As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” – Mark 1:2-3
After declaring the main theme of the Gospel in verse one (“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”), the author of Mark quickly introduces the character that has come to be known as John the Baptist. As a side note, a rapid pace is one of the characteristic features of Mark’s gospel. Before he introduces John the Baptist, Mark’s deeply Israelite mind could not conceive of skipping this very important point – stating the foundational reference for John’s ministry in the words of God spoken through the prophets of old.
The quotation in verse 2 does not only come from Isaiah but also from Mal.3:1 (with probable allusions to Ex.23:20 also). Older manuscripts of this Gospel, according to the traditional Israelite pattern, refer only to the greater prophets – in this case, Isaiah. Medieval manuscripts of this Gospel, however, show Christian scribal copyists’ discomfort with this practice. They exchanged the singular reference to Isaiah with the clarifying reference to “the prophets”.
In the Masoretic version of Isaiah 40:3 we read:
ק֣וֹל קוֹרֵ֔א בַּמִּדְבָּ֕ר פַּנּ֖וּ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֑ה יַשְּׁרוּ֙ בָּעֲרָבָ֔ה מְסִלָּ֖ה לֵאלֹהֵֽינוּ׃
In the first part of this Hebrew version, this quotation can be translated as “A voice calling in the wilderness” or as “a voice of the one calling in the wilderness.”
The Judeo-Greek Septuagint opts for the latter of these two options, imagining someone in the wilderness who is calling out:
Φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν Κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν.
An English translation reads: “A voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God.’”
This nuance becomes very important when we turn our attention to the possible connection between the early Jewish Jesus movement and the Essenes, a Jewish separatist group headquartered at the Qumran compound beside the Dead Sea. The 150 or so members of the Qumran community and its larger nationwide Essene movement had many similarities and connections with the early Jewish Jesus movement. They also had significant differences. In fact, it is these very similarities and differences that justify us in thinking that the early Jesus movement (including John the Baptist) had some of its roots in the Essene movement.
One notable similarity between the Qumran materials and the gospels is this: the Essenes presented their Qumran community stationed in the wilderness (about 20 km from Jerusalem) as the voice calling out in the wilderness. However, the Gospels speak of the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3 in terms of the ministry of John the Baptist!
We read in 1QS 8.12b-16b: “…they (community members) shall separate from the habitations [of] ungodly men and shall go into the wilderness to prepare the way of Him; as it is written, ‘Prepare in the wilderness the way of… make straight in the desert a path for our God. This is the study of the Law which He commanded by the hand of Moses… and as the Prophets have revealed by His Holy Spirit.’”
In fact, the term “Holy Spirit” appears rarely in the Hebrew Bible and much of Second Temple Jewish literature, but it occurs several times in the New Testament Gospels and the writings of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Mark 1:4-5
Could it be that John the Baptist once belonged to the Qumran community? Yes, his emphasis on the water purification ceremony, his priestly origins, his ascetic lifestyle, his near-identical missional justification (the voice in the wilderness), his curious diet (which we will discuss next), his apocalyptic message, as well as his general location (he baptized not that far away from Qumran) would certainly seem to lead us in this direction.
Was John the Baptist/Baptizer a Qumranite by affiliation when he carried out his ministry? Most certainly not! Qumran had a very stringent leadership structure. John, as best we can tell, worked alone. It is, therefore, much safer to conclude that John may have had an earlier connection with Qumran (as one Qumran reference very tentatively suggests) and then, over a period of time, parted company with them completely, developing his own ministry in a different direction (albeit not that far removed!).
We must not forget that our knowledge of ancient Jewish movements is still fragmentary. It is entirely possible that John was affiliated in some way with another (unknown to us) movement of Jews calling other Jews to repentance. His affiliation is not the point. The fact that this ‘voice of the one calling in the wilderness” breathed the same first-century, religious Jewish air of the time certainly is.