Jesus’ mystery revealed through John the Baptist

By  Fr. Murray Watson, Catholic Register Special
  • October 25, 2006
 John the Baptist: Prophet and Disciple, by Alexander J. Burke Jr. (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 232 pages; $15.27 at amazon.ca).

In the flood of books on the historical Jesus published over the last 20 years, it is remarkable so little has been written about John the Baptist. After Jesus, Peter and Paul, John the Baptist is one of the most prominent figures in the New Testament, and yet he has been largely eclipsed by the interest in his more famous relative, Jesus. In this new book, Alexander Burke attempts to end John’s time in the shadows by presenting a thoughtful interdisciplinary look at the forerunner of the Lord.

Burke suggests there are at least two reasons why John has slipped into relative obscurity in modern times. First, the sternness of his message — its apocalyptic worldview and his black-and-white distinctions between good and evil do not sit well with many believers today who wish to deny the reality of sin and judgment, and focus only on compassion, love and social justice. Second, the historically oriented agenda of many modern scholars tends to situate John solely by looking backward to his setting in ancient Judaism, rather than by looking forward and seeing him in his relationship to Jesus — as forerunner and prophet.

Although Burke is not himself a biblical scholar, he draws heavily on modern biblical scholarship, as well as liturgy, history, art and the Fathers of the Church, to flesh out the somewhat limited and enigmatic vision of John in the Gospels. He does not shy away from the difficult questions raised when one compares John in different sources (Is John Elijah or not? Is Jesus John’s disciple?). He attempts to present his conclusions in a nuanced, balanced way that can be relevant and spiritually fruitful for Christians today. His starting point examines deliberate parallels between the nativities of John and Jesus, then he proceeds to explore Jesus and John’s relationship throughout their lives, in all the different roles that John will come to play — herald of the Messiah, baptizer of Jesus, witness to the Trinity, the one who stands on the threshold of two eras as the last of the prophets and the first Christian witness. Burke also examines the way both Eastern and Western Christian traditions have venerated and spoken about John.

It is clear Burke has digested a tremendous amount of research into this very accessible and informative book. He addresses such subjects as the portrayal of John in the Jewish historian Josephus, and his much-debated relationship to the Qumran sect, with care, but without overwhelming a non-specialist reader with detail. The relevant Scripture passages are closely examined, drawing both on the evangelists and the Old Testament prophetic texts which form the basis for their portrayal of John. He is particularly good at teasing out the implications of brief references — reading between the lines in the light of biblical culture and relevant scriptural allusions — and he weaves a thorough and compelling image of John that can both inspire and challenge Christians in this 21st century.

The discussion questions that follow each chapter make this an excellent resource for small faith-sharing or Bible study groups. John ceases to be a marginal and mysterious figure of the Gospels and becomes the constant thread woven throughout Jesus’ ministry, prefiguring Jesus’ words and actions, and pointing others to Him-himself decreasing as he sees Christ increase. Seen together, Burke argues, the two lives cast considerable light upon each other; John becomes the mirror in which the mystery of Jesus is gradually revealed.

It’s an impressive and valuable book, both because of the richness of material it presents and because the author is clearly a person of faith, who wants to take John the Baptist out of the hands of exegetes and give him back again to the average Christian — to restore John to the place he held in Christian spirituality for the first thousand years of the church. For those who wish to learn more, Burke’s footnotes offer a wealth of supplementary reading in ancient and contemporary sources.

At times, Burke comes across as quite skeptical of modern historical-critical study of the Bible, and of the scholars who employ such methods (he does, however, have great respect for the late Fr. Raymond Brown, one of the leading Catholic scholars of the last century). There are times when I questioned some assertions he made about Judaism at the time of Jesus, which he tends to portray rather uncritically as something morose and devoid of spiritual vigour in Jesus’ time — a Judaism essentially opposed to both John and Jesus, both Jews. Despite his obvious familiarity with modern biblical scholarship, on a number of occasions Burke appears to assume everything asserted or spoken in the Gospels is meant as literal history, neglecting the stages of development by which the evangelists shaped their sources in the light of the experiences of their communities. We don’t need to deny the overall historicity of the Gospels, but we should remember that reading the Gospels for the history in them must be conducted with care and subtlety to avoid a fundamentalist reading.

In this book, Burke has made an excellent contribution to our knowledge of John the Baptist in both his biblical and cultural setting. He provides us with a John who cannot be easily domesticated, who is deeply steeped in his experience of desert spirituality and who remains the one who points us most consistently and faithfully to the Lamb of God. John’s voice continues to challenge and guide us in our journey toward Jesus.

(Watson normally teaches Scripture at St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont. For the moment, however, he has escaped to Ireland where he is completing his PhD.)

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