The Life of Christ

Mgr. E Le Camus




SUCH excitement could not fail to attract the attention of the religious authority. From Jerusalem, therefore, as from the centre where this authority resided, watchful and attentive to all innovations, the Sanhedrim sent an embassy to the Preacher. Everything seems to have been favourable in this matter, and we know from Jesus Himself that the Council2 looked with some satisfaction on the Baptist's growing influence over Israel. This influence was for them the signal of a grand religious and political resurrection, the inauguration of a new era and the ending of the long continued faithlessness on the part of God's people. In any case, John's success could not but contribute to the increase of the prestige of religious authority, and the Sanhedrim would be the first to rejoice in it.

In this solemn business, the terms of the message were of necessity well pondered. The nation, as St. Luke remarks, was not far from believing John to be the Messiah; but it was natural that the representatives of the Sanhedrim should seem more prudent than the multitude. "Who art thou?" they said to the Baptist, intending to weigh well his response, and to hasten the people into his arms or to repel them, according as they approved or condemned his pretensions as an innovator. By the reserve manifested in their questioning, John perceives that they are anxious about the popular rumour that he himself is the Messiah. He responds, then, by telling, at first, not what he is, as they might expect, but what he is not, to put an end to all vain anxiety. Without hesitation and categorically he says: "I am not the Christ." Nothing is more agreeable to a man naturally vain than to suffer reports that honour him to gain credit, and one of the most painful sacrifices for him is that of the popular favour that flatters him and of that glory, legitimate or unmerited, with which the public voice intoxicates him. For John the Baptist to say that he is Christ would be to deny Christ. His loyalty feels no hesitation; and to demonstrate to us how slight a hold the temptation of vainglory had upon this upright and energetic soul the Evangelist remarks that, far from suffering a doubt to exist, he hastens to proclaim spontaneously and resolutely that the people are mistaken, that he is not the Christ. "What, then!" resume the emissaries with the apparent impatience of men who have been deceived. "Art thou Elias?" He again replies: "I am not." John, indeed, is not Elias, as his interrogators mean, not Elias in flesh and bone, personally living, descended from Heaven. He has, however, the spirit and virtue of Elias; and as these two things, the best in man, are the man himself, Jesus will be right in saying that he fulfils the prophecy of Malachias,3 to which the Jews here allude. If John the Baptist had been less humble and less eager to belittle himself, he could have made answer that he bore the thought, the energy, the soul of Elias; that he was the prophet come again, not in a bodily, but in a spiritual sense; and he would have done no violence to the truth. Elias had been a figure, John was its realisation.

The emissaries continue their investigation, and they ask: "Art thou the prophet?"4 Popular tradition had it that besides Elias there was another messenger from Heaven, Enoch, Josue, or, particularly, Jeremias, the greatest prophet since the woes of the captivity, who was to come to inaugurate the Messianic era. With greater reason than for the preceding question, John replied, "No." These conclusions of the multitude had no foundation.5

However, they were not content with merely negative replies; they must force the Baptist to declare his credentials and his mission. They said to him then: "Who art thou that we may give an answer to them that sent us? What sayest thou of thyself ?" He said: "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaias." He is but a voice, a cry, a breath that is lost in the air. He belittles himself so far, as Bossuet says; but this voice was foretold; it is that of the herald who announces the Master. John declares it to those who question him, and in this way he means to prove the legitimacy of his mission.

The emissaries fail to grasp his idea, and they are amazed to see one who is neither the Messiah nor the prophet introducing new ideas. Extremely sensitive in the matter of religious reforms, since they are of the sect of the Pharisees, stern defenders of their paternal traditions and ever ready to summon and to judge whoever, by his works and words, offends their prejudices, these inquisitors determine to prove that they merit all the confidence of the Sanhedrim. "Why then dost thou baptise, if thou be not Christ, nor Elias, nor the prophet?" For his lofty mission alone could authorise his baptism. Since he does not declare the former, how is he to justify the latter? "I baptise with water," replies John, "but there hath stood one in the midst of you6 whom you know not. The same is He that shall come after me, Who is preferred before me, the latchet of Whose shoe I am not worthy to loose." Here then is the reason for his ministry: The Desired of nations is come; the Jews may not know it; John does, and that is why, as the prophets7 had foretold it, he officially prepares His way.

The Evangelist does not relate the consequences of this mission, nor whether the Sanhedrim continued the inquiry it had undertaken. Probably, before forming any definite opinion, it deemed it necessary to see and to judge of Him Whose herald John declared himself. The authentic manifestation of the one will prove the legitimacy of the mission of the other. So that later on we shall see the Sanhedrim gradually withdrawing its confidence in the Baptist, in proportion as the Messiah becomes suspected in Israel. On the day when war shall be declared between Jesus and this organised body, the direct result
of the conflict will be for the Sanhedrim to decide to denounce or even to surrender to Herod, him whom it shall judge to have insured the religious success of the Carpenter of Nazareth.

In the meantime John is permitted to continue his labour. In that labour there is nothing but what is favourable to the patriotic longings of the old Jewish party. A revolt prepared against the foreigner is at all times a good thing. In case the Messiah does not come, they themselves will direct the popular movement according to their aspirations, and, perhaps, they may succeed in shaking off with their own hands the yoke of their oppressors.

1 The majority of modern exegetes, in view of the triple repetition by St. John of the expression th epaurion in the series of testimonies which he puts upon the lips of the Baptist, believe that there was a regular succession of "next days," and that in the fragment of the Fourth Gospel from i, 29, to ii, 1, they can discover the history of an entire week; but this cannot be without perceptible violence to the natural succession of events. If Jesus had already been baptised and made known to John as the Messiah when the embassy from the Sanhedrim arrived, why did not the Precursor acknowledge Him to the deputies of the Council? By his vague talk of the Messiah would he not have failed in his duty of bearing Him witness? How can we believe that he was not bound to explain himself with regard to this personage if he knew him? Their supposition is that Jesus came to be baptised on the day after the embassy, that this occurred in the morning, and that in the evening John gave the testimony that alludes to this visit. But the terms of his testimony do not seem to point to an event of such recent occurrence. Moreover, how shall we account for the forty days of temptation that elapsed between this second testimony and the second next day"? And since all the days of this First week are, according to this supposition, clearly indicated, we should have to place the retreat into the desert after the wedding in Cana; but in that ease, we sacrifice St. Mark, who connects this retreat into the desert immediately with the baptism. Why, therefore, can we not take the expression th epaurion in the sense of "later on"? The translation of the Septuagint has so rendered it in a number of passages (Gen. xxx, 33; Jos. iv, 6, and 22, 24, etc.). The Evangelist's intention is, moreover, quite apparent. He wishes to accumulate John's testimonies with regard to Jesus and to place them forth in luminous groups, without proving that they were rendered regularly from one day to another, especially since such a succession in itself would be scarcely natural. The formula he employs is equivalent to this: At one time John beholds Jesus come to him, etc.; at another time surrounded by his disciples, etc. The third time only, if at all (v. 14), does the Evangelist really mean the next day.

2 St. John v, 3335.

3 Mal. iv, 5. Cf. St. Matt. xi, 14.

4 It cannot be translated "Art thou a prophet?" for two reasons first, because the article e indicates that there is question of a prophet well known and popular; secondly, because St. John would not have replied absolutely that he was not a prophet, since Jesus said of him that he was a prophet and more than a prophet (St. Matt. xi, 9), and moreover, by such a response he would have definitely ruined himself.

5 Several have thought that reference was here made to the prophet announced by Moses (Deut. xviii, 15); but this prophet being the Messiah Himself, there is no need of putting a question that has already been answered. Besides it is evident that the inquiry proceeds from the greater to the lesser.

6 In this passage we fail to see any proof that the Messiah had been already revealed to John. It expresses nothing more than faith in His existence and in His approaching manifestation (Malach. iii, 1). If John is the Precursor, He whom he precedes is come. As for Pointing Him out more precisely' he cannot do so, since he does not know Him personally.

7 Is. xl, 3; Malach. iii, 1, compared with Malach. iv, 56.

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