1. Selective Bibliography
2. Josephus' Portrayal of John the Baptist
3. John the Baptist's Message in the Synoptic Gospels
   3.1. John as Preacher of Repentance before Impending Eschatological Judgment
      3.1.1. Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; see Matt 3:2, 6
      3.1.2. Matt 3:7-10 = Luke 3:7-9; 3:10-14
      3.1.3. Luke 1:76-77
   3.2. The One Who Comes After
      3.2.1. Mark 1:7 = Matt 3:11 = Luke 3:16b
      3.2.2. Mark 1:8; Matt 3:11b-12 = Luke 3:16a, c-17

4. John the Baptist as Elijah in the Synoptic Gospels
   4.1. Elijah as Eschatological Figure
      4.1.1. Old Testament
      4.1.2. Second-Temple Texts, New Testament and the Mishnah
   4.2. Synoptic Gospels
      4.2.1. Mark 1:2-3; Matt 3:1-3 = Luke 3:2b-4 (5-6); Matt 11:7-10, 13-15 = Luke 7:24-28
      4.2.2. Mark 9:11-13 = Matt 17:10-13
5. John the Baptist in the Gospel of John
   5.1. John 1:6, 15, 24-34
   5.2. John 3:22-30
   5.3. John 1:20-23
6. Death of John the Baptist
   6.1. Sources
      6.1.1. Josephus (Ant. 18.119)
      6.1.2. Mark 6:17-29 (= Matt 14:3-12)
      6.1.3. Luke 3:19-20
   6.2. Reason for John's Execution


1. Selective Bibliography

.D.C. Allison, "Elijah Must Come First," JBL 103 (1984) 256-58; L.F. Badia, The Qumran Baptism and John the Baptist's Baptism, 1980; J. Becker, Johannes der Täufer und Jesus von Nazareth, 1972; W.H. Brownlee, "John the Baptist in the New Light of Ancient Scrolls," Interpretation 9 (1955) 71-90; J. Ernst, Johannes der Täufer: Interpretation—Geschichte —Wirkungsgeschichte, 1989; S. von Dobbler, Das Gericht und das Erbarmen Gottes, 1988; M.M. Faierstein, "Why Do the Scribes Say that Elijah Must Come First?" JBL 100 (1981) 75-86; P. Hoffmann, Studien zur Theologie der Logienquelle (3d ed., 1981, 15-33; Paul W. Hollenbach, John the Baptist, ABD 3:887-99; J. Hughes, "John the Baptist: the Forerunner of God Himself" NovT 14 (1972) 191-218; C. H. Kraeling, John the Baptist, 1953); R. Laufen, Die Doppelüberlieferungen der Logienquelle und des Markusevangeliums, 1980, 93-125; J.P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, vol. 2, Mentor, Message and Miracles, 1996) chaps 12-13 (Part One); B.F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus, 1979, chap. 6; H. Merklein, Die Gottesherrschaft als Handlungsprinzip. Untersuchung zur Ethik Jesu, 1981, 142-46; B. Reicke, "The Historical Setting of John's Baptism," in Jesus, the Gospels and the Church, ed. E.P. Sanders, 1987, 209-24; M. Reiser, Jesus and Judgment, 1997, 167-93; C. Scobie, John the Baptist, 1964); J.E. Taylor, The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second-Temple Judaism, 1997; Michael Tilly, Johannes der Täufer und die Biographie der Propheten, 1994; R. Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Socio-Historical Study, 1991; W. Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition, 1968); W. Zager, Gottesherrschaft und Endgericht in der Verkündigung Jesu, 1996, 128-36.

2. Josephus' Portrayal of John the Baptist

Before investigating John the Baptist and his role in salvation-history in the gospels, it should be noted that there exists a reference to John the Baptist in Josephus' Antiquities  (18.116-118).

But to some Jews the destruction of Herod's army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted (keleuonta) the Jews to lead righteous lives (areten epaskousin), to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God (ta pros allelous dikaiosune kai pros ton theon eusebeia chromenois), 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 (hagneia tou somatos) implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by righteousness.

Although he often accommodates his language to Hellenistic thought in his description of Jewish theological beliefs, Josephus seems to give an accurate, albeit partial, description of the content of John's message. Probably only John's alleged distinction between the cleansing of the "soul" and the "body" is so Hellenized as to need paraphrasing into more Semitic expression. Josephus makes four points about John's message and mission.

  • John exhorted Jews to begin to live righteous lives towards one another and towards God. In other words, John preached the necessity of what Jews referred to as repentance (teshuvah), the turning from sin to obedience to the Law.
  • John required that those who responded to his exhortation to undergo an immersion in water (baptism).
  • John insisted that the cleansing of the "soul" resulted from the repentance and not from baptism. As indicated, this manner of expression is Josephus' accommodation to his non-Jewish readership. What he means by the "cleansing of the soul" is the forgiveness of sins, which he insisted was conditional upon repentance and not baptism.
  • John's interpretation of the baptism that he required Jews to undergo was that it was a "consecration of the body," seeing that the "soul" was already cleansed by means of repentance. Probably, by the "consecration of the body," Josephus is referring to ritual lustration or cleansing. If so, in his view, John offered the possibility of receiving both forgiveness and ritual purity.
    Josephus, however, omits an important element from John's message, resulting in a certain amount of historical distortion. In contrast to that of the gospels, Josephus' description of John's message lacks an eschatological dimension. Nothing is said of a imminent eschatological judgment or of John's role as precursor to the one greater than he, whose sandals he is not worthy to untie and one who will baptize with the spirit of holiness. Either not everyone in the first century—including Josephus—viewed John the Baptist as an eschatological figure or, more probably, Josephus suppressed this aspect of John's message and mission for political reasons. Any reference to John the Baptist as preacher of eschatological jugdment and as precursor of an eschatological figure who would bring judgment would have been detrimental to Josephus' apologetic aim of portraying Jews as good citizens of the Roman empire in light of the recent Jewish revolt, which ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Without this additional aspect, Josephus' description of John does not make historical sense, for a motivation for John's message and mission is lacking.

Jordan River

The Jordan River is the longest and most important river in Palestine.  Beginning in foothills of Mt. Hermon, the Jordan River flows southward through the Sea of Galilee and eventually empties into the Dead Sea, some 394 m. below the level of the Mediterranean Sea. During its course to the Dead Sea, the Jordan River drops about 915 m. It seems that John the Baptist baptized in more than one place along the Jordan. In John 3:23 he baptizes near Aenon, near Salim and in John 1:28, it is said that he baptizes on the east side of the Jordan River near Bethany or Bethabara (see 10:40).


What is Josephus' description of the message of John the Baptist?


3. John the Baptist's Message in the Synoptic Gospels

The four canonical gospels take no interest in John the Baptist for his own sake, but only because of his relation to Jesus. In them John the Baptist is portrayed, not only as a preacher of repentance in light of an impending eschatological judgment, but more importantly as the precursor of one greater than he, who is Jesus. There are several important units of tradition in the synoptic gospels relating to John the Baptist.

3.1. John as Preacher of Repentance before Impending Eschatological Judgment

3.1.1. Mark 1:4-5; Luke 3:2-3; Matt 3:2, 6

Mark 1:4-5

4 And so John came, baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

Luke 3:2-3

2 In the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Matt 3:2, 6

2 And saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."
6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 


In agreement with Josephus, according to Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3, John the Baptist preached "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (baptisma metanoias eis aphesin hamartiôn). In other words, John preached the possibility of forgiveness of sins on the condition of repentance; the reception of this offer of forgiveness was expressed symbolically by submitting to being baptized by John. It is explained that Jews from Judea and Jerusalem submitted to being baptized by John while confessing their sins (Mark 1:5; Matt 3:6). This accounts for why John received the epithet "the baptizer" (ho baptizomenos). In this historical context, what is meant by baptism is immersion in water, in particular, the Jordan River. That John actually immersed those seeking baptism from him is implied by the statement that after being baptized Jesus "came up out of the water" (Mark 1:10; Matt 3:16). The connection between repentance and forgiveness was familiar to Jews of the second-Temple period (see Repentance as Condition of Forgiveness). It is clear that John would not be understood as saying that baptism functioned ex opera operato, so that by simply submitting to being immersed in the Jordan River sufficed to bring about forgiveness. The connection between forgiveness and being immersed in water seems to derive from the fact that in the Old Testament ritual cleansing is frequently used metaphorically for moral cleansing (Ps 51:6-11; Isa 1:16-17; Ezek 36:25). (For use of the metaphor of washing with water to convey the idea of eschatological cleansing from sin, see Ezek 36:25-29a; Isa 4:3-5; 1QS 4.19-22.) John exploits this metaphorical association, and uses immersion in water as a symbol for the forgiveness that the people received on the condition of repentance. But it should be noted that John may also have understood being immersed in water, not just as symbolic of forgiveness, but as a means of ritual purification, as Josephus implies. So what John was offering the people may have been both forgiveness and ritual purification. Luke indicates that the Pharisees and the scribes rejected John's baptism on the assumption that they had no need to repent (Luke 7:30). Later, when asked about the source of his authority, Jesus asks the chief priest, the scribes and the elders, "Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?” They could not respond affirmatively or negatively: "If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us to death, for they are convinced that John was a prophet” (Luke 20:1-8).

The Torah requires ritual lustrations to removal impurity (e.g. Num 19). In the second-Temple period, the Essenes practiced regular ritual lustration before common meals (War 2.129; see also CD 10.10-13). Josephus makes mention of his ascetic teacher Bannus who used "frequent ablutions of cold water, by day and night, for the sake of purity" (Life 11). In general, Jews of this period practiced regular ritual lustration (see, for example, m. Miq.; m. Par.).  Not surprising, the mikveh (ritual bath) was a feature in many houses in Jerusalem from the Herodian period (see Meir Ben-Dov, In the Shadow of the Temple, 150-53). Parallel to John's practice, ritual lustration seems to have been part of the initiation process into the Essene community (1QS 3.4-9), which also included, of course, repentance. Those who entered the community received atonement and ritual purity: "purified by atonement...cleansed by waters of purification" (3.4). The members of the community regularly practiced ablution in order to become ritually pure and qualified to "touch the purity of the men of holiness," i.e., eat the common meal (5.13). Likewise, in Sib. Or. 1.165-67, the admonition to seek forgiveness and atonement through repentance occurs in tandem with the exhortation to ritual ablution in "perennial" rivers. According to Josephus, John's baptism was intended to effect ritual purity, on the assumption that "the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by righteousness." This claim is feasible and the fact that nothing is said of baptism as a ritual lustration in Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3 may be an omission, since the gentile church had no interest in such a distinctly Jewish idea (see Heb 6:2).  

Different from Mark 1:4-5 and Luke 3:3, Matt 3:2 states that John also preached the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven. So John's message is very similar to that of Jesus in Mark 1:15: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." For this reason, some scholars accuse the author of Matthew or the tradition on which he is dependent of historical anachronism. This conclusion does not necessarily follow, however, since John's call to repentance certainly implies that the time of eschatological salvation, or the Kingdom of Heaven, has drawn near, a fact that Josephus suppresses. Finally, by choosing to preach in the wilderness John may be exploiting the idea the wilderness as the place of God's eschatological deliverance in Hos 2:14-15: "Therefore, behold, I will allure her, bring her into the wilderness and speak kindly to her" (Mark 1:4; Matt 3:1; Luke 3:2) (see Hos 12:9; Micah 7:15; see also the other example of the Egyptian in Josephus, War, 2.261-63).

Repentance as Condition of Forgiveness

John's claim that God would forgive the repentant would have been accepted without dispute by most Jews of the second-Temple period. In the Old Testament, the individual is promised forgiveness on the condition of repentance (Ezek 33:14-16; Isa 55:7). In the second-Temple period, repentance became the principal and indispensable condition by which divine forgiveness was obtained for the individual. Thus, for the unrepentant, the one who refuses to abandon his wickedness, forgiveness was impossible, because forgiveness was conditional upon repentance. The private, expiatory sacrifices of the wicked—those without repentance—were of no avail (see Sir 34:19; m. Yoma 8:9; Sipra Lev Nedabah parasha 2.3; see Hosea 6:6; Prov 21:27). For the repentant, on the other hand, any violation of the Torah could be forgiven. In fact, it is sometimes affirmed that repentance alone could expiate (Sir 17:24-25, 29; 18:21; Pss. Sol. 3:7-8; 9:5-7). No longer was there seen to exist a class of unforgivable violations of the Torah, although the distinction was still made between those that were intentional and those that were unintentional (m. Ker.; Ant. 3. 230-32; Spec. Laws 1. 226-38; Tobit 3:3; Pss. Sol. 3:7-8; 13:7; 1QS 9. 1; Sir 18:11-12). (M. Ker. 1:1 even lists the thirty-six classes of violations of the Torah that lead to extirpation.)  This meant that the repentant would not be cut off from this life or the next, called "the world to come" by the early rabbis, for one (or more) intentional sins (see Jos. Asen. 11:18, Pr Man 11-14; Pss. Sol. 9:6-7; 1QS 11:11-14; 1QH 4:30; 11; 12; 13; 16; Sipre Num 15:31 [112.4]; m. Sanh. 6:2; Mek. Bahodesh 7 [Exod 20:7-11]). That God would forgive men like Judah and Reuben of acts that were liable to extirpation in the Torah was explained on the assumption that these men had repented (Jub. 33:15; 41:23-24; Sipre Deut 6:4 [31]; 33:5-6 [347]). According to the early rabbis, even blasphemy could be forgiven with repentance, although it could only be forgiven by means of death of the blasphemer: he or she would not, nonetheless, bear the consequences of the act into the next life (see m. Sanh. 6:2; Sipre Num 15:31 [112.4]; Mek. Bahodesh 7. 1-55 [Exod 20:7]; Sipre Num 2 170). The Day of Atonement was interpreted explicitly by many as the means by which all violations of the Torah in a given year, including those that were specified as resulting in extirpation, could be expiated, again on the condition of repentance (see Jub. 5:17-18; 34:19; m. Sebu. 1:6; m. Yoma 8:6-9; Sipra Lev Ahare parasha 2.4 [16:6]; pereq 8.1-2 [16:30]; Abot. R. Nat. 39).

The Qumran sectarians likewise believed that God would forgive all who repented. 1QS 3.7 asserts, "It is by a spirit of holiness of the community in his [God's] truth that he is cleansed from all his iniquities.  It is by an upright and humble spirit that his sin can be atoned." Atonement occurs by means of "a spirit of holiness" (3.7) which is synonymous with "an upright and humble spirit" (3.8).  In other words, atonement occurs when a person enters the community and comes under the influence of a principle of obedience, which naturally leads to repentance, the turning from sin towards obedience to the Torah as interpreted by the community. In response to repentance God atones for sin. This "spirit of holiness," or "upright and humble spirit" is also synonymous with "a spirit of the true counsel of God" (3.6b), which is likewise said to atone for iniquity: "For by the spirit of the true counsel of God are the ways of man—all his iniquity—atoned" (3.6b-7a). The notion that repentance atones is also found in 3.9b-11: "May he establish his steps for walking perfectly in all of God's ways...and not transgress a single one of his commands. Then he will accepted by a soothing atonement before God and it shall be unto him a covenant of the eternal community." When he turns from sin and obeys God's commands perfectly, a man "will be accepted by a soothing atonement before God." Repentance should probably be understood as causally related to being accepted by God; it functions, in other words, as the soothing atonement.

3.1.2. Matt 3:7-10 = Luke 3:7-9; 3:10-14

Matt 3:7-10

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Luke 3:7-9

7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him,"You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." 

Luke 3:10-14

10 And the crowds were questioning him, saying, "Then what shall we do?" 11 And he would answer and say to them, "The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise." 12 And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" 13 And he said to them, "Collect no more than what you have been ordered to." 14 Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, "And what about us, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages."

According to a pericope from the double tradition (Matt 3:7-10 = Luke 3:7-9), John speaks ominously of "the coming wrath," by which is meant eschatological judgment. (Both Matthew and Luke independently insert this non-Markan pericope into the same place in the Markan framework (between Mark 1:2-6 and 1:7-10), which literarily is the obvious place for it.) He expresses this metaphorically as an axe being ready to cut down every tree that does not bear fruit (see Isa 10:33-24; Sir 6:2-3; 23:25; Wis 4:3-5). It is possible that John is alluding to the metaphor of Israel as God's planting, which occurs in the Old Testament and in the second-Temple period (Isa 60:21; 61:3; 1 En. 93:5, 10; Jub. 16:26; Ps. Sol. 14:3-5; LAB 28:4). The metaphor has positive connotations in its occurences in these texts: God as attentive and solicitous towards the nation ensuring its growth and well-being. To describe the Israel or individual Jews within the nation as about to be cut down with an axe is a startling reversal of this metaphor (see Amos 2:9; Zech 11:2). John sees his role as a preacher of repentance as that of preparing his generation for eschatological judgment, which lends an urgency to his message, since there is a time limit on the possibility of repentance. (The absolute use of "wrath" also occurs in Isa 13:3; Sir 48:10; 1 Enoch 5:9; 1QH 11.27-36; Ps. Sol. 15:4-5.) The repentance of Israel before the eschaton is foretold in the Hebrew prophets, so that John probably saw his role as effecting this anticipated repentance (Isa 59.20; Hos 3.4-5; see also Jub. 1.15, 23). (As indicated, this eschatological context of John's offer of forgiveness on the condition of repentance is lacking in Josephus' account.) Because of his preaching of a imminent eschatological judgment, John is interpreted by the people as a prophet (Matt 14:5; Mark 11:32 = Matt 21:26 = Luke 20:6). Also it should be noted that John's warning of judgment is not addressed to the nation as whole but to individual Jews, similar to what is found sometimes in the Hebrew prophets (Jer 6:13; 10:15, 19; 32:19; Ezek 33:1-18). For this reason he cautions his hearers not to presume upon the covenantal promises made to Abraham ("We have Abraham as our father"), because these apply only to the nation. The individual within the nation will be judged strictly and impartially according to his or her actions. This is implied in his statement, "Out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham." Perhaps this is John's prophetic midrash on Isa 51:1-2a "Look to the rock from which you were hewn and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father." The point is that nationality will not guarantee salvation from the wrath to come. In effect, he makes a distinction among Jews between the righteous and the wicked, as was common among many Jews; the wicked Jew is no better off than the gentile, who does not have Abraham as his or her father.

Some argue that John the Baptist and Jesus agree in conceiving all Jews of their generation as having forfeited any right accruing from the covenants with the forefathers because of their sins. This is the anthropological premise of Jesus’ proclamation. This means that Jesus, like John, assumes that all Jews are sinners and that there are no genuinely righteous Jews in the first century (see Merklein, Jesu Botschaft von der Gottesherrschaft, 27-36; Die Gottesherrschaft als Handlungsprinzip. Untersuchung zur Ethik Jesu Gottesherrschaft, 127-28, 142-49; S. von Dobbler, Das Gericht und das Erbarmen Gottes, 75-76; ,Becker, Johannes der Täufer und Jesus von Nazareth, 21-22; 33; id., Jesus of Nazareth, 53-58; 73-80; Weder, Gegenwart und Gottesherrschaft, 47-48; Giesen, Herrschaft Gottes—heute oder morgen?, 24-25, 56-57. It seems more likely that both were speaking to individuals within Israel and warning of coming judgment, but without making the assumption that all Jews living at that time were under the judgment of God. Like other Jews, both John and Jesus did not assume that by virtue of being a descendent of Abraham and therefore heir of the covenant, a Jew was guarateed of a positive outcome at eschatological judgment. There was a shift of emphasis from the nation to the individual. Besides, it is unlikely that a second-Temple Jew would ever hold that Israel’s covenantal status could ever be revoked permanently, although individual Jews could certainly be disqualified as recepients of the covenantal promises.

    John teaches that to be able to stand before God at the time of eschatological judgment a Jew must have fruit in keeping with repentance. In fact, for John the fruit is the repentance. For this reason, he condemned some who came for baptism but did not show the works consistent with their alleged repentance: "You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matt 3:7-8a). John's offer of forgiveness was conditional upon repentance, so that the one who had not turned from sin and therefore was unforgiven would be founding wanting at the time of eschatological judgment. In a percope unique to Luke (3:10-14), John gives concrete prescriptions to different groups concerning what constituted the works worthy of baptism. He tells people to share with others: "The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise" (Luke 3:10). To tax collectors who ask him what they should do, John says that they are not to cheat people any longer. Finally to soldiers John says that they should not extort money from civilians. The Hebrews prophets likewise called the nation to repentance either as a condition of escaping looming judgment or in relation to judgment already experienced (Jer 3:22-23; 18:8; 26:3-5; Zech 1:3-4; Mal 3:7). That John was successful in bringing Jewish sinners to repentance is implied in a later statement of Jesus: "For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him" (Matt 21:32).

Eschatological Judgment

The Hebrew prophets sometimes speak of the eschatological judgment of God using the term "day of Yahweh" or a synonym (Isa 2:12-22; 6:11; 10:3-4, 13; 13:6, 9; 34:4, 8; Jer 46:10; Ezek 7:3, 8, 19; 30; Amos 5:18-20; Obad 1:15; Joel 2:2; Zeph 1:2-2:3; Zech 12-14; Mal 3:2-3; 4:1, 2) (see also references to the Messiah's function as judge in Isa 11:3-5). The expectation of eschatological judgment becomes a fixture in many second-Temple texts. In 1 Enoch 1.1-9, impending universal judgment is announced, and in 1 Enoch 2-5 the "obedience" of nature is set in contrast to the disobedience of sinners (1 Enoch 1-5). Those who have nothing to fear at the Great Judgment are “the righteous elect” (1.1), a group sometimes referred to as “the righteous” or “the elect.” These designations denote the same group of people, those who are obedient to God. Those who ought to fear the day of judgment are the ungodly (1.1), for God, accompanied by ten thousand holy ones (angels), “will destroy all the ungodly and convict all flesh of the works of their ungodliness" (1.9). In the Animal Apocalypse, found in 1 Enoch, at the appointed time, God ("the lord of the sheep") will strike the world with "the staff of his wrath," bringing judgment to the wicked and deliverance to the righteous (1 Enoch 90:18). In the so-called Letter of Enoch (part of 1 Enoch), Enoch utters his exhortations and woes on the basis of the revelations received in a vision (93.2; see also 91.1-3, 18). The content of Enoch’s heavenly wisdom is that, contrary to popular opinion, there will be a final judgment when the righteous will be vindicated and rewarded, while the wicked will be punished. This time of eschatological reversal and retribution is called the “the day of the great judgment” (94.9; 98.10; 99.15), “the day your destruction” (96:8a), “the day of your judgment” (96:8b; 98.8), “that day of judgment” (97.3), “the days of your judgment” (97.5 [B C]). The author’s opponents, however, deny that there are rewards and punishments after death (102.6-8), which could be interpreted to mean that they did not believe in a post-mortem final judgment or that they are not the sinners, who will be punished at the final judgment.

In Jub. 23, the renewed nation will successfully fight the eschatological war against the gentiles (see also 24:30), leading to peace and rejoicing (23:29), after which God will bring judgment on the enemies of the people (23:30) (see also Jub. 9:14-15; 36:10). In Jub. 24:28, 30the author refers to the "day of wrath and anger" and "the day of the wrath of judgment" when the Philistines will be judged by means of the Kittim. Likewise, in 36:10a eschatological judgment is described as "the day of turmoil and execration and idignation and wrath" when God will destroy with fire will destroy his land and his city. Judgment will also be meted out eschatologically on the basis of what was recorded in the heavenly tablets concerning all moral beings, both angels imprisoned in depths of the earth and human beings (5.10-16). In Jub. 24:33 it is said that the heavenly tablets that record the moral actions of human beings will be used as the basis of eschatological condemnation on the day of judgment (see 22.22 and 16.9). Similarly, in Jub. 36:10b, Jacob warns his sons, Jacob and Esau, that if either breaks his oath he will be not be written in the book of life, but the book in which the names of those destined for destruction are written (36:10).

According to T. Moses 10, at the eschaton  the kingdom of God will appear throughout all of creation, and the devil will have an end and along with him sorrow. The Heavenly One will arise and bring vengeance upon the nations, destroying their idols. It also appears that Israel will be exalted to a heavenly habitation while the judgment is being carried out (see T. Moses 1:18).

In Psalms of Solomon, the righteous will be raised and inherit to eternal life, whereas destruction awaits the wicked. In 2.31, the author speaks God's raising him up to glory, a possible reference to bodily resurrection, but God's "putting to sleep the arrogant for eternal destruction in dishonor because they did not know him" (2:31). In another psalm, the author explains that there will come a time when God will "look upon" the righteous, by which is meant that he will be merciful to them and vindicate them in judgment. At this time, the sinner will be destroyed and no longer remembered; this is the share of sinners forever (3.11-12). The ones who fear the Lord, however, "will be raised up to eternal life" (3.12). Along the same lines, the author of Ps. Sol. 15 explains that sinners will be destroyed "when God looks upon the earth with judgment" (15.12b), which, in this context, is idiomatic for the time of final judgment. The ones who fear the Lord, however, shall will "receive mercy" in this day, and "will live by God's mercy forever" (5.13a). Finally, in Ps. Sol. 14.9-10, the final destiny of sinners "is Hades, darkness and destruction" (14.9). These sinners "will not be found in the day of the mercy for the righteous" (14.9b), which is time of the vindication of the righteous at God's judgment; at that time also the righteous "will inherit life in joy" (14.10; see also 12.6). 

The Qumran community, composed of Essenes, anticipated a time of judgment (the "visitation of God"). The "visitation" of those walk in "the spirit of truth" will be "healing, great peace with many days, progeny with blessings forever, eternal joy in everlasting life etc.” (1QS 4.6b-8). On the other hand, while the "visitation" of those who walk in "the spirit of deceit" will be destruction (4.11-14). God has set an end to the existence of deceit, when at the appointed time he will destroy it eternally (4.18-19). Likewise, 4QTestament of Naphtali (4Q215) describes the advent of the eschatological age (frag. 2), when the age of wickedness will come to an end: "For the age of wickedness has been completed and all evil will pas[s  away]" (2.3-4). Presumably, with the removal of sin will come the removal of sinners. The age of wickedness will yield to "the time of righteousness" (2.4), also called "the age of peace" (2.5). In 1QM 1.1-17, God and his angels are said to be allies with the sons of light in the final battle with the sons of darkness, the army of Belial: "For this will be the day determined by him since ancient times for the war of extermination against the sons of darkness" (1.10). Like John, the Qumran sectarians connected their teaching of the need for repentance to impending eschatological judgment, although for them it was not so imminent as for John. 

In 4 Ezra, at the final judgment human beings, in spite of being spiritually handicapped by the evil heart, will be judged on the basis of their works (6:18-19; 7.17, 19-21, 33-44, 70-101; 8.33; 9.10).  There will be no possibility of intercession for the wicked on the day of judgment (7.102-11): “Everyone shall bear his own righteousness or unrighteousness” (7:105). Likewise, in 2 Baruch it is revealed to Baruch that there will be a final judgment of all human beings, which will be coincidental with the appearance of the Messiah (30:1-5). In these days, the books will be opened in which are written all the sins of those who have sinned (24:1); the wicked will be condemned because of their transgressions against God's Law, and be punished accordingly (30:1-5; 44:15; 48:45-47; 51; 54:14-15, 20-22; 55:1-3; 59:2; 78:6; 83:8) The righteous, on the other hand, are destined to be rewarded for their obedience (14:13; 15:7-8; 30:1-5; 44:7-13; 48:48-50; 51; 54:4-5; 59:2). They are described as having a store of good works preserved in treasuries (14.12-13; 24.1); these will commend the righteous at the final judgment. The merit of the righteous is attributed to their faith, which is assumed to issue in bedience to the Law (54:4-5,16, 20-22).

3.1.3. Luke 1:76-77

76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.

In the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:57-80), John is situated in salvation-history as the one who would prepare the coming of the Lord, to bring the possibility of forgiveness, which is equated with knowing salvation (1:76-77).


This mikveh (ritual bath of purification) is located south of the old city walls in Jerusalem and dates from the second-Temple period. Jews would cleanse themselves from ritual impurity in a mikveh in order to be qualified to enter the Temple (see Lev 14, 15; Num 19). One would enter the mikveh thorugh one entrance and exit it through the other.

3.2. The One Who Comes After

In Mark and the double tradition (Matthew and Luke), there are two sayings concerning one who will come after John the Baptist, who is not identified. A prime candidate for this person, however, would be the Davidic Messiah, for according to expectation he would rule Israel and carry out the judgment of God on Jewish sinners and the nations (see Eschatological Davidic King). (Of course, the synoptic gospels implicitly assume that Jesus is the one who comes after John and so suggest that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah.) In these passages John says two things about the one who will come after him: that he is his salvation-historical inferior and that the one who come after him would be the mediator of judgment and salvation.

3.2.1. Mark 1:7 = Matt 3:11 = Luke 3:16b (see John 1:26-27)

Mark 1:7

And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie."


Matt 3:11b

But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to touch.

Luke 3:16b

But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. 

In Mark 1:7 = Matt 3:11 = Luke 3:16b, John subordinates himself to one who will come after him as his salvation-historical inferior, expressed by the idea of John's not being worthy to touch or untie this one's sandals. The removal of a sandals from a person's feet was the task of a slave. John's salvation-historical role is to offer his generation the possibilty of forgiveness on the condition of repentance in the face of impending eschatological judgment. In this way he would prepare the people for the coming of this eschatological figure who would bring that judgment (see the eshatological promise in Isa 59.20). According to Luke 3:15, John identifies himself in this manner because the people suspected that he was the Davidic Messiah.

Some have argued that, when he spoke about the one who comes after him, John the Baptist was not referring to the Davidic Messiah but to another eschatological figure, possibly the son of man or the archangel Michael / Melchizedek. Such attempts reject John 1:24-34 as historical (see below). Based on references to him in second-Temple texts, the son of man is often judged to be the best candidate for John's coming one. In the Similtudes of Enoch the son of man is primarily a great and majestic judge operating as God's eschatological agent (see 1 Enoch 46:6; 49:2-3; 52; 61:8-13; 69:29). (Some identify the son of man with Michael.) The early church is supposed to have "christologized" the older John-tradition and substituted Jesus (interpreted as the Davidic Messiah) for the one whom John actually had in mind as coming after him, thereby leading to the identification of Jesus with the future son of man. (The compiler or author of the hypothetical Q-source is sometimes assumed to make this historical alteration.) It is, however, unjustifiably skeptical to conclude that John could not have interpreted Jesus as the Messiah and viewed him as destined to fulfil the role that he attributes to the one who comes after him. Other exegetes interpret John's "coming one" as God himself (Mal 3:2 "day of Yahweh"). Evidence for this is that in the Old Testament God as coming judge is often portrayed as coming with fire (Isa 30:27-30; 66:15-16; Zeph 1:14-2:3; Mal 3:1-4:6) and it is God himself who will give his spirit to Israel as the eschaton (Isa 44:3; Ezek 37:14; 39:29; Joel 3:1-2). But this interpretation seems improbable since John would hardly have to insist that God as the coming one was stronger than he was, and to speak about untying God's sandals seems bizarrely inappropriate. It is claimed that sandals is an anthropomorhism derived from Ps 108:10 ("Moab is my washbowl; over Edom I shall throw my sandal"), but this is unconvincing.

Sandal from Qumran Site

Ancient Sandal

Sandals, with soles of the "soleae" style, are made of three layers of leather held together with leather bindings. There were two tabs on the upper part of the sandal with slits in them and another tab on the upper part near the toe with a slit also. A strap was threaded through the three slits and tied at the tab near the toe. To remove the sandal required untying the strap.

3.2.2. Mark 1:8; Matt 3:11a,c-12 = Luke 3:16a,c-17 

Mark 1:8

 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with a spirit of holiness.

Matt 3:11a,c-12

11a I baptize you with water for repentance....11c He will baptize you with a spirit of holiness and with fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire." 

Luke 3:16a,c-17

16a John answered them all, "I baptize you with water....16c He will baptize you with a spirit of holiness and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, buthe will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." 

According to Mark 1:8, John explains that the one who comes after him will "baptize," not with water, but with "a spirit of holiness." In Matt 3:11b-12 = Luke 3:16b-17, a pericope from the the double tradition that both Matthew and Luke insert into the Markan framework in the same place for obvious reasons, John says that the one who comes after him will baptize in "a spirit of holiness and with fire." (Matthew uses the title "the coming one" probably to indicate an eschatological figure [3:11].) The giving of the spirit of holiness was part of Jewish eschatological expectation (see Spirit of Holiness). In John's teaching, the fulfilment of this eschatological promise will come through the mediation of the one who comes after him. The reception of the spirit of holiness will make disobedience impossible, since a spirit of holiness is an eschatological principle of obedience. But the one who comes after John will also bring fire, a symbol of eschatological judgment. The image seems to be that of a river of fire into which unrepentant Jews will be immersed. The idea is also expressed by the metaphor of the separation of wheat and chaff by means of a winnowing fork (see Jer 15:7 "I will winnow them with a winnowing fork at the gates of the land"). The separated chaff, which is worthless, will be burned up (see the use the metaphor of chaff in Job 21:18; Ps 1:4; 35:5; Isa 17:13; 29:5; Hos 13:3). (Reiser argues that the word achura does not mean "chaff," which blows away in the wind, but the pieces of straw, which, when winnowed, falls into a pile some distance away from the pile of grain [Jesus and Judgment, 176-80].) (For the use of fire as a metaphor of judgment in biblical and second-Temple sources, see Ezek 30:14-16; Joel 2:3; Obad 18; Nahum 1:6; Mal 4:1; 1QpHab 10.13; 1QH 11.24-31; 4.3-4; 1 Enoch 102.1; Ps. Sol. 15.4-5). In second-Temple Jewish expectation, the eschaton would be both a time of salvation and judgment. Only those who have repented and have received forgiveness on the condition of that repentance will be eligible for eschatological salvation; the rest will fall under the wrath of God. The one who comes after John would the mediator of both salvation, the spirit of holiness, and eschatological judgment.

Spirit of Holiness

The term "spirit of holiness," (or Holy Spirit) occurs infrequently in the Old Testament (Isa 63:11 [see Isa 63:14]; Ps 51:11), and never with the meaning of eschatological principle of obedience. (The closest parallel to the idea of the "spirit of holiness" as eschatological principle of obedience is found in Ezekiel: the prophet proclaims that God will give his people a new spirit [11:19; 36:26] and that He will give them his spirit [36:27; see 37:14; 39:29].) The term “spirit of holiness,” however, does occur in some Jewish texts from the second-Temple period with the meaning of eschatological principle of obedience (Smith, "'Spirit of Holiness' as Eschatological Principle of Obedience," in Christian Beginnings and the Dead Sea Scrolls). In this period, the promise of the giving of the Holy Spirit (or better "spirit of holiness") is interpreted as God's supplying Israel with an eschatological principle of obedience. In other words, at the end, the time of Israel's final and definitive salvation, God will so spiritually transform his people, that disobedience to the Torah will henceforth be impossible.  To have a spirit of holiness is to have a God-given disposition to holiness; generally, in these texts, spirit of holiness refers not to God as Spirit placed in human beings but to a new human spirit or disposition that leads to holiness created by God.  (See Jub. 1.12-26; T. Levi 18.10; 4Q504 [Words of the Luminaries] 5.15-16; 1QS [The Rule of the Community] 3:6-8; 4.18-21; 9.3; 1QSb [Blessings] 1.2 1QH [Thanksgiving Hymns] 7.6-7; 16.) Because of its occurrence in second-Temple Judaism, it is unnecessary to conclude that the phrase "with a spirit of holiness" is a later Christian expansion (see M. Reiser, Jesus and Judgment, 167-93). A reason put forward to prove that the phrase "with a spirit of holiness" is secondary is that without it there is an antithetical parallelism between "I baptize you with water" and "He will baptize you with fire." Such an argument assumes that the lack of parallelism is an indication of inauthenticity, which is a very weak argument. It must be noted that the idea of a future baptism with a spirit of holiness also occurs in Mark 1:8.


What is the message of John the Baptist according to the synoptic gospels and how does it differ from Josephus' description of it?


4. John the Baptist as Elijah

The unanimous agreement of the gospels is that John the Baptist is the Elijah referred to in Mal 4:5-6, but obviously not the literal Elijah. There is a "twist" in the fulfilment of the prophecy.

4.1.  Elijah as Eschatological Figure

4.1.1. Old Testament

Before the eschaton, according to Mal 4:5-6, Elijah is destined to return in order to prepare the people by reconciling the children to their fathers and fathers to their children, so that they would be spared eschatological judgment:  "See I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse." 

4.1.2. Second-Temple Texts, New Testament and the Mishnah

There are references to the return of Elijah in second-Temple sources, the New Testament and the Mishnah.

A. Sirach 48:10: Mal 4:5-6 is interpreted in Sirach 48:10 literally as the actual return of Elijah, who was assumed to heaven, without seeing death, many centuries earlier (see 2 Kings 2): "At the appointed time, it is written, you [Elijah] are destined to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the hearts of parents to children and to restore the tribes of Jacob." (We should note that Sirach includes the restoration of the tribes of Jacob in the eschatological function of Elijah.)

B. Sibylline Oracles 2:187-89: "Then the Thesbite [Elijah], driving a heavenly chariot at full stretch from heaven, will come on earth and then display three signs to the whole world, as life perishes."

C. New Testament

Evidence that Jews contemporary with John the Baptist and Jesus believed that Elijah would return before the eschaton is found in the New Testament.

  • Mark 6:15 = Luke 9:8: In attempting to explain Jesus salvation-historically, some Jews propose that he is Elijah: "But others were saying, 'He is Elijah'." To do so presupposes the belief that Elijah would return before the eschaton.
  • Mark 8:28; Matt 16:14; Luke 9:19: Jesus asks his disciples about what people are saying about who he is. Among the possibilities enumerated is that Jesus is Elijah: "They told Him, saying, 'John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; but others, one of the prophets'." Some Jews take Jesus to be Elijah who would return before the eschaton.
  • Mark 9:11 = Matt 17:11 The disciples ask Jesus, "Why is it that the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" It would seem that it was a common teaching among sages in the first century that Elijah would come before the eschaton. The disciples ask Jesus for his view on the issue.
  • John 1:21 One of the questions that John is asked is whether he is Elijah: "They asked him, 'What then? Are you Elijah?" This question no doubt presupposes that view that Elijah would return before the eschaton.

D. M. Sotah 9:15:  "And the resurrection of the dead shall come through Elijah of blessed memory."

E. M. Eduyoth 8:7:  According to the Sages, "Elijah will come neither to expel or bring nigh, but to make peace in the world, as it is said (Mal 4:5-6)." In other words, the Sages interpret Elijah's ministry of reconciliation as bringing about world peace. In addition, R. Joshua passes down a tradition that "Elijah will not come to pronounce unclean or declare clean, or who must be expelled or who must be received, but to expel such [ineligible ones] that were received through violence and to reinstate those who were removed by violence." Finally, R. Simon says, "Elijah will come to harmonize disputes."

F. M. Skeqalim 2.5: Uncertainty about what to do with excess money for the burial of the dead must be put away until Elijah comes.

(It should be pointed out that a late tradition in Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer (43) (quoting R. Judah) interprets Elijah's role in Mal 4:5 as bringing Israel to the great [eschatological] repentance.)

4.2. Identification of John with Elijah

4.2.1. Mark 1:2-3; Matt 3:1-3 = Luke 3:2b-4 (5-6); Matt 11:7-10, 13-15 = Luke 7:24-28

A. Mark 1:2-3

2 It is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way" (Mal. 3:1) 3 "a voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him' (Isa 40:3)."

B. Matt 3:1-3 = Luke 3:2b-4

Matt 3:1-3

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2 and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

"A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.' (Isa 40:3)."

Luke 3:2b-6

2b The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all mankind will see God's salvation.' (Isa 40:3-5)"

C. Matt 11:7-10, 13-15 = Luke 7:24-28

Matt 11:7-10, 14-15

7 As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see?  A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written: "'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare  your way before you.' (Mal 3:1)

13 For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 He who has ears, let him hear. 

Luke 7:24-27

24 After John's messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out  into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 25 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. 26 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written: "`I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare  your way before you.' (Mal 3:1) 


John the Baptist's salvation-historical significance is interpreted in the light of Mal 3:1and Isa 40:3 in the synoptic gospels. In Mark 1:2-3, prophecies in Isa 4:3 and Mal 3:1 are cited together as being fulfilled in the appearance of John the Baptist, although the author cites only the prophet Isaiah as the source of his quotation. In a double tradition, only Isa 40:3 is cited as fulfilled by John the Baptist, parallel to Mark 1:2-3 (Matt 3:1-3 = Luke 3:2b-4). (Actually, Isa 40:3-5 is cited in Luke, not simply Isa 40:3.) In another double tradition, a collection of Jesus' sayings about John (Luke 7:24-28 = Matt 11:7-11), Jesus asks the people about the identity of John by asking them why they went out to see John in the wilderness by the Jordan River: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces." The first two options are intended to be eliminated as obviously incorrect. John was not something commonplace ("reed swayed by the wind"), nor was he a kingly, aristocratic figure ("a man dressed in fine clothes"). Rather, the people went out to see John in the wilderness because John was a religious figure, a prophet, but even more than a prophet. Jesus then cites Mal 3:1 as being fulfilled by John the Baptist: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare  your way before you" (Matt 11:10 = Luke 7:27). The citation of Mal 3:1 in both Mark and the double tradition should be interpreted as the implicit interpretation of John as the eschatological figure of the prophet Elijah, since in Malachi the one spoken of in Mal 3:1 is probably to be identified with Elijah referred to in Mal 4:5-6. In fact, in Matt 11:14, a saying unique to Matthew, which he includes as one of the collection of Jesus' sayings about John found in Matt 11:7-15, Jesus explicitly identifies John the Baptist with Elijah, after identifying him as fulfilling Mal 3:1; the assumption is that Mal 3:1 refers to Elijah mentioned explicitly in Mal 4:5.

    John's appearance as one preaching in the wilderness is also said to fulfill Isa 40:3. The text as cited in the synoptic gospels (Mark 1:3; Matt 3:3 = Luke 3:4-6) agrees with the LXX, except for the change of "for our God" to "for him." John functions to prepare for the coming of the one whose sandals he is not fit to untie, in fufilment of Isa 40:3; metaphorically, he removes all "obstacles" for the historical appearance of this one ("Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places smooth" [Isa 40:4]). The chief "obstacle" that John must remove is Israel's sin, for the eschatological revelation of the glory of Yahweh (Isa 40:5) (what the Qumran community refer to as the "visitation" of God) will not only bring eschatological salvation for the righteous, but also eschatological judgment for the wicked. As the one whose voice is calling in the wilderness (Isa 40:3), John's salvation-historical role as Elijah is to offer the people forgiveness on the condition of repentance, in order to become qualified for the soon-to-appear eschatological salvation (baptism with the spirit of holiness) and thereby avoid eschatological judgment (baptism with fire) (see Str-B I. 96-97 for evidence of rabbinic interpretation of Isa 40:3 as messianic). The practice of combining eschatological texts is likewise found in 4QFlorilegium (4Q174) and 4QTestimonia (4Q175).

The members of the Qumran community used Isa 40:3, interpreting it in relation to themselves: they saw their community as the that which was preparing the way of the Lord in the desert. The means by which they prepared the way of God was through the study of the Law; this was the "path" that they were making for God. Their study of the Torah was preliminary to the soon-to-come eschatological judgment and salvation of God:
And when these become members of the community in Israel according to all these rules, they shall separate from the habitation of ungodly men and shall go into the wilderness to prepare the way of Him; as it is written, 'Prepare in the wilderness the way of [ ], make straight in the desert a path for our God.' This (path) is the study of the Law which He commanded by the hand of Moses, that they may do according to all that has been revealed from age to age, and as the Prophets have revealed by His Holy Spirit." (1QS 8.12-16)
It is possible that John the Baptist had connections with the Qumran community (he also was in the desert) and at some point broke with them; he then perhaps re-interpreted Isa 40:3 in terms of himself after the word of the Lord came to him (see Luke 1:80).

4.2.2. Mark 9:11-13 = Matt 17:10-13

Mark 9:11-13

11 And they asked him, "Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?" 12 Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? 13 But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him."

Matt 17:10-13

10 The disciples asked him, "Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?" 11 Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished.  In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

The idea of the identity of John the Baptist as Elijah is found in another Markan tradition. Upon descending the mount of transfiguration, the disciples express their puzzlement that the scribes (experts in the law) say that Elijah must come first (before the Messiah). Jesus' response is to agree that Elijah must come, but adds that Elijah has already come (implicitly referring to John the Baptist), which is a another clear allusion to Mal 4:5-6.

4.2.3. Luke 1:17

Luke 1:17

And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

The angel of the Lord says to Zechariah, John's father, that John will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah. This is an explanation of how John the Baptist can be called Elijah when he is not literally Elijah.

John wore "clothing made of camel hair with a leather belt around his waist" (Mark 1:6 = Matt 3:4). It is possible that his choice of clothing was for the purpose identifying himself with Elijah in the popular understanding, for Elijah is described as wearing "a garment of hair and a leather belt around his waist" (2 Kings 1:8; see Zech 13:4). Josephus recounts how he spent three years with a certain Bannus, who resembles John is several respects: "When I was informed that one, whose name was Bannus, lived in the desert, and used no other clothing than grew upon trees, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord, and bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day, in order to preserve his chastity" (Life 11). Unlike John, Bannus does not seem to have viewed himself as having a salvation-historical calling.


What is the eschatological role assigned to the prophet Elijah in Jewish expectation? According to the gospels in what sense is John the Baptist the Elijah who is to come?


5. John the Baptist in the Gospel of John

5.1. John 1:6, 15, 24-34

6 There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.

15 John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.'" 

24 Now some Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" 26 "I baptize with water," John replied, "but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie." 28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. 29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. 30 This is he on behalf of whom I said, 'After me comes a who has surpassed me, because he existed before me.' 31 I did not recognize him, but in order that he might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water." 32 John testified saying, "I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and he remained upon him. 33 I did not recognize him, but he who sent me to baptize in water said to me, 'He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon him, this is the one who baptizes in the spirit of holiness.' 34 I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God."

In the Gospel of John is also found the tradition that John (the Baptist) expects one to come after him who is his salvation-historical superior, expressed as his being unworthy to untie his sandals (see Mark 1:7-8 = Matt 3:11-12 = Luke 3:15-18). This one will baptize in the spirit of holiness. (But nothing is said of baptizing in fire etc.) Different from the synoptic gospels, however, it is explicitly stated that John later recognizes Jesus as the one who is to come after him when he sees the Spirit descend upon him after his baptism. John explains that he was told that "He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit." He calls him the son of God; this title would have been understood by his contemporaries to mean the Davidic Messiah (see The Son of God). Likewise absent from the synoptics, John also confesses Jesus' pre-existence: "He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me" (1:15) and "After me comes one who has surpassed me, because he was before me" (1:30). How John knew this and what he understood by being "before" him is not stated.

5.2.  John 3:22-30

22 After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. 23 Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly coming to be baptized. 24 (This was before John was put in prison.) 25 An argument developed between some of John's disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. 26 They came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordanthe one you testified about—well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him." 27 To this John replied, "A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, 'I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.' 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30 He must become greater; I must become less.

This passage relates a dispute between John the Baptist's disciples and Jesus' concerning Jesus' increasing popularity. Some of John the Baptist's disciples saw Jesus as a competitor; John's reaction is significant: he recognizes that he must decline and that Jesus must increase. He has served his purpose, that of preparing the way of one greater than he, the Christ. This narrative presupposes a temporal overlap between Jesus public activity and that of John and that not everyone at that time connected John and Jesus salvation-historically by subordinating the former to the latter. John also recognizes that a knowledge of his and Jesus' salvation-historical significance ultimately comes from God: "A man can receive only what is given him from heaven" (3:27).

5.3. John 1:20-23

20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, "I am not the Christ. 21 They asked him, "Then who are you? Are you Elijah?"  He said, "I am not."  "Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No." 22 Finally they said, "Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"  23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, "I am the voice of one calling in the desert, `Make straight the way for the Lord.' (Isa 40:3)

In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist denies that he is Elijah. But in the synoptic gospels, as was seen, John the Baptist is identified with Elijah. It seems that, in the Johannine passage, John's denial means that he is not literally Elijah, in which case he would confuse his hearers who apparently have not considered the possibility of a non-literal interpretation of Mal 4:5 (3:1). John eventually identifies himself as the one whose coming is foretold in Isa 40:3. This connects with the tradition in the synoptics where the writers of the synoptic gospels and Jesus see John the Baptist as the one to fulfil this prophecy; in this case, however, it is John himself who sees himself as fulfilling Isa 40:3.



How is John the Baptist portrayed in the Gospel of John and does the portrayal of John the Baptist in the Gospel of John differ from that in the synoptic gospels? If so, how?


6. Death of John the Baptist

6.1. Sources

6.1.1. Josephus (Ant. 18.119)

Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise, thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the fortress I before mentioned, and was there put to death.

6.1.2. Mark 6:17-29 (= Matt 14:3-12)

17 For Herod himself had sent and had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." 19 Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death and could not do so; 20 for Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him. 21 A strategic day came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his lords and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee; 22 and when the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you." 23 And he swore to her, "Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you; up to half of my kingdom." 24 And she went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask for?" And she said, "The head of John the Baptist." 25 Immediately she came in a hurry to the king and asked, saying, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." 26 And although the king was very sorry, yet because of his oaths and because of his dinner guests, he was unwilling to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded him to bring back his head. And he went and had him beheaded in the prison, 28 and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about this, they came and took away his body and laid it in a tomb.

6.1.3. Luke 3:19-20

19 But when Herod the tetrarch was reprimanded by him because of Herodias, his brother's wife, and because of all the wicked things that Herod had done, 20 Herod also added this to them all: he locked John up in prison.

6.2. Reason for John's Execution

The three sources agree that Herod (Antipas) has John the Baptist put to death; they differ, however, concerning the reason for his decision. (In the Markan account, there must be a period of time between the giving of the order for John to be executed and the delivery of his head on a platter to Herodias, because Mark 6:21 should be taken to imply that the party is held in Galilee and not at Machaerus. It would take few days at least for a soldier to travel to Judea and bring back John's head.) Mark provides a detailed account of how Herodias, the former wife of Philip, the brother of of Herod Antipas and now the wife of the latter, conspires with her daughter, Salome, to have John killed because he criticized Herod Antipas for marrying his brother's wife, an act contrary to the Law (Lev 18:16; 20:21). Luke's phrase "because of Herodias" probably alludes to Mark's longer account. Luke adds also "all the wicked things that Herod had done," implying that John has condemned him for other violations of the Law. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great and Malthrace. He divorced his first wife, the daughter of the Nabatean king Aretas IV (Ant. 18.109-12). The historical problem is that Josephus calls the first husband of Herodias Herod, not Philip, as Mark does. He is the son of Herod the Great and Mariamme II, daughter of Simon the High Priest (Ant. 18.109). It is probable that this Herod also went by the double name Herod Philip, so that he could be referred by either part of the double name. Thus, the Philip identified in Mark's account is not Philip the tetrarch (son of Herod the Great and Cleopatra of Jerusalem), but this other half-brother. In his account of John's death, Josephus does not seem to have any knowledge of the role that Herodias has leading up to John's execution. He puts the blame on Herod Antipas himself, because he feared that John's activities may lead to popular rebellion. Also he gives no indication that Herod Antipas had any personal contact with John resulting in an ambivalence towards him, as Mark's account indicates (fear and perplexity along with attraction). It is conceivable, however, all accounts are partially true and together they can be harmonized to create a complete account of how Herod Antipas executed John. It is interesting to note that Herod Antipas (and others) thought that Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead; this is said to explain Jesus' miraculous powers (Mark 6:14-16; Luke 9:7-9). It would seem that people thought that Jesus was something of a sorcerer who had conjured the spirit of John in order to to empower him to do extraordinary deeds.

Fortress of Machaerus

The fortress of Machaerus was constructed by Alexander Janneus, but was destroyed by Gabinius in 57 BCE, then Roman proconsul of Syria. Herod the Great rebuilt the fortress (War 7.163-89). Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, imprisoned John the Baptist in the fortress of Machaerus, and then had him beheaded there (Ant. 18.119; Mark 6:14-20 = Matt 14:1-12; Luke 9:7-9).


Why did Herod Antipas put John the Baptist to death?