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Was Jesus John the Baptist Raised from the Dead?

By Robert M. Price

 

There are several New Testament passages which over the years have struck me as being pregnant with implications far beyond those scholars usually reckon with. These texts seem to me to be held in check by the conventional ways in which we read the documents in which they occur. They are "anomalous data" (Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) which somehow seem "left over" in the context of the paradigms which seem to make such excellent sense of the rest of the text, but which leave these odd verses cold. I sometimes wonder where the chips would fall if we were to start with one of these strange verses, rather than finding some contrived way of tying it up as a loose end after we find a place to put everything else. What follows is an attempt to give one pair of such passages, Mark 6:14-15 and 8:27-28, their full weight, their full voice. Bear with me, then, in an admittedly far-fetched thought-experiment, which is all I claim for it.

 

Some Say...

Mark 6:14-15 recounts a range of popular options for understanding Jesus. As such it prepares for 8:27-28, the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi, where the same menu of options is repeated. This scene is a major turning point in the gospel. It introduces the progress toward the Passion. But before we take it as a signpost and hasten to follow in the direction it indicates, we ought to pause to recognize the implicit Christological polemic contained in Jesus' question and the answers it elicits.

            No reader fails to grasp Mark's Christological point that whatever manner of messiah Jesus may be, he is not one whose ordained path circumvents the cross. Yes, of course, but there is more to it than this. The messianic path of Jesus is not contrasted merely with the cross-shunning sentiments of Peter's hero-worship. No, Mark has also opposed to Peter's "correct" Christological estimate ("You are the Christ," accurate as far as it goes, though Matthew and Luke will expand it) a menu of options he means the reader to dismiss. Who do the crowds imagine Jesus to be? These opinions, reported second-hand by the disciples, are probably Christological opinions current in Mark's own day. There are individuals, parties, sects, communities of faith among Mark's contemporaries who view Jesus as the eschatological Elijah, anticipating someone else as messiah, or else in lieu of a messiah. Others see him as "the Prophet Jesus," while others make him the resurrected Baptist. The Gospel of Thomas, saying 13, retells the same story to serve its own purposes; Thomas substitutes competing Christologies current in his own milieu, namely the angel Christology familiar from various Jewish-Christian sources and the sage "Christ-"ology of the earliest stratum of the Q document, which seems to have viewed Jesus as a Cynic-type wise man like Diogenes, not as a martyred Son of God (see Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins).

            My point is that there seem to have been actual groups of people who held these opinions about Jesus in the time the gospels were being written, and the gospels argue against them. One such belief was that Jesus was the resurrected John the Baptist. It is remarkable enough to know that some believed John had been resurrected; but what are the implications of an early belief that John rose from the dead and then became known as Jesus?

 

Jesus Before Easter?

Some scholars have suggested that the apparent cleavage between the pre-Easter Jesus and the Risen Christ is an optical illusion in the sense that even before the Passion and Resurrection Jesus is already depicted thoroughly transformed by and into the Christological image of the church's faith. The sayings attributed to Jesus seem for the most part to have arisen within the early Christian communities to address the needs of those communities. It is not as if we have the historical Jesus up till the Passion, followed by the Christ of faith as of Easter morning. No, it is the voice of Christian wisdom and prophecy which speaks the logia of the gospels. The situation of the canonical gospels is essentially no different from that of the Gnostic resurrection dialogues in this respect: all the teaching ascribed to Jesus is attributable to the early Christians, as Norman Perrin (e.g., What Is Redaction Criticism?, Fortress, 1969, 74-79) and  James M. Robinson ("On the Gattung of Mark (and John)," in David G. Buttrick, ed., Jesus and Man's Hope, Vol. I, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 1970, 51-98) make clear. My colleague Darrell J. Doughty even goes so far as to suggest that the whole of the Gospel of Mark's "pre-Easter" period is in fact identical with the post-Easter period, the result of a circular structure whereby the meeting of the disciples with Jesus on the shore of Galilee in Mark 1:16-17 is the fulfillment of the words of the angel in Mark 16:7 that they should meet him there.

            If we are to take all this seriously, an obvious question presents itself: what of the original, historical, pre-Easter Jesus? He is not simply to be identified with the character of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels (as naively presupposed in the title of Juan Luis Segundo's The Historical Jesus of the Synoptics). Has he been altogether lost from the gospel narrative then? Perhaps not. Let us for a brief moment think the unthinkable. Suppose the figure of the pre-Easter Jesus is to be found under the alias of John the Baptist. When we impose this outlandish paradigm onto the gospels, we get some interesting results. A number of things make new sense.

 

Thy Kingdom Come

First, the sequential progression from John's ministry of repentance and asceticism, from which Jesus' style notoriously differed. Historical Jesus scholars commonly say that Jesus discerned that some great corner had been turned. Something signaled that the anticipated kingdom had now arrived, and that fasting was no longer appropriate. And thus he broke with John's ministry of penitential preparation for the kingdom and began a ministry celebrating the kingdom's advent. Instead of fasting with the Pharisees (like John's disciples, Mark 2:18) he began feasting with the publicans. What could that momentous event have been? What could have signaled the shift of the eons? Nothing we see in the gospels, at least not on any straightforward or any traditional reading. Scholars just approach the texts taking for granted the Christological solution that, since Jesus was divine he knew God's plan, so he happened to know the crucial page had been turned.

            But suppose the transition was something quite specific, namely his own death and (supposed) resurrection. This would have signaled the disciples, not Jesus himself, that the corner had been turned. Had we listened to Bultmann, we would have remembered that the pericope must in any case refer to the practice of Christians, not that of Jesus himself, since the critics ask concerning their behavior, not his. "Good Christian men, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice. He calls you one and calls you all to share his everlasting hall. He hath opened heaven's door, and man shall live forever more." Thus the difference between John's mournful, fasting disciples and Jesus' feasting disciples is that between the same group before and after the Passion Week. "John's" disciples are already fasting because the bridegroom has been taken away from them (Mark 2:19-20), but once he is restored unto them at the resurrection, they rejoice again. No more fasting. 

 

In a Looking Glass Darkly

Mark 1:14 ("And after John had been delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God.") has Jesus neatly replace John on the public stage, occasioning the popular opinion that Jesus' public advent signaled the miraculous return of John. Note the use of paradidomi, the same pregnant word used for the sacrificial delivering up of Jesus to death, whether by God (Romans 8:32) or by Judas Iscariot (Mark 3:19). Can the same delivering up, i.e., of the same man, be in view? To say that John was delivered up and that Jesus appeared in Galilee immediately afterward would be like saying that the historical Jesus was delivered up for our sins and that shortly thereafter the Christ of faith appeared on the scene.

            Similarly, the Johannine statements (John 3:26 4:1) about the baptism of Jesus eclipsing that of John would refer, on the present hypothesis, to the new situation after Easter, when the sect of the historical Jesus is being transformed, not without some resistance on the part of "doubting Thomases," into the cult of the Risen Christ. "Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples" (Luke 11:1) means that a new prayer is needed for the time of fulfillment, which has dawned. Perhaps the old prayer contained the petition "Thy kingdom come," whereas the new replaced it with "Send thy Spirit upon us and sanctify us" (as some manuscripts of Luke's version of the prayer at 11:2 still read) because the kingdom was believed now to have arrived.

            Scholars have remarked how, despite the strong difference between the religious styles of the two men, Jesus continues to identify himself with John, as when he counters the chief priests' question as to his authority by asking their estimate of John's authorization (Mark 11:28-30). What if the answer to the one is the answer also to the other--because Jesus and John are the same? The authority of the Christian preaching of the Risen One is as authoritative as one was willing to admit the ministry of the Baptist (i.e., his own earthly ministry) was. Of course the present narrative setting of the question and counter-question is anachronistic, as is most of the gospel material. We may suggest that the original context of the passage was in debate between post-Easter disciples of John ("Jesus"), believers in the Risen Baptist, on the one hand, and disciples of John who remained suspicious about this strange new proclamation on the other. What credentials did the new preaching have in its favor? The response? What credentials did the original ministry of the Baptist have? It was faith in either case, wasn't it?

            So too the taunts "John came neither eating nor drinking, and you say, 'He is a demoniac.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunk'" (Matthew 11:16-19). Traditionally this is supposed to mean that people found a reason not to repent at the preaching of either man. John was too holier-than-thou for some, while Jesus seemed not to adhere to the parsimonious stereotype in the eyes of others. Finding an excuse to discount the messengers, that generation evaded coming to grips with their common message. But is that really the most natural reading of the text? The "damned if you do, damned if you don't" logic would fit best if the two styles characterized the same figure in successive phases. "Okay, first I tried this and you wouldn't have it; so then I tried doing what you said, but you didn't like that either!"

 

Twin Resurrections

            Note, too, the strange similarity between Mark's report that some believed Jesus was John raised from the dead, accounting for the miraculous powers at work in him, and the resurrection formula of Romans 1:3-4, which has Jesus designated Son of God by miraculous power by virtue of the resurrection of the dead! Note the parallel:

 

            Romans 1:4                                         Mark  6:14
            declared Son of God                             John the Baptist 
            by power                                               powers are at work in him
            by his resurrection from the dead            has been raised from the dead

 

            Perhaps this strange similarity denotes an even stranger identity, a dim recollection of the fact that Jesus was the same as John, that he had taken on the name/epithet "Jesus," savior, only after the resurrection. Compare two archaic hymn-fragments, the Johannine prologue (John 1:1-7ff) and the Kenosis hymn (Philippians 2:6-11). It is striking that the first text names no figure other than John the Baptist, and that in portentous theological terms: "There came into being a man sent from God, named John." As all recognize, the subsequent denigration of John as merely a witness to the light but most certainly not the light itself, is a theological correction akin to that found in Matthew 11:11b ("Of all those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist... yet, I tell you that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he"). Bultmann saw that the Johannine prologue hymn must originally have referred to the Baptist.

            Now look at Philippians 2:6-11, where the redeemer figure is named only at the end, where we learn that he received the honorific name "Jesus" only upon his postmortem exaltation, something which Paul-Louis Couchoud pointed out long ago ("The Historicity of Jesus: A Reply to Alfred Loisy," Hibbert Journal, XXXVI, 2, 205-206). Note that according to the synthetic parallelism, "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow" matches "and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord," implying that "bowing the knee to" equals "confessing the lordship of." The object of both is "Jesus." This may seem to belabor the obvious except that it requires that the great name God gave him at the exaltation was not "Kyrios" as harmonizing exegesis tells us, but rather "Jesus." The hymn means to say not that a man already named Jesus was then given the title Lord, but that a hitherto-unnamed hero was then given the honorific name Jesus. Couchoud remarks, "The God-man does not receive the name Jesus till after his crucifixion. That alone, in my judgment, is fatal to the historicity of Jesus." Unless he had borne some other name previously, as Peter had formerly been called Simon. What had "Jesus'" name been previously? "His name is John" (Luke 1:63). The identification of the pre-exaltation hero as John the Baptist would satisfy the problem Couchoud left open--had the hero been nameless before his exaltation?

            Couchoud was implying that the earlier version of the bestowal of the name "Jesus" had the naming take place as part of the post-mortem exaltation of this figure. Only subsequently was the bestowal of the name associated with the earthly life of Jesus, namely at his conception (Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:31). We can easily fit Couchoud's hypothesis into the speculations of mainstream scholarship. Raymond Brown points out how "The same combined ideas that early Christian preaching had once applied to the resurrection (i.e., a divine proclamation, the begetting of God's Son, the agency of the Holy Spirit), and which Mark had applied to the baptism, are now applied to the conception  of Jesus in the words of an angel's message to Joseph and to Mary (respectively, in Matthew and in Luke). And once the conception of Jesus has become the Christological moment,  the revelation pf who Jesus is begins to be proclaimed to an audience who come and worship (the magi, the shepherds), while others react with hostility (Herod in Matthew; those who contradict the sign in Luke 2:34). And thus thre infancy stories have become truly an infancy gospel" (The Birth of the Messiah, 31). Brown might have included Käsemann's observation that the confessions of Jesus' identity by the demons are retrojections of the acclamations of those under the earth mentioned in Philippians 2:10-11. The retrojection of the same motif into the infancy story is, as Brown implies, the demonic persecution of the baby king by the Azdahak-like Herod, who thus acknowledges the true messiahship of his rival. The granting of the glorious savior-name Jesus is part of this package. It, too, would have found a place at the end of the savior's earthly life and been retrojected, along with the rest of the package, into the infancy. Once this happened, the identity of John and "Jesus" would have been severed and forever obscured.

            Luke contains completely parallel accounts of the miraculous nativity of both figures, so close that even ancient scribes seem to have confused whether Zechariah was talking about the infant John or the infant Jesus (what is the reference to "the horn of salvation in the house of David" doing in a hymn about the Levitical John the Baptist?), and equally whether it was Elizabeth or Mary who sings the Magnificat (some ancient manuscripts of Luke 1: 46 have "And Elizabeth said," while others read, "And she said.").

 

Splitting the Difference

More telling still is the parallel between the martyrdoms of Jesus and John, for both are put to death by a strangely reluctant profane tyrant, Jesus by Pontius Pilate, and John by Herod Antipas. But wait a moment, as Loisy pointed out, Luke, like the Gospel of Peter, seems to have known a version of the Jesus martyrdom in which it was Herod Antipas who condemned Jesus to death! (He has harmonized it with Mark only with difficulty, having Antipas first desirous of killing Jesus, then acquitting him, but nonetheless remanding him to Pilate!) Perhaps this is because they were the same!    

            How on earth could the single figure have been bifurcated? Simple: there remained a  dour penitential sect devoted to the martyred John which continued to anticipate the coming of the kingdom with (ascetic) observance (Luke 17:20), while another group of John's disciples came to believe he had been raised from the dead, as the firstfruits, ushering in the kingdom, albeit invisibly. These bestowed on John the title "Yeshua," for he had saved his people from their sins. In time this became a name, just as "Iscariot" and "Peter" did, finally supplanting the original name, except among those who had never embraced the title and Christology of "Jesus." Thus in time people began to imagine that John and Jesus had been two different contemporary figures, though the rivalry between them was vaguely recalled. On the basis of it, e.g., Mandaeans rejected Jesus as a false messiah, though they did not deem John, their prophet, the true messiah! (This honor they reserved for Enosh-Uthra, a heavenly angel.) On the other hand, the first Christians were those who wondered in their hearts whether John himself were perhaps the Christ (Luke 3:15) and decided he was. He was the Jesus, the Christ.

            A notorious problem text in Acts is the introduction of Apollos, who is confusingly said to have preached accurately the things concerning Jesus, yet knowing only the baptism of John. Priscilla and Aquila then set him straight in some unspecified way (Acts 18:24-28). All sorts of reconstructions have been advanced, many of them making Apollos a kind of half-Christian. Hoew could he have correctly understood Jesus and yet known only John's baptism, when the main point about Jesus, at least with respect to John, was that he superseded John and made his baptism superfluous? But what if Luke's source preserves the fossil recollection that to know accurately the things about Jesus was precisely to know the baptism of John, since "Jesus" was none other than the resurrected John? (I owe this suggestion to my colleague Arthur Dewey.)

 

Narrative Mitosis

Is the whole thing utterly implausible? If an historical analogy would help, recall F.C. Baur's theory that Simon Magus was a bifurcated "evil twin" of the Apostle Paul. Simon Magus was at first a caricature of Paul understood as a usurping opponent of Simon Peter, a false pretender to apostleship who sought to purchase the recognition by the Pillars by means of the collection made among the Gentile churches (compare Acts 8:18-24 with Galatians 2:7-10). As time went by, Simon Magus was imagined to be a separate figure from Paul. Later anti-Paulinists no longer got the joke, so to speak, while the whole idea would have been lost on Paulinists from the start. Especially once Petrine and Pauline factions become Catholicized and harmonized with one another, the connection between Paul and Simon Magus was utterly severed, and the two separate characters were established. Suppose something similar happened in the case of Jesus and John the Baptist, only in this case neither one was a caricature. The Baptist was simply the remembered "historical Jesus," while "Jesus the Christ" was John the Baptist believed resurrected and made both Jesus (i.e., Savior) and Messiah.

            To translate the scenario envisioned here into more traditional terms, it is as if some admirers of the pre-Easter Jesus had later heard of a resurrected "Christ" and not known to connect this figure with their Jesus. They might have been found thinking that this new "Christos" they heard so much about was someone entirely distinct from their late, lamented master Jesus. In fact, a development something like this did take place in the case of "Separationist" Gnostics who decided that the human Jesus had so tenuous a connection to the Christ that they might curse the former and bless the latter (1 Corinthians 12:3; cf., Origen on the Cainite Gnostics).

            Needless to say, it would only have been once the single original character had been doubled, and the Risen Savior historicized, that Jesus could be read back into the pre-Easter history alongside John the Baptist, and once this happens we have the bizarre spectacle of Jesus appearing at John's baptism, only in another sense it is no longer so problematical: naturally he is there! Where else would he be? Matthew's version (3:14) puts the problem in its most acute form but also provides a hint of the solution. "I need to be baptized by you! And do you come to me?" Most scholars think that the Fourth Gospel's depiction of Jesus having a baptismal ministry alongside John's is a piece of symbolic anachronism in which early Christian baptism is retrojected into the time of Jesus and John, as if to show the superiority of the Christian sect to John's. So far so good. What I am suggesting is that not only is the picture of Jesus baptizing alongside John an anachronistic retrojection; the whole idea of Jesus and John as distinct contemporaries is merely another facet of the same retrojection!

            The Fourth Gospel has Simon, Andrew, and the Beloved Disciple already disciples of John the Baptist before they become followers of Jesus. Do they abandon the first master to follow a new one? Not if the point is that they are following the same master before and after Easter. Even on the conventional reading we can well imagine Peter being called a disciple of Jesus before Easter and a disciple of Christ afterward, and we can just as easily imagine someone hearing both and imagining Peter had transferred allegiances somewhere along the line.  

 

Shall We Look for Another?

Finally, consider the Q passage in which the imprisoned John sends his messengers to ask Jesus whether he may not be the Coming One John's preaching had anticipated (Matthew 11:2-6/Luke 7:18-20, 22-23). John's question (actually Jesus hears it from the disciples themselves) "Or should we wait for another?" implies that the attribution of the question to John is secondary, just as in all the gospel pericopes wherein Jesus is asked why his disciples flout this or that pious custom (Mark 2:18, 24). As Bultmann asked, why not ask Jesus why he fails to eat with hands washed (Mark 7:5), why he himself gleans on the sabbath (Mark 2:24), if it is really Jesus himself who is in view. But it is not. He serves as a figurehead for his community, whose prerogatives are actually at stake. In just the same way it is not John's uncertainty of Jesus as the Coming One that this Q pericope presupposes, but rather that of his disciples, bereft following his martyrdom. Can they accept the kerygmatic Risen One as the return of their master?

            Albert Schweitzer (The Mystery of the Kingdom of God) understood the same passage along somewhat similar lines in that he had Jesus and John applying the same eschatological role each to the other. The Baptist sends his messengers to ask whether Jesus may be the Coming One. Jesus sends the same messengers to John and tells the crowd that John is himself the Coming One, Elijah (Matthew 11:10/Luke 7:27). The scene can be read as a doublette: Jesus = John, so the two sendings of the Baptist disciples are the same. And these "sent ones" are apostles bearing the tidings of the Coming One who has arrived: call him Jesus or call him John, it is all the same.

            Finally, if the case set forth here is judged plausible, it would provide the answer to a thorny question aimed at the Christ Myth theory nowadays dismissed out of hand by apologists and even some skeptics but still beloved by many freethinkers. It is easy to show that, at least in its most famous form, the testimony of Josephus to Jesus is a Christian interpolation. But no such case can be made in respect of Josephus' reference to John's baptism and his fate at the hands of Antipas. So apologists have asked, is it really likely that Jesus was not a historical figure but John the Baptist was?  That is exactly the implication if John the Baptist was the original "Jesus," and if the gospel Jesus is a figment of faith in the resurrected John. Only now it makes sense. That John should be a historical figure and Jesus a myth makes plenty of sense once you understand the relationship between the two figures as I have sketched it here.

 

Much Learning Hath Driven Thee Mad

What are we to conclude from this brief essay? That the historical Jesus was John the Baptist? We might consider it a possibility, though I doubt many readers will be able even to go so far as that. What most will conclude is that the author of this paper is perhaps a bit too clever for his own good, that all he has shown, whatever he may have intended, is that New Testament scholarship has become a game where, using various exegetical moves, certain arguments or types of arguments, reasoning in unanticipated directions from accepted axioms, one make a more or less plausible-sounding case for almost any notion. If the present paper be deemed a bit of sophistry, then at least allow it to have demonstrated that virtually all exegetical scholarship is engaged in the same type of endeavor. It is all a matter of what test-paradigms, theoretical tools, and methodologies one will bring to bear on the texts. It is almost like dropping sticks on the open page of the I Ching and seeing what oracle you can construe from the pithy but enigmatic signifiers ranged there. As Stanley Fish says (Is There a Text in This Class?), meaning is not so much what we receive from the text as it is what we read into it. Or, better, also a la Fish, meaning is determined by the ways we read the text.

            Or to borrow from Seymour Chatman (Story and Discourse), it is a matter both of the form of the content and of the content of the form. As to the former, what we seem to find in the texts will have been shaped by the type of tools, the grinding of the lenses we used to find that meaning. The form of the cookie that emerges from the exegetical oven will be determined by the shape of the cookie-cutter we use. As to the latter, the methodologies we choose to employ are themselves functions of certain assumptions as to how texts work, how they mean, and what sort of things they may "tell" us. In short, the New Testament texts are like a constantly shifting kaleidoscope, and the application of our methods is the twisting of the tube. The results may be quite spectacular, fascinating, intriguing, entertaining. But the next twist will yield something else, and we may not judge it more "true" or "accurate" than the one before. None can carry any particular conviction. The history of the succession of regnant paradigms/theoretical frameworks in New Testament scholarship ought to have made that clear long before now.

 

 

 

Copyright©2006 by Robert M Price
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