John the Baptist and Jesus

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Jesus


How did the emphasis of their teachings differ between John the Baptist and Jesus? 
G. Pape


In order to better understand the differences between John the Baptist and Jesus, scholars have tried to determine the nature of their relationship. It has proven to be quite intriguing. Some suggest that the two never even met; others think that Jesus began his career as a disciple of John; still others think John was a disciple of Jesus.

Much of this hinges on how one understands the ancient rite of baptism. According to the Synoptics, John was baptizing in the Jordan and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. One day Jesus came up and was baptized by John. Each gospel treats this event a little differently. In Mark, Jesus comes to John and receives his baptism of repentance (Mk 1:4-11). In Matthew, John hesitates saying that Jesus should be baptizing him (Matt 3:1-17). Luke mentions only that Jesus was baptized; he doesn't even mention John (Lk 3:1-22). The Gospel of John doesn't talk about Jesus' baptism at all. He only states that Jesus and his disciples were baptizing in the countryside (John 3:22-35). The prevailing scholarly opinion has been that the early church was embarrassed that Jesus was baptized by an inferior (John) or that he underwent a baptism for the repentance of sins (he was sinless). Since the story was already part of the tradition, the best they could do was to tweak it over time.

Now scholars ask, what did it really mean to be baptized back then? A baptism of repentance (which means change your life) required changes in someone's lifestyle. Some might be baptized and go on their merry way; others followed John and became his disciples. Both groups, however, were expected to embark upon a new and ethical life in anticipation of the future Day of Judgment. Both groups would have counted themselves among John's followers. The ones who stayed with John followed him because they shared his beliefs. He taught them about fasting (Mt. 9:14) and prayer (Lk 3:10ff). He declared that One would come after him; the kingdom of God was at hand. No doubt these people were profoundly influenced by him and remained his disciples long after his death (See Acts 19:4ff).

But what about those who left? What about someone like Jesus? We know that life for Jesus was never the same after his baptism. Scholars also know that some disciples could adhere to a teaching without being in the presence of their teacher. Many scholars think Jesus was a follower of John in the beginning. This makes sense since Jesus was righteous (someone who wanted to do God's will) and would want to associate himself with God's prophet – at least for a time. This possibility becomes even more likely since modern scholars acknowledge that the traditional phrase, "he who will come after me," is based on a present tense verb. It could just as easily be translated, "he who is a follower of mine." It would also explain some of the tension between Jesus and John's disciples if it were the case that the student surpassed the teacher.

Those same scholars, however, think John himself furthered Jesus' ministry by announcing him as the Coming One. This made sense to John, but some of his disciples seem to have had some problems with it. The fourth Gospel has the story of John's disciples in a dispute with the "Jews" over washings and includes a comment about the number of disciples that Jesus was gathering through baptism. They seem rather upset, which only makes sense if Jesus started out as John's disciple. They watched his ministry surpass that of John's, which violated the maxim that "A disciple is not above his master." It suggests that when Jesus baptized, those individuals became his followers and not John's. According to the fourth Gospel, this was already occurring before John was put in prison. It might also explain why Jesus moved his ministry to Galilee – to put some distance between his followers and John's. And the rest, they say, is history.

Most scholars think John had a clear sense that his baptism was a preparation for the coming judgment. (They lived in hard economic times and constantly chafed under Roman rule. Apocalyptic thought was widespread; the Day of Judgment could not be far away.) John also pointed to the One who was mightier than he. If John believed that Jesus was this person, and that his job was to prepare the way for him, then it is likely that John intended for his disciples to become followers of Jesus, though he never instructed them to do so.

Which leads to the other question: Was John a follower of Jesus? Here, the answer seems to be "no." The Synoptics have John doubting Jesus' credentials after his imprisonment by Herod. It is a point that has troubled scholars forever. There is no easy explanation, but it might have to do with John's understanding of what Messiah meant. Perhaps John understood it to be one thing; Jesus saw it another way. Maybe John was hoping it would be more of a political revolution. Yet, when asked about John, Jesus honored him by saying there was no greater prophet than John the Baptist.

We know that Jesus' early teachings echoed the words of John: "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand." Jesus, however, continued to expand his message, bringing a new understanding of Messiah and what it meant to be in relation with God. In short, John could only make a promise; Jesus was the actual fulfillment of that promise. 

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