longer Jesus who sends the explanation demanded by John, but it is John himself who gives it to his disciples.” David F. Strauss, New Life of Jesus, Book 2 (1864), p. 115.

[9] Taking up a theory of Baldensperger, Maurice Goguel, in Au seuil de l'Evangile: Jean-Baptiste (1928) identified two editorial changes in this narrative: to establish a coherent account, he suggests, one must replace “a Jew” with “Jesus” in John 3:25; and “the Pharisees” with “John’s disciples” in John 4:1. That would place Jesus directly in opposition to John's disciples on the subject of the value of purification rites and baptism, and on the rival baptismal activities of Jesus. Goguel goes further still: supposing that Jesus' departure was not caused only by the Baptists' hostility, he concludes that John himself “had a very reserved and perhaps even frankly hostile attitude toward Jesus.” (p. 250) John's genuine answer to his disciples, he suggests, “meant a disavowal of Jesus by John the Baptist, and Jesus came to the logical conclusion that he had to go elsewhere to continue his mission.” (p. 91) This thesis is based on much speculation, and presents at most one possibility.

[10] Walter Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition, p. 81. On the other hand, it is much less certain that “the major part of the Baptist movement was absorbed into the Christian church,” as Wink also argues (p.107).

[11] Cf. Walter Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition, p. 71.

[12] Cf. William B. Badke, “Was Jesus a Disciple of John?” Evangelical Quarterly 62 (1990), pp. 195-204.

[13] As for the dove, Stevan L. Davies has rightly argued that this image has no special theological meaning. I therefore completely agree with his statement: “Most likely, Christians believed Jesus saw the spirit descend in the form of a dove because that was what Jesus saw and he told them about it; why someone would make this up I cannot imagine.” Jesus the Healer (New York: Continuum, 1995), p. 61.

[14] Hendrikus Boers, Who Was Jesus? The Historical Jesus and the Synoptic Gospels (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 39.

[15] Morton S. Enslin is correct to add that, in the Fourth Gospel, “the baptism of Jesus is deprived of any significance for Jesus—not surprising since the latter has just been introduced as the preexistent Christ, who has been the effective agent responsible for the world's creation.” Under these conditions, he does not need God to reveal himself to him. Morton S. Enslin, “John and Jesus,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 66 (1975), pp. 1-18.

[16] See also Acts 13:24-25, where Paul does not say that John explicitly pointed to Jesus.

[17] By the way, circumcision for the Jews is what baptism is for the newborn today among Christians.

[18] Carl H. Kraeling, John the Baptist (New York: Scribners, 1951), p. 130. In the same direction, see P. G. Bretsher's very interesting article, “Whose Sandals? (Matt 3:11),” Journal of Biblical Literature 86 (1967), pp. 81-87, as well as John H. Hughes, “John the Baptist: The Forerunner of God Himself,” Novum Testamentum 14 (1972), pp. 191-218.

[19] Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 286.

[20] John A.T. Robinson, “Elijah, John and Jesus: An Essay in Detection,” New Testament Studies 4 (1958), pp. 263-281.

[21] This classification is inspired from an article by Jacques Dupont, “L'ambassade de Jean-Baptiste,” Nouvelle Revue Théologique 83 (1961), pp. 805-21, 943-59.

[22] Isa 35:5-6; 29:18-19; 26:19; 61:1.

[23] Charles Scobie, John the Baptist, p. 143. In “Jesus' Reply to John (Matt. 11:2-6/Luke 7:18-23)” Forum 5 (1989), p. 122, Walter Wink adds that Jesus’ answer to John has kept a trace of the Aramaic in which it was originally written. About verse 5, he says, a comparison between different manuscripts brings “virtual proof that this verse existed in Aramaic form.”

[24] David Flusser, Jesus, p. 45.

[25] 1 Cor 1:23; 1 Cor 10:32; 2 Cor 6:3: Rom 9:32; Rom 14:21; Rom 16:17.

[26] “Born of a woman” is certainly a Jewish expression which simply means “born on earth,” “fully human” or “mortal.” Paul uses it in speaking about Jesus in Gal 4:4: “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law…”

[27] Charles-Harold Dodd, The Historical Tradition of the Fourth Gospel, p. 373.

[28] We can also draw a comparison between this verse and Thomas 99 (parallel to Mark 3:34-35) where Jesus contrasts his parents, who do not believe in him, to his disciples who “will enter into the Kingdom of my Father.”

[29] David Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, pp. 226-227.

[30] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus, a Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), p. 48. Jesus developed his ministry in the villages, not in the desert. Matt 24:26, “So if they say to you, ‘Lo, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out” reflects perhaps opposition to the desert tradition. cf. John A.T. Robinson, “The Baptism of John and the Qumran Community,” Harvard Theological Review 50 (1967), pp. 175-91.

[31] Walter Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition, p. 20.

[32] loc. cit.

[33] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), p. 231.

[34] Jewish Antiquities 18:116-19.

[35] Walter Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition, p. 28.

[36] It is pro-Roman and anti-messianic propaganda: the idea is that the tetrarch Herod, ally of the Romans, had been forced by a woman to kill John, whom he liked, exactly as the procurator Pilate had been pushed by the Jews to kill Jesus, even though he could not find him guilty of anything.

[37] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, pp. 231-32.

[38] David Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, pp. 226-227.

[39] Finally, we can imagine that, if he had united with Jesus and his vision, John himself might not have died prematurely. For Jesus did not call forth popular resentment against Antipas, whom he only called “that fox” (Luke 13:32), a friendly adjective compared to “dog” or “pig.” Jesus’ target was elsewhere.