There has been some news related to John the Baptist over the last few weeks. Archaeologists excavating an ancient church off the coast of Bulgaria have identified what they are describing as “relics of John the Baptist.” Apparently they discovered an urn built into the altar of a church dedicated to the Baptist. When they opened the urn they found small bones from the arms and the legs of John the Baptist.
I cannot comment on whether or not these are really some of John the Baptist’s bones. It is possible, but I have my doubts. Church relics have a long and complicated history. John Calvin once commented that there were enough pieces of the true cross to build a ship. I would add this story to a long list of suspicious ones. For instance, back in March the residents of another small island claimed to have found the nails from Jesus' cross. At least that story was made a little more exciting by brining in the Knights Templar. It seems that if you mention the Templars it somehow adds credence to the claims.
If this ancient church and it relics can teach us anything, it is that the man who blasted Herod Antipas and called Israel to repentance has had a following long after his death. In fact, there have always been those in history who would rather follow John as Messiah instead of Jesus.
There seems to be some of evidence in the New Testament of a conflict with the followers of John the Baptist. We know from Acts 18:25 and 19:1-7 that there were disciples of John the Baptist who continued to follow him even after he died.
Unlike the Synoptics, the fourth gospel does not record John baptizing Jesus, but it does retain his witness of the Spirit descending upon Jesus (1.29-34). This may be an attempt to deprive those claiming an alternative Messiah and the possibility of pointing to Jesus’ baptism as a symbol of Jesus’ subservience to John. The gospel’s programmatic approach towards John is clearest in 1:8 where it blatantly declares that John was not the light but only came to testify to the light. This is followed by John the Baptist’s own confession in 1:20, 28 that he is not the messiah and even points Jesus out to two of his disciples who leave John to follow Jesus (1:35-40). Later John tells his own disciples that he himself must decrease while giving Jesus room to increase (3:30). Jesus then goes on to make more disciples than John (4:1). Jesus performs seven signs in the gospel; John performs none (10:41). From this evidence it seems that the author of John was trying to support belief in Jesus as the Messiah over against John while at the same time trying to claim John for the Christian cause.
Later there were even claims by some groups that John, not Jesus, was the Messiah (Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions 1.60.1-2). Consequently, the possibility remains that the movement did not die but endured and spread even after John’s death.
Even today there remain followers of John. A small sect called Mandaeans live in parts of Iran and Iraq and has kept this movement going until the modern era. These followers of John practice a baptism ritual by dipping themselves in a river weekly. The group was first brought to the attention of western scholars during the 17th century missionary movement in the area. The Mandaean literature dates back to the eight century and hence is not old enough to help us discern anything about the historical John. But the group’s long history is a testimony to the enduring influence of John the Baptist’s ministry.
Unfortunately, the group has had some struggles since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many of the Mandaeans in Iraq received a level of protection under Saddam Hussein. But with the political, social and religious upheaval in that country many have been forced to flee. It would be interesting to hear what thoughts the Mandeans have about the supposed discovery of John the Baptist’s remains. It would also be interesting to know what John himself might have thought about both the Mandeans and his relics.