Diving into the Baptist: Two New Books To Explore John’s Life 

Diving into the Baptist: Two New Books To Explore John’s Life 

Not many scholars have written entire books devoted to John the Baptist, let alone two, but this is the task James McGrath has undertaken. 

The general audience biography of John the Baptist, Christmaker: A Life of John the Baptist, will be out in the US Summer. 

Dr McGrath’s other publication is a monograph digging into what we can know about John, his relationship to Jesus, Gnosticism, and Jewish history. Its title will be John of History, Baptist of Faith: The Quest for the Historical Baptizer

Dr McGrath told Insights it was “a relief” to have the manuscripts for both books completed before the new academic year began. 

“The two books are now both available for pre-order and it has been exciting for me to see the enthusiasm and eagerness to read them indicated by my online social media connections and by the Amazon ranking even this far in advance,” he said. 
According to Dr McGrath, the title of his monograth plays on phrases one hears more frequently in connection with Jesus, the quest for the historical Jesus and the distinction between “the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.”  

“I worked on the bigger of the two books until quite close to the start of classes. I decided that it was time to declare it done. There would always be more that could be included, other avenues to explore, but the book had already exceeded the originally contracted number of words,” he said. 

“Indeed, at one point I had thought that perhaps each chapter should be developed into a book of its own, akin to John P. Meier’s series about Jesus, A Marginal Jew. It only took a few moments of thinking about it to decide that no one would want such a series even if I produced it! At least, not yet. I hope that the impact of both books will generate not only renewed interest in John the Baptist and appreciation of his importance, but new avenues of inquiry in research about him.”  

Some scholars have said that a life of John the Baptist cannot be written, that the available sources don’t provide enough information. Others have tried writing them and created works that are heavily fictionalised. Dr McGrath, however, believed there was enough information already.  
“I think that we can indeed write a historical biography of John, and that the sources we need are available to us,” he said. 
“Mandaean sources are rather far removed from John in time in terms of the date when they were completed, but they can be shown to contain ancient traditions and they ought to be used critically rather than ignored.” 
“More importantly, Jesus can be a source of knowledge about John to a greater extent than has been acknowledged in the past. Jesus never broke from him, never ceased to hold him in the highest esteem, and thus we find John’s key emphases and even his turns of phrase embedded in the Gospels and in early Christianity more broadly.” 

“If we get John wrong or don’t pay him the attention he is due, we will misunderstand Jesus. Christmaker tells the story of John for a general audience, with stories from my travels in the Holy Land to places associated with him. John of History, Baptist of Faith offers detailed academic study of John the Baptist’s impact on Jesus’ use of the expression “the son of man,” Josephus’ teacher Bannus and the sign prophets that Josephus blames for fueling the fervor that led to the war against Rome, his invention of baptism, infancy traditions about him, how to utilise Mandaean sources critically, the origins of Gnosticism, and much else.  
“If I’m right even about a handful of my innovative suggestions, this book will have a revolutionary impact on the study of the New Testament.” 

At the time of writing, advance reader copies of the book have just started trickling out to reviewers, but Dr McGrath said that presentations based on the books’ contents have been met with positive reception.  
“I hope that anyone remotely interested in Christianity, Judaism, or Gnosticism will read Christmaker and get a glimpse of my fuller portrait of John’s life, character, and teaching than others have offered before. If you are an academic then the other volume will be of interest, and I suspect that many more will at least want to take a look at parts of it.” 
“The books do not overlap in content but the big monograph provides the detailed argument to support the portrait in the biography, while the biography gives me a chance to get beyond isolated details to present how I understand the big picture. I thus hope that academics won’t skip the biography and just read the monograph.” 
“Each has something important to contribute. This was my first time writing two books simultaneously in this way, writing about the same topic for different audiences. In the past I’ve tended to try to accomplish both things in the same book, which wasn’t ideal. As I said, I’m really eager to hearing how people respond to this new and different way of understanding the life of the person whom Jesus described as the greatest among those born of women, i.e. the greatest human being to ever have lived. Spending more than a year focusing just on researching John, I think I now understand why Jesus said this in a way I didn’t before.” 


2 thoughts on “Diving into the Baptist: Two New Books To Explore John’s Life ”

  1. Thanks for this article! And yet how is it possible that, given the subject matter, begins with “Digging into…” instead of “diving into…”?

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