of John in all canonical sources takes it for granted that Jews recognized
him as a prophet. The
historical question remains, however, whether characterization of John as
the ultimate prophet is an exclusively Christian development. Here the
evidence is more complex, since Q and Mark credit Jesus with assessments of
John which give the impression of claims that were not prior public
reminder that the crowds went to John seeking a prophet (Matt 11:9a=Luke
7:26a) is intensified and clarified by magisterial formulae that indicate a
singular teacher's point of view./11/
Whoever originally claimed John
was "more than a prophet" and that no human was greater than he, Q clearly
supports these opinions by appealing to Jesus' personal authority./12/
These statements--though reinforcing Jewish sentiment--are rightly regarded
as "Christian" propaganda. The same is true of Q's contrast between
recent turmoil and the order of law and prophets in effect "until John"
(Luke 16:16//Matt 11:12-13). Together, these Q sayings portray John as
the last and greatest of the prophets of the Mosaic order but, at the same
time, distinguish John's world from Jesus and God's basileia.
introduces John with the sweeping
generalization that his following included "everyone from the Judean
countryside and all the residents of Jerusalem' (1:5ab). Yet he
calls him "a prophet" only in a later parenthesis (11:32c) to point out that
the temple authorities did not share the opinion of the masses.
Otherwise, his only allusions to John's public reputation are indirect, as
part of his campaign to discredit rumors about Jesus. As Mark tells it
(twice), after John's execution "some people" mistook Jesus for John
or Elijah or a prophet./13/ Such confusion implicitly categorizes John
as a prophetic type.
public rumor with Peter's identification of Jesus as "the Anointed" (8:29),
Mark clearly intends to put Jesus in a different category than John.
But by immediately adding two scenes that discredit Peter's vision of Jesus,
Mark also indicates that partisans of Jesus did not see the distinction.
Peter's denial of the possibility of Jesus' death (Mark 8:31) is usually
attributed to Jewish belief in the immortality of a messianic king.
But such an opinion in this period is difficult to document. The immortality
of Elijah, on the other hand, was attested by common scripture. And
Jewish speculation about him and other ancient figures who were close to
God--notably, Moses and Enoch--is confirmed by apocrypha from this era.
Mark's version of the transfiguration is particularly critical of Peter for
confusing Jesus with such types (9:5-6). As he tells it, in spite of
divine instructions to heed only Jesus (9:7), Peter and his associates
were reluctant to abandon current scribal doctrine about Elijah's
reappearance (9:11; Mal 3:23 [4:5]).
Mark resolves the
problem by having Jesus act as a master scribe.
He affirms Elijah tradition, but points out that scripture requires
"the Son of Man" to suffer rejection (9:12)./14/
By itself this verse seems
to distinguish Jesus from Elijah. But Mark goes on to have Jesus
correct current opinion by claiming (a) Elijah has come, (b) has
been mistreated and (c) scripture required the latter (9:13). Mark
does not explicitly identify John as Elijah. But he has framed his narrative to lead the
reader to that conclusion. He accounted for the rumors confusing
Jesus with John and Elijah by portraying the situation that led to John's
arrest as similar to Elijah's confrontation with Ahab and Jezebel./15/
Elijah's persecution because of an Israelite ruler's wife is thus implicitly
repeated in John's predicament. Whether Jesus' disciples made this
connection Mark neglects to say. But since he does not mention
confusion of Jesus with prophetic types again, he clearly assumes that
having Jesus relegate Elijah's role with the past was enough to settle the
The estimates of
John's status in Q and Mark are clearly quite independent with regard to
surface detail and rhetorical tactics. While Q heaps hyperbolic praise
on John, Mark all but buries his reputation in incidental parallels and
innuendo. Mark, on the other hand, links John to a recognizable role,
while Q leaves his place in history paradoxical and cryptic.
The only formula
describing John that is approximately the same in both is a paraphrase of
Exod 23:20./16/ And this just identifies him as God's personal
messenger (ἄγγελός μου) who arranges things for another (πρὸ προσώπου σου). Moreover, there are significant dramatic
differences between Mark and Q's presentation of this OT citation. Q
has Jesus deliver the line to the Jewish crowd after John is
in prison (Matt 11:10//Luke 7:27); Mark gives it to an anonymous
announcer before either John or Jesus has appeared on stage (Mark
This difference in
speaker and setting has important hermeneutical consequences. In Q's
staging it is hard to take the second person singular pronoun as applying to
Jesus. In addressing others, speakers usually intend "you" to be
understood as referring to their audience, which Q here identifies as Jews
who responded to John. Thus, within Q's dramatic framework, John is
represented as God's ultimate messenger (ἄγγελός μου) to Israel
as a unit (which is a correct midrash pesher on Exod 23:20). Taken in
Q's context, this biblical citation is part of a campaign to exalt John,
yet limit his sphere of influence. John is no longer active; the way
he prepared is a pre-via, belonging to another era and social
Mark also uses the
Christian pesher of Exod 23:20 as a focalizer. But he refocuses it to
take the spotlight off John by:
(a) prefacing it
with a notice (1:1) that the real subject of the message is Jesus;
(b) equating its reference to God's messenger (ἄγγελός μου) with the
anonymous herald of the Lord (1:2) in Isa 40:3; and
(c) illustrating it by a scenario (1:4-11) in which John's sole role is to
prepare for a successor (who turns out to be Jesus).
Mark accepts the
application of Exod 23:20 to John; but he buries it in a context that
insures that the reader understands that Jesus is the one who really
represents God (1:11).
The fact that
the only reference to John's extraordinary status that Mark and Q have in
common is a paraphrase of scripture which is made to fit very different
agendas justifies caution in judging the historical source of their
information about John's reputation. But several considerations make
it difficult to pass off their respective characterization of John as
Coherence of independent sources:
No single gospel
account can be identified as the source of John's glorification.
(a) Mark and Q
agree in applying Exod 23:20 to John, representing him--not Jesus--as God's
personal messenger. The differences in presentation make direct
influence of one synoptic source upon the other improbable.
(b) John 1:6 (or
more likely its source) also obliquely introduces God's special messenger by
characterizing him as "a man sent from God's side" (ἄvθρωπος
ἀπεσταλμέvος παρὰ θεοῦ).
(c) Thom 46:1
agrees with Q (Matt 11:11//Luke 7:28) in having Jesus characterize John as
the greatest person who had a mother. This is a Jewish way of saying
only God and his heavenly host are greater than he. According to Thom
99 and the canonical gospels, even Jesus had a mother.
Qualification of John's status:
source seeks to limit John's prominence in one way or another.
restricts John's role as God's messenger to announcing a greater
successor and accusing Antipas of violating Mosaic marital regulations.
His equation with Elijah is implied only after his execution has been
rehearsed in gory detail (precluding any thought that he ascended into
(b) Q closes
Jesus' eulogy of John (Matt 11:7-11//Luke 7:24-28) with a paradoxical
pronouncement that subordinates John to even the most insignificant person
in God's realm (presumably Christians). Thom 46 presents an even more
condensed and qualified version of Jesus' eulogy, lest anyone conclude that
Jesus thought John was greater than himself.
(c) The fourth
gospel and its source restrict John's role to bystander and witness to
Jesus' glory. Particular stress is put on John's denial that he is
the ultimate messenger of God (Messiah, Elijah or Prophet) or even comes
"from above" (John 1:21, 3:31).
The role of
the ultimate prophet belongs to Jewish rather than Christian
speculation. All sources represent John as a hero of such
extraordinary significance to Jews.
sole reason for introducing John is to explain "a theory of the Jews" (τοῖς
Ἰουδαίοις δόξα) that Antipas' crushing defeat by the Arab armies of
Aretas in 35 CE was God's
vengeance for John's execution (Antiquities 18.116-119). Jewish
scripture predicted such a fate for those who failed to heed the ultimate
prophetic champion of Mosaic law./18/
(b) Q identifies
John as the culmination of the law and the prophets (Luke 16:16//Matt
11:12-13) and has him warn "the sons of Abraham" that this is their
last chance to escape destruction (Matt 3:7-10//Luke 3:7-9).
(c) Elijah was
an Israelite national hero, who was celebrated for sparking a violent
revolution to enforce observance of Mosaic law./19/
Reported to have
ascended to heaven without dying, he was glorified beyond any mortal./20/
Observant Jews widely sought his return as national savior, restoring divine
favor and the social solidarity of Israel./21/
Mark does not associate any
of these traditional Elijah motifs with John, much less advocate them for
Jesus. So it is improbable that he invented such a reputation for
many independent sources report, but do not fully endorse, John's reputation
as the ultimate man of God and champion of the Mosaic covenant--in short, the
Prophet par excellence. Many Jews identified such a role with
Elijah. Given the socio-political ramifications of this position, it
is virtually certain that these claims for John did not originate with
anyone in the Christian movement after Jesus. So, John's
glorification as the last and greatest of God's messengers must have
begun within a Jewish setting.