John the Baptist and the Prophets of Israel

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That John announced the Kingdom of God was near seems clear, but what the crowd made of this announcement is less obvious. The hope of the Hebrew Bible prophets is for the restoration of the nation after the long period of punishment. A repeated theme in the prophets is of God’s desire to restore his people after a period of discipline.  This is not the “end of the world” in the sense of a destruction of this universe but rather a renewal of all things to the way God had intended it in the first place. The Jews of the first century would not be looking for the “end of the world” as much as a “this world” time of shalom, peace and prosperity. Wright suggests this restoration included a resurrection of the nation based on Ezekiel 37 (NTPG, 286).

As with the other elements of John’s sermon, the source of this hope of restoration of the kingdom is to be found first in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, but also in the massive literature post-dating the Hebrew Bible. The idea of restoration and the themes of Messiah and persecution are expanded and developed in this period by a variety of writers, each contributing to the messianic worldview of the first century. For example, in the Psalms of Solomon, Messiah will come and purge Jerusalem from Gentiles (17:22-23), destroying them with the word of his mouth (cf. Rev 19). Messiah will distribute the land to the twelve tribes of Israel and he will judge the nations (17:30-31). Messiah will not bring about salvation for Gentiles, at best, they will be allowed to admire the glory of Jerusalem from a distance.

The fact that John the Baptist was gathering large crowds was enough to bring him to the attention of the Herodian government. It was his specific critique of Antipas which was the cause of his arrest and eventual execution. Josephus makes it clear that John was arrested because he was attracting large crowds. For Herod, John’s ethical teaching was not a problem (after all, likely the same sort of preaching came from Pharisee or Essenes).

Like the prophets of the Old Testament. it was John’s political comments which brought him into conflict with Herod Antipas.  John was similar to other messianic pretenders mentioned by Josephus: Judas the Galilean (Antiq. 17.10.5, 18.1.6), Simon (Antiq. 17.10.6) and Athronges (Antiq. 17.10.7). Each of these popular leaders rose from humble origins with royal ambitions to gather a following. Each causes trouble for the Romans, resulting in their death.  Athronges, for example, had four brothers which he considered as a core for his “kingdom.” He eventually gathered a large number of people, organized them into a militia and commanded them as a king. This band even attacked Romans at Emmaus and captured food and weapons, killing forty Roman foot soldiers. Josephus uses similar language to describe John the Baptist’s following. Athronges ruled his followers as a king and everything depended on his decision. This is remarkably similar to Josephus’ description of John the Baptist:  because of John’s eloquence, Herod feared they would do anything he commanded them.

There are, however, some significant differences between the preaching of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible and John the Baptist. John never uses the stereotypical phrase, “thus says the Lord.” His preaching seems to be by his own authority, perhaps giving rise to the thought that he might be the Messiah himself. While Luke’s version of the sermon has a universal tone (both Jews and Gentiles can be saved), both the Psalms of Solomon (PsSol 2:2, 19-25, 7:1-3, 8:23, 17:13-15) and the Qumran literature (1QM 1.4-9, 14.17-18) are looking forward to the punishment of the gentiles, not their eventual salvation.

John is therefore a “classic prophet” of Israel whose message brought him into conflict with the political powers of his day (Herod Antipas) as well as the religious establishment (Pharisees). If John is functioning as a “classic prophet,” how does his ministry “prepare the way” for Jesus as Messiah?  In what ways will Jesus  following in John’s footsteps?