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Jesus' Cousin John (the Baptist): "No One Greater" (Bonus Section)

SERIES INFO: This series of blog articles will include topics (and bonus sections) I couldn't fit into my book Reintroducing Jesus: Uncovering Jesus of Nazareth in the Misinformation Age.


In Reintroducing Jesus we looked at Jesus’ family, but we skipped an important member: Cousin John—better known as John the Baptist (not to be confused with Jesus’ disciple John). John the Baptist was a big deal. He was the first prophet in Israel in 430 years. Jesus said there was "no one greater" (Matthew 11:11).

To be as clear, “the Baptist” doesn’t denote John’s denomination, such as “John the Pentecostal” or “John the Anglican.” Christian denominations wouldn’t exist yet for a long, long time. He’s called this because he baptized people, so perhaps to avoid confusion we should call him John the Baptizer, as some do. But I think you’re sharp enough not to get confused.

After Jesus’ mother learned she was pregnant through a supernatural act of the Holy Spirit, she went to stay with Elizabeth, her cousin, who was pregnant with John. If we assume Elizabeth is Mary’s first cousin, this would make John Jesus’ first cousin once removed.

Elizabeth was barren and past child-bearing years. While her husband, Zechariah (not to be confused with the Old Testament prophet), a priest, was serving in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him. The angel told him that Elizabeth would give birth and to name the boy John. Zechariah basically replied, “That’s crazy talk!” and he was struck dumb (Luke 1:5–25). Yes, it was pretty dumb to talk back to an angel of God. (I mean dumb in the other way.) So, Zechariah couldn’t talk, and for a good nine months Elizabeth could complain all she wanted about feeling bloated and uncomfortable, and Zechariah was a good husband who quietly listened. Six months before Jesus’ birth, John was born. When Zechariah wrote down that his son’s name was to be John, his ability to speak immediately returned (Luke 1:57–66).

Unlike Jesus in Luke’s gospel, we don’t get any glimpses into John’s childhood. The next time John is mentioned, he’s all grown and already shaking things up. Luke, a careful historian, gives us enough information for us to know that John’s ministry started around AD 26 along the Jordan River (Luke 3:1–3).


Sadly, John made some powerful people angry and ended up with his head on a platter—literally. Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, had stolen his half-brother’s wife, Herodias, and John condemned their adultery. (My guess is Herod wanted the perfect combined celebrity couple’s name—like Bennifer or Kimye or Brangelina—but marrying Herodias was just easier.) In the Gospels, John is arrested for calling out Herod Antipas for stealing his brother’s wife and executed by Antipas because of the influence of Herodias (Matthew 14:1–12; Mark 6:14–29).

Ancient Jewish historian Josephus (who also writes of Jesus and James, Jesus’ brother) confirms that Antipas arrested John but gives a different reason: Antipas was threatened by the following John was amassing and feared rebellion.

The intensely saucy Reza Aslan claims in his bestseller Zealot [1] that both John and Jesus were revolutionaries promoting armed revolt against the Romans. Reza accepts Josephus’ account about John as accurate over the Gospels. Yet, Reza (quite conveniently) doesn’t mention that Josephus, like the Gospel writers, says absolutely nothing about John being any sort of anti-Roman insurgent. Josephus describes John as “a good man” who “exhorted Jews to lead righteous lives and practice justice,” to be baptized for the pardon of sins and to practice “proper behavior” [2]. You really have to read what you want into this to make John the Baptist into a first-century Che Guevara.

Let me point out, Josephus was a Jew living among Romans, benefitting from Romans, and writing to Romans. If John was an anti-Roman zealot put to death for inciting hostility towards Rome, what would Josephus gain by portraying him as a nice guy? Anyhow, the same exact argument I made in Reintroducing Jesus for the New Testament being our earliest, most-reliable source for learning about Jesus can be made for John the Baptist as well. In other words, even if you’re an atheist historian, you should agree that the New Testament is a more reliable source than Josephus.


For the record, both reports could be correct without contradiction. Antipas could have arrested John because he was speaking out against his adulterous relationship while John preached to the masses and gained more disciples, and Antipas feared it would lead to public backlash, even revolt.

Further, not only do all four Gospels and Josephus confirm the life and ministry of John the Baptist (as well as his arrest and death at the hands of Antipas), but Josephus’ account actually indirectly affirms the Gospels.

Josephus tells us that many Jews believed a devastating military defeat Herod Antipas suffered in AD 36 was the result of “divine vengeance” for his execution of John. This battle was fought and lost against King Aretas IV of Nabatea. You see, it was King Aretas’ daughter who Herod Antipas kicked to the curb to shack up with his half-brother’s wife, Herodias. So, John was arrested for condemning the adultery of Antipas and Herodias (according to the Gospels), the same adultery that led to hostility between Antipas and King Aretas, which lead to Antipas’ crushing defeat by King Aretas, which the Jews saw as “God’s vindication of John” (according to Josephus) [3]! Boom!


Interestingly, an easily-overlooked detail in the Gospels lends credibility to their accounts.

Luke’s gospel mentions Joanna, who had been healed by Jesus and traveled with Jesus as a disciple. This same Joanna was also Antipas’ household manager (Luke 8:1-3). This subtle detail from Luke’s gospel is complimented by another subtle detail in Matthew’s gospel where Antipas is speculating that this Jesus he keeps hearing about is John the Baptist back from the dead. Antipas must have been freaking out! Wouldn’t you if you thought some guy you beheaded was walking around? But the subtle (and odd) detail is that he was freaking out “to his servants” (Matthew 14:1-2). Why would a powerful man like Antipas be talking about this to his servants? Well, if he knew one of his household servants was close with Jesus, wouldn’t it make sense he would talk to her about Jesus? So, the gospel writers had an “inside man” in Herod Antipas’ household.

Subtle, collaborating details like these aren’t likely to be invented; instead, they give credibility to the Gospels. These subtle collaborating details between the Gospels are evidence of their historical credibility. (They’re called Undesigned Coincidences. I recommend reading Hidden In Plain View by Lydia McGrew).


Other than the uniqueness of his conception and birth, what was so special about John the Baptist?

To start, during his ministry, John warned of coming divine wrath. He used the image of an axe at the base of a tree, ready to be cut down and thrown into a fire if it didn’t produce good fruit. He preached baptism as a public proclamation of one’s repentance of the wrongs he or she has done. Baptism comes from the Greek word meaning to be immersed in liquid, so John was dunking people in the Jordan. And he wasn’t acting like your bully brother at the public pool; people were volunteering for this.

John also taught to “bear fruit” in accordance with this repentance, meaning to live rightly in response to your public repentance. Think of it this way: once you apologize is the apology sincere if you keep on purposely doing the offense? Likewise, if you repent of your wrongs to God and don’t attempt to change your behavior, is the repentance sincere?

Yet, to “bear fruit” is more. It’s not just not doing something; it’s also doing something. John told people who had more than they needed to share with others who had less (Luke 3:7–14).


But John was also upfront that his mission was to prepare the way for someone else—someone special coming after him—someone whose sandals he wasn’t worthy to touch (John 1:27; Luke 3:16; Mark 1:7). Now, let’s unpack that. This was quite a statement that’s likely lost on most of us today. Think about a first-century person in the Middle East walking around all day in sandals. Would you want to touch the person’s sandals? Not only would the sandals be filthy from dirt and sweat, but they most likely had trodden around domestic animals, so you don’t have to think long to realize what else was on them. In households that had the means, removing the sandals of someone who came into the home would’ve been the work of the lowliest servant or slave. John says he’s not even worthy to do this to the one who’s coming.

John the Baptist was a big deal. He was the first prophet in Israel in 430 years! Crowds of people were going out to see him, and not just to check out his hipster style or to see him eat bugs like some lame first-century reality show (Mark 1:6). Many of his fellow Jews wondered if he was the return of the eminent Old Testament prophet Elijah. Elijah had never died but was taken up into heaven (2 Kings 2:11), and many Jews believed he would appear again when the Messiah appeared because of a prophecy by Malachi:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.”(Malachi 4:5) [4]

Others in ancient Israel wondered if John was the prophet who God told Moses would come and be like him (Deuteronomy 18:15–19). And Moses was a big deal, a very big deal. Some even asked John if he was the Messiah. But John was clear: “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him” (John 3:28).

All four Gospels make it indisputably clear that John is preparing Israel for the coming of Jesus of Nazareth.

After Jesus’ ministry starts, John’s disciples get sulky, accusing Jesus of hogging all the attention. John corrects them, saying Jesus “must increase, but I must decrease.” John even encourages his disciples to become Jesus' disciples, including Andrew, Peter’s brother, who is the first to tell Peter about Jesus (John 1:30, 35–40).

John proclaims that he baptizes with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.


And what does Jesus say about his cousin?

“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” (Matthew 11:11)

This is puzzling. How is John “greater”? To who? Everyone? Based on the context of the passage, Jesus is saying John is the greatest of the prophets because he’s the one to introduce the Messiah and usher in a new era. John is the last and greatest prophet of the Old Testament era. Jesus even calls John “more than a prophet” (Matthew 11:9, 11)!

Like I said, John was a big deal.


Jesus also states that John is Elijah (Matthew 11:14), another puzzling statement because John himself plainly says he is not Elijah! (John 1:21) How can we rectify this?

If we look at the words of the angel Gabriel when he announces to John’s father the future birth of his son, it clears things up: “[John] will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:16–17).

Also, in the Old Testament, after Elijah is taken up into heaven, Elijah’s disciple Elisha takes his place. Those closely associated with the prophets recognize this, stating, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha” (2 Kings 2:15).

So, John is not literally Elijah, but his work mirrors Elijah’s. (This can also be seen in the many similarities between John and Elijah, even their physical descriptions [2 Kings 1:7-8; Matthew 3:4]).


We can’t ignore that the Gospel writers apply to John the Baptist Old Testament passages foretelling the one who would prepare the way for the Lord (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:2–3; Luke 3:4–6). In fact, John himself applies one of these passages to himself (John 1:23), and Jesus does the same (Luke 7:27). Here are those passages:

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me…

(Malachi 3:1)

A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD…’ (Isaiah 40:3) [5]

Let me point out something important: neither of these passages are speaking about the Messiah. The “me” in Malachi 3:1 is God—God is speaking. So, “the messenger” will prepare the way for “me”—for God. Likewise, in Isaiah 40:3, the one crying out is preparing everyone for the coming of—not “a lord” or even “the Lord”—but the LORD. When you see “LORD” written in all caps in English translations of the Old Testament, this is a substitute for the actual name of the one and only God of the Jews as it was given to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:13–14. “I AM” in English = YHWH or “Yahweh” in Hebrew). Replacing God’s name with “LORD” is a tradition that goes way back in the history of the Jews to prevent them from breaking one of the Ten Commandments: using God’s name carelessly (Exodus 20:7).

If John is the preparer described in these passages (as the Gospels, John himself, and Jesus all say he is), then he’s preparing Israel for the coming of God to earth.


Yet, despite John the Baptist being filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment of his conception (Luke 1:15), he had a time of doubt. Yes, John, without restraint, proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah [6]. John also announced that Jesus was “the Lamb of God” who would take away sin (John 1:29), an insight the Holy Spirit likely gave him [7]. But something didn’t go according to John’s expectations: John was arrested, and soon he would be beheaded.

As he sat behind bars, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus a question: Are you the coming one or shall we look for another? (Matthew 11:3) The implication is: Are you the Messiah like I thought or did I make a mistake? If you’re the Messiah, why am I in prison? Shouldn’t you be running these ungodly rulers out of Israel?

Jesus tells John’s disciples,

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. (Matthew 11:4–5)

Jesus’ answer points to the Old Testament, to prophecies in Isaiah about the new, restored creation. He’s saying his miraculous works are signs of the renewing of creation. Yes, the Kingdom of God and its king has arrived.

But something else is also going on here; Jesus has combined several passages in his answer to John the Baptizer, and if you read the two main passages he references, you’d see they both also speak of the day where God would come in vengeance (Isaiah 35:4–6; 61:1–2 are the main passages. But also see Isaiah 26:19; 29:18–19). Yet, Jesus doesn’t quote these parts to John’s disciples. He leaves them out.

So, the Kingdom of God has already come, but the day of God’s wrath—the time for evil to be punished—is not yet. As both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth taught, there was still time before that day. Repent and believe the good news of Christ!

[1] Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. Random House, 2013.

[2] Josephus: The Essential Writings, Translated by Paul L. Maier. 266-267.

[3] Same as above.

[4] Jews, to this day, leave an empty seat at the table during the Passover feast in case Elijah shows up.

[5] Or: “A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the LORD!”

[6] John understood Jesus to be “the Son of God” (John 1:34), but despite what a lot of people think, “Son of God” is just another title for the Messiah. It wasn’t taken to mean the Messiah was necessarily divine.

[7] I don’t think John understood Jesus would go to the cross. It seems John was speaking a truth he didn’t fully grasp, much like High Priest Caiaphas does later in the Gospel of John (11:49–52). For the record, I think the Gospel’s writer purposely included John the Baptist’s words about Jesus being “the Lamb of God” fully intending for his readers (living after the resurrection of Jesus) to understand the significance of those words, even if John the Baptist himself didn’t fully grasp them.


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