John the Baptist

This coming Sunday is the 2nd Sunday of Advent in Lectionary Cycle A. In a post from yesterday today we explored the uniqueness of the manner in which Matthew connects the relationship between Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist. In this post we address the question: Who is this wilderness preacher?

John was prophet and an ascetic who conducted a ministry in the Judean wilderness that involved preaching and baptism. He was a prophet – not in the mold of Moses or Joshua – but rather in the model of the prophets of the 7th and 8th century BCE (Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos, etc.) whose words proclaimed redemption or judgment upon the people and their leaders. John’s popularity and the revolutionary possibilities of his message of social justice led to his arrest, imprisonment, and execution by Herod Antipas, probably in A.D. 28 or 29.

The Jewish historian, Josephus, mentions John in his work Antiquities.  The paragraph about John the Baptist is immediately preceded by an account of Herod’s divorce from the daughter of Aretas, king of Petra, and of the latter’s retaliation by making war on Herod. Josephus writes:

But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice toward their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus [Herod’s castle fortress], the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod. (Josephus Ant 18.5.2 §116–19 – from AYBD pp.887-88)

This passage is included to show that in an era when “historical accounts” were written at the pleasure of the sponsor and patron of the work, Jospehus takes time to mention an event in the life of the wilderness preacher.  In the telling of this small account, Josephus also gives an indication about the meaning of John’s baptism.

Image credit: ‘The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist in the Desert’, ca. 1635,  a painting by Massimo Stanzione -1585-1656, Public Domain 

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