John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism, The

Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism, The

Turner, David L

The Immerses: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism. By Joan E. Taylor. Studying the Historical Jesus 2. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, xvi + 360 pp., $30.00 paper.

Taylor (University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand) is concerned that John the Baptist has been (mis)appropriated by the Church and transformed into a sort of proto-Christian. In her view, the historical John’s milieu was second-temple Judaism, not formative Christianity. John was an independent preacher, not an Essene, and his baptism was concerned with ritual purity, not symbolism or initiation. John’s ethical teaching and expectation of the eschatological agent of God were firmly based in the prophetic tradition. He was supported by the Pharisees, although he made no attempt to found a religious movement. The Church transformed the historical John into the forerunner of Jesus by distancing his teaching from the Torah, reinterpreting his baptism as an initiatory rite, and reorienting his message to focus on Jesus.

Limited space precludes substantive interaction with this thesis, but three matters can be briefly mentioned. First, Taylor’s discussion of the relation of John to the Essenes should be carefully considered. She points out several differences between NT descriptions of John and the descriptions of the Essenes, as far as this sect is known in second-temple literature. Second, Taylor’s book illustrates a methodological conundrum. She is convinced that the Gospels are primarily theological documents, composed with apologetic aims, and she frequently has recourse to Josephus for a more historically accurate understanding of John. Most evangelicals will differ with Taylor at this point, arguing that a theological purpose does not preclude historical accuracy. And many scholars, evangelicals and nonevangelicals alike, will argue that Josephus also had his own apologetic agenda. Thus the problem of the respective historical value of the sources is handled rather tendentiously by Taylor. Third, one must applaud Taylor’s stress on the Jewish milieu of John. It will not do to view John anachronistically from the standpoint of later Christian theology. But Taylor seems to make too sharp a division between Judaism and Christianity in their respective formative stages. Her analysis of the Gospels may itself be an anachronistic retrojection of later issues into the Jesus traditions.

The editors’ (B. Chilton and C. Evans) preface for this series sets out an agenda that weds historical investigation and theological reflection. It is their belief that the historical Jesus cannot be equated with what the Gospels say about him, since the Gospels reflect the faith of early Christians who reflected on historical tradition and interpreted it. All in all it appears that. Taylor is more successful with historical investigation than with theological reflection, and she admits in her conclusion that she was only able to begin this second task. The editors also affirm that discussion of Jesus should be accessible, rigorous, and interesting. Taylor has certainly accomplished these three goals. She is well versed in both primary sources and contemporary discussion. While many evangelicals will not fully agree with her controversial thesis, all will profit from her careful research and clear presentation.

David L, Turner

Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI

Copyright Evangelical Theological Society Mar 2000

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