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300 pp.

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The First Christian Believer
In Search of John the Baptist
Rivka Nir

Current research on John the Baptist is fixated on reconstructing the historical John against the religious, social and ideological environment of first-century CE Judaism. The consensus is that this John originally lived and operated within Jewish society without any connection with the fledgling Christian community and was made the Messiah's forerunner only in later Christian tradition.

In this study, Nir radically changes the focus for John the Baptist research. All our sources about John, she argues, tell us not about a historical person but lead us invariably to a character who exists essentially in early Christian literature. The Gospels are sources for Christian theology's world of beliefs, ideas and messianic perception in the first century, and its materials about John the Baptist are inevitably the handiwork of Christian tradition and its theological tendencies.

Whatever we are told about John, how he looked, the baptism he instituted, the geographical arena of his activity, the speeches he made, his birth and death, is understandable whether as isolated details or in their integration into a whole picture only against the background of Christian theology and its Christology.

As against prevailing research on John the Baptist, which aims to break through the Gospel tradition and expose his original Jewishness, Nir challenges us to draw lines of separation between John and Judaism, affirming his difference from Judaism.

This Christian John, whom we can rightfully call the first Christian believer, is the only John the Baptist we can access.

Rivka Nir has been teaching in the Department of History, Philosophy and Judaic Studies in the Open University of Israel.

Series: New Testament Monographs, 38
978-1-910928-55-4 hardback
Publication May 2019

[W]hen Nir remains focused on a literary approach, the lens she brings to Christian sources often highlights interesting and neglected features of early Christian literature, such as intertextual connections and themes connected to specific characters. For this reason, there is a great deal in the book that will be of interest to those who study early Christian literature even if their work does not focus on the place of John the Baptist in that literature. And for those whose work does focus on John, Nir places the burden of proof squarely on the shoulders of those who conclude that a historical John can be glimpsed through the Christian prism of our Christian sources [H]er unconventional approach brings more sharply into focus the crucial yet often neglected role John the Baptist needs to play in making sense of the diverse landscape of ancient Judaism, of which he was arguably a bigger part than most have heretofore realized. James McGrath, Enoch Seminar Online.