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John the Baptizer and Christmaker

A Bible and Beyond Discussion

Monday, May 20, 2024
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With Dr. James McGrath and host Dr. Shirley Paulson

Introduction

John the Baptist may be the most influential figure in religious history, although rarely if ever is he thought of in those terms. This is a strange claim to make since almost everybody who knows anything about John would say they know a lot more about Jesus than John. But in our Bible and Beyond Discussion, we will have a chance to interview Dr. James McGrath and ask about this declaration, as well as his claim that he has now written a full-fledged biography of John the Baptist in his new book, Christmaker: A Life of John the Baptist.

McGrath will explain why Jesus’s mentor held great influence over the Judaism of his time, an influence that extended into Christianity, Islam, John’s relationship to the Mandaeans and the so-called gnostic thinkers, such as Dositheus and Simon of Samaria, as well as the Manichaeans. McGrath additionally discovered evidence of John’s influence in the events leading up to the Jewish war against Rome, and in Rabbinic literature. Within Christianity, John’s influence extends far beyond the ritual of baptism into the realms of prayer, parables, and ethical teaching.

Texts:

Just skim the following texts or read as much as interests you.

Gospel of Matthew, chapter 3, chapter 14:1-12, chapter 17:9-13
Gospel of Mark, chapter 6:14-2
Gospel of Luke, chapter 7: 20-35

Transcript

Shirley Paulson

Well, we’re here. We did it. Welcome everyone. This is the May, 2024 textual study on the Bible and Beyond discussions. I’m your host, Shirley Paulson, and our guest this evening is Dr. James McGrath. We’ve done several Bible and Beyond podcast interviews with James, and I’m excited he’s coming to be with us tonight for a Bible and Beyond discussion so that everybody gets a chance to talk to him. Well, maybe not everybody, but we’ll try. Tonight, he’s going to take us on some new research he’s done on John the Baptist. He has a new book about this called Christmaker, a Life of John the Baptist. You can tell from the title that he’s talking about an intriguing relationship between Jesus and John. I’m really eager to get into this conversation because I think we’re going to learn something new. So let me just tell you a little bit about James so you know who we’re talking to.

James is widely known from his blog Religion Prof on Pathos. He’s also the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis. His interests range from the Bible, science fiction, evolution, religion, and Mandaean culture. This new study ties together his Bible and Mandaean work. So, James, are you there? Welcome. We’re so pleased to have you with us tonight.

James McGrath

Oh, thank you. It’s a privilege to be able to be part of this. It’s always delightful having conversations with you. We always have much more that we wish we could talk about than we managed to fit into any conversation.

Shirley Paulson

That’s right. Well, tonight we get a whole hour. We usually get only a half an hour on a podcast, so we’ll see if we can go a little farther tonight. Anyway, so let’s get going. So John is such a curious figure in the New Testament, and as you’ve pointed out, we sort of feel like we know him, but when we’re pinned down on what we think we know, it’s actually quite vague and you make a kind of startling claim in your book, Christmaker, a Life of John the Baptist, when you say that this is actually a biography of John the Baptist, so why don’t we start just like that, a biography. What’s John’s family and how might that have influenced how things turned out for him? Let’s start there.

James McGrath

So I went into this project on the one hand, having a profound interest in historical Jesus, Christian origins, those kinds of things. And then having worked on Mandaean texts in particular their text known as the Book of John worked on an edition first of its kind in English with a critical edition, translation, commentary, and that’s not a version of the Gospel of John or something like that. That’s John the Baptist because he’s the focus of this central section. And so part of this project, there’s going to be a bigger monograph coming out in October that’s going to go into more detail, the kinds of things that academics want, making the case that these sources that are undoubtedly fascinating are also historically relevant to our understanding of John. We have to use them critically, right? Same thing I’d say about the New Testament, and they are somewhat later, but they’re valuable in that regard.

And so lots of people have said that a biography of John the Baptist can’t be written. I mean obviously you can write a fictionalized biography of anyone you like, but in terms of an academic biography, something that actually is informed by historical sources and where significant amounts, most of what’s in there is at least rooted in the kind of historical information we have. Some have said it can’t be done, and there were times when I was working on this project when I thought, oh, that would be such an interesting thing. There must’ve been such an interesting backstory to that, too bad that we’ll probably never be able to figure it out. And if it weren’t for a few moments when I was like, oh, wait, what about that? And it had those moments where something seemed to connect up in these interesting ways, I might’ve agreed with them and said, okay, this isn’t quite a biography in the usual sense.

And one of those things you asked about his family is the fact that John is according to not just the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament, but also the Mandaean Book of John, the son of a priest named Zechariah. And yet when he is an adult, it’s not just that we don’t see him going into his father’s business because lots of priests didn’t get a chance to actually do anything in the temple unless their lot was picked and then only occasionally, but he’s actually offering baptism for the forgiveness of sins, which sounds like an alternative way of getting what the Temple offers. And so this is a son who’s basically set up a competing franchise to his father’s business.

Shirley Paulson

Oh dear.

James McGrath

And that’s one of those things where it’s like, okay, there’s got to be an interesting family backstory to that. And I was thinking we can speculate. I will speculate if I need to, but that’s when I realized that the infancy story about John that we get in the New Testament depicts him as being essentially a Nazarite, as dedicated to God, doesn’t partake in alcohol, doesn’t cut his hair. And lots of people would say that that’s just Luke saying, well, why don’t I depict him? Why don’t I use the story of Samuel and use that to make my infancy story? And he certainly did that. But having the hair of a Nazarite, I mean, we think of these, you’ve seen the depictions of John the Baptist where he looks like Hagrid. So you know what I’m talking about. And I have a lot of criticism of those kinds of depictions of John.

But the hair might be right if he was a Nazarite. And what I don’t think anyone’s noticed before, because John is the one place where this might’ve come up, is that priests were required to keep their hair trim. So they were required to cut their hair and keep it tidy, and Nazarites were prohibited from doing that. And if a priest made a Nazarite vow, then they would have their hair unkempt maybe for a little while, but then they’d go back to doing their thing. But if you have somebody who is a priestly descent and who’s dedicated to being a lifelong Nazarite, then you suddenly put these two things in tension with one another. And especially if — as happened with Samuel — it was his mother who prayed for a child and dedicated him. Then you have on the one hand, John torn between mother and father and these two commitments that have been made, and also you have him potentially really well poised to discover that the Torah and the scriptures, they may be good, but they’re not perfect and all-seeing and all-knowing and sort out every problem, because you can find yourself torn between the two halves of one of the commandments: honor your father and mother!

Great. What happens if Dad says this and mom says that? And so some of these pieces started just falling into place and I realized, you know what? With the things that we’re told about John as an adult, we can actually start pulling on those threads. And some of it’s less certain than we’d like it to be, but there’s a lot there that would not just fit what we’re told about John, but also make so much sense of what he ends up discovering about himself, how he approaches life, what his message is and things like that. So I hope that in Christmaker, I’ve actually managed to give us a bit of more of John’s backstory than others have even tried to, because I think the issue is we haven’t spent as much time actually looking at John for his own sake as I think he deserves. Yeah,

Shirley Paulson

This is fascinating. Who would’ve guessed it had to do with his hair? and all that conflict? Oh my goodness. Now, James, you mentioned the Mandaeans a couple of times, and I’m not sure everybody knows what you’re talking about. Can you give us a ten-second history on who the Mandaeans are and why that matters?

James McGrath

Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, for those of you who are seeing me for the first time, you can see why I’d be interested in somebody’s hair, right then it’s kind of, yeah, so I was well poised to notice that sort of detail and think it was worth attention! Just kidding. But the Mandaeans are this fascinating group. If you’ve never come across them, I know because of what this group is interested in, that you are familiar with that religious phenomenon from ancient times that is usually called gnosticism. I don’t know whether you like that term or not, but we don’t need to get into that. But whatever you call it, that esoteric tradition from ancient times, what some people don’t know, even if they’re very interested in gnosticism or whatever else, one might want to call it gnosticism or various other traditions, one stream of that religious tradition from ancient times made it down continuously to the present day, and that’s the Mandaeans.

And historically they were located in the border region where Iran and Iraq meet and they hold John the Baptist in high esteem. Jesus on the other hand, they’re not very fond of, and they think he went off the rails and basically departed from John’s pure teaching and legacy. And so they are fascinating from so many angles. And there was a time when New Testament scholars tried to plug them in his New Testament background because the Gospel of John and Luke-Acts, we get the sense that there’s this competition between those who’ve aligned with Jesus and this wider baptist movement that is not persuaded that Jesus is the route to go if you’re trying to be faithful to John’s legacy. And so there was an attempt to plug Mandaean texts in his background. Maybe that’s what the gospel John was arguing against and defining itself over against.

And then because they were used somewhat uncritically, there was this backlash against that. And so now the tendency is to just ignore these texts. So part of this project was to say, yeah, we need to use them critically. We need to use them cautiously. We need to take seriously that they are somewhat later than the New Testament texts, and that needs to be taken into account. But just like the Nag Hamnadi texts, just like the Rabbinic literature, it’s not to be plugged in as background. It’s not from this time, but it’s relevant. We can see, verify that there are traditions embedded in these texts that go back to that time period. And in the same way the Mandaean texts deserve to be used and deserve much, much more attention than they’ve been given.

Shirley Paulson

So I’m glad you’re bringing this up because you’re right. I think that Christians tend to know John only through his relationship to Jesus. So maybe you can move into that area. What do you think Jesus thought about John and then maybe what John thought about Jesus? Let’s sort of go there next.

James McGrath:

Yeah. Well, thankfully we don’t need to speculate. Jesus was very, very, he was no uncertain terms among those born of women. There’s none greater than John the Baptist. And given that Jesus was born of woman, we didn’t need Galatians to tell us this, right? I mean, it’s, he’s a human being and he thinks John is the greatest human being who ever lived, and that’s even over against himself. And I think I make the point in the book that it’s an axiom of Christian teaching that Jesus was humble, but you get him actually being humble and part of being humble is esteeming someone else greater than yourself. Suddenly it’s like, well, no, no, no, he didn’t mean that, but I think he did. I think we should actually take him at his word that John was his mentor. He was baptized by John. He became part of John’s movement.

And that initially, as he’s coming to understand his own mission, his own calling, his own role in the dawn of the kingdom of God, it’s shaped by John’s vision of the kingdom of God. The Gospel of Matthew says that before Jesus went around proclaiming a message that could be summarized as repent for the kingdom of God, as at hand, John was proclaiming that message, Matthew makes it even clearer than some of the other gospels do, that Jesus was using imagery turns of phrase even that he got from his mentor. And so I think that one reason why it’s so crucial to pay attention to John is that those who are most likely to run past John and not giving the attention he’s due are those who are in a hurry to get to Jesus and think John is actually pointing in that direction. And that’s fine if you want to understand Jesus. And John was a decisive influence on him. Jesus said he’s the greatest person who ever lived. Then if we don’t get John and we don’t get the relationship between the two, right, then we’re going to misunderstand Jesus as well as a result. And presumably no one wants that, right? So we should pay John the attention that I think he deserves.

Shirley Paulson

Wow, this isn’t mind boggling for those of us who’ve thought that Jesus do everything and did everything and need a mentor. And John was sort of a sidekick. So you’re sort of turning the world upside down for us a little bit here, James, I have to confess, but that’s okay. You do that all the time. So then we had this sort of TV educated image of John camping in the wilderness and eating bugs, which makes us think, how could he be a teacher for Jesus? I mean, how does that work?

James McGrath

And so I think that’s one of the things that could be almost a litmus test. If our vision of John is not someone that Jesus would like and would gravitate towards, then we’ve probably got something seriously wrong about John. I do think it’s important to take seriously the influences on Jesus as a historical figure. In fact, when I did my just released the book, What Jesus Learned from Women, one of my earlier books, somebody did an interview with me and asked me as their final question, so what’s next? What Jesus learned from men? And I was already looking ahead to this project and I was like, well, actually, I think that John the Baptist is that person that we’d focus our attention on in that case. But yeah, so the bug eating discount Hagrid figure, the hair might be right eating bugs. Sure, but that’s actually not that uncommon.

Eating locusts in that time and place was not all that unusual, and it’s actually not self-explanatory why the gospel tradition mentions he ate locusts and wild honey, it’s not even absolutely clear what that means. There’s been suggestions that there was a mishearing of a word that sounded similar, and it actually meant these cakes dipped in honey, right? If you’ve ever had gman in an Indian restaurant or what’s it is it I think is the Italian word I’m trying to remember. I looked this up at some point. I don’t think that’s what John ate because it’s much more likely that someone would’ve said, oh, he must’ve meant this and changed it to the cakes that you’d naturally eat with honey than somebody said, oh no, they must’ve meant locust, right? So it’s just like the principle in textual criticism. It’s like the more probable direction of change.

But I think that if he found himself estranged from his father and left home, whether compelled to do so or deciding to do so, decided to figure out what he was called to do, realizing that he was not going to be a priest and following in his father’s footsteps, then he might’ve spent time in the wilderness. And this might’ve just simply been that he actually survived on food that he could provide, and that Jesus teaching on God’s provision and providing for the sparrows and taking no thought for what you’ll eat or dream actually reflects John’s influence on him as well. It may also be, I think John, given that he was somebody that tax collectors and prostitutes resonated with and found attractive that he was somebody who was not a doer fire and B brimstone preacher, he must have had quite a charismatic personality. I’m guessing that with his use of imagery and things like that, he probably had quite a sense of humor.

And I could imagine even later on when he’s longer relying on the foods and the wilderness, that he’d still make a point of eating locusts. And when somebody knew to join the group, he’d be like, want some and do all these kinds of things with them. And that these stories were the stories that they told around the campfire so that he was remembered for having eaten specifically those things even after he was no longer dependent on eating. Just those things. Interesting. So whole books have been written on the question of John’s diet. There are lots of things that we don’t know for certain, but there’s also a misperception, I think that this is something to do with asceticism, right? Because locus, well, it’s meat and honey is not really an aesthetic food particularly either, much more likely to have to do either with avoiding foods that other humans have handled if he was interested in purity to play this priestly role through baptism or that it was simply what God provided.

Shirley Paulson

When I get into meatier, I don’t mean that as a pun, but anyway, meatier topic because of his relationship to the temple, he wasn’t operating out of the Temple. So what could have been attractive about him? The people were drawn to him if he wasn’t doing things that were in the Temple? What’s wrong there? Why?

James McGrath

Yeah. And so certainly estrangement from his priestly father who may have contributed a role to him taking a close look at the temple, but he probably, I mean, as dedicated to be a lifelong Nazarite, there were only a couple of people who fell into that category. That’s why the issue of tension with the priesthood probably never came up, and nobody really thought about it and said, oh yeah, obviously if you do that, then you’re not going to be able to do this. Samuel was not a priest, and yet he offered sacrifice. And I’ll bet you that John started looking at the stories that were most connected with his own and started thinking there was a time when there was a tabernacle and God’s presence came to you. You didn’t have to go to it. And between that and taking a close look at the institution his father was connected with, and thinking, noticing in the scriptures themselves, how there’s this, even though there’s a temporal theme, there’s also a strand that says God can’t be limited to a house made with human hands, and it becomes an idol as people rely on it and say, God’s presence is here.

This city will never fall. We’ll be fine. And I think John really started noticing some of those things that are sometimes marginalized in what became the mainstream dominant way of thinking about the temple and of the scriptures and what they had to say. Go ahead. Yeah, go ahead.

Shirley Paulson

I was just wondering about then they did animal sacrifices in the Temple though, right?

James McGrath

Yep.

Shirley Paulson

He did not do animal sacrifices.

James McGrath

No. And I think if he would’ve, a lot more people would’ve been a lot much more skeptical. I think he recognized that prophets did all kinds of things. They were authorized to do so. And the challenge that’s raised to him in the Gospel of John, right? Why are you baptizing if you’re not Elijah or the prophet? This indicates to us that he’s not just doing the purity immersions that everyone was doing. In fact, this was a time when more people were immersing themselves for a variety of reasons, for pleasure, for purity than perhaps ever before in that part of the world. And yet he gets the nickname, the Baptizer. And so he’s got to be doing something that’s different, something that stands out even against that backdrop of people dunking themselves in water, left, right, and center. I think what he did was he drew on the imagery ranging from the first chapter of Isaiah: Away with your sacrifices, wash yourselves, make yourselves clean to Ezekiel’s temple where there’s still sacrifice happening in this what might be a celestial temple.

But then there’s this living water that flows out from it and brings healing and forgiveness throughout the land. And I think he saw all this imagery of water there and said, it felt called to use that to say, here, look, God is calling the people to giving one last chance. We really need to get our acts together. There’s a reason why the promises haven’t been fulfilled, and it’s not that God is a problem and has just lost track of time. We need to need to respond. We need to practice justice. And in connection with that offered to people a way of practicing repentance and expressing repentance that came without the cost of offering an animal. And if we look at even some of the places that he’s supposed to have been active along the Jordan River, there were major roots that ran from Galilee down to Jerusalem through there, and he would’ve encountered pilgrims and would’ve, as he was proclaiming his message, he would’ve said, yeah, so you’re making the long journey to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice and would’ve had, I think, a ready audience in those people who maybe, I’m pretty sure they kept going, but on the way back maybe they stopped to listen a little bit more and gave him some more time and thought about this.

And so John had a message that I think particularly with those who felt disenfranchised by the fact that those who lived in close proximity and or were wealthy could afford to offer sacrifices in a way that not everyone else could, certainly not as easily and not to the same extent without it being a huge burden on them financially. And so John’s message would’ve resonated with them in a powerful way, I think.

Shirley Paulson

Then was he able to actually. That sense of forgiveness that goes along with sacrifice?

James McGrath

Yeah. One thing where again, we’re influenced I think by the Christian effort to downplay John’s significance, is that there’s this strand that emphasizes that it’s only through Jesus that you actually get to the Holy Spirit. I think given how much John talks about coming, one who immersed in Holy Spirit and Fire Act has got to be doing caricature when it says that there are followers or John who are like, we don’t even know there is a Holy Spirit. I mean, it’s clearly not, we can’t take that at face value, but we know of somebody. I mean, John baptizes we’re given one detailed description in the New Testament of John baptizing someone, and that person has a profound spiritual experience when he does it, and of course, that’s Jesus. And so we shouldn’t think that Jesus was the only one who had a powerful experience undergoing John’s baptism, and probably first before anyone else, as John was trying to figure out what he’s called to do, he must have immersed himself and had a profound experience in that context before inviting others to have something similar.

Shirley Paulson

Gosh, this is really, really helpful to think about baptism and sacrifices and the Temple and John and all these in a different way. I want to go back into the relationship between Jesus and John a little bit more again. Would you say that they were both apocalyptic preachers then warning about the future judgment, or did their messages differ on that subject?

James McGrath

Yeah, I mean, certainly we get the sense that both John and Jesus are envisaging a coming judgment in which God is going to make a division between the righteous and the wicked. And that also at the same time, God is trying to get as many people to line up on the righteous side and get their act together. And so the imagery of someone who’s coming with his winnowing fork to divide the wheat in the chaff, the acts being at the root of the tree in the little bit of John’s proclamation that we get in the New Testament, all that imagery comes up in the teaching of Jesus as well. And when we get other images like the separation of the sheep and the goats, it’s still that eschatological separation. And so I think that John and Jesus were very much on the same page in that regard.

And I don’t think that we have to choose between apocalyptic and other things like let’s say mysticism. And I think the traditions that came after them sometimes emphasize one of those things more than the other. But the fact that we have baptism as a major component in Simon and Valentinian texts, for instance, tells us that the esoteric experiential mystical side of what John was proclaiming and offering to people may have been heightened in some strands of thought, even as others may have done more of the apocalyptic thing, and others may have done other things with it. But I think when we trace those ripples back, we find that John was offering something, a ritual and a message that had these various components and moved them together.

Shirley Paulson

So we’re running out of our own time between the two of us when we’re going to open the door for everybody else here. But I have a couple more questions I’d like to ask kind of quickly here. Was there really more to the death of John than the whims of a third party? Or were there political and religious authorities that were really afraid of him? Was that important for us to think about?

James McGrath

I think so. And it’s interesting, probably the most vivid, memorable detailed story we have about John is that about his death has become the focus of art, of storytelling of opera. For those of you any Richard Strauss fans in the audience, there we go. But it captures the imagination. Artists have tried to paint it. The girl who’s unnamed in the gospels gets a name based on Josephus, and there’s actually a lot of historical difficulty in figuring out who is this girl supposed to have been. And what struck me is the more I thought about it, is that it’s Mark that introduces his story, and anyone else who tells it gets it from him. And Mark tries to shift the blame for the death of Jesus onto Jewish authorities and away from Rome. And I think that Mark trying to shift the blame for John’s death away from Herod Antipas who ruled on Rome’s behalf, on the women and other people, is part and parcel of that same sort of effort to divert attention away from the mainstream authorities whose execution of your ring leader meant that you were probably going to be singled out for ongoing attention in ways that could be uncomfortable.

Josephus, for what it’s worth just says that Herod anus was concerned by John’s gathering of crowds. So he clearly had an audience that was listening to him, and he perceived that they were willing to do anything for him. And one thing I explore in the books both Christmaker and in the bigger book that’s coming out in October, is that we only have one thing that I think we can probably attribute to someone doing at John’s behest in the gospel of John, Jesus carries out this action in the Temple scattering the money changers, the selling of animals, and does this kind of symbolic act. And according to the Gospel of John, he does that while John is not yet in prison. And so John is still active, and Jesus would’ve been perceived as part of John’s movement. And so it’s an interesting possibility that it was Jesus’ action in the Temple that led somewhat directly not to Jesus’ death as immediately as we get in the synoptic gospels, but to John’s arrest and execution, which then of course becomes something that precursors Jesus’ own death as he comes to understand his own role as to be less like what a lot of people imagine John’s coming one would be, at least in the first instance, and more to be like John himself ended up being following the root of experiencing persecution.

And that by following this root of humility, that’s how God would then intervene to elevate both John and Jesus in the kingdom of that was coming.

Shirley Paulson

Wow. So you’re painting then a picture of John really being the ringleader, and then Jesus was one of the group, and he was probably a well-respected one who was sent on this mission from John. So Jesus is taking a lot of his thoughts from John. Am I getting all that right?

James McGrath

Yeah, makes sense. Okay.

Shirley Paulson

Okay. Well then we have a lot to think about here. So I will, if we’re at 7:30 here or 8:30, whatever time you are, before I open up the conversation to everybody, I just want to clarify if anybody’s wondering, this is a non-denominational conversation, and so that means that anyone of any faith or no faith is welcome and should be comfortable here and we keep our focus on the texts and information from our speaker and avoid personal stories at this time. So let’s open up for questions from anyone and see what you have to do. Peggy, you got your hand up? Oh, we have hands up already. Let’s go. Peggy, where do you want to go? You go first.

Speaker 3

And here’s my rambling question. It’s been a number of years ago, and there’s been a lot going, a lot of water’s gone under the bridge, but at a biblical archeology conference maybe eight years ago, maybe longer, gosh, I’m thinking his name was Dan. There was a professor that had a dig for 8 or 10 years that he thought might be John the Baptist, a cave that John the Baptist could have used. And there was a number of reasons why he thought it was what he had used. And what was interesting about it is that they found hundreds, maybe even thousands of small little dishes for pouring. And the thought was that maybe John the Baptist did immersion and sprinkling, if you will, did some river baptisms and some of these small things that would’ve just drizzled on people. And there’s others that have thought they found John’s cave. What do you think about that in the historical things that you’ve looked at? Can you pinpoint a cave or maybe he had more than one? What do you think?

James McGrath

Yeah, so I actually made a point of going to meet with Shimon Gibson, who’s the author of the book, the Cave of John the Baptist. He’s the archeologist who did the most work on what’s often called the UBA cave. It’s in the vicinity of Jerusalem. It was actually going to go to visit it, but there had actually been a fire not far from there, and then there was mud and other stuff, and it was not that without some very bright lights and other equipment, I would’ve seen much anyway that would’ve taken me beyond the descriptions and sketches in the book, but wanted to make a point of at least meeting with him and talking about it. I mean, it’s certainly a possibility. It’s not clear whether that cave had some actual connection specifically with John. It’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that it reflects some influence of John.

And part of what I try to emphasize in this book is that John made such an impact. There were lots of folks that were influenced by him. We get gnosticism emerging from the circles around him. We get the Jesus movement and each of those itself diverse. And so you get groups like the sites that come to be mostly in Mesopotamia, but clearly are on the one hand Christian, but on the other hand closer to John practicing daily immersion and things like that. And so I think this probably does reflect the impact of John. It’s not clear that there’s anything in the cave that would indicate John’s direct influence, but that can’t be ruled out either. And I just hope that more people will turn their attention to the cave. Just I hope that more people will turn their attention to John and to the Mandaean text because all of these things deserve much more attention than they’ve received.

It was maybe a decade and a half ago, I can’t remember when was when I first went to a conference about the Mandaeans. Very rare that such a thing even happens, but did get to go to one and the number of people that were at that conference, it was just about everybody in the world that works on this subject. And pretty much everybody who works on this subject works on it as a side area. There’s only been one person, Buckley, who’s actually really devoted her undivided attention there with anything else being a side interest. And it was maybe the number of people who are in this Zoom meeting, I mean grand total. And so all of this deserves much more attention than it’s received. And until it gets that attention, we’re still going to have a lot more questions and we’ll have answers.

Shirley Paulson

Oh, I love that. As a transition to our next question. Thank you, James. Okay, Helen, what do you want to ask or talk about?

Speaker 4

Hi, thank you so much. It’s been just fascinating. I had two questions. One is, have you noticed any Essene influence with John the Baptist? Because I think there has been some association with the Essenes. That’s the one. And the other one is that clearly John the Baptist was very, very significant because the gospels bend over backwards to try to distinguish him from Jesus. So my question is, why do you think that nothing came out of the John the Baptist movement directly? You say indirectly through the Jesus movement, the Mandaean or whatever, there’s no writings, there’s no religious movement per se. Maybe he was just too much of a recluse to actually contribute to a real movement. But those are my two questions, the Essene influence and what happened to him? I mean, why didn’t anything actually materialize from it?

James McGrath

Yeah, I mean, it’s a great question. I’ll go to the second one first just because I think that you can think about Christianity in forms that were not influenced by Paul, right? Paul I think sometimes gets a bad rap because some of the stuff that was written in his name that probably he didn’t write some of the stuff that’s most egregious offender, particularly when it comes to women in leadership in Christian communities and things like that. But you think about the other versions of Christianity that may have been closer to Jesus’ own Jewish Christian thing before Paul got it and was taking it to the wider. And I think that in the case of John, he was sort of overshadowed by his followers and by those who sort of took up his influence, but also did something distinctive with it. So they were remembered and he became sort of this person in the background.

And given that John was someone who was capable of saying that one who comes after me, so one of my disciples will be stronger than I, more powerful than. That humility that we associated with Jesus probably also was characteristic of John. And so I’m not sure that John would’ve minded that he was sort of a footnote to the story of some of his followers and disciples, but I’m determined to drag him back into the limelight even if it was sort of against his wishes. So your first question, we can come back to the second one as well, but your first question about the Essenes, I went into this assuming and almost hoping that I’d be able to make much of the John-Essene connection just because the more sources the better. But the truth is that it seems to me that John and the Essenes have a few things that are points of intersection that are genuinely similar, but in the same way, we might say that there’s similarities between Jesus and the Pharisees, but there are also these crucial differences. And I think those differences need to be taken just as seriously. And so I do think that John would’ve been in dialogue with the Essenes and aware of what they were doing. Same could be said of Jesus. I don’t see anything pointing to him having necessarily been part of that movement. So despite what you’ll hear if you visit Qumran and watch that video that they play for you when you visit the site, I’m not sure that John was at some point a member of that group.

Helen Mathis

What about the Ebioites?

James McGrath:

So the groups like the Ebionites’ influence, the Jewish Christians often were maybe closer to John and to Jesus in some ways than the tradition that developed that was less rooted in the initial context of John’s movement and Jesus’s movement. What I tried to do in this project was rather than take that sort of atomistic approach that tries to identify, tries to sift out, so you get a few nuggets of solid historical things that you feel like you can rely on, and then you try and piece those together and there’s so many different ways you can arrange it. There’s a better way of approaching history that has been advocated in recent years, which is to triangulate, to start with the influence of this person, the gist of the impact, and then to try and trace that back. And the case of John, I think it’s an appropriate image that he made a splash and we can trace the ripples back to that splash probably in the Jordan River somewhere.

Shirley Paulson

Fascinating. Wow. So your point, James, is that John’s influence went way beyond the Roman Empire and the Mesopotamia even. How far would you say it went?

James McGrath

Yeah, well, it’s continuing to go. So John clearly influences Christianity and some forms of it more than others. Mani, who becomes the founder of the Manichaean, grows up in that context, reacts against it and rejects baptism, but has his profound religious experience in the context of baptism and sees this sort of celestial counterpart. So it may be that he actually is sort of the last person before he tries to prevent anybody else coming after him and being sort of equal to him who has a kind of religious experience through baptism. That may have been the kind of thing that John had and that John encouraged others to have. Interesting. And we get them spreading as far as China and being there until at least relatively recently, there’s some hints that there might even be some pockets at least where I’m not sure, but it’s at the very least Buddhism infused with Manism. And so, we have had his influence directly or indirectly on Christianity, on Islam, I think also on Judaism to a greater extent than has been recognized. And so I think that John’s impact is continuing to be felt but not always recognized as such.

Shirley Paulson

John was a Jew, we have to remember that too. Okay, Maureen, your turn.

Maureen

Well, I’m learning through all these multi discussions and other things how much I don’t know and how much what I thought I had learned is not necessarily accurate. I grew up with a kind of more linear perception of John and Jesus: that you’ve got the birth stories and Elizabeth is pregnant three months earlier. And so John’s born first. And I always kind of wondered how much, if they really were cousins, how much they knew each other growing up, but then also that John’s purpose was to prepare the way of the Lord, and you’ve got him doing that and then preparing the way, and then Jesus comes and is baptized and anointed and he goes off on his mission and some of John’s followers follow him, and that John’s kind of done his job. I don’t know whether any of that’s still actually accurate or just kind of a sweet story or also, what was it?

James McGrath

I could start on what you’ve asked so far and if it comes back to you, just follow up with it. So I mean, I do think that John spoke, some have suggested that the whole one who comes after me will be greater than I is just Christians making John subservient to Jesus. I’m not persuaded, not least because if Christians were inventing that they would’ve probably made it a better fit to Jesus than he actually was. Part of the problem I think, is that Jesus does not seem to be doing what was expected. He’s not taking the winnowing fork even metaphorically and bringing about this separation and things. And so I think the problem that many of John’s followers had with Jesus was that he followed in John’s footsteps more closely than they thought the coming one was supposed to. I think that John’s death probably influenced Jesus to rethink what it would mean to step into that role.

And so I think that John did expect someone to come, but I think also that he probably did not have the opportunity to pronounce definitively on whether Jesus was or was not what he was hoping for. And the gospel of John does seem to be overly emphatic precisely because some who are associated with John thought that Jesus not did not fit the bill. And so you get right from the prologue. There’s no reason for this author to say he was not the light, he was just a witness to the light. I mean, the level of being emphatic about it tells us that somebody saying the opposite and that this author needs to emphasize this. And what I tried to do in this project was to recognize that I think John did predict someone coming after him, but the way he spoke about it I think was probably a lot like the Son of Man tradition in the gospels where it’s like, so is he talking about himself? Is he talking about someone else’s going to come? This is kind of vague. Oh, I think I see what he’s doing. And there was some ambiguity about it, probably deliberately. But I think that John and Jesus probably did work closely together. And I think that there’s probably more continuity than either the Mandaean who view them as at odds with one another or the Christians who say that Jesus is the focus on John is subservient, would do justice to.

Maureen

Well, I was also, I might not have said it earlier, my teaching was that John’s purpose was to proclaim the coming Messiah. Is that actually accurate? I mean, that’s not all he did called John the Baptizer, but is there any biblical note that we know of that identifies what John’s purpose is?

James McGrath

Well, there certainly are some texts that do so, but the question is are they telling us what Christians later want to tell us or they, and again, trying to be not too skeptical, but being skeptical enough of some of those sources is challenging. I think that given I think there are a few possibilities, and I think each of these is plausible, and it may be that John would’ve said all of the above when it comes to himself and the one who’s coming after him. So on the one hand you have him depicted in the infancy stories in Luke as like Samuel, of course, Samuel’s the one who anoints David. And so you have the prophet who anoints the king, and that could be one way he understood himself. And of course the king had better stay subservient to the prophet and listen to what God’s commanding and is going to be more powerful, but he’s going to act with force.

But that doesn’t mean that that’s the person who’s going to be the center of attention and authority necessarily. You also have the Elijah imagery. And Elijah acted much more directly and forcefully to enact regime change than Elijah did. I don’t think Elisha would’ve said that Elijah was, I don’t think Elisha would’ve said that he was greater than Elijah, and yet he was certainly stronger in some ways. And then of course, the image we have, the fact that in this time there are two Messianic figures that are expected because “anointed ones,” that’s what “Messiah” means. There’s the king who’s anointed, but then also the priest, the high priest, and both the high priestly role descending from Aaron and the royal role through David had been disrupted. And there were people, particularly at Qumran who were expecting both roles to be restored. I think everybody thought that God would surf these things out, but a lot of people just, it’s like, give us a cake. We’ll be happy, get sort out some of these other things, and the rest will take care of itself. And so if he viewed himself as sort of a priestly messiah, but doing an unconventional priestly thing, offering forgiveness in this other way, then becoming one might’ve been the Davidic royal Messiah, and the fact that John was an unconventional priestly Messiah might have helped with the process of Jesus rethinking what it might mean for him to be the Davidic sort of anointed one,

Speaker 6

An unconventional Messiah. Okay. Okay. All right. Thank you.

Shirley Paulson

Thank you for those questions.

James McGrath

Yeah, those fantastic questions. Thank you.

Shirley Paulson

I imagine lots of us had those questions too. Alright, so Sarah, you’re next.

Sarah

Thank you. I spent this morning with my Bible study group harrowing, the Book of Luke. And so as you’re talking about little bits about the birth story of both John and Jesus in your research, did you come up with any more information about their youth? It just seems like you’d be expecting from what Luke wrote, that there would’ve been some ongoing connection before the experience at the Jordan. And along with that, this is sort of going along with the cave question. I know that somewhere within the last year or so, probably in the Biblical archeology magazine, there was an article that talked about really speculative about finding a place where both of those mothers and their babies or their toddlers could have hid from Herod. Have you come across anything like that in your research?

James McGrath

Oh, great question. So one of the things I did in preparation for writing these books, particularly because I decided to write a biography that was genuinely a biography, telling the story for everyone and then do this academic book that had these concentrated deep dives and does something very different. So they’re not one book, just two different forms for one with a lot more footnotes. They’re generally two different books. But in telling John’s story, I wanted to go to the places that tradition associates him with and to think about him on the ground, both to look for traces of, oh, this might give us some insight as well as to say, yeah, look at how this tradition blew up in associated places with him, even though there’s really no reason to think that he actually may have been there. And one of the places I visited, there’s a place called, it’s the monastery of St. John in the wilderness or in the desert.

And it was great because I had to stop to ask for directions because it’s hard to get to there. And there’s actually a place right nearby called the Essene Farm and stopping at the Essene farm to ask for directions looking for John in the wilderness. I thought, this is perfect. What could be better? The Essene farm has nothing to do with the Essenes other than taking the name. It’s sort of a natural wellness community sort of thing. But it was a great place to ask for directions given what they called themselves. But that site in the wilderness is supposedly where Elizabeth flees from Herod, who’s trying to kill John according to a tradition that we don’t get in the New Testament, but we get in the Infancy Gospel of James (or the Protevangelium of James). And that has long been thought to be a fragment of something that came from the circles around John the Baptist, because in that story that suddenly at the end of the Protevangelium of James, Elizabeth knew they were searching for John, and why are they searching for John?

They were searching for him, but shouldn’t they be searching for Jesus in Matthew’s version? They’re just killing infants everywhere. And so why is John suddenly the focus and then Herod sends word to Zacharia wanting to get hold of his son and is thinking his son is destined to reign Israel. It’s like, what the heck is this? This is definitely not something that Christians are coming up with, right? John is destined to reign Israel. And so it’s long been thought that this is a fragment of something that came from Baptist circles, baptist, not in the modern denominational sense, but in the sense of circles around John the Baptist. And as I was trying to put these pieces of the infancy traditions about John, because Luke seems to have known some stories that may have come from the circles of followers of John the Baptist.

It seems to me that what the Protevangelium of James might actually be is a reworking of a Baptist infancy story, turning it into a story that’s mostly about Mary, and that might be why Joseph and Anna, right? The parents of Mary have such this striking resemblance, I mean to Hannah and to the story of, but also to Zechariah and Elizabeth as depicted in Luke. And so when I started pulling on that, I realized that there were some connections between that the Gospel of Luke, the Mandaean Book of John, and in the bigger project, I don’t do this in Christmaker because all this is getting into hypothetical sources and all this kind of stuff that not everybody is as fascinated with as I am. But for those who are interested, there’s going to be a whole chapter trying to reconstruct what the John the Baptist infancy story that followers or John the Baptist might’ve told in ancient times would’ve looked like what I do in Christmaker, just to stick to the basics that we get these hints that he was a Nazarite.

I do think that there’s something, even though only Luke tells us that he and that John and Jesus were related, to come back to that aspect of your question, things happened by way of family connections in this part of the world, this time and place that was the norm. You get anything done. I mean, it doesn’t have to be mentioned every time that the person who’s coming over and fixing your plumbing is your cousin, because that’s where you look first. You don’t go look in the Yellow Pages or nowadays go to look at Yelp or Google reviews or things like that to get recommendations. Everything worked via family connections and then friends of family, family of friends and things like that. And so even where we’re not told that there were family connections, I think that it’s plausible that there and likely that there would’ve been some in this case. I don’t think there’s anything at all implausible about that, but Luke’s the only one who tells us. And so it’s not as certain as we’d like from a historical perspective.

Shirley Paulson

So, James, here we are. We have four minutes left, and if we don’t have time for your question, you can add them to our website because we’ll have a recording of this. Put your question on the website and James will be happy to answer your question, right?

James McGrath

Yes. And I’m online as @ReligionProf in most places on Twitter. Sorry, X, Patheos the blog. I’m on Facebook, and my email is on the Butler University website. So if your question doesn’t get answered or you have a follow-up question to a question you got to ask, just get in touch with me. As you can probably tell, I am happy to talk more about this topic.

Shirley Paulson

So Pat Nester is asking, he says, if John and Jesus were apocalyptic preachers were those who followed them doing so out of fear — for example, fire and brimstone as distinguished from inspiration and present salvation from stressful circumstances.

And Leigh Ann Lindsay says, “Did John do any healing or performing miracles?”

Meanwhile, Honor, what’s your question?

Speaker 7

Okay. First I just want to say I really appreciate your insight about John recognizing that you didn’t have to go someplace to connect with God. You could get it in the wilderness, and we see Jesus coming up with the same kind of thinking. My question is, I felt that you kind of downplayed John’s remark about one coming after me who’s preferred before me as being directly pinpointing Jesus as the Messiah. And yet your book is called Christmaker. So where do those two things come together?

Shirley Paulson

Okay, so great questions. You’ve got two or three minutes, James. Let’s see what you can do.

James McGrath

Yeah, I’ll see what I can do. Okay. Yeah, I knew it was going to be controversial to call it Christmaker. I knew the Mandaeans, who are still around, are not going to be big fans of that. But the truth is that at the very least, John inspired Jesus. And Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us about this string of figures that are just so strikingly similar to Jesus and in some ways to John as well. And historians have been happy to say, oh, it’s the spirit of the age. They’re similar. They’re similar because John had this impact. And when Jesus seemed not to be fulfilling this others, I think stepped into the role. And so I think it’s entirely plausible that Jesus was sort of John’s right hand man, as we might’ve said once upon a time. And that John might’ve expected that he would step into that role. And I think that once he was out of the picture, it was viewed by at least some of John’s followers as an open question. And that once Jesus was crucified and nothing else seemed to be happening, of climactic apocalyptic significance, that they thought, okay, it’s got to be someone else. So I try not to downplay the sense that John had this expectation that one was coming.

I think that John, had he been given the opportunity to live longer and speak more freely, probably would’ve said more about who is that one? And did he feel that Jesus had in fact made clear that he was stepping into that role? I think that the Gospels sometimes attribute to John the things that John didn’t get to say, let’s put it that way, and that they thought he would’ve said, had he been given the opportunity, did John do any healing or perform miracles? There’s no clear evidence that although we do have these interesting traditions of John, even posthumously, his head is circulating in various relics and people are getting healed afterwards. And so it seems unlikely that the adamant John did, no miracle was anything other than Christian trying to downplay his significance yet again. But it does seem that Jesus may have been the one who was most responsible for healing in that movement, right?

And it may be that when Herod Antipas thought that Jesus was John raised from the dead because he is doing all these things, he knew that those things were happening as part of John’s movement even earlier. And so that’s why he assumed that. And I think that when we think about the connections that even the church made historically, although it does less so now between baptism, exorcism healing, that people expected that when you underwent this, you would experience healing. And that was potentially part of it. I have some thoughts in the books about did Jesus actually immerse people and did he depart from John’s practice when he pronounced people sins forgiven if they weren’t able to immerse themselves? Or was that in keeping with what John himself taught? But we won’t get into that. And since nobody asked about that, I can bypass that. In terms of the apocalyptic preacher question, I think I’m out of time, but I will try and do a couple of seconds on this.

I think there was an element of fear, but I think John, like Jesus, most of that was aimed at those who were sort of self-assured. I don’t think that somebody who is a doom and gloom aesthetic who eats bugs, I don’t think tax collectors and prostitutes are going to be like, that’s our guy. He’s speaking our language. I think that John was much more charismatic, much more entertaining, and that there’s probably even a hint of sarcasm when the Pharisees come to ask about him. It’s like, oh. He’s like, oh, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Right? There’s this element of, wow, you got the memo too, right? There’s this element that finally you are starting to pay attention, but there’s going to be more than just showing up here that’s going to be required of you. And I think that probably some of those who actually were really entwined in some of the injustices of the era and where John said, look, you can’t change the system, but you cannot collect more than you’re owed.

You can do your little part, and then God is going to come in to sort things out eventually, but in the meantime, you can be forgiven and you can do what’s right in your own little area. And I think one thing that may have been part of John’s wilderness exploration was trying to disentangle himself from injustice and realizing that if you go and live in isolation and eat what God provides and are not involved in the buying and selling and all the things, and nobody’s being ripped off through what you’re eating or what you’re selling or anything like that, you’re also not making any difference. And that actually being engaged in a way that gets your hands dirty but also gets your hands dirty is part of doing justice. And that’s part of why his message would’ve resonated with some of those audiences.

Shirley Paulson

Oh, my goodness. James, we obviously would love to keep you here for a couple more hours, but you have picked our interest. And so I guess the next best thing is to read your book, right?

James McGrath

I hope I do justice to this in there, and I hope you’ll read it. I hope you’ll let me know. But seriously, let me know. Connect with me online and let me know what you think, because I really did. I do think, John, is that fascinating and that relevant for our time, and I hope you’ll find that to be the case.

Shirley Paulson

Absolutely. This has just been fascinating.