Monday, June 24, 2013

John the Baptist: still working hard after all these years!

One of the titles of John the Baptist is that of 'Precursor ', the one who came before. As we hear said of him in the Gospels, he came to prepare the way for the coming of Christ. Interestingly, there are still those who would deny that Christ ever came, that he is a made up figure. No serious scholar accepts this suggestion. One of the reasons that they don't is because of what are called extra-biblical sources – documents outside the canon of scripture which serve as testimony to the fact that Jesus was a real historical figure.

The most important of these was written by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in his work the Antiquities of the Jews. There we find a short paragraph dealing with Jesus:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
(antiquities of the jews 3.3)

Of course, there are those who claim this is an interpolation, a forgery inserted into the work for the sole purpose of of providing just such an extra-biblical source. But again, serious scholars reject this suggestion, even though they think it may have been lightly 'edited.' A major stumbling block to those who argue against the authenticity of this passage is the fact that Josephus also has a section on John the Baptist:

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure to him.
(antiquities of the jews 5.2)

John is of course inextricably linked with Christ. Those who argue against the reality of Jesus will often then argue against the authenticity of this passage also. A major problem with that is the fact that what Josephus has written is certainly not something that a Christian would have written, using the Gospels as his sources. And the thing that strikes me every time is the fact that the passage on John is slightly more than twice the length of that about Jesus. What Christian would have written such a forgery, giving more space to the Precursor than to the one he came to prepare the way for? The reinforcement this gives to the extra-biblical sources to my mind means that John the Baptist is still doing the work he came to do all those years ago – preparing the hearts and minds of those who would hear him that they might know and accept the Messiah.

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