John the Baptist in Apocrypha and Early Christian Poetry: Narrative Exegesis and Fortleben


John the Baptist plays an important role in the writings of the New Testament: in the Gospels he forms a parallel to Jesus Christ in various respects from his childhood to his beheading. The life events of the two biblical figures, who had already met each other in a symbolic way as unborn on Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, seem to reach a culmination and turning point at the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan: The forerunner John baptizes the one with water who from this moment on will baptize in the Spirit (Mk 1:8). 

The aim of the panel, which will focus on John the Baptist as a biblical figure with its various facets, is to take a focused look at the most important theological, exegetical, typological and literary questions raised by the figure of the Baptist in the early centuries of Christianity. For this reason, the focus of the philological, historical and biblical contributions is on those texts that have so far been less considered in these questions: The apocryphal and extra-biblical poetic texts.


Donato De Gianni
Bergische Universität Wuppertal
Stefan Freund Bergische Universität Wuppertal
Katharina Pohl
Bergische Universität Wuppertal  

Member Area

Wuppertal 2021 Call for Papers

This unit is not accepting any new proposals for the 2021 conference

The panel will thus pursue two main lines:

1. John the Baptist in apocryphal literature: through a comparison with canonical writings and an analysis of narrative strategies and the literary positioning of apocryphal texts, it will be examined which aspects of the biblical figure the Christian community of the first centuries looked at under the influence of the various theological teaching instances. From a historical point of view, the question arises as to how the different perspectives and readings of the figure of John the Baptist also influenced the internal dynamics of the various Christian groups of the first centuries with regard to their faith orientation.

2. Reception of the figure of John in Christian Greek and Latin poetry. In addition to the important interpretations mostly written in prose by the Fathers of the Church, there is an exegetical tradition in poetic garb, which re-contextualizes the biblical figure with different aims. A wide range of adaptations can be observed: From a poetic paraphrase of the most important episodes of his life in verses to a reworking characterized by metaphors and analogies, often in connection with an authoritative self-representation of the poets, as well as forms of actualization, which are also determined by external social or religious factors. Here it might be fruitful to examine which influences the already existing and the respective contemporary exegesis of the church fathers exerted on the various poetic elaborates, which John had as a theme, as well as - with regard to the descriptive or ekphrastic parts of the poems - whether and to what extent the poets could be inspired by early Christian figurative art. In the linguistic-literary analysis, imitations and contrasts will be examined regarding the poetic models used and the mythological figures, as well as the ancient history alluded to by the poets in the sense of intertextuality.

With regard to the methodologies to be followed, it is intended to emphasise the following survey methods, which are useful to provide as complete and exhaustive a picture as possible of the topics proposed:

1. Intertextuality. For both types of texts proposed (New Testament apocrypha and Christian poetic texts in Greek and Latin) it will be useful to deepen the intertextual shooting. These are substantially on two levels, i.e. they are oriented towards a double tradition. The first is clearly the biblical (canonical) one, which serves as a content and formal model for the other literary testimonies of the history of the Baptist. For the apocryphal texts, the precise analysis of the correspondences and divergences from canonical texts will help to identify not only the literary and doctrinal peculiarities of the texts examined, but also the socio-cultural context and, therefore, the chronological return in which they were eventually produced. Also with regard to poetic works, the intertextual relationship is first and foremost with respect to the biblical Vorlage: additions, omissions, abbreviations and amplifications made by poets with respect to the biblical source are not only a typical trait of biblical poetry, but also respond to precise literary, ideological, dogmatic and aesthetic instances that are typical of the historical-cultural climate in which each poet worked. From this point of view, it will also be important to evaluate from time to time which biblical version (LXX, Vetus Latina, Vulgate) the poets under examination kept in mind. This will be possible thanks to careful reading, based on a philological-literary analysis that proposes a constant and precise comparison between the scriptural model and poetic rewriting. The second tradition is the classical one, recognizable in particular, but not only, in Christian poetry. It will therefore be necessary to see which pagan poetic models have been imitated not only in terms of formal borrowing (nexuses, iuncturae, poetic styles), but also in terms of figurative analogies and similarities or Kontrastimitation: that is, to see if, through formal imitatio, Christian poets have also intentionally alluded to precise situations, figures of myth or history described by classical poetic models in order to convey further meanings to their audience. In this perspective, a role similar to that of intertextuality plays the inter-figurality, that is the possibility of reading a figure in the often allegorical-figural terms of another character. But one can go further and deepen the influence and mediation on the literary representation of the Baptist not only of literary models, but also of iconographic models. Also, in this case we will have to analyze not only the revival of Christian iconographic modules, but also the possible adaptation of pagan iconographic modules to the figure of John.

A similar discourse could be valid in the reconstruction of the various literary sources not exploited by the authors of the apocrypha in their narration of the story of the Baptist.

2. History of the effects. In the perspective that Gadamer calls Wirkungsgeschichte it will be possible not only to reconstruct the history of the fortune of the proposed texts, but also the chain of past interpretations, which condition and mediate the pre-comprehension that the interpreter of the text has to interpret. In order to describe the chronological arc, it is suggested to limit any research in this sense to patristic exegesis and subsequent medieval reinterpretations. This is clearly valid both for the fortune of apocryphal texts and for that of poetic works. In the latter case, as already mentioned, the horizon of reception is twofold: on the one hand, the exegetical sources used by poets for their own literary re-elaborations of the Baptist’s history; on the other hand, their fortune in later periods as exegetical models, in turn, for other works of similar content. This retracing the stages of the interpretative process, in a “fusion of horizons”, helps to deepen the content of the work studied and the author’s intentions, also shedding light on the hermeneutical knots faced from time to time by the interpreters.