Friday, 18 August 2017

It all starts with **B A P T I S M** (3): Gospels on John the Baptist's death

WE ARE LOOKING at how we ended up toward the end of the first century with a strong Jewish-Christian leader deciding that the clearest way to ritualise baptism was in the threefold name (“in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”). We are exploring the impact of John the Baptist with regard to that hugely significant step.

In yesterday’s post, we saw that for Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century, John was probably perceived to a similar degree of historical importance as Jesus. At the end, of that post, however, we discovered the awkward possibility that John may have been killed as late as 36 AD. I wondered initially if that really clashed with a New Testament position on Jesus and John or even whether it mattered all that much.

Well, I have to admit, it would definitely clash. Whether it matters, is a personal issue we all have to resolve and my method is to find the most likely path while still ensuring the New Testament authors receive the most credibility possible (as difficult as I find that at times with Matthew). So, that’s what I propose to do with you right now.

The date limits for Jesus’ crucifixion seem fairly firmly set at between 30-33 AD. The New Testament has John's imprisonment and execution before Jesus' crucifixion, but let's just have a quick look to see how that played out (using the MPH - Matthean Posteriority Hypothesis – ordering to which I subscribe, don’t worry if you don’t know what that means) to be sure:

Mark 6: No direct acknowledgement of John's death from Jesus

The whole event is in a "Markan Sandwich":
  • Jesus' disciples go on mission
    • Herod Antipas hears about this, but has had (funny tense required) John killed, duration of imprisonment not entirely clear, but might not have exceeded a year, given the event of John's execution being Antipas' birthday "party". John's disciples have buried John.
  • Jesus' disciples feed back on mission, and it's time for a break, retreat.
However, John’s death is assumed by Mark in 8:28 (Jesus questioned by some to be a resurrection of John the Baptist), and at least imprisoned in 11:30 (John’s baptism: was it from heaven…?)

Luke: No direct acknowledgement of John's death from Jesus, but it is assumed.

Luke's relating of the Baptist's story is spread across several chapters.  
  • Ch. 1: John's birth and naming
  • Ch. 3: John's ministry and imprisonment
  • Ch. 7: John's messengers sent to Jesus (presumably from his prison cell)
  • Ch. 9: Herod has already killed John, and wants to see Jesus. But like in Mark, Jesus simply debriefs his disciples and they try to retreat for a break.
  • Chapters 11, 16 and 20 refer to John's work in the past tense.

Matthew: Jesus knew of John's imprisonment and his death

Mat 4:12      “Now when Jesus heard that John had been imprisoned, he went into Galilee.”
Mat 14:12    “Then John's disciples came and took the body and buried it and went and told Jesus”.

Great! Thank goodness for that, Matthew clears it all up for us then! Josephus must have had a mix up about dating whole battles and stuff.

Only problem for me: I just don’t trust Matthew 100%. Remember for me, it’s “Love, Hate & Late” with this guy. I don’t want to get into it too much here, we’ll touch base with him again in our summary. Right now, let’s see what John is writing right at the end of the century about John’s death…

John: the Baptist slips from view

John (the writer of the fourth gospel)’s treatment of the Baptist is typical of his approach to Jesus as a whole. Jesus is the focus and spotlight. That means that other significant characters, like John the Baptist, don’t necessarily need to have their loose ends tied once they have served their primary purpose of promoting Jesus and his message. This is simply because the focal point is locked so resolutely on the “light of the world” who has moved on. With that in mind, look at these verses and how the wording morphs in the space of just a few verses:

John 5:32-33,35     

“There is another who testifies about me, and I know the testimony he testifies about me is true. You have sent to John, and he has testified to the truth”. “He was a lamp that was burning and shining, and you wanted to rejoice greatly for a short time in his light.” 

And then that’s pretty much it. After this chapter, John’s name is mentioned just twice more in chapter 10, as ever with primary regard to Jesus.

Strange, huh? Just like that, he’s gone, with a slight twist of a sentence.


There are good grounds for assuming that Matthew is writing later than Mark (Hurtado puts Mark around 65 AD), and Luke and Acts. For everyone, both John and Jesus were executed decades before. It is generally acknowledged that of the three synoptic gospels, Matthew displays the greatest amount of theological shaping and reordering of material. He will go to considerable lengths to show Torah fulfilment (like having Jesus sitting on two donkeys, which was Matthew’s total misreading of Zechariah 9:9), eschatological fireworks of dozens of resurrections (that everyone else forgot) just after Jesus’ death, and a whole host of things.

However, although Matthew plays it loose, we also get to have his version of the baptismal formula, so all is forgiven! But we remember that he is all about making connections happen. He does it thematically, he does it prophetically from the past and into the future, and he sure makes certain that Mark and Luke’s efforts to connect and distinguish John and Jesus are as explicit as possible. Of course, Matthew’s method, however artificial it may sometimes appear, does not detract from the possibility that John was genuinely and even naturally held by the early emerging Christian communities to be such a great predecessor to Christ, that their deaths would be presumed the same ordering as their overlapping ministries: John first, then Jesus.

Some of those emerging communities may have vacuumed up some of the remaining John-movement communities that continued to function decades after his demise, which, given the consensus that (the great-but-humble) John had vouched for Jesus as the Messiah, could only have fuelled the Jesus movement.

Tough Choices

But let's not run away from the awkward bit. So what are our choices? Firstly, if this really matters to you, then you should really read a specialist on Josephus, there will be plenty of resources there on such a significant historian, and check the difficulty of John’s death dating is substantial. If it really does seem quite likely, then I think you are basically left with two options, but conservatives won’t like either (obviously).

Firstly, you could simply accept the logical flow I presented above that was integrated by Mark and followed and clarified by Luke then Matthew (and virtually ignored by John). This would mean that in reality, at Jesus’ crucifixion, John was either:

1.     Still in prison
2.     Not yet in prison, ministering.

If pushed, I would prefer 1. That gives Jesus the space to attract the crowds and attention without competing against John. A long prison stay is not something I have heard discussed before, but this might be because neither Josephus nor the gospel writers imply it. Thinking about 2., I just can’t see it, although I guess it would have to remain a possibility, given the strong evidence of godly humility at the heart of both movements.

Oh yes, there is a third possibility: simply something else happened that we'll never know!

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