Sunday, 24 May 2009

John the Baptist

I've been making my way through the Gospels for some time now, and I've finally finished them (it was for work, in case you were wondering).

I'd like to make it clear, I'm definitely not a Biblical scholar. Any comments I make here are purely a reaction to the text, and an attempt to comment on what is by any standards an extremely complex piece of literature (as a short illustration: there is not one Jesus in the Gospels but four, each markedly different from the others in temperament and action).

As a lifelong atheist, I'd never seen the point in reading the Bible before, especially since the copy I was given for my Christening was KJV, which is virtually impossible to read without slipping into a coma. However the NRSV translation is very good and readable, and the introduction by Terry Eagleton is very spiffing.

What interests me, naturally, are the political aspects of the text. Of course religions are inherently political, and founding documents incredibly so; and equally obviously Jesus was a politically significant figure in the Gospels: for a start, crucifixion was a punishment only the Romans were allowed to mete out, a secular sentence of tortureporn-and-death by the occupying military authority. Jesus' symbol is inherently political. What particularly interested me though was a different character entirely: John the Baptist.

First, some background. The Gospels were written between approximately 60 and 100 AD, several decades after the events which are supposed to take place in them, and the 'authors' (assuming there was only one for each book, which is debatable) were writing at a time when Christians were just one more Jewish splinter sect trying to establish itself and attract supporters (Christians as a label is also a fairly late development - it comes from the Greek word Christos, meaning saviour). Each Gospel is written for particular audiences. Luke is very keen to stress the miracles aspect, all evangelical, definitely aimed at the gentiles. Matthew, by contrast, is keen to push the Jewish angle ('Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.' 5:17).

John is a fascinating character. He turns up in all four gospels (although, natch, occupying different thematic roles each time), and he seems to be of both thematic and political importance. Some stress his miraculous birth, others his baptismal activities. But they seem to agree that Jesus has himself baptised by John. This may be part of 'paving the way', of which more later, but politically seems to be a clear act of submission or at least of acknowledgement of the importance of the John cult.

The other part of John's role, paving the way, is much more theological. It is important to remember that it is central to the writers' case that Jesus MUST have returned from the dead, because otherwise he has failed to fulfil the Old Testament prophecies that would qualify him as the Messiah. John's presence is much the same: Matthew lifts his raison d'etre straight from Isiah 40:3

1In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." 3This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
"A voice of one calling in the desert,
'Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.' "

By having someone to pave the way, Jesus' appearance is strictly in line with Jewish expectations. As Terry Eagleton notes:

Not much of what Jesus does or says in these writings is original. For the most part, he does and says things we know to be fairly typical of first-century Jewish prophets.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that there are at least two Messiah cults here, that of Jesus and that of John. Jesus' cult is keen to portray John as one who believes he is 'paving the way' for Jesus to come later, so he can surrender his role and anoint Jesus as the real Messiah. From my personal, perhaps not terribly well-informed, perspective, the theological angle reads like classic 'face-saving' politics. It's the public line you take when realpolitik dictates your actions. There is a reason you can give for this from the Law, but you can't disguise that it's a written olive branch.

I have no idea the extent to which John is a genuine historical figure, but the subtexts within the Gospels themselves are fascinating, and I think they easily support a reading of a very politically savvy cult – which probably goes some way to explaining its later success.

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