JOHN THE BAPTIZER AND CHRISTIAN ORIGINS
A RECENT STUDY ON JOHN’S SYMBOLISM.
A DISTINCT ray of light has been cast on the obscure background of Christian origins by Dr. Robert Eisler in a series of detailed studies on the movement and doctrines of John the Baptizer. These studies, with other cognate essays, appeared originally in the pages of The Quest (1909-14), and are now available in book-form in an arresting volume, calledOrpheus—the Fisher: Comparative Studies in Orphic and Christian Cult Symbolism.1
By way of introduction and as the most complete contrast to the Mandæan tradition of the Gnostic John, I will set forth in my own way the chief points of these detailed and fully-documented essays in summary fashion. Eisler’s main point of view is that John based his doctrines and practices largely, if not entirely, on the Hebrew scriptures—the Law and the Prophets—of which, he contends, he was a profound knower. The John-movement is thus regarded as a characteristic Jewish prophetical reform founded on absolute faith in the present fulfillment of prior prophecy. Hereby is brought out in the strongest possible manner the Jewish conditioning of John’s preaching and teaching, and this stands in the sharpest contradiction to the p. 2 Mandæan tradition which claims that John was a Gnostic and not a Torah-man, and declares that the Jews could by no means understand him, but on the contrary rejected his revelation and drove out his community.
In Eisler we have a ripe scholar in whom the heredity of Rabbinical lore is so to say innate. He has almost an uncanny flair for biblical texts; it is not too much to say that his knowledge of the religious literature of his people is profound, his acquaintance with oriental sources very extensive and his linguistic accomplishments are enviable. Few are thus better able to enter with sympathy and understanding into the idiosyncrasies and depths of the Jewish mind in the various periods of its development, and thus for the time to live in the prophetical, apocalyptic and rabbinical thought-world of the days of the Baptist and share in its old-time beliefs and hopes and fears. Our exponent is thus an excellent advocate of the theme he sets forth. If his wide-flung net has not caught all the fish of the literary and archæological ocean, he has fished most carefully the stream of John the Baptist tradition, apart from the Mandæan, landed a rich catch and shown others how most fruitfully to set about bringing to the surface things about John which have long been hidden in the depths of a buried past.
THE JOHN-PASSAGE IN ‘THE ANTIQUITIES’ OF JOSEPHUS.
In all reason, apart from Christian testimony, John the Baptizer is a historic character, witnessed to by the Jewish historian Josephus, the courtly Flavian chronicler who flourished in the last quarter of the p. 3 1st century A.D. The famous passage in his Antiquities (XVIII. v. 2, ed. Niese, iv. 161, 162) referring to John is undoubtedly genuine, and has been assailed only by the very extreme doctrinaire non-historical school, who find it a very inconvenient thorn in their flesh. A Christian forger would have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s with the pen of his tradition, or at any rate betrayed himself in some way by the prejudice of his thought; but this we do not find. The passage runs as follows as nearly as I can render it:
Some of the Jews thought that Herod’s army had been destroyed, and indeed by the very just vengeance of God, in return for [his putting to death of] John the Baptizer. For in fact Herod put the latter to death [though he was] a good man, nay even one who bade the Jews cultivate virtue and, by the practice of righteousness in their dealings with one another and of piety to God, gather together for baptism. For thus in sooth [John thought] the dipping (in water) would seem acceptable to him (God), not if they used it as a begging-off in respect to certain sins, but for purity of body, in as much as indeed the soul had already been purified by righteousness.
Now since the others1 were gathering themselves together (or becoming organized),—for indeed they were delighted beyond measure at the hearing of his (John’s) ‘sayings’ (logoi),—Herod, fearing that his extraordinary power of persuading men might lead to a revolt, for they seemed likely in all things to act according to his advice, judged it better, before anything of a revolutionary nature should eventuate from him, to arrest him first and make away with him, rather than when the change came, he should regret being faced with it.
Accordingly, on Herod’s suspicion, he was sent in bonds to Machærus,2 the above-mentioned fortress, and put to death there. The Jews, however, believed that destruction befell the army to avenge him, God willing to afflict Herod.
This statement of Flavius Josephus is sufficiently categorical. It states clearly that John the Baptizer was a very remarkable prophetical reformer of the day and that his following was very considerable. John’s ‘sayings,’ Josephus tells us, had an astonishingly persuasive power over the Jewish populace. Herod fears John’s influence and is convinced that he could do anything he pleases with the people. But what interests us most in this unfortunately too short statement is the reference to the nature of John’s practice and teaching. His proclamation to the Jews, like that of all the prophets before him, was a strenuous call to righteousness,—they were to practise righteous dealings with one another (love of neighbour) and piety to God (love of God). There was also an external rite of baptism; but it had to be preceded by a cleansing of the soul through the fulfilling of this duty to neighbour and to God. Josephus particularly points out that the public washing or dipping was by no means intended as a magical rite, which so many believed in those days capable of washing away sins. The baptism was not a daily practice, Josephus seems to imply, as among the Essenes and other sects, but a public corporate act; and therefore the historian is clearly in error in regarding it as simply for the purifying of the body. On the contrary, it distinctly conveys the impression of being designed as an outer testimony to some belief—an act of faith.
THE N.T. ACCOUNT: THE DRESS AND FOOD OF REPENTANCE.
And now let us pass to our New Testament information. Without laying stress on the details of the story of John’s infancy as given in the third gospel, p. 5 reminiscent as they may be of the Old Testament birth-stories of the old-time national heroes Isaac, Samson and Samuel, not to mention the coincidence that the two heroines of the gospel birth-narratives bear the names of Miriam and Elisheba, the sister and wife respectively of Aaron, the first priest, we may very reasonably believe, as it is stated, that John was of priestly descent; and therefore in every probability he was well versed, if not highly trained, in the scriptures.
Vowed from his birth to God by his parents, his strange dress and peculiar ascetic mode of life are quite in keeping with prophetical traditions, and thus of the schools of the prophets and of the Nazirs. As the prophets of old, notably Elijah, he wore a skin robe. But in keeping with the spiritual significance of his whole teaching, which will be more fully brought out in the sequel, such an outer sign in high probability had an inner meaning for this great proclaimer of repentance, of the turning back of Israel in contrition unto God.
Now there were certain Palestinian pre-Christian allegorists or exponents of the scriptures on quasi-mystical lines called Dorshē Reshumōth. According to a Rabbinic legend, going back along this line of interpretation, the ancient myth of Gen. 3:21 was conceived more spiritually. After the fall, the first falling away from God, Yahveh-Elohīm clothed Adam and Eve in coats of skin (‘ōr), not because of their nakedness, but in exchange for their lost paradisaical garments of light (‘ōr).
John lived at a time when such mystical interpretations, with a host of prophetical and apocalyptic notions, were in the air. It might very well then be p. 6 that he himself in wearing a skin-robe intended something more than a simple copying of the fashion of the ancient prophets. In keeping with his ruling idea he may have thought it a most appropriate outer sign of repentance, a return to the first garments of fallen man, the proper robe of penitent sinners, and therefore especially of a leader who would show the people a whole-hearted example of turning again to God, thus retracing in a contrary direction the way of the fall.
So too with regard to food, there must be a return to the primitive law laid down for primal fallen man (Gen. 1:29): “Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” It was only after the Deluge that men were permitted to eat animal food, according to the Noahic covenant as it is called. Imbued with ideas of penitence and repentance, John would desire to return to the strictest food-regulations of the earliest days of the fall, in keeping with his symbolic manner of clothing. Not only so, but seemingly with a refinement of self-discipline as a means of contrition, John chose from out the many ‘fruits from a tree yielding seed’ that of the carob or locust-tree, which was considered by the Jewish allegorists the most appropriate food of repentance. For we have preserved from this line of tradition an ancient proverb: “Israel needs carob-pods to make him repent,” said to be based on a prophecy in Isaiah (1:20) which the Midrash (Wayikra Rabba, 35) quotes as: “If ye be willing and obedient, the good of the land shall ye eat; but if ye refuse and resist, carob-pods shall ye eat”—where the last clause differs considerably from the R.V., which reads: “ye shall be devoured by the p. 7 sword.” Perhaps the ‘husks’ eaten by the Prodigal in the gospel-parable may in the original Aramaic have been carob-pods (Lk. 15:16). Much controversy has raged round the ‘locusts’ eaten by John, and early versions are various.
As for drink,—in addition to water for general purposes, John is said to have in particular sipped the honey of the wild bees. Why is this brought into so great prominence? Again perhaps this custom was determined for John by the same circle of ideas. He probably bethought him of Deut. 32:13: “He made him to suck honey out of the rock,” and also of Ps. 81:16: “And with honey out of the rock shall I satisfy thee.” From such considerations it may plausibly be believed that John adopted an asceticism of repentance with regard to clothing and food as completely in accordance with the scriptures as possible, and this in addition to the customary discipline of a vowed Nazir, ‘consecrated’ or ‘made holy’ as such from birth. The technical term for a Nazir is a Nazirite unto God, or holy unto God, as of Samson (LXX. Judges, 13:7, 16:9),—in brief God’s ‘holy one.’
POPULAR MESSIANIC EXPECTATIONS.
According to Josephus the great fear of Herod was that the reformatory movement of John would develop into a dangerous political Messianic revolt. The populace was on the tip-toe of expectation; many rumours were afloat as to the nature of the long-expected God’s Anointed. Some thought he was to be a Nazir who would free Israel from their present foes, even as in days of old the Nazir Samson had freed them from the yoke of the Philistines. Moreover the well-known prophecy (Is. 11:1) about the ‘sprout’ from the p. 8 root or stem of Jesse gave rise to much speculation, helped out by that word-play which exercised so powerful a fascination over the imaginative minds of the Jews of that day, and long before and after over other minds in many other lands. Now ‘sprout’ in Hebrew is neṣer or nezer; and this neṣer was to be the longed-for ‘saviour’ (again neṣer)—sounding so well together with nazir. Indeed, as was thought, he must needs be a Nazarai-an (Heb. noṣeri, Gk. nazōrai-os). Or again, as others expected, he was to be a carpenter (Aram. bar nasar), this being, according to a Samaritan Midrash, as we shall see in the sequel, in association with the expectation that the coming Redeemer was to be a second Noah, spiritually hewing and preparing the timber for a new ark of salvation.
All this was in the air and widespread; it is then quite believable, whether John himself made any such claims or no, that there were many rumours current of a Messianic purport concerning the strange appearance and powerful appeal of the renowned Baptizer. His Nazarite vow, his garb and diet of repentance, his confident proclamation of the very near approach of the catastrophic end of this æon or age or world,—all would conspire to make some, if not many, think that he himself was the great Nazir-Neṣer, the expected ‘holy one’ of God. By others he was thought to be Elijah returned, as the prophet Malachi (the Book of the Angel or Messenger of Yahveh) had foretold (4:5): “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible Day of the Lord come”; or even, may be, some thought that that prophet of promise like unto Moses (Deut. 18:15) had been raised up in John. John himself apparently made no claim to be any of these; he was a proclaimer of the near approach of the great and terrible Day and p. 9 a powerful exhorter to repentance. It is doubtful even whether he gave himself out to be simply “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Mk. 1:3); for such a knower of the scriptures would have been aware that the original of Isaiah 40:3 read: “The voice of one crying: In the wilderness, etc.” But apparently John was not only an inspired prophet, he was also a wonder-worker, if certain echoes concerning him in the Synoptics ring true. For there we read that because of his healing wonders Jesus was thought by some to be John returned from the dead, and that the same accusation in this connection of being possessed by a demon brought against Jesus had also been brought against John.
THE SANCTIFICATION OF THE JORDAN-WATER.
However all this may be, John was utterly convinced, not only that the time of the End was close at hand, but also that the prophecies were beginning to be fulfilled. But what of his characteristic baptizing in the Jordan of all places? This is taken as a simple historic fact which requires no explanation by the vast majority; but it presents a serious problem for those who are aware that in those days the brackish waters of the sluggish Jordan were deemed by theologians and ritualists as unfit for purificatory purposes. What then could have induced John to reject this priestly and purist tabū? Tho only feasible motive is to be found in supposing that John was convinced that a remarkable prophetical vision of Ezekiel (47:1-8), where the prophet is addressed as Son of Man, was being fulfilled. In the longed-for time of the Messianic deliverance a mighty stream of holy water from the temple-hill of Zion was to flow down and heal the waters of the unclean Jordan-land, the Arabah or Desert.
Eisler has acutely conjectured that this idea of a fount of living and healing water for Israel goes back ultimately to Isaiah 28:16, not however as it stands at present in the R.V. wording, but in its extended form which was well known up to the 3rd century A.D. This reads as follows according to his rendering: “Behold, I lay down in Zion a living stone, a stone of probation, a precious threshold-stone for a foundation. Out of its hollow shall flow forth rivers of living water; he that believeth on me shall not suffer from drought.”
This was naturally taken by the allegorists of the time in a spiritual sense, even as they explained the water miraculously supplied to the Israelites in the Desert as a figure for the Torah or Law. The living water signified the Word of Yahveh, the outpouring of the spirit of God. Thus the Messianic Spring of living water could well be believed to typify an intensification or consummation of the Divine Law, heralding the manifestation of the Sovereignty of God in the Last Days. But spiritual reality and material happenings were never widely divorced in the mind of a pious Jew, and thus there was a literal meaning as well to be given to prophecy.
THE PROBABLE SYMBOLIC SIGNIFICANCE OF JOHN’S BAPTISM.
If all this is well conceived, it is not difficult to understand what Josephus tells us of John’s method, though the proper sense of John’s motive seems to have escaped the historian. Deeply stirred by the strenuous exhortations of the teacher and the extraordinary power of a proclaimer so utterly convinced of the near coming of the terrible Day, little wonder that the people, just p. 11 as in evangelical revivals of our own day, were filled with an agony of penitence which would find relief only in a public confession of their sins. Thereafter they were plunged in the Jordan, signifying no external washing, but a very drowning as it were of the old body of sin in that now sacred stream to which faith ascribed life-redeeming properties, a regeneration wrought by the saving spring of God’s outpouring flowing down from the sanctuary into the desert. If they repented, if they once unfeignedly turned again to God, then would the prophetical promise in Micah 7:19 be fulfilled: “He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us, he will subdue our iniquities. Yea, thou wilt wash away all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
THE BAPTISM OF THE PROSELYTES.
But in practising this baptismal rite John was running counter to far more than the priestly purist tabū which regarded the Jordan water as unfit for purification. He was baptizingIsraelites, and in so doing putting the Chosen ones on a level with those gentiles who had to submit to a bath of purification before they could be admitted to the privileges of the sons of Abraham. A proselyte or a ‘new-comer’ (advena) who would join the church or ecclesia of Israel, had to submit to a baptismal rite, the pre-Christian origin of which is no longer disputed. It was a bath not only of purification but also of regeneration in the presence of legal witnesses. The candidate stood in the water and listened to a short discourse consisting of commandments from the Law. Thereon the gentile convert dipped completely under the water, signifying the drowning of his previous impious and idolatrous self. Thereafter he arose p. 12 reborn a true Israelite. And this new birth was taken in a very literal sense, for after the rite the neophyte, or ‘new-born babe,’ could no longer inherit from his former gentile relatives; not only so, but according to Rabbinic casuistry he could not even commit incest with one of them. This regenerative gentile baptism (tebilah gerīm). was made by the theologians to depend from the promise in Ezekiel (36:25-26): “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.”
But this prophecy clearly applied to Israel only. It could never have been intended as the sanction of a customary rite for converted gentiles. It is thus very credible that a fervent eschatologist, filled with Messianic expectations, such as John, would conceive the promise as foreshadowing a unique miraculous event of the Last Days. Moreover John’s insistence on baptism for the Jews, at a time when their religious leaders thought it necessary to impose baptism on gentile converts as a purificatory regenerative rite making them fit to be associated religiously with the naturally born sons of Abraham, seems clearly to have been dictated by the deeper spiritual conviction that it was Israel itself who required regeneration. For John, from the standpoint of spiritual values, the Jews were no more a privileged people; they had forfeited their birthright; Israel itself was now no better than the heathen. Physical kinship with Abraham could no longer be considered a guarantee against the Wrath to come. To escape the trials and terrors of that Day the only way for them was to repent, and so become members of the new spiritual Israel by submitting to p. 13 a rite similar to that which they arrogantly imposed on the gentiles. What greater humiliation than this could there be to the racial pride of the Jew? But things were so desperate, that it required even this act of humiliation as an earnest of truly sincere repentance and contrition. Unrepentant they were no better than heathen idolaters.
by G. R. S. Mead
(TO BE CONTINUED)