In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John the Baptist

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • John in Books on the Historical Jesus
  • Historiographical and Methodological Issues
  • John in Josephus
  • Chronology and Death
  • Places of Activity
  • John’s Diet and Clothing
  • John’s Disciples, Baptist Sects, Mandaeans
  • John and the Essenes

Biblical Studies John the Baptist
Federico Adinolfi, Joan Taylor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0135


John the Baptist is an enigmatic figure within the New Testament. In Christian tradition his role as the precursor to Jesus has been emphasized, with theological stress laid on the presentation of the Fourth Gospel: John is the forerunner who points the way to Jesus as the “lamb of God” (1:29). John was a remarkable figure who called for repentance and baptism ahead of a coming figure’s arrival (Matthew 3:1–12, Mark 1:2–8, Luke 3:1–18, John 1:19–28). Since he baptized Jesus, at the beginning of Jesus’ mission, the relationship between the two men has long been of interest. John’s status as a widely esteemed man, unjustly killed, is also evidenced by Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews 19:116–119. From Josephus and the New Testament, it appears that John was known as the “baptist” or “baptizer” due to his practice of a distinctive type of water immersion. John enjoyed a reputation both as a teacher of righteousness and as a prophet. The unsettling political implications of his eschatological message, perhaps coupled with a vehement rhetoric centered on the observance of the ethical dimensions of the Law and criticisms of immorality, likely stand behind the decision of Herod Antipas to have him arrested and then executed. Specific studies on John are not numerous, though explorations that define him in relation to Jesus—in order to clarify Jesus’ purpose—are frequently done. Renewed interest in John in his own right has arisen within the “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus. The following article moves from the general to the particular, covering academic literature on John that becomes increasingly specific. The starting point is Reference Works, which includes concise and general “first approach” treatments.

Reference Works

Valuable general entries and articles on John the Baptist can be found in most encyclopedias and reference works on theological and biblical issues. Chilton 2008, Evans 2008, and Taylor 2010 are ideal for quick consultation and offer concise summaries of the views that these authors (especially Bruce Chilton and Joan Taylor) have developed in other publications. Lupieri 1992, Hollenbach 1979, and Hollenbach 1992 are more thorough contributions by two well-known “John questers.” Since Paul Hollenbach has published no self-standing monograph, these two articles are representative of a historiographically important perspective that is sensitive to a social-scientific approach. Backhaus 2011 offers the most comprehensive and updated overview, equally conversant with Anglo-American and Continental European scholarship. Finally, Webb 2000 summarizes the author’s influential views, with particular attention to the relation between John and Qumran.

  • Backhaus, Knut. “Echoes from the Wilderness: The Historical John the Baptist.” In Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Vol. 2, The Study of Jesus. Edited by Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter, 1747–1785. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2011.

    A long and comprehensive article, covering every aspect relevant to the study of John, including short discussions of the history of research, sources, and methods, and a final paragraph on John and Jesus. The article is also useful in that it illustrates for English-speaking readers some of the tendencies of German scholarship on John, though the author is fully conversant with non-German literature as well.

  • Chilton, Bruce D. “John the Baptist.” In The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus. Edited by Craig A. Evans, 339–342. New York: Routledge, 2008.

    Summarizes Chilton’s distinctive views on John as a performer of a common, repeatable, Jewish rite of purification, and his rejection of the synoptic chronology of John’s ministry in favor of 21 CE as the date of John’s death.

  • Evans, Craig A. “John the Baptist.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 3, I–Ma. Edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 145–151. Nashville: Abingdon, 2008.

    Presents John as a restoration prophet and illustrates his links with the figure of Elijah and the books of Malachi and Isaiah.

  • Hollenbach, Paul. “Social Aspects of John the Baptizer’s Preaching Mission in the Context of Palestinian Judaism.” In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt. Vol. II.19.1. Edited by Wolfgang Haase and Hildegard Temporini, 850–875. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1979.

    Hollenbach takes over from his mentor Carl Kraeling the view of John as an alienated rural priest and develops it in a thorough sociopolitical interpretation. John proclaimed a harsh message of doom on the religious and political elites, calling on them to repent and abandon their oppressive ways. To the repentant ones he promised a future cleansing that would enable them to follow the high ethical standards that John demanded of them.

  • Hollenbach, Paul. “John the Baptist.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 3, H–J. Edited by David Noel Freedman, 893–897. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

    The article repeats the substance of Hollenbach 1979, offering in addition some methodological considerations on the value of social-scientific criticism, a contextualization of John within Richard Horsley’s classification of popular prophetic movements, and a general overview of the portraits of John in the Gospels and Josephus.

  • Lupieri, Edmondo. “John the Baptist in New Testament Tradition and History.” In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt. Vol. II.26.1. Edited by Wolfgang Haase and Hildegard Temporini, 430–461. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1992.

    An analysis of the portraits of John in the Gospels and Josephus, with prudent evaluations (notably skeptic with regard to the content of his preaching) of the historical traditions underlying them. The article offers a good summary of the arguments developed in Lupieri 1988 (cited under Recent Historical Monographs). An even-shorter summary is in Religion Past and Present: Encyclopedia of Theology and Religion, Vol. 7, Joh–Mah, 4th ed., edited by Hans Dieter Betz (Leiden, The Netherlands, and New York: Brill, 2009), pp. 25–27.

  • Taylor, Joan E. “John the Baptist.” In The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism. Edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, 819–821. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.

    Published in the standard reference work for the study of Second Temple Judaism, the article offers a synthetic overview of all the main issues concerning John the Baptist and his ministry.

  • Webb, Robert L. “John the Baptist.” In The Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Vol. 1, A–M. Edited by Lawrence H. Schiffman and James C. VanderKam, 418–421. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1093/acref/9780195084504.001.0001

    Webb draws first a brief portrait of John and then assesses similarities and dissimilarities with the Qumran community, concluding that only an indirect link, due to a common milieu, existed. An annotated bibliography on the topic closes the article.

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