Why should the religious authorities in Jerusalem show concern for a marginal figure attracting crowds to the wilderness and baptizing repentant sinners in the Jordan?
In cultures guided by honor, persons are expected to behave according to their inherited status. The Baptizer’s status or acquired honor derived from the fact that his father, Zechariah, was a devout rural priest.
Priest or Prophet?
But the Baptizer is not behaving like a priest. Instead, he looks very much like a member of the numerous groups of alienated priests that emerged as early as the sixth century BCE. These groups found themselves increasingly separated from the aristocratic priests in Jerusalem.
The historian Josephus indicates that the gulf between the latter and the large number of lower clergy was very great just before the outbreak of the Judaic rebellion against Rome in the mid-sixties CE.
A major cause of alienation was the widely known and very evident luxury in which the Jerusalem priestly aristocracy lived in contrast to the conditions of the rural clergy.
By his dress and diet, the Baptizer distances himself from this luxury and his rural priestly heritage and presents himself more like a prophet, a spokesperson who declares the will of God for the here and now.
The Jerusalem priests wonder whether John is an “action prophet” (a spokesperson who also leads a popular movement hoping that God will intervene in liberating action) or an “oracular prophet” (one who only pronounces words of redemption or judgment).
After interrogating John, the delegation from the Jerusalem authorities conclude that he is only an oracular prophet. He explicitly says he is not the light but only the witness to the light. He denies that he is the Messiah, or Elijah, or “the prophet” who was to return at the end of time.
He is but the voice crying in the wilderness exhorting his listeners to prepare the way of the Lord. Because Jesus has not yet been baptized nor initiated his ministry, the delegation isn’t interested in the “coming one” John announces.
Reform and Baptism
The second concern of the delegation is John’s baptism. “If you are not one of these expected figures, then why do you baptize?”
Baptism was rather common in antiquity even outside of Judaism. The mystery cults of Isis, Mithras, and Eleusis contained baptismal rites. In the Old Testament, Naaman was cleansed of his skin problem by bathing in the Jordan (2 Kgs 5:14).
The high priest was required to engage in a purification rite before and after the rites of atonement (Lv 16:4, 24), and Leviticus 15 prescribes it for menstruating women. The Qumran community, too, practiced a form of baptism. In each case, the meaning of the baptismal rite derives from the ritual context, or instruction, or tradition.
The Jerusalem delegation understands John’s baptismal rite to be a symbolic action. They want to know what it means. Mark and Luke identify it as a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” a rite symbolizing purification and cleansing, a return to God.
The evangelist John implies yet another dimension. The Baptist baptizes with water, but one who is to come after him will bring a more radical purification to those willing to repent (see Lk 3:16-17).
Ultimately, “one who is stronger” will succeed.