The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism

  • Joan E. Taylor
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

Taylor, Joan E. The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1997. xvi + 360 pp. $30.00 pap.

This is the second volume in a significant new series of scholarly books from Eerdmans called Studying the Historical Jesus. The series is geared to be fully abreast of current scholarship yet written in an accessible style, united around the convictions that we can use historical methods to reconstruct with a fair degree of probability major contours of lives of the characters that emerge from the pages of the Gospels. With the relative paucity of detailed, recent treatments of John the Baptist (an important exception is Part One of John Meier's giant vol. 2 of A Marginal Jew), Taylor's volume comes as a key contribution.

This lecturer in religious studies at the University of Waikato in New Zealand summarizes her thesis early on. Her argument "redefines John as a Jewish immerser and teacher of righteousness who was accepted by many Jews as an exceptionally good and faithful man and regarded by some--including Jesus--as a prophet." Again, "John could never have imagined that the Church would subsume his message. Rather. . .he wished to point people towards a renewed commitment to Torah and total obedience of the heart to God in the light of eschatological events soon to unfold" (p. 8).

Chapter one discusses in detail the similarities and differences between John and Qumran in light of the very latest Dead Sea Scrolls research. Taylor concludes that the differences outweigh the similarities. If any helpful comparisons are to be made between Jesus and ascetic contemporaries, the figure of Bannus as described in Josephus is a closer parallel. An even lengthier second chapter explores in detail the various first-century models of immersion and purity. The Gospels, Qumran and Josephus provide mutually confirming information to make it likely that John understood repentance and good works (leading to forgiveness) to precede baptism. "John's immersion was wholly in keeping with other Jewish immersions of the time in having to do with ridding the body of uncleanness, but it also entailed the different idea that previous immersions and ablutions were ineffective for Jews without the practice of true righteousness" (pp. 99-100).

Chapter three explores John's teaching at some length. Repentance formed its center and was defined as leading to obedience to God. The coming baptism that John predicted foresaw a "saturation in holy spirit" (p. 140) akin to certain other contemporary apocalyptic expectations. Indeed, John's message was firmly rooted in Jewish prophetic tradition. Somewhat more speculatively, chapter four prefers the Johannine portrait of the relationship between the Pharisees and John to the Synoptics' picture, concluding that they were largely on positive terms with each other. Taylor thinks that both formative and Christian Judaism competed for John's legacy in the late first-century church, a hypothesis that, without adequate argumentation, she finds preferable to the better known theory of a Baptist sect within early Christianity.

Chapter five turns to opposition to John and his death. While convincingly arguing for the historicity of the general outline of the Gospel accounts--the potential of the crowds to develop into a popular uprising and John's pointed criticism of Antipas are sufficient to explain the hostility that he generated--Taylor unnecessarily depreciates the historical value of specific details (e.g., preferring Josephus to Mark where they disagree). She also affirms fairly aberrant chronology: John may have been killed as late as 33 or 34 and Jesus as late as 36, although neither of these suggestions is really defensible. In her closing chapter, Taylor turns to the topic of John and Jesus. The parallels between the two figures suggest that, at least for a time, Jesus too considered himself a prophet, and the Gospels preserve interesting references not only to John but also to Jesus as a new Elijah or Elisha, information that would not have been invented by a church quickly concerned to say considerably more than this about Jesus. Taylor does not deal with the differences between John and Jesus as well as she deals with the similarities, but she does recognize that only with Jesus is God's kingdom actually breaking through into human history. And her conclusion stresses that the historical John must be viewed within the context of second-Temple Judaism and not as a "proto-Christian" (p. 317).

While there remain some controversies on which Taylor has not written the last word, and while her general support for the historicity of the canonical accounts could actually be strengthened at numerous points, this is a helpful and up-to-date introduction to research on the Baptist, which simultaneously breaks new ground. Above all, it helps Christian readers re-immerse themselves in first-century Jewish life, ruthlessly challenging all anachronistic re-readings of John in light of later Christian dogmatic overlay.

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary