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§ 33. Causes of Obscurity in the Accounts left us of the Baptist.—Sources: The Evangelists. Josephus.

The difficulties and obscurities that remain in the accounts of this remarkable man seem to have arisen necessarily from the peculiar stand-point which he occupied. In a prophet or a forerunner, we must always distinguish between what he utters with clear self-consciousness, and what lies beyond the utterance, concealed even from himself, until a later period; between the fundamental idea, and the form, perhaps not wholly fitting, in which it veils itself. Opposite elements always meet each other in an epoch which constitutes the transition-point from one stage of developement to another; and we cannot look for a logical and connected mode of thinking in the representative of such an epoch. In some of his utterances we may find traces of the old period; in others, longings for the new; and in bringing them together, we may find different views which cannot always be made perfectly to harmonize.

The nature of the authorities to which we are confined makes it peculiarly difficult to come at the objective truth in regard to John the Baptist. On the one side we have the accounts of the Evangelists, given from the Christian stand-point, and for religious ends; and on the other that of Josephus,8686   Archaeol. xix. 1. which is purely historical in its character and aims..


As to the first, it is very probable that John could be better understood in the light of Christianity than he understood himself and his mission. The aims of a preparatory and transition-period are always better comprehended after their accomplishment than before; so, truths which were veiled from John’s apprehension stood clearly forth before the minds of the Evangelists. But this very fact may have caused the obscurity which we find in their accounts of the Baptist. We are very apt, in describing a lower point of view from a higher, to attribute to the former what belongs only to the latter. Any one who has passed through a subordinate and preparatory stage of thought to a higher one, will find it hard to keep the distinction between the two clearly before his consciousness: they blend themselves together in spite of him. So, perhaps, it may have happened that the distinctive differences between the stand-point of John and that of Christianity were lost sight of when the evangelical accounts were prepared, and that the Baptist was represented as nearer to Christianity than he really was. The likelihood of this result would be all the greater if the Christian writer had been himself a disciple of John; such a one, even though endowed with the sincerest love of truth, would naturally see more in the words of his old master than the latter himself, under his peculiar circumstances, could possibly have intended. After a prophecy has reached its fulfilment, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce the precise consciousness under which the prediction was uttered.

If, therefore, we find, on close inquiry, that the historical statements are somewhat obscured by subjective influences, our estimate of their veracity need be in no wise affected thereby. Such a result would not conflict in the least with the only tenable idea of Inspiration. The organs which the Holy Ghost illuminated and inspired to convey his truth to men retained their individual peculiarities, and remained within the sphere of the psychological laws of our being. Besides Inspiration, both in its nature and its object, refers only to man’s religious interests and to points connected with it. But practical religion requires only a knowledge of the truth itself; it needs not to understand the gradual genetic developement of the truth in the intellect, or to distinguish the various stages of its advance to distinct and perfect consciousness. On the other hand, these latter are precisely the aims towards which scientific history directs itself. It follows, therefore, that the interest of practical religion and that of scientific history may not always run in the same channel; and the latter must give place to the former, especially in points so vital as the direct impression which Christ made upon mankind. Frequent illustrations of this distinction are afforded by the interpretations of passages from the Old Testament given by the apostles.

In all our inquiries into the evangelical histories, we must keep in 48view the fact that they were written not to satisfy scientific, but religious wants; not to afford materials for systematic history, but to set forth the ground of human salvation in Christ and his kingdom. There was, indeed, one who could distinguish the different stages in the developement of revelation at a single piercing glance; but this one was He in whom God and man were united. He himself told his Apostles that ho had this power, and his words in regard to the stand-point of John the Baptist illustrate it. These words alone must form our guiding light.

It might be inferred, if what we have said be true, that the account of Josephus, which proceeds from a purely historical interest, should be preferred to that of the Evangelists. But it must not be forgotten that historical events can only be correctly understood when viewed from the stand-point of the province to which they belong; and so events that fall within the sphere of religion are only intelligible from a religious stand-point. And as John’s import to the history of the world consists in the fact that he formed the dividing line between the two stages of developement in the kingdom of God, it cannot be fully understood except by an intuitive religious sense, capable of appreciating religious phenomena. Of such a religious sense Josephus was destitute. Now the religious sense can get along without the scientific; but the latter cannot do without the former, where the understanding of religious events is concerned; and hence the living peculiarities of John the Baptist vanished under the hands of Josephus, although he was able to apprehend John’s character and appearance in their general features. To his religious deficiency must be added his habit of adapting himself to the taste and culture of the Greeks, a habit which could not but wear away his Jewish modes of thought and feeling. He saw in John only a man of moral ardour, who taught the truth to the Jews, rebuked their corruptions, and offered them, instead of their lustrations and outward righteousness, a symbol of inward spiritual purification in his water-baptism. With such a narrow view as this we could neither understand John’s use of baptism, nor explain his public labours among such a people as the Jews. It is but a beggarly abstraction from the living individual elements which the Gospel accounts afford.

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