The Role of the Baptist in Christianity

Nov 2016
(When I write ´Jesus´ this name is to designate the central figure of the Christian gospels, what does not necessarily mean that this figure is historical.)

An important function of John in Jn is his witness to the divinity of Jesus. This follows from Jn 1:6 f. (as well as from 1:19 f.):

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The most important function, however, is the role of the Baptist as a returned prophet Elijah, which is affirmed in the synoptic Gospels, but denied in John's Gospel by self-statement of the Baptist in order to emphasize the special position of Christ. The importance of the identification of the Baptist with Elijah results from an idea which dates back to Malachi 3 und was widespread in Judaism at the time, i.e. that the arrival of the Messiah was necessarily preceded by the return of Elijah. The identification of the Baptist with Elijah - whether by historical actors or the synoptists - was therefore a necessary part of the Kerygma.

In Mt this role is acknowledged as factual. In Mt 17:10 f. Jesus tells us that Elijah is identical with the Baptist. In Mt 11:14, too, Jesus calls the Baptist "Elijah". In contrast to John, where the Baptist testifies to Jesus, in Mt the Baptist is thus testified by Jesus. Also in Lk 1:17 the Baptist is identified as Elijah, but from the mouth of an angel before the birth of the Baptist. In John the Baptist is denied the identity of Elijah by a self-statement (1:21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah? He said, “I am not.”). In Mk the conditions are more complicated. In Malachi 3:1 the Jewish god says about the return of Elijah:

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.

Mk adapted this sentence in Mk 1:2 as a reference to the Baptist. Mk 1:6 obviously describes the outfit of the Baptist in the style of 2 Kings 1:8, which responds to Elijah's outward appearance.

A context between Elijah and the Baptist was seen by Origenes, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrosius and Joachim of Fiore, among others, because in 1 Kings 18:34 f. Elijah pours water three times over an altar, whereupon fire falls from heaven in the course of a judgment of God, reminding us of the three times that water is poured out at the Christian baptism. In Mt 3:11c there is also talk of a baptism "with fire" by Jesus, whereby the ´holy spirit´ is parallelized with fire:

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Interesting are certain analogies between the Baptist narrative and the Jezebel-Elijah episode from 1 Kings 18 ff. One can see a parallel between the decapitation motif in Mk, being caused by Herodias, and the threat to Elijah by the polytheistic wife of Ahab, Jezebel, who is on the outs with the prophet because of the killing of Baal priests by Elijah's ´sword´ (1 Kings 19):

2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”

Baal's cult had been introduced in the kingdom by Jezebel herself, according to 1 Kings. As can be seen, Jezebel gives the prophet an opportunity to save and escape his life, which he takes advantage of for fear (19:3). All the evidence suggests that "this time tomorrow" Elijah would be killed with a sword if he remained. From a neutral point of view, Jezebel shows moral integrity here, however in the Christian interpretation, because of her polytheistic influence on Ahab, she has a negative status similar to Herodias as alleged enemy of the Baptist. What according to Mk Herodias was accused of by the Baptist, i.e. incestuous marriage with an uncle, was in Jewish eyes representative of polytheism, i.e. the ´sin´ of Jezebel. The analogy is thus specified as follows:

Elijah / Baptist: the former attacks polytheism, the latter a polytheistic practice

Herodias / Jezebel: the former strikes back with the sword, the latter threatens to do so

Ahab / Antipas: both are ´negatively´ influenced by their wifes.