Saint John the Baptist
CHARLES L. SOUVAY
Transcribed by Thomas M. Barrett
This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of Kevin Knight, who has undertaken a project to transcribe an online version of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia.
The principal sources of information concerning the life and ministry of Saint John the Baptist are the canonical Gospels.
Of these Saint Luke is the most complete, giving as he does the wonderful circumstances accompanying the birth of the Precursor and items on his ministry and death.
Saint Matthew's Gospel stands in close relation with that of Saint Luke, as far as John's public ministry is concerned, but contains nothing in reference to his early life.
From Saint Mark, whose account of the Precursor's life is very meager, no new detail can be gathered.
Finally, the fourth Gospel has this special feature, that it gives the testimony of Saint John after the Saviour's baptism.
Besides the indications supplied by these writings, passing allusions occur in such passages as Acts 13:24; 19:1-6; but these are few and bear on the subject only indirectly.
To the above should be added that Josephus relates in his Jewish Antiquities (XVIII, v.2), but it should be remembered that he is woefully erratic in his dates, mistaken in proper names, and seems to arrange facts according to his own political views; however, his judgment of John, also what he tells us regarding the Precursor's popularity, together with a few details of minor importance, are worthy of the historian's attention.
The same cannot be said of the apocryphal gospels, because the scant information they give of the Precursor is either copied from the canonical Gospels (and to these they can add no authority), or else is a mass of idle vagaries.
Zachary, the father of John the Baptist, was a priest of the course of Abia, the eighth of the twenty-four courses into which the priests were divided (I Par, xxiv 7-19); Elizabeth, the Precursor's mother, " was of the daughters of Aaron, " according to Saint Luke (1:5); the same Evangelist, a few verses farther on (1:26), calls her the "cousin" (syggenis) of Mary.
These two statements appear to be conflicting, for how, it will be asked, could a cousin of the Blessed Virgin be "of the daughters of Aaron? "
The problem might be solved by adopting the reading given in an old Persian version, where we find "mother's sister" (metradelphe) instead of "cousin. "
A somewhat analogous explanation, probably borrowed from some apocryphal writing, and perhaps correct, is given by Saint Hippolytus (in Nicephor II iii).
According to him, Mathan had three daughters: Mary, Soba, and Ann. Mary, the oldest, married a man of Bethlehem and was the mother of Salome; Soba married at Bethlehem also, but a "son of Levi, " by whom she had Elizabeth; Ann wedded a Galilean (Joachim) and bore Mary, the Mother of God.
Thus Salome, Elizabeth, and the Blessed Virgin were first cousins, and Elizabeth, "of the daughters of Aaron" on her father's side, was, on her mother's side, the cousin of Mary. Zachary's home is designated only in a vague manner by Saint Luke: it was "a city of Juda, " "in the hill-country" (1:39).
Reland, advocating the unwarranted assumption that Juda might be a misspelling of the name, proposed to read in its stead Jutta (Jos, xv, 55; xxi, 16; DV; Jota, Jeta), a priestly town south of Hebron.
But priests did not always live in priestly towns (Mathathias's home was at Modin; Simon Machabeus' at Gaza).
A tradition, which can be traced back to the time before the Crusades, points to the little town of Ain-Karim, five miles south-west of Jerusalem.
The birth of the Precursor was announced in a most striking manner.
Zachary and Elizabeth, as we learn from Saint Luke, "were both just before God, walking in all the commandments and justifications of the Lord without blame; and they had no son, for that Elizabeth was barren" (1:6-7).
Long they had prayed that their union might be blessed with offspring; but, now that "they were both advanced in years, the reproach of barrenness bore heavily upon them."
And it came to pass, when he executed the priestly function in the order of his course before God, according to the custom of the priestly office, it was his lot to offer incense, going into the temple of the Lord.
And all the multitude of the people was praying without, at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
And Zachary seeing him, was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
But the angel said to him: Fear not, Zachary, for thy prayer is heard; and they wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John: and thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice in his nativity.
For he shall be great before the Lord; and shall drink no wine nor strong drink: and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb.
And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.
And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias; that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people (1:8-17).
As Zachary was slow in believing this startling prediction, the angel, making himself known to him, announced that, in punishment of his incredulity, he should be stricken with dumbness until the promise was fulfilled.
"And it came to pass, after the days of his office were accomplished, he departed to his own house.
And after those days, Elizabeth his wife conceived, and hid herself five months" (1:23-24).
Now during the sixth month, the Annunciation had taken place, and, as Mary had heard from the angel the fact of her cousin's conceiving, she went "with haste" to congratulate her.
"And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant" -- filled, like the mother, with the Holy Ghost -- "leaped for joy in her womb, " as if to acknowledge the presence of his Lord.
Then was accomplished the prophetic utterance of the angel that the child should "be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb. "
Now as the presence of any sin whatever is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the soul, it follows that at this moment John was cleansed from the stain of original sin.
When "Elizabeth's full time of being delivered was come,. . .she brought forth a son" (1:57); and
on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by his father's name Zachary.
And his mother answering, said: Not so, but he shall be called John.
And they said to her: There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made sign to his father, how he would have him called.
And demanding a writing table, he wrote, saying: John is his name.
And they all wondered (1:59-63).
They were not aware that no better name could be applied (John, Hebr.; Jehohanan, i.e. "Jahweh hath mercy") to him who, as his father prophesied, was to "go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation to his people, unto remission of their sins: through the mercy of our God" (1:76-78).
Moreover, all these events, to wit, a child born to an aged couple, Zachary's sudden dumbness, his equally sudden recovery of speech, his astounding utterance, might justly strike with wonderment the assembled neighbours; these could hardly help asking: "What an one, think ye, shall this child be? " (1:66).