THE ORIGIN OF THE BAPTIST MOVEMENT
"There was a man sent from God, whose name was John." -- John 1:6 1. John and Contemporary Groups
Great attempt has been made in recent times to unveil the historical
beginnings of the Christian religion, and the work of John the Baptist has received
its share of critical attention. Modern inquiry has demanded an answer to the
question whether John was really a man sent from God or was the natural development
of previously existing circumstances and movements. No word or syllable in the
least has been overlooked that might point to the identification of John with any
movement or sect of his day. He is introduced to us by Luke as a child "in the
deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel" (Lk. 1:80). Mark (1:2-6) and
Matthew (3:1-6) describe his ministry as that of a wilderness preacher, hardened to
a Judaean life of deprivation, clothed in the coarsest of garments and eating the
plainest of food. Immediately, therefore, a host of modern critics traveled back
through nineteen hundred years, out into the deserts surrounding the Jordan, and
now return with many marvelous announcements concerning the strange peoples who
inhabited the wilderness of Judaea, among whom and like unto whom, they avow, was
this man John. We can almost ask with Jesus, "What went ye out into the wilderness
to see?" except that in this instance the critics went out in search not for a
prophet of God but for weird cenobite teachers who might bear a resemblance to the
(1) John and the Essenes. Bultmann [heretic], along with others, finds in the desert
and within Judaism a strange group called the Essenes, and concludes that "in all
probability John the Baptist and his sect belonged to this classification."1
Kohler, in The Jewish Encyclopedia, begins his article on John thus: "John the
Baptist: Essene saint and preacher; . . ."2 In the same reference work, Krauss
declares that John's baptism was the same measure for attaining holiness used by
the Essenes, "whose ways of life John also observed in all other respects."3
Bacon finds many Baptist sects flourishing in the days of John, all kin to the
great Precursor.4 Eisler discovers in the same wilderness Rekhabites, and is
positive that were it not for the distortion of the gospel tradition which tried to
identify John with the promised Elijah, we should have in the Baptist a perfect
picture of a Rekhabite.5
These discoveries may be illuminating in themselves, but they shed little or
no light upon the character of Christianity's great Forerunner; and as for the
identification of John with any contemporary desert sect, the more that is known of
his countrymen of whatever abode, the more singular and original stands the Baptist.
The origin of the Baptist movement will be found in John the son of Zacharias - in
him and in him alone.
Consider the tremendous differences which separated John from other desert
1. Grant, Form Criticism, p. 19. Part I is a translation of Rudolf Bultmann's [heretic]
"The Study of the Synoptic Gospels".
2. Vol. VII, p. 218.
3. "Baptism", The Jewish Ency., Vol. II, p. 499.
4. Gospel of the Hellenists, pp. 91-100.
5. The Messiah and John the Baptist, pp. 235-238.
teachers.1 They lived between horizons that were constantly narrowing, separating
each day further from the world of men and action. He was the personification of
the practical, a preacher whose movements tended toward greater areas of activity.
In their exclusiveness they shared their hidden wisdom with the few who dared to
seek them out, lured by their reputed sanctity, while the burning word of God in
the breast of John compelled him to go forth, warning men of an impending judgment.
John was not simply a desert teacher; no Banus teaching a Josephus. He was in the
wilderness brooding over the sins of the people, waiting for the voice of God, and
himself became that voice, preparing the way for the Lord.
Consider the contrast between John and the Essenes with whom he is frequently
identified.2 He stands separate and apart. They wore white robes; he was content
with a coat of camel's hair and a leathern girdle. They abstained from all animal
food - flesh, fish and locusts being by name interdicted; he partook of the
forbidden locusts. They found in matter the seat of sin; John, through his call to
repentance, plainly reveals that he found it in the will. They were pessimists who
gave up the world; he was a reformer who strove to make it better. Doubtless they
worshipped the sun and followed other Parseean and Pythagorean vagaries, all of
which were foreign to John. They formed of themselves a closed society, forbidding
marriage, accepting as "brethren" only a few men tested and chosen after a period of
probation; he summoned all alike to baptism. The Essenes passed in indifference the
sins of the people; John the Baptist fearlessly denounced Antipas as Elijah rose
up against Ahab. The Essenes had repudiated every Messianic hope - their vocation
was monastic; the very soul and life of John's ministry was the near approach of
the Messiah - his vocation was Messianic. The description of their washings as
found in Josephus, and the baptism of John as narrated in the Gospels, have
nothing in common except the use of water for a religious purpose. In their
ascetic self-satisfaction these quiet separatistic holy ones of Israel, bound
together by community of goods and obligations to perform daily lustrations, kept
themselves aloof from the vigorous work of John. Lightfoot has a spendid summary:
"If positive statements are allowable, it would be more true to fact to say that he
could not possibly have been an Essene. The rule of his life was isolation; the
principle of theirs, community."3
It may be concluded, then, that when John is described as being in the desert
until the time of his showing unto Israel, it is not meant that he is to be
identified with those who preceded him to those desolate environments. John went to
the wilderness not to join any monastic order, but rather in rebuke to the
corruptions of the times,4 and to commune with Israel's God through the study of the
Holy Scriptures and the mortifying of bodily appetites.
(2) John and the political movements of his day. Turning in another direction,
there are many who seek to find in the political aspirations of his day the whole
or partial explanation of the movement evoked by John. Eisler boldly declares
that "the political principles of the Baptist are clearly seen to be similar to,
1. Cf. Houghton, John the Baptist, p. 151.
2. The following summary on the Essenes and John is taken from Edersheim,
Jesus the Messiah, Vol. I, footnote, p. 264; Robertson, John the Loyal,
pp. 29-30; Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 245; Meyer, Comm. on Matt.,
pp. 73-74; Lightfoot, Dissertations, pp. 384-386.
3. Op. cit., p. 385.
4. Cf. Neander, The Life of Jesus Christ, pp. 48-49; Feather, The Last of
the Prophets, p. 32, footnote.
if not identical with, those of Judas of Galilee."1 [...]