“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
In a Looking Glass Darkly
Mark 1:14 (“And after John had been delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God.”) has Jesus neatly replace John on the public stage, occasioning the popular opinion that Jesus’ public advent signaled the miraculous return of John. Note the use of paradidomi, the same pregnant word used for the sacrificial delivering up of Jesus to death, whether by God (Romans 8:32) or by Judas Iscariot (Mark 3:19). Can the same delivering up, i.e., of the same man, be in view? To say that John was delivered up and that Jesus appeared in Galilee immediately afterward would be like saying that the historical Jesus was delivered up for our sins and that shortly thereafter the Christ of faith appeared on the scene.
Similarly, the Johannine statements (John 3:26; 4:1) about the baptism of Jesus eclipsing that of John would refer, on the present hypothesis, to the new situation after Easter, when the sect of the historical Jesus is being transformed, not without some resistance on the part of “doubting Thomases,” into the cult of the Risen Christ. “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1) means that a new prayer is needed for the time of fulfillment, which has dawned. Perhaps the old prayer contained the petition “Thy kingdom come,” whereas the new replaced it with “Send thy Spirit upon us and sanctify us” (as some manuscripts of Luke’s version of the prayer at 11:2 still read) because the kingdom was believed now to have arrived.
Scholars have remarked how, despite the strong difference between the religious styles of the two men, Jesus continues to identify himself with John, as when he counters the chief priests’ question as to his authority by asking their estimate of John’s authorization (Mark 11:28-30). What if the answer to the one is the answer also to the other—because Jesus and John are the same? The authority of the Christian preaching of the Risen One is as authoritative as one was willing to admit the ministry of the Baptist (i.e., his own earthly ministry) was. Of course the present narrative setting of the question and counter-question is anachronistic, as is most of the gospel material. We may suggest that the original context of the passage was in debate between post-Easter disciples of John (“Jesus”), believers in the Risen Baptist, on the one hand, and disciples of John who remained suspicious about this strange new proclamation on the other.2 What credentials did the new preaching have in its favor? The response? What credentials did the original ministry of the Baptist have? It was faith in either case, wasn’t it?
So too the taunts “John came neither eating nor drinking, and you say, ‘He is a demoniac.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk’” (Matthew 11:16-19). Traditionally this is supposed to mean that people found a reason not to repent at the preaching of either man. John was too holier-than-thou for some, while Jesus seemed not to adhere to the parsimonious stereotype in the eyes of others. Finding an excuse to discount the messengers, that generation evaded coming to grips with their common message. But is that really the most natural reading of the text? The “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” logic would fit best if the two styles characterized the same figure in successive phases. “Okay, first I tried this and you wouldn’t have it; so then I tried doing what you said, but you didn’t like that either!”
Note, too, the strange similarity between Mark’s report that some believed Jesus was John raised from the dead, accounting for the miraculous powers at work in him, and the resurrection formula of Romans 1:3-4, which has Jesus designated Son of God by miraculous power by virtue of the resurrection of the dead! Note the parallel:
Romans 1:4 Mark 6:14
Jesus John the Baptist
Declared Son of God
• by power Powers are at work in him
• by his resurrection from the dead He has been raised from the dead
Perhaps this strange similarity denotes an even stranger identity, a dim recollection of the fact that Jesus was the same as John, that he had taken on the name/epithet “Jesus,” savior, only after the resurrection. Compare two archaic hymn-fragments, the Johannine prologue (John 1:1-7ff) and the Kenosis hymn (Philippians 2:6-11). It is striking that the first text names no figure other than John the Baptist, and that in portentous theological terms: “There came into being a man sent from God, named John.” As all recognize, the subsequent denigration of John as merely a witness to the light but most certainly not the light itself, is a theological correction akin to that found in Matthew 11:11b (“Of all those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist… yet, I tell you that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”). Bultmann saw that the Johannine prologue hymn must originally have referred to the Baptist.
Now look at Philippians 2:6-11, where the redeemer figure is named only at the end, where we learn that he received the honorific name “Jesus” only upon his postmortem exaltation, something which Paul-Louis Couchoud pointed out long ago (“The Historicity of Jesus: A Reply to Alfred Loisy,” Hibbert Journal, XXXVI, 2, 205-206). Note that according to the synthetic parallelism, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” matches “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” implying that “bowing the knee to” equals “confessing the lordship of.” The object of both is “Jesus.” This may seem to belabor the obvious except that it requires that the great name God gave him at the exaltation was not “Kyrios” as harmonizing exegesis tells us, but rather “Jesus.” The hymn means to say not that a man already named Jesus was then given the title Lord, but that a hitherto-unnamed hero was then given the honorific name Jesus. Couchoud remarks, “The God-man does not receive the name Jesus till after his crucifixion. That alone, in my judgment, is fatal to the historicity of Jesus.” Unless he had borne some other name previously, as Peter had formerly been called Simon. What had “Jesus’” name been previously? “His name is John” (Luke 1:63). The identification of the pre-exaltation hero as John the Baptist would satisfy the problem Couchoud left open…had the hero been nameless before his exaltation?
Couchoud was implying that the earlier version of the bestowal of the name “Jesus” had the naming take place as part of the post-mortem exaltation of this figure. Only subsequently was the bestowal of the name associated with the earthly life of Jesus, namely at his conception (Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:31). We can easily fit Couchoud’s hypothesis into the speculations of mainstream scholarship. Raymond Brown points out how “The same combined ideas that early Christian preaching had once applied to the resurrection (i.e., a divine proclamation, the begetting of God’s Son, the agency of the Holy Spirit), and which Mark had applied to the baptism, are now applied to the conception of Jesus in the words of an angel’s message to Joseph and to Mary (respectively, in Matthew and in Luke). And once the conception of Jesus has become the Christological moment, the revelation of who Jesus is begins to be proclaimed to an audience who come and worship (the magi, the shepherds), while others react with hostility (Herod in Matthew; those who contradict the sign in Luke 2:34). And thus the infancy stories have become truly an infancy gospel” (The Birth of the Messiah, 31). Brown might have included Käsemann’s observation that the confessions of Jesus’ identity by the demons are retrojections of the acclamations of those under the earth mentioned in Philippians 2:10-11. The retrojection of the same motif into the infancy story is, as Brown implies, the demonic persecution of the baby king by the Azdahak-like Herod, who thus acknowledges the true messiahship of his rival. The granting of the glorious savior-name Jesus is part of this package. It, too, would have found a place at the end of the savior’s earthly life and been retrojected, along with the rest of the package, into the infancy. Once this happened, the identity of John and “Jesus” would have been severed and forever obscured.
Luke contains completely parallel accounts of the miraculous nativity of both figures, so close that even ancient scribes seem to have confused whether Zechariah was talking about the infant John or the infant Jesus (what is the reference to “the horn of salvation in the house of David” doing in a hymn about the Levitical John the Baptist?), and equally whether it was Elizabeth or Mary who sings the Magnificat (some ancient manuscripts of Luke 1: 46 have “And Elizabeth said,” while others read, “And she said.”).
Splitting the Difference
More telling still is the parallel between the martyrdoms of Jesus and John, for both are put to death by a strangely reluctant profane tyrant, Jesus by Pontius Pilate, and John by Herod Antipas. But wait a moment…as Loisy pointed out, Luke (like the Gospel of Peter) seems to have known a version of the Jesus martyrdom in which it was Herod Antipas who condemned Jesus to death! (He has harmonized it with Mark only with difficulty, having Antipas first desirous of killing Jesus, then acquitting him, but nonetheless remanding him to Pilate!) Perhaps this is because they were the same!
How on earth could the single figure have been bifurcated? Simple: there remained a dour penitential sect devoted to the martyred John which continued to anticipate the coming of the kingdom with (ascetic) observance (Luke 17:20), while another group of John’s disciples came to believe he had been raised from the dead, as the first fruits, ushering in the kingdom, albeit invisibly. These bestowed on John the title “Yeshua,” for he had saved his people from their sins. In time this became a name, just as “Iscariot” and “Peter” did, finally supplanting the original name, except among those who had never embraced the title and Christology of “Jesus.” Thus in time people began to imagine that John and Jesus had been two different contemporary figures, though the rivalry between them was vaguely recalled. On the basis of it, e.g., Mandaeans rejected Jesus as a false messiah, though they did not deem John, their prophet, the true messiah! (This honor they reserved for Enosh-Uthra, a heavenly angel.) On the other hand, the first Christians were those who wondered in their hearts whether John himself were perhaps the Christ (Luke 3:15) and decided he was. He was the Jesus, the Christ.3
A notorious problem text in Acts is the introduction of Apollos, who is confusingly said to have preached accurately the things concerning Jesus, yet knowing only the baptism of John. Priscilla and Aquila then set him straight in some unspecified way (Acts 18:24-28). All sorts of reconstructions have been advanced, many of them making Apollos a kind of half-Christian. How could he have correctly understood Jesus and yet known only John’s baptism, when the main point about Jesus, at least with respect to John, was that he superseded John and made his baptism superfluous? But what if Luke’s source preserves the fossil recollection that to know accurately the things about Jesus was precisely to know the baptism of John, since “Jesus” was none other than the resurrected John? (I owe this suggestion to my colleague Arthur Dewey.)
2. The conflict between two groups of John’s disciples finds support in the conflict between Simon Magus and Dositheus for the ‘mantle’ of their master, John the Baptist (Hom. II 23-26). That split would surely have taken place some time after the death of the Baptist, when a difference of opinion developed over the nature of his “resurrection.” While the Prophet was still alive (and for a good time after, one may suppose) his resurrection was interpreted gnostically—as an enlightenment experience which occurred before the Baptist’s ministry. After his death, someone came along (read: Paul of Tarsus) and interpreted the saving event as occurring at the death of the Prophet. There was now a division in the followers of the Baptist—the original natsarenes (baptists, later Mandeans), and followers of Paul (later Christians). When Dr. Price writes of “disciples of John who remained suspicious about this strange new proclamation,” I submit that he is describing natsarene suspicion regarding emergent Pauline Christianity.—R.S.
3. Dr. Price here comes to the heart of the matter and places us in the time of the first “Christians,” those who “wondered in their hearts whether John himself were perhaps the Christ” (Lk 3:15). This scriptural wording is, in fact, rendered even more explicit in the little known Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, a Medieval manuscript which its editor, George Howard, maintains has very early readings (Mercer Univ. Pr., 1995). The Hebrew Gospel writes at Mt 3:10: “And all the people were thinking and reckoning in their circumcised heart: John is Jesus.” John is Jesus. That was the belief of the first followers, a belief actively repudiated by the evangelists (thus indirectly witnessing to its existence).—R.S.