On the eve of the Christmas observance, I am returning to one of the finest Biblical studies I have ever read, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles  by Father John Meier. This is the second volume of a five-part series, and the first 233 pages are devoted to the relationship of Jesus and John the Baptist. In truth, the life, sources, and significance of the Baptist came as a major surprise to me when I started graduate studies. For years going back to early childhood the person of John was described in my catechetics and Christmas sermons as something of a front man for Jesus. Theologically speaking, there is truth in this statement; John was the herald of the Messiah, the Son of Man. But the historical evidence, at least what is available today, suggests a more complex relationship between John and Jesus. Contemporaries would not have jumped to the conclusion that John was inferior to Jesus.
Source material outside of the Scriptures about events involving Jesus and John is rare and suffers from the common weaknesses of the art of ancient history, but one notable source stands out, the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus [37-100 A.D.] Josephus is one of the ancient world’s true characters. Highly opinionated, he married four times and defected to the Romans during the siege of Jerusalem [66-70 A.D.]. He is the most prolific and persistent historian of the age of John and Jesus. Other secular sources are few and very meager. One of them, Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor in Asia Minor, wrote to the emperor Trajan around 117 A.D. Pliny speaks of a small community which gathers at sunrise to sing hymns to a Crestus, as if he were a god. Not much to work with.
By contrast to Pliny and other non-Biblical sources, Josephus writes at length about John the Baptist and Jesus, but not in the same context. In his Jewish Antiquities Josephus writes that “to some of the Jews it seemed that the army of Herod was destroyed by God…quite justly punishing Herod to avenge what he had done to John, who was surnamed the Baptist.”
Josephus continues: “For Herod killed him, although he was a good man and [simply] bade the Jews to join in baptism, provided that they were cultivating virtue and practicing justice toward one another and piety toward God. For only thus, in John’s opinion, would the baptism…indeed be acceptable [to God], namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies in as much as [it was taken for granted that] their souls had already been purified by justice.”
Josephus’ continues, noting that John’s preaching was raising the Jews to a fever pitch of excitement, which unnerved Herod; the latter believed that John was fomenting a revolution. To head off a crisis, Herod elected to seize John and sent him in chains to Macherus, a mountain fortress, where he had John beheaded. See Mark 6:17ff for details of John’s arrest and death in the Christian Scripture.
Several points to note. One can argue over the focus of this narrative. Josephus may have introduced the Baptist and his good works for the sake of attacking the Herodian dynasty [there were four King Herods over time until the fall of Jerusalem.] Josephus may be saying something to the effect that “this is what the Herodians are capable of, putting to death a man as innocent and good as the Baptist.” Josephus does not understand the full meaning of John’s words; he does not comment on John’s abundance of apocalyptic and futuristic threats as St. Luke does [see Luke 3], nor on the universalist thrust of his ministry. Nor does Josephus indicate John’s religious orientation, which would be important to know. Jews of John’s day were divided into various schools and camps—Sadducees, Pharisees, Levites or liturgical guardians, for example. After World War II, the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls introduced students of the Bible to the Essenes, a small but intriguing community of country dwelling Jews who lived a common life like monks, shared a futuristic vision, and engaged in ritual baths. For a brief time, there was speculation that John the Baptist might have been an Essene, but there are too many reasons to think otherwise.
The most intriguing question about Josephus’ treatment of John is the author’s later treatment of Jesus, which mentions nothing about John the Baptist:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”
The above paragraph reads like a testimony of a devoted Christian…and the consensus of scholarship today holds that there is some truth to this. The argument today is how much of this paragraph comes from Josephus, and how much is later Christian editing. Given that Josephus comments on other unique personalities of the time, including John the Baptist, his inclusion of Jesus in his history is probably authentic. On the other hand, for a Jew to say that Jesus is the Christ and the fulfillment of the prophets is a rather remarkable thing to behold. One wonders why Josephus himself did not convert! But for our purposes today, it is strange that this historian does not draw any connection between two men he respects enough to include in his history. This leads us to wonder how the Christian scriptures describe the relationship of Jesus and John the Baptist.
The commentary of the NABRE translation of the Bible [used at Mass] indicates that an oral source of the life and work of John the Baptist survived to the writing of the Gospels, four decades later. There is no documentary record of this earliest source; scholars like Father Meier continue to research what is available, primarily the Gospels themselves. The core consensus holds that a figure named John [surnamed the Baptist] preached and baptized, encountered Jesus of Nazareth, had followers, and fell afoul of Herod Antipas and was executed. The process involved here is the law of multiple attestation; the more an event is cited across the four Gospels, the higher the probability of an underlying historical event. Remember that the evangelists were theologians who used this history to develop the full nature and meaning of the coming of the Christ.
So, very briefly, how does each evangelist employ the figure of John the Baptist in his Gospel, in the order the Gospels were written?
St. Mark: This Gospel has no infancy narrative and begins with the appearance of John in the desert “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark gives us John’s unique wardrobe and diet [very high protein, if entomologists are correct], and his message is apocalyptic: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit.” Jesus comes from Nazareth of Galilee “and was baptized in the Jordan by John.” No conversation is recorded nor any unusual crowd reaction. Upon coming out of the water Jesus [alone, apparently] sees the heavens open and the Spirit descending upon him, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” The baptism is presented by Mark as a private revelation and turning point.
Mark reports that after the baptism Jesus proceeds to the desert for forty days, and that John is arrested. The NABRE commentary observes, “In the plan of God, Jesus was not to proclaim the good news of salvation prior to the termination of the Baptist’s active mission.” In Mark’s thinking, Jesus was to introduce a new era of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. However, Mark later recounts in detail the memory of John’s death at the fortress of Macherus, which fits into the Gospel’s theme that every disciple should be prepared to suffer and die.
St. Matthew: Only St. Matthew and St. Luke contain Jesus’ infancy narratives, which incidentally are quite different from each other. Matthew has no mention of John or his family in Jesus’ birth and surrounding events. Matthew introduces John the Baptist in Chapter 3 as a desert preacher calling for repentance. John announces that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew, unlike Mark, gives us considerable content of John’s preaching, which appears targeted at Sadducees and Pharisees for their infidelity to Israel’s true heritage. “God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones.” This is consistent with Matthew’s purpose in depicting Jesus as the new Moses and the fulfillment of the prophets’ preaching.
Jesus seeks out John for baptism, and Matthew describes the only conversation between the two men in the Bible. John, almost to the point of obsequiousness, pleads with Jesus to reverse roles and baptize him. Jesus replies that John should continue as he has, “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Again, Jesus has a private revelation of divine affiliation, and John is arrested shortly thereafter. In retrospect, Matthew treats John as an important precursor of Jesus’ role as the messiah of the new and glorious Israel.
St. Luke: Where to begin? It is Luke’s infancy narrative that has integrated John the Baptist into Christmas piety. John plays a critical role throughout the infancy narrative as Luke contrasts him to Jesus. God intervenes in the conceptions of both John and Jesus, but where John is fathered by his very senior parent, Jesus is fathered by the Holy Spirit. When the pregnant Mary visits Elizabeth, it is the Holy Spirit in Jesus that causes John to jump for joy in his mother’s womb. This narrative is found only in Luke, meaning Luke created this narrative to elaborate the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, and Mary’s divine maternity.
The adult John preaches in the fashion described in Matthew’s Gospel, though here Luke records that tax collectors and Roman soldiers are included in John’s audience. Luke intended to depict Jesus as a universal savior, not just the deliverer of Israel, and he edits Matthew’s account to some degree to achieve this effect. Luke does not describe the actual baptism of Jesus, writing that “after Jesus had already been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” with the declaration “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” In all three Gospels so far, the baptism of John is succeeded by a private revelation. No evangelist so far comments on John’s reaction.
There is, in this Gospel, evidence of strain between John’s followers—and possibly John himself—regarding Jesus’ message and style. In 5:33ff, some questioners ask why John’s disciples fast and Jesus’ do not. Jesus replies that one does not fast at a wedding, identifying his message and works as a harbinger of forgiveness, joy, and hope. This is a very different emphasis from John’s forecast of divine wrath to come, and it may explain why two of John’s disciples came to Jesus asking if Jesus was the messiah, “or should we look to someone else?” Luke’s Gospel, interestingly, implies that John may have been still preaching during Jesus’ ministry, or that a strong community of the Baptist continued after John’s death. Again, we have an example of John serving as a contrast to Jesus in order to explain the meaning of Jesus more clearly, a peculiarity unique to Luke.
St. John: This Gospel contains no infancy narrative. The first chapter, though, is the high watermark of John the Baptist’s visibility in the New Testament. The NABRE commentary summarizes the Baptist’s work as clarification that he [John] is not the messiah and positive identification of Jesus, culminating in his declaration that Jesus is the Son of God. It is this narrative that introduces the first apostles as original followers of John. The evangelist John’s gospel is the final to be written, perhaps around 100 A.D. when the first heresies about Jesus’ identity were becoming problematic [i.e., was he truly God? Truly man?] Writing in this environment St. John depicts the Baptist as an authoritative voice on the identity of Christ. In a sense, the evangelist has extended the influence of the Baptist into a church now several generations old.
In conclusion, it is safe to say that John the Baptist correctly prepared the way for the savior, a being he probably did not fully understand. But without John, the Gospel writers would have been hard pressed to understand the savior, too.
The Café is closing for Christmas. The best to all, and we’ll see you later in the week.
I did not abandon the Café; I was simply the victim of circumstances ranging from scheduled minor surgery to home repairs, among other things, that played havoc with my schedule. Plus, I am doing research on three or four streams of theology for future Café posts. I also failed to note the fifth anniversary of The Catechist Café, which first appeared on-line November 14, 2014. Looking back, I have come to realize that in the early days of the Café I had a lot of information at my fingertips from which to draw. Nowadays I find that our topics require more research, that the new books require study, and my 70+ year old brain needs more sleep. So, don’t panic if the presses are not rolling 24/7 at the Café like they almost used to. [As if anyone would panic about a thing like that.] I’m not rolling 24/7 either like I used to. The medical intervention successfully removed a skin cancer on my cheek under the eye. A few days ago, the bandages came off and I look like a washed-up old pirate [temporarily, they assure me.] As a Buffalo boy now living in Florida for 41 years, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened sooner.
While I have several posts cooking on the stove on a variety of topics, I thought I might comment on the expected sainthood of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the famous television priest of the 1950’s. Bishop Sheen has been in the news a great deal this week, in both Catholic and secular reporting. U.S. News and World Report, The Rochester Chronicle, and Crux Catholic News Services are just a few commentators on the surprisingly sudden action of the Vatican to delay the canonization of Bishop Sheen, previously scheduled to take place next week on December 21, 2019, in the Cathedral of Peoria, Illinois. Withholding a previously declared canonization on the heels of the event has happened only once before in my lifetime. Pope Benedict XVI overturned a canonization approved by Pope John Paul II when the candidate’s writings were found to be antisemitic.
As it happens, I reviewed a biography of Bishop Sheen by Thomas Reeves for Amazon Books in 2004. In my opening line I said this: “Fulton J. Sheen will never be canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church for two obvious reasons: his sins are bright scarlet and we know them too well.” If you read my review, you might want to check the ‘comments” section in response to my treatment, some of which were rather spicy. And in truth I was proved to be a poor prognosticator, or so I thought, until last week. Looking back fifteen years I may have been too harsh, but my point at the time was that modern communications and computer documentation enable researchers—including Vatican investigators—to bring to light “too much humanity,” so to speak.
And indeed, it is documentation that has at least delayed the bishop’s canonization, and the story or stories behind it will someday prove to be a colorful book. To understand what is currently happening, it is important to understand the relationship between three dioceses—New York, Rochester [N.Y.] and Peoria [Ill.] Sheen was born in and ordained for the Peoria diocese, and he taught in a local Catholic college, St. Viator, for about one year. But his zeal for teaching, and admittedly his ambition, led him to seek a faculty position with Catholic University in the nation’s capital, the only pontifical school in this country at the time. Sheen never returned to Peoria, moving to Washington and then to New York City as an auxiliary bishop, primarily on the strength of his radio show, preaching, and writing, all of which he did exceptionally well. [He also coined the phrase, “Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.”]
Sheen’s tenure in New York coincided with the reign of Francis Cardinal Spellman [r. 1939-1967], probably the most powerful churchman in the United States. Relations between Spellman and Sheen were never good, professional jealousy probably the root cause. Spellman was never the man Sheen was; he was the type of bishop who reported priests and religious to the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover for suspected leftist or communist preaching or writing. In fact, the FBI file on Spellman can be found easily on-line. In 2019 an accusation against Spellman was made to the Archdiocese of New York by a former cadet at West Point.
So it is not surprising that Spellman, according to EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo in a 2007 introduction to a new edition of Sheen’s autobiography, set out beginning in 1957 to undermine Sheen’s career in a series of calculated moves:  he ended Sheen’s popular prime time television preaching program;  he stripped Sheen of major speaking/preaching appearances in the Archdiocese;  he instructed priests in New York to shun him;  he worked to eliminate Sheen’s position with the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.
Perhaps the final crushing blow from Spellman was Sheen’s transfer outside of the Archdiocese of New York to the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y. [r. 1966-1969]. It is conceivable that Spellman put Sheen in a position where Sheen’s main character flaw—pride--would do him in. Although Sheen accepted this embarrassing demotion with public grace, talking about his desire to lead the Rochester diocese as a Vatican II-style bishop, Sheen remained too proud to work in any form of collegial or democratic fashion with Rochester priests. Among other things, he offered a functioning parish--with no consultation from his diocese--for the purpose of establishing housing for the poor. He alienated Rochester’s Eastman Kodak, the city’s largest employer, during a dispute over minority hiring, during his first week as bishop. Both cases are vintage Sheen—his sincere love for the poor derailed by his autocratic modus operandi. Reeves’ biography more than hints that in Sheen’s mind, the good folks of Rochester failed to recognize the celebrity in their midst. His extraordinarily short three-year term speaks to the mutual unhappiness of bishop and diocese.
Now, a half century later, there is no proper adjective that adequately describes the past two decades of controversy surrounding the possession of the bishop’s body and the canonization cause itself. Call it “bishops behaving badly” or a small town hoping to revitalize itself. [The Boston Pilot summarizes this public spectacle as well as anything I have seen through 2014.] The main contestants were the Archdiocese of New York, where Sheen was buried as his will directed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the Illinois Diocese of Peoria, which hoped [and still hopes] to become a national shrine to the popular bishop and [hopefully] saint. Eventually Peoria—specifically, members of his family—obtained his body in 2019 in anticipation of his eventual canonization.
What is not generally public is the investigation of Sheen’s personal and administrative history by the Vatican, in conjunction with the dioceses where he served. This is standard canonization procedure. For Sheen, the process would involve the dioceses of Peoria and New York, and the three-year tenure as Bishop of Rochester. Many Catholics forget the Rochester years; perhaps Sheen did so, too. But as Rochester’s bishop for three years, Sheen was responsible—like any of his brother bishops—for priestly transfers. Two weeks ago, the Vatican halted the canonization, scheduled for next Sunday, December 23, in Peoria. In the current atmosphere of the Church, the first public impulse was the possibility of personal misconduct by the bishop himself.
To address this impression, the Diocese of Rochester came forward and clarified that it had requested the pope delay the canonization. “Other prelates [in the U.S.] shared these concerns and expressed them,” the diocese said. “There are no complaints against Archbishop Sheen engaging in any personal inappropriate conduct, nor were any insinuations made in this regard.” The question was more along the lines of whether Sheen had knowingly transferred a priest with a history of abuse. This was not a new question. As early as 2007 the name of a priest in the Rochester diocese became publicly known, but apparently the question of Sheen’s involvement was not regarded as an issue by the standards of that time. “An official in the Peoria diocese, Monsignor James Kruse, says those concerns focus on assignments involving a particular former priest in Rochester who was accused of sexual misconduct. Kruse told the Peoria Journal Star that the Peoria diocese thoroughly investigated that case [years ago] and found no wrongdoing by Sheen.” Years later, the idea of a diocese investigating its own clergy and bishops would be a major issue in the clerical abuse saga.
There are some who believe that Rochester’s intervention against immediate canonization of Sheen was and is an act of vindictiveness, though for what is unclear. But Rochester’s caution is driven in part by an ongoing civil grand jury investigation of the diocese’s history of handling abuse cases, including all documentation of the Sheen years. This investigation will take some time, and the possibility that it will uncover more questionable administrative decisions by previous bishops, including Sheen, is a true possibility. Some publications have claimed that there is more than one questionable case. A second point to consider is the current bankruptcy proceeding initiated by the Rochester diocese. The entire financial history of the Rochester diocese is being scoured by court appointed investigators. In other dioceses which have declared bankruptcy, investigators have found expenditures for victims of priestly abuse which did not appear in routine auditing. In short, Bishop Sheen is under the same scrutiny as any American bishop, living and deceased, and with greater intensity than was generally employed even a decade ago.
Rochester’s request for a delay seems more prudent in today’s atmosphere. It is known that a number of American bishops are concerned, partly over Peoria’s unusual haste to hold the canonization less than a week before Christmas. Another concern took shape early this month when the bishops of New York and New Jersey—each group making its five-year papal visit—requested the public release of the investigation of disgraced former American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The pope assured the bishops that the McCarrick investigation report will be made public, either just before Christmas or after New Year. It is grim to acknowledge that Pope John Paul II promoted McCarrick four times.
The papal secretary of state confirmed the pope’s timetable to the Americans, adding that the contents would be quite disquieting to the Church at large. When all is said and done, the moment is not propitious for the canonization of a bishop with any whiff of question about his own sensitivities to clerical child abuse. Sheen, a holy man who loved the Church, would understand this. Hopefully the Diocese of Peoria will understand, too.
On My Mind