The witness of John (John 1; Advent 3B)

Last week, the lectionary offered a Gospel passage from the beginning of the good news about Jesus, featuring the fiersome desert-dwelling prophet, John, known as the Baptiser (Mark 1:1-8). This week, we have a section from the book of signs in which the same person, John, figures. But he is quite a different person in this week’s text–and the way he is portrayed offers a glimpse into another world.

The book of signs introduces John as a much more domesticated figure, compared with the way that he appears at the start of the beginning of the good news of Jesus. In John’s account, he appears, all of a sudden, in the midst of the majestic poetic Prologue (1:1-18) which opens this Gospel. 

The Prologue is focussed on the eternal character of the Word of God (1:1-2), present at the moment of creation (1:3), shaping the world that we know and inhabit (1:14, 16-17). In the midst of this, the human figure of John appears—as somewhat of an anomaly in the midst of the ethereal poetic lines (1:6-8, 15).

The Prologue is followed by a more prosaic Prelude (1:19-51), which narrates a series of encounters involving John, Jesus, and their followers. These encounters establish the centrality of Jesus in the narrative, first through the testimony of John the baptiser (1:19-36), then by having various individuals “come and see” him (1:39, 46). 

Both John and these individual disciples confess the significance of Jesus through a variety of Christological titles. This Prelude ends with Jesus himself adopting a title to explain his significance (“Son of Man”, 1:51).

That John is a witness to Jesus is already indicated in the Prologue, through some prosaic narrative insertions into the grand poetic opening. The Lectionary this coming Sunday offers us both the initial prosaic comment (1:6-8), and the ensuing story relating what John said about Jesus (1:19-28).

But the John whom we meet in this gospel is a very different figure from the desert dwelling apocalyptic visionary whom we encountered in last week’s reading from Mark’s gospel. The Johannine John does not frequent the desert, as in Mark 1; rather, his activity is located in Bethany, near the Jordan (1:28). 

The Johannine John does not issue a clarion call for repentance, as in Mark 1; rather, he bears witness to Jesus, “the one coming after me” (1:27), as the one “who ranks ahead of me” (1:30). As John, in this gospel, bears witness to Jesus (1:6–8, 15; 1:29–36; 3:25–30; 10:41), he testifies that Jesus is the light (1:7), of greater rank than John himself (1:15, 30), the Lamb of God (1:29, 36), the Son of God (1:34), the bridegroom (3:29), and, by implication, the Messiah (1:203:28).

What is the reason for this different portrayal of John the Baptist in this Gospel?

The Gospel of John includes some pointers to the development of a faith community which looked beyond the parameters of Judaism as it was being shaped by the Pharisees, towards other forms of Jewish faith and life—and perhaps beyond. The Gospel is being painted on a wider canvas. It offers us glimpses 

The early prominence accorded to John the baptiser, and other content such as the fact that the first large–scale success enjoyed by Jesus was in Samaria, and the appearance of Greeks in Jerusalem, seeking Jesus, and even the way that the Logos (the Word) is portrayed in the Prologue, each point to this wider canvas. Sometimes this is defined as “heterodox Judaism”, in contrast to the dominant Pharisaic stream within formative Judaism.

John the baptiser is prominent at the start of each canonical gospel; scholars wonder if there was originally a link between the Jesus movement and the movement led by John the baptiser. Evidence for this link is also drawn from places such as Acts 19:1–7, and the Q passage in Luke 7 (par Matt 11). It is John’s Gospel which provides the clearest evidence, when it recounts that the earliest followers of Jesus were drawn from the followers of John (1:35–42).

John the Baptist, pointing to Jesus.
A panel from the Isenheim altarpiece,
painted by Mattias Grünewald around 1515.

This emphatic depiction of John as deflecting attention from himself, to Jesus, indicates that there was, at an early stage, some competition between the two figures—or, at least, between their respective followers. This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandaean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

Thus, the reform movement within Second Temple Judaism headed by John is seen to have had some influence on the gospel, in its early stages, at least. John stands outside the Pharisaic–rabbinic stream of Judaism which would become dominant after 70 CE. This is the first indication of the influence of a different kind of Judaism on this Gospel, which led to the development of a different form of Christianity in the ensuing centuries.

Likewise, the prominence accorded to Samaria in John 4 can be seen as a significant indicator of an important influence shaping the gospel.  This scene (like all others in this gospel) is not a straightforward historical narrative, but rather a remembering of an important part of the beliefs of the community, conveyed through the narration of a “typical” incident. 

The encounter at the well (4:5–8) leads into a long scene where Jesus engages in deepening theological reflection with the Samaritan woman (4:9–28a), climaxing in the first successful missionary venture within the Jesus movement (4:28b–30, 39–42)—at least, as John recounts it. The first missionary is this anonymous Samaritan woman, and the first body of converts to Jesus are inhabitants of the Samaritan village. 

This story has a powerful function within this particular community’s traditions. Samaritans are depicted as sharing a common Jewish ancestry (“our father Jacob”, 4:12) and holding an eschatological hope in the Messiah (“I know that Messiah is coming”, 4:25). Yet embedded in the story are clear indications of the tensions between this northern form of Judaism and the dominant southern mode; ordinary dealings between Jew and Samaritan are unusual (4:9), and liturgical–theological differences mark them off from one another (4:20–21). The success of Jesus’ message in this context indicates its attraction to those outside the “mainstream”.

The words and ideas found in the Prologue to the gospel (1:1–18) have led to a further hypothesis that Hellenistic Judaism had been influential in the context in which the gospel was shaped.  The role of the Logos is akin to the role of Wisdom within Hellenistic Jewish literature —both as the agent by which God created the world, and as the means by which God reveals knowledge and truth to the world. 

That Judaism had long been engaged with the dominant hellenistic culture, has been well proven by contemporary scholarship. Influences from the Greek–speaking world, and its hellenised culture, are reflected in numerous Jewish writings. In this gospel, the account of the Greeks who wish to see Jesus (12:20–22) is a clear indication of the interaction between the community of the gospel, and the wider hellenised world. 

The issue is also raised by the question of the Pharisees at 7:35; “does he [Jesus] intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” Other signs, less immediately obvious, pointing to this influence, are claimed at various points throughout the gospel. Once again, we see that the kind of Judaism which has influenced the gospel is not of the dominant, Pharisaic–rabbinic kind. It has become open to the wider world; perhaps the community which first received this Gospel had already become somewhat diversified in its composition.

This link is confirmed, for some scholars, by the nexus of ideas that flow from Johannine Christianity into the Mandaean literature of the third and fourth centuries CE—including, amongst other things, the prominence accorded to John the baptiser.

Contemporary Mandaeans

So, the distinctive figure of John at the start of this distinctive Gospel, offers a keyhole through which we can gain a glimpse of a little-appreciated strand amongst the wide diversity of options in early Christianity.

See also John (the baptizer) and Jesus (the anointed) in the book of signs (the Gospel of John) – An Informed Faith (johntsquires.com)https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2020/01/preview-the-mandaean-book-of-john.html
What the Mandaeans know about John the Baptist | Bible and Beyond (earlychristiantexts.com)
and https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2019/11/the-symbolism-and-meaning-of-johns-baptism.html

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/towards-the-coming-the-first-sunday-in-advent-mark-13/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/01/advent-two-the-more-powerful-one-who-is-coming-mark-1/