John The Baptist:
The Man And His Influence
John was born in a priestly family (Luke 1), but he didn't become a
priest as expected. All four Gospels say that John came as a prophet to
prepare the way before Jesus.
We learn a little more about John from the writings of Josephus, a Jewish
historian born shortly after Jesus died. He says:
John was a pious man, and he was bidding
the Jews...to come together for baptism... And when everybody turned to
John--for they were profoundly stirred by what he said--Herod feared
that John's so extensive influence over the people might lead to an
uprising (for the people seemed likely to do everything he might
counsel). He thought it much better, under the circumstances, to get
John out of the way in advance, before any insurrection might develop,
than for himself to get into trouble and be sorry not to have acted,
once an insurrection had begun. So because of Herod's suspicion, John
was sent as a prisoner to Macherus, the fortress already mentioned, and
there put to death. But the Jews believed that the destruction which
overtook the army came as a punishment for Herod, God wishing to do him
Josephus implies that Herod executed John for political reasons. Herod
was afraid John might have too much influence on the people and thus spark
off a rebellion against Herod. In Mark 6 we read that John was executed
because he protested against Herod's intention to divorce his wife and marry
his brother's wife.
Josephus does not necessarily contradict Mark's account. John as a
prophet rebuked Herod for his marital entanglements. Since people held John
in high esteem as a prophet of God, Herod saw himself in deep trouble. The
easiest way out would be to get rid of John, Herod thought.
What did John look like? According to Mark 1:7, he wore camel's hair and
a leather girdle, and ate locusts and wild honey. He was a man of the
wilderness, much like Elijah (1 Kings 17). Since Elijah was taken up to
heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:1-11), the Jews believed that some day he
would come back. Malachi, the last canonical book of the Old Testament,
promises that God will send Elijah to warn people before the day of
judgment. People who saw and heard John were reminded that he may very well
be the promised Elijah. In fact, Jesus himself thought so (Matthew
John was not the only one acting in eccentric ways. A Jewish sect in
John's time known as the Essenes lived in a separate commune near the Dead
Sea in preparation for the final judgment and bathed themselves everyday as
a religious ceremony of purification. Ritual bathing and baptism may be
traced back to ceremonial washings prescribed by the law of Moses, as in
Leviticus 15 (see photo of
a mikveh, a ritual bath).
Josephus says that he himself in his earlier years became a disciple of
someone by the name Bannus. According to Josephus, Bannus "dwelt in the
wilderness, wearing only such clothing as trees provided, feeding on such
things as grew of themselves, and using frequent ablutions of cold water, by
day and night, for purity's sake." Bannus was probably a follower of John
We read in Acts 19:1-5 that when Paul went to Ephesus, he found a group
of people who had been baptized into John's baptism. Apparently there were
groups of people who remained loyal to John without necessarily becoming
followers of Jesus.
Some people asked Jesus how it was that John's disciples and the
disciples of the Pharisees fasted whereas his disciples did not (Mark 2:18).
People perceived a distinct difference between Jesus and John. Some thought
John was demon-possessed because of his frequent fasting (Luke 7:33-34).
According to John 3:22-26 John and Jesus were baptizing side by side. If
John was the forerunner of Jesus, why was John still baptizing when Jesus
himself had already begun his ministry?
Although early Christians saw John as a forerunner of Jesus, the
disciples of John and others did not see it quite that way. No doubt some of
John's disciples did follow Jesus. But many others continued in their
allegiance to John without ever becoming followers of Jesus.
Today in southern Iraq and in Iran there is a small sect of 20 to 30
thousand members known as the Mandaeans (Man-DE-uns) who claim to be
followers of John the Baptist. They seem to have been an offshoot of second
century Christianity. They were apparently influenced by Persian ideas and
departed from orthodox Christianity. Their allegiance is more to John the
Baptist than to Jesus.