What Was John the Baptist Doing? -- By: Colin Brown

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 07:1 (NA 1997)
Article: What Was John the Baptist Doing?
Author: Colin Brown


What Was John the Baptist Doing?

Colin Brown

Fuller Theological Seminary

The activity of John the Baptist continues to be a focus of lively, revisionary discussion. Some scholars have questioned the Synoptic accounts of the Jordan as a locale for mass purificatory rites on grounds of practicality, and have sought to identify places named in the Fourth Gospel with sites in Samaria and springs east of the Jordan as more suitable locations. Others have wondered whether the accounts of John’s activity have any precedents at all in Jewish purificatory rites. This paper acknowledges difficulties in making the accounts of John’s baptism in the Jordan fit the profile of traditional purificatory rites. At the same time it draws attention to problems in trying to assimilate John’s baptism to such rites. A counter-proposal is offered which suggests that the key to understanding John’s baptism lies in seeing the Jordan as the boundary and point of entry into the land promised by Yahweh to Israel. John was calling for a morally purified Israel that was fit to dwell in the holy land. In emulation of the original entry depicted in the Book of Joshua, John’s baptism called on Israelites to exit the land, and return across the Jordan under the leadership of John in order to repossess the land as a consecrated people. The crossing of the Jordan holds the key to what John was doing

Key Words: baptism, John the Baptist, Jordan, purificatory rites

A long tradition of Christian art depicts John the Baptist standing waist-deep in the clear waters of the Jordan pouring water over the heads of converts (or perhaps immersing them), watched by crowds of onlookers. However, no such scene can be found in the Gospels, or in Josephus for that matter. Nothing is said about how John baptized. A little reflection indicates that such a scene is a pious fiction

A paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Pacific Coast Region, University of California, San Diego, March 29, 1996. I am indebted to those present and to other colleagues for their questions and comments which have led to further refinements of the argument. I am especially grateful to Professor J. D. M. Derrett for his stimulating and insightful comments drawn from his encyclopedic knowledge.

unconsciously modelled on centuries of Christian practice.1 What was John the Baptist doing?

I. Problems With The Traditional Picture

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor has drawn attention to “an obvious question that is never asked.” “Why would the Baptist have chosen a place that was difficult for ...

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