John The Baptist

by Marc Turnage

One of the most fascinating personalities to emerge from the land of Israel in the first century was John the Baptizer. John appears in all four of the Gospels, as well as in the writings of the first century Jewish historian Josephus, who has more to say about John than Jesus.

A son of elderly parents from a priestly line, the Gospels portray this wilderness prophet as the leader of a movement and a forerunner to the appearance and ministry of Jesus. Executed by Herod Antipas for the threat and opposition John’s popular voice posed to Antipas’ actions and government (Matthew 14:5; Josephus, Antiquities 18:116-119), John’s movement did not disappear with his death. Paul encountered disciples of John in Ephesus (Acts 19:1–7).

John called listeners to repentance (Luke 3:3) and the symbolic act of immersion in water (Luke 3:7,21). His preaching elicited redemptive hopes and expectations (Luke 3:15), which threatened to disrupt the status quo of the current rule of Herod Antipas.

Matthew makes clear that Antipas wanted to execute John prior to the fateful banquet recorded in the Gospels but could not because he feared the people (14:5). This fits perfectly with Josephus’ account of John’s demise. The Gospels (particularly Matthew and Luke) and Josephus assume that John’s message had a subversive quality to it. Jesus picked up, in part, John’s critic of Antipas (cf. Luke 16:18), which is why when Antipas heard about Jesus he thought Jesus was John raised from the dead (Luke 9:7, 9).1 John, thus, was a threat (a) because of his popularity with the people and (b) because his message was subversive and threatened to upset the status quo.

Two questions arise from the ancient sources. First, why, in a community that routinely ritually immersed (i.e., baptized), did John acquire the surname “the Baptizer” or “the Baptist”? Second, what was the connection between John’s preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3) and the act of ritual immersion?

It seems to the average reader of the New Testament that John’s preaching of “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” suggests that the act of baptism for John was efficacious. Fortunately, the testimony of Josephus regarding John fills in the picture we find in the Gospels.

Concerning John, Josephus wrote: “But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s [Antipas’] army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist.2 For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus, the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod” (Antiquities 18:116–119).

Josephus’ account provides an important window into how John viewed the act of immersion and the core of his preaching. From Josephus, we learn that John did not view the act of baptism as efficacious, but rather as an outward symbol of an inward repentance that centered on practicing “justice towards” others and “piety towards God.” Josephus’ description parallels John’s words in Luke’s Gospel: “Anyone has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:11).

Likewise, John encouraged the crowds, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8).

John’s message, according to both Scripture and the historian, bears a strong resemblance to Jesus’ two central commandments of, “Love God” and “Love your neighbor” (Mark 12:30,31).

John, then, did not view the act of immersion as forgiving sins, but as an outward expression of a commitment to repentance.

Jewish people of the first century ritually immersed as part of the important concern of ritual purity. A person could become ritually impure due to a myriad of activities, such as a woman having her menstrual period or giving birth, a married couple having marital relations, or someone coming in contact with a corpse. Ritual purity had nothing to do with sin, as none of these actions are sinful. Rather, ritual purity pertained to one’s ability to enter holy or sacred precincts. People, therefore, immersed to purify the outside of their bodies from ritual impurity.

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, we find a community that assumed that in the same manner a corpse could defile the outside of the person, sin defiled a person inwardly. Therefore, a person entering into the waters of ritual immersion must first repent inwardly in order for the immersion to be effective.

“He should not go into the waters to share in the pure food of the men of holiness, for one is not cleansed unless one turns away from one’s wickedness, for he is unclean among all the transgressors of His word” (1QS 5:13,14).

For the members of the Dead Sea Sect, if the person entering into the waters repented, God would send His Holy Spirit to cleanse the person inwardly just as the water cleansed him outwardly. If, however, he did not repent, he could not “be purified by the cleansing waters, nor shall he be made holy by seas or rivers, nor shall he be purified by all the water of ablution” (1QS 3:4,5).

John, it seems, had a very similar view regarding the connection between repentance and immersion.

“They must not employ it [baptism] to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior” (Antiquities 18:116).

Yet, for John, the act of immersion went beyond merely a symbolic practice attesting to one’s repentance through right behavior. For John, it carried redemptive implications.

The Gospels make clear that those who heard John connected his message to Jewish hopes of redemption (Luke 3:15–18), but to the modern reader, John’s preaching of “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” does not immediately illicit such a connection.

The key lies within the Greek word ἄφεσιν (translated “remission”). Although New Testament authors wrote in Greek, the figures of the Gospels, like Jesus and John, primarily communicated in Hebrew and Aramaic. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, the word ἄφεσις frequently translates three Hebrew words: דרור (liberty), יובל (jubilee), and שמטה (release).3 While these terms in the Old Testament referred to the “year of release” (Deuteronomy 15:1–3), the “jubilee” (Leviticus 25:10–12), or the idea of “liberty,” by the first century the words came to be associated with Jewish hopes of redemption.

A document found among the Dead Sea Scrolls describes the final redemption using the language of the “year of release” and the “jubilee” (11Q13). According to the author of this document, redemption will occur in the tenth jubilee, in which, “liberty will be proclaimed for them [i.e., the captives] to free them from the debt of all their iniquities.” In this document, the “year of release” and the “jubilee” have formed the calendrical framework for redemption, and the debts are not physical debts, but the debts of iniquities. (See also Isaiah 61:1.)

John’s preaching, then, sought, through the repentance of the people whose act of immersion publically proclaimed their repentance, to bring about the jubilee year of redemption. Jews believed God brings redemption because of the repentance of the people: “Great is repentance, for it brings redemption near, as it is said, ‘And a redeemer will come to Zion,’ because of ‘them that turn from transgression in Jacob’ ” (b. Yoma 86b).

In other words, the repentance of the people acted as the catalyst for bringing about God’s redemption. John’s preaching did not passively call people to repent; rather, he actively sought to bring about the period of redemption through the repentance of the people — characterized by the act of ritual immersion. This explains John’s particular view of baptism, which led to his surname “the Baptizer.” Moreover, it explains the enigmatic statement in the Gospels of John’s preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” which in light of contemporary redemptive hopes meant “a baptism of repentance that brings about the jubilee year of redemption.”

Understanding John’s preaching enables us to understand John’s relationship with Jesus and the tensions that existed between these two figures (Matthew 11:1–18). In light of the meaning of “a baptism of repentance for the remission (Jubilee year of redemption) of sins,” it seems hardly coincidental that the earliest followers of Jesus picked up this refrain in seeking to bring about the return of the Lord (Acts 2:38).


1. It is also, from Antipas’ standpoint, why he looked forward to seeing Jesus when Pilate sent Jesus to him before Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 23:7).

2. According to the Gospels (Luke 3:19-20), Antipas imprisoned John due to his outspokenness against his adulterous affair with Herodias, the wife of Antipas’ brother. Herodias and Antipas sought to cover up the affair by divorcing their respective spouses in order to marry each other (cf. Luke 16:18). John openly criticized this act saying it was still sin. Josephus knows of the role this even plays in the death of John because he placed his comments concerning John within his discussion of Antipas’ divorce from his wife, the daughter of Aretas IV, king of the Nabateans.

3. Cf. Exodus 23:11; Leviticus 25:10-12, 28, 30-31, 33, 40, 50, 52, 54; 27:17-18, 21, 23-24; Numbers 36:4; Deuteronomy 15:1-3, 9-10; Isaiah 61:1; Jeremiah 34:8, 15, 17; and Ezekiel 46:17.