This post is about John the Baptist In Mark. We know that John the Baptist is born (Luke 1:63-64) and at the child circumcision, Zachariah confirms (still using sign language) that his son is to be called John. Then he receives back the power of speech. Filled by the Holy Spirit as was Elizabeth, and Indeed the Holy Spirit is a Luckean motif. We see it appears throughout Luke’s Gospel as well as the Acts of the Apostles. Filled with the spirit he prophesized John’s role as prophet of the Most High who will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. This prediction also echoes what was said about the Prophet Elijah in the Old Testament and thus we also have a segway to Mark Gospel where John the Baptist Clearly shows in the role of Elijah.
John the Baptist in Mark’s Gospel
In fact, the Gospel of Mark gives the most complete description of the adult John the Baptist. He is described as clothed with camel’s hair with a leather belt above his waist; that Is the old description of the Old Testament of the Prophet Elijah (Mark 1:6, 2 Kings 1:8). except the Old Testament adds that prophet Elijah was very hairy. This connection is reinforced by what is called a Fulfillment Citation: This is a recitation of an Old Testament verse by a Gospel Writer or by Paul; in order to show what was said in the Old Testament comes to completion, or comes to fulfillment in the New testament.
This was a very important mechanism for the New Testament writers; because they needed to show how their message is in continuity with what Judaism had always thought and what the Old Testament proclaimed as sacred scripture. Mark chapter 1:2-3 ascribed this specific citation to the prophet Isaiah chapter 40:3 but actually, it is a conflation of Isaiah, Malachi 3:1, and Exodus 23:20.
“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”— “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
We can hear echoing Zechariah’s Prophecy “he will go before the Lord, prepare his ways”.
Mark also in a way perfectly consistent with the way people read the Bible he had re-punctuated the Isaiah Proclamation. What Isaiah says in chapter 40:3 is:
“A Voice of One Calling In the wilderness: Prepare the Way for the Lord; Make Straight in the Desert a Highway for Our God”
In other words: go out to the wilderness and build a highway because God’s people are coming back from Babylon. What has Mark done in chapter 1:3 “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”— “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” because John is in the wilderness, go out and prepare the way of the Lord. Same words different punctuation and indeed the Dead Sea Scrolls, the texts from Qumran provide both interpretations. Mark has not made a mistake; at the least not by the 1st-century reader would have appreciated Mark’s Gospel.
John the Baptist In Mark: Why Elijah?
Elijah had never died rather he was taken up in bodily form by the whirlwind and by the chariot. Consequently, it was believed that Elijah would return to predict the coming of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5). We even see this idea showing up in the New Testament following Jesus’ Transfiguration where Jesus is actually shown to appear together with Prophet Moses as well as with Elijah. His disciples say to him:
“Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”
Jesus answers rather cryptically but referring to John the Baptist: “Elijah has come and they did to him what they will”. In the Gospel of John (chapter 1:19-23) the Baptist refuses to arrogate to himself any special role. He says he is not Messiah, he is not the Prophet; and not even Elijah. He is as he himself proclaims simply
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness makes straight the paths of the Lord”
Here in the Gospel of John, the fulfillment citation is found not on the lips of John the Baptist father; not from the pen of the narrator; but on John the Baptist’s own lips. Where John’s clothing associates him with Elijah, his Asceticism; he fasts; he eats locust and wild honey that also associates him with Elijah. His ritual immersions don’t.
John the Baptist and Qumran
Consequently, John can be looked at as not only a new Elijah; but he also had been seen as somehow associated with a group of Jews that had moved out to the community by the Dead Sea called Qumran. And hence the people responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls. Because we know this group lived in the wilderness; practiced ritual immersions; had restricted diet, practiced Asceticism, and indeed both John and the people of Qumran had Eschatological attitude, in other words, speculations about the end time, the time when the world as we know it ends, and the kingdom of God, the world to come breaks in.
So was John a member of this community, which usually is called the Essene community? Was he a resident of Qumran? Was he a part of that group that composed the Dead Sea scrolls? It is certainly possible but they were other groups who in antiquity were also eschatologically oriented; who also practiced asceticism. Can we say John was an Essene? No. Can we say that Jesus was an Essene? No. The best we can say is that they shared a common worldview in many senses. Moreover, one of the things that they do share, is that John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Essenes; were all interested in establishing a new family – a family based on mutual support, mutual values, and mutual love but not based on biology.