John the Baptist in History and Theology

Joel Marcus
University of South Carolina Press
Published Year: 
Cover image of John the Baptist for Professor Joel Marcus' new book

Joel Marcus, Ph.D., professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke Divinity School, has written a new book challenging the conventional Christian hierarchy of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.

The book, John the Baptist in History and Theology, was published in November by the University of South Carolina Press and offers an in-depth analysis by Marcus in which he argues that while the Christian tradition has subordinated John the Baptist to Jesus, John himself would likely have disagreed with that ranking. 

In the published work, Marcus makes a powerful case that John saw himself, not Jesus, as the proclaimer and initiator of the kingdom of God and his own ministry as the center of God's saving action in history. The New Testament scholar contends that biblical and extrabiblical evidence reveals a continuing competition between the two men that early Christians sought to muffle.

 Like Jesus, John was an apocalyptic prophet who looked forward to the imminent end of the world and the establishment of God's rule on earth, Marcus explains. Originally a member of the Dead Sea Sect, an apocalyptic community within Judaism, John broke with the group over his growing conviction that he himself was Elijah, the end-time prophet who would inaugurate God's kingdom on earth. Jesus began his career as a follower of John the Baptist, but, like other successor figures in religious history, he parted ways from his predecessor as he became convinced of his own centrality in God's purposes. Meanwhile John’s mass following and apocalyptic message became political threats to Herod Antipas, who had John executed to abort any revolutionary movement.

Based on close critical-historical readings of early texts—including the accounts of John in the Gospels and in Josephus's Antiquities—the book concludes with reflections on how its revisionist interpretations might be incorporated into the Christian faith.

Marcus, a Jewish Christian who specializes in the relationship between ancient Judaism and early Christianity, has written numerous books including a two-volume commentary on the Gospel of Mark in the Anchor Bible series. He was honored in October by the publication of a volume of essays written by an internationally renowned group of scholars focusing on studies of the historical interactions and formations of Judaism and Christianity. The volume, The Ways That Often Parted: Essays in Honor of Joel Marcus, was published by the SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) Press as part of The Early Christianity and Its Literature (ECL) series.