John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v. 2, ch. 12: Jesus With and Without John: The Baptist in His Own Rite,
pp 19-99

(Detailed summary)

Did John the Baptist really exist and what do we know about him?


Yes, John the Baptist really existed. We have multiple attestations, both Christian and Jewish, confirming his historical existence. He appeared as an ascetic prophet from the Jordan region who had a certain success with the crowds, to the point of frightening the political authorities. The essence of his message was to announce the imminent intervention of God who would punish this unfaithful people that is Israel, unless people repent and change their behavior, and express this change by accepting his water baptism once and for all, in expectation of another one sent by God, stronger than he is, who will be able to pour out the Spirit of God who truly forgives faults. This baptism once and for all seems an original creation in a context where water ablution for ritual purity was widespread.

  • Apart from the testimony of the four gospels, we have the account of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (born around 37/38, died after 100) who tells us about John the Baptist. In Jewish Antiquities written towards the end of the 1st century, he says the following about John the Baptist (xviii, 5, 2):
  • (116) Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist;

    (117) for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.

    (118) Now, when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late.

    (119) Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure against him.

  • This text tells us about Herod Antipas (from -4 to 39), son of Herod the Great, who was Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (west side of the Jordan River, part of present-day Jordan). The catastrophe of the army discussed here is its defeat in the winter of 36/37 at the hands of the Nabataean king Areta IV (-9 to 40); Herod had divorced his daughter Phasael to take the wife of his half-brother, Herodias, mother of Salome). According to Josephus, the Jews saw Herod's defeat as God's punishment for unjustly killing John, nicknamed the Baptist.

  • It should be noted that Josephus presents John the Baptist to us as a sympathetic character. He also gives us a certain amount of information about his actions.
    • John the Baptist appears there as a rather popular Greco-Roman moral philosopher, with a little neo-pythagorean touch with his baptismal rite: the important thing is to be just towards each other and to be pious towards God.
    • John the Baptist had only religious intentions and no political ambitions.
    • His baptism was primarily intended for religious people whose baptism expressed their desire to walk in righteousness. But he also addressed himself to a wider public (see "others" in the Josephus text above) who were enthusiastic about his speeches, and this is probably what caused Herod's concern (the Gospels speak of the tax collectors, the financiers of the time, and the army who began to listen to him).

  • Finally, three things should be noted: 1) the text on John the Baptist that Josephus left us is almost three times longer than the one he left us on Jesus (see text on Jesus); 2) almost nothing is known about the reasons for such a baptism by John the Baptist; 3) this text of Josephus was known by two Fathers of the Church, Origen (185 to 253) and Eusebius of Caesarea (265 to 340).

  • The Gospels will help us to clarify this rather general portrait left by Flavius Josephus. First of all, we can apply the principle of multiple attestations to confirm the historical value of the gospel writings, since Mark, Document Q and the evangelist John all attest to the existence of John the Baptist. However, they face the challenge of situating John the Baptist in relation to Jesus. For example, Mark portrays him as a baptizer, the one who baptized Jesus, while John ignores this dimension to emphasize his role as a witness.

  • A first statement we can make from the Gospels is that John the Baptist exercised an independent ministry, unrelated to that of Jesus, and that this ministry was very popular and had a great impact. He appears as a prophet, a holy and ascetic man. Moreover, he had great success with the crowds, which was a source of embarrassment for the followers of Jesus, and of fear for Herod. This reputation did not cease with his death, as people would continue to claim him afterwards for many years.

  • In his infancy narrative, Luke presents a parallel picture of the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. But this construction is above all literary and has something artificial about it. For example, his gospel opens in the temple of Jerusalem with the priest Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who receives the angel's announcement that his wife is pregnant, and also ends in the temple of Jerusalem, where Jesus' disciples are in prayer after his ascension. This portrait of John the Baptist cannot be confirmed outside of the infancy narrative, and therefore cannot be used to specify his face. At most, two statements can be made:

    • John the Baptist was the only son of a priest, but he refused the normal duty of an elder son to continue the priestly line, and even turned his back on the temple in Jerusalem to play the role of anti-establishment prophet.

    • It is possible, but not proven, that his vision was nourished by that of Essene groups and Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea, not far from the region where he baptized (did he stay there?), and who opposed the temple of Jerusalem and the priestly lineages, for legal reasons; but it should be immediately noted that his baptism once and for all to express a desire for conversion was different from the frequent ablutions of the Essenes for reasons of ritual purity, that John the Baptist did not create a community like that of Qumran.

  • The first reliable source on John the Baptist is the Document Q tradition found in Mt 3:7-12 and Lk 3:7-9.15-18:

    (1) As he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to the baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, who suggested that you escape the coming wrath? Produce therefore fruit worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say within yourselves, "We have Abraham for our father". For I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones... Already the axe is at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

    (2) He comes after me who is stronger than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to take off. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. He holds the winnowing shovel in his hand and will clean his threshing floor, and will gather his wheat into the barn, and the husks he will burn with unquenchable fire".

  • In part (1) John appears as a prophet announcing the imminent arrival of God's judgment to all Israelites. Because of the imminence of this judgment (the axe is at the root of the trees), there is an urgent need for inner change through sincere repentance, and outer change through new behavior. Belonging by blood to the Jewish people, the chosen people, is not enough. In connection with this internal and external change, we must immediately accept John's baptism if we want to avoid the sacred fire that will consume everything. John is often given the epithet "forerunner," but here he is the forerunner not of any messiah, but of God himself. In short, John appears as an eschatological prophet (discourse on the end of times) who speaks with a somewhat apocalyptic tone (revelation about what awaits those who will not change) announcing the end of the history of the people of God, with an imminent judgment involving annihilation by fire for some. And Jesus, in accepting to receive baptism, made this message of John the Baptist his own.

  • Part (2) is attested not only by the Q tradition, but also by Mark and the gospel according to John. We have good reason to believe that we have here an echo of John the Baptist's preaching. It deals with two subjects, on the one hand the place of John the Baptist's baptism in the drama of the end of times, and on the other hand its role in the salvation that is to come. First of all, let us ask the question: who is the strongest that comes? One might think that it is God who comes with his judgment. But it would not make much sense for John the Baptist to compare himself to God by saying: "He is stronger than I am!" That would be a truism. Moreover, the image of the slave taking off his master's sandals is never used in the Old Testament to describe a relationship with God. In Qumran there was the idea of leaders of Israel at the end of time, i.e. a priestly messiah or a Davidic messiah. It is possible that John the Baptist intentionally kept this eschatological figure vague. He himself did not see himself fit to be the actor of the last act of the eschatological drama, i.e. the separation of the wheat and the whale, and therefore seems to have been very vague about another agent of God capable of bringing this drama to its conclusion. In summary, after the threat of judgment at the very beginning, John the Baptist now turns to the positive aspect of his message: his baptism with water prefigures the gift of the Holy Spirit announced in the Old Testament, in intertestamentary literature, and in Qumran for the last times, a gift that will be given to those who first received water baptism, a gift that will be given by one stronger than he.

  • Another possible source of information in the Gospels is that of Lk 3:10-14:

    And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
  • First, let's ask two questions: 1) historically, did John make a commitment to moral exhortation and direction? 2) Is there a form of catechism that would come from him? The answer to the first question must be yes. This is typical of all the eschatological prophets of the Old Testament and it would be quite unusual if John did not. There are several indications that he had disciples whom he taught to pray and fast. Finally, some called him "Rabbi," Master. But the answer to the second question is more complex: did this teaching that has been left to us come from him? It is disturbing that someone like Matthew, who worships moral exhortations and reports Document Q on John the Baptist, ignores this passage. So it is better to conclude for the moment: we don't know.

  • Finally, let us examine another source in the Gospels, that of Mk 1:1-8, in fact the text that begins his gospel:

    (1) The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, [Son of God]. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
    "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
    the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    'Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,'

    (2) John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

    (3) He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

  • This text has three parts. Part (1) is clearly Christian since it mentions Jesus and situates John the Baptist in relation to him. For part (3), we have previously provided an analysis of it. Let us now turn our attention to part (2), and more particularly to three points: the place where John the Baptist preached, his food and clothing, and finally his baptism.

  • John preached in the desert. Among the Jews the desert was a place without human habitation. It is also a place with symbolic value, i.e. set back from the city of men, which is well known in the Old Testament and where the community of Qumran had chosen to live. The area around the Dead Sea and the southern part of the Jordan River valley were considered desert and were part of the Judean Desert. Even the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus confirms this location. It is not surprising to hear about the people of Judea and Jerusalem going to the desert to be baptized in the Jordan River because they only had to walk 20 or 25 kilometers. When we note the places where John preached, we are still in the Jordan Valley, starting from the north of the Dead Sea where Qumran is and where the river flows, up to the height of Samaria (Aenon of Salim?). In addition, the Jordan River region was a border area with Perea (present-day Jordan). In such a context, one can understand the presence of publicans (customs officers) and soldiers asking John the Baptist what to do. It is also understandable why Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, is able to arrest him, since Perea was also under his jurisdiction. Finally, one understands why he will be imprisoned in the fortress of Machaerus, since Machaerus is located in Perea. Why did John choose this place of preaching? Of course, there is the presence of water with the Jordan River, but the desert had a highly symbolic value: it is the place of the exodus and the Sinai covenant, a place where people were tested, a place where some were punished by fire from heaven (Sodom and Gomorrah is according to tradition south of the Dead Sea), but at the same time the gateway to the Promised Land (Jericho is in the Jordan Valley, north of the Dead Sea).

  • John was dressed in camel skin and ate grasshoppers and wild honey. Some have tried to see in the camelskin garment an allusion to the prophet Elijah, but such an association between the camelskin garment and Elijah is sought in vain in the Old Testament. It is better to recognize that it is probably the normal garment of a desert nomad. In the same way, for locusts and wild honey, some people wanted to see it as a form of abstinence from demonic powers. But, from what we know of John the Baptist's preaching, he never mentions demons, and eating locusts is not vegetarian. Likewise, he was wrongly made a "Nazir", following the example of Samson, who consecrated himself to God for a certain period of time by abstaining from alcohol, letting his hair grow and avoiding cemeteries, and ended this period of consecration with an offering to the temple. Here again, it is better to recognize that this was the normal food for a desert nomad, someone who wanted to distance himself from the city of men.

  • Finally, let us look at his baptism. Rituals around water are widespread in the religious world, and were very common in the Near East, especially in Iran and Babylonia, as symbols of spiritual purification and the gift of new life. Similarly, in Judaism cleansing rituals are increasing and becoming frequent, for example among the Pharisees who try to live the ritual purity of the priests in their daily lives. Particularly in Transjordan, where Perea is located, there are several groups that practiced baptism. One could mention the people of Qumran and their frequent lustrations, but also Joseph Bannus, a desert hermit, who washed himself day and night with cold water. Despite the differences, the Qumran cleansing provide a context for understanding John's baptism: in the midst of the desert, in an eschatological context with an apocalyptic flavor, the water rituals are performed by people who believe that Israel has gone astray from her path, and therefore seek inner purification through repentance and a reformed life, and thus hope for salvation when judgment will destroy many. On the other hand, there are differences with Qumran. While Qumran is an organized community, John is a solitary prophet. While the member of Qumran did the water ablutions himself and repeated them regularly, John's baptism can only be done by John himself and is a once-and-for-all ritual. Moreover, John's baptism referred people to the final and unique gift of the Spirit. It was investigated whether John the Baptist had copied something known at the time, for example an initiation baptism among the Jews for proselytes. But this baptism for the proselytes only appeared at the end of the 1st century, so it must be admitted that John really created something new. Likewise, the question was asked whether the remission of sins attached to this baptism was a Christian creation or whether it could be traced back to John. Here, it is likely that it goes back to John himself for a number of reasons:
    1. The New Testament never speaks of baptism in terms of the remission of sins;
    2. Christians themselves would never have given John's baptism such value;
    3. The New Testament does not associate the vocabulary of repentance and forgiveness of sins with baptism;
    4. The expression must have been rather embarrassing for Christians when we know that Jesus, called the Son of God, went to be baptized by John.

  • Now, one may ask: what exactly does this remission of sins mean? The danger is to apply our modern and sacramental vision to the expression. John seems rather to see his baptism first as an expression of sincere repentance and the desire for a reformed life, and then as a proclamation of the coming of the Spirit in the last days who will wash away all the sins of the baptized. On the one hand John affirms that his baptism is essential for the forgiveness of sins in the last days and that only he alone can carry it out, but at the same time he presents himself as an insignificant figure, like a slave, in the face of the strongest who alone can bring the eschatological drama to its conclusion.

  • To sum up, it must be said: yes, John the Baptist really existed. We have multiple attestations, both Christian and Jewish, confirming his historical existence. He appeared as an ascetic prophet from the Jordan region who had a certain success with the crowds, to the point of frightening the political authorities. The essence of his message was to announce the imminent intervention of God who would punish this unfaithful people that is Israel, unless people repent and change their behavior, and express this change by accepting his water baptism, in expectation of another one sent by God, stronger than he is, who will be able to pour out the Spirit of God who truly forgives faults.

Next Chapter: Was Jesus a disciple of John the Baptist?

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