Here’s a thesis.
Paul is the second-most important first century Jew. I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that he has had more impact on history (and theology) than other contenders like Gamaliel, Hillel, Eleazar ben Simon, Simon bar Giora, Peter, James, and (if you are Roman Catholic) Mary of Nazareth.
But I would contend that Paul only has that title with the benefit of centuries of hindsight. At the time, someone else outranked Paul and all other contenders, and by a wide margin: John ben Zechariah, a.k.a. “the Baptizer”.
John is consistently under-appreciated, and I don’t think we’ve got much of a grip on his historical and theological importance. Granted he is “less than” the least of those in the kingdom, and his baptism is not after the turn of the eras. But according to Jesus’s bald affirmation in the same verse, John is not outranked by anyone who came before him-not Moses, not David, not Elijah, not Isaiah (Matt 11:11, Luke 7:28).
John is identified above all with his “baptism of repentance,” and a number of passages in Acts testify to his role in beginning the transition of the world from one era to another (Acts 1:22, 10:37, 13:24, 18:24-19:6). In the next post or two, we’ll explore that transition in more detail by looking at Jewish restoration theology (a.k.a. redemptive history, a.k.a. biblical theology), and John’s role therein.