Born in 1974 of Muslim Albanian descent, Agron Belica was first raised in a secular environment. At the age of thirteen, he was largely fending for himself until he found that his family had returned strongly to Islam and Islamic practice. This unexpected event did not influence him; rather, it amused him. Then, during a night he spent in the room of his devout grandmother who was absent on a trip to Macedonia, he underwent a shattering experience that made him regret his past and caused him to to re-evalute his life and the direction it had taken. He embraced Islam fully and has, since that night, involved himself in the study, research, and writing about things Islamic, with an especial interest in John the Baptist and comparative religion. Though largely self-educated in Islam, Mr. Belica attended classes in New Jersey about religious tenets and the doctrinal differences among the various Islamic sects under the tutelage of a shaykh. While there, he participated by giving lectures on Christian doctrines. He also studied the proper recitation of the Quran (tajwid) under the guidance of an Afro-America Muslim, Imam Bashir Hasan, to a degree of proficiency that caused him to be selected to perform the call to prayer because of the excellence of his voice and pronunciation. His eagerness to learn more about Islam motivated him to travel to North Africa in order to engage in dialogue with various scholars there. He speaks fluent Albanian and Turkish, and one of his ambitions is to translate the Quran into Albanian. He is married and has two sons and currently lives in Massachusetts, where he continues to do research on Islamic matters.
"The amazing thing about the author, Agron Belica, is that his scholarship is not the result of any formal advanced education, religious or otherwise. Rather, the new perspectives and broadening of horizons which are the hallmark of this piece of scholarship resulted from Mr. Belica’s self-motivated, non-formal, but extremely intensive scholarship. It has been my honor and privilege to have met the author, Agron Belica. Mr. Belica has reflected an unparalleled inner commitment towards becoming a more spiritually-evolved and God-devoted person, and towards unraveling the truths and myths behind the Islamic, Judaic and Christian theologies. I watched Mr. Belica as he struggled with understanding, embracing, and then questioning what he had always believed to be the truths about his own faith and other faiths. This substantial piece of scholarship is the result of the years of devotion to which Mr. Belica has dedicated himself, towards understanding, questioning, and seeking new perspectives on the religious traditions and issues of our times."
Roger H. Sigal, Criminal Defense Trial Attorney- Tucson, Arizona.
There are two methods of gaining knowledge in the great religious traditions of the world in general, and Islam, in particular. One method is knowledge that is imitated (taqlid) or transmitted by hearsay from generation to generation like the sciences of language, history and law. With this method, a person never asks “Why?” but accepts what is taught by an authority. In the Islamic tradition this leads to ijtihad, ijtihad specifically referring to developing expertise in jurisprudence (fiqh) to the level of being able to use independent judgment in understanding Islamic law (Shariah). Such a person is known as a mujtahid. Whoever is not a mujtahid, whoever has not reached that level, must “imitate” or “follow” a person who has, whether that person is dead (Sunni Muslims) or alive (Shia Muslims).
The second method of gaining knowledge is what is of most interest to us in this book review, that of tahqiq or intellectual knowledge where one may have a teacher for guidance but it is knowledge that cannot be passed from one generation to another. Each person has to discover it for himself or herself by “polishing the heart,” by becoming a person who sees with the eye of Oneness or tawhid, a person who deeply senses his responsibility to God, His creation and His humanity. The person who gains knowledge with this method is called “a seeker of truth” (muhaqqiq).
Intellectual knowledge (tahqiq) builds on transmitted knowledge but goes deeper. Transmitted knowledge includes memorizers of the Quran and the Hadith but only with intellectual knowledge can one understand what God and the Prophet are saying. Those who lack this intellectual endeavor have, one might say, not sought the means to see with the eye of “Oneness.”
Questions like “why” are not the only ones that the intellect of the seeker of truth asks because the underlying distinction is to think, “to think for oneself,” and not to stop at “imitation alone.”
Not everyone has been burdened with this capacity as the Quran says in 2:286, but one person who has is Agron Belica. He is a seeker of truth, seeker of the Reality (haqq), a person who has verified knowledge, not on the basis of imitating the opinion of others, but on the basis of having realized the truth for himself as well as being one who acts in accord with haqq, all the time realizing his belief in the One God, the one creation and the one humanity.
A faith tradition may survive without a living mujtahid, but it rapidly disappears without a living muhaqqiq. Without a living seeker of truth, a seeker of reality, the faith tradition cannot remain faithful to its principles because it cannot understand those principles.
Agron Belica’s basic premise is to follow the Quran and the Hadith and the New Testament which all assert that Jesus is the Messiah. However according to the Quran and the Hadith, it only appeared to the people who bore witness to the Messiah that he had been crucified. In reality, according to the intellectual endeavor of the author, it was “he who lives” (Yahya), the Concealer of Secrets (hasura), as the Quran refers to him who was placed on the cross and lived, a view held by early Christian gnostics as well, but later declared to be a heresy. The Concealer of Secrets concealed the secret of his identity and that of the Messiah in order to save the Messiah. The Messiah was then allowed to carry on his prophetic mission (perhaps traveling even as far as Kashmir where many believe that he is buried).
At the same time that Mary retired to a sanctuary, Zechariah becoming her protector, Zechariah prayed for an heir. The the son of Mary, was close in age to the son of man (the Concealer of Secrets fathered by Zechariah). They may have even been cousins who resembled one another. They both began their prophetic mission around the same time yet neither revealed themselves as to who they actually were.
The author traces these and other parallels in the lives of the son of Mary and the son of man for a fascinating read. In the great tradition of seekers of truth in the past, Agron Belica brings harmony to ancient mysteries. He shows the possibility of how thing may be in the Presence of the Oneness of God and he does so through scriptures – the Quran, Hadith and the New Testament.
This is a book that should be read by everyone who wants to discern the Reality of the story of the Messiah.
Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar
Chicago, October 21, 2008
Agron Belica is a first generation American of Albanian descent. He is devoted to a few things. One is his family, another is his religion, and yet a third is intellectual and spiritual religious inquiry. His book is a tribute to this devotion and inquiry. It is a brilliant and original look at the Gospels and the Quran, as well as the earlier Mosaic texts. In this book, the self-taught Belica, with no formal education, points out linguistic and spiritual parallels between generations of key characters in three religious histories. A devout and inquiring Muslim, using the close reading of the Quran as his guide, Belica, is able to look back at the central story of the crucifixion through a new lens, the Muslim lens, using key passages from a number of religious scriptures to build a fascinating new argument. His thoughts, insights and interpretations are remarkable, profound, and leaves the reader in awe.
Belica notices that a son is born to the prophet Zachariah at about the same time as a son is born to Mary. He systematically and spell-bindingly leads us through the parallels between these two prophets, the second of whom we have come to know as Jesus. Both are raised in secrecy, and bring prophesy and healing. Both are spared somehow the decree of Herod at birth, only to befall religious ostracism and apparent physical mutilation beheading/crucifixion at the time of apparent earthly death. Belica takes us through the similarities in these prophet’s lives, their coming into the lives of their parents, as the sons had done, in response to prayer, or in the unlikely moment, for Mary, of her chastity. The coming together of Zachariah and Mary is cemented with the former shielding Mary from harm as her foster-father. Belica brings us back further in scriptural history to draw other such parallels when it comes to prophets, and he draws upon the Arabic roots of the names of these figures, from Adam to Zachariah’s son, to convince the reader of his novel contribution to scriptural reading. But I’m not going to give that away! For that, you must read the book yourself!
This book is slim, but both erudite and yet easy to follow, in its step by step progression through the many scriptures, seemingly so familiar is Agron Belica with every passage, the apt ones come easily to mind for him, and strike an immediate cord in us, no matter how familiar or unfamiliar we are with the text and story. And yet, this book is no recipe for persuasion. It is much more sophisticated than that. Written in a devout and true Muslim spirit, it is also—as mentioned at the beginning of this review—an inquiry and a wholly new contribution to that body of sculptural scholarship. Agron Belica advances a theory which sheds an entirely novel light on the views that are commonplace today, and, through an examination of linguistics, passages, intent, and meaning, causes us to re-examine, in an exciting, clue-ridden way, what we have assumed to be true about the three major religions for centuries, concentrating on his own Muslim faith.
Dr. Harte Weiner
As an avid reader of the Holy Bible, how many countless times have you drawn your own interpretations, and conclusions? How many versions of the Bible have you read, comparing ancient manuscripts to modern day Scripture? As an open minded reader in faith, and Christianity, has your bias lead you directly to extensive research on the words, and works of Christ? Is is possible that Jesus did not die on the cross? Is the accepted view of the life of Christ incomplete? Are we thirsty for the mysterious, thus craving for more information on what we doubt, or believe is missing? Are we comfortable, and completely satisfied in what we've learned in a lifetime about the son of Mary, and the crucifixion? These are only a few questions that the curious reader is left to ponder, after reading the cleverly written book. As an educated scholar on Christian history, Agron Belica fills the pages with contradictions and controversy on the life of Mary, Jesus, and the crucifixion. The author presents persuasive arguments on theory which surrounds the events, and circumstances which took place during that era, obtained from years of elaborate examination. The reader is left with yet another crucial question, has prevailing powers camouflaged the truth? The author's comparisons are undeniable plausible, while he sites religious documents to support his arguments, leaving the reader amazingly surprised. I would recommend this book to all reader's who wish to explore facts, and seek additional knowledge obtained through research about faith, and Christianity. In comparison to the book "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" Agron Belica enlightens his open minded readers to other possibilities as they absorb each bit of information with a grain of salt. The author does not shoot the facts into the reader's face. Instead, he gently challenges the senses while using theory as the key to open the door to other possibilities as we draw our own opinions, and conclusions. The book is precise, and interesting. Regardless of which road the reader takes on the teachings of the life of Christ, Agron Belica provides us with the ultimate message that remains the same, eternal Blessings in the light of Christ. Combined with that message and the author's presentation of research, if just one reader is left with any doubts, then the author's mission has been accomplished. This novel is an impressive, passionate read, and is as Powerfully Moving as "THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST"with Mel Gibson!
Geraldine Ahearn, A.I.O.M.
author of 6 books, CCRN
Author Geri Ahearn, INC.
Lifetime Member ABI Women's Review Board
Rethinking John the Baptist
Reflections on Agron Belica’s Recent Research
© 2008, Jay R. Crook (Md. Nur)
Perhaps the strangest person in the New Testament is John the Baptist. Agron Belica’s recent research focuses upon the Biblical and Quranic material about John and his relationship with Jesus, and then ventures new interpretations and visions of their respective roles in the events leading to the climactic scene of the crucifixion. Armed with copious quotations from the Bible, the Quran, and later Muslim commentators, Belica even suggests that John may have taken the place of Jesus on the cross. John the Baptist substituted for Jesus on the cross? Indeed, an astounding conjecture! The informed reader may dismiss such a proposition outright simply because of the chronological difficulties and not proceed to any other arguments. According to the Synoptic Gospels, John was beheaded by Herod Antipas some two years before the events of the crucifixion; hence, John could not have been a participant in them. Or could he? Are the chronological problems insurmountable? We shall consider them below, but first, who was John the Baptist?
According to Luke (Lk. 1:57), John was born in Judaea (traditionally, since the 6th century CE, in ‘Ain Karim, about five miles west of Jerusalem) to Zechariah and Elizabeth of priestly (Levite) ancestry shortly before Jesus, about 4 BCE. As a lad, he left home and went to the Wilderness of Judaea where he joined and was probably taught by hermits, quite possibly connected in some manner with the Essenes at Qumran. John was a lifelong celibate, as were the Essene elite. Josephus (see below) remarks: "These Essenes reject pleasures as evil, but esteem continence and the conquest over our passions to be virtue. They neglect wedlock, but look to choose out other persons’ children; and esteem them to be of their kindred, and form them according to their own manners."
This appears to have been a kind of adoption and a process of indoctrination. As the Essenes practiced baptism, and this practice was a characteristic of John’s preaching, he may very well have been adopted and educated by them, presumably with the acquiescence of his parents. John could also have been influenced, if not directly, by traditions of the Old Testament Nazirites, ascetics who also dedicated themselves to God and eschewed (with the notable exception of Samson) most of the ordinary comforts of family life. However, when John bursts upon the first-century CE Palestinian scene, he appears as a charismatic loner attracting crowds with his urgent warnings to repent lest they be brought down in the cataclysm of impending doom, that is, the end of the word and Divine Judgment. At that stage of his career, he does not seem connected with any formal community, such as that at Qumran.
In many respects, the Baptist was less worldly than Jesus, who often immersed himself in the social occasions of daily life, such as feasts and weddings. John’s theology and preaching are infused with the fiery eschatological ideas of his period, that the Day of Judgment was near: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" he cried (Mt. 3:2). These were beliefs that he shared with the Qumran community. However, instead of restricting salvation to an elite few, as did the Essenes, he worked to open it to all through the sacrament of baptism. Repent and be reborn through baptism was his message (see Mk. 1:4). He attracted a considerable following and the admiration of Josephus. Many also believe that his influence is to be seen in the beliefs and practices of the Mandaeans of lower Mesopotamia, who practice baptism and venerate John, whilst regarding Jesus as a false messiah.
In the Quran, where John the Baptist is referred to as Yahya, he is mentioned by name but five times, whilst the name of Jesus is found twenty-five times. The remarkable circumstances of John’s birth are mentioned, but not his kinship with Jesus, nor are his baptismal activities—his most familiar characteristic in Christian tradition. John is held in great esteem in Islam as a prophet, but unlike Moses, David, Jesus, and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon them all, he is not considered the recipient of a revealed book. However, his importance in the history of religion is validated by these words in the Quran: God gives thee [Zechariah] the good tidings of Yahya, one bearing witness to the Word of God, one who is honored, one who is chaste, one who is a prophet from amongst the doers of righteousness. (Q. 3:39) In another verse, God says: We gave him wisdom whilst he was a child [a reference to John’s having left his home as a boy to be taught by hermits, perhaps the Essenes?] and compassion from Our Presence, and purity and he was devout and kind to his parents and he was not oppressive or rebellious. Peace be upon him the day he was born, the day he dies, and the day he is raised alive! (Q. 19:12-15) John (Yahya) was also instructed to take hold of the Book with firmness. (Q. 19:12) Which book? According to the Commentary known as al-Jalalayn, the book is the Torah. The words are taken to imply that he was given a special message to be promulgated amongst a people or all mankind. Nothing about the circumstances of his death is said in the Quran.
Yet, these verses are an extraordinary commendation from his Creator! Truly, John was a great man of God and deserves more than the cursory attention he is usually given as the herald of Jesus and the victim of Salome. Agron Belica discusses these Quranic references in considerable detail, often raising questions that prod us to reconsider their traditional interpretations. These Quranic references are put under the microscope, offering new interpretations of certain key words such as hasur, wali, fard, sayyid, hanan, and sammiya. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the meager evidence of the New Testament and Josephus, and to rethink John the Baptist.
The sometimes fragile Jewish independence that was the fruit of the revolt of the Maccabees in c.167 BCE against Alexander the Great’s Seleucid successors to the eastern portion of his empire was ended by the entrance of the Roman general Pompey into Jerusalem in 63 BCE. The yearning to restore that independence gave rise to the messianic movements that periodically convulsed Palestine during the next two centuries. Palestine was governed directly or indirectly first by Rome and later by the Eastern Romans (Byzantines), until the Muslim Caliph Umar entered Jerusalem in 634 CE and established Islamic hegemony.
The period of John the Baptist and, therefore, most of the events being discussed herein, was about forty-five years long, from c. 5 BCE to c. 37 CE; much shorter (ending at c. 27 CE) if one agrees with the New Testament chronology. It was an era of messianic excitement unparalleled in Israel’s history. Prophets proclaimed imminent coming of the Messiah, and several claimants to the title had already arisen, raised armies that fought heroically to regain Jewish freedom, but ultimately failed to prevail against the might of Rome. Despite these failures, the Jews continue to pray and work for a messiah who would deliver them from Roman oppression. The Christian movement, under Paul’s guidance, later decided that Jesus was that messiah, even though he had failed to re-establish Jewish independence, and transformed the expected worldly salvation into a spiritual one.
For information about John the Baptist, we have two primary ancient sources: the New Testament and the writings of Josephus. The principal reason for John’s inclusion in the New Testament gospels is to introduce and validate Jesus as this Messiah, not to celebrate John. To perform this task, in the Biblical narrative, John appears suddenly from the wilderness (probably the sparsely populated regions of southern and eastern Judaea), preaching salvation with the cleansing baptism by which the baptized signified their repentance and spiritual rebirth or recommitment.
The oldest of the canonical gospels, that of Mark thought to have been probably composed at Rome c. 65-70 CE, says the most about him. This is his description of John: "Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leathern girdle about his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey," (Mk. 1:6). Luke, writing in Greece c. 80-90 CE, whilst focusing on John’s baptismal activities (also mentioned by Mark), omits any description of his manner of living. Matthew (c. 85 CE), usually more concerned with Jewish matters, merely paraphrases Mark: "Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey." (Mt. 3:4) In the pericope about John’s sending his disciples to question Jesus about his teachings, Matthew (written c. 85 CE, at Antioch in Syria) manages to link implicitly the followers of John with the "despised" Pharisees (Mt. 9:14). Luke omits Matthew’s identification of John’s followers with the Pharisees, but puts a speech into the mouth of Jesus that minimizes John’s importance (Lk. 7:24-28).
Characteristically, John concentrates upon the Baptist’s introduction of Jesus and remarks (disparagingly?) that John performed no miracles (Jn. 10:41). Perhaps to emphasize Jesus’ precedence over John, in another place John reports that Jesus had baptized more disciples than John (Jn. 4:1). According to John (Jn. 1:35-42), there was something of a group desertion of several of John the Baptist’s disciples to Jesus after John had pointed Jesus out to them and declared: "Behold the Lamb of God!" This is consistent with the Christian idea that John was merely a forerunner and had ceded leadership to Jesus almost as soon as he (John) had begun his mission.
However, since (again according to the gospels) John had to send disciples to Jesus to find out about his teachings, one may be forgiven if he wonders whether the whole business of Jesus’ baptism by John and his enthusiastic endorsement of the mission of Jesus as the true Messiah is little more than a pious fiction perpetrated by the authors of the fourfold gospel. Surely, if John had acted the way the gospels show him doing, he would have kept himself informed about the man whom he would then have believed to be the expected Messiah and would have had little need to send a special delegation to question Jesus (Mt. 11:2-6; Lk. 7:18-23).
Of the four canonical gospels, only Luke establishes the kinship of John and Jesus, but all agree that John baptized Jesus. Apparently, John himself was the originator of this sacramental innovation. His activities attracted great crowds from Jerusalem and its environs, a circumstance that would certainly have been a source of concern for the religious and political establishment of the time, always wary of challenge or insurrection, and was perhaps viewed unfavorably by later Christians who wanted nothing in the Bible to detract from the uniqueness of the Christ.
In any event, having accomplished this task, John virtually disappears from the gospels, except for the odd reference and the mention of his death at the hands of Herod, which, in gospel chronology, occurred some two years before the disappearance of Jesus. According to many Christian students of the New Testament, the Baptist’s career lasted but six months. To us, that would seem too short a time to accommodate his rise to prominence, the spread of his teachings, the perception of the threat he posed, and the events of his final days, irrespective of whether one accepts Belica’s speculations about the Baptist’s later involvement with the events of the Passion or not.
Let us now first compare the description of John in Mark cited above with that of our only other roughly contemporary source for these events, the Jewish historian Josephus (born 37-38 CE, died c.100 CE). He had some considerable experience with the type of anchorite represented by John. In his Life, he writes: "When I was informed that one whose name was Banus, lived in the desert and used no other clothing than grew upon trees, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord, and bathed himself in cold water frequently, both day and night, in order to preserve his chastity, I imitated him in those things, and continued with him three years." Thus, it is clear that Josephus had personal knowledge of the kind of ascetic that John represents, but chronological problems make it unlikely that he had ever met him.
Now, Josephus has considerable authority as a witness to the tumultuous events of first-century CE Roman Palestine. He was a Jewish general in the Jewish-Roman war of 66-73 CE—a major rebellion against Roman rule—but switched sides when he realized the impossibility of defeating the Roman war machine. Despised and regarded as a traitor and apostate by patriotic Jews, he spent much of the rest his life in acts of self-justification. Fortunately for us, these acts included two major histories, without which we would be much poorer in our knowledge of the Palestine of the New Testament era. The first was The Jewish War, written about a decade after the event; the second, the monumental Antiquities of the Jews (93 CE), a somewhat secularized account of the history of the world and role of the Jews in it that parallels the Bible in scope, beginning with the creation but continuing past the end of the Old Testament (c. 400 BCE) until his own time.
More importantly for our purposes, Josephus refers to several New Testament figures by name: Jesus, his brother James, and John the Baptist. Although Paul (who would have been a contemporary of Josephus) appears not to have been mentioned by Josephus, there is a tantalizing reference to one Saul (the birth name of Paul) involved in riots some time after the disappearance of Jesus. However, that is beyond our brief, but the passage in the Antiquities relating to John is worth quoting in full for its information and implications:
"Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment for what he did against John that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him who was a good man and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to Him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or remission] of some sins [only,] but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.
"Now, when [many] others came to crowd about him, for they were greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late.
"Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure against him."
Thus Josephus. What does the New Testament say about John’s fate?
The oldest canonical gospel, Mark, introduces the story with a preamble: "King Herod heard of it [the activities of Jesus and his disciples]; for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’" (Mk. 6:14-16) From this we learn that apparently John also possessed miraculous powers. Jesus’ deeds are likened to those of John, and John is linked with another strange Biblical character from the Old Testament who too possessed miraculous powers, Elijah.
Now we flash backwards in time: "For Herod had sent and seized John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; because he had married her. For John said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly.
"But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’ daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests, and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever thou wishest and I will grant it. ‘ And he vowed to her, ‘Whatever thou askest of me, I will give thee, even half my kingdom.’ And she went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask?’ And [her mother] said, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’"
The unnamed daughter is, of course, the notorious Salome of Christian tradition. Mark continues:
"And she came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, saying, ‘I want that thou give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ And the king was exceedingly sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests, he did not want to break this word to her. And immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard and gave orders to bring his head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body, and laid in a tomb." (Mk. 6:17-29)
Luke gives a much shorter and more sober version, devoid of lurid domestic intrigue: "Now Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was done [by Jesus and his disciples], and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the old prophets had risen. Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’…" (Lk. 9:7-9) Once again, John is compared to Elijah, as he is in other places in the New Testament. Herod Antipas’ familial situation is not mentioned at all.
Matthew gives more a literate and reserved account containing the essentials of Mark’s tale, which it again virtually paraphrases. The author of John seems to ignore the Baptist’s death, perhaps considering its irrelevant to his purposes.
Mark’s, the basic narrative, seems to make an effort to exonerate Herod for his action by introducing the frivolous story of Herodias’ jealousy and hatred and the suspension of his political acumen by acceding to Salome’s ghastly request. Is this, like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, history or fable? The calm way John’s disciples come to collect his remains is in remarkable contrast to the melodrama of the circumstances of his death. May we infer from this that his death may not have been that dramatic? Josephus merely states that John was put to death. Josephus has a quite a lot to say about Herodias and Herod’s love for her, but nothing in connection with John. His silence is perplexing, unless the lurid but entertaining Biblical tale has no foundation of historical truth.
We cannot cite Josephus’ silence to repudiate absolutely the veracity of the Biblical text and the roles of Herodias and Salome. Herod’s marriage to Herodias probably was the cause of some dissatisfaction among his Jewish subjects, but would a sane man—especially a ruling politician—have acquiesced to Salome’s grisly request? Notice how quickly, in the Biblical story, Herod qualified his offer of "whatever thou askest of me" to a mere "half my kingdom." Slaying a very popular prophet at the whim of a dancing girl would surely been more offensive to his subjects than his marital misstep. The reasons given by Josephus, that Herod feared John’s popularity and the possibility that, acting like another messianic claimant, he might raise an insurrection against Herod’s rule, are much more plausible. In our opinion, this calculation, based on statecraft and realpolitik, is considerably more likely to have been the cause of John’s death in the dungeon of Macherus than Salome’s gyrations before Herod and his guests.
Josephus does not mention the manner of John’s execution, but beheading is certainly a possibility. One may speculate, although without much supporting evidence, that he could have escaped to the eastern desert, as Macherus was located but a few miles from the eastern shore of the Dead Sea and some ten or twelve miles south of Mt. Nebo where Moses viewed Canaan before dying. However, that would be mere conjecture, attested neither by the Bible, nor by Josephus.
Of course, the Bible story of Salome and John is so colorful and salacious, so entrenched in Christian and Western culture, that to reject it as history may seem mean-spirited. We must permit he reader to make his own decision. However, there still remain the chronological problems posed by Josephus’ text quoted above to consider, and it is now time to look at them.
Accepting the death of John at Macherus as an historical fact, Josephus gives us one firm date: Herod Antipas’ defeat in battle at the hands of the Nabataean King Aretas IV (rgd. 9 BCE to 40 CE), whose daughter Herod had married and divorced. Angered by the perceived insult to his family and honor by this repudiation of his close kin, Aretas sought revenge by sending his troops into battle against Herod’s army. That occurred in 36-37 CE. In the Biblical story, John’s death is the direct result of his opposition to that marriage, therefore the order of events is Herod’s divorce, his marriage to Herodias, John’s criticism and death, and Aretas’ armed reprisal, not mentioned in the Biblical tale, but strongly affirmed by the evidence of Josephus. Consequently, the date of John’s death could not have been later than the date of that battle, 36-37 CE.
The lower end of the dating is that of the New Testament, which indicates a date up to two years before the events of the Passion, usually given now as c. 29 CE. Thus, according the Bible, John died c. 27-29 CE. Reconciling the Bible and Josephus means that John died some time between c.27 CE, the downward limit, and 36-37 CE, the upward limit, a period of some ten years.
If we hold that the Bible is correct, Josephus is wrong or, one might argue, that ten years had elapsed between the Herod’s insult to Aretas’ family honor and that both are correct. Since Josephus says only that John’s death occurred before the battle of 36-37 CE, is it realistic to suppose that Aretas waited ten years before avenging Herod’s insult?
Josephus wrote: "Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment for what he did against John…" Josephus then goes on give the proximate cause for this act, the fear of the prophet’s popularity and the possibility he might raise a rebellion. Does that not suggest a shorter interval between the events of John’s death and Herod’s defeat than ten years?
Looked at another way, would Aretas have waited ten years to avenge a public insult to his family’s and therefore his personal honor? We have the divorce, the marriage, the criticism of Herod’s marriage by John, the fact of John’s popularity and the imminent possibility of still another messianic insurrection, John’s death, and the battle. Public insults demand a quick response, especially from rulers. Aretas would have become a figure of ridicule had he dithered about for ten years before seeking revenge. He was, after all, the king of the Nabataeans, a prosperous kingdom, with the ruins of his capital at Petra still one of the most spectacular sights in the world.
Prof. Nineham agrees: "On the basis of the Synoptic Gospels (see especially Luke 3:1), it is usually assumed that John was executed in A.D. 29-30. On the other hand, Herod’s defeat by the Arabians, referred to in Josephus, took place not long before the death of Tiberius in March A.D. 37. The cause of the Arabian war was Herod’s repudiation of his first (Arabian) wife for Herodias, so, if the dates are to be reconciled, the Arabians must have waited a very long time before taking their revenge, and the Jews must have attributed Herod’s defeat to an event which had taken place six or seven years earlier. As we know nothing of the attendant circumstances, neither of these possibilities can be ruled out."
We need not be that cautious. Prof. Eisenmann thinks that Josephus’ text suggests a date of c. 36 CE for the death of John. Josephus’ text supports a rapid scenario. Aretas, not being obstructed by overzealous lawyers, would have sought to restore the honor of his family in the old-fashioned way, with swift, peremptory action, perhaps within a year or two of Herod’s act of lèse majesté. That would make Prof. Eisenmann’s suggested 36 CE quite plausible, superseding the traditional c. 27 CE based upon the Pauline New Testament. We think that the implications of the words of Josephus present a serious challenge to the received view, a view that is influenced by lingering ideas of Biblical infallibility.
How would this later date affect our discussion of Belica’s theories, especially his suggestion that John was the principal actor in the crucifixion, not Jesus? Put simply, it would remove it from the realm of chronological impossibility to that of chronological possibility. The alternative would require us to shift the date of the Jesus’ Passion from 29 or 30 CE to a date after 36 CE. However, here we encounter another problem. The Biblical evidence—the only source of information that we have about Paul—indicates that he never met Jesus in person. His conversion reputedly took place some time c. 34-36 CE. To move the crucifixion to a date as late as 36 CE or later would appear to be impossible.
There is yet another piece of evidence to be considered when we look at the chronology of those momentous events in the Palestine of two millennia ago: the question of Jesus’ age at the time of his Passion. The text of the New Testament suggests that he was about thirty-three years of age. Josephus gives us no reliable evidence about his end. So, we must turn to the latest of the canonical gospels, that of John the Apostle, for a curious passage, again largely ignored, that touches on the question. It may represent a tradition unknown to or ignored by the Synoptics. At one point in his narrative, John depicts a debate between the Jews and Jesus that presumably occurred a few months before the Passion. According to the Synoptics, Jesus would have been about thirty-three. Jesus is speaking:
"’Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ The Jews then said to him, "Thou art not yet fifty years old and hast thou seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Verily, verily, I say to you, before Abraham, I was, I am.’ So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple." (Jn. 8:56-59)
The tone of the passage and indeed of most of John is rather hostile to the Jews. Note that Jesus does not even admit to being one of them, saying "your father Abraham" instead of "our father Abraham." Of course, this has to do with John’s divinization of the eternal Jesus and that need not detain us here. However, the phrase "not yet fifty years old" does arrest our attention. If a man be thirty-three, would one be likely to say to him, "you are not yet fifty" or rather "you are not yet forty"? The only reason the Jews would address him thus would be if he appeared to be middle-aged, in his forties.
John Marsh, in his commentary on John, writes: "From the time of Irenaeus [c. 125 CE to 202 CE], this verse has been the reason why some scholars have held Jesus to have been between forty and fifty years old during the years of his ministry. But this is not a necessary inference. If there be any allusion to the years of levitical service, this would imply that the Jews were saying to Jesus, ‘If you are still, as you claim "in God’s service", you cannot be fifty years old. How can you have known Abraham?"
Prof. Marsh should be applauded for at least addressing the issue, though we are not persuaded by his argument. We have pointed out above that the Synoptics represent one rather closely related set of traditions, whilst John represents another set of traditions. The two views of Jesus are in many ways incompatible. In any case, John’s exalted vision of the ethereal divine Jesus is not really related to history, but more to the world of religious drama. However, even drama is rooted in reality at some level and therefore John may very well inadvertently preserve a genuine truth.
Moreover, there is a verse in the Quran that supports this view of the older Jesus: He [Jesus] will speak unto mankind in his cradle and in his manhood, and he is one of the righteous. Q. 3:46) The word translated as "manhood" here is kahl, actually meaning "middle-aged, a man of a mature age." The statement may very well reflect a tradition preserved in the oral literature of the Hejaz at the time of Prophet that is the context of the Quran. If this interpretation be correct, as well it may be, then the reference in John should be given much more weight. The statements in both the Gospel and the Quran may reflect the same tradition of the older Jesus in circulation, despite the prevalence of the Synoptics’ view of his age at the time of the Passion—or it may even reflect memories of the older, living Jesus who had survived the supposed crucifixion.
After this review of the problems in establishing hard dates for the most of the events under discussion, we can probably say only one thing with certainty: we shall never be able to resolve all of the problems of this chronology without time travel. There are doubts about everything except the approximate year of Herod Antipas’ defeat by Aretas (c. 37 CE). The birth years of both Jesus and John are conjectures; the date of the alleged crucifixion of Jesus relies heavily upon those conjectures, although it is more probable than the birthdates. The sequence of the death of John and the crucifixion is thrown into doubt by the evidence of Josephus, the most impartial witness we have from that period. Furthermore, even the age of Jesus, traditionally thirty-three, at the time of his Passion (and therefore the dates of his birth) is compromised in the tradition cited by John and that of the verse in the Quran.
If, for the sake of argument, we accept the theory of a longer life span for Jesus, say forty-five years instead of the traditional thirty-three, how are we to reconcile it with the events in the lives of John and Jesus? Neither Jesus nor John was evident in Palestine during the period of Paul’s activities, which commence in the middle of the 30s of the first century CE. Let us assume that the date of the Passion was indeed c. 30 CE or a bit earlier, as the New Testament would have it. For Jesus to have been middle-aged, let us say forty-five, he must have been born c. 16 BCE instead of 4 BCE. John the Baptist may also have been born about the same time. As Paul was born c. 1 CE, this would also make them much older than Paul, who died c. 67 CE, a relationship in ages that would seem more suitable than being virtual contemporaries as the traditional dating makes it.
The alternative, that Jesus was born c. 4 BCE and the Passion occurred c. 40 CE, is virtually impossible, because the comments about his age clearly refer to a period shortly before the Passion and we bump in the beginning of Paul’s work c. 35 CE. The crucifixion must have taken place prior to that date. We have described above our reasons for believing the good possibility that John was in fact martyred after the crucifixion. As the kinship link between Jesus (Davidic) and John (Levite) may be a Lucan fiction, then John could have been born at any time, but his death must have occurred before Herod Antipas’ defeat, c. 37 CE. The fact that Paul does not mention John in his writings proves nothing. The most important question for us regarding John’s career in this inquiry is whether he could have possibly substituted for Jesus on the cross. So far, nothing has ruled out that as a possibility.
Thus, though none of this proves that John did survive Jesus or was substituted for him on the cross, Agron Belica’s speculations cannot be dismissed merely because they contradict the traditional Biblical chronology. We have shown that an argument from that chronology against Belica’s proposition is seriously weakened by the evidence of Josephus.
It is, therefore, now time to look at Belica’s most audacious proposal: that John the Baptist may have substituted for Jesus on the cross at the climax of the Passion. We have pointed out above that the very possibility of such a substitution is first conditional upon the question of chronology. We have discussed the chronological problems of reconciling the gospel accounts of John’s death with the notice by Josephus in the Antiquities. We believe that sufficient doubt has been raised about the reliability of the New Testament chronological references to John for us to proceed to the next supposition. Putting aside our preconceptions derived from the prevailment of the received view of the Passion derived from the gospel accounts, let us ask: "Now that the chronological problems are not insurmountable, in what circumstances could John or any person have been substituted for Jesus at the crucifixion?" We should keep in mind that this is an exercise in possibilities, not certainties. As we have stated above, when faced with such meager evidence, all we can do is speculate upon events. Today, the absolute truth is known only to God.
It is clear from the writings of Paul that the Christian movement he divided and usurped believed that Jesus had died on the cross. The doctrine of Jesus’ death and his resurrection are still the core of Christian faith, a sincere belief in which, it is held, will secure for the believer his salvation in the afterlife. The Islamic denial of this doctrine is the most crucial difference between Christianity and Islam and one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is the Islamic belief in the revelation of the Quran as the Word of God to His last Prophet, which Christianity tacitly rejects. Muslims also honor Jesus as a prophet and concede the title Messiah to him, though they deny his divinity as they do its corollary, the doctrine of the Trinity.
For the Muslim, the whole question of the crucifixion revolves about the word shubbiha found but once in the Quran, in this verse: And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah Jesus son of Mary, God’s messenger—They slew him not nor did they crucify him, but it appeared so [shubbiha] unto them; and lo! Those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture. They slew him not, for certain. (Q. 4:157)
This is an explicit denial of the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion. This will dismissed summarily by many simply because of the weight of two millennia of Christian tradition, so this investigation can only be pursued if we suspend our prejudgments and agree to consider possible alternatives, if only as an intellectual exercise. As we have discussed this issue at length elsewhere, we shall confine ourselves to a summary of the various arguments here.
It may be admitted that above verse permits differing interpretations. These differing interpretations are primarily concerned with the meaning of two phrases: does masalabuhu in 4:157 mean "not crucified"; that is, "they did not nail him to the cross," or "they did not cause his death on the cross"? And what is the meaning of walikin shubbiha lahum, "and but it appeared so unto them"? Wehr defines shubbiha as "to be doubtful, dubious, uncertain, obscure." It should be noted that shubbiha is the passive past tense of an active verb with the basic meaning of "make to resemble/appear." In the passive voice, the basic literal meaning would be "he/it (masc.) was made to resemble/appear"; thus, one could say: "it was made to appear (that)…" "Being doubtful" and "unclear" are specialized uses of the form.
Keeping all of this in mind, does the passage mean that Jesus was actually placed upon the cross and only appeared to die? That is, did he suffer and survive the crucifixion? Or does it mean (with Sale) that someone else was crucified in his place? Or was it a mere shade without spirit that appeared upon the cross? An early Christian heretic, Cerinthus (fl. 100 CE), taught that Jesus was possessed by the Messiah who departed from him before the Passion. In other words, Jesus was crucified, but not the Messiah.
"As the apocryphal gospels, pseudepigrapha, polemics, and other early Christian writings testify, there were other, contrary traditions about the crucifixion already in circulation; evidence that the Pauline interpretation of the life of Christ had a number of competitors. In the present form of the gospels, some element of polemic against denials of the reality of the death of Jesus on the cross survives, indicating that there were indeed early alternative traditions and interpretations of the mission and nature of Jesus."
A Gnostic tradition held that the Simon of Cyrene mentioned in John was crucified in place of Jesus. That story was in circulation by the last decade of the 1st century CE, if not earlier. It is reported in the writings of early fathers of the church. Irenaeus (c. 130-200 CE) mentions the teaching of the Gnostic heretic Basilides who was active about 120 CE: "that (Jesus) had not suffered and that a certain Simon of Cyrene had been compelled to carry his cross for him and that this man was crucified through ignorance and error, having been changed in form by him so that it should be thought that he was Jesus himself." The Docetists believed that only the body of Jesus was crucified and his spirit had already departed from it.
The early Christian Gnostic The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, has another version of the substitution story in which Jesus was really crucified but only appeared to suffer. It even suggests that Jesus was a shapeshifter. In another Nag Hammadi document, Jesus consoles his brother James, declaring that he had suffered in no way whilst upon the cross. The Manichaeans had still another version of the simulated suffering, but as we are concerned with Belica’s suggestion of an outright substitution, let us proceed towards that.
Most readers will be familiar with the story of the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, slightly different accounts of which are found in all four canonical gospels. The priests, temple elders, slaves, and soldiers seized Jesus when the traitorous Judas identified him by greeting him with a kiss. He was then brought before the high priests.
From this episode, it is clear that Jesus was not a familiar figure in Jerusalem—most of his teaching had been conducted in the north and east—and the authorities who were alarmed by his actions and teachings did not know what he looked like. Enter Judas who agrees to identify him for a mere thirty pieces of silver. Judas has been much vilified in books and from the pulpits throughout the ages for his betrayal of Jesus, but there is a contrarian theory which holds that Judas’ alleged betrayal was actually an attempt to save Jesus from his enemies by having some one else take his place at the arrest. Whether it was anticipated that the arrest would lead to a crucifixion or not is not known, but it was a probable outcome in those brutal times.
Why were the authorities so concerned with Jesus’ actions? What made it so important, according to some theories, to substitute another—presumably a volunteer—for Jesus at this time? Was he not simply a peaceful teacher preaching the kingdom of heaven?
Perhaps not. Here is Mark, the oldest of the gospels, writing about the events of the second day of the Passion: "And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple." (Mk. 11:15-16) Matthew virtually repeats Mark, but Luke, with a wary eye on Rome, merely states: "And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold…" (Lk. 19:45) Interestingly, John (Jn. 2: 13-16) shifts this event at Jerusalem to a time shortly after the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, a time when the Synoptics have Jesus still in Galilee. Since the Markan tradition is much older, it would seem that John wanted to get this episode out of the way before beginning his narrative of the Passion that occupies the second half of his gospel.
Now, consider what has happened according to Mark. Jesus and his followers have invaded the Temple of Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish faith, and taken control it. This is not likely to have been accomplished without threats and even violence; in fact, it sounds very much like an armed insurrection. (We know that some of Jesus’ followers were armed from incidents reported at the time of his arrest.) Although Jesus rarely uses the word "messiah" to describe himself (he seems to have preferred "son of man," if we may trust the gospel writers), just about everyone else thought of him as such. Judaea had experienced several "messiahs" and they all had tried to re-establish Jewish independence through armed conflict, but failed.
After taking over the Temple, the disconcerted priests tried to negotiate. It would seem that Jesus and his followers were later either expelled by force or left on their own accord in the face overwhelming Roman power. The gospels are silent on this point. In any event, after celebrating the Last Supper, they eventually retired to the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives that overlooked Jerusalem and the Temple from the east. In the traditional version by Mark, Jesus was aware of the fate awaiting him and passed his time in prayer until Judas and "a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders" arrived to arrest him. After a scuffle in which a slave or servant was wounded by the sword of one of Jesus’ followers (unnamed in the Synoptics, but identified as Peter by John), Jesus was taken for examination and trial and later crucifixion, all on the same day (Mk. 14: 43-50).
That is the "official" version of events. There is no suggestion of organized resistance or a substitution. Nevertheless, that his followers were carrying arms has not escaped our notice. That is an uncomfortable fact for the believers in the pacifist Jesus. Since Josephus is silent on these matters (or has been silenced by tampering with his text), we may now only speculate alternative strategies that Jesus and his followers may have adopted to save him from the harsh certainties of Roman justice. Indeed, he may not have been a party to these possible machinations by his supporters.
One such strategy received much publicity with the publication of Dr. Hugh Schonfeld’s book The Passover Plot (1966), which details a possible scenario by which Jesus’ followers may have tried to save him from the usually lethal consequences of crucifixion. The whole scheme of the plotters depended upon getting Jesus down from the cross as quickly and with as little trauma as possible and then spiriting him away from the eyes of authority in order to act swiftly to revive him.
Now, crucifixion was a shameful method of execution. It was one of the most horrible forms of execution ever devised by man, precisely because of its length. Victims on the cross would usually survive several days, dying painfully from thirst, hunger, and exhaustion. Yet, Jesus spent but three to six hours (versions vary) on the cross. When his death was reported to Pilate, he was astonished by Jesus’ speedy demise. And then, when Joseph of Arimathea came to ask Pilate for the body, as Agron Belica correctly points out in his book, Joseph asked for Jesus’ "body" (Gk. soma), whilst Pilate refers to Jesus’ "corpse" (Gk. ptoma). The implicit connotations of the two words are roughly the same as they are in English.
If Jesus’ followers were trying to save him, was the vinegar given to Jesus drugged? If such was the case, was he aware of the plot to save him, or ignorant of it?
More possible evidence: When the soldier thrust the spear into Jesus’ side, blood flowed. Not much flows out of a dead man as the heart has stopped beating. The excuse to take him down from the cross early because of the approaching Sabbath seems rather spurious. Had his enemies not foreseen this conflict? They surely would have wanted to leave him on the cross for days, dead or alive, as a warning to would-be rebels and to broadcast their triumph and the certain fate faced by the enemies of Rome. Many of the incidents connected with the crucifixion and its aftermath seem rather contrived. If he survived the crucifixion, then it would only have appeared to his enemies that they had crucified him, one interpretation of shubbiha. If this was the case, perhaps Jesus finished his days still teaching the Kingdom of Heaven in Kashmir, as some would have it.
But, suppose it was not Jesus who was crucified on that fateful occasion. Suppose his followers had spirited him away to the comparative safety of the neighboring Parthian Empire, an easy caravan journey across the northern steppes and deserts of Arabia. In another interpretation of the Quranic verse, it would have appeared (shubbiha) to Jesus’ enemies that they had crucified him, but in reality they had crucified another, and the plot of his followers may have been designed to save that volunteer.
He could have been Simon of Cyrene, but Belica thinks that that man may have been John the Baptist. We have discussed the chronological possibilities of such an event above. If we assume that it is chronologically possible, what else might link the two prophets to make John’s sacrifice more plausible?
Of the gospels, only Luke speaks of a kinship between John and Jesus. According to Luke, both of John’s parents were Levites. His mother Elizabeth was relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus, so presumably she also was a Levite—if we may rely upon Luke’s evidence. As we have noted above, the canonical gospel-writers introduced John the Baptist primarily as the herald of the coming of Jesus and had very little to say about him thereafter. Since both men were active in their missions at roughly the same time in an area smaller than Connecticut, it would be strange if they had not had more contact, especially if they were kin. Since we believe that the gospel writers were desirous of putting the focus on Jesus and did not want to confuse the issue with a charismatic competitor, their comparative silence is not entirely unexpected.
This should not be taken to imply that we feel that Jesus and John were any in sort of competition for followers, God forbid! However, their later propagandists may have been less tolerant. Consider the fate of the Essenes, an influential community of that era; they are not mentioned at all by the fourfold gospel, even though their views on the Messiah were quite apposite to the nature of the mission of Jesus. Moreover, they were hardly a secret society; there was even a Gate of the Essenes in Jerusalem at the time of Josephus! Yet, there is not a word about them in the Bible.
In the gospels, Luke writes about the beginning of the fame of John and his preaching and baptizing: "As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ [Messiah]." (Lk. 3:15) Of what were the people in expectation? The Messiah would, among other things, release them from the yoke of Rome. What did the priest Zechariah, his father, say about John at his birth? "And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest… to give knowledge and salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins through the tender mercies of our God…" (Lk. 1:76,77) and John: "And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who art thou?’ He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ [Messiah].’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Art thou Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’" (Jn. 1: 19-20)
Though not claiming to be the Messiah, John was a charismatic prophet of considerable repute on his own. The fact that he acknowledged the precedence and greater importance of Jesus links them together implicitly, despite the gospel writers’ relative silence. The lingering fear that he posed a threat as a potential messiah probably contributed to Herod Antipas’ decision to have him executed, as they thought had executed Jesus.
So, for the sake of argument, we may postulate that the connection between Jesus and John, both shepherds in the fields of salvation, probably had more direct or indirect contact than the texts of the canonical gospels would suggest. Furthermore, there is the question of the messiahship, a question that may possibly also involve the Essenes. We have mentioned the strong possibility of John’s having Essene connections above. The Essenes had proposed two complementary messiahs: the Priestly and the Royal to rule the ideal Jewish state. They had also proposed two antithetical characters: the Teacher of Righteousness and his foe the Wicked Priest. These two were apparently real people and there has been much speculation about their identities.
The Mandaeans, whom we have mentioned above, may have had Essene connections and their parallel to the Essene dichotomy, John the Baptist in opposition to Jesus, hints at stronger links between the two groups. Does their position reflect some earlier Essene approval of John the Baptist and disapproval of Jesus, for whatever reason?
There were some in Judaea at that time who thought that John might really be a messiah but that he was concealing the fact out of caution. Not that he was the Davidic or Royal Messiah, but rather the Priestly Messiah. John was of Levite descent and therefore at least qualified by descent to be a candidate for that role. If Jesus were the Davidic (Royal) Messiah and John the Priestly Messiah, their relationship would be more understandable and take on a different hue. One may speculate that the delegation of inquiry sent by John to Jesus probably wanted to know his plans, possibly with a view to a declaration of their joint messiahship.
Apropos of this topic, Prof. Mowry writes: "Interestingly, some of John the Baptist’s followers apparently thought of him as one who fulfilled the hope for a priestly Messiah. In the nativity stories of John, as they are preserved in Luke’s gospel, we read that the ‘poor’ of Israel will rejoice at his birth because it signifies the arrival of the day of redemption (Lk. 1:46-55) What is said in praise of John as the wonder child (Lk. 1:16-17) who would create a prepared people by transforming them into obedient children of God expresses the ideals of deeply pious rural priests. It is not surprising, therefore, that John, as the son of such a priest, could be regarded as fulfilling the hopes of those looking for a Messiah from the tribe of Levi. This does not necessarily imply that John the Baptist had such messianic views, or that he thought of himself as fulfilling the promises of a Messiah…"
As real or potential messiahs, Jesus and John each posed a potential challenge to different aspects of the ruling establishment that supported Roman rule. Both had to be eliminated to preserve the status quo. John the Baptist met that fate at Macherus, most likely after the Passion of Jesus—unless he managed to escape from the castle into the eastern desert and flee to lower Mesopotamia where some of his followers would flee and where the Mandaeans would later be centered.
In Islamic belief, Jesus escaped his fate on the cross in some manner, perhaps to live in exile for the rest of his life, profiting others with his teachings rather than the Jews. Jesus may have been saved by rescue or he may have been replaced by another. If the latter be the case, then we may speculate as to the identity of that person. If John were alive at that time, as we believe probable, then who would have been more appropriate for that sacrifice than he, with kindred missions, beliefs and perhaps even family? Perhaps then, it was John who was saved from the cross to continue his ministry for a while until his rendezvous with Herod at Macherus.
Of course, this is all speculation, supposition, and deduction from too little hard evidence for a positive conclusion. Agron Belica speculates; all of us speculate. That is the part of our natural mental inquisitiveness that often leads to invention and new insights. Sometimes, even our wildest speculations are not so far from the truth. John the Baptist, this neglected and underestimated prophet, has found an enthusiastic advocate in Agron Belica. Let us hope that his efforts will encourage others amongst us to reconsider old "truths." And God knows best.
Professor Ayoub writes:
'The Crucifixion: Mistaken Identity? by Agron Belica is an engaging analysis of the life and mission of the two kindred religious personages, John the Baptist (Yahya) and Jesus (`Isa). Even though the central argument of the book, namely that the man who was hung on the cross was John and not Jesus, may be academically open to question as it rests on circumstantial evidence, the book will add much to the discussion of an epoch-making event that has shaped world history. The book is informative and entertaining. It is certainly worth reading.'
Dr. Mahmoud M. Ayoub
Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations
Hartford Seminary, Hartford CT