Literature: H. H. Rowley, "Jewish Proselyte Baptism," HUCA 15 (1940), 313-34; C. H. Kraeling, John the Baptist (1951); T. W. Manson, The Servant Messiah (1953), 36-58; T. W. Manson, "John the Baptist," BJRL 36 (1953-54), 395-412; W. F. Flemington, The NT Doctrine of Baptism (1953), 13-24; H. H. Rowley, "The Baptism of John and the Qumran Sect," in NT Essays, ed. A. J. B. Higgins (1959), 218-29; E. Best, "Spirit-Baptism," NT 4 (1960), 236-44; G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the NT (1962), 31-44; J. A. T. Robinson, "The Baptism of John and the Qumran Community," Twelve NT Studies (1962), 11-27; C. Scobie, John the Baptist (1964); W. Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition (1968); J. D. G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (1970), 8-22; L. F. Badia, The Qumran Baptism and John the Baptist's Baptism (1980); J. P. Meier, "John the Baptist in Matthew's Gospel," JBL 99 (1980), 383-405; K. Pusey, "Jewish Proselyte Baptism," ET 95 (1983-84), 141-45; D. C. Allison, "'Elijah Must Come First,'" JBL 103 (1984), 256-58; B. Reicke, "The Historical Setting of John's Baptism," in Jesus, the Gospels and the Church, ed. E. P. Sanders (1987), 209-24; J. Murphy-O'Connor, "John the Baptist and Jesus: History and Hypotheses," NTS 36 (1990), 359-74.
The significance of the ministry of John the Baptist can be appreciated only against the historical setting of the times. For centuries the living voice of prophecy had been stilled. No longer did God speak directly through a human voice to his people to declare his will, to interpret the reason for the oppression of Israel by the Gentiles, to condemn their sins, to call for national repentance, to assure judgment if repentance was not given and to promise deliverance when the nation responded.
In place of the living voice of prophecy were two streams of religious life, both deriving from a common source: scribal religion, which interpreted the will of God strictly in terms of obedience to the written Law as interpreted by the scribes, and the apocalyptists, who in addition to the Law embodied their hopes for the future salvation in apocalyptic writings usually cast in a pseudepigraphal mold. We possess no evidence that any of the apocalyptists who produced such an extensive literary corpus ever moved among the people as heralds of the coming eschatological deliverance, as preachers of salvation, i.e., as prophetic voices announcing to the people, "Thus saith the Lord." There is also no evidence that their writings created popular eschatological movements among the people, stirring them up to expect the imminent intervention of God to bring his Kingdom. Such would have been the inevitable result had the apocalyptists embodied the true prophetic spirit. The Qumranians looked for an early apocalyptic consummation, but they withdrew into the wilderness and did not try to prepare the people for the end.
The movements of which we do have evidence were rather political and military rebellions against Rome, and these were not a few. To strike a blow against Rome meant to strike a blow for the Kingdom of God. Again and again, large groups of the people took up arms, not merely in the interests of national independence, but to achieve the Kingdom of God, that God alone rather than Rome might reign over his people.
Some scholars have interpreted the Qumran community as a prophetic eschatological movement. These sectarians did indeed believe they were inspired by the Holy Spirit; but this inspiration led them to find new meanings in the Old Testament Scriptures, not to speak a new prophetic word, "Thus saith the Lord." In the real sense of the word, the Qumran community was a nomistic movement. Further, it had no message for Israel, but withdrew by itself into the desert, there to obey the Law of God and to await the coming of the Kingdom. The historical significance of the unexpected appearance of John will be appreciated against this background. Suddenly, to a people who were chafing under the rule of a pagan nation that had usurped the prerogative belonging to God alone, who were yearning for the coming of God's Kingdom, and yet who felt that God had become silent, appeared a new prophet with the announcement,
"The kingdom of God is near."
As he approached maturity, John felt an inner urge thrusting him forth from the centers of population into the wilderness (Lk. 1:80). After a number of years, apparently of meditation and waiting on God, "The word of God came to John" (Lk. 3:2), in response to which John appeared in the valley of the Jordan announcing in prophetic manner that the Kingdom of God was near.
John's garb—the hairy mantle and the leather girdle—appears to be a deliberate imitation of the external marks of a prophet (cf. Zech. 13:4; 2 Kings 1:8, LXX). Some scholars think that John by this means indicated that he thought himself to be Elijah, but according to John 1:21 John denies this.
John's entire bearing was in the prophetic tradition. He announced that God was about to take action, to manifest his kingly power; that in anticipation of this great event people must repent; and as evidence of repentance must submit to baptism. This he does on his own prophetic authority, because of the word of God that had come to him. It is not difficult to imagine the excitement that the appearance of a new prophet with such a thrilling announcement would create. God, who for centuries, according to current Jewish thought, had been inactive, now was at last taking the initiative to fulfill the promises of the prophets and to bring the fullness of the Kingdom. Apparently news of this appearance of a new prophet spread like wildfire throughout Judea and moved throngs of people to flock to the Jordan River where he was preaching (Mk. 1:5) to listen to his message and submit to his demands. At long last, God had raised up a prophet to declare the divine will (Mk. 11:32; Mt. 14:5).
John's announcement of the impending divine activity in the Kingdom involved two aspects. There was to ensue a twofold baptism: with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Mt. 3:11 = Lk. 3:16). Mark in his greatly condensed account of John's ministry mentions only the baptism with the Spirit (Mk. 1:8).
This announcement of John has been subject to diverse interpretations. The majority view is that John announced only a baptism of fire. He proclaimed an imminent judgment of purging fire. The idea of baptism with the Spirit is seen as a Christian addition in the light of the experience of Pentecost. An alternate view is that the baptism of pneuma is not the Holy Spirit but the fiery breath of Messiah that will destroy his enemies (Isa. 11:4; 4 Ez. [= 2 Esd.] 13), or the wind of divine judgment that will sweep through the threshing floor to carry away the chaff.
A third view is that John announces a single baptism that includes two elements, punishing the wicked but purging and refining the righteous.
A further view is suggested by the context. The Coming One will baptize the righteous with the Holy Spirit and the wicked with fire. John announces, as Dunn insists, a single baptism, but it is a baptism that involves two elements.
The word "baptism" is, of course, used metaphorically and has nothing to do with water baptism. It is true that the Old Testament and Judaism did not expect the Messiah to bestow the Spirit, but there is no reason to deny to John a novel element.
The expectation of an eschatological outpouring of the Spirit finds a broad base in the Old Testament. In one of the "servant" prophecies of Isaiah, God promises to pour out his Spirit on the descendants of Jacob in quickening and life-giving power (Isa. 44:3-5). Such an outpouring of God's Spirit will be a basic element in effecting the transformation of the messianic age when the messianic King will reign in righteousness and prosperity, and justice and peace will prevail (Isa. 32:15). Ezekiel promises the resurrection of the nation when God will put his Spirit within them to give them life (Ezek. 37:14). God will then give to his people a new heart and a new spirit by putting his Spirit within them, enabling them to walk in obedience to God's will (Ezek. 36:27). A similar promise is reiterated in Joel (2:28-32). The great and terrible Day of the Lord is to be attended by a great outpouring of the Spirit and by apocalyptic signs in heaven and on earth. John announces that these promises are about to be fulfilled, not through himself, but through one who is to follow him. The Coming One will baptize with the Holy Spirit. The great messianic outpouring of the Spirit is about to take place. Against this background of prophetic expectation there is no valid reason to insist that John announced only a baptism of judgment.
John also announces a baptism of fire. That this refers to judgment is clear from the context of the saying. The meaning of the twofold baptism with the Spirit and fire is further described in the clearing of the threshing floor: the wheat will be gathered into the granary but the chaff will be burned up with unquenchable fire (Mt. 3:12; Lk. 3:17). The description of the fire as "unquenchable" points to an eschatological judgment, for it extends the limits of the ordinary means of consuming chaff (cf. Isa. 1:31; 66:24; Jer. 7:20). The coming of the Kingdom, the impending divine visitation, will affect all people. A separation is to take place: some will be gathered into the divine granary—theirs will be a baptism of the Spirit; others will be swept away in judgment—theirs will be a baptism of fire. This prospect of coming judgment is further emphasized in John's warning: "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" Judgment is impending and unfruitful trees will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Mt. 3:7-10; Lk. 3:7-9). The drastic character of this announcement may be understood from the fact that in a poor country like Palestine, unfruitful trees would normally not be destroyed by burning but would be saved so that the wood might be used for domestic and manufacturing purposes. In John's announcement such fruitless trees will be consumed in a flaming holocaust of judgment.
John's announcement of the Kingdom anticipated the fulfillment of the Old Testament expectation in a twofold direction. God is to act in his kingly power for the salvation of the righteous and the judgment of the wicked—the two central themes that run throughout the Old Testament. The character of judgment falls in the "apocalyptic" category. The judgment of fire does not contemplate an historical visitation when God would act through an historical nation, an "anointed" agent (Isa. 45:1) to visit Israel as a nation with an historical judgment of war. It is rather a judgment of individuals carried out by a messianic personage in apocalyptic fire. Such a judgment is anticipated in the Old Testament (Mal. 4:1; Nah. 1:6; Isa. 30:33), and the idea is developed at great length in the intertestamental literature.
It is clear that John, like the prophets of the Old Testament, views these two messianic acts as two aspects of a single visitation, even though there is no explicit affirmation of that fact. Undoubtedly John thought of them as taking place simultaneously. They were to be carried out by a messianic personage whom John describes merely by the rather colorless phrase, the Coming One (Mt. 3:11), which was not a contemporary messianic title. The character of this messianic deliverer and judge in John's thought is not clear. John uses neither "Messiah" nor "Son of Man" nor "Servant" to describe him. The fact that he would be the agent of apocalyptic judgment suggests that he will be a superhuman person, far more than a Davidic king. The Psalms of Solomon, written less than a hundred years before, anticipates a Davidic king, the Lord's Anointed, who will establish the Kingdom by destroying the wicked "with the word of his mouth" (Ps. Sol. 17:27), i.e., by supernatural power. Something more than this is involved in John's expectation. The fiery judgment would suggest an event terminating this age and initiating the Age to Come. It is notable that John's announcement transcends the usual Old Testament expectation in that the messianic personage is to be both Savior and Judge, whereas in the Old Testament he is a Davidic king who is not the agent for establishing the Kingdom.
To prepare the people for the coming Kingdom John calls on them to repent and to submit to water baptism. Repentance (metanoia) is an Old Testament idea and means simply to turn (šûḇ) from sin to God. God called upon apostate Israel to "repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations" (Ezek. 14:6; see 18:30; Isa. 55:6-7). The idea of conversion is expressed in the idiom of turning or returning to the Lord (Isa. 19:22; 55:7; Ezek. 33:11; Hos. 14:1; Joel 2:13). "Conversion" expresses the idea better than repentance. "Repentance" suggests primarily sorrow for sin; metanoia suggests a change of mind; the Hebrew idea involves the turning around of the whole person toward God.
Apocalyptic literature placed little emphasis on conversion. Israel was the people of God because it alone of all nations had received the Law (4 Ez. [= 2 Esd.] 7:20, 23). God made the world for Israel's sake (4 Ez. 6:55; 7:11) and gave to them the Law so that they might be saved (Apoc. Bar. 48:21-24). When God brings the Kingdom, Israel will be gathered together to enjoy the messianic salvation (Ps. Sol. 17:50), and to witness the punishment of the Gentiles (Ass. Mos. 10:7-10). The problem of the apocalyptic writers was that God's people were obedient to the Law but still suffered grievous evil.
In rabbinic writings, there is an apparent contradiction about repentance. On the one hand, the children of Abraham believed that the faithfulness of Abraham provided a treasury of merit that was available to all Jews. On the other hand, the rabbis placed great value on repentance—so much so that repentance has been called the Jewish doctrine of salvation. The reason for this is that repentance is understood in the light of the Law. The prevailing view of tešûḇāh ("repentance") is legal. Conversion means turning to the Law in obedience to the expressed will of God. It means, therefore, the doing of good works. Conversion can be repeated when one breaks the commandments and then turns again in obedience.
The idea of repentance is also emphasized in the Qumran literature, where the sectarians called themselves "the converts of Israel" (CD 6:5; 8:16), and stressed both ceremonial purity and inner conversion. "Let not (the wicked) enter the water to touch the purification of the holy, for a man is not pure unless he be converted from his malice. For he is defiled as long as he transgresses His word" (1QS 5:13-14). The sectarians practiced daily repeated bodily lustrations to achieve ceremonial purity. But these waters of purification were meaningful only when there was a corresponding moral uprightness (1QS 3:4-9). However, the whole context of Qumranian conversion meant social separation from "the sons of darkness" and rigid obedience to the sectarian interpretation of the Law. Their view has been summarized as a "legalistic [i.e. nomistic] understanding of conversion," when a person "turns away from sin and separates himself radically from sinners in order to observe the Law in its purest form."
John's baptism rejected all ideas of nationalistic or legal righteousness and required a moral-religious turning to God. He refused to assume a righteous people. Only those who repent, who manifest this repentance in changed conduct, will escape the impending judgment. It will be futile to rely on descent from Abraham as a ground of experiencing the messianic salvation. Unfruitful trees will be cut down and burned up, even though they are, according to contemporary belief, the planting of the Lord. The basis of messianic salvation is soundly ethico-religious and not nationalistic. In violent terms, John warned the religious leaders in Israel (Mt. 3:7) to flee, like snakes before a fire, from the coming wrath. This again is eschatological language with an Old Testament background. Current Jewish thought looked for a visitation of God's wrath, but it would fall upon the Gentiles. John turns the wrath upon Jews who will not repent.
Luke gives illustrations of the change John demanded. Those who have an abundance of possessions are to help those in need. Tax collectors, instead of gouging the people for all they could get, must collect no more than is appointed. This demand would "set them at odds with the social and economic structures of which they were a part." Soldiers were told to be satisfied with their wages and not to engage in unwarranted pillaging.
A difficult question rises as to the precise relationship between John's baptism and the forgiveness of sins. Many scholars read a sacramental meaning into his baptism; it is "a sacramental act of purification which effects both remission of sins ... and conversion." Mark (1:4) and Luke (3:3) speak of "a baptism of repentance for (eis) the forgiveness of sins." Luke 3:3 shows that "repentance for (eis) the forgiveness of sins" is a compact phrase, and we should probably understand the whole phrase in Luke 3:3 as a description of baptism, with eis dependent only on repentance. It is not a repentance baptism that results in forgiveness of sins, but John's baptism is the expression of the repentance that results in the forgiveness of sins.