We are accustomed to thinking of John the Baptist as “the Forerunner,” the one who announced the coming and prepared the way for the person and mission of Jesus Christ. However, it is clear that at one time Jesus and John were considered to be at least equals, with John sometimes even seen as the superior figure. The Gospels give some hints of this dynamic.
All the Gospels acknowledge that Jesus came to John to receive John’s “baptism for the remittance of sins.” It was not the other way around: Jesus came to John, John did not come to Jesus. At the very least, this implies that Jesus knew of John’s work, approved of it, and desired to make a public decision in support of John. It may also imply that John was John’s mentor.
One of the most striking attribtues of early Christianity is its practice of baptism. Had Jesus not approved of baptism, it is nearly impossible to explain the ritual’s universality among primitive Christian groups. As the late Morton Smith pointed out, when Christianity is viewed from a baptismal perspective, there is a linear development of baptism starting with John, running through Jesus as a (short) middle term, and ending with Paul. Therefore it can be said with some probity that Jesus was a conveyer (and developer) of a ritual initiated by John and promulgated by Paul.
The Fourth Gospel (the Gospel according to John) certainly associates Jesus with the Baptizer, particularly in the first three chapters. It not only brings them into contact, but it says that Jesus began his own baptismal ministry separate from John’s. Eventually, says the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ baptizing ministry was winning more followers than John’s. In apparent response to this, and perhaps out of respect for John, Jesus moved his ministry to another region.
Many of us are aware of the narrative of Baptizer’s death as an anti-Herodian, beheaded by the ruler through the machinations of Herod’s wife and his bored stepdaughter. Beyond that, and his brief mention as “the Baptizer,” John is absent from the Gospels and virtually swallowed up by history. But his legacy lives on in Jesus’ own baptismal doctrine (well-attested in John’s nocturnal scene of baptismal dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus), and in Paul’s insistence on the ritual’s centrality for Jesus’ followers. Even today there remains a baptismal sect, the Mandeans, who count John as one of their major saints.
John’s historical importance in ancient Judean religion was that he successfully set up a rival alternative to current atonement practices. There were many things a Jew might do in order to succor divine forgiveness, but many of them were associated with the priesthood and Temple in Jerusalem. The priesthood had by Second Temple times gained hegemony over sacrifice. John’s ritual was free, and open to all who could travel to the place of administration, the Jordan River in southern Judea. It provided a cheap alternative to the sacrificial system offered at Judaism’s cultic center.
In consequence, John was so popular that his baptism was remembered specifically as “John’s baptism” – a nomenclature which set it apart from the several standard (and sectarian) kinds of baptism available at the time, and which forever ensrhined his name as a great innovator on his people’s behalf. Jesus himself referred to John as the “greatest-born” human being. The Baptizer has been obscured by the figures of Jesus and Paul, but without him, Christianity would be missing its foundational sacrament.