The gospel writers now introduce us to Jesus as a grown man, ready to begin his ministry. Oddly enough, at this juncture, Jesus is not the major point of focus but rather another individual whom Luke claimed to be Jesus' first cousin. He has become known in his- tiry as John the Baptizer (or Yochanan the Immerser). In a story whose central character is Jesus the Nazarene, it seems strange, on first glance, that the story narrators should place someone else in such a spotlight. However, as we shall see, John the Baptizer was very in- strumental in the life and ministry of Jesus.

Mark, at the very beginning of his gospel, relates that this John was referred to by the prophets as G-d's messenger, "the voice of one crying in the wilderness (1:3)", preparing the way for G-d. This is a refernce to Elijah the prophet about whom we have Malachi's prophecy that he should be the messiah's forerunner.

       "John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach baptism of re-
      pentance for the remission of sins. And there went out to him
      all the land of Judea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all   
      baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins."
                       Mark 1:4-5

Mark procedes to relate that Jesus himself came down to the Jordan to be baptized by John. John announces Jesus' coming with the words "There cometh one mightier than I after me, the lachet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptiz- ed you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost" (1:7-8). This formula, with variations of the same words, is repeated by each of the gospel authors. The stress is that Jesus is greater than John and that John is only the messenger who is "not worthy to touch his shoe lachets". At the moment of Jesus' baptism by John, Mark tells that the heavens opened and the Spirit of G-d descended and rested upon Jesus, and a heavenly voice proclaimed him to be the son of G-d.

Shortly thereafter, John is arrested for some reason and placed in prison, and it is upon this event that Jesus entered Galilee and began "preaching the gospel of the kingdom of G-d, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of G-d is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel" (1:14-15).

Sometime later, certain individuals come to Jesus and ask him, "Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy dis-ciples fast not?" (2:18).

We hear next about the death of John at the hands of Herod Antipas (6:14-29); apparently this Herod had been the one to have John inprisoned because John had rebuked him for marrying his brother's wife while the brother was still alive, which is contrary to the Torah commandment; and at the instigation of Herodias, his wife, and of her daughter, Herod had John beheaded, a very non-Jewish manner of execution. Josephus the Jewish historian confirms that John was put to death by Herod Antipas, but for a different reason than that given by the New Testament. Josephus reports that John had been such a powerful and charismatic man, and had attracted such a great following, that Herod feared John would lead a popular rebellion against him and against Rome.

Matthew parallels Mark's introduction of John (3:1-7). He adds adds the reason for the call for immediate repentance, "for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (3:2). This is also echoed by Jesus, "Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gos-pel of the kingdom..." (4:23).

Matthew also relates that Jesus informed his disciples that John was the reincarnation of Elijah (17:10-13). This identification of John with Elijah is also repeated by the other evangelists.

This constant identification of John with Elijah is to prevent an identification of John with anyone else for we shall see that there were many Jews who thought him to be the messiah. To such an extent is this true that Matthew relates there were people who believed John had been RESURRECTED FROM THE DEAD (!) to continue his work. This is an important paradigm of messianic power over death that we should bear in mind when we contemplate the story of Jesus' own death. The statement of this belief is put into Herod's mouth but it probably reflects a popular belief:

      "At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, and
      said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen
      from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth them-
      selves in him."
                     Matthew 14:1-2

In chapter 21, Matthew records an interesting incident:

      "And when (Jesus) was come into the temple, the chief priests
      and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching,
      and said, By what authority dost thou these things? and who
      gave thee this authority? And Jesus answered and said unto
      them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in  
      like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The
      baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they
      reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven;
      he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? But if we
      shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a  
                         Matthew 21:23-26

Luke adds the details of when John first began his ministry, which enables some to place it in the year 28 CE.

      "Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,  
      Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tet-
      rarch of Galilee, and is brother Phillip tetrarch of Ituraea
      and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of
      Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of
      G-d came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness."
                          Luke 10:18

There is also this exchange reported between Jesus and the dis-ciples of John:

      "And John calling unto him two of his disciples sent them to
      Jesus , saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for
      another? ... Then Jesus answering said unto them, Go your way,
      and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the
      blind see, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf
      hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached."
                          Luke 7:19,22

After this, Jesus tells his listeners who JOhn really is:

     "And when the messengers of John were departed, he began to speak
      unto the people concerning John ... This is he, of whom it is
      written, Behold I send my messenger before thy face, which shall
      prepare thy way before thee. (Elijah) For I say unto you, Among
      those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than
      John the Baptist: but he that is least in the kingdom of G-d is
      greater than he."
                          Luke 7:24,27-28

John the evangelist introduces John the Baptist with a story of "priests and Levites" who come to find out his identity:

     "(they asked him) "who art thou? And he confessed ... , I am
     not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias?
     And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered,
                          John 1:19-21

There follows John's introduction of Jesus but, as already stated, John the evangelist's Jesus is more Christologically developed than in the other gospels. Here Jesus is not only one whose shoe lachets John is unworthy to touch, he is already the special saving sacrificial lamb of G-d:

      "The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and he saith,
      Behold the Lamb of G-d, which taketh away the sin of the world.
      This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is pre-
      ferred before me."
                          John 1:29-30

Finally we have this last emphatic denial from the lips of the Baptist:

     "Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ,
      but that I am sent before him ... He must increase, but I must
                          John 3:28,30

Thus we have the presentation of John the Baptizer in the four gospels, but we also find him mentioned again in the New Testament known as Acts of the Apostles which is the New Testament version of the historical spread of Christianity after the death of Jesus. It is believed by most New Testament historians that it was written by the same author as that of the Gospel According To St. Luke.

He is first mentioned in a scene in which the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples immediately prior to his ascension to heaven. In his farewell address he says:

     "John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the
      Holy Ghost not many days hence."
                           Acts 1:5 (repeated in 11:16)

In a later scene, the apostle Peter states that the Christian gospel being preached now actually began with John:

     "That word, I say, ye know, which was published throughout all
      Judea, and began from Galilee, after the baptism which John
                            Acts 13:24-25

And finally there is an amazing story concerning the apostles in their travels, which needs to be quoted fully:

     "And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an elo-
      quent man, and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus. This
      man was instructed in the way of the L--d; and being fervent in
      the spirit, he spake and taught dilligently the things of the
      L--d, knowing only the baptism of John. And he began to speak
      boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had
      heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way
      of G-d more perfectly. And when he was disposed to pass into
      Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive
      him : who, when he was come, helped them much which had believed
      through grace: For he mightily convinced the Jews, and that pub-
      lickly shewing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ. And it
      came to pass, that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having
      passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding
      certain disciples, he said unto them, Have ye received the Holy
      Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so
      much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto
      them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John's
      baptism. Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of
      repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on
      him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When
      they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the lord
                            Acts 18:24-19:5

Now that we have been acquinted with what the New Testament has to say about the Baptizer, we are in a better position to analyze his real significance in the story of Jesus, and why the authors of the New Testament felt it necessary to address him at all. As with all the mat-erial contained in the New Testament documents, it is necessary to read, not only the verses, but bwteen the lines as well in order to determine what the authors were concealing as well as what they were revealing.

First we must note that John is introduced at the very beginning of the story of Jesus' ministry. As a matter of fact, he is presented on the scene BEFORE Jesus actually starts his ministry. The reader is told that John had a large following of his own, - "all the land of Judea" went out to him to be baptized by him and hear him speak about repentance. There is speculation among the people as to who he really is, and the gospel writers seem to go to great lengths to have him deny that he is the messiah, or some risen prophet, although Jesus himself tells his own disciples that John was really the prophet Elijah, pre- paring the path for the coming of the messiah.

John is arrested and put in prison because he is assumed to be a threat to the authorities because the people "all hold John as a pro-phet." He has disciples of his own, and his following continues even after his death, (Apollos and "certain disciples" at Ephesus are found to know "only the baptism of John"). It is even believed that after his death at the hands of Herod, he was resurrected from the dead. The New Testament however goes to lengths to stress that JOhn's baptism was somehow deficient, a lesser baptism than the later baptism practiced by the Christian churches. John is "not worthy to touch the shoe lachets" of Jesus. There is a constant derrogation of him, and Jesus is exalted at John's expense, - "he must increase, but I must decrease." John is spoken of as the greatest of prophets by Jesus yet "he that is least in the kingdom of G-d is greater than he." In sum, John only function seems to be that of fore-runner of Jesus. He introduces Jesus and baptizes him, -"behold the Lamb of G-d", and then disappears from the arena of any further active participation in the gospel story.

We do not need corroborating sources outside the New Testament to allow us to believe that this John existed, or that there was some INTIMATE relationship between him and Jesus, since the New Testament authors would not have included him in the gospel account, and given him such an outstanding, though brief, position in the story. Yet this brief account of the charasmatic Baptist does not satisfy our full understanding of who he was or what his true mission was in any meaningful Jewish sense. It only increases our curiosity about why, while stressing his popularity with the Jewish masses, the New Testament authors felt it necessary to constantly derrogate him, no matter how politely. Who was the REAL John the Baptist? What role did he actually play during the time of Jesus, and in the development of the mission of Jesus and of Christianity?

John is introduced to us as a charismatic man, living in the wilderness, calling Jews to repentance before the immanent arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven, and baptizing them in the Jordan river. At the outset, it is necessary to define the expressions, "Kingdom of Heaven" and "baptize" within a Jewish historical context because, by now, after twenty centuries of Christianity, they are fully imbued with Christo- logical significance. But if, for a moment, we can suspend all our "Christian" associations to them, we will be able to see them in an entirely different light, and thereby we will be in a better position to understand the mission of John.

The expression, "Kingdom of Heaven" (Hebrew, MALKHUT SHAMAYIM), is a euphemism, the word, "Heaven", really a synonom for "G-d". In Hebrew, the expression, MALKHUT HASHEM, "the Kingdom of G-d", or better yet, "the KINGSHIP of G-d", has several meanings. On one level, for example, when a Jew says the Shema prayer, or performs the MITSVOT of the Torah, he is said to be "taking upon himslef the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven", in essence, he is proclaiming that he recognizes G-d as his ultimate Sovereign, the Ruler of the universe; but because not all nations acknowledge Him as such, His sovereignty or royalty is HIDDEN. Therefore, in THIS unredeemed age, He is only manifest as King of Israel, but in the messianic age to come, all peoples will recognize Him as King; and thereby, His Kingdom will extend to the entire world, with the messianic king as his human viceroy.

On the holiday of Rosh HaShannah, this theme of G-d as King is paramount. Rosh Ha Shannah celebrates the present enthronement of G-d by Israel, and the future enthronement of G-d by all of humanity at the time of the coming of the messiah. Therefore, in a larger sense, the expression, "Kingdom of G-d" or "kingdom of Heaven" denotes the age of the messiah. John told the people to prepare themselves for the Kingdom of Heaven by deeds of repentance.He, like so many of his contemporaries believed that the Kingdom was immanent. Many of those who came out to the wilderness to be taught and baptized by him, probably believed that HE HIMSELF would usher in G-d's Kingdom on earth, that is, they believe him to be the messiah. He himself may have believed it. If the story of John's disciples asking Jesus, "Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?", has any historical basis, it could mean that after John's imprisonment, he himself, and/or some of his followers began to have doubts about John's messiahship.

As to "baptism", - this word is so heavily charged emotionally both for Christians and Jews, but for the latter in a most negative way since for Jews, the word "baptism" is usually associated with its negative adjective, "forced". However, in and of itself, its primary meaning, from the Greek, is simply "immersed". As used primatively in ref- erence to John, it simply meant that he immersed Jews in the waters of the Jordan as a means of purifying them after their "repentance". This also has a connection with the Rosh HaShannah - Yom Kippur season which is the season of repentance of the Jewish people as a whole, before they meet G-d in the holiest of days and effect His coronation. It is a common practice for religious Jews to immerse themselves in the MIKVEH, or ritual pool, in order to purify themsleves bodily as well as spiritually at that time.

Ritual immersion in a natural or man-made body of water has been practiced by Jews for thousands of years. Aside from its purifying func tion, it is also used as a vehicle of conversion to Judaism. Many ancient sects used it, among them the Essenes. John may have been an Essene at one time however at the time that he began his ministry, his teachings were in contrast with those of the Essenes. While they practiced a sort of primitive communism and shunned the city life, preferring to live in dessert communities, John admonished his followers, not to hold property in common, but only to share what they had with the needy. And while he himself dwelt in the wilderness, he allowed his followers to live in the city (Luke 3:10-11).

While groups such as the Essenes separated themselves from other Jews and lived according to their own religious proactices, John and his disciples identified very much with the average Jew, sharing, for example, a common bond with other Jews vis-a-vis the commemoration of historical national days of calamity, ("Why do the disciples of John, and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?").

Seen in this light, there emerges a picture of John, very much a man of the people; a Galilean who loved his people, and who believed that G-d had chosen him to prepare for the immanent coming of the messiah. Becaue of his charisma, many of his followers believed him to be a prophet; some believed him to be the messiah. And after his death, his disciples, many of whom believed he had risen from the dead, formed a distinct religious group which rivalled Christianity, and which lasted for hundreds of years.

Having examnined the person of John, and his role as an apocalyptic preacher and teacher to the Jewish masses of his day, we can now reasonable ask, in spite of what mold the New Testament authors try to cast him, what was his REAL place in the story of an historical Jewish Jesus?

To begin with, we must never forget that all four evangelists testify to the fact that JESUS CAME TO HIM TO BE BAPTIZED! In that respect, whether John was worthy to touch Jesus' shoe laces or not, Jesus acts like ANY OTHER FOLLOWER OF JOHN! It is only after John's arrest that Jesus begins his mission (according to Mark), "preaching the gospel of the kingdom of G-d ... saying, ... the kingdom of G-d is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel."

In essence, it appears that Jesus, having absorbed John's message to the Jews, is continuing John's work, the major difference being that , whereas John confined his activity to the wilderness, Jesus enters Galilee (and later Judea) and takes the message to the people rather than having them come out to receive it, the message being, in its simplicity, The good news ("gospel" translates Hebrew BESOROT TOVOT, "good tidings") is that the messianic kingdom is immanent, there fore believe it, and act accordingly in preparing yourselves by acts of repentance.

This was the beginning of Jesus' "gospel", inherited from his teacher John. It was not to remain so simple however. Jesus, in his own right, also matured into a charismatic leader, indeed much more charismatic and dramatic than John, and the followers that he attracted were not as passive as those that John had attracted. Although his disciples initially were fewer in number than those of John, each one of them succeeded in forming a close, perosnal relationship with Jesus, and by reason of their OWN powerfull personalities, the interaction between them and their master, Jesus, eventually produced a stronger, more popular and attractive movement than that of the Baptist. By leaving the wilderness, and carrying their movement in the heart of the cities and towns of Galilee, and actively preaching LOVE OF ONE ANOTHER as well as repentance, Jesus and his Jewish followers gained the love and respect of of those poor, common people among the Jewish masses who seemed unable to find a nitch for themselves elsewhere in the world. Jesus taught them and healed their sicknesses, and made them constantly aware of a common enemy, Satan, in the form of the oppressing gentile overlords. He admonished them to love their fellow Jews and to proactice acts of loving kindness among them. Unlike the Pharisees, he forbid his followers from going out to convert the heathen, instructing them to go only to the "lost sheep of Israel" in what he believed were the last days before the coming Kingdom. They were dynamic and passionate men and women, many of them outcasts from "polite" society, whom he gathered to himself, making them feel they had intrinsic worth, and he told them that they would be G-d's instruments in helping to bring about the Kingdom. Swept along then, by events in the Jewish and Roman world over which they had no real control, Jesus and his Jewsish followers wound up creating their own destiny, a destiny Jewish at first, but ironically, Roman in the end. What was meant to be the beginning of the downfall of Rome, in the end became the salvation and unifying force of Rome. Jesus and his Jewish followers became the forgotten Jewish martrys of history, and their names became became anathema to their own people.

The immanent Kingdom of Heaven was pushed into the far indefinite future, or became spiritualized as a synonom for the Christian Church, baptism became a Christian sacrament, and John the Jewish Immerser became a Christian saint.

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