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Messianic claimants (5)
John the Baptist (c.28 CE)Sources: Mark 1.2-9, 6.14-29; Luke 1.5-25, 39-80; Q's 'first Baptist block' = Matthew 3.7-12 || Luke 3.7-9, 15-18; Q's 'second Baptist block' = Luke 7.18-35 || Matthew 11.2-19; Luke's own tradition, 3.10-14; John 1.19-42; Acts 19.1-7; Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18.116-119.
|According to the Gospel of Luke, John was born in the time of
the Great as the son of a priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth,
pious people who were well on in years and had no children. Luke continues
the lovely story about the birth of John as follows.
And it came to pass that while Zechariah executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zechariah saw him he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, 'Fear not, Zechariah, for thy prayer is heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink, and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.'The 'reproach among men' is a reference to the fact that Elizabeth was barren. In Antiquity, this was considered to be disgraceful: it implied that the woman was punished for a sin.
Luke tells us that her relative Mary, who was to become the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, visited Elizabeth and spent three months with her. Half a century later, the children of the two ladies were still bracketed together (Acts 19.1-7) and it is tempting to speculate whether the two were indeed related -as Luke would have it- or that their family ties was later invented. We simply do not know the answer. According to Luke, Mary spent three months with Elizabeth and returned home. By now, Mary was in the fourth month of her pregnancy, and according to ancient medical knowledge, she had to prepare herself for the delivery of her own baby. Shortly after Mary's departure, Elizabeth gave birth to a son.
And her neighbors and her kindred heard how the Lord had shown great mercy upon her, and they rejoiced with her.This charming story may go back to a historical event, but one must remain skeptical. After all, we have two infancy narratives about Jesus of Nazareth (to be found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke), and when they are studied carefully, we must admit that we can not establish what really happened. When we have only one source, as is the case with John, we should be even more skeptical.
On the other hand, it is remarkable that -still according to Luke- the
only son of a priest turned his back on continuing his father's priestly
line, something that was his duty. Instead, he choose to become a prophet
with distinctly anti-establishment opinions. This is too odd to be Luke's
fantasy and may well be the historical truth.
The oldest description of John's ministry can be found in the gospel of Mark. The prophetic announcement is a combination of Maleachi 3.1 and Isaiah 40.3.
As it is written in the prophets: Behold, I send My messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.'
|This incident can be dated, because Luke writes that Jesus came to
visit John 'in the fifteenth year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius'.
This corresponds to 28/29. According to Mark, John baptized
Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John in the Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him. And there came a voice from heaven, saying, 'Thou art my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.'Obviously, this statement caused embarrassment among later Christian authors, who were unable to accept that their Messiah had accepted a 'baptism of repentance for the remission of sins'. In the gospel of John, the baptism is replaced by a declaration that Jesus was to take away the sins of mankind. Matthew felt himself compelled to change the story, adding a significant exchange between John and Jesus.
But John forbad him, saying, 'I have need to be baptized by thee, and comest thou to me?'
|John's teachings are known from a source commonly called Q,
which is by definition the text that the gospels of Matthew and Luke have
in common and do not share with Mark. Q has two 'Baptist
blocks', and the following words are the first of these.
Then John said to the multitude who came forth to be baptized by him, 'O generation of vipers! Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say among yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father." For I say unto you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the ax is laid unto the root of the trees. Every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.'
|The incident referred to in the last lines is the following. Herod
Antipas, the Jewish leader of Galilee and Perea, had fallen in love with
the wife of his half-brother, who was also called Herod (not Philip). Antipas'
rejected first wife, Phasaelis, was the daughter of Aretas, the king of
her rejection was one of the reasons why Antipas and Aretas went to war
The quotation above makes it clear that John did not consider himself to be the Messiah, and it is possible that he was not even interested in messianology. He simply speaks about someone mightier than himself, which may refer to God, Who was to judge mankind, punish the wicked and reward those who had repented. If anything, John was an apocalyptic teacher.
More or less the same story, including the denial to be the Messiah, is told in the gospel of John.
When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, 'Who art thou?', he confessed, 'I am not the Christ.'In the gospel of John, we can also read that John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the coming one, declaring that he was 'the lamb of God' that would 'take away the sins of the world'. This is a reference to the sacrifices in the Temple, which took away ritual impurities of the sacrificer. To think of Jesus (and his death) as a sacrifice, was a very Christian thought, and we may be a bit suspicious whether these words were ever spoken by the Baptist. After all, he had spoken about repentance that would purify the people, and there was no need for a human sacrifice.
The relation between John, now incarcerated, and Jesus is the subject of the text that is known as the 'second Baptist block' in Q.
A report about Jesus went throughout all Judea and all the surrounding region. Then the disciples of John reported to him concerning all these things. And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to Jesus, saying, 'Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?'
||Jesus' remark 'that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to
them' are an almost verbatim quote from a text that was used by the sect
that lived at Qumran. You can read this text, known as 4Q521, here.
According to Flavius Josephus, John was executed in fort Machaerus because he had criticized the remarriage of Herod Antipas (more). In fact, it was not too strange to marry the wife of one's brother. There was, to the best of our knowledge, only one group that objected to this custom: the sect at Qumran. This again suggests that John's ideas were close to those of that group.
Mark has a slightly different story about John's execution.
Herod heard of Jesus, for his name was spread abroad. And he said, 'John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and therefore these mighty works show forth themselves in him.'A speculator, it may be noted, was not a Jewish soldier. Mark uses a Latin expression that refers to a Roman soldier. This suggests that the Jewish courtiers of Herod Antipas were afraid of killing a man who was, they must have believed, on a mission from God.
According to later legends, the body of John was later brought to Rome, where it is buried in the basilica of San Giovanni. John's saint's day is celebrated on 24 June. He is the patron saint of those about to be baptized. However, he also listens to converts, convulsive children, drivers on motorways, epileptics, farriers, printers, tailors and bird dealers.
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