Last year I offered a reflection on the mysterious figure of John the Baptist. John has rightly received the appellation “the last of the prophets” and represents in his person how the prophetic witness of the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the revelation of Christ. John is a kind of liminal figure, standing on a threshold between two worlds and two covenants, simultaneously looking back and directing attention forward. In my text I highlighted a truth about John the Baptist that is often overshadowed by his identity as a prophet—that John was a priest of Israel.
Today Father Steve takes a look at John the Baptist, one of the Gospel of Luke's most fascinating protagonists, and his role in delivering the message of Jesus Christ as the one, true Messiah.
The Gospel of Luke identifies John as such, noting his descent from two priestly lines—that of Abijah on his father’s side and on his mother’s side from the family of Aaron. Rather than simply dismissing this detail as incidental, it is better to consider the significance of this claim. The Gospel of Luke wants us to know that John was descended from the priestly clans of Israel so it seems that we should presume that this fact about John must be important for us in our understanding of both who John was and the meaning of the Gospel of Luke itself.
The priesthood of Israel was hereditary. Priestly identity and service was handed on from father to son and the integrity of this system was maintained by intermarriage among the families of twenty four “orders,” or clans whose families were descendents of the tribe of Levi. By birth, John received his identity as a priest and could claim the right to serve in the temple, just as his father did. The Gospel does not offer specifics in this regard, but it seems safe to assume that John would have been brought up by his parents with a clear sense of his role and the responsibilities that he would be expected to assume as an adult.
This raises the question of what happened to John the Priest, whom the Gospels placed far from the temple. Instead he was calling Israel away from the great sanctuary of Jerusalem, and into the wilderness where they were to receive a mikveh—not to prepare them to enter the temple, but instead to enter the Messianic Age. John’s apparent rejection of his priestly role makes the curiosity and opposition to him manifested by the religious establishment of Israel all the more interesting
At what point did the priest John set aside his ephod and turn his back on his priestly identity and service, and why?
The answer might be discerned in what we know about the priesthood of Israel and the temple of Jerusalem during the time that John lived, a time that is overshadowed by the infamous Herod, who was proclaimed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate during the Second Triumvirate. Herod was a Jew by personal declaration rather than by birth. His mother was the daughter of an Arabian sheik and his father was descended from the ancient rivals of Israel, the Edomites. Herod’s father, Anitpater, was a gifted politician who, through will and manipulation, managed to marry into the ruling dynasty of Israel, the Hasmoneans; in addition, he had the foresight to support Julius Caesar in his war against Pompey. When the smoke cleared from this battle, Herod’s family had the necessary leverage and Roman patronage to rise to even greater prominence in the realm of Judean politics.
Herod consolidated his power, and with the fiat of Rome, became the king of the Jews in the year 37 BC. He was not an ineffectual ruler, and if his accomplishments were to be placed in relation to earlier Israelite monarchs, he would rank as one of the greatest rulers of Israel. The impressive ruins of his many building projects hint at not only the breadth of his vision, but his management of Israel’s wealth and resources.
However, accomplishments like those of Herod did not come from largesse of spirit. Herod was a brutal tyrant who would wield his power to devastating consequence against anyone who would oppose him, including the members of his own family. An important example of this involves not only Herod’s family, but also the high priesthood of Israel. Herod, as king, claimed the right to appoint a member of the priestly clan to the service of high priest, a position of not only ritual significance, but of great political gravity as well. Cautious of any rivalry to his power, he attempted to appoint an outsider to the position, a Jew who was a resident of Babylon. Opposed by his mother-in-law, Herod gave the appointment to her adolescent son, Aristolobus, who would then drown under mysterious circumstances. It was intrigues like this that led to the sense that not only was there a usurper on what should be the throne of David, but that his corruption had defiled Israel’s priesthood.
Herod would accomplish a renovation of the Jerusalem temple that is best described as its total rebuilding. The scale of Herod’s re-design was magnificent, and the result was an architectural masterpiece that was considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. It is hard not to see in Herod’s accomplishments, particularly in his renovation of the temple, a great deal of messianic pretense. The moves Herod was making were not just political or dynastic, but also theological. He was doing things that it had been foreseen by the Old Testament prophets as things that the Messiah would accomplish. He ruled over the territories that had comprised the Kingdom of David, he brought glory to Israel that had not been seen since the time of its ancient kings, and most of all, he gave Israel a temple that surpassed in wonder the one built by the son of David, Solomon himself!
Whether or not Herod intended this kind of messianic pretense as a propaganda tool for consolidating his power is uncertain, but it doesn’t seem to me to be outside of his character. Nor does it seem outside the realm of the possible that he might have believed that he was inaugurating the Messianic Age with his personal and dynastic ambitions. (It is in relation to both these possibilities that the terrifying story of the massacre of the children of Bethlehem in the third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew yields its awful light).
Herod—a messianic usurper on the throne of Israel, with the highest office of Israel’s sacred priesthood under his control, and his megalomaniacal ambition to rebuild the temple—might just have caused a rift among the priestly clans of Israel, some of which would have seen Herod’s actions as a provocation that surely deserved the judgment of God, if not the rebellion of Israel. Was this all enough for a priest to abandon his duties and leave the temple and the city of David, contemplating his own and the Lord’s next move?
It seems to me that John was this priest and his proclamation of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom which would bring with it frightening consequences, was an expression of the priest John’s indignation at Herod, his dynasty, and his own kinsmen who had acquiesced to Herod’s schemes. His identification of Christ as the “one who is to come” is not just singling the Lord Jesus out as the appearance of a new teacher for Israel, but the revelation of the one who had been
given the identity and power of the Messiah and the mission to set an Israel gone wrong, right.
The possibility that John publically presented himself as a vocal opponent to the Herodian dynasty makes sense of his not only his message, but also of his ultimate fate as it is recorded in the Gospels. His death would be the culmination of the decision he made to abandon his duties as a priest and his service to a temple that he believed to have been corrupted by its association with Herod and his successors. In regards to the corruption of the priesthood and the temple by Herod, John had raised the alarm and his warning signaled the end of the reign of the false Messiah (Herod and his successors) and the beginning of the true Messianic Age.
In this respect, the Gospel of Luke’s reference to John being a priest, rather than being an incidental detail, is integral to understanding the narrative itself. From start to finish the Gospel situates us in the midst of an Israel beset by a messianic pretender, a priesthood in need of reform, and a temple that had been co-opted by a wicked king and his descendents as a propaganda tool to prop up their dynastic ambitions. Israel had been delivered into the hands of its enemies and now would be the privileged time for the God of Israel to act, to reveal the true Messiah, clear out the usurpers, deal with Israel’s priesthood, and purify the temple of its Herodian corruption. The Gospel of Luke will express just how Christ accomplishes all this, with a particular emphasis on the curious way in which he claims his victory.
The scriptures of the Advent season present the mysterious figure of John the Baptist to us as a signal that an old world is giving way to a world made new by Christ. If we divorce John from what the Scriptures tell us about him, the world that he knew and experienced dissipates and his “voice crying out in the wilderness” becomes abstract to the point of irrelevance. Situating John in the real events and circumstances of the times in which he lived illuminates not only his identity, but also the identity of the one John believed whose “sandal strap he was unworthy to untie.”
It has become easy in the seasons of Advent and Christmas to remove the infant born in the manger from the historical circumstances in which he was embedded. The end result of this is a charming mid-winter tale appropriate for a holiday fantasia, but this is not the story the Gospel intends to tell. The Holy Child born in the manger has come to set a world gone wrong, right—the world of Caesar and Herod. It is also the world that we inhabit, for the power of Christ arrives in every age to deal with any and all messianic pretenders.
John the priest faced down a false messiah, but he also saw Christ for who he was and what he had come into this world to accomplish. Christ the Lord is the one true Messiah but also he is the one true God, and the false messiahs and false gods of the world would fall before him. John invites us to see the Christ that he saw, and insists that in our encounter with the God the Messiah, we must repent and acknowledge that it is his Kingdom, not the kingdom of the Herods of the world, that has finally come.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.