How the doubting father’s son became a shouter


John the Baptist

John the Baptist

Ever wondered why John comes out of nowhere with a fiery message?

He has a bone to pick. Why? With whom? What’s his story?

The Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition preserves a story about John’s father, Zechariah, a Temple priest, sending his wife, Elizabeth, and their son, John, into hiding. Zechariah hides his son to protect him from Herod’s “Slaughter of the Innocents” by which all males below the age of two were to be killed following rumors of a newly-born king, a threat to Herod’s rule.

According to the story told by The Infancy Gospel of James [the mid-Second Century C.E.], John and Elizabeth remain in hiding – far away from their husband and father, Zechariah – until John is five or six years old when Zechariah risks visiting their hiding place. The result is the brutal murder of Zechariah by Herod’s soldiers.

As the son of Zechariah, a Temple priest, and Elizabeth, descended from the priestly lineage of Aaron, John was destined to be a Temple priest.

Tough father-son dynamics are almost always interesting; they become more so when the son’s father is a public religious figure. Zechariah’s son sounds like an angry preacher’s kid.

“When [John] saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Mt. 3:7).

The Pharisees were lay people with a more liberal religious bent than the Sadducees. The Sadducees were Temple supporters, the folks who aligned themselves with John’s father Zechariah and a conservative reading of the Torah. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were in conflict during the time of John and Jesus. Only the Pharisees survived the later destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the Roman-Jewish War of 70 C.E.

By the time the Gospels are written, the Temple had been destroyed. So we have the Temple priests and their supporters, the Sadducees, and John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew scolding both the Pharisees, who will carry on their tradition without accepting one of their likely members, Jesus of Nazareth, as the awaited Anointed One (Messiah), and the Sadducees who have disappeared into history.

But, if the Orthodox tradition is accepted as either historical or mythic truth, John’s real fight was with his father and the Sadducee Temple supporters who had compromised Jewish identity by their accommodations to Rome.

John is certain, bold, and in-your-face. His father, Zechariah, according to Matthew’s Gospel, had doubted the news of John’s conception. As a result of his doubt, Zechariah was struck dumb. He remained unable to speak until Elizabeth named had their son ‘John’, at which point his mouth was opened. “Yes,” said Zecahariah, “his name is John.”

Zechariah had been a doubter; John was no doubter. Zechariah was a hider. John was no hider. He became a shouter out in the open spaces to their faces: “You brood of vipers!”

Baby vipers were said to eat their mother’s stomachs. Israel was the Mother the Pharisees and Sadducees were eating alive from the inside out.

John wanted nothing to do with killing his Mother or with those who had killed his father. In the interest of protecting his Mother from the vipers, he’d run from the Temple into the wilderness, returning to the place where his Mother, Israel, had been born after the Exodus. He did not go into the wilderness to hide, and when the vipers arrived, he shouted in ways his father never had. Yet, in the end he died by the same hands as his father when Herod delivered his head to Salome on a platter.

Like father; like son. His cousin Jesus carried on.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 7, 2015

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