John the Baptist is a person of considerable importance. According to Mark's Gospel, King Herod, and some of the common people thought that Jesus was a resurrected John. Well into Jesus's own ministry, people were asking him "So why do your disciples do such-and-such a thing differently from John's?" In Jesus's last week, long after John's death, "all the people" in Jerusalem still remember him as a prophet. According to Matthew, Jesus identified John the Baptist with Elijah. And even in the book of Acts, when the disciples are preaching a resurrected Jesus, there are still a few people who can be described as "disciples of John".
But we are told surprisingly little about him. He baptises people; he baptises Jesus; and then he drops out of the story. He is almost definitely an historical figure. "Ceasar-real" as the Apocrypals would put it. [SEE NOTE 1]. The secular Jewish historian Josephus (writing around 100 CE) says that he existed; that he was a preacher; that he told the Jews to be more virtuous; that he practiced baptism and that he was executed by King Herod. Josephus does not mention the River Jordan, and he doesn't connect John with Jesus.
Mark's Gospel begins with two Old Testament prophecies which he thinks apply to John:
Behold, I send my messenger before thy face,
which shall prepare thy way before thee.
The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
He tells us that John baptised, and that his baptism was "a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins". He tells us that John dressed like a wild man. But he repeats only one actual thing which John said:
"There cometh one mightier than I after me
the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
I indeed have baptised you with water
but he shall baptise you with the Holy Ghost."
We are not told if John ever knew that Jesus was his successor. The fact that he continued to preach and baptise; and continued to have disciples of his own rather implies that he didn't.
That pretty much exhausts what Mark has to say about John the Baptist. He baptised; he said someone else was coming after him; he baptised Jesus. His death is reported, in what feels very much like a folk-tale. That's the whole story.
It would be the height of bad taste to say that Matthew and Luke are Mark Fan Fiction. But they certainly tell the same story: rehearsing Mark's text with additions of their own. And I am happy to go along with Mr Occam and say that when Matthew and Luke have things in common with each other, but not with Mark, they must be quoting from a second, lost document called Q. (Q is German for Second Lost Document.) I have probably already made the joke about the Fifth Gospel which left before they became famous.
I know that some clever people, including Mr Enoch Powell, used to think that it was the other way round: Mark was a good-parts summary of Matthew. And some very clever people, including C.S Lewis's friend Austen Farrer, thought that Luke had never read Mark but was simply revising Matthew, which would eliminate the need for Q. And some lunatics presumably think that the three of them just happened to tell the same stories in the same words, or, more surprisingly, different stories in the same words. But the standard model -- Matthew and Luke, editing Mark, supplementing him from Q and adding some original material of their own -- works for the kind of broad-brush-stroke comparison I want to make. I am sure I am attributing more conscious agency and intention to the redactors than is strictly plausible.
Yes: as a matter of fact last month I was making the same kind of argument about different versions of Star Wars. Want to make something of it?
Matthew and Luke both stick extensive and very famous prologues on the front of Mark. Matthew begins with the famous story of the wise-men and the star of Bethlehem and the baby-murdering Herod: Luke has the famous story of the shepherds and the angels and Jesus's visit to the temple as a baby and an adolescent. He goes so far as to provide an origin story for John; making him Jesus's cousin. But when they get to their main story, they both start in the same place that Mark does.
John did baptize in the wilderness,
and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
and there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem,
and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
In those days came John the Baptist
preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, and saying,
"Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias,
saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight...."
....Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea,
and all the region round about Jordan,
And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.
Matthew has only changed Mark a little bit. He has taken the quotations which Mark says are about John, and put them into John's own mouth. This is not very surprising. He has taken Mark's summary of what John said and turned it into a direct quote from John. This is not very remarkable either.
But the words he gives to John "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" are the exact same words which Mark gives to Jesus himself, the first word's Mark's Jesus speaks. This is a little surprising. It implies a simple continuity between forerunner and successor: Jesus continues to proclaim a Kingdom that was already being announced by John.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees
come to his baptism, he said unto them,
"O generation of vipers,
who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come
who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come
Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:
And think not to say within yourselves,
We have Abraham to our father:
for I say unto you,
that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees:
therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down,
and cast into the fire.
I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance:
but he that cometh after me is mightier than I,
whose shoes I am not worthy to bear:
he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:
Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor,
and gather his wheat into the garner;
but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
Matthew -- like any good fan-fiction writer -- sets about filling in two major plot-holes. Mark says that everyone in Judea came to John and had their sins cleansed. And later, Mark says that all the people in Jerusalem considered John to be a prophet. In which case, a reasonable person might ask, why are some of the Judeans Jesus's enemies? Did John's baptism not take? Can you have your sins dipped away and yet still not spot a Messiah when he shows up?
Matthew's solution is that Mark must have left something out. All the people from Judea and Jerusalem did indeed come to John. Mark wasn't fibbing. But as a matter of fact, John sent some of them away with a locust in their air. When the Pharisees and the Sadducees came, instead of baptising them, John harangued them and pronounced judgement on them. Presumably their repentance was not sincere. Possibly they thought that just being Jewish ("we have Abraham as our father") was good enough. [SEE NOTE 2]
The line that Mark attributes directly to John -- that he will have a successor, and that the successor will baptise with the Spirit -- Matthew buries in the middle of this rant. And he changes it a little bit. Where Mark has "I indeed have baptised you with water but he shall baptise you with the Holy Ghost", Matthew has "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance....he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire." So what in Mark is a promise -- "great news! there's an even holier baptiser on the way!" -- Matthew turns into a threat. "I'm here to baptise -- but I warn you, the next guy will be here to execute judgement. I use water to clean you up -- but he'll use fire to destroy you."
Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.
But John forbad him, saying,
"I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?"
And Jesus answering said unto him,
"Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness."
Then he suffered him.
But there's a much bigger plot hole. Baptism is about repentance. Being sorry for your sins and having them washed away. Getting cleaned up. So what on earth is Jesus doing asking to be baptised? Matthew doesn't answer the question, but he does lampshade the problem: John says that Jesus ought to be baptising him, and Jesus says "Let's do it this way, to keep it on a legal footing." [SEE NOTE 3]
How does John know that he needs to be baptised by Jesus? Does Jesus already have a reputation, or are we supposed to think that one of John's superpowers is that he innately spots Messiahs as soon as they come to him? (In Luke's origin story, the unborn John worships the unborn Jesus!) But I feel it rather spoils the logic of the piece if John spots who Jesus is before God's big announcement.
This is a built in problem with any fan-fic or reboot. The writer and the reader already know the story: and it is terribly easy to forget that that characters in the story do not. If everyone has know for a century that the kid from Kansas is vulnerable to growing rocks or the guy who rents the nice W1 flat solves crimes for a hobby, it is hard to keep in your head that this is a complete surprise to the characters.
I think that something similar is going on in these religious texts. They are written to be read out to people who already believe a whole set of credal statements about Jesus. So people in the story sometimes forget to be surprised the first time they hear expressions like "son of God." Matthew believes that Jesus was perfect and doesn't need to repent, so he assumes that John does as well.
In Mark, the divine voice from heaven speaks to Jesus.
And straightway coming up out of the water,
he saw the heavens opened,
and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
And there came a voice from heaven, saying,
"Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
This is crucial: in Mark's Gospel Jesus's identity is a secret. Peter works out he is the Messiah towards the end of the story, and the voice of God reveals the deeper truth to the Top Three disciples on the Mountain of Metamorphosis. ("This is my beloved Son: hear him.") But Matthew places the secret in the public domain from the get-go.
And Jesus, when he was baptized
went up straightway out of the water:
and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove
and lighting upon him
and lo a voice from heaven, saying,
"This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
Now, Luke also seems to have used Mark as a pattern. He makes more changes than Matthew does, but you can still see the Markan shape underneath. Luke is interested in history, or apparent history, so Mark's simple "John did baptise" becomes
Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar
Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea
and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee
and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis
and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene
Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests,
the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness
and he came into all the country about Jordan
preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins
All of Mark's eleven verses are there: the Old Testament quotes; John's baptism for forgiveness; his comment about not undoing his successor's shoelaces and the spirit coming down on Jesus. The one verse Luke omits, curiously, is the description of John's way-out clothing.
Luke inserts the same fire-and-brimstone speech that Matthew does: but where Matthew directs it specifically at the religious leaders, Luke directs it to the people in general:
Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him
"O generation of vipers,
who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance....."
This is a small but significant change of tone. Matthew says, in effect "John forgave and baptised the common people; but he condemned and prophesied judgement on the religious leaders." Luke says "John preached a judgement and condemnation on everybody: but the ordinary people asked him what they needed to do to avoid it."
And the people asked him, saying,
"What shall we do then?
He answereth and saith unto them,
He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none;
and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.
Then came also publicans to be baptized,
and said unto him, Master, what shall we do?
And he said unto them,
Exact no more than that which is appointed you.
And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying,
And what shall we do?
And he said unto them,
Do violence to no man,
neither accuse any falsely;
and be content with your wages."
John's injunctions are quite modest; in fact there is almost an element of bathos.
"God is going to reign down fire and burn all the sinners down!"
"What shall we do?"
"Try and do a bit less sinning."
If you have got more than you need, give some of it away. If you are one of the fascist occupiers, or someone who collaborates with them, don't be more of a bastard than you need to be.
Luke retains Mark's words about John's successor. But unlike Matthew, he doesn't but it in the middle of the "vipers" speech: it is part of a completely different conversation. [NOTE 4]
And as the people were in expectation
and all men mused in their hearts of John
whether he were the Christ, or not;
John answered, saying unto them all,
"I indeed baptize you with water;
but one mightier than I cometh,
the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose
he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire"
Mark says that John said that he would have a much more important successor. Matthew says that he said these same words as part of a judgement on the Pharisees. Luke says that he said them as part of an explicit denial that he was the Messiah.
This seems to me to be another example of the writer forgetting that the people in the story haven't read the book. In Mark, no-one remotely said that John was the Messiah, although some people said that Jesus was John. And no-one thinks that Jesus is the Messiah until Peter blurts it out in Chapter 9. It's a secret. But for Luke, the very first thing which occurs to people when someone comes along saying "Try sinning a bit less" is "Maybe he's the Messiah!"
The meanings of words depend on their contexts. To create a new context is to create a new meaning. I don't think that Matthew and Luke are fraudulently creating false narratives about John; I don't even think they are creating what used to be called "pious fictions". But I do think that they are retelling the story in order to explain what they think Mark's story means. Luke is very clear that John spoke about untying Jesus' shoelaces in order to expressly deny his own Christhood. You may think that Luke wouldn't be taking quite so much trouble to show that John was not the Messiah if there were not quite a lot of people who thought that he was.
It must have been quite galling for John to have had followers who thought he was the Messiah when he was quite certain that he wasn't. Has anyone ever created a comedy film on that premise?
John's Gospel also starts with John the Baptist. But it is immediately clear that we are in a completely different world from Matthew, Mark or Luke....
 There are three categories of "real": Caesar real; Robin Hood real and Santa Claus real.
 Note that the "generation of vipers" section, being in both Matthew and Luke would be regarded as coming from the Lost Fifth Gospel, Q. The words are the same, so our writers must have got them from somewhere; but the context is different, so they can't have copied them from each other.
 Some scholars take this passage as very strong evidence that the historical Jesus really was baptised by the historical John. Matthew clearly regards the story as problematic: and the only reason to continue to tell a problematic story is because you think it is true. You don't make up something which is harmful to your argument. (Similarly, we can be fairly sure that the historical Jesus said that the world would end in the lifetime of the disciples, because that is obviously a massively embarrassing thing for him to have said.) Pseudo-historians and conspiracy theorists often mis-use this kind of argument, to turn weak evidence or a lack of evidence into final and clinching proofs. "The UFO photo must be real, because a forger wouldn't have used something which looked so obviously like a hub cap.!" But of course, it is never applied in reverse "That's a really convincing fairy photograph, which is evidence that it is a forgery, because trying to look convincing is exactly what a forgery would do."
 This is another reason for thinking that Matthew and Luke independently copied Mark as opposed to copying each other. It is not very odd that two adaptors would take the same passage and make up two different settings for it. It would be quite odd to imagine Luke taking one line out of a speech in Matthew and making up a new discourse to go around it. The cut-and-paste function on your average scroll wasn't that advanced.