John the Christ

John the Baptist antagonizing Antipas and Herodias. Artist unknown.

John the Baptist antagonizing Antipas and Herodias. Artist unknown.

As I've prepared to teach this weekend on how the Gospels of John, Thomas, the Nazarenes, the Ebionites, and the Infancy Gospel of James present John the Baptist I am struck once again at how exalted claims about John seem to intensify over time. In Luke 3.15 the Evangelist introduces the question that is on the minds of the people — whether John might be the messiah — prior to quoting John's preaching regarding the coming one. The effect is that John answers the question of the crowd with a denial: he isn't the messiah, but the forerunner to the one who is the messiah according to Luke: Jesus. 

In passages such as Acts 18.24-19.7 being a follower of John, and participating in his baptism, is presented as insufficient. As Acts institutionalizes the apostolic program one of the clear demarcations he makes is that John's baptism doesn't excuse one from Christian baptism, especially spirit-baptism as it is mediated by apostolic authority.

The Gospel of John is almost comic in how seriously it aims to rebuff any claim that John was the messiah. In 1.19-20 emissaries from Jerusalem ask him who he is. He doesn't answer in the affirmative, but begins with a denial: "I am not the Messiah!" Ok, John, settle down my friend, no one is accusing you of being the messiah...unless, of course, some were!

The Gospel of Thomas is intriguing in that Logion 46, which speaks of John being the greatest man since Adam, is followed by Logion 47, which warns against trying to serve two masters. Is this intentional? Does the author want readers to know that allegiance cannot be split between John, the greatest man since Adam, and Jesus, who is something far superior? 

In the Infancy Gospel of James 23.2 there is a peculiar line where the narrator suggests that Herod wanted to kill the child John because this child would become the king/ruler of Israel. Does this indicate that there remained ambiguity regarding John's identity? Sometimes I wonder if the dual messianism seen at Qumran is present, like that found in CD 20.1 where there is a "messiah from Aaron and from Israel," i.e., possibly a priestly and a royal messiah, an idea that appears as early as Zechariah 6.12-14.