John the Baptist is an eminent figure in Christianity, the herald of the Logos and first martyr of a new age. In Gnosticism, John seems almost invisible, but a closer look reveals an important and often divisive figure.
In Gnostic texts, John’s mention is rather scarce. The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 46, offers this on John:
Jesus said, “From Adam to John the Baptist, among those born of women, no one is so much greater than John the Baptist that his eyes should not be averted. But I have said that whoever among you becomes a child will recognize the Father’s Kingdom and will become greater than John.”
The saying parallels Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28. The Gospel of Thomas is not a conventional Gnostic work, however, but a collection of Christian wisdom from different traditions (one could argue this applies to the Canonical Gospels as well).
The Testimony of Truth states that John “is the Archon the Womb.” The Alexandrian work uses John as a metaphorical cipher condemning baptismal and moderate Christianity (including the fellow traditions of Valentinus and Basilides). This attitude is in line with many Paulinist Gnostics who contended that John was merely the bringer of the mental (physic) baptism, and only Jesus could bring the spiritual (pneumatic) baptism.
John also appears in The Secret Book of James, where Jesus says, “Do you not know that the head of prophecy was cut off with John?” The savior is explaining that John is the last messenger to usher the Christian dispensation.
John takes a much more prominent role beyond the Nag Hammadi library. The Clementine Recognitions details how John the Baptist actually chose Simon Magus, the alleged fountainhead of Gnosticism, as the successor of his movement and not Jesus. Furthermore, the work also states that John’s followers held John as the true Messiah.
The Mandaeans, the only remaining Gnostics of antiquity, also championed John as the most essential figure in Christianity. In their belief system, John is the keeper of Gnosis and “the envoy of the King of Light,” while Jesus is seen as a usurper (the Haran Gawaita scroll). John’s deeds and sayings are preserved in the Mandaic Book of John, including his birth that is ushered with prophecy and a star (although there is no virgin issue between Elizabeth and Zacharias).
Not all Gnostics saw John in a positive light, though. In The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus states that John and most of the Old Testament heroes never “knew me nor my brothers. For they had a doctrine of angels to observe dietary laws and bitter slavery, since they never knew truth, nor will they know it. For there is a great deception upon their soul…”
The Bogomils, a medieval Gnostic strain, claimed that John the Baptist was actually the precursor to the antichrist (and completely denounced baptism by water, placing them in the extreme Paulinist camp).
It should be noted that the Gnostics’ use of mythology was extreme, similar to a dream experience, where villains and heroes exchanged roles depending on the insights or imagination of the author. For example, a character like Peter is painted as a scoundrel in one text (The Gospel of Mary), while in another he is a wise sage (The Secret Book of James). Furthermore, portraying traditional Judeo-Christian icons as either malicious or ignorant was a common Gnostic trope (as in The Second Treatise of the Great Seth).
John’s historical standing in all of Christendom seems to have been whitewashed. Books like The Mysteries of John the Baptist by Tobias Churton and The Evolution of Christ and Christianities by Jay Raskins depict a very different John than the gospels: a refined spiritual leader who might have been an Essene; a political guru who commanded respect from Roman and Jewish authorities alike; and a kingmaker when it came to messianic aspirations. Some radical scholarship even place John as the very author or inspiration of scriptures brandishing his name, and even the true savior of Israel.
Much has been written on John the Baptist, but it pales in comparison to other Christian exemplars of early times. Even the Gnostics seemed to have marginalized him to a point. But beyond the censoring pens of scribes and a hidden history of competing Jewish revolutionaries, John stands as a monumental character.
After all, Jesus said that no man born of a woman was greater than John the Baptist. What better endorsement can any mortal have?