Imagine: an afternoon desert. The wilderness at its horizon. Together we're crossing a well-traveled path. Our destination? A river about thirty miles east of Jerusalem's walls.
Who do you want to be? A corrupt soldier? A widow? A businessman making his weekly trip through Bethabara? It doesn't matter. For this story our role is simple: that of a witness.
We're headed towards the Jordan River. When we arrive at its banks there's already a crowd. At the center is a man in his thirties. He's lean and wild, his robes fashioned from camel hair, a belt of leather at his waist. The rumor is he only eats locusts and honey. Lately he's been preaching about judgment, repentance, and divine forgiveness. Though the reason for the crowd has more to do with the act, in the river, that follows his sermons.
He's known as John, Son of Zechariah, but everyone is calling him John the Baptist, or more specifically, John the Baptizer. Supposedly he's been camping out in this desert to escape persecution; by now his sermons have attracted the attention of Jerusalem's authorities. Perhaps he's a defector from one of the area's religious groups, known as the Essenes: an acetic sect whose members have begun washing one another in a ritualistic fashion.
Regardless, the crowd is huge. And not everyone is a fan. Included among the many people are informants for the Pharisees and the Sadducees. We arrive just as they've finished questioning John; all we catch is his response. "Brood of vipers!" he shouts at them. Then to everyone else in a gentler tone: "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." And shouting again: "The ax is already at the root of the trees! Every tree that doesn't produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire!"
And so on. Really, what matters now is the arrival of another man, someone we're still unaware of. Which is unusual, if you take the time to consider it. After all, when you find yourself thinking about a certain Jesus of Nazareth, how often do you picture him alone and unnoticed: an itinerant carpenter working his way through strangers to glimpse, in the distance, a person of unparalleled interest?
He's about the same age as John, this Nazarene. And whether he knows it or not he's enjoying his last few minutes of anonymity. Is he exhausted from his journey through the desert? Does he feel the sand at his ears and throat? A painful blister at the toe? What about his dried tongue? Unfocused eyes? Or the way his robes cling his shoulders and groin, the effort of his passage like a second grainy skin...
Our primary sources have never been too concerned with these types of details. Instead we have the river, its crowd. A lean, wild-looking man. And in his midst: an anonymous carpenter. It's almost time for the main event. But the Pharisees and Sadducees have a final question. "Are you the messiah?" one of them asks.
"No," John says. What he offers next is surprising; taken alone, it's not quite enough for the religious authorities to move against him. But in context, it's revolutionary. John likens himself to the prophet Elijah and predicts that someone very powerful is about to appear. "I baptize you with water," he says. "But he'll baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
That's it. The informants seem satisfied. Besides, they're as curious as we are to see what happens next.
Overhead: a high, blatant sun. The river is sluggish and shallow. The crowd is pressing towards its banks. Like us, they're covered with the desert's grime. One by one they approach John, who's standing waist-deep in the water. Each is grasped and dunked. Some emerge wildly. Others as if in a trance. A few don't seem the least bit changed. But there's one consistency; in our focus on this moment we've all accepted the centrality of its act, which means that every time it occurs there's the feeling, however personal, of watching something happen as if for the very first time.
Suddenly it's your turn. John grabs you. The sky, the rush of water, its current decked briefly with light. And while you can probably articulate what it feels like to emerge, afterwards, into a world you still recognize, at the center of it all is something more complex.
In John's time, physical shortcomings like a limp, or blindness, or chronic pain were understood to represent a past offense; you were this way because you deserved it. It was the same with what we'd now call mental illness. Even societal hardships fell under the equation of sin; the suffering you endured from a flood or earthquake was sent, purposefully, by an extremely displeased—one might even say moody—deity.
Which is where John steps in. His act in the water is actually an offer of forgiveness for all the things beyond human control. And this is where the business gets tricky, since total absolution is usually only dispensed by the type of figure powerful enough to rain down calamity in the first place.
By now we've emerged from the river. Looking back we can see that the line is long. In it, still unrecognizable, the Nazarene waits, wreathed in sand and sweat. Finally it's his turn; he approaches and is held, briefly, under the water.
What happens next is unclear. A reflection? A bird? The shimmer of the endlessly blue sky? From what point does the commotion begin?
It doesn't matter. Like everything else, this uproar peaks and recedes. In its wake, we notice two figures in the dirty water; they're occupying the spot in the river we'd so recently held as our own. But it's clear enough: they've switched places. Now the Nazarene isn't anything like the rest of us. In an instant he's been made more powerful than the person we came to see. How can you tell? As the crowd at the riverbank looks on, this previously unknown carpenter takes John by the nape of the neck and, with the measure of someone fitting into place a heavy beam—or laying to rest a corpse—proceeds to dip him beneath the sluggish surface of the river.
Let's take a moment and speak honestly: most of this story is almost certainly false.
What do we really know? Not much. In first-century Palestine, someone resembling John the Baptist's profile probably existed. And if Jesus did, too, then in all likelihood he traveled down from Galilee and, like so many others, was dunked in water by this figure of growing popularity.
For early Christianity, such an event was inconvenient, to say the least; why would the son of God—a god himself—need to seek forgiveness from a skinny, half-crazed locust-eater in the desert?
In fact, the meeting between the two might actually be one of the truest moments in the story of Jesus. It's so dissimilar to the usual, heavily edited portrait, the one the canonical gospels cobbled together a few generations after the events took place, that its inclusion can only be explained by the fact that no one would've kept it in the narrative if it didn't actually happen.
At least that's how it looks now, thousands of years later, to the academics who study the historical facts of the Gospels: John the Baptist as an inconvenience, an improbable turn in an otherwise smooth plot. It's why we get the depiction of him as a herald before their encounter—playing the role of an Old Testament prophet—along with the tacked-on drama at the end. (In The Gospel of Mark, the earliest one, the conclusion is a bit less subtle: the sky tears open, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice from heaven shouts down with startling affection: "You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.") To quote John Dominic Crossan, perhaps the foremost contemporary expert on the subject, such additions were a form to "theological damage control"—an expression of the early Church's discomfort "with the idea of John baptizing Jesus."1
But let's set all that aside for a moment. Regardless of faith, or the historicity of Jesus—whatever it is you consider to be the sole indivisible property in the truth—an additional question remains.
Before these two men crossed paths in the shallows of a muddy river, John was an ascetic preacher with a significant following: someone who liked to give sermons on judgment, fire, and the forgiveness of the sins that define our individual identities; whose performance had come to include the coup de theatre of being immersed, bodily, in water.
Afterwards, however, he was recast as a herald, which in our modern world is perhaps best understood as resembling a baseball scout, or a keen if irascible theater critic: someone savvy enough to recognize the importance of what another person is doing.
The question, then: if you take away John's brief interaction with an itinerant carpenter from Galilee, who, or what, is left?
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