John the Baptizer had a tough job. Aside from his strict lifestyle (see Part 1 and Part 2), John was filled with what we might call a dangerous vision: the idea that God wants people to live in ways that enhance, not destroy, their lives and societies. For John, this meant a return to following the Law, which we Christians call the Ten Commandments. Baptism was the symbol of this return to a more holistic way of living in which people were mindful of God’s instructions and tried their best to live accordingly.

But where did John get this idea about Baptism? It turns out that the concept was quite common in the Hellenized, or Greek-influenced, culture which surrounded the Jews of John’s and Jesus’s day. As we mentioned previously, the word “baptism” means to wash, immerse or plunge. From the period of the Greek poet Homer onward, when the Greeks conquered or colonized much of the Mediterranean world, Baptism came to refer to any ritual that involved being immersed in water. This act was found in many religions of John’s day, including Judaism, according to The Encyclopedia of Religion(McMillan, 1987, page 59).

So neither Jews, including John’s followers, nor the followers of Jesus who became known as Christians, invented Baptism. What they did was to adapt it to match specific meanings for their faith. Consequently, despite John’s rough appearance and forthright, uncompromising preaching, many people came to him to be baptized as a sign of repentance. Yet the second part of Baptism’s meaning, spiritual redemption or forgiveness, still was linked to a person’s ability to follow the Law. Today we Christians refer to this as “works righteousness,” that is, the familiar system of reward and punishment, as in one of the favorite “tragedy songs” of my rock n’ roll youth, “Last Kiss,” about a couple who suffer a car wreck in which the girl dies. The lyrics went something like this:

“She’s gone to heaven, so I’ve got to be good, so I can see my baby when I leave this world.”

Now, friends, that’s about as bad a “triage theology” as we Christians can get. And unfortunately, the idea lingers today in many churches, that we follow the Ten Commandments solely so we can make it to heaven in the afterlife. This concept of “punishment/reward” denies the assurance of God’s forgiveness that is at the heart of following Jesus. Holding onto such bad theology leaves us trapped in a paradigm that comes far short of what we understand Baptism to mean, be and do. Phooey on that!

From a distance of 2,000 years, it’s easier for us to see how John prepared the way, literally and theologically, for Jesus. And John played his part brilliantly, because by stressing what was wrong with people’s individual and communal lives, he turned their attention toward God. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus likens John to the great Jewish prophet Elijah:

“And the disciples asked him, ‘Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first [before the Messiah appears]?‘ [Jesus] replied, ‘Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. …’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:10-13).

 This passage always makes me wonder about the possibility of reincarnation. After all, the Jewish concept of time was not a straight line, as our concept of time is today. My esteemed professor of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis, explained that Jews often viewed time as a series of great cycles. So was Jesus merely making a metaphorical reference when he said that John was Elijah, or was John Elijah reincarnated? Could it be possible that some truly great souls have such key roles in God’s cosmic scheme that they are sent back in human form many times? People such as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa certainly had qualities that we associate with prophets and saints such as John the Baptizer. I find this concept intriguing but unprovable; a lingering mystery.

Moving on to Luke 7:22-34, Jesus gives us the most complete portrait of the Baptizer and his impact:

“I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.) …”

Like many prophets not honored in their own communities (and that’s a story for another post), John ran afoul of The Powers That Be and came to a horrific end. In this case, the PTB was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who married Herodias, the ex-wife of his brother Philip, which under Jewish law made her Herod’s sister as well.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all report that there was bad blood between Herodias and John. The prophet had publicly condemned their union as both incest and adultery because of Herodias’ previous marriage to Philip. Incest AND adultery? That’s, a pretty hefty double play even in our morally loose time. It’s no wonder that Herod and Herodias were ticked off at John for denouncing them.

The 19th century painter Francisco Nery created “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist,” now in a Brazilian museum. 

Herod himself had wanted to kill John, but Herod was afraid of John’s followers. Now the king faced a dilemma: he had rashly promised the dancing daughter whatever she wanted, up to half his kingdom, because of the pleasure her performance had given Herod and his banquet guests. Her request for John’s head left Herod between the proverbial rock and hard place. A king couldn’t go back on his word, so Herod ordered John beheaded and his severed head presented to the daughter before the court, to show that Herod had fulfilled his oath.

Shocking as it is, the story of John the Baptist’s execution has captured people’s imaginations for centuries. Irish playwright Oscar Wilde wrote a play (in French, no less) about it that he titled Salome, which German composer Richard Strauss turned into an opera by the same name. The opera was instantly infamous for its “Dance of the Seven Veils,” in which the title character performed the equivalent of an operatic striptease. (No wonder Herod liked the dance so much!). However, there’s no biblical basis for such a revealing dance, although both stage and screen have made it seem so. (The opera is also famous for its final scene in which Salome professes her love for John, whose severed head sings a soprano-baritone duet with her. And people say the Bible is freaky!).

The real drama in John’s death is the way in which people with perverse motives tried to silence a righteous prophet. Yes, John was killed, but his righteous practice and his witness to God’s ultimate authority lived on in his disciples. The episode certainly is a mirror of how oppressive rulers and the righteous still clash with each other today.

Matthew 14:13 records that John’s disciples claimed their master’s body and buried it. Then they brought the news to Jesus, who went off to a deserted place to grieve for the prophet, who was his distant relative as well through their mothers’ relationship. No doubt Jesus, in his grief, recalled their last face-to-face meeting, when John, despite his misgivings, baptized Jesus in the Jordan. With that act, the two men established a new understanding of Baptism for Jesus’ followers. We’ll learn that story in the next post.