That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (for the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. -- I John 1.1-3
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And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, "I am not the Christ." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" And he answered, "No." So they said to him, "Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as the prophet Isaiah said." (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, "Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie." These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Here, the prologue being complete, we begin the story as such. The word testimony or witness, and the cross-examination of the Baptist by the religious authorities, pick up the theme of a trial. As we shall see later, the cleansing of the Temple, which was one of the motive factors in the conspiracy to execute Jesus, is placed by John just after the beginning of the public ministry -- the events are arranged thematically rather than chronologically.* This, like the continual harping upon witness, draws the reader's mind to the trials and condemnations of Jesus in Holy Week; the whole Gospel is oriented toward presenting the reader with the evidence -- Jesus' own testimony about Himself, the testimony of witnesses about Him, the miracles as "exhibits" -- and inviting the reader to pronounce a verdict; together with the implication that the verdict made by the reader about Jesus will itself be the verdict made upon the reader himself on the Last Day.
By the time John was written, martyrdom was already a sadly well-known phenomenon among Christians. St. Stephen the Deacon (cf. Acts 6-7) was probably stoned to death within a few years of the Crucifixion, having himself been examined by the Sanhedrin; and other Johannine works** present this same theme, as when Revelation 2.13 says that "you [the church of Pergamon] did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you," or when the same book includes accolades to the martyrs in 6.9-11 and 12.11, among other places. The cross-examination of St. John the Baptist here -- which to some extent foreshadows the controversy of 7.25-52 and the interrogations of the man born blind in 9.13-34 -- is not yet hostile, but it does set up the increasing contrast between the religious leaders on the one hand (spoken of collectively as "the Jews," probably signifying that the Gospel was written after the Church had fully identified itself as a new thing, and not solely another school of Judaism) and Christ and His followers on the other. The ignorance of the questioners -- who show themselves unable even to ask the right questions, due to their preconceived expectations -- is suggestive of that darkness to which John again and again returns; more particularly because the Baptist has already been identified as the "witness to the light."
It is possible (though speculative) that this may indicate some Essene influence on some members of the early Church, and indeed upon the Baptist himself. The Essenes, some of whom were probably the scribes of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, were a secretive school of Judaism, living chiefly near the Dead Sea, who were intensely apocalyptic and denounced the Temple and its sacrificial system as hopelessly corrupt. They practiced ritual washings (in Greek, baptismai), looked forward to a "Teacher of Righteousness" in their writings, and held celibacy in high regard. Given that St. John the Baptist lived in the Judean wilderness for years before beginning his mission, it's entirely possible that he met and was influenced by the Essenes. Their worldview was almost dualistic, placing great emphasis upon the division between the children of light and the children of darkness, and upon judgment. (The primitive Church, by contrast, never denounced the Temple as such, and indeed Jewish Christians continued to participate in its worship, including vows and sacrifices, until its destruction by Titus Flavius. However, certain passages such as Hebrews 7-10 suggest that even at the time, the Church had a different and more reserved attitude toward the Temple than the non-Christian Jews did.)
The inquiry as to whether he was the Messiah is easily explained; people were expecting the Messiah, not least because it was the right time period according to the prophecies of Daniel, and the call to national repentance and restoration was suggestive of the apocalyptic and messianic prophecies of Malachi, Jeremiah, Joel, Zechariah, and others. The inquiries about Elijah and "the prophet" come from these same prophecies, and also from a specific interpretation of Deuteronomy 18.15-19:
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [Moses] from among your brethren -- him you shall heed -- just as you desired from the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, "Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, or see this great fire any more, lest I die." And the LORD said to me, "They have rightly said all that they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not give heed to my words which he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him."
In its original context, the general institution of prophecy -- that is, of those Israelites who called the nation back to the covenant from its continual lapses into idolatry and apostasy -- is surely indicated. However, an interpretive custom had arisen among rabbis, by the time of Jesus, of taking almost any phrase or sentence and getting any meaning out of it that it would bear, whether it matched the author's intent or not. The Apostles themselves do this repeatedly: Matthew's prophetic fulfillments are nearly all of this type, as when he cites Hosea 11.1 being fulfilled in the return of the Holy Family from Egypt, even though that text not only wasn't specifically messianic in context, but was not a foretelling at all. John himself does the same thing when he attributes an unconscious prophecy to the High Priest in 11.49-52, and Christ Himself seems to be using the same device in 10.34ff.
In any case, there was a -- perhaps somewhat nebulous -- expectation of a the "Prophet like Moses" among first-century Jews, and it is about this that the representatives of the Pharisees are inquiring. They are looking for a category into which they can place the Baptist, and he refuses all that they have to offer. His reasons for doing so (given that, in the Synoptics, Jesus specifically does identify St. John the Baptist as Elijah), we can only speculate about.
"This porridge is too school-of-Shammai-Pharisaic."
It's possible that, in questioning him, the religious leaders were attempting to bring him under their authority and even to make him their representative, perhaps with the aim of curbing his severe criticisms of their order (cf. Matthew 3.7-12); it is also possible that their traditional definitions of these roles were so set that they did not truly correspond to his mission. It may be significant, though, that the definition the Baptist does give defines him exclusively in relation to God and to his prophetic successor. Elijah and "the prophet" seem to stand alone, at least as they are spoken of by the Pharisees here; the Baptist, in keeping with his portrait in the Synoptics and with his own words later in John, will speak of his own role solely as a function of Christ's.
This theme -- that every mission, whether of Christ or of the Paraclete Spirit or of the Apostles or any other, subsists in relationship and as relationship -- recurs constantly in John. The Upper Room Discourse, the thematic heart of the Gospel, returns to this with a dizzying mysticism of interrelated being. No wonder it took centuries to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity.
Of course, now it is all quite straightforward.
*It is possible to interpret this as a separate cleansing of the Temple. I find this interpretation completely implausible -- that a man should be able to do this once is shocking; that it should be suffered to happen twice beggars belief.
**As I've said, I am not insisting on any specific theory of authorship of the Gospel of John, or for that matter of the letters or the book of Revelation. However, even if they are not all by the same man or men, I think they share enough with each other thematically that they may meaningfully be referred to as a class.