But the writings of Josephus make clear that John was a leader and hero in his own right, and even the New Testament indicates that his following extended to later times and places.
Many populist religious leaders arose in John’s generation who promised deliverance from corrupt religion, brutal armies, and unjust governments. Their expectations were that the miraculous events of their biblical ancestors would be reenacted in their own times.
They were able to mobilize Jews to organize and prepare for history’s conclusion. Today theologians call this focus on the future and on the end "eschatology" and the visionary experiences connected with it apocalypticism.
A few examples give the tenor of John’s time. At the time of Pontius Pilate a Samaritan prophet claimed to be a new Moses. A few years later a certain Theudas brought his devotees to the Jordan so that the waters would part for them.
An Egyptian Jewish prophet rallied people to the Mount of Olives where they would see the collapse of the walls of Jerusalem and so claim the city for their own. Oracles and heavenly signs were publicized that supposedly told of the ruin of the city or of its rulers.
Whenever the Romans or the Jewish authorities learned of these prophets and predictions, they rooted them out violently. John was born of priestly descent to parents of an advanced age. Surprisingly, he abandoned his priestly patrimony and joined this eschatological movement.
Perhaps even as a young man he took up his abode in the wilderness near Jericho and gained a reputation for fiery preaching and for practicing a ritual known as baptism. For the rest of his life his priestly birth did not figure in his vocation.
When he did not adopt his birthright as a priest, he put on the mantle of prophet. As a prophet, he most resembled the biblical Elijah, an ascetic, recluse, and visionary. John was an ascetic himself, and the New Testament says that his diet was locusts and wild honey, and his clothing was hides and a leather belt.
In other words, he lived off the land and did not give thought to his future. As a recluse, he gave up wife and home, lived in the open air, and did his preaching in the wilderness. Undoubtedly, he believed that this isolation allowed him to maintain his independence from religious and political authority.
As a visionary, he preached a new approach to religion through baptism. John believed that this rite was more important than lineal descent from Abraham, the normal entrance into the Jewish faith.
Preparation for water baptism involved a decision to give up sinful practices and to practice virtue in all relationships, as well as the renunciation of any privilege that came with birth or election. Baptism, as practiced by John, was different from other types of water rituals among the eschatological groups because it was once for a lifetime.
In the temple, for example, cleansings were frequent and required a constant supply of water, either from cisterns or streams. Apparently, for John the water must have symbolized more than cleansing, but a death and rebirth.
Jesus, who said that his approaching death was a baptism that he needed to undergo, articulated the idea that baptism implied death. Later Christians, writing in the New Testament, use the image of the water to suggest new birth, or rising again from death.
If the conventional belief was that one was Jewish by birth, John was making a radical reform by making spiritual birth the new prerequisite. Later Christians who evangelized the Gentile world used baptism.
The fact that John spoke urgently of the coming judgment and unquenchable fire also might suggest that somehow he believed that the nature of the water (its cleansing, its vitality) protected his followers from the eschatological destruction.
Fire was a common metaphor for the final days of judgment. John started a movement, but he did not develop a stable community the way other eschatological leaders did.
It therefore was quite different from Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls community, and it was even different from the itinerant society that flourished around Jesus. John’s ascetic and reclusive life did not allow anything other than temporary stays with him.
Nonetheless, masses of Jewish people flooded out to hear him in the wilderness, and prostitutes, peasants, and politicians were affected. The fact that he stirred Josephus and that Jesus received baptism from him shows how diverse and penetrating was his influence.
The eschatological context of John’s preaching included an emphasis on "one who is to come", a designation that the New Testament keys on for the messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament portrays Jesus as the younger cousin of John, and John, as an Elijah-like precursor for Jesus.
Because of Jesus’s stature in the New Testament, it is surprising that he submits to John’s baptism. Christians throughout the ages debate the significance of the baptism of Jesus, but one thing is clear: John the Baptist acts as mentor for Jesus, and John’s shadow is cast over Jesus’s entire mission.
John’s influence does not rest with Jesus or even with later Christians. Stories in the New Testament speak of John’s disciples being found as far away as Ephesus. Justin Martyr mentions those who regarded John as the messiah. Even today there are sects of ancient pedigree that claim that their roots lie in John the Baptist (such as the Mandaeans and the Manichaeans).
In the Greek Church John becomes a standard icon (religious artwork) in religious art as summing up the message of the Jewish scriptures. John’s popularity with wide segments of the public did not permit him to escape trouble with the authorities.
In this sense he really did play the role of Elijah, the northern kingdom prophet who condemned the political authorities of his day. He was imprisoned and executed for his bold criticism of Herod’s government, specifically of the moral life of Herod Antipas. In the wake of John the Baptist’s death Jesus launched out on his own mission.