John the Baptist, the Witness, the Prophet
by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.


Introduction:

A Jewish man named John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth (more commonly known as John the Baptist) is significant not only in relation to Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament writings, but was an important figure in the history of first-century Judaism, as known to us through other sources.

For many centuries, some people even considered John the Baptist to be more important than Jesus of Nazareth, according to several commonly recognized ancient criteria. Not only was John slightly older than Jesus (acc. to Luke 1–2), but he was actively preaching and baptizing before Jesus began his own public ministry. Moreover, according to several Gospel accounts, Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan river, thus not only implying that Jesus recognized John's role and importance, but also leading some scholars to suggest that Jesus himself was a disciple of John the Baptist, at least for a time, before embarking on his own ministry of preaching and healing.

Although admitting that Jesus was younger than John and was baptized by John, Christians throughout the centuries have maintained that Jesus is nevertheless "greater" or more important than John, whose primary role is seen as the "forerunner" or precursor of Jesus. Thus, John is seen as the last prophet of ancient Israel, while Jesus is the Messiah who ushers in the new age of the Kingdom of God. Each of the four canonical Gospels explains the relationship between John and Jesus in a slightly different way, as detailed below.

Vocabulary: John, Baptism, Witness, Prophet, etc.

Greek Word Meaning Mark Matt Luke John Acts 123Jn Rev  Other NT Total
Ἰωάννης John (the Baptist) 16 23 24 19 9 0 0 0 91
. John (son of Zebedee) 10 3 7 0 9 0 0 1 30
. John (father of Simon) 0 0 0 4 0 0 0 0 4
. John (a.k.a. Mark) 0 0 0 0 5 0 0 0 5
. John (a high priest) 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 1
. John (the seer) 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 0 4
ὁ βαπτιστής Baptist 2 7 3 0 0 0 0 0 12
βαπτίζω to baptize, dip 13 7 10 13 21 0 0 13 77
τὸ βάπτισμα baptism 4 2 4 0 6 0 0 3 19
ὁ βαπτισμός dipping, washing 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 4
βάπτω to dip 0 0 1 2 0 0 1 0 4
ἐμβάπτω to dip into 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 2
μαρτυρέω to witness, testify 0 1 1 33 11 10 4 16 76
ἡ μαρτυρία testimony 3 0 1 14 1 7 9 2 37
τὸ μαρτύριον evidence 3 3 3 0 2 0 1 7 19
μαρτύρομαι to testify, assert 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 3 5
ὁ μάρτυς witness 1 2 2 0 13 0 5 12 35
ὁμολογέω to confess 0 4 2 4 3 6 1 6 26
ἀρνέομαι to deny 2 4 4 4 4 3 2 10 33
Ἠλίας Elijah 9 9 7 2 0 0 0 2 29
ὁ προφήτης prophet 6 37 29 14 30 0 8 20 144

Characters Named John:

Six different men are named "John" in the NT, so one must be careful not to confuse them. The situation can be particularly difficult when speaking about the character John (the Baptist) in the Fourth Gospel (FG; the Gospel according to John). Surprisingly, the only person explicitly named "John" in this Gospel is the baptizing precursor of Jesus (although he's never called "the Baptist" in the FG), while the well-known apostle of Jesus, who is called "John, the son of Zebedee" in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is never named in the FG!

Baptizing and Dipping:

Several NT Greek words with related meanings are derived from root βαπτ-:

Ritual immersions were common in ancient Judaism, especially at Qumran but also at the Jerusalem Temple and elsewhere, for “purifying” oneself after coming into contact with any “unclean” person or thing.

John the Baptist:

The immersions performed by John had a slightly different and distinctive focus, expressing a definitive “repentance” of sinners, in contrast to the repeated “purifications” performed regularly by most Jews.

The Baptism of Jesus:

Jesus' baptism is described very differently in the four Gospels:

John the Witness:

In the FG, much more important than John’s activity baptizing people is his role in “bearing witness” (μαρτυρέω) or providing “testimony” (μαρτυρία) about Jesus. His faithful “witnessing” activity is stressed with several other verbs, especially ὁμολογέω (“to confess”) and ἀρνέομαι (“to deny”). Confessing Jesus (i.e., proclaiming one’s allegiance publicly) is an essential requirement of true discipleship in the FG (9:22; 12:42).  John “confessed and did not deny” (1:20), in contrast to Simon Peter, who later denies even knowing Jesus (13:38; 18:25-27).

Aside from John (the Baptist), several other characters in the FG also “bear witness” to Jesus, including the Samaritan woman (4:39), the “works” which Jesus does (5:36; 10:25), the Father (5:37; 8:18), the Scriptures (5:39), the crowd that saw Jesus raise Lazarus (12:17), the Paraclete (15:26), the disciples of Jesus (15:27), and especially “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (19:35; 21:24). Moreover, Jesus frequently gives testimony about himself (3:11, 32-33; 4:44; 5:31; 7:7; 8:13-18; 13:21; 18:37), which raises objections among his opponents in the FG. A few other related words are used in the Synoptics, but not in the FG (see chart above).

Hebrew Bible Prophets in the New Testament:

The NT Gospels frequently quote and/or mention the prophets of ancient Israel in various contexts:

John the Prophet:

Due to his fiery preaching and outward appearance, John was considered a prophet and compared to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, especially Elijah. The four Gospels agree that John the Baptist was a prophet, yet they surprisingly disagree about whether or not he was the "Elijah" figure who was expected to come before the Messiah.

Jesus and John:

Each of the four Gospels (and the Acts of the Apostles) shows Jesus to be greater than John the Baptist, yet in significantly different ways:


See also my page on Biblical Prophecy.

[This page is still under construction.]


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