John the Baptist,  a voice in the wilderness

John the Baptist was a prophet, active in the Judean wilderness for a short period in the first century C.E. His reputation is attested by the first-century historian Flavius Josephus (37-c.100 C.E.), who says of him that he was “a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism” (Josephus, Ant 18.117).

The Bible identifies that John was from a priestly family and recounts the traditions surrounding his birth (Luke 1:5-25, 30-45, 57-79). In the biblical account John’s birth and name are revealed to his father, Zacharias, by an angel. Zacharias was then struck dumb until the child was born because of his disbelief.

All four gospels place John’s ministry in the wilderness and corroborate his emphasis on baptism. Here is how Mark’s Gospel introduces him.

1:4 ‘John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching the baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. 1:5 All the country of Judea and all those of Jerusalem went out to him. They were baptized by him in the Jordan river, confessing their sins.  1:6 John was clothed with camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. 1:7 He preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and loosen. 1:8 I baptized you in water, but he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.”’

(Mark 1:1-8, WEB)

When the Bible portrays John as a prophet, sent to prepare the way in the wilderness, it identifies him as the instigator of a process. The movement that John started sought to re-establish the ancient Way of Righteousness and reach its fruition with the ministry of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel is explicit in suggesting that John believed this to be the case (Matt 3:14-15) and, at least initially, that he and Jesus were working with the same overall agenda (Matt 3:1-2, cf. 4:17). John’s location, dress and diet all related to the nature of his ministry, which was believed to fulfil a similar role to that of a much earlier prophet, Elijah. 

John’s message was perceived as a threat by the ruling class and the gospels concur with Josephus, in suggesting that this led Herod Antipas to imprison the prophet. According to Matthew, it was at this time that John began to doubt his mission and Jesus provided reassurance by calling John’s attention to the evidence of miracles (Matt 11:2-6). John was subsequently executed. Matthew’s Gospel goes further than Josephus in suggesting that John’s personal criticism of Herod lay behind his arrest, also that Herod’s vanity allowed him to be manipulated into executing the prophet (Matt 14:3).