Life of Jesus/Chapter 6

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Life of Jesus by Ernest Renan
Chapter 6

Chapter 6: John the Baptist. Visit of Jesus to John, and his abode in the desert of Judea. Adoption of the baptism of John.

AN extraordinary man, whose position, from the absence of documentary evidence, remains to us in some degree enigmatical, appeared about this time, and was unquestionably to some extent connected with Jesus. This connection tended rather to make the young Prophet of Nazareth deviate from his path; but it suggested many important accessories to his religious institution, and, at all events, furnished a very strong authority to his disciples in recommending their Master in the eyes of a certain class of Jews.

About the year 28 of our era (the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius) there spread throughout Palestine the reputation of a certain Johanan, or John, a young ascetic full of zeal and enthusiasm. John was of the priestly race, and born, it seems, at Juttah, near Hebron, or at Hebron itself. Hebron, the patriarchal city per excellence, situated at a short distance from the desert of Judea, and within a few hours' journey of the great desert of Arabia, was at this period what it is to-day -- one of the bulwarks of Semitic ideas, in their most austere form. From his infancy John was Nazir -- that is to say, subjected by vow to certain abstinences. The desert by which he was, so to speak, surrounded early attracted him. He led there the life of a Yogi of India, clothed with skins or stuffs of camels' hair, having for food only locusts and wild honey. A certain number of disciples were grouped around him, sharing his life and studying his severe doctrine. We might imagine ourselves transported to the banks of the Ganges, if particular traits had not revealed in this recluse the last descendant of the great prophets of Israel.

From the time that the Jewish nation had begun to reflect upon its destiny with a kind of despair, the imagination of the people had reverted with much complacency to the ancient prophets. Now, of all the personages of the past, the remembrance of whom came like the dreams of a troubled night to awaken and agitate the people, the greatest was Elias. This giant of the prophets, in his rough solitude of Carmel, sharing the life of savage beasts, dwelling in the hollows of the rocks, whence he came like a thunderbolt to make and unmake kings, had become, by successive transformations, a sort of superhuman being, sometimes visible, sometimes invisible, and as one who had not tasted death. It was generally believed that Elias would return and restore Israel. The austere life which he had led, the terrible remembrances he had left behind him -- the impression of which is still powerful in the East -- the somber image which, even in our own time, causes, trembling and death -- all this mythology, full of vengeance and terror, vividly struck the mind of the people, and stamped as with a birth-mark all the creations of the popular mind. Whoever aspired to act powerfully upon the people must imitate Elias; and, as solitary life had been the essential characteristic of this prophet, they were accustomed to conceive "the man of God" as a hermit. They imagined that all the holy personages had had their days of penitence, of solitude, and of austerity. The retreat to the desert thus became the condition and the prelude of high destinies.

No doubt this thought of imitation had occupied john's mind. The anchorite life, so opposed to the spirit of the ancient Jewish people, and with which the vows, such as those of tho Nazirs and the Rechabites, had no relation, pervaded all parts of Judea. The Essenes or Therapeutae were grouped near the birthplace of John, on the eastern shores of the Dead Sea. It was imagined that the chiefs of sects ought to be recluses, having rules and institutions of their own, like the founders of religious orders. The teachers of the young were also at times species of anchorites, somewhat resembling the gourous of Brahminism. In fact, might there not in this be a remote influence of the mounis of India? Perhaps, some of those wandering Buddhist monks who overran the world, as the first Franciscans did in later times, preaching by their actions and converting people who knew not their language, might have turned their stops towards Judea, as they certainly did towards Syria and Babylon? On this point we have no certainty, Babylon had become for some time a true focus of Buddhism. Boudasp (Bodhisattva) was reputed a wise Chaldean, and the founder of Sabeism, Sabeism was, as its etymology indicates, baptism -- that is to say, the religion of many baptisms -- the origin of the sect still existing called "Christians of St. John," or Mendaites, which the Arabs call el- Mogtasila, "the Baptists." It is difficult to unravel these vague analogies. The sects floating between Judaism, Christianity, Baptism, and Saboism, which we find in the region beyond the Jordan during the first centuries of our era, present to criticism the most singular problem, in consequence of the confused accounts of them which have come down to us. We may believe, at all events, that many of the external practices of John, of the Essenes, and of the Jewish spiritual teachers of this time, were derived from influences then but recently received from the far East. The fundamental practice which characterized the sect of John, and gave it its name, has always had its center in lower Chaldea, and constitutes a religion which is perpetuated there to the present day.

This practice was baptism, or total immersion. Ablutions were already familiar to the Jews, as they were to all religions of the East. The Essenes had given them a peculiar extension. Baptism had become an ordinary ceremony on the introduction of proselytes into the bosom of the Jewish religion, a sort of initiatory rite. Never before John the Baptist, however, had either this importance or this form been given to immersion. John had fixed the scene of his activity in that part of the desert of Judea which is in the neighborhood of the Dead Sea. At the periods when he administered baptism he went to the banks of the Jordan, either to Bethany or Bethabara, upon the eastern shore, probably opposite to Jericho, or to a place called AEnon, or "the Fountains," near Salim, where there was much water. Considerable crowds, especially of the tribe of Judah, hastened to him to be baptized. In a few months he thus became one of the most influential men in Judea, and acquired much importance in the general estimation.

The people took him for a prophet, and many imagined that it was Elias who had risen again. The belief in these resurrections was widely spread: it was thought that God would raise from the tomb certain of the ancient prophets to guide Israel towards its final destiny. Others held John to be the Messiah himself, although he made no such pretension. The priests and the scribes, opposed to this revival of prophetism, and the constant enemies of enthusiasts, despised him. But the popularity of the Baptist awed them, and they dared not speak against him. It was a victory which the ideas of the multitude gained over the priestly aristocracy. When the chief priests were compelled to declare themselves explicitly on this point, they were considerably embarrassed.

Baptism with John was only a sign destined to make an impression, and to prepare the minds of the people for some great movement. No doubt he was possessed in the highest degree with the Messianic hope, and that his principal action was in accordance with it. "Repent," said he, "for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." He announced a "great wrath" -- that is to say, terrible calamities which should come to pass -- and declared that the axe was already laid at the root of the tree, and that the tree would soon be cast into the fire. He represented the Messiah with a fan in his hand, collecting the good wheat and burning the chaff. Repentance (of which baptism was the type), the giving of alms, the reformation of habits, were, in John's view, the great means of preparation for the coming events, though we do not know exactly in what light he conceived them. It is, however, certain that he preached with much power against the same adversaries as Jesus, against rich priests, the Pharisees, the doctors -- in one word, against official Judaism; and that, like Jesus, he was specially welcomed by the despised classes. He made no account of the title "son of Abraham," and said that God could raise up sons unto Abraham from the tones of the road. It does not seem that he possessed even the germ of the great idea which led to the triumph of Jesus -- the idea of a pure religion; but he powerfully served this idea in substituting a private rite for the legal ceremonies which required priests, as the Flagellants of the Middle Ages were the precursors of the Reformation, by depriving the official clergy of the monopoly of the sacraments and of absolution. The general tone of his sermons was stern and severe. The expressions which he used against his adversaries appear to have been most violent. It was a harsh and continuous invective. It is probable that he did not remain quite a stranger to politics. Josephus, who, through his teacher Banou, was brought into almost direct connection with John, suggests as much by his ambiguous words, and the catastrophic which put an end to John's life seems to imply this. His disciples led a very austere life, fasted often, and affected a sad and anxious demeanor. We have at times glimpses of communism -- the rich man being ordered to share all that he had with the poor; the poor man appeared as the one who would be specially benefitted by the kingdom of God.

Although the center of John's action was Judea, his fame quickly penetrated to Galilee and reached Jesus, who, by his first discourses, had already gathered around himself a small circle of hearers. Enjoying as yet little authority, and doubtless impelled by the desire to see a teacher whose instruction had so much in common with his own, Jesus quitted Galilee, and repaired with his small group of disciples to John. The newcomers were baptized like every one else. John welcomed this group of Galilean disciples, and did not object to their remaining distinct from his own. The two teachers were young; they had many ideas in common; they loved one another, and publicly vied with each other in exhibitions of kindly feeling. At the first glance, such a fact surprises us in John the Baptist, and we are tempted to call it in question. Humility has never been a feature of strong Jewish minds. It might have been expected that a character so stubborn, a sort of Lamennais always irritated, would be very passionate, and suffer neither rivalry nor half adhesion. But this manner of viewing things rests upon a false conception of the person of John. We imagine him an old man; he was, on the contrary, of the same age as Jesus, and very young according to the ideas of the time. In mental development, he was the brother rather than the father of Jesus. The two young enthusiasts, full of the same hopes and the same hatreds, were able to make common cause, and mutually to support each other. Certainly an aged teacher, seeing a man without celebrity approach him, and maintain towards him an aspect of independence, would have rebelled; we have scarcely an example of a leader of a school receiving with eagerness his future successor. But youth is capable of any sacrifice, and we may admit that John, having recognized in Jesus a spirit akin to his own, accepted him without any personal reservation. These good relations became afterwards the starting- point of a whole system developed by the evangelists, which consisted in giving the Divine mission of Jesus the primary basis of the attestation of John. Such was the degree of authority acquired by the Baptist that it was not thought possible to find in the world a better guarantee. But far from John abdicating in favor of Jesus, Jesus, during all the time that he passed with him, recognized him as his superior, and only developed his own genius with timidity.

It seems, in fact, that, notwithstanding his profound originality, Jesus, during some weeks at least, was the imitator of John. His way, as yet, was not clear before him. At all times, moreover, Jesus yielded much to opinion, and adopted many things which were not in exact accordance with his own ideas, or for which he cared little, merely because they were popular; but these accessories never injured his principal idea, and were always subordinate to it. Baptism had been brought by John into very great favor; Jesus thought himself obliged to do like John; therefore he baptized and his disciples baptized also. No doubt he accompanied baptism with preaching, similar to that of John. The Jordan was thus covered on all sides with Baptists, whose discourses were more or less successful. The pupil soon squalled the master, and his baptism was much sought after. There was on this subject some jealousy among the disciples: the disciples of John came to complain to him of the growing success of the young Galilean, whose baptism would, they thought, soon supplant his own. But the two teachers remained superior to this meanness. The superiority of John was, besides, too indisputable for Jesus, still little known, to think of contesting it. Jesus only wished to increase under John's protection; and thought himself obliged, in order to gain the multitude, to employ the external means which had given John such astonishing success. When he recommenced to preach after John's arrest, the first words put into his mouth are but the repetition of one of the familiar phrases of the Baptist. Many other of John's expressions may be found repeated verbally in the discourses of Jesus. The two schools appear to have lived long on good terms with each other; and after the death of John, Jesus, as his trusty friend, was one of the first to be informed of the event.

John, in fact, was soon cut short in his prophetic career. Like the ancient Jewish prophets, he was, in the highest degree, a censurer of the established authorities. The extreme vivacity with which he expressed himself at their expense could not fail to bring him into trouble. In Judea, John does not appear to have been disturbed by Pilate; but in Perea, beyond the Jordan, he came into the territory of Antipas. This tyrant was uneasy at the political leaven which was so little concealed by John in his preaching. The great assemblages of men gathered around the Baptist, by religious and patriotic enthusiasm, gave rise to suspicion. An entirely personal grievance was also added to these motives of State, and rendered the death of the austere censor inevitable.

One of the most strongly marked characters of this tragical family of the Herods was Herodias, grand-daughter of Herod the Great. Violent, ambitious, and passionate, she detested Judaism, and despised its laws. She had been married, probably against her will, to her uncle Herod, son of Mariamne, whom Herod the Great had disinherited, and who never played any public part. The inferior position of her husband in respect to the other persons of the family gave her no peace; she determined to be sovereign at whatever cost. Antipas was the instrument of whom she made use. This feeble man, having become desperately enamored of her, promised to marry her, and to repudiate his first wife, daughter of Hareth, king of Petra, and emir of the neighboring tribes of Perea The Arabian princess, receiving a hint of this design, resolved to fly. Concealing her intention, she pretended that she wished to make a journey to Machero, in her father's territory, and caused herself to be conducted thither by the officers of Antipas.

Makaur, or Machero, was a colossal fortress built by Alexander Jannaeus, and rebuilt by Herod, in one of the most abrupt wadys to the east of the Dead Sea. It was a wild and desolate country, filled with strange legends, and believed to be haunted by demons. The fortress was just on the boundary of the lands of Hareth and of Antipas. At that time it was in the possession of Hareth. The latter, having been warned, had prepared everything for the flight of his daughter, who was conducted from tribe to tribe to Petra.

The almost incestuous union of Antipas and Herodias then took place. The Jewish laws on marriage were a constant rock of offence between the irreligious family of the Herods and the strict Jews. The members of this numerous and rather isolated dynasty being obliged to marry among themselves, frequent violations of the limits prescribed by the Law necessarily took place. John, in energetically blaming Antipas, was the echo of the general feeling. This was more than sufficient to decide the latter to follow up his suspicions. He caused the Baptist to be arrested, and ordered him to be shut up in the fortress of Machero, which he had probably seized after the departure of the daughter of Hareth.

More timid than cruel, Antipas did not desire to put him to death. According to certain rumors, he feared a popular sedition. According to another version, he had taken pleasure in listening to the prisoner, and these conversations had thrown him into great perplexities. It is certain that the detention was prolonged, and that John, in his prison, preserved an extended influence. He corresponded with his disciples, and we find him again in connection with Jesus. His faith in the near approach of the Messiah only became firmer; he followed with attention the movements outside, and sought to discover in them the signs favorable to the accomplishment of the hopes which he cherished.