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And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet? (Jn. 1:25 KJV)

What were the specific motives or beliefs of the Pharisees regarding the relationship between baptism and the arrival of the Messiah?

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  • good question that I had not considered previously. My answer hinges on whether these Pharisees were think of John in terms of the tradition Messiah (son of David) or the Essene idea of a priestly messiah who focused on ritual purity rather than political independence. Nov 21, 2023 at 23:22

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This is a good question, because there is no particular connection between baptism and the coming of the Messiah in the OT. I think the Essene tradition had something to do with it (see below).

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In this Gospel (John 1:28) the Baptist's ministry was located only a few miles from the Qumram community, the center of the Essene movement. This group practiced a baptism for repentance at least yearly, in addition to frequent ritual baths for purification, about which they were very careful. The Essene tradition of baptism is described by Stephen J. Pfann in The Essene Yearly Renewal Ceremony and the Baptism of Repentance.

The Essenes were indeed preparing for the Messiah's coming. They expected a priestly messiah (spiritual) as well as a royal messiah (political). The priestly messiah would bring purification and holiness; the royal messiah would restore the Davidic throne. The priestly messiah being the more important of the two in their view, they were training a purified priesthood to meet him. John the Baptist came from a priestly lineage and "the people were all wondering in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ" (Luke 3:15) I suspect that these Pharisees were wondering if John was putting himself forward as the Essenes' priestly messiah - and if not, why was he conducting a major public ministry of baptism?

Conclusion: The Pharisees who visited John the Baptist where probably asking about the priestly messiah of the Essenes (Son of Aaron) rather than the royal messiah (Son of David). John came from a priestly lineage, and his ministry of baptism fits with the Essene emphasis on ritual purity. This would explain the reason, after John declared that he was not the messiah, that the Pharisees wondered why he was baptizing.

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  • +1. Good answer.
    – Dottard
    Nov 21, 2023 at 21:44
  • only a hypothesis, but I think it works. Nov 21, 2023 at 23:20
  • +1 Interestingly, John the Baptizer was Elias (Matthew 11:14). Nov 22, 2023 at 14:20
  • Yes, according to Jesus he was.... but John himself denies it just prior to the verse we are discussing. This became a stumbling block for Jews who knew the scriptures, because it was thought Elijah had to return prior to Christ's coming (Mal 4.4) Nov 22, 2023 at 15:07
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Because the Messiah was supposed to baptise or cleanse his people. Using commentaries and the cross-references listed on the verse:

Matt 3:11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

We find these verses:

[Isa 4:4 ESV] 4 when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.

[Isa 44:3 ESV] 3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.

[Isa 59:20-21 ESV] 20 "And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression," declares the LORD. 21 "And as for me, this is my covenant with them," says the LORD: "My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children's offspring," says the LORD, "from this time forth and forevermore."

[Zec 13:1,9 ESV] “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness... And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, 'They are my people'; and they will say, 'The LORD is my God.'"

[Mal 3:2-4 ESV] 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

[Ezekiel 36:25 ESV] I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

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