Life of Jesus/Chapter 12

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Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan
Chapter 12

Chapter 12: Embassy from John in prison to Jesus. Death of John. Relation of his school with that of Jesus.

WHILE joyous Galilee was celebrating in feasts the coming of the well-beloved, the sorrowful John, in his prison of Machers, was pining away with expectation and desire. The success of the young Master whom he had seen some months before as his auditor reached his ears. It was said that the Messiah predicted by the prophets, he who was to re-establish the kingdom of Israel, was come, and was proving his presence in Galilee by marvelous works. John wished to inquire into the truth of this rumor, and, as he communicated freely with his disciples, he chose two of them to go to Jesus in Galilee.

The two disciples found Jesus at the height of his fame. The air of gladness which reigned around him surprised them. Accustomed to fasts, to persevering prayer, and to a life of aspiration, they were astonished to see themselves transported suddenly into the midst of the joys attending the welcome of the Messiah. They told Jesus their message: "Art thou he that should come? Or do we look for another?" Jesus, who from that time hesitated no longer respecting his peculiar character as Messiah, enumerated the works which ought to characterize the coming of the kingdom of God -- such as the healing of the sick and the good tiding of a speedy salvation preached to the poor. He did all these works. And blessed is he," said Jesus, whosoever shall not be offended in me." We know not whether this answer found John the Baptist living or in what temper it put the austere ascetic. Did he die consoled and certain that he whom he had announced already lived, or did he remain doubtful as to the mission of Jesus? There is nothing to inform us. Seeing, however, that his school continued to exist a considerable time parallel with the Christian Churches, we are led to think that, notwithstanding his regard for Jesus, John did not look upon him as the one who was to realize the divine promises. Death came, moreover, to end his perplexities. The untenable freedom of the ascetic was to crown his restless and stormy career by the only end which was worthy of it.

The leniency which Antipas had at first shown towards John was not of long duration. In the conversations which, according to the Christian tradition, John had had with the tetrarch, he did not cease to declare to him that his marriage was unlawful, and that he ought to send away Herodias. We can easily imagine the hatred which the grand-daughter of Herod the Great must have conceived towards this importunate counsellor. She only waited an opportunity to ruin him.

Her daughter, Salome, born of her first marriage, and, like her, ambitious and dissolute, entered into her designs, That year (probably the year 30) Antipas was at Machero on the anniversary of his birthday. Herod the Great had constructed in the interior of the fortress a magnificent palace, where the tetrarch frequently resided. He gave a great feast there, during which Salome executed one of those dances in character which were not considered in Syria as unbecoming a distinguished person. Antipas, being much pleased, asked the dancer what she most desired, and she replied, at the instigation of her mother, "Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger." [A portable dish on which liquors and viands are served in the East.] Antipas was sorry but he did not like to refuse. A guard took the dish, went and cut off the head of the prisoner, and brought it.

The disciples of the Baptist obtained his body and placed it in a tomb, but the people were much displeased. Six years after, Hareth having attacked Antipas, in order to recover Machero and avenge the dishonor of his daughter, Antipas was completely beaten; and his defeat was generally regarded as a punishment for the murder of John.

The news of John's death was brought to Jesus by the disciples of the Baptist. John's last act towards Jesus had effectually united the two schools in the most intimate bonds. Jesus, fearing an increase of ill-will on the part of Antipas, took precautions and retired to the desert, where many people followed him. By exercising an extreme frugality, the holy band was enabled to live there, and in this there was naturally seen a miracle. From this time Jesus always spoke of John with redoubled admiration. He declared unhesitatingly that he was more than a prophet, that the Law and the ancient prophets had force only until he came, that he had abrogated them, but that the kingdom of heaven would displace him in turn. In fine, he attributed to him a special place in the economy of the Christian mystery, which constituted him the link of union between the Old Testament and the advent of the new reign.

The prophet Malachi, whose opinion in this matter was soon brought to bear, had announced with much energy a precursor of the Messiah, who was to prepare men for the final renovation, a messenger who should come to make straight the paths before the elected one of God. This messenger was no other than the prophet Elias, who, according to a widely-spread belief, was soon to descend from heaven, whither he had been carried, in order to prepare men by repentance for the great advent and to reconcile God with his people. Sometimes they associated with Elias, either the patriarch Enoch, to whom for one or two centuries they had attributed high sanctity; or Jeremiah, whom they considered as a sort of protecting genius of the people; constantly occupied in praying for them before the throne of God. This idea, that two ancient prophets should rise again in order to serve as precursors to the Messiah, is discovered in so striking a form in the doctrine of the Parsees, that we feel much inclined to believe that it comes from that source. However this may be, it formed at the time of Jesus an integral portion of the Jewish theories about the Messiah. It was admitted that the appearance of "two faithful witnesses," clothed in garments of repentance, would be the preamble of the great drama about to be unfolded, to the astonishment of the universe.

It will be seen that, with these ideas, Jesus and his disciples could not hesitate about the mission of John the Baptist. When the scribes raised the objection that the Messiah could not have come because Elias had not yet appeared, they replied that Elias was come, that John was Elias raised from the dead. By his manner of life, by his opposition to the established political authorities, John in fact recalled that strange figure in the ancient history of Israel. Jesus was not silent on the merits and excellencies of his forerunner. He said that none greater were born among the children of men. He energetically blamed the Pharisees and the doctors for not having accepted his baptism, and for not being converted at his voice.

The disciples of Jesus were faithful to these principles of their Master. This respect for John continued during the whole of the first Christian generation. He was supposed to be a relative of Jesus. ln order to establish the mission of the latter upon testimony admitted by all, it was declared that John, at the first sight of Jesus, proclaimed him the Messiah; that he recognized himself his inferior, unworthy to unloose the latches of his shoes that he refused at first to baptism him, and maintained that it was he who ought to be baptized by Jesus. These were exaggerations, which are sufficiently refuted by the doubtful form of John's last message. But, in a more general sense, John remains in the Christian legend that which he was in reality -- the austere forerunner, the gloomy preacher of repentance before the joy on the arrival of the bride-groom, the prophet who announces the kingdom of God and dies before beholding it. This giant in the early history of Christianity, this eater of locusts and wild honey, this rough redresser of wrongs, was the bitter which prepared the lip for the sweetness of the kingdom of God. His beheading by Herodias inaugurated the era of Christian martyrs; he was the first witness for the new faith. The worldly, who recognized in him their true enemy, could not permit him to live; his mutilated corpse, extended on the threshold of Christianity, traced the bloody path in which so many others were to follow.

The school of John did not die with its founder. It lived some time distinct from that of Jesus, and at first a good understanding existed between the two. Many years after the death of the two Masters people were baptized with the baptism of John. Certain persons belonged to the two schools at the same time -- for example, the celebrated Apollos, the rival of St. Paul (towards the year 50), and a large number of the Christians of Ephesus. Josephus placed himself (year 53) in the school of an ascetic named Banou, who presents the greatest resemblance to John the Baptist, and who was perhaps of his school. This Banou lived in the desert, clothed with the leaves of trees; he supported himself only on wild plants and fruits, and baptized himself frequently, both day and night, in cold water, in order to purify himself. James, he who was called the "brother of the Lord" (there is here, perhaps, some confusion of homonyms), practiced a similar asceticism. Afterwards, towards the year 80, Baptism was in strife with Christianity, especially in Asia Minor. John the Evangelist appears to combat it in an indirect manner, One of the Sibylline poems seems to proceed from this school. As to the sects of Hemero-baptists, Baptists, and Elchasaites (Sabiens Mogtasila of the Arabian writers), [NOTE: Sabiens is the Aramean equivalent of the word Baptists." Mogtasila has the same meaning in Arabic.] who, in the second century, filled Syria, Palestine, and Babylonia, and whose representatives still exist in our days among the Mendaites, called "Christians of St. John," they have the same origin as the movement of John the Baptist, rather than an authentic descent from John. The true school of the latter, partly mixed with Christianity, became a small Christian heresy, and died out in obscurity. John had foreseen distinctly the destiny of the two schools. If he had yielded to a mean rivalry, he would to-day have been forgotten in the crowd of sectaries of his time. By his self-abnegation, he has attained a glorious and unique position in the religious pantheon of humanity.