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 a Temple priest, John descended from the priestly lineage of Aaron. John was destined to be a Temple priest. Father-son dynamics become more difficult when the 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? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves 'We have Abraham as our father ....'" (Mt. 3:7-9a).

The Pharisees were lay people with a more liberal religious bent than the Sadducees. The Sadducees were Temple authorities and 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.

Whether the Orthodox tradition and The Infancy Gospel of James are taken as historical fact or mythic truth, John’s real fight was with his father and the Sadducees who had compromised Jewish identity and integrity 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 had named 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 sent John into hiding. The John who returned from safety was no hider. John became a shouter who minced no words. Far from Jerusalem and the Temple, out in untamed space by the Jordan River, he took his stand for the return of his people from the false choice of the pious laity (the Pharisees) and his father’s priestly class (the Sadducees): “You brood of vipers!”

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

John wanted nothing to do with the killing of his Mother or with those who had killed his father. In the interest of protecting his Mother from the vipers, he had 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. He went out to rescue his Mother from being eaten by her children. When the vipers arrived, he shouted in ways his mute father never did. 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 younger cousin Jesus carried on.

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

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