Baker Academic

Monday, October 15, 2012

So you need a dissertation topic (Installment 1): Was Jesus a disciple of John the Baptist?

Almost every historical Jesus scholar who doesn’t have the word “conspiracy” in their first paragraph argues or assumes that Jesus began as a disciple of John the Baptist. Admittedly, I’m partial to this view myself. But where is the evidence? If one assumes that Jesus was baptized by Jesus, does this show that Jesus spent much time with John? If one assumes that Jesus and John were cousins (less are inclined to such a view), does this demonstrate that Jesus sat at the feet of John? All of the canonical Gospels acknowledge that John’s career was in some way connected to Jesus’ career. Again, why assume that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist based on the traditions we have?

There are several possible ways to explain this connection and none of these are given much thought by Jesus scholars. Perhaps Jesus and John admired one another from afar. Perhaps Jesus’ relationship with John was more like that of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie – i.e. maybe Jesus popped into meet the crazy guy once or twice just to check him out. Perhaps the evangelists extrapolated the relationship between John and Jesus from overlapping sermon topics that had circulated and conflated in oral tradition. But, and here is the beauty of this topic, one does not need to prove an alternative theory in order to point out the frailty of the assumptions from which most Jesus historians build.

There is much work to be done and I do not intend to pursue this myself. Have at it!

-anthony

14 comments:

  1. When I was at Edinburgh, there was a part-time PhD student working on precisely this question, named Max Aplin. I'm not sure what he ever came up with? He was a student of Helen Bond's.

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  2. Chris,

    He apparently got his PhD in the topic. You can read it here: http://www.era.lib.ed.ac.uk/bitstream/1842/5467/2/Aplin2011.pdf

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    1. Like I said, a good dissertation topic!

      thanks for the heads up.

      -anthony

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  3. Fascinating. I've been keeping my eyes peeled for a good thesis topic. Thanks for the jumpstart!

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  4. I would think the internal evidence of the Gospels is against the view that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist:

    1) John doesn't want to baptize Jesus, saying that he should be baptized by Jesus, instead. That's not the sort of thing a teacher says to his disciple.
    2) Jesus points to the difference between himself and John: John is an ascetic. Jesus eats and drinks with sinners. This would be evidence that Jesus is not following in the footsteps of John and probably wasn't his disciple.
    3) John asks Jesus if he is the one (I assume he meant the Messiah), or if they should wait for someone else. This suggests that John didn't have enough personal knowledge of Jesus that would normally come if Jesus had been his disciple.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Bilbo, let me know when you finish that red book of yours. And look out for the S-B's.

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    2. Gave all my notes to my nephew, I'm afraid. He'll probably lose them, like he lost that Ring of mine.

      Meanwhile, if one assumes the historical reliability of the passages I referred to above, would that constitute strong evidence that Jesus wasn't John's disciple?

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    3. Bilbo, "if one assumes the historical reliability..." is going to be a sticking point for most historians. This is not to say that these passages aren't reliable. I tend to think they provide a very good window into the character of the Baptist - but one cannot assume.

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  5. Anthony, I'm not sure that's true for "most historians", as you commented yesterday. Most NT scholars tend to feel that way, yes. And on the subject of the Gospels, perhaps "most historians" also happen to lead towards incredulity. All this is true.

    However, if your point was intended as generally as I took it to be, I must say I just don't think it's quite true. Historians in all kinds of fields take written testimony on faith all the time. So do cops, courts, judges & juries. In fact, the practice of assuming veracity, at least hypothetically, is very common among all strands of historians... except, naturally, when one wanders toward Jesus studies.

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  6. My apologies for being overly vague. I do not think that I (or you for that matter) can speak for "most historians". Most historians do not tinker with Jesus studies. I will say that I read very broadly in historical studies, and when historians do mention Jesus and the Baptist, there is a general consensus.

    ...so I should have said, "most historians who write about Jesus".

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    1. Ah, I see now that you meant to interject on the Bilbo thread.

      I will stick to my reply to the halfling. In historical study, every assumption is fair game for deconstruction. Many assumptions hold up to scrutiny. But it will not do to simply assume.

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    2. Fair enough, but I only agree with "not assuming" in cases of determining historicity. For purposes of reconstruction (it should always be redundant if I write "hypothetical reconstruction", correct?) one can absolutely discuss the historical ramifications of trying on certain assumptions.

      For example:

      If Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or in concert with others, either "assumption" raises certain questions and requires further "assumptions". Yet, entirely without making a formal conclusion about the historicity of the primary question at hand [did Oswald act alone?], it remains entirely valid - and completely worthwhile, in fact potentially groundbreaking - to explore those scenarios in full and discuss various ramifications of taking each position.

      In the end, we may or may not ever determine the historicity of the primary question, but that does not, cannot and must not prevent historians of JFK from asking the questions, or from [hypothetically] reconstructing the various scenarios, at least to a point.

      Yes? Or no?

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  7. The Evangelical Quarterly published a paper about this in 1990 that is available online: http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/disciple_badke.pdf

    William B. Badke, “Was Jesus a Disciple of John?” The Evangelical Quarterly 62:3 (1990): 195-204.

    The paper may not be definitive, but it has some solid arguments and a bibliography of earlier work on the issue.

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  8. This helped me get good thesis ideas for my school requirement. I'm inclined to make mine an argumentative thesis about the doubts some people have about the NT, like if Mary really was a virgin all her life and Jesus's baptism, but it's not going to be a really intense study as a dissertation, since it's just a high school requirement for me. I hope I do well.

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