Was John the Baptist a Hairy Man?

Many of us were taught in Sunday School that John the Baptist was the fore-runner to Jesus. The visual is that John graciously stepped aside when Jesus came along, as he clearly recognized that Jesus was the Messiah and John was just the messenger. But there’s a new book by Joel Marcus that claims that Is not the case. The book is called John the Baptist in History and Theology. This week’s bullets come from a summary of this book.

  • Verification? The usual story is in the gospel of John, where John the B baptizes Jesus, and then God says that this is my beloved son, and it’s all pretty obvious. But both Matthew and Luke have accounts that indicate John the B was not convinced. Specifically, John was put in prison at the end of his life before being beheaded. While there, he sends messengers to Jesus asking him if he is the Messiah. Ummm, why did John need to get clarification if that whole Messiah question was settled at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry?
  • Who did John think of himself as? John thought he was the return of the Old Testament prophet Elijah.  Stay with us here. In the Old Testament story, Elijah was taken up to heaven while still alive. Because Elijah had not really died, he was expected to return at the end of the age. And John thought he was the embodiment of that return.

    To further make his point, the author offers the following logical argument:  Elijah is described in 2 Kings 1:8 as a hairy man wearing leather shorts. In the Gospels John is described as a man wearing leather shorts and a coat of camel’s hair. But the Gospels say John just wore a hairy coat. Why the difference? Because John must not have had much hair, yet wanted to model himself as much as possible on Elijah.

    How do you know that? OK, we were not there. But if the Gospel writers had instead invented the description of John out of whole cloth, they would have portrayed him as a hairy man, exactly like Elijah. This makes a logical case that the description of him wearing a hairy garment probably reflects the historical record.
  • Interesting, but how did that affect his relationship with Jesus? If John thought of himself as Elijah, he may have seen his star pupil Jesus not as the Messiah but as Elisha, the successor figure who inherited a double portion of Elijah’s spirit when the latter was taken up to heaven. John thought of himself as ‘the man’ who spoke of atonement, salvation, and spiritual blessing. After him there would be only a mopping up operation–the Messiah (not Jesus) would arrive to enact judgment, separating the wheat (those sealed by John’s baptism for salvation) from the chaff, and consuming the latter in unquenchable fire.

Is this stuff fun or what?

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