Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
John the Baptist
JOHN THE BAPTIST
i. John’s Importance, and Sources for his History.
ii. Birth, Youth, and Pre-Prophetic Life.
iii. The Public Ministry.
iv. John’s Baptism of Jesus and Witness regarding Him.
v. Imprisonment and Death.
vi. John and his Disciples.
vii. Our Lord’s Estimate of John.
i. John’s Importance, and Sources for his History.—The significance of John the Baptist for the history of Christianity is shown by the place given him in the Gospel records by every one of the four Evangelists. St. Mark describes John’s mission in the very first words of his narrative as ‘the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ mark (Mark 1:1). St. Luke makes the story of John’s birth the prelude to his wonderful narrative of the greater birth at Bethlehem (Luke 1:5 ff.). The three Synoptists are agreed in representing his mission as the necessary preparation, in accordance with OT prophecy, for the manifestation of the Christ (Mark 1:2-3, Matthew 3:3, Luke 3:4 ff.), while in all the Gospels his baptism of Jesus becomes the moment of the Lord’s equipment with the Spirit for His Messianic office (Mark 1:9 ff., Matthew 3:16 f., Luke 3:21 f.; cf. John 1:32 ff.). In the Prologue to his Gospel the Fourth Evangelist describes John as ‘a man sent from God,’ who ‘came for a witness, to bear witness of the light, that all men through him (i.e. Jesus) might believe’ (John 1:6-7). In accordance with this general sense of John’s great importance for Christ and Christianity is the space devoted to him in the Gospel narratives as a whole. It is true that Lk. alone furnishes any information about him previous to the moment when he suddenly issued from his retirement in the wilderness and began to preach the baptism of repentance in the Jordan Valley, and true also that in the case of the Fourth Gospel it is difficult often to distinguish between the Evangelist’s statements as a historian and his own subjective exposition. But when we put together all the references to John’s ministry and history and character which we find either in the form of historical narrative, or testimony from the lips of Jesus, or reflexion on the part of an Evangelist, and when we make use besides of one or two sidelights which fall from the book of Acts and the pages of Josephus, we find that for knowledge regarding the Baptist’s mission, his character, his relation to Jesus Christ, and his place in the history of both the old and the new dispensations, we are in no lack of plentiful and trustworthy sources of information.
ii. Birth, Youth, and Pre-Prophetic Life
The fact that Lk. alone of the Gospels gives an account of John’s earlier life, together with the artistic nature of the narrative and its presumed discrepancy with the representation of the Fourth Gospel in respect of a connexion between John and Jesus previous to the baptism of the latter (cf. Luke 1:36; Luke 1:56 with John 1:31; John 1:33), has frequently been supposed to reduce this exquisite story to the level of pure legend. In view, however, of St. Luke’s claims to historical accuracy (Luke 1:1; Luke 1:4), and of the vindication of these claims at so many points by modern research (cf. W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller, ch. i., Was Christ born at Bethlehem?; Chase, The Credibility of Acts), it is impossible to set his narrative aside as if it rested on no basis of historical fact. It is full of poetry, no doubt, but it is the kind of poetry which bursts like a flower from the living stem of actual truth. Any attempt to dissolve the narrative into fictions of a later growth must reckon with the fact that the Evangelist is evidently making use at this point of an early Aramaic source steeped in the colours of the OT—‘the earliest documentary evidence respecting the origins of Christianity which has come down to us, evidence which may justly be called contemporary’ (Plummer, ‘St. Luke’ in Internat. Crit. Com., p. 7). This document, which, if it is historical, must have rested in large part upon the authority of the Virgin Mary, St. Luke, ‘as a faithful collector of evangelic memorabilia, allows to speak for itself, with here and there an editorial touch’ (Bruce, Expositor’s Gr. Test., ad loc.). To appreciate the historical sobriety and manifestly primary character of this early Jewish-Christian source, we have only to compare the first chapter of Lk. with the relative sections of the Protevangelium Jacobi, and especially with those chapters (22–24) which Harnack calls the Apocryphum Zachariae (see Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, Extra Vol. p. 431).
According to Lk., John was the son of Zacharias, a priest of the course of Abijah (see art. Zacharias), and his wife Elisabeth who belonged to the family of Aaron (Luke 1:5 ff.). Elisabeth was a kinswoman (not ‘cousin,’ see Plummer, op. cit. p. 25) of the Virgin Mary (John 1:36), who paid her a three months’ visit immediately before the birth of John (Luke 1:56, cf. Luke 1:36; Luke 1:39-40). John was the senior of Jesus by six months (Luke 1:36; Luke 1:57, cf. John 2:6). The name John, properly Johanan (Ἰωάννης = יוֹהָנָן, cf. Heb. text and LXX Septuagint of 1 Chronicles 3:24, 2 Chronicles 28:12), was given to the child by his parents in obedience to a Divine direction (Luke 1:13), and in spite of the opposition of neighbours and kinsfolk (Luke 1:58-63).
Regarding the place of John’s birth there has been much discussion. Lk. describes the house of Zacharias as in ‘a city of Judah’ which lay in ‘the hill country’ (Luke 1:39-40). A number of commentators have assumed, without any warrant, that this must have been Hebron, as being a priestly town in that region. Others have suggested that τολις Ἰούδα is a corruption for τολις Ἰούτα (Reland, Pal. [Note: Palestine, Palestinian.] p. 870; Robinson, BRP [Note: RP Biblical Researches in Palestine.] 2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ii. 206), so that the Baptist’s birthplace would he Jutah or Juttah, to the south of Hebron (Robinson, op. cit., ib., and i. 495), which is mentioned in Joshua as having been allotted to the priests (21:16). A tradition as early as the Crusades assigns the honour to Ain Karim, a village which lay between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. All this, however, is purely conjectural, and it is best to be content to say that John was born in a town unknown, in the hill country of Judah. See, further, art. Judah.
Of the external incidents of John’s childhood and youth Lk. gives no information. All that is told us bears upon his spiritual growth. According to an announcement of the angel Gabriel, he was to be ‘filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb’ (Luke 1:15). That a peculiar Divine blessing did rest upon him from the first is implied in the words, ‘the hand of the Lord was upon him’ (Luke 1:66); that this Divine presence made itself manifest in the development of his character is evident when the Evangelist adds, ‘and the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit’ (Luke 1:80).
But whatever the outward tenor of John’s way in that priestly house in the hill country of Judah, a great crisis must have come at last, followed by a sudden break in his manner of life. A priest’s son, he would naturally, according to all Jewish traditions, have stepped into the priestly office, and enjoyed the honours, abundance, and comparative ease that were parts of his birthright. But spiritual instincts and powers which had long been unknown in Israel began to make themselves felt in the young man’s heart, and this son of a priest went forth into the deserts to be shaped in solitude into a prophet mightier than Elijah or Isaiah. Of the precise nature of the impulse which first led him to withdraw himself from his fellows, the duration of his stay in the wilderness, and the fashion of his life while there, no Evangelist has anything to tell us. But it is certainly a grotesque mistake to suppose that he left his home and the haunts of men in order to become an Essene (see the excellent remarks of Godet on this point, Com. On Lk. i. p. 117 f.).* [Note: This theory, put forth by Grätz (Gesch. der Juden, iii. p. 100) and adopted by many since, has been repeated once more in the art. ‘Essence’ in Jewish Encyc., where it is added that the slience of the NT about the Essense ‘is perhaps the best proof that they furnish the new sect [i.e. Christianity] with its main elements as regards personnel and views’—as striking an illustration as could well be discovered of a fallocious use of the argumentum e silentio. On John’s relations to the Essenes see Lightfoot, Colossians, Dissert. iii.]
There was absolutely no resemblance between John, the desert solitary, as he is described to us in the pages of the Gospels (Matthew 3:4 || 11:7ff. || 11:18 ||), and the Essenes with their white garments and their cenobitic establishments, as we come across them in the pages of Josephus (BJ ii. viii. 2–13, Ant. xviii. i. 5). All that can be said is that John was an ascetic as the Essenes were, and that in both cases the revolt against prevailing luxury and corruption sprang out of the deep seriousness which marked the more earnest spirits of the time (see Rüegg, art. ‘Johannes der Täufer’ in PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ). John’s withdrawal into the wilderness indicated his disapproval of society as he found it, it signified more especially an absolute break with the prevalent Pharisaic type of piety. But in his case it meant much more than this, much more even than the adoption of severely ascetic habits in the interests of his own spiritual life. It was as one who was conscious that he was set apart for the office of a prophet (cf. Luke 1:14-17; Luke 1:76 ff.), and who felt himself called in particular to take up in Israel a work of reformation similar to that of Elijah (Luke 1:17; cf. Matthew 11:14; Matthew 17:12, John 1:21), that John betook himself to the deserts (Luke 1:80) and there lived the life of one who hides himself from men that he may the better see the face of God. Locusts and wild honey were his food, while his clothing was a loose cloak (ἔνδυμα) of woven camel’s hair and a leathern girdle about his loins (Matthew 3:4, Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8).† [Note: That he ate locusts, as the Bedawin still do, not carob-beans, is now the prevalent opinion of scholars (cf. art. Locust, and in hastings DB, s.v.). Cheyne, however, holds out for carob-beans (Encyc. Bibl., artt. ‘Husks’ and ‘John the Baptist’). See also Expos. Times, xv.  pp. 285, 335, 429, xvi.  p. 382.]
How long John remained in ‘the deserts,’ by which is doubtless meant the awful solitudes of the Wilderness of Judaea, and how he grew into the full sense of the precise nature of his prophetic vocation as the forerunner and herald of the Messiah, we cannot tell. But the Holy Ghost who had been working in him, and the hand of the Lord which had been laid upon him from the first, his own constant brooding over words of ancient prophecy (John 1:23, cf. Matthew 3:3 ||), and a deep intuitive reading of the signs of the times, would gradually bring him to a clear knowledge both of his function as a prophet and of the time when he must begin to exercise it. And so came at last the day of his ‘shewing’ (ἀνάδειξις) unto Israel (Luke 1:80).
iii. The Public Ministry.—It was in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar that the word of God came to John in the wilderness summoning him to enter upon his work as a prophet (Luke 3:1-2). Immediately he obeyed the summons (Luke 3:3). The scene of his ministry, according to Mk., was ‘the wilderness’ (Mark 1:4), according to Mt. ‘the wilderness of Judaea’ (Matthew 3:1), according to Lk. ‘all the country about Jordan’ (Luke 3:3). Probably, as hitherto, the Wilderness of Judaea continued to be his home—that wild region which stretches westwards from the Dead Sea and the Jordan to the edge of the central plateau of Palestine; but when he preached he must have done so in some place not too far removed from the haunts of men, while, owing to his practice of baptism (almost certainly by immersion), the Jordan necessarily marked the central line of his activity (Matthew 3:6; Matthew 13:16, Mark 1:5; Mark 1:9). To Jn. we owe the information that he baptized on both sides of the river (John 1:28; John 3:28; John 10:40). John’s work may be considered under two aspects, (1) his preaching, (2) his baptism.
1. John’s Preaching.—According to Mt. the essence of John’s preaching, the text as we might say of all his sermons, was this: ‘Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matthew 3:2). The second part of this text was the fundamental part. It shows that John was fully conscious that the long-expected Messianic age was now about to dawn, and that it was his mission to proclaim the fact. By his trumpet-voiced proclamation of this fact he thrilled the nation to its heart and drew forth the multitude into the wilderness to hear him (Matthew 3:5, Luke 3:7; cf. Josephus, Ant. xviii. v. 2)—men from Jerusalem and men from Galilee (John 1:19; John 1:35 ff.) (civilians and soldiers (Luke 3:10; Luke 3:14), Pharisees and publicans side by side (Matthew 3:7, Luke 3:12).
But while the preacher’s fundamental message was the announcement of the near approach of the Messianic Kingdom, he combined with these glad tidings of good a stern summons to repentance. Repentance, he said, μετάνοια, a change of mind and heart, were indispensable as a preparatory condition for all who would share in the privileges of the new order about to be set up. To the Jewish mind this was an unexpected and unwelcome note in a herald of the Messiah; and John’s utterance of it and strenuous emphasis upon it form one of the marks of his profound originality as a prophet. According to the popular conviction, all Israel would have a lot and a part in the blessings of the Messianic age, and that specifically because of their descent from Abraham. It was recognized that judgments would accompany the appearance of the Christ, but these judgments were to fall upon the Gentiles, while Abraham’s children would be secure and happy in that day of the Lord. The Talmud explains the cry of the prophetic watchman, ‘The morning cometh, and also the night’ (Isaiah 21:12), by saying, ‘The night is only to the nations of the world, but the morning to Israel’ (Jerus. [Note: Jerusalem.] Taan. 64a, quoted by Edersheim, Life and Times, i. 271). Not so, said John. Repentance is the prime requisite for all who would enter the Kingdom of heaven. Descent from Abraham counts for nothing (Matthew 3:9). Every fruitless or worthless tree must be hewn down and cast into the fire (Matthew 3:10). The very leaders of the nation themselves, the Pharisees and Sadducees, must bring forth fruit worthy of repentance if they are to escape from the wrath to come (Matthew 3:7-8).
2. John’s Baptism.—Alongside of the spoken word John set that great distinctive symbol of his ministry from which his title ‘the Baptist’ (ὁ Βαπτιστής) was derived. He came not only preaching but baptizing, or rather, so closely was the symbol interwoven with the word, he came ‘preaching the baptism of repentance’ (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). To understand John’s baptismal doctrine it is necessary to think of the historical roots out of which it sprang. For though he gave to the rite a depth of meaning it had never had in Israel before, he evidently appealed to ideas on the subject which were already familiar to the Jewish people. In particular, three moments in the preceding history of the religion of Israel appear to be gathered up in the baptism of John as it meets us in the Gospels.
(a) The theocratic washings of the Jews (Leviticus 11-15, Numbers 19). That a religious intention underlay those ‘divers washings’ of the ceremonial law is evident (cf. Leviticus 14:32; Leviticus 15:13, Mark 1:44, Luke 2:22; Luke 5:14, John 2:6), while the historical connexion of John’s baptism with them is proved by the fact that in NT times βαπτίζειν had come to be the regular term alike for those ceremonial washings and for the Messianic baptism of the Forerunner (for detailed proof and reff. on these points see the present writer’s Sacraments in the NT, p. 56 f.). And yet, though John’s baptism finds its earliest historical roots in the Levitical washings, it is far from finding its complete explanation there. It was essentially an ethical rite, and thus very different from an outward ceremony to which some value could be attached apart from the moral and spiritual condition of the recipient. In the case of all who came to him John insisted upon repentance; and they ‘were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins’ (Matthew 3:2; Matthew 3:6).
(b) The Messianic lustration foretold by the prophets.—Long before the time of John, prophetic souls in Israel had seen that for a true cleansing the nation must look to those Messianic days when God should open a fountain for sin and for uncleanness, sprinkling His people with clean water, and putting a new heart and a new spirit within them (Jeremiah 33:8, Ezekiel 36:25-26, Zee 13:1). It was John’s function to declare that those great Messianic promises were now going to receive their fulfilment at the hands of the Messiah Himself. His baptism, we have said, was a baptism of preparation for the Kingdom, preparation which took the form of repentance and confession. But even more than a baptism of preparation it was a baptism of promise, promise both of the Kingdom and the King, being a promissory symbol of a perfect spiritual cleansing which the Messiah in person should bestow—‘I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance; but he that cometh after me … shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire’ (Matthew 3:11 ||).
(c) Another historical moment which should not be lost sight of is the proselyte baptism of the Jewish Church. It may now be regarded as certain that the baptism of proselytes had been the rule in Israel long before NT times (see especially Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. i. 319; Edersheim, Life and Times, ii. 745 ff.); and proselyte baptism helps us to understand the baptism of John in certain of its aspects. When a Gentile ‘sought shelter under the wings of the Shekinah,’ it was understood that he was utterly renouncing his past. And John insisted on a like renunciation in the case of candidates for his baptism. The danger of the proclamation that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand lay in the fact that multitudes would claim to enter that Kingdom as a matter of course, without being prepared to submit to the necessary conditions. Not so, said John. God does not depend upon Israel alone for the peopling of His Kingdom. He ‘is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham’ (Matthew 3:9). Even a Jew, if he is to be received, must come as a humble penitent who casts himself upon the Divine grace He must come like a stranger and a proselyte renouncing the past, not as one who claims an inalienable right, but as one who seeks by fruits of repentance to flee from the wrath to come (Matthew 3:7-8, Luke 3:7-8). For the baptism of the Coming One is a baptism of judgment. His win-nowing-fan is in His hand; and while He will gather His wheat into the garner, He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12, Luke 3:17). On the baptism of John see, further, art. Baptism.
iv. John’s Baptism of Jesus and Witness regarding Him.—1. The baptism of Jesus by John is recorded in all the Synoptics (Matthew 3:13 ff., Mark 1:9 f., Luke 3:21), but is not mentioned in the Fourth Gospel. The author, however, makes the Baptist refer to the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus in the form of a dove (John 1:32 ff.) as an authenticating sign which he received that He was the Messiah; and this incident is represented by the other three as following immediately upon the baptism, though the first two, and probably the third also, describe the visible sign as bestowed upon Jesus Himself along with the approving voice from heaven (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10 f., Luke 3:22). If the scene of the baptism was the same as that of John’s subsequent witness to Jesus recorded in the Fourth Gospel, it took place at ‘Bethany beyond Jordan’ (John 1:28), a site which has been much discussed, but cannot be said to have been certainly identified (see art. Bethabara).
It was here, then, in all likelihood, that Jesus met John when He came from Galilee to be baptized of him (Matthew 3:13). At first John was unwilling to perform the rite upon such an applicant, but Jesus insisted. ‘Thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness’ (Matthew 3:15). He recognized John’s baptism as an appointment of the Divine righteousness which it was proper that He should accept. If the fitness of that baptism in the case of Jesus is called in question, we must remember that it had an initiatory aspect which would commend it to Him as He saw in it an opportunity of consecrating Himself definitely and openly to the Messianic kingdom and its tasks. But if John’s words of protest (Matthew 3:14) imply that even in the baptism of Christ the cleansing aspect of the rite was in view, was it not proper that the ‘Lamb of God’ (John 1:29; John 1:36), who had no sense of personal guilt, nothing to repent of or confess, should even now begin to bear upon His heart the burden of the sins of others, even as on a coming day He was to bear them ‘in his own body on the tree’ (1 Peter 2:24)?
2. Of the intercourse of John with Jesus, the Fourth Gospel gives an account which differs widely from that presented in the Synoptics; but apart from the Johannine colouring of the later narrative, the difference is sufficiently explained on the ordinary view that the Synoptists describe the meeting between the two at the time of our Lord’s baptism, while the Fourth Evangelist concerns himself only with John’s subsequent testimony to the now recognized Messiah (cf. John 1:7 f.). There is no real discrepancy between John’s ‘I knew him not,’ reported in the Fourth Gospel (John 1:31), and the representation of Mt. (Matthew 3:13 ff.), that when the Man from Nazareth presented Himself at the Jordan, John declined at first to baptize Him, on the ground of his own unworthiness in comparison. Even if we suppose that in spite of their kinship and the friendship between their mothers the two had not met before, the fact that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and confession seems to imply a personal interview with applicants previous to the performance of the rite—an interview which in the case of Jesus must have revealed to one with the Baptist’s insight the beauty and glory of His character. On the other hand, the ‘I knew him not’ of the last Gospel, as the context shows, only means that John did not know that Jesus was indeed the Messiah until he received the promised sign (John 1:32 f.).
It is true that in the Fourth Gospel John is made to bear a witness to Jesus by the banks of the Jordan (John 1:15-36) which finds no parallel in the earlier narratives; but if we follow the ordinary view of students of the chronology of our Lord’s life—that the narrative of the Fourth Evangelist comes in after the forty days of the Temptation have intervened, and that John now sees Jesus in the light not only of the authenticating sign given at the baptism, but of his own reflexion ever since upon the subject of the character of Jesus and the fulfilment of the Messianic promise—the fulness and explicitness of his testimony upon this later occasion appear perfectly natural. The twice-repeated ἔμπροσθέν μου γέγονεν (John 1:15; John 1:30), it is true, cannot be understood, so far as the Baptist himself is concerned, as referring to pre-existence, though this was probably involved in the thought of the Evangelist. But the designation of Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’ (John 1:29; John 1:36), and especially the phrase ‘which taketh away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29), reveals a conception of the Saviour’s Messianic functions which is certainly profound, but which, in spite of the objections which have been taken to it, cannot surprise us in the case of one who had brooded like John over the utterances of OT prophecy (cf. especially Isaiah 53).
The Fourth Evangelist records a further witness regarding Jesus which John bore to his own disciples on a later occasion, when he was baptizing in aenon (wh. see), near to Salim (John 3:23 ff.). In this passage the difficulty of discriminating between the original words and facts of history and the Johannine setting and atmosphere is even greater than usual, but the figure of the Bridegroom ‘that hath the bride’ and the Bridegroom’s friend who rejoices in the other’s joy (John 3:29), and the saying, ‘He must increase, hut I must decrease’ (John 3:30), are so thoroughly in keeping with other utterances of the Baptist recorded in the Synoptics as well as in the Fourth Gospel regarding the relations between the Messiah and himself (Matthew 3:3; Matthew 3:11, John 1:15; John 1:27), that it is difficult to resist the impression of historical reality which they make upon the reader.
v. John’s Imprisonment and Death (Matthew 14:3-12, Mark 6:17-29, Luke 3:19-20; cf. Josephus Ant. xviii. v. 1, 2).—According to the Synoptists, the arrest and execution of John were due to the spiteful hatred of Herodias (wh. see), because he had rebuked Herod for making her his wife in flagrant defiance of the law of Israel (Leviticus 18:16; Leviticus 20:21). Josephus, on the other hand, says that Herod put the prophet to death because he ‘feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it in his power and inclination to raise a rebellion; for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise.’ The two statements, however, are not irreconcilable; and certainly the evidence of Josephus, whose interests as a historian lay altogether in the political direction, is not such as to cast any suspicion on the trustworthiness of the more detailed and more intimate Gospel narrative. It may very well have been the case that, while John’s death was really due to the implacable hate of Herodias, Herod felt that this was hardly an adequate ground, or one that he would care to allege, for the execution of the Baptist, and so made political reasons his excuse. Assuredly there was nothing of the political revolutionary about John; yet his extraordinary influence over the people and the wild hopes raised among certain classes by his preaching might make it easy for Herod to present a plausible justification of his base deed by representing John as a politically dangerous person.
There may seem to be a contradiction within the Evangelic narratives themselves, when we find Mt. saying that Herod would have put John to death but that he feared the multitude (Matthew 14:5), while Mk. alleges that Herod ‘feared John, knowing that he was a righteous man and an holy, and kept him safe … and heard him gladly’ (Mark 6:20). But the contradiction lies in Herod’s character rather than in the testimonies of the two writers, and the words πολλὰ ἡπόρει, ‘he was much perplexed’ (Mark 6:20 WH [Note: H Westcott and Hort’s text.] and Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885), explain adequately enough a moral situation of which we have the final revelation in Herod’s weakly vacillating behaviour, ‘letting I dare not wait upon I would,’ when Herodias through her daughter Salome (Matthew 14:6, Mark 6:22; cf. Josephus Ant. xviii. v. 4) presented her horrible request. That Herod did not really regard John as a political fanatic is suggested by all that the Gospels tell us as to the way in which he treated him while he lay in prison; by the personal audiences he granted him (Mark 6:20), and by the fact that he allowed him to have intercourse with his disciples (Matthew 11:2, Luke 7:18-19), and through them to exchange messages with Jesus (Matthew 11:2-6, Luke 7:19-23).
The message which John sent to Jesus has often been regarded as exceedingly strange on the part of one who had previously borne so signal a witness that Jesus was the Christ, and it has even been suggested that he sent his messengers not because there was any wavering of his own faith, but for the sake of his disciples, to whom he wished some confirmation of the Messiahship of Jesus to be given (see Bebb in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ii. 680a). But the more simple explanation is also the one which is truer to human nature. The depression wrought by imprisonment on one accustomed to the freedom of the wilderness, together with his disappointment at the seeming delay of Jesus to assert His power and authority as the Christ of Israel, had resulted in an hour of the power of darkness in the soul of the great prophet, when he began to wonder whether after all he had not made a great mistake. That in spite of his doubts he had not lost his faith in Jesus is shown by the very fact that it was to Jesus Himself that he applied to have these doubts removed, as well as by that message of encouragement and ‘strong consolation’ which the Bridegroom sent back to His sorely tried friend: ‘Blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me’ (Matthew 11:6, Luke 7:23).
From Josephus we learn that the Castle of Machaerus (wh. see) was the scene of the Baptist’s imprisonment (Ant. xviii. v. 1, 2). Machaerus was a powerful stronghold, at once a fortress and a palace (BJ vii. vi. 1–3; cf. Pliny, Hist. Nat. v. xvi. 72), situated on the eastern shores of the Dead Sea (G. A. Smith, HGHL [Note: Historical Geog. of Holy Land.] p. 569 f.). Within these gloomy walls, then, the death of John took place, one of ‘those awful tragedies for which nature has provided here so sympathetic a theatre’ (op. cit. in loc.). Of this tragedy St. Mark has furnished us with the fullest account (Mark 6:21-29) in a narrative which is not more thrilling in its dramatic vividness than it is instinct with the elements of what might almost be described as self-evidencing moral and historical truth.
vi. John and his Disciples.—Besides the crowds that came to him to be baptized, John appears to have drawn around him a circle of closer followers, who are referred to in all the Gospels as his ‘disciples’ (Matthew 9:14 [|| Mark 2:18, Luke 5:33] Luke 11:2 [|| Luke 7:18-19], Mark 6:29, Luke 11:1, John 1:35; John 1:37; John 3:25; John 4:1; cf. Acts 18:25; Acts 19:1 ff.). It appears that, unlike Jesus, he enjoined regular fasts upon his disciples (Matthew 9:14 ||), and that he also gave them forms of prayer (Luke 11:1) which they were in the habit of employing frequently (Luke 5:33). Possibly he utilized them as assistants in the work of baptizing, for which he could hardly have sufficed personally when his movement was at its height.
It was from the circle of these disciples of the Baptist that the disciples of Jesus were immediately drawn (John 1:28-51), and that not only with John’s full consent, but through his own express witness both in public (John 1:19 ff., John 1:29 ff.) and in private (John 1:35 f.) to the superior worth of Jesus and to his own function as the mere herald and forerunner of the latter. And yet he did not, as we might have expected, decline, after Christ’s baptism, to stand any longer to others in the relation of a master to his disciples. Perfectly loyal as he was to Him whom he recognized as the Messiah, he evidently felt, as Jesus also did previous to John’s imprisonment (John 3:22; John 3:24; John 4:1-2), that there was still need for a work of preparation, and room therefore for a discipleship to the Forerunner. But when his disciples grew jealous of the rapidly growing popularity of Jesus, and came to him with their complaint, he proclaimed to them once more the true relation between that Other and himself,—‘He must increase, but I must decrease,’—and reminded them how he had said from the first that he was not the Christ, but was sent before Him (John 3:28; cf. Matthew 3:11 ||).
The fidelity of John’s disciples to their master is shown by their holding together and continuing to observe his prescriptions after he was cast into prison (cf. Matthew 4:12 || with Matthew 9:14 ||), by their attendance upon him during his captivity (Matthew 11:2 ff., Luke 7:18-19 ff.), and by their loving and reverent treatment of his corpse (Mark 6:29). The vital impression he made upon them, and the self-propagating power of the baptism of repentance in the absence of a higher teaching, is proved by the fact that more than 20 years afterwards, and in the far-off city of Ephesus, St. Paul found certain disciples, including no less a personage than Apollos, the Alexandrian Jew, who knew no other baptism than that of John (Acts 19:1 ff; cf. Acts 18:24 ff.). Before the growing light of Christianity John’s baptism as a baptism of preparation for the Messiah soon vanished away, but the traces of his memory and influence are found lingering long afterwards in the name, doctrines, and practices of the Hemerobaptists, who claimed John as one of themselves (Clem. Hom. ii. 23; cf. Hegesippus in Euseb. Historia Ecclesiastica iv. 22; Justin Martyr, Dial. c. Tryph. On the relation of the Hemerobaptists to John, see Lightfoot, Colossians, p. 402 ff.).
vii. Our Lord’s estimate of John.—The task of appreciating the character and activity of John the Baptist is rendered easy for us by the frequent utterances of Jesus Himself. If the worth of praise is to be measured by the lips from which it falls, no mortal man was ever praised so greatly as he whom Jesus described as ‘a burning and a shining light’ (John 5:35), as one who was ‘much more than a prophet’ (Matthew 11:9 Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885, Luke 7:26), as the Elijah who by his coming was to ‘restore all things’ (Matthew 11:14; Matthew 17:10 ff., Mark 9:11 ff.); and of whom He said: ‘Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist’ (Matthew 11:11; see the whole passage, and cf. Luke 7:24 ff.). That John had his limitations Jesus made clear (Mark 2:18 ff.), but He attributed these not to any personal shortcomings, but to the fact that he belonged to the time of preparation, and so stood by a dispensational necessity outside of the realized Kingdom of God (Matthew 11:11 b, Luke 7:28 b).
Again and again Jesus revealed His sense of the Divine value that attached to the baptism of John. He showed it when He insisted on submitting to that baptism Himself, and by the words He used on the occasion (Matthew 3:15). He showed it when He asked the question, ‘The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men?’ (Matthew 21:25 ||), a question to which His own answer was self-evident, and which St. Luke answers for us when he says that ‘all the people when they heard, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected for themselves the counsel of God, being not baptized of him, Luke 7:29 f.). And may we not say that in His words to a certain Pharisee (John 3:1) about the necessity of a birth ‘of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5), He was indicating once more the deep religious value of John’s water-baptism, while insisting at the same time on the indispensableness of that spiritual birth which comes only from above (John 3:3)? Time after time, too, even to the closing days of His ministry, words which Jesus let fall reveal to us that He carried about with Him continually the thought of His predecessor’s career, and perceived the bearing of its lessons upon His own ministry and earthly lot and fate (see Matthew 9:15 ff. Matthew 11:12 ff., Matthew 11:18 f., Matthew 17:9 ff., Matthew 21:32, Luke 16:16). And, finally, after His resurrection, we find that as He had justified John at the first by taking up his baptism of preparation, so now He crowns the work of the Forerunner by instituting the baptism of the Kingdom itself (Matthew 28:19). John had adopted the rite as the distinctive symbol of his reforming activity and the gateway into the sphere of Messianic preparation. Jesus transformed it into a sacrament of the Christian Church—at once the token of the gospel of forgiveness and the sign and seal of discipleship to Himself.
Literature.—Relative sections in works on Life of Christ by Neander, Keim, Renan, Weiss, Beyschlag, and Edersheim; Ewald, HI [Note: I History of Israel.] vi. 160–200; Reynolds, John the Baptist; Feather, John the Baptist; Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, artt. ‘John the Baptist,’ ‘Baptism,’ and vol. ii. 610f.; PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , art. ‘Johannes der Taufer’; Haupt, Johannes der Täufer; Bornemann, Die Taufe Christi church Johannes; Seeley, Ecce Homo, ch. i.; Expos. Times, xiii.  483f. XV.  5ff.: Expositor, i. v.  11ff., 98 ff., viii.  23 ff., iii. i.  267 ff., v. i.  201 ff., vi.  139 ff., vii.  187ff.; Wilkinson, A Johannine Document in the First Chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel; the earlier sections of Althaus, Die Heilsbedeutung der Taufe.
J. C. Lambert.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'John the Baptist'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/j/john-the-baptist.html. 1906-1918.