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 birth narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus
The Gospel according to Luke is the only one to give an account of the birth of John the Baptist. Though it precedes the account of Jesus’ birth, this introduction to the gospel1 is not primitive. It certainly betrays the effort which was attempted—and which met with success—to make of John a Jewish prophet.
In the time of Herod the Great, we are told, the angel Gabriel appeared to the priest Zachariah. He and his wife are very old. The angel informs Zachariah that he will have a son who will be filled with the holy Spirit, that his son will be consecrated to the Lord, will walk before God with the power of Elijah, and that he will be called John.
This annunciation is but a version of popular Jewish traditions and biblical legends which had previously served to illustrate the birth of Isaac (Gen 17:15-21), of Samson (Judg 13:2-24), and of Samuel (1 Sam 1:1-23).
Thus we are put on notice that God made Zachariah and Elizabeth fertile and that He would fill John with the Holy Spirit “even from birth.” According to post-biblical Judaism God ordered an angel, at the time of conception, to participate in the birth of a child by bringing it a spirit, but the rabbis were not agreed on the moment in which this divine bequest occurred. Was it at the very moment of conception or later, during gestation? According to Luke’s account, it was during the sixth month.
For Luke there was no miraculous birth by the operation of the Holy Spirit, but a birth quite according to the ordinary laws of nature. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit which would infuse John would be the “power of Elijah.” Thus, John would be a reincarnation of Elijah.2
No one need doubt this, for the evangelist Matthew (who does not recount the birth of John) emphatically identifies John with Elijah by presenting the former dressed in “a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist” and by making Jesus himself affirm that “John is Elijah” (cf. 2 Kg 1:8; Mt 3:4; 11:14). The resemblances, however, reach much farther.
Resemblances between Elijah and John. The prophets Elijah and John were both much concerned with water. Elijah, like John, lived on the eastern side of the Jordan River (1 Kg 17:5; Jn 1:28). He dwelt by the stream, made the rain fall, and parted the river in order to cross over onto dry land (1 Kg 18:1, 41, 45; 2 Kg 2:8). Elijah, who thus prevailed over the waters, strongly resembles a baptist.
Elijah also prevailed over the heavenly fire, whether to light his sacrifice or to destroy his enemies. He was also taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire pulled by fiery horses (I Kg 18:38; 2 Kg 1:10-12; 2:11). Perhaps he was assimilated with the sun (Elisha is closely related to Helios3). John, compared to the ‘rising sun,’ (Lk 1:78-79), announced the baptism of fire, that is, the end of the world by conflagration and—according to the Mandean scriptures, at any rate—he was taken up into heaven.
Elijah led an ascetic life, was consecrated to God, and did not enter towns except to convey a very brief message from Yahweh, after which he would immediately leave. Elijah fought with King Ahab who had married Jezebel, a princess of Tyre, that is, a woman of another religion. Jezebel vowed to have Elijah killed. This scenario strikingly prefigures the opposition of John the Baptist regarding Herod, and the hatred which Herodias, Herod’s new wife, directed against the prophet.
Elijah prepared a successor in the person of Elisha, whom he anointed even as John baptized Jesus who would succeed him.
Lastly, Elijah multiplied the loaves for the widow of Sarepta and resuscitated her child (1 Kg 17). But similar miracles—which John should have carried out—have, in our texts, been attributed to Jesus.
The story of Jesus borrowed from the Baptist. In the Gospel of Luke, the annunciation to Mary by Gabriel follows that made to Elizabeth, but the former passage was an interpolation designed to give details regarding the birth of Jesus. Since those details were lacking, they were borrowed from the account regarding John the Baptist.
Before being modified, the content of Lk 1:26-52 was approximately as follows: In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God not to Nazareth where Mary dwelled (1:26) but to the house of Zachariah. The angel saluted Elizabeth, who felt the baby leap in her womb (1:41), for the baby was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth then spoke the Magnificat (1:46-55), later attributed to Mary.
Then, when her time was full (1:57), Elizabeth gave birth to John. The account of the birth of Jesus, based on that of John, is an interpolation.4
Much the same can be said regarding the second chapter of Luke concerning the visit of the shepherds, the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the demonstration of his great intelligence before the assembled elders. This interpolation begins at Lk 1:80 (“And the child grew and became strong in spirit…”) and ends at 2:52 (“And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man”).
Zachariah prophesied that his son John would be the prophet of the most high, that he would walk before God in order to prepare His ways, that he was the rising sun. No one is comparable to him. In sum, John is the precursor to no one but is the herald of God.5
There is no reason to suppose that Jesus figured in the primitive beginning of the third gospel. The continuation of the text recalls the appearance of John the Baptist—the actual subject of Luke’s third chapter: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar… the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
Matthew writes simply: “In those days came John the Baptist…”, while Mark contents himself with indicating that “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness…”
Luke alone offers the only datable event (3:1) that we can identify in these sacred writings. That date has reference to John, not to Jesus. Every attentive reader must deem this fact remarkable.
The baptism of Jesus by John
The account of the baptism of Jesus by John6 was, from all the evidence, completely changed. The scene is important because it represents the only encounter ever to take place between the two persons. In effect, John dies after the baptism in the Jordan, and Jesus—going “in spirit” into Galilee—launches upon his work.7
The paradoxical nature of the baptism of Jesus by John has long been noted. Surprise increases with the realization that Jesus, who brings the baptism of the spirit,8 asks to receive baptism from John who has just announced that it is Jesus who should conduct the baptism (Mt 3:14).
By receiving the Holy Spirit, Jesus shows that he did not yet possess it. He is therefore different from the Jesus who should, like John, have been imbued with the Holy Spirit from the womb of his mother (Mt :20; Lk 1:35). Presumably, Jesus was born like other men and was not yet distinguished by God. Such distinction did not occur until the dove descended upon him during baptism. The Jesus of the baptism was not conceived by the Holy Spirit. He was not born of a virgin. He was a man in whom God revealed Himself during the course of a rite performed by John. [Therefore, the Jesus of the baptism is a different figure from the Jesus of the birth stories. This difference shows the independent traditions behind the baptism and the birth accounts. It is the baptism—with its adoptionist Christology9—which is earlier. The birth stories, with their from-the-womb Christology, are later.—RS]
The account of the baptism likewise contradicts the Pauline conception of the preexistence of Christ (Eph 1:4).10
Matthew,11 quite discommoded by this baptismal scene, has John say to Jesus (3:14): “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” This allows Jesus to respond, “Let it be so now.” Matthew has modified the text so that one should not believe that Jesus had need of the baptism of repentance and of the remission of his [nonexistent] sins.
Luke reduces the scene to a simple allusion and has the heavenly voice say: “You are my beloved son. With you am I well pleased” (Lk 3:22b, cited from Ps 2:7). This adult adoption is incompatible with a supernatural birth (Mt 1:18; Lk 1:35). Though divine, the adult adoption was instigated by the baptism of John.12
The Church protested for a long time, but it decided at the Council of Constantinople in 553 “that he is anathema who believes that Christ was a simple man when he was baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit, and that—by such baptism—he received the grace of the holy Spirit and the capacity to be God’s Son.”
In this way the views expressed by Mark and Matthew were later condemned, though primitive Christianity was almost certainly adoptionist.
1. Luke’s introductory material regarding John constitutes Chapter 1 of the Gospel.
2. Lk 1:17. According to Jewish belief, Elijah was to appear at the beginning of the messianic age.
3. In this Ory may be doubted. Helios was portrayed as a charioteer drawn by a team of four fiery steeds, traversing the sky by day from East to West. Fiery steeds also figure in the assumption of Elijah. None of this applies to Elisha who resuscitates a child who died of sunstroke (2 Kg 4:8ff), and who strikes a Syrian raiding party with temporary blindness (2 Kg 6:18-20).—RS.
4. The following material was interpolated: Lk 1:26 (from “a city of Galilee”) to 1:40 (“the house of Zachariah”). The name “Mary” replaced that of the angel in v. 41, and that of Elizabeth in v. 46. Lk 1:56 was added later.
6. Mk 1:9-11; Mt 3:13-17; Lk 3:21-22.
7. The continuity between the missions of John and Jesus was fully intended by the evangelists and lies behind the meeting of those two personae. That continuity transcends death—the death of the Baptist, not the death of Jesus! It was the Baptist who died and inspired the movement. That death occurred, as it were, IN the event of the baptism. It was spiritual, not physical. In reality, John the Baptist ‘lives’ (gnostically) after his ‘baptism’ in the Jordan when he symbolically ‘becomes’ Jesus. The Jordan (and its flowing, or ‘living’ water) must symbolize enlightenment. This symbolism of Jordan, baptism, and ‘living water’ is hardly adventurous, for it is precisely mirrored in the Mandean scriptures.—RS
8. Mk 1:8; Mt 3:11; Lk3:16; Jn 1:33.
9. In adoptionism, the Spirit comes upon Jesus at his baptism and leaves him before the crucifixion. See Mk 1:16 and 14:52 (where the naked youth [neaniskos] symbolizes the Holy Spirit and flees the garden of Gethsemane). Such a Christology was espoused by the early ‘heretic’ Cerinthus.—RS
10. This observation by Ory is not entirely correct. Jesus is distinct from “the Christ.” In the adoptionist scenario, the human Jesus receives the preexistent Holy Spirit (Christ as symbolized by a dove) at baptism. Indeed, the reception of the Holy Spirit appears to have been the original meaning of “baptism.” We also see here an early equivalence: the Holy Spirit (existing from the beginning of the world) = the Christ (also existing from the beginning of the world).—RS
11. We speak of “Matthew” for simplicity. In reality we are designating a redactor who edited the gospel attributed to Matthew.
12. All this suggest that John was originally the true representative of God.—RS
–> PART TWO