Are the Nativity Stories of Jesus based on those of John the Baptist?

Scholar Hugh J. Schonfield thought so. In his monograph published in 1929, Schonfield suggested that the scattered remains of a lost “Book of the Nativity of John” show that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke borrowed thematic elements from this hypothetical text for their compositions of the birth stories of Jesus.

Schonfield found references to, and scattered remains from, a written nativity of John in a variety of sources. Two possible references to the text may be itemized in early lists of Christian literature. The Stichometry of Nicephorus (9th c.) lists a work called the Book Of Zacharias the Father of John (given as 500 lines in length) while the Questions and Responses of Anastasius of Sinai (7th-8th c.) cites a similar text called the Apocalypse of Zacharias. Are these the same books? Is the Zechariah in the titles of either of these works the father of John the Baptist named Zechariah in Luke 1:5? In the Gospel of Matthew 23:35, Jesus makes a reference to Zechariah the son of Barachiah who was “murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” Is this John’s father? Jerome (4th c.), in his gospel commentaries, wrote that some exegetes of his day thought so. Other witnesses, including the Gospel of the Hebrews, understood Jesus to be referring to the pre-exilic Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, who was stoned in the temple court (2 Chr. 24:20-21). Some believe that the author of the biblical Book of Zechariah, given in the opening lines as the son of Barachiah, is here in view although there is no tradition that he was ever murdered.

Nevertheless, legends later arose, perhaps based on the story of the murdered Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, that John the Baptist’s own father Zechariah was similarly killed in the temple. His execution, however, was the result of his refusal to provide Herod with the location of his son so that Herod could slay him. Herod feared the coming of a messiah, foretold to him by a group of Arabian magi, all familiar elements of the Jesus nativity story. The details of John’s infancy and Zechariah’s death are found in an old Slavonic text summarized in The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament by M. R. James (1920, pp. 74-77). The main elements of the story include 1) the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, 2) the flight of Elizabeth and John into the wilderness to hide in a cave, and 3) the questioning and murder of Zechariah. James doubts, however, that this text is the equivalent of those cited in the ancient lists. He believes it to be part of the John the Baptist cycle of nativity stories. The last chapters of the Protevangelium of James also contain the story of the murder of Zechariah, the father of John, and how his spilt blood turned to stone around the temple sanctuary.

The Commentaries on the Gospels by Isho’dad of Merv (9th c.) collect a number of interpretive entries regarding Matthew 3:1. For example, Isho’dad states that Ephrem the Syrian (4th c.) knew a tradition in which Elizabeth fled with the baby John into hiding. “Others,” he notes, were aware that Zechariah was murdered “between the vestibule and the altar” by Herod. In Ephrem’s own Gospel Commentaries he records the same two traditions, indicating that these stories are based on even earlier texts. Ephrem connects John’s father with the man alluded to by Jesus as Zechariah son of Barachiah (Matt 23:35).

Schonfield identifies the woman of Revelation 12 with Elizabeth, John’s mother. In Rev. 12:13-14 “the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child.  But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness.” The author suggests the passage can be interpreted on two levels, the apocalyptic and the historical. Historically, the dragon is Herod, the woman is Elizabeth, and the male child is John. Revelation, according to Schonfield, reflects older messianic materials from which certain Baptist legends were constructed.

The fourth-century Life of John the Baptist by Serapion is another link in the chain of these legends about John. The text agrees that John’s mother fled with the baby into the wilderness, specifically identified as Ain Karim, and that Zechariah was murdered following Herod’s slaughter of the innocents  (in Jerusalem, not Bethlehem) that was intended to kill John.  (Ain Karim is the site of the recently discovered “John the Baptist cave.” See Gibson, The Cave of John the Baptist.) The Protevangelium of James (2nd c.) also relates John’s evasion of the massacre and Elizabeth’s attempt to escape with him, in this account to a cave cleft by an angel out of solid rock.

It is Schonfield’s contention that Luke has drawn together two infancy narratives in the gospel’s two opening chapters, but “by incorporating a large part of the nativity stories of John into his own account of the birth of Jesus, [Luke] seeks to deal a death-blow at the [surviving] Baptist sect” (26). These “incorporated parts” include the visit of the magi, the prophetic star, and the massacre of the innocents. Matthew’s nativity story is much closer than Luke’s to the Nativity of John even though the events are described as happening to Jesus. The two speeches of the angelic messengers, one to Joseph (Matthew 1:20-21) and one to Mary (Luke 1:28-35), are so much alike as to evidence a common ancestor.

If all this sounds questionable in light of the triumph of Christianity over any group founded by John the Baptist, it should be remembered that John’s movement was already quite large and influential by the time Jesus entered into it. Luke describes John’s followers in terms of “multitudes” (3:7, 10, etc.). Mark says “all the people” of Jerusalem and Judea went to him (Mark 1:5). People thought he might be the messiah (Luke 3:15). John’s disciples had peculiar patterns of behavior that were popularly understood to be characteristic of them (Luke 5:33). Jesus said that “among those born of women none is greater than John” (Luke 7:28). Flavius Josephus also wrote of the great influence that John had over the people, enough that he might cause a rebellion (Antiquities 18.5.2). John’s was a messianic sect, according to Schonfield, and a passage from the Old Slavonic version of Josephus’s Jewish War adds messianic material: “He came to the Jews and summoned them to freedom, saying: God has sent me, that I may show you the way of the Law, wherein you may free yourselves from many holders of power. And there will be no mortal ruling over you, only the Most High who has sent me” (Slavonic Josephus has been greeted with skepticism by most scholars). But followers of John persisted after his death. Disciples of John are mentioned in Acts 18:25 and 19:3-4. A sect referred to only as “Baptists” are alluded to by Justin (Dial. Tryph. 80), Hegesippus (Euseb. Eccl. Hist. 4.22), and the Clementine Recognitions (Clem. Rec. 1.54). Tenth-century sources place followers of John in Iraq and the Mandaeans of that region are believed to be the last modern-day representatives of these Baptist sects founded by John (since the Gulf War of 2003 most have dispersed to Iran, Syria, and Jordan). The Mandaean Book of John contains traditions about the birth of John that predate, according to Schonfield, the book’s seventh-century origins. It is Gnostic in orientation but does tell of a star that heralded John’s birth, a birth by the way that is couched in near-virginal terms.

Schonfield locates the origins of these messianic themes in the ancient Hebrew scriptures. A priestly messiah, such as John was believed to have been, was predicted by Deuteronomy 18:15-19 (from the house of Levi), Jeremiah 33:17-22, and Malachi 3:1-3. The Dead Sea Scrolls also predicted a priestly (as well as royal) messiah (1QS 9:11, 1QSa 2:17-21). The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (2nd c. B.C.), especially the Testament of Levi (18:3-4), describes the priestly messiah whose “star shall rise in the heavens.” Schonfield notes how the biblical Letter to the Hebrews attempted to show that Jesus, too, fulfilled the expectation of a priestly messiah even though he was not descended from Levi. Others, including Ephrem, made Jesus out to be of priestly lineage based on his mother’s (kinswoman to Elizabeth) line from Levi.

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