The significance of John independently of Jesus and of his likely influence on Jesus makes it all the more important to understand as fully as possible this immediate antecedent to Jesus, the springboard, perhaps, from which Jesus launched his own career as a preacher.
Of the little we know about John, the most outstanding feature was clearly his baptism. This is the point on which all accounts agree most closely. Mark introduces John as 'baptizing in the desert' (Mark 1.4), or as 'the baptizer' (ho baptizon) (6.14, 24).79 He sums up John's message as 'proclaiming a baptism of
77. Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels 86-99 (here 96-97). See further above §7.4c.
78. See A. Kirk, 'Upbraiding Wisdom: John's Speech and the Beginning of Q (Q 3:7-9, 16-17)', NovT 40 (1998) 1-16; and further below §12.4e.
79. The original text of Mark 1.4 may well have lacked the definite article: 'John came repentance' (1.4), and reports others as referring to him as 'the Baptist' (ho baptistes) (6.25; 8.28). In Matthew this is the title by which John is known by all — by the narrator, Jesus, Herod, and the disciples — John 'the Baptist';80 similarly Luke81 and, most interesting, Josephus — 'John, known as the Baptist (baptistes)' (Ant. 18.116),82 The term ('Baptist') is now so familiar to us that we forget its unusualness. The English word 'baptize' is, of course, a loan word taken directly into English from the Greek baptizein. Behind baptizein presumably lies the Hebrew/Aramaic tabal. And since we can hardly assume that the title 'the Baptist' was first coined in Greek, we must assume that John was known as hattobel (Hebrew) or tabela (Aramaic). In both cases (Aramaic and Greek) we are talking about a term or title created de novo. So far as we can tell, no one prior to John had been designated 'the Baptist'; in Greek the term is unique to John. That presumably indicates the creation of a fresh usage: a foreign word is not usually drawn into another language unless it describes something for which there is no adequate native equivalent, and the direct translation (presumably) of tabela into ho baptistes probably signifies an equivalent recognition that an unusual or unique role required a fresh or unique formulation. The uniqueness of the designation carries over from Aramaic to Greek to English!
This immediately tells us that John was distinctive on this precise point. There have been various speculations about 'baptist movements' in the Jordan valley, with the implication that John's was or may have been one of a number of such practices.83 But the fact that only John was picked out with this unusual formulation tells against such speculation.84 Similarly the much-touted suggestion baptizing in the desert' (Metzger, Textual Commentary 73). In 6.14 and 24, however, the tendency was to standardize an original hobaptizon to baptistes.
81. Luke 7.20, 33; 9.19. The fact that the title is lacking in Matt. 11.18 (par. Luke 7.33) implies that Q did not use the title.
82. Vaage argues that John's baptism is marginalized in Q ('More than a Prophet' 188); but The Critical Edition of Q (Robinson, Hoffmann, and Kloppenborg) includes the opening reference of Q 3.7.
83. A particular manifestation 'of a much larger Jewish penitential and baptizing movement around the region of the Jordan in the 1st centuries BC and AD' (Meier, Marginal Jew 2.27), referring to J. Thomas, hemouvement baptiste en Palestine etSyrie (150av.J.-C~300 ap. J.-C.j (Gembloux: Duculot, 1935). However, the only solid data we have for the period of John himself relate to the Essenes and Josephus' sometime 'guru' Bannus (Life 11-12). The data have been recently reviewed by K. Rudolph, 'The Baptist Sects', in Horbury, et al., Judaism 3.471-500.
84. The fact that Josephus also uses baptismos and baptisis (Ant. as well as baptistes (Ant. only here in his writings also signals his own awareness of the singularity of what John was doing. In contrast, for his description of Bannus's 'frequent bathings' (Life 11) and the daily ritual washings at Qumran (War 2.129) Josephus does not use a bapti- form, but forms of loud ('bathe, wash').
that John derived the act which gave him his nickname from an already established practice of proselyte baptism8 is seriously called into question.86 If there was an already well recognized practice of 'baptism', why would John be picked out as 'the Baptist'? The more plausible alternative, that John was influenced in at least some measure by the emphasis placed on ritual bathing in Jewish piety, particularly 'down the road' at Qumran,87 can still stand, but only if we recognize that the formulation of this specific designation must imply that John's ritual was distinctive, requiring a fresh formulation, 'baptism'.88 Further confirmation is provided by the dialogue in Mark pars., where the effectiveness of Je sus' reply depends on the high popular regard for what was a controversial innovation, John's baptism (11.30).
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