Yochanan the Immerser (‘John the Baptist’)
In the Talmidi tradition, Yochanan the Immerser (‘John the Baptist’) is honoured as a prophet sent by God. This is because he was spoken of as such by the prophet Yeshua`, who had formerly been a follower of Yochanan, and because he believed him to be the prophet promised to preach in the spirit of Elijah, who was foretold to come before ‘the Great Day of YHVH’:
‘So what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one of whom it was written, “Behold, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the great and terrible day of our God comes.” (S.Yesh 12:3 = Mt 11:9-10).
Yochanan’s ministry of immersion
For the unjust, the sacrifices in the Temple had lost all meaning. They offered sin-offerings, yet made no effort towards repentance for their sins. So God called Yochanan to a ministry of immersion, to emphasise that it was not the sacrifice that brought about a forgiveness of sin, but the act of repentance.
Verse 3:1 of ‘The Book of Yochanan the Immerser’ encapsulates his ministry perfectly: ‘Yochanan taught that the heart had to be purified by repentance before the body could be purified by water.’ The act of immersion did nothing in and of itself. He was showing people that any part of the sacred Temple ritual could be done or left out, but as long as repentance was there, God’s forgiveness followed. The act of immersion was the initial stage of preparation for attending the Temple, so it was the most appropriate visible sign of spiritual cleansing.
Prophet like Elijah
In the late Second Temple Period, Pharisaic Judaism came to believe that a prophet like Elijah would precede the coming of the Messiah. However, this belief arose out of their Oral Traditions, and was not how The Prophets presented the prophet like Elijah. The coming of a prophet like Elijah is looked forward to by the rabbis as a result. A place is made ready at table for him every Sabbath and Passover. However, as the prophet Malachi reveals, if a prophet like Elijah comes, it is to warn us of a Great and Terrible Day of Judgment, not to act as forerunner to a messiah.
Nor would there be one prophet like Elijah; whenever there is an exile event, or a day of judgment, there would be a prophet sent to call people to repent and turn back to YHVH, to reconcile families, and purify the just and the unjust.
Therefore in the Talmidi tradition, the coming of a Prophet like Elijah is seen as a dire warning of potentially terrible consequences to come, not as someone whose coming is to be longed for.
The ‘Great and Terrible Day of YHVH’
Likewise, this title describes not one event but any event that punishes the nation of Israelfor serious rebellion against God’s ways. Whenever Israel slides away from her obligations under the Covenant, and things get so bad that tribulation or exile is the only way to bring Israel to her senses, then these events are described as a ‘Great and Terrible Day of YHVH’.
The Prophets dwelt with great emphasis upon the Day of YHVH as the future Day of Judgment. The term was employed by the Prophets in an eschatological sense and invested with a double character: on the one hand, as the time of the manifestation of God’s punitive powers of justice directed against injustice and idolatry that provokes His righteous anger; and on the other hand, as the time of the vindication and salvation of the righteous.
The prophet Amos says that ‘the Day of YHVH shall not be light but darkness, blackest night without a glimmer’. For Isaiah, likewise, the Day of YHVH brings terror and ruin to Judah and Israel (Isa. 2:12, 10:3, 22:5; comp. Micah 1:3) as well as to other nations (Isa. 14:25). In Zeph. 1-3. it is a universal day of doom for all idolaters, including the inhabitants of Judea, but it ends with the glory of the faithful remnant of Israel, while the assembled pagan powers are annihilated (Micah 3:11b-12).
The Day of YHVH is said to come as ‘a fire which refines the silver’ (Mal. 3:2-3; comp. Isa. 33:14-16, where the righteous are described as those who can withstand the fire).
The relevant passages in Malachi
The passages describing a prophet who would preach in the spirit of Elijah are found in the Book of Malachi:
‘See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly YHVH whom you seek will come to His temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says YHVH Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or fuller’s lye. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then YHVH will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to YHVH, as in days gone by, as in former years. So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the orphans, and deprive residents foreigners of justice, and do not reverence me in awe, says YHVH of the Battalions of Heaven‘ (Mal 3:1-5).
‘Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire, says YHVH Almighty. Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things, says YHVH of the Battalions of Heaven. (Mal 3:19-21 = Christian bibles Mal 4:1-3)
See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and terrible day of YHVH comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse. (Mal 3:23-24 = Christian bibles Mal 4:5-6)
Yochanan as a prophet like Elijah
In this context therefore, Talmidaism understands Yochanan the Immerser as a prophet like Elijah. It should be made clear however, that the prophet like Elijah was not to be a reincarnation of Elijah, but someone who would be like him and preach like him.
The prophet was to prepare the way, that is, for a day of judgment. He would refine and purify the priests and Levites with his words, in order to make their offerings acceptable to God. He would speak against the unjust and the godless. The just and the righteous would have nothing to fear. Before the terrible day, the prophet would turn the hearts of parents to their children, and children to their parents.
This was what was expected of any prophet that spoke in the spirit of Elijah. And this is how Yochanan is portrayed in the ‘Book of Yochanan the Immerser’ (S.Yoch). The preaching of Yochanan would have been fiery, for so he would have purified the people like a refiner’s fire, and cleansed them like fuller’s lye.
In passage 3 of S.Yoch, the Sadducean priests come to him for immersion, but he castigates their injustice, and their lack of repentance, emphasising that not even his immersion would cleanse an unrepentant heart. However, in passage 9, when the ordinary priests come to him – those who long to serve God properly – his immersion purifies their hearts ready for the holy service of YHVH.
And He speaks against the unjust and the godless. He castigates Herod and Herodias for their immorality, and he is described as reconciling families (S.Yoch 5:5).
Yochanan and Nazorayism
The Mandean sect honours Yochanan the Immerser as a great prophet, their master and founder. Their ancient tradition says that the original name of their sect, as followers of Yochanan, was ‘Nazorayyans’. However, the modern Mandeans have taken on Gnostic influences from ancient times. As a result, they believe that immersion is essential for salvation – something that neither Yochanan nor Israelite tradition ever taught. This may have come about very early on after the death of Yochanan; in Acts 9:10 Paul is described as meeting a disciple – likely of Yochanan – in Damascus called Ananias, who immerses him. It is possible that Paul takes on the belief about salvific immersion or ‘baptism’ from this Gnostic Nazorayyan.
It is only logical: Immersion is only necessary in Judaism for the conversion of a Gentile, and for ritual purification whenever one attended the Temple; Yeshua` said nothing about the necessity of immersion for salvation, and Yochanan is not recorded as having taught the belief either. However, with the sudden demise of their master Yochanan, his followers – the Nazorayyans – may have fallen away to other influences such as the Gnostics (and possibly the Zealots), taking on the belief that immersion was necessary for salvation. The belief was taken on by Paul, thereby entering nascent Christian theology.
It is also possible that there was a Nazorayyan division of Zealots; when Yeshua` was crucified, the criminal charge nailed to his cross was that he was ‘Yeshua the Nazorayyan’. The title would not have been there (together with ‘King of the Jews’) unless it were understood by the Romans as alluding to some crime, and as having criminal connotations. The title ‘Nazorayyan’, for the Romans, could have intimated some connection with a sub-division of the Zealots
Whatever may have been the case, it is clear that Yochanan’s followers splintered, and lost the original intent behind their master’s teaching.
In Talmidaism, Yochanan is seen as a prophet of ‘the Great and Terrible Day of YHVH’. He was a prophet like Elijah. He is not seen as a forerunner to Yeshua`, or the messiah son of David. His story is included in the Talmidi religious writings, The Exhortations, purely to show that, what YHVH foretold through Malachi was fulfilled – that God did indeed send a prophet like Elijah, before the Great and Terrible Day, to purify the priests and Levites, speak with fire against the unjust, and reconcile parents and children.