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WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland

Chapter 15: JOHN THE BAPTIST

“John preached in the wilderness of Judea and this was his message: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. . . I baptize you in water for repentance, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am and I am not fit to carry his sandals.”[1]

John saw Jesus coming to him and said. . .This is the one I was talking about when I said, ‘ A man is coming after me, but he is greater than I am. . .’[2]

John the Baptist was a cousin of Jesus but unlike Jesus, who lived a life of normal associations in Galilee, the Baptist was raised in the wilderness near Qumran. It was a desolate area of southern Judea near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea and the Essenes had established a monastic community there. Strictly celibate, they led an extremely regulated life of study and ritual that revolved around the teachings of their sacred scrolls. But they were not the only people who chose to live in that desolate area. Like early Christian monasteries, the Essenes attracted satellite families who settled nearby and were instructed in some of the ways and beliefs of the community.

John’s parents lived near Qumran and died when he was quite young. It is believed that after their deaths he was taken into the monastic community and stayed there until he began  his own ministry. “(John) grew and developed in body and spirit. He lived in the wilderness until the day that he appeared publicly to the people of Israel.”[3]

He was about thirty years old when he began his mission. The only son of Zechariah, a hereditary priest of Israel; John’s destiny had been predicted at the time of his circumcision, when he was only a week old: “You my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High God. You will go ahead of the Lord to prepare his road for him.”[4]

In John’s generation, being called “a prophet of the Most High” was not without its dangers. The Age of Prophecy had been declared dead generations before:[5]  “If anyone still wants to prophesy, his father and the mother who gave his birth shall say to him ‘You have no right to live since you utter lies in the name of Yahweh.’ And while he is prophesying, his father and the mother who gave him birth shall run him through. When that day comes, every prophet shall be ashamed of his prophetic  vision; they shall no longer put on their hair clocks to utter their lies. . ..’[6]

In John’s world of first century Judaism, it was the fulfillment of every jot and title of the Law and the observation of all the rules of Temple sacrifice that constituted the true worship of God. Priests, Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes were committed to the observation of religious Law as it had been ritualized since the time of Ezra, four hundred years earlier. And that commitment excluded prophetic utterances - - they undermined a legalistic approach to religion and to God.

The Judaism of John’s time ignored the oracle of the Prophet Hosea that command-ed “I will have mercy, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not holocausts.”[7]  Neither was there acceptance of the prophetic condemnations of war which, had demanded that weapons of war and destruction be transformed into implements of nurture; that the sword become a plow and the spear a thresher.

By the time John was born, those prophets who had spoken in God’s name were dead and gone--and their teachings were ignored. All over Palestine, the sons of Israel plotted violent insurrections designed to overthrow the rule of Rome and they offered endless animal sacrifices to the God whose help they sought. In that revision-ist climate, there was no room for challenges to the status quo.

But in spite of the ongoing effort of its leaders to silence those who spoke outside the religious establishment, “in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign . . . the word of God came to John.”[8] Complete with hair shirt, he began his ministry in the Jordan Valley and in true prophetic fashion he took on the religious establishment.

Although John did not go into the cities or towns to speak to the people, he did travel North and South along the banks of the Jordan River. His followers became so numerous that the authorities in Jerusalem sent representatives to ask him by what authority he was baptizing his own people and urging them to repentance.

Although Jewish rituals provided many occasions for ceremonial washings, the only once-in-a-lifetime cleansing that was proscribed took place when a Gentile converted to Judaism. And in the same way, although there were many occasions that called for repentance of sins on the part of observant Jews, the ultimate repentance was that of the Gentile who renounced his heritage and accepted the teachings and practices of Judaism.

But John was not calling Gentiles to that kind of repentance. He was addressing his own people as if they were heathens in need of purification from their way of life. This constituted an attack on the religious leaders who taught that the Jewish status, as descendants of Abraham, was an assurance of their basic righteousness and the special favor of God.

When John saw a delegation of those leaders, Pharisees and Sadducees[9], coming to investigate him, he made it plain that he was not intimidated by them. In fact, he infuriated them by a direct attack on their religious claims.  “Brood of vipers. . .if you are repentant produce the appropriate fruit,  and do not presume to tell yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ because  I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones.”[10]

This cavalier dismissal of Abrahamic descent was an attack on what had become a glorification of ancestry. Since the time of Ezra, when contamination with non-jewish blood had been a cause for banishment from Jerusalem, an emphasis on ethnic purity had been an important factor in the self-identity of the Jewish people. Even the civil rights of a family depended on their heredity. Only persons of pure race comprised the “true Israel” and only true Israelites were entitled to certain, important privileges. The need to prove ones ancestry had given rise to an extensive bureaucratic system of record-keeping that kept track of a person’s genealogy.[11]

And here was the Baptist saying that being a bona fide descendant of Abraham was not important. Repent of wrong-doing and behave justly in the future: that was what counted in God’s sight. The crowds of people who came to be baptized wanted to know just what it was they had to do in order to behave justly. John’s answer was in the social justice tradition of prophets like Amos and Isaiah: “Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none, and whoever has food must share it.”[12]

In the revisionist climate of John’s time, there was no room for the kind of oracles delivered by prophets who had taught that it was the greed and oppression of their own people--not ritualistic and cultic deviations--that would cause God to withdraw protection from Israel. That kind of prophetic teaching was ignored by the religious establishment.

But in spite of establishment opposition to his ministry, John’s fame and the number of his followers continued to grow. His popularity and his reputation as a holy man were such that the religious leaders were afraid to take action against him. But what they could not accomplish, royalty was able to do. John ran afoul of Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch (King) of Galilee[13] whose marriage the Baptist continually and publicly denounced.

John’s prophetic understanding of the need for social justice as the expression of godly worship coexisted with his years of contact with the Essene community. They had strict rules regarding many facets of a person’s life, including the legitimacy of various sexual unions. And the marriage of Antipas to Herodias violated those rules.

Although both Antipas and his wife were divorced, that was not the issue which caused John’s ongoing condemnation of their union. It was a time when divorce was widespread and an acceptable alternative to a marriage gone wrong.[14]  But it was against religious Law for a man to marry his brother’s former wife, even if she were a widow. And Herodias had been married to Philip, the brother of Antipas. Under the Law, that constituted an ongoing adulterous and incestuous union.[15]

John the Baptist kept saying to Herod Antipas it is not lawful for you to marry your brother’s wife.[16] And although this condemnation antagonized him, Antipas was impressed by John’s reputation for holiness and did not plan to take action against him. But his wife had no conflicting feelings about the Baptist: “Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him.”[17]

The first step in getting rid of the prophet was to have him arrested. Herodias managed to overcome whatever lingering doubts her husband had about confronting the Baptist. John’s condemnation of him could be seen as an act of treason against Rome, the power that had appointed Antipas to rule Galilee. “Herod Antipas gave orders to have John arrested and had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias.”[18]

But even after he was arrested Herod knew that “John was a good and holy man, and so he kept him safe.”[19]  But not for long. The Baptist’s imprisonment ended in his death and Herodias orchestrated his murder. She used her daughter, Salome, child of her marriage to Philip, as the means to that end.

The occasion was a celebration of the king’s birthday. Although such celebrations were common to the Greeks and Romans, the majority of Jewish people considered it a heathen practice.[20] But the upper classes were enamored of many Greek and Roman customs and considered their practice a sign of sophistication and open- mindedness.

“On his birthday Herod Antipas gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.”[21] The guests, this four-teen year old pleased, were all men. There were separate dining halls for men and women at the fortress of Machaerus, where the party took place. Consequently, the women, including her mother, were spared--or deprived from observing the intrica-cies of Salome’s dance.

However, the men were so pleased with the entertainment she provided, that Antipas was moved to further impress his guests. He told his stepdaughter “Ask me for anything you want and I’ll give it to you…She went out and said to her mother What shall I as for? The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now, the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”[22]

Those who are annoyed by what they regard as tall tales presented as biblical facts, include the story of John’s head being served on a platter in this category. However, the extant records of the Roman historian Tacitus, circa A.D. 55, reports that the Emperor Nero was fond of having the heads of defeated enemies brought to him at his palace. And since beheading was a standard Roman method of execution, it would seem that although John’s fate was gruesome, it was not innovative.

The Bible reports that although Antipas did not want to see John dead, his sense of “honor” overrode his good sense and he granted Salome’s demand. “The tetrarch was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother.”[23]

Some commentators have little sympathy for Antipas’ distress, pointing out that lust overrode good sense when he promised Salome anything she wanted as a reward for her dancing. Such extravagant payment for a single performance does seem to indicate something beyond an interest in the art of the dance.

After the Baptist’s death, “John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.”[24] Jesus said that John had been more than a prophet; that he was the one sent to prepare the people for the coming of Christ. (John) was more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way before you.”[25]  When Jesus said this, the disciples knew that he was quoting a prophecy of Malachi, last of the Old Testament prophets.[26]  And not only they, but all observant Jews looked to Malachi for information regarding the coming of Messiah.

They believed that the Messianic Age would be inaugurated by the violent overthrow of their enemies, after which they would establish a political empire and rule the world. They believed that the use of force to overcome their enemies was a primary factor in the triumph of God’s people. And when John was languishing in prison, just prior to his death, he sent his own followers to ask Jesus if He was really the one to whom they could look for deliverance from their enemies. “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”[27]

But Jesus did not directly respond to John’s question. Instead he said: “Go back and report to John what you see and hear. The blind receive sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear and the dead are raised up; the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at Me, and finds no cause for stumbling through Me and is not hindered from seeing the Truth.”[28]

John had recognized the divine nature of the Christ when He came to the Jordan to be baptized. But now he was confined in a dungeon and wondered if he had made a mistake. If Jesus was the Promised One, why was he not using his power to over-throw the unrighteous rule of Antipas and his wife?

Although John had been appointed to herald the ministry of Jesus, he was still of the old order and heir of a belief system in which the violence of men was attributed to the direction of God. The priests, religious leaders and common people all believed that Messiah’s Kingdom would be build upon the graves of their vanquished enemies. And because of this, Jesus said that although no one born up to that time was greater than John, he was the least among those born of the new order.

“Verily I say unto you, among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist; not withstanding, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent (try) to take it by force.”[29]

Although they were cousins who had overlapping ministries, John and Jesus were unlike each other in their outer lives as well as in their inner convictions. Raised in the wilderness, John spent his life outside the towns and villages in which most men lived. Jesus lived in town. John fasted and ate his meager food alone and had no social contact with those labeled “sinners” under Jewish law. But Jesus often wined and dined with those the religious establishment branded as sinners. And he knew that this gave fuel to the criticism of His enemies. He knew they admired the ascetic-ism of John and Jesus observed that because of His own lifestyle, people said “Behold a man gluttonous and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners.”[30]

Consequently, in the time of Christ it was John the Baptist who was widely revered by the people and acknowledged to be God’s spokesman. They understood his asceticism as a sign of his legitimacy and his godliness; they understood a spokes-man for God who loudly denounced the sexual sins of public figures like Antipas.

The Jewish historian, Josephus, who also lived in the first century A.D. wrote about the Baptist, telling of his death at the hands of Antipas and how the Jewish people so revered him that they attributed a later military defeat of Antipas to the fact that he had killed John.[31]  Although early Christian historians tried to insert a paragraph that mentioned Jesus in Josephus’ history, later scholarship has shown that it was an interpolation: the historian either had not heard of Jesus or, if he had, did not think Him worthy of any mention. Because He was not widely known or acclaimed in His life, or widely mourned in His death, the story of Jesus is preserved only in the records of His followers. And those writings were not compiled until decades after His death.

The New Testament also preserves evidence of John the Baptist’s fame and reports that it had reached far beyond Palestine. The Book of Acts tells how an Alexandrian Jew named Apollos was in Ephesus (western Turkey) and spoke at the synagogue there.[32]

Although the flourishing city of Ephesus was a stronghold of the Greek goddess Artemis. It was a Roman province and a city that had a large and influential Jewish community. The Roman world was cosmopolitan and Ephesus was the most popul-ous and prosperous city of the Empire; a city where Greek, Jew and Roman lived and thrived side by side.

“(Apollos) was an eloquent speaker and had a thorough knowledge of the script-ures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord, and with great enthusiasm he proclaimed and taught correctly the facts about Jesus. However, he knew only the baptism of John[33] So the leaders of the Christian community at Ephesus “took him home with them, and explained to him more correctly the Way of the Lord.”[34]

It was also in Ephesus that the Apostle Paul came across a number of men who were disciples of John the Baptist.  “He asked them ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” they answered. “Well then, what kind of baptism did you receive” Paul asked. “The baptism of John,   they answered.”[35]

“Paul said, The baptism of John was for those who turned from their sins; and he told the people of Israel to believe in the one who was coming after him--that is, in Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus”[36]

The New Testament, like the historical record of Josephus, gives evidence of John’s fame. In places far distant from Palestine, just a few years after Jesus died, there were Jewish people who knew of John, but not of Jesus. And it was John’s great popularity that had insured he did not die by being crucified.

No matter John’s condemnation of King Antipas’ marriage to Herodias or the pro-vocative gyrations of Salome, the King would never have agreed to the crucifixion of the Baptist.  That was a torturous, public kind of death that could not be carried out against a widely popular figure whose multitude of followers would have attacked the scene of crucifixion. They would not have allowed their holy man to hang suspended above them, slowly dying. They may not have prevailed, but Antipas knew they could cause a public uproar that would have reverberations in every Roman province.

So John was spared that kind of death, but Jesus was not. He died suspended in the agony of crucifixion. He hung there, slowly dying and there was no public attempt to free him. Only a few of his heartbroken followers cared about what was happening to Him.

But two thousand years after the deaths of both Jesus and John, it is obvious that the name of the Baptist would barely be a footnote to history if it were not for his association with Jesus. And two thousand years after the death of Jesus, it would be written of Him:

“He was born in an obscure village. He worked as a carpenter until he was thirty. He then became an itinerant preacher. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a house. He had no credentials except himself. . . .Twenty centuries have come and gone and today he is still a central figure of the human race. All the armies that ever marched and all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as that one, solitary life.”[37]


[1]  Matthew 3:1, 2, 11  JB

[2]  John 1:30  TEV

[3]  Luke 1:80  TEV

[4]  Luke 1:76  TEV

[5]  Malachi, circa 420 B.C.

[6]  Zechariah 13:3, 4  JB

[7]  Hosea 6:6  JB

[8]  Luke 3:1,2  JB

[9]  The Pharisees were members of a Jewish group known for its strict observance of the Law as it had been interpreted and developed by their rabbis, after the Babylonian Exile. The Sadducees observed only the written form of the Law was found n the Mosaic writings. Ultimately, only the religion of the Pharisees survived the final fall of Jerusalem.

[10] Matthew 3:7-9  JB

[11] For a thorough discussion of this topic see Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus  Phila: Fortress Press, 1969, chapters 12 and 13

[12] Luke 3:11  TEV

[13] The Bible refers to Antipas as King, as well as Tetrarch.

[14]  See Jesus and the “hardness of your hearts” re divorce. Matthew 19:8, 9  TEV

[15]  See Leviticus 18:15. 20. 21  TEV

[16]   Mark 6:18  NIV

[17]  Mark 6:19  NIV

[18]  Mark 6:17   NIV

[19]  Mark 6:20  TEV

[20]   The word “heathen” conveys the sense that the word “Gentile” had in biblical times, but no longer has for most people.

[21]  Mark 6:21, 22  NIV

[22]  Mark 6:22 - 25  NIV

[23]  Mark 6:26-28  NIV

[24]  Matthew 14:12  NIV

[25]  Matthew 11:9, 10 NIV

[26]  Malachi 3:1  NIV  Circa 420 B.C.

[27]  Matthew 11:3  NIV

[28]  Matthew 11:4-6  Amplified

[29]  Matthew 11:11, 12  KJ

[30] Matthew 11:19 KJ

[31]  Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVII 5, 2

[32]  Acts 18:24  NIV

[33]  Acts 18:24, 25  TEV

[34]  Acts 18:24  NIV

[35]  Acts 19:23  TEV

[36]  Acts 19:4, 5  TEV

[37One Solitary Life,  Author unknown

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