Thursday, August 29, 2013

Scripture: The Birth of John the Baptist

John the Baptist was an itinerant preacher and a major religious figure mentioned in the Canonical gospels and the Qur'an. He is described in the Gospel of Luke as a relative of Jesus who led a movement of baptism at the Jordan River. Some scholars maintain that he was influenced by the semi-ascetic Essenes, who expected anapocalypse and practiced rituals corresponding strongly with baptism, although there is no direct evidence to substantiate this. John is regarded as a prophet in Christianity, Islam, the Bahá'í Faith, and Mandaeism.
Most biblical scholars agree that John baptized Jesus at "Bethany beyond the Jordan", by wading into the water with Jesus from the eastern bank. John the Baptist is also mentioned by Jewish historian Josephus, in Aramaic Matthew, in the Pseudo-Clementine literature, and in the Qur'an. Accounts of John in the New Testament appear compatible with the account in Josephus. There are no other historical accounts of John the Baptist from around the period of his lifetime.
According to the New Testament, John anticipated a messianic figure who would be greater than himself, and Jesus was the one whose coming John foretold. Christians commonly refer to John as the precursor or forerunner of Jesus, since John announces Jesus' coming. John is also identified with the prophet Elijah. Some of Jesus' early followers had previously been followers of John. Some scholars have further speculated that Jesus was himself a disciple of John for some period of time, but this view is disputed.

Old Testament prophecy

John the Baptist, by Andrea del Sarto, 1528

John the Baptist, by Juan de Juanes, c. 1560
Christians believe that John the Baptist had a specific role ordained by God as forerunner or precursor of Jesus, who was the foretold Messiah. The New Testament Gospels speak of this role. In Luke 1:17 the role of John is referred to as being "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." In Luke 1:76 as "...thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways" and in Luke 1:77 as being "To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins."
There are several passages within the Old Testament which are interpreted by Christians as being prophetic of John the Baptist in this role. These include a passage in the Book of Malachi 3:1 that refers to a prophet who would prepare the way of the Lord:
"Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts." — Malachi 3:1
and also at the end of the next chapter in Malachi 4:5-6 where it says,
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse."
The Jews of Jesus' day expected Elijah to come before the Messiah; indeed, some modern Jews continue to await Elijah's coming as well, as in the Cup of Elijah the Prophet in the Passover Seder. This is why the disciples ask Jesus in Matthew 17:10, 'Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?.' The disciples are then told by Jesus that Elijah came in the person of John the Baptist,
"Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist". — Matthew 17:11-13
(see also 11.14: "...if you are willing to believe their message, John is Elijah, whose coming was predicted.")
These passages are applied to John in the Synoptic Gospels. But where Matthew specifically identifies John the Baptist as Elijah (11.14, 17.13), the gospels of Mark and Luke do not actually make that identification, and the Gospel of John states that John the Baptist denied that he was Elijah. Thus there was apparently a shift in eschatological beliefs. (Where Matthew evidently believed that the final judgment was imminent, later authors would have been forced to concede that that "great and terrible day" had not been so imminent after all):
"Now this was John's testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, "I am not the Christ." They asked him, "Then who are you? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No." — John 1:19-21

Gospel narrative

John the Baptist (right) with child Jesus, painting by Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo

The Preaching of St. John the Baptist by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            All four canonical Gospels record John the Baptist's ministry, as does the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews. They depict him as proclaiming Christ's arrival. In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), Jesus is baptized by John.
There is no mention of a family relationship between John and Jesus in the other Gospels, and the scholar Raymond E. Brown has described it as "of dubious historicity". Géza Vermes has called it "artificial and undoubtedly Luke's creation". On the basis of the account in Luke, the Catholic calendar placed the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist on June 24, six months before Christmas.
The many similarities between the Gospel of Luke story of the birth of John and the Old Testament account of the birth of Samuel have led scholars to suggest that Luke's account of the annunciation and birth of Jesus are modeled on that of Samuel.


  1. The lesson in "Living Word" today pointed out the similarity between Herod's semi-reluctant decision to behead John and Pilate's semi-reluctant decision to hand Jesus over for crucifixion, both having been motivated by pressure to live up to the expectations of others--Herodias and the banquet guests who heard the rash promise in the first case, and that of the Roman higher-ups when the crowd craftily pointed out the if Pilate didn't kill the "king of the Jews" he would be "no friend of Caesar." It also occurred to me that the miserable daughter of Herodias was in a way another victim. She must have been young, in order to feel she needed to ask her mother what demand to make. An older girl or young woman would surely have had demands and desires of her own. I see her as one of those "nymphettes" like Miley Cyrus, who are persuaded, sometimes even by parents, that the way to get acceptance and attention is to let themselves be sexually exploited. Lascivious dancing catering to a depraved and jaded audience is nothing new. The fame (or infamy--much the same in the end) lasts only until a younger and even more daring nymphette grabs the limelight. I wonder how Madonna feels, watching Miley mimic her outrageousness, while she herself desperately tries to reinvent herself to compensate for the inevitable ravages of age. The Talmud says that the mouse who creeps through a hole into the house to steal food is not the only guilty party. Whoever made or neglected to fix the hole is also to blame. The insatiable demand for new titillations, the pride that won't stand up to the pressure of the crowd, the bloodlust that won't be appeased by anything less than seeing a gruesome death, and the defensiveness that is so threatened by seeing a just person whose very existence is a reproach to their way of life----all these things are the "mouseholes" through which weak-willed "mice" creep towards the bait, or the trap.

    1. Sometimes, our youth think they are doing something novel when they want to be noticed in a new way. I wish they just knew that we fundamentally want the best for them. Salome and Miley need our acceptance of them as regular people who do not need to act out for attention.