“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
Is the whole thing utterly implausible? If an historical analogy would help, recall F.C. Baur’s theory that Simon Magus was a bifurcated “evil twin” of the Apostle Paul. Simon Magus was at first a caricature of Paul understood as a usurping opponent of Simon Peter, a false pretender to apostleship who sought to purchase the recognition by the Pillars by means of the collection made among the Gentile churches (compare Acts 8:18-24 with Galatians 2:7-10). As time went by, Simon Magus was imagined to be a separate figure from Paul. Later anti-Paulinists no longer got the joke, so to speak, while the whole idea would have been lost on Paulinists from the start. Especially once Petrine and Pauline factions become Catholicized and harmonized with one another, the connection between Paul and Simon Magus was utterly severed, and the two separate characters were established. Suppose something similar happened in the case of Jesus and John the Baptist, only in this case neither one was a caricature. The Baptist was simply the remembered “historical Jesus,” while “Jesus the Christ” was John the Baptist believed resurrected and made both Jesus (i.e., Savior) and Messiah.
To translate the scenario envisioned here into more traditional terms, it is as if some admirers of the pre-Easter Jesus had later heard of a resurrected “Christ” and not known to connect this figure with their Jesus. They might have been found thinking that this new “Christos” they heard so much about was someone entirely distinct from their late, lamented master Jesus. In fact, a development something like this did take place in the case of “Separationist” Gnostics who decided that the human Jesus had so tenuous a connection to the Christ that they might curse the former and bless the latter (1 Corinthians 12:3; cf., Origen on the Cainite Gnostics).
Needless to say, it would only have been once the single original character had been doubled, and the Risen Savior historicized, that Jesus could be read back into the pre-Easter history alongside John the Baptist, and once this happens we have the bizarre spectacle of Jesus appearing at John’s baptism, only in another sense it is no longer so problematical: naturally he is there! Where else would he be? Matthew’s version (3:14) puts the problem in its most acute form but also provides a hint of the solution. “I need to be baptized by you! And do you come to me?” Most scholars think that the Fourth Gospel’s depiction of Jesus having a baptismal ministry alongside John’s is a piece of symbolic anachronism in which early Christian baptism is retrojected into the time of Jesus and John, as if to show the superiority of the Christian sect to John’s. So far so good. What I am suggesting is that not only is the picture of Jesus baptizing alongside John an anachronistic retrojection; the whole idea of Jesus and John as distinct contemporaries is merely another facet of the same retrojection!
The Fourth Gospel has Simon, Andrew, and the Beloved Disciple already disciples of John the Baptist before they become followers of Jesus. Do they abandon the first master to follow a new one? Not if the point is that they are following the same master before and after Easter. Even on the conventional reading we can well imagine Peter being called a disciple of Jesus before Easter and a disciple of Christ afterward, and we can just as easily imagine someone hearing both and imagining Peter had transferred allegiances somewhere along the line.
Shall We Look for Another?
Finally, consider the Q passage in which the imprisoned John sends his messengers to ask Jesus whether he may not be the Coming One John’s preaching had anticipated (Matthew 11:2-6/Luke 7:18-20, 22-23). John’s question (actually Jesus hears it from the disciples themselves) “Or should we wait for another?” implies that the attribution of the question to John is secondary, just as in all the gospel pericopes wherein Jesus is asked why his disciples flout this or that pious custom (Mark 2:18, 24). As Bultmann asked, why not ask Jesus why he fails to eat with hands washed (Mark 7:5), why he himself gleans on the sabbath (Mark 2:24), if it is really Jesus himself who is in view. But it is not. He serves as a figurehead for his community, whose prerogatives are actually at stake. In just the same way it is not John’s uncertainty of Jesus as the Coming One that this Q pericope presupposes, but rather that of his disciples, bereft following his martyrdom. Can they accept the kerygmatic Risen One as the return of their master?
Albert Schweitzer (The Mystery of the Kingdom of God) understood the same passage along somewhat similar lines in that he had Jesus and John applying the same eschatological role each to the other. The Baptist sends his messengers to ask whether Jesus may be the Coming One. Jesus sends the same messengers to John and tells the crowd that John is himself the Coming One, Elijah (Matthew 11:10/Luke 7:27). The scene can be read as a doublette: Jesus = John, so the two sendings of the Baptist disciples are the same. And these “sent ones” are apostles bearing the tidings of the Coming One who has arrived: call him Jesus or call him John, it is all the same.
Finally, if the case set forth here is judged plausible, it would provide the answer to a thorny question aimed at the Christ Myth theory, nowadays dismissed out of hand by apologists and even some skeptics, but still beloved by many freethinkers. It is easy to show that, at least in its most famous form, the testimony of Josephus to Jesus is a Christian interpolation. But no such case can be made in respect of Josephus’ reference to John’s baptism and his fate at the hands of Antipas. So apologists have asked, is it really likely that Jesus was not a historical figure but John the Baptist was? That is exactly the implication if John the Baptist was the original “Jesus,” and if the gospel Jesus is a figment of faith in the resurrected John. Only now it makes sense. That John should be a historical figure and Jesus a myth makes plenty of sense once you understand the relationship between the two figures as I have sketched it here.
Much Learning Hath Driven Thee Mad
What are we to conclude from this brief essay? That the historical Jesus was John the Baptist? We might consider it a possibility, though I doubt many readers will be able even to go so far as that. What most will conclude is that the author of this paper is perhaps a bit too clever for his own good, that all he has shown, whatever he may have intended, is that New Testament scholarship has become a game where, using various exegetical moves, certain arguments or types of arguments, reasoning in unanticipated directions from accepted axioms, one make a more or less plausible-sounding case for almost any notion. If the present paper be deemed a bit of sophistry, then at least allow it to have demonstrated that virtually all exegetical scholarship is engaged in the same type of endeavor. It is all a matter of what test-paradigms, theoretical tools, and methodologies one will bring to bear on the texts. It is almost like dropping sticks on the open page of the I Ching and seeing what oracle you can construe from the pithy but enigmatic signifiers ranged there. As Stanley Fish says (Is There a Text in This Class?), meaning is not so much what we receive from the text as it is what we read into it. Or, better, also a la Fish, meaning is determined by the ways we read the text.4
Or to borrow from Seymour Chatman (Story and Discourse), it is a matter both of the form of the content and of the content of the form. As to the former, what we seem to find in the texts will have been shaped by the type of tools, the grinding of the lenses we used to find that meaning. The form of the cookie that emerges from the exegetical oven will be determined by the shape of the cookie-cutter we use. As to the latter, the methodologies we choose to employ are themselves functions of certain assumptions as to how texts work, how they mean, and what sort of things they may “tell” us. In short, the New Testament texts are like a constantly shifting kaleidoscope, and the application of our methods is the twisting of the tube. The results may be quite spectacular, fascinating, intriguing, entertaining. But the next twist will yield something else, and we may not judge it more “true” or “accurate” than the one before. None can carry any particular conviction. The history of the succession of regnant paradigms/theoretical frameworks in New Testament scholarship ought to have made that clear long before now.
4. Dr. Price is perhaps too diffident, and his provocative insights in this article merit careful attention. Meaning is a merging between what we receive from the text and what we read into it. That merging, hopefully, evolves over time as the tools of exegesis improve and sharpen. The thesis “John the Baptist = the pre-baptismal Jesus” is a new paradigm at the very basis of the Christian story. It remains to be elucidated what the name “John the Baptist” itself signified. But that is for another article.—R.S.