Problem: John the Baptist still had disciples
Verses: John 3:25-28, others; Status: Minor

Like Jesus, John the Baptist was a historical figure who definitely existed. Nevertheless, it has been argued that the gospels do not present an accurate picture of John. I'd like to examine one problem, that of John's disciples (this was brought to my attention by Paul Tobin).

All the gospels agree that John came to prepare the way for Jesus. For example, this is Luke 3:16:

John answered them all, saying, "I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (ESV)

It would seem logical that, when Jesus arrived on the scene, John would point his disciples to him and instruct them to follow Jesus. And yet, there are verses where we are told that John still had disciples. For example, this is Matthew 9:14:

Then the disciples of John came to him [Jesus], saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" (ESV)

Mark 2:18 and Luke 5:33 also mention that the disciples of John were behaving differently from the disciples of Jesus.

In a different context, we are told at Luke 7:18-23 and Matthew 11:2-6 that John's disciples were relaying messages between him and Jesus.

I'm not sure what to make of all this. On the one hand, being a disciple of John doesn't rule out also being a disciple of Jesus. I think this could resolve the problem of the messengers: they could have been disciples of both teachers. Also, since John was thrown in prison, it's possible that many of his followers were never told that they should be following Jesus. That might solve the fasting problem - if these disciples of John were still following the "old rules".

Perhaps the most difficult problem is John 3:25-28:

Now a discussion arose between some of John's disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness - look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him." John answered, "A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, 'I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.' (ESV)

This passage sums up the whole problem. Why are these particular disciples - who should be aware that Jesus is the Messiah - still following John? Well, you might say that John's followers loved him so much that they were unhappy to leave him. That seems possible. Alternatively, perhaps they hadn't quite "got it" yet.

Even after his death, history records that John had many followers who were not Christians, but this can be explained away if we accept that not every follower of John would have been fully aware of all his teachings. It's still a bit odd though.

In the end, I've not found any really sharp contradiction here, but it's definitely a thorny issue.

Updated: 2008-05-30

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