What is the place of John the Baptist in the trajectory between the Old and New Testaments? What does his work say about God’s frustration with us after His long attempts, through both stories and prophecies, to persuade us to follow Him in the OT essentially fail? The OT tries but fails to go deep enough through both resistance to God generally and through bouts of idol worship against Him in our need for “transitional representations” of who we can not see for ourselves. This is no small problem, of course, which still plagues us today. Jesus later faced this even from His disciples, who saw everything. There are the differences between conjuring, seeing and understanding, and all Jews and Christians suffer from “the useless necessity of imagination” with God.
The ca. 150-year gap between the end of the OT and John the Baptist gave God plenty of time to come up with a new idea: bodily (and increasingly less slight) approximations of Himself on earth, first through John and then Jesus. He wanted to get past the “we can’t see You” problem, since this dogged Adam and Eve in the Garden from the beginning. Free will, for and against God, comes from “You are too invisible” beyond the physical world. I read a book several years ago with the obvious title of No One Sees God, but its meaning reverberates through every religion, and tends to supplant mystery with doctrine. You would know better than me if the OT prophets ever ventured out amongst the people in the manner of John, or “merely wrote” their concerns.
Regarding John, it would be quite useful to know the length of his own efforts prior to Jesus’ baptism, simply as a starting point for how he is uniquely different from the OT prophets. The trio of “complaining” (or, more Biblically, exhortative) prophets (being Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) are both summarized in John beyond mere writing, but also in the flesh as perhaps the first example of “word becomes flesh.” Instead of those who can not read Scripture being left behind, John leaves his (apparent) father, Zechariah, behind to go into the wilderness to “feed the people” directly. Scholar John Paul Meier states that the crowds found John to be fascinating, perhaps because of the style (locusts and honey) as well as his introduction of baptism (an action, not only reading) to the Jews. He is thus a “walking advertisement” for what God now is asking for from His people: do not simply read about Me, I send you this man to give you guidance. Meier thinks that John also offered them advice about how to pray and how to deal with the “concrete morality” concerns of daily life.
Meier doubts the Mary—Elizabeth dual-pregnancy story is historical, and thinks it was fabricated by the early Christian church later on to solidify the relationship between John and Jesus. He is inclined to think that Jesus spent perhaps several months with John’s group, having traveled to Galilee from Nazareth to find out about him and, ultimately, to be baptized. Jesus also came to understand John’s “only human” limitations (no miracles), but saw him as a foundation for what He wanted to do Himself. The old question is: how much did Jesus know of His mission prior to being baptized? Clearly, John gives Jesus permission to challenge the commonplace Jewish sentiments of their time, and not remain hamstrung by doctrines, the Law and social customs. John chastises his fellow Jews as a preface to what Jesus will later do with the Pharisees, in particular, some of whom, rather ambivalently, come to John to be baptized (Matthew 3:7). Whether John sees himself as a new prophet, such as Elijah, is unclear, yet seems to think that, through this new-fangled baptism, he is “on to something” from God. In doing psychotherapy, there is always the question of patients’ capacity for transcendent function, meaning to outgrow the negative impact of their histories toward any better psychological status. In a slight sense, John provides the Israelites a new version of the OT prophets within which to see if such transcendence becomes more possible, both in-person and through baptism.
For me, John represents God’s changing His mind about how to affect people, which has ramifications for the clergy. If the OT is primarily exhortative, John represents the embodiment of this style in a visible person, but he offers something more: that baptism is a ritual which begins to shrink the Jews’ resistance through doing rather than merely reading and thinking—-it is a step beyond exhortation to buy into a physicalized symbolism that says: why else would you do this, submerge your psyche (soul?) to be cleansed, if not for God? Baptists today tend to insist on full immersion for this reason: the resistance gets diminished (at least temporarily) as an introduction to “sighting the divine.” For each clergy-person, John and Jesus tell you, beyond OT exhortation, to draw your flocks to you, do not be afraid to be Spiritually magnetic, but be sure you have something to offer them once they do come, because, if not, they will turn away. The Catholic clergy has remained overly exhortative, and it has cost them so much, since we have all met “lapsed Catholics” who drifted away from such exhortations. Meier, as have other recent scholars, digs deeper to make better sense of who John and Jesus were, and is not content to merely recycle Christian traditions, which is what interests me.
Christians are not the Israelites awaiting their Messiah, since we already have One. Borrow from John and Jesus what you can for us, but exhortation, in our age of television’s constant advertising, will no longer work. It never really did.
In my sense of the old concept of metanoia, repentance actually comes after the insightful need to accept Jesus and God, not before. Otherwise, it is: why are we repenting, and it may well not stick. Idol worship functioned as our human need for physicalized representations of God to see and touch (see Ezekiel 14:6, which has this backwards). In psychology, this is referred to as “transitional objects,” like stuffed animals for young children. Idol worship was necessary for the Israelites to adapt to monotheism until “someone better” (John and Jesus) came along. This is why Protestants wear crosses or Catholics use rosary beads. We can not imagine God well enough to suit us, doctrines or not. Even Jesus confused the disciples too much until after the Resurrection, and only then they willingly died for Him.
God says use My people and not only your ideas about Me, since too much of what you think about Me is too far off the mark. Ask anyone who has visited Heaven and come back to tell us about it. It is almost entirely unimaginable. So is God.