John the Baptist in Various Faith-Traditions and Art

Last night's final class for the SoL Center was a fun one! I ventured outside of my expertise regarding John the Baptist into other areas of interest: namely, John's representation in other faith-traditions and art. I chose to talk about John's meaning in Islam, Mandaeism, and Mormonism because (1) these groups have holy writings other than the New Testament and (2) they mention John. Quick word of clarification: I did not deny that the LDS are a Christian group. Their inclusion in this final talk has to do with their writings that aren't shared by other Christians, especially the Doctrines and the Covenants. 

The second half looked at John's representation in music, film, paint, and sculpture. The class seemed to have enjoyed the content immensely and I enjoyed teaching it! For those who are interested, here are my notes and the ppt from last night: LePort. SoL Center. John the Baptist Then and Now Wk3 (Word) (PDF). (All the pictures were accessed via a Google search.)

Some Pictures from the Israel Museum

Here are some of the pictures I took while visiting the Israel Museum in Jerusalem several days ago:

 A monument inscription dated to the 9th c. BCE, found in Dan, made of basalt, upon which we find the earliest mention of the "house of David".

A monument inscription dated to the 9th c. BCE, found in Dan, made of basalt, upon which we find the earliest mention of the "house of David".

 The oldest copies of a biblical text on two silver amulets with inscriptions of Numbers 6:24-26 dated to the late 7th-early 6th c. BCE. Found in Jerusalem.

The oldest copies of a biblical text on two silver amulets with inscriptions of Numbers 6:24-26 dated to the late 7th-early 6th c. BCE. Found in Jerusalem.

 A Greek inscription on limestone with a warning to goyim: "No foreigner shall enter within the forecourt and the balustrade around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death." It would have been near the Temple. Dated to the 1st c. CE.

A Greek inscription on limestone with a warning to goyim: "No foreigner shall enter within the forecourt and the balustrade around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death." It would have been near the Temple. Dated to the 1st c. CE.

 The soft limestone ossuary with an Aramaic inscription mentioning Jesus son of Joseph, found in Jerusalem, dated to the 1st c. CE,

The soft limestone ossuary with an Aramaic inscription mentioning Jesus son of Joseph, found in Jerusalem, dated to the 1st c. CE,

 Ossuary of Caiaphas the High Priest

Ossuary of Caiaphas the High Priest

 Another angle on the ossuary of Caiaphas.

Another angle on the ossuary of Caiaphas.

 A Latin dedicatory inscription on hard limestone found in Caesarea, dated from 26-36, mentioning Pontius Pilate the prefect of Judea.

A Latin dedicatory inscription on hard limestone found in Caesarea, dated from 26-36, mentioning Pontius Pilate the prefect of Judea.


Celluloid John the Baptist: Zeffirelli's 1977 Jesus of Nazareth (abbreviated)

Mark Goodacre has inspired me. As you may know he enjoys watching Jesus films. (His list can be accessed here: Celluloid Jesus: The Christ Films Web Pages). We can learn a lot about how people have read and interpreted the Bible and Christian tradition by observing what is included and excluded from these films, how characters are portrayed, etc. Well, I've decided it would be fun to do what Prof. Goodacre has been doing, but with an eye on how John the Baptist is portrayed. Since Franco Zeffirelli's 1977 mini-series Jesus of Nazareth is on Netflix I began there.

English actor Michael York plays John. The first mention of John is an adaption of Luke's gospel. Mary visits Elizabeth, the child in her womb leaps, Elizabeth bless Mary as the father of the messiah, etc. Then the child John is presented as being circumcised and named. We don't hear of John again until there is a scene of a scribe reading Isaiah 40, which serves as the transition to John's preaching along the river.

He is shaggy in appearance, especially his hair. His preaching is a mixture of rage and compassion, warning against a coming judgment while gracefully offering forgiveness to participants of his baptism. John warns the people against relying on "rituals" such as going to the temple and offering sacrifices. This feels a little bit Protestant in its polemic, though John as an anti-temple prophet is an interesting, and possibly historical, interpretation of his preaching.

John's preaching focuses on the hearts of the people. Crowds rush to him, evoking visually what Josephus and the Evangelists suggest when they present John as being wildly popular with the people. John's baptism washes away sins as he says, "Let this water wash away your sins," while baptizing.

The best scene is the one when Herod Antipas' train is passing through the region. John begins to yell at Antipas, rebuking him for his marriage to Herodias, Herodias is depicted on a couple of occasions as trying to convince Antipas to do something about John. Antipas replies that John is harmless, he's been in the wilderness all these years, and he doesn't want anything (as made evident by his poverty). Antipas mentions the inability to arrest John until he is back in Galilee, suggesting that the reason for the delay had to do with jurisdiction. When John screams at Antipas there is a shot of spit flying out of his mouth. Either he is unstable or extremely passionate and angry! 

 John the Baptist in  Jesus of Nazareth  (1977). Source: excerptsofinri.com

John the Baptist in Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Source: excerptsofinri.com

John's preaching focuses on the hearts of the people. Crowds rush to him, evoking visually what Josephus and the Evangelists suggest when they present John as being wildly popular with the people. John's baptism washes away sins as he says, "Let this water wash away your sins," while baptizing.

The best scene is the one when Herod Antipas' train is passing through the region. John begins to yell at Antipas, rebuking him for his marriage to Herodias, Herodias is depicted on a couple of occasions as trying to convince Antipas to do something about John. Antipas replies that John is harmless, he's been in the wilderness all these years, and he doesn't want anything (as made evident by his poverty). Antipas mentions the inability to arrest John until he is back in Galilee, suggesting that the reason for the delay had to do with jurisdiction. When John screams at Antipas there is a shot of spit flying out of his mouth. Either he is unstable or extremely passionate and angry! 

  John the Baptist and Jesus in   Jesus of Nazareth   (1977). Source:   excerptsofinri.com

John the Baptist and Jesus in Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Source: excerptsofinri.com

He yells "God led you back from Babylon to serve him, but you betrayed him. Now you're warned: flee! flee!" Again, John wafts back and forth between judgment and mercy (much like the Gospels). Men and women respond to John coming to him for baptism. Eventually Jesus arrives in a very Matthean/Lukan way: John says Jesus should baptize him, but Jesus says the baptism must be done. The words "This is my beloved son in whom I'm well pleased" comes from John's mouth after he looks into the sky and sees a dove flying. Then the Johannine version of the story is integrated with John pointing out Jesus to Andrew and Philip saying that Jesus is "the Lamb of God." John tells them they need to follow Jesus: "It is him you must follow now, not me. He must increase and I must decrease." 

As Jesus departs and Andrew and Philip scurry behind him soldiers from Antipas descend upon the area to arrest John. His final words are "My time is over." He is arrested and Jesus is told, but that's the final scene with John in the abbreviated version (according to Goodacre the full version is 382 minutes while the version available on Netflix is 269 minutes). John "appears" twice more: First, Jesus uses his "brood of vipers" comments and later as the Sanhedrin debates what to do with Jesus one person lumps Jesus in with other failed prophets saying, "We've heard it all, from John the Baptist and others."

Although I don't have access to the extended version, I did find this clip from it where John and Antipas have a Jesus-Pilate moment. Antipas is distraught that he has imprisoned John. He wants to buy off John, to give him power. But, of course, John says he's come to announce the one who will be King. Most interesting here is when Antipas asks what John would do if set free. He says he'd follow Jesus.

John plays an important role in Zeffirelli's film. He is the forerunner to Jesus. He is wildly popular among the crowds. He haunts Antipas. Overall, not a bad cameo.