In addition to more scholarly writing this Fall, I might (or not ;-) begin work on a couple books on Jesus that are on a popular level like my series of books on Paul:
Paul: Messenger of Grace (Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians)
Paul: Soldier of Peace (Romans)
Paul: Prisoner of Hope (Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Pastorals--forthcoming, I hope, since it's already pretty much written and submitted)
So if I wrote a couple books on Jesus and the Gospels, the first chapter of the first book would be on John the Baptist and how he set the historical context for Jesus' earthly ministry. Today I thought I would brainstorm what would be in that chapter.
1. For one, I think I would want the chapter to give some of the low down of exactly what Jews were looking for in a messiah--including how much they were actually looking for a messiah in the first place. The Sadducees weren't looking for a messiah. Not at all sure that Diaspora Jews were looking for a messiah (and that would be by far the majority of Jews at the time).
Hard to know exactly what the Pharisees were expecting because we don't really have any clear artifacts of their thinking, unless 2 Maccabees counts. I think a reasonable case can be made that they would have seen a new king as part of the resurrection.
The Essenes were looking for a couple anointed ones--of Aaron and Israel. That's an anointed king and an anointed priest. "Messiah" simply means "anointed one" (Christ in Greek). It was not always a title in as fixed a way as we now use it. The Psalms of Solomon (is it Essene or Pharisee) looks for a very military messiah to kick the Romans out of Israel.
2. Many Jews were looking for the restoration of Israel. N. T. Wright has conceptualized this as a return from exile. As usual, I think he's on to something but overdoes it. Nevertheless, we can point to a series of apocalyptic writings from 1 Enoch to the Dead Sea Scrolls that look to this sort of restoration in general.
3. Surely John the Baptist fits against this backdrop. He is baptizing them--usually a recurring cleansing ritual, but he is making it a singular event of renewal, signing on to what God is doing. Yes, it is framed in terms of the later half of Isaiah, which was originally about the return of Israel from exile. Yes, he is looking for an anointed king to follow. Is it Jesus, he asks himself after he was imprisoned.
It is a baptism of repentance, calling on Israel to purify itself so that God will see fit to do the rest. He is perhaps deuteronomistic in thinking. It is because of Israel's sin that God has allowed it to stay under foreign powers. Perhaps he intentionally evokes the image of Elijah in the way he dresses, which also invokes overtones of Malachi.
Is he Essene? Could be. He baptizes near Qumran. But even more powerful is the fact that he baptizes around where Joshua entered Canaan. There is thus the image of Israel retaking the land, of a new covenant, of return from exile and restoration (think Covenant of Damascus).
4. There are followers of "the Way" in Ephesus even in Paul's day apparently. The way easily could refer to the line "prepare the way of the Lord," John the Baptist's movement. But of course, one could thus be a follower of the way and not believe Jesus was the one who was coming. Thinking of it this way explains how in Acts 19 there could be followers of the Way who did not know about Jesus or did not believe in Jesus.
Instead, the Gospel of John, probably written in part to address the ideas of this non-Jesus Baptist group, has Jesus identify himself with the words, "I am the way." And that's that.
Just some notes of what the first chapter of a book with the working title, The Essential Jesus, might look like.