Hypothesis regarding John the Baptist
by Georges Ory
Cahiers du Cercle Ernest Renan, no. 10 (1956)
Translated by R. Salm
(Note: Editorial additions are in brackets and/or are signed “RS”)
The Word, the light of life
The prologue of the Gospel of John mixes two distinct notions: the Word and Light. Pursuant to the demonstration of Delafosse,30 one cannot convincingly claim that the prologue was not retouched to the advantage of the Word. Originally, the Light alone was causative, but an interpolator wished to subordinate it to the Word. At the same time, he made the latter the creator of the world and the divine element desirous of incarnating in the flesh. The Word is of Catholic origin, while the original text was Gnostic. The Word was introduced into the prologue in order to combat the spiritual Christ, the pre-Christian Christ of Light, as well as to affirm the existence of a Christ of flesh.31
It has long been noted that the Word frequently assumed the place and attributes of Wisdom, and—if the latter is not named in the Fourth Gospel—it may be because she is subsumed in the traits belonging to the Word in the prologue. In effect, the texts teach us that Wisdom was created from the beginning, that she was with God, that she is a reflection of the divine Light, that she is the Light, that she resides in souls, and that she brings grace.  Such great affinities exist between the thought of the evangelist and Wisdom conceptions that one is shocked at the complete absence of Wisdom from the Gospel of John, where she appears to be replaced by truth and, probably also, by the Word.
This Word, placed at the beginning of the gospel, does not reappear. On the other hand, the Light—whose importance is downplayed in the prologue—prepares us not only for what we encounter in the Fourth Gospel but also in other Christian writings.
We also note that, even before the mention of the Light, another element appears in the Fourth Gospel: the Life which is “the Light of men.” This Life receives no further mention in the prologue, but it is found later in the work, as well as in the other gospels, in the epistles, and in the Psalms:
The bread of Life (Jn 6:42)
The light of Life (Jn 8:12)
I am the Life (Jn 11:25–14:6)
The word of Life (1 Jn 1:1)
Who possesses the Son possesses Life (1 Jn 5:12)
The way which leads to Life (Mt 7:14)
Life sometimes appears unreal or transitional, and it must be abandoned in favor of another Life, true and profound: “the present life and the Life to come” (1 Tim 4:8), “the Life that really is Life” (1 Tim 6:19). Elsewhere the Life possesses a heavenly nature: it is the Life of the Son, the Life of Jesus, the Life of God, the Life of Christ.32
The characteristic New Testament expression which qualifies life is αιωνος, often translated “immortal” and “eternal.” These words, however, give the term a quantitative rather than qualitative meaning. At issue is not the duration of life but its nature and origin. The translation “eternal” may be admissible if the understanding of Boethius is intended, that is, “possessing all the fullness of the unlimited life… in which nothing of the future is lacking… from which nothing of the past has been taken…”
The use of the term αιων in the New Testament is significant. It is the name given to the powers which rule over the various regions or periods of the universe. In Eph 2:2 “the aeon of this world” is also “the archon of the authority of the air.” In 1 Tim 1:17 God is “the king of the aeons.” According to Col. 1:26, the mystery given to the saints was previously hidden to the aeons. In 2 Pet 3:18 the “day of eternity” [hêmeran aiônos] is none other than “the day of the coming of God”33 from which it follows that the aeon here is Jesus (as in Heb 1:2; 1 Cor 10:11; Gal 1:4-5). In Acts 3:21 and Lk 1:70 the prophets receive their inspiration from the aeon.34 The witness of Philo can be added to that of the synoptics.
Christianity was formed in a gnostic milieu where the doctrine of personified aeons was indisputable. Clement, Origen, Ignatius, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus all refer to the doctrine. Generally speaking, the word aeon suggests a superhuman being who may be good or bad, superior or inferior.
 Hellenistic thought penetrated the Jewish religion before New Testament times. We find the “eternal aeon” in Enoch 10:10, the “judgement of the aeon of aeons” in 10:12, and the “king of the aeons” in 27:3.35
Whence came this Life, accompanied by the Light, that we find solemnly at the beginning of the Gospel of John? Why, appearing here in the place of honor, does it not appear likewise in the introductions to the other gospels?
The answer is: because John [the Baptist] came as a witness to the Life and to the Light. This John must have originally been the Mandean John who believed in “the great Life in whose name the sublime Light magnified.” This Life—together with its brothers Justice and Truth—was a “son of the Light.”36 This great Life was a Mandean divinity.
John was the Christ
We have seen that the Magnificat (attributed to Mary at the birth of her son) was originally sung by Elisabeth who thus celebrated the birth of John.
This hymn already underlines the importance attached to the appearance of John on earth. Other elements confirm that importance: the Angel Gabriel was specially sent by God to announce to Zachariah that he and his wife Elisabeth would have offspring, despite their great age; a son would be granted them by God; he would be great before the Lord, full of the Spirit even from the womb; he would convert people to the Lord and would walk before Him with the virtue of Elijah.
“Walk before the Lord God” is a Hebrew expression which signifies “walking in front of God” in conformity with his Law. Its original meaning was not that John would be the precursor to another prophet. John announces the judgment of God, in front of whom he walks. The angel Gabriel made two visitations which guaranteed, in presence and words, the divine virtues placed in John. Gabriel came to make known that this child would be a messiah, a Christ. Because the angel said nothing about Jesus, a soliloquy regarding the birth of Jesus was added to the primitive text.
It is not necessary to belabor this point. In the texts themselves (Mt 11:9, 11; Lk 7:27-28) Jesus remarks that “John is more than a prophet,” that “among men there has never appeared one greater than John the Baptist,” that Elijah has returned in John the Baptist (Mt 17:11-13; 11:14; Mk 9:13). If he is not the Christ, who then is this man who is greatest, who is more than a prophet, and who is Elijah resurrected?
And if Jesus affirms this exalted status for John—at the risk of diminishing himself in the eyes of his disciples and of the crowd—is it not because this Jesus is not a human being at all but a god?
 In John’s time, “a feeling of expectancy had grown among the people, who were beginning to wonder whether John might be the Christ” (Lk 3:15). This supposition and even belief lasted a long time, for two texts of the third and fourth centuries CE reproduce this tradition in remarkable ways:
—The Recognitions of Clement (I.60) make allusion to a disciple of John who claimed that his master and not Jesus was the Christ.36b
— Ephrem wrote (Evang. Concord. Expos.) that the disciples of John glorified their master saying that John was greater than Christ himself.
The Gospel of Mark (6:15) acknowledges the confounding of John with Jesus when it says of Jesus: “He is Elijah… he is a prophet,” qualities quintessentially those of the Baptist.37 This situation was vexing to the disciples of Jesus, for he asks them:
‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But you,’ he said, ‘who do you say I am?’ Then Simon Peter spoke up and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ (Mt 16:14; Mk 8:27)
This proves that an effort was made, before the gospels were finalized, to differentiate between two personas equally celebrated: John was the Son of Man, Jesus was the Christ, Son of God.
When Herod heard the rumors about Jesus, he cried out: “This is John the Baptist himself! He has risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him” (Mt 14:2; Mk 6:14; Lk 9:7-9).38 Thus the Tetrarch thought that this Jesus was a reincarnation of John the Baptist—or perhaps John resuscitated—and that this was the reason the powers of heaven were at work in him.
In his Apology (31:7-8) of about 159 CE, Justin Martyr noted the names of all the prophets who had announced the Christ. However, he did not mention John, perhaps because he knew that John was the Christ.
John deprived of his standing as the Christ
The Gospel of John presents an obvious contradiction in the passage which brings us the alleged witness of John (1:19-26). The text which we read is not primitive. It has been edited.
Priests and Levites, coming from Jerusalem, ask John: “Who are you?” John replies candidly. “He acknowledged plainly, he did not deny it” the gospel states. This wording anticipates an affirmative answer from John: “Yes, I am…” But, he is made to reply to the contrary: “I am not the Christ… I am not Elijah…” “Are you the prophet?” He answered: “No.” In this way we are led far from the presumed confession. Curiously, the information that John “did not deny it” is immediately followed by a triple denial.
John’s response is so jarring to what was expected that an editor added to the text: “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” (1:25) But, here too, John’s response is unsatisfactory and sidesteps the question: “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know.” The “one whom you do not know” can only be the “unknown god”—unknown to the Jews of Jerusalem. It is in his name that John baptizes.
The objection which is brought to John—which demands an explanation that is not given—proves that, from the moment he began baptizing, John was taken to be the Christ, Elijah, the prophet. The original text must have been approximately as follows:
“Are you the Christ?”
“Yes,” John answered.
“Are you Elijah?”
“Are you the prophet?”
In answer to precise questions, John acknowledges what he is. He does not deny but answers affirmatively, and does so without equivocation. The gospel text itself furnishes this evidence. John’s replies were modified according in order to make him the precursor of Jesus and to make Jesus the sole Christ, the sole prophet, and the sole reincarnation of Elijah.
Proof of the foregoing is easy to furnish. We have already seen that John was more than a prophet. In addition, the Gospel of Luke (1:17) makes the prediction—by an angel to Zachariah (the future father of the Baptist)—that his son will “walk before [God] in the spirit and power of Elijah,” that he will be the reincarnation of Elijah. These prophecies were not made for Jesus.
By retaining only the prediction of the angel and the affirmation of Jesus, we can see that the witness of John analyzed above has been completely misrepresented by a religious school which wished to diminish the role played by John in the origins of Christianity.
Another but more indirect proof lies in the Mandean Book of John. Upon seeing John, the seven planetary divinities question him as follows: “By the virtue of whom are you here, and for the praise of whom do you teach?” He does not hesitate in responding: “I am here by the power of my Father and for the praise of Him who is my creator…”
This passage was either not understood or deformed by the Marcan evangelist (11:28). Those sacrificing [in the Jerusalem Temple] asked Jesus, “By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you authority to do these things?” Jesus answered neither one way nor the other. He said: “I also will ask you one thing. If you answer, I will tell you by what authority I do these things.” He asked them: “Was the baptism of John from heaven or was it from men?”
What an astonishing question! It has nothing to do with the context, where there is mention neither of baptism nor of John. Could it really have been Jesus who asked it? Would it not, rather, have been the “resuscitated” John? And if it was Jesus, then why the allusion to the baptism of John? A borrowing from the Mandean text seems very probable.
 Naturally, the sacrificers keep quiet and Jesus does not divulge the authority by which he works. The editors have removed those irritating elements.
The disciples of John go over to Jesus
According to the gospels, John baptized multitudes while preaching an apocalyptic message. Apart from some short passages in the Gospel of Luke (3:7-14), the gospels do not seem to have preserved anything of John’s teaching, unless of course it is included in the teaching of Jesus.
Nor do we find any miracles of John in the gospels. Yet, they were so famous that Herod had heard of them.
At the same time, John’s disciples are portrayed as going over to Jesus the first time that Jesus presents himself (Jn 1:35 ff). There is no discussion with John. All occurs as if it were the most natural development in the world:
One day, two of John’s disciples were with him. Jesus approached, and the two left John and followed Jesus. One was Andrew. He then brought his brother Simon (Peter) who became the third disciple of Jesus. The next day Jesus chose as fourth disciple Philip, who was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter.
Philip, in turn, went to find Nathaniel who became the fifth disciple of Jesus. According to the appendix of the Fourth Gospel, this Philip was one of the seven disciples with John and Simon before subsequently becoming one of the twelve apostles.39
This progression is quite curious. Is one to believe that, in the presence of their master, John’s disciples simply abandoned him? And if Jesus were a god appearing in front of them, and if they followed this god, they would only need to follow John who prepared this path for them and preceded them on it.
All becomes clear when we realize that, after the death of John, the god Jesus became humanized and inherited elements of John’s human biography. John was never abandoned. He simply became Jesus.
The substitution of Jesus for John was accomplished after many vicissitudes. It is the work of the Christian Church which eventually marginalized other sects and largely silenced competing views.
Traces of those divergent elements are still detectible in our texts. When one reads such heterodox views it is necessary to determine the thought of the redactor—even when the reported event probably never took place.
 The Gospel of John (3:25-26) recognizes that there was a “dispute” between the disciples of John and those of Jesus. The dispute involved the meaning of baptism.40
The polemic between Christians of Jesus and followers of John took place only after the progress of [Paulinism] was assured. The goal at first was to reduce the role of John, to inflate Jesus, and to debase gnosticism by materializing it. In the end, the Roman Church triumphant unified its doctrines and made John a precursor. This was, in fact, true historically—John did precede “Jesus.” The Church settled upon the device whereby John is acknowledged by Jesus as being “more than a prophet” and “the greatest among those born of women.”
In this way those “liars who claim that Jesus is not the Christ” were vanquished (1 Jn 2:22). These heretics were the same as those who denied that Jesus Christ came according to the flesh (4:2).41
John and Jesus: Two forms of the same person
It seems that the Mandean John, transformed into John the Baptist in various Jewish milieux, was subsequently interpreted by gnostics before becoming Christianized. Certain passages in the scriptures cannot be understood except in relation to gnostic doctrines.
According to Justin, Jesus is alone at his baptism when the voice of the Lord calls out: “You are my beloved Son, today I have begotten you.” Similarly, Jesus is alone in the Pistis Sophia and declares: “My father sent the Holy Spirit to me in the form of a dove.” For his part, Celsus (according to Origen) had only one person present at the baptism, where the dove carries out the role of the young Mandean god, Manda d’Hayye [“Knowledge of Life”].
According to Matthew, John does not want to baptize Jesus who says: “Let it be so.” John acquiesces, which permits one to believe that John did nothing at all and that Jesus was in fact alone.
In the Gospel of Luke, the situation is more clear: John does not baptize Jesus. Even if he wanted to, he could not because he was in prison. Jesus was certainly baptized, but it was by the dove which descended from the sky.
We can legitimately conclude that there was but one person present at the baptism. That was John-Jesus—the one (Jesus) incarnated in the other (John). The baptism consisted of the descent of one into the other.
According to Irenaeus, Cerinthus claimed that an aeon named Christos was united with a man named Jesus at baptism, and that this aeon departed before of the crucifixion.42
The divine entity Jesus had the body of the man John.
30. Le IVe Evangile. Paris: Rieder, 1925, pp. 58 and 72.
31. This, of course, is a consequence of the Pauline kerygma.—RS.
32. An opposition exists in scripture between the “true Life” and this actual (natural) life (Mt 7:14; 18:8-9; Mk 9:43, 45; Lk 10:28; Rom. 1:17; 8:13; 1 Thess 5:10; Heb. 12:9; 1 Pet 3:7, 10; 2 Pet 1:3, etc.). This “natural” life is not merely less perfect than the true Life (cf. OT), but it is “the perversion of the divine gift.” See IDB (1962) III:127a.—RS.
33. Cf 2 Pet 3:12, 4, 10.
34. Usually ap’ aiwonos in these passages is translated figuratively: “from eternity,” i.e., “from the beginning.”—RS.
35. These passages from Enochian literature are alternatively translated “eternal life” , “eternal judgment,” and “eternal king” respectively.—RS.
36. One recalls the prominence of “the sons of light” in the Dead Sea scriptures.
36b. This disciple who claimed that John and not Jesus was the Christ would be an authentic Natsarene, an early follower of John ( = Johanan = Dositheus = Yeshu ha-Notsri). This early disciple denied the existence of Christ in the flesh and thus was a ‘docetist.’ For him, Christ was spiritual, not fleshly. The spirit Christ (light, gnosis) indwells people—as it did John ‘the Baptist.’
37. Most importantly, the people also suppose that Jesus was “John the Baptist risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Greater confirmation of the confusion between the two and of John’s pre-eminence is hardly possible. Certainly, the notion that John was the Christ was widespread at the time the evangelists were writing. However, the evangelists were intent upon combating this notion and were now presenting a different paradigm with their invented hero, “Jesus of Nazareth.”—RS.
38. The miracles of John have disappeared from the gospels, excepting the ones that appear under the name of Jesus.
39. See G. Ory, Simon, CER no. 9, pp. 11-12 regarding Philip.
40. This early and enduring dispute surely took place. It was between the established followers of John (Mandeans? Jewish-Christians?) and the Hellenist Pauline followers of a new and invented god-man, “Jesus.” The John-followers believed in a baptism of repentance—essentially, a self-motivated path consisting of two elements: (1) purification (symbolized by “fire”), and (2) gnosis (symbolized by “water”). The Pauline Christians repudiated these self-motivated elements and substituted the doctrine of belief, that is, salvation by an external agent (Jesus Christ/the Church).—RS.
41. Docetists. And, of course, we now can appreciate that Jesus Christ did not come according to the flesh. The ancient docetist was correct, and he prefigures the modern mythicist.
The correct account of Christian origins can now be summarized: (1) a prophet “John the Baptist” ( = Yeshu ha-Notsri, etc) teaches a doctrine of inner repentance based on gnosis and pure behavior (“water” and “fire”); (2) some late arrivals deny John’s doctrine and substitute the doctrine of belief (in “Jesus”) in the place of repentance. In this way the Christian faith was born. It is none other than the gross perversion of a gnostic religion.
Because Christianity was based on belief, it needed a perfect object for that belief. That perfect object was gradually invented and with great care—“Jesus,” the god-man who through his atoning death saves all believers from their own sins.—RS.
42. Cf. Mk 14:51-52, where a naked young man (neaniskos) flees from the Garden of Gethsemane.—RS.