“Was Jesus John the Baptist Raised from the Dead?”
Robert M. Price, Ph.D.
Being Chapter Seven of Jesus is Dead (American Atheist Press, 2007)
Reproduced by permission, in three parts.
With occasional added footnotes in green by R. Salm
There are several New Testament passages which over the years have struck me as being pregnant with implications far beyond those scholars usually reckon with. These texts seem to me to be held in check by the conventional ways in which we read the documents in which they occur. They are “anomalous data” (Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) which somehow seem “left over” in the context of the paradigms which seem to make such excellent sense of the rest of the text, but which leave these odd verses cold. I sometimes wonder where the chips would fall if we were to start with one of these strange verses, rather than finding some contrived way of tying it up as a loose end after we find a place to put everything else. What follows is an attempt to give one pair of such passages, Mark 6:14-15 and 8:27-28, their full weight, their full voice. Bear with me, then, in an admittedly far-fetched thought-experiment, which is all I claim for it.
Mark 6:14-15 recounts a range of popular options for understanding Jesus. As such it prepares for 8:27-28, the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi, where the same menu of options is repeated. This scene is a major turning point in the gospel. It introduces the progress toward the Passion. But before we take it as a signpost and hasten to follow in the direction it indicates, we ought to pause to recognize the implicit Christological polemic contained in Jesus’ question and the answers it elicits.
No reader fails to grasp Mark’s Christological point that whatever manner of messiah Jesus may be, he is not one whose ordained path circumvents the cross. Yes, of course, but there is more to it than this. The messianic path of Jesus is not contrasted merely with the cross-shunning sentiments of Peter’s hero-worship. No, Mark has also opposed to Peter’s “correct” Christological estimate (“You are the Christ,” accurate as far as it goes, though Matthew and Luke will expand it) a menu of options he means the reader to dismiss. Who do the crowds imagine Jesus to be? These opinions, reported second-hand by the disciples, are probably Christological opinions current in Mark’s own day. There are individuals, parties, sects, communities of faith among Mark’s contemporaries who view Jesus as the eschatological Elijah, anticipating someone else as messiah, or else in lieu of a messiah. Others see him as “the Prophet Jesus,’ while others make him the resurrected Baptist. The Gospel of Thomas, saying 13, retells the same story to serve its own purposes; Thomas substitutes competing Christologies current in his own milieu, namely the angel Christology familiar from various Jewish-Christian sources and the sage “Christ”-ology of the earliest stratum of the Q document, which seems to have viewed Jesus as a Cynic-type wise man like Diogenes, not as a martyred Son of God (see Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins).
My point is that there seem to have been actual groups of people who held these opinions about Jesus in the time the gospels were being written, and the gospels argue against them. One such belief was that Jesus was the resurrected John the Baptist. It is remarkable enough to know that some believed John had been resurrected; but what are the implications of an early belief that John rose from the dead and then became known as Jesus?
Jesus Before Easter?
Some scholars have suggested that the apparent cleavage between the pre-Easter Jesus and the Risen Christ is an optical illusion in the sense that even before the Passion and Resurrection Jesus is already depicted thoroughly transformed by and into the Christological image of the church’s faith. The sayings attributed to Jesus seem for the most part to have arisen within the early Christian communities to address the needs of those communities. It is not as if we have the historical Jesus up till the Passion, followed by the Christ of faith as of Easter morning. No, it is the voice of Christian wisdom and prophecy which speaks the logia of the gospels. The situation of the canonical gospels is essentially no different from that of the Gnostic resurrection dialogues in this respect: all the teaching ascribed to Jesus is attributable to the early Christians, as Norman Perrin (e.g., What Is Redaction Criticism?, Fortress, 1969, 74-79) and James M. Robinson (“On the Gattung of Mark (and John),” in David G. Buttrick, ed., Jesus and Man’s Hope, Vol. I, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 1970, 51-98) make clear. My colleague Darrell J. Doughty even goes so far as to suggest that the whole of the Gospel of Mark’s “pre-Easter” period is in fact identical with the post-Easter period, the result of a circular structure whereby the meeting of the disciples with Jesus on the shore of Galilee in Mark 1:16-17 is the fulfillment of the words of the angel in Mark 16:7 that they should meet him there.
If we are to take all this seriously, an obvious question presents itself: what of the original, historical, pre-Easter Jesus? He is not simply to be identified with the character of Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels (as naively presupposed in the title of Juan Luis Segundo’s The Historical Jesus of the Synoptics). Has he been altogether lost from the gospel narrative then? Perhaps not. Let us for a brief moment think the unthinkable. Suppose the figure of the pre-Easter Jesus is to be found under the alias of John the Baptist. When we impose this outlandish paradigm onto the gospels, we get some interesting results. A number of things make new sense.
Thy Kingdom Come
First, the sequential progression from John’s ministry of repentance and asceticism, from which Jesus’ style notoriously differed. Historical Jesus scholars commonly say that Jesus discerned that some great corner had been turned. Something signaled that the anticipated kingdom had now arrived, and that fasting was no longer appropriate. And thus he broke with John’s ministry of penitential preparation for the kingdom and began a ministry celebrating the kingdom’s advent. Instead of fasting with the Pharisees (like John’s disciples, Mark 2:18) he began feasting with the publicans. What could that momentous event have been? What could have signaled the shift of the eons? Nothing we see in the gospels, at least not on any straightforward or any traditional reading. Scholars just approach the texts taking for granted the Christological solution that, since Jesus was divine he knew God’s plan, so he happened to know the crucial page had been turned.
But suppose the transition was something quite specific, namely his own death and (supposed) resurrection.1 This would have signaled the disciples, not Jesus himself, that the corner had been turned. Had we listened to Bultmann, we would have remembered that the pericope must in any case refer to the practice of Christians, not that of Jesus himself, since the critics ask concerning their behavior, not his. “Good Christian men, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice. He calls you one and calls you all to share his everlasting hall. He hath opened heaven’s door, and man shall live forever more.” Thus the difference between John’s mournful, fasting disciples and Jesus’ feasting disciples is that between the same group before and after the Passion Week. “John’s” disciples are already fasting because the bridegroom has been taken away from them (Mark 2:19-20), but once he is restored unto them at the resurrection, they rejoice again. No more fasting.
1. In many ancient Christian documents (both orthodox and heterodox) the “resurrection” is closely linked to “baptism” as a rebirth—death of the old, and birth of the new. Price shows that the transition from “John” to “Jesus” occurred at the baptism of Jesus (the beginning of his ministry and end of John’s ministry). Paul, however, reinterpreted this resurrection/transition as having taken place at the death of the prophet (1 Cor 15). This was Paul’s greatest ideological leap and changed the religion from one of gnosis (where the “water” of baptism originally symbolized gnosis) to one of salvation through the vicarious death of the Son of God (the Pauline kerygma). In sum, with Paul the religion passed from nazoreanism to Christianity.—R.S.