Opinion

How to Resolve Alleged Gospel Contradictions

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Christians have always known that the four canonical Gospels describe the same major events in Christ’s life but in different ways. For example, consider what God says at Jesus’ baptism. In Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22, God says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” But in Matthew 3:17 God says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” So which is it? Did God say, “You are my beloved son” or “This is my beloved son?”

The apocryphal second-century Gospel of the Ebionites proposed a novel answer to this question. In this account, written more than a century after the events it purports to describe, the Father speaks three times—presumably to account for what Matthew, Mark, and Luke record. But this seems implausible given that none of the canonical Gospels—the ones the Church recognizes to be inspired—describe the Father speaking more than once. Besides, would the Father really need to repeat himself to the crowd, or to Jesus, when both could hear what he said the first time?[1]

A better explanation for passages like these is that they differ only in what they say, not in what they assert. This brings us to a good rule of thumb: differing Gospel descriptions do not equal contradictions. A true contradiction in Scripture would occur only when two statements taken together assert that both “X” and “not X” are true at the same time and in the same circumstance. Non-identical descriptions are not necessarily contradictions, because the author may not have asserted the literal truth of every detail in his account. This is understandable, given the nature of ancient historical writing.

How to write history

The second-century Roman author Lucian of Samosata said that the historian “must sacrifice to no God but Truth” and that “Facts are not to be collected at haphazard but with careful, laborious, repeated investigation.”[2] This parallels the prologue of Luke’s Gospel in which the evangelist describes gathering sources in order to create his historical record of what Jesus said and did. Both Luke and Lucian were committed to accurately recording the past, but Lucian also wrote, “The historian’s spirit should not be without a touch of the poetical.”[3]

Consider, for example, how ancient historians recorded speeches that were given decades or centuries earlier. According to Lucian, speeches “should suit the character both of the speaker and of the occasion . . . but in these cases you have the counsel’s right of showing your eloquence.”[4]

In other words, historians can compose speeches with words that were never actually spoken as long as the words they choose are something the person would have said. Thucydides, one of ancient Greece’s most important historians, put it this way: with reference to the speeches in this history, some

were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.[5]

Historiography scholar Jonas Grethlein corroborates this: “It is widely agreed that most speeches in ancient historiography do not reproduce verba ipissima [what was originally said].”[6] As long as the meaning of the speaker was preserved, an ancient historian was free to use words that differed from what the speaker might actually have said.

We do this even today when we paraphrase speeches given at formal events. After all, when we are asked, “What did the speaker say?” we give a summary with some quotation—not an hour-long recitation.

What is true of ancient historians is also true of the authors of the Gospels. They were concerned with recording history, but their style of historical writing was not the same as the histories we are familiar with today. According to New Testament scholar Craig Keener,

It is anachronistic to assume that ancient and modern histories would share all the same generic features (such as the way speeches should be composed) simply because we employ the same term today to describe both . . . Ancient historians sometimes fleshed out scenes and speeches to produce a coherent narrative in a way that their contemporaries expected but that modern academic historians would not consider acceptable when writing for their own peers.[7]

This is why when we read the Gospels we must distinguish between truths the evangelists were asserting and details they provided to accompany those assertions. The latter could vary in accordance with the standards of ancient historical writing without compromising the truths the author wanted to express to his audience.

Effects on the Gospels

Let’s return to the example of Jesus’ baptism. All three evangelists agree that at this event God publicly revealed himself to be the Father of Jesus. The accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke differ only in the words they used to describe that revelation. Matthew chose to emphasize how this message affected the crowd, whereas Mark and Luke emphasized how the message affected Jesus. There is no contradiction, because all three writers are asserting the same truth: that Jesus is God’s Son. They only do so in different ways.

The same can be said of the cock crowing before Peter’s denial. Each evangelist records this detail differently (possibly because they used different sources), but they all assert the same truth: that the cock’s crow coincided with Peter’s denial of Jesus. In fact, sometimes these differences reveal more about the author of a story than the story he was describing.

For example, think about how Mark describes the hemorrhaging woman who Jesus healed. He says she “suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse” (Mark 5:26). Luke, “the beloved physician” (see Colossians 4:14), on the other hand, may not have wanted to unduly criticize his peers, so he simply said the woman “spent all her living upon physicians and could not be healed by any one” (Luke 8:43). Both statements assert the same thing—the best human medicine could not help this woman. They simply describe this fact differently.

In conclusion, it is a fallacy to say the Gospels must either be chronologically ordered and detail rich accounts of the life of Christ, or else they must be fictional, theological treatises. Instead, the closest literary genre that describes the Gospels is bioi, or ancient biography.[8]

According to Richard Burridge, ancient biography, “was a flexible genre having strong relationships with history, encomium and rhetoric, moral philosophy and the concern for character.”[9] The purpose of bioi was to recount stories of important people for the purpose of edifying readers, not merely to recount historical facts in the life of a certain person.

Burridge goes on to say, “[T]rying to decode the Gospels through the genre of modern biography, when the author encoded his message in the genre of ancient [biography], will lead to another nonsense—blaming the text for not containing modern predilections which it was never meant to contain.”[10] This includes blaming Mark for not describing Jesus’ infancy, blaming John for not describing events like the Last Supper, or blaming the evangelists as a whole for not conforming to our expectations of a modern biography or newspaper article.

The differences among the Gospel accounts are also typical of ancient Roman historical writing. For example, there are three contradictory ancient accounts of what Emperor Nero did during the Great Fire of Rome in A.D. 64. Some say he metaphorically “fiddled while Rome burned,” but others say he had nothing to do with the fire.[11]

Since scholars rarely doubt the accuracy of non=biblical ancient Roman history in spite of these contradictions, they should give the same benefit of the doubt to the Gospels and not hastily write them off as unhistorical contradictions just because they differ in the details they record.

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Notes

[1] Even Tatian the Syrian, who authored the earliest known attempt to harmonize the four Gospels in the Diatessaron, says that God only spoke once and said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (4.28).

[2] “H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, trans., The Works of Lucian of Samosata, Vol. II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), 129–31.”

[3] Ibid, 130.

[4] Ibid, 134.

[5] “Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22.1. Cited in Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for “Christ (New York: Doubleday, 2016), 79–81.”

[6] “Jonas Grethlein, Experience and Teleology in Ancient Historiography: “Futures Past” from Herodotus to Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 64.

[7] “Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 110.”

[8] “It has become much clearer that the Gospels are in fact very similar in type to ancient biographies (Greek, bioi; Latin, vitae).” James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), 185.”

[9] “Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 67.”

[10] Ibid., 249.

[11] “Our main sources for the fire are Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio. All three of these ancient Roman historians agree there was a fire in Rome, but they disagree about the actions of the emperor, who many believed had started the fire in order to free up space for the construction of a future palace. Was Nero not responsible and away in the city of Antium during the fire as Tacitus says (Annals 15.44)? Did Nero send men to burn the city and watch from the tower of Maecenas as Suetonius says (Life of Nero 38)? Or did Nero start the fire himself and watch from the rooftop of the imperial palace as Dio Cassius says (Roman History 62.16–17)? See also Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 570.”

in catholic.com

Mary Magdalen – Treatment of the New Testament figure

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Mary Magdalen , so called either from Magdala near Tiberias on the west shore of Galilee, or, possibly from a Talmudic expression MNRLA SY`RA NSYYA, i.e.” curling women’s hair”, which the Talmud explains as of an adulteress. In the New Testament she is mentioned among the women who accompanied Christ and ministered to Him (Luke, viii, 2-3), where it is also said that seven devils had been cast out of her (Mark, xvi, 9). She is next named as standing at the foot of the cross (Mark, xv, 40; Matt., xxvii, 56; John, xix, 25; Luke, xxiii, 49). She saw Christ laid in the tomb, and she was the first recorded witness of the Resurrection. The Greek Fathers, as a whole, distinguish the three persons: the “sinner” of Luke, vii, 36-50; the sister of Martha and Lazarus, Luke, x, 38-42, and John, xi; and Mary Magdalen. On the other hand most of the Latins hold that these three were one and the same. Protestant critics, however, believe there were two, if not three, distinct persons. It is impossible to demonstrate the identity of the three; but those commentators undoubtedly go too far who assert, as does Westcott (on John, xi, 1), “that the identity of Mary with Mary Magdalene is a mere conjecture supported by no direct evidence, and opposed to the general tenour of the gospels”. It is the identification of Mary of Bethany with the “sinner” of Luke, vii, 37, which is most combatted by Protestants (see Plummer, “International Critical Comment. on St. Luke”, p. 209). It almost seems as if this reluctance to identify the “sinner” with the sister of Martha were due to a failure to grasp the full significance of the forgiveness of sin. (See Mayor in Hastings, “Dictionary of the Bible”, III, 284.) The harmonizing tendencies of so many modern critics, too, are responsible for much of the existing confusion.

The first fact mentioned in the Gospel relating to the question under discussion is the anointing of Christ’s feet by a woman, a “sinner” in the city (Luke, vii, 37-50). This belongs to the Galilean ministry, it precedes the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand and the third Passover. Immediately afterwards St. Luke describes a missionary circuit in Galilee and tells us of the women who ministered to Christ, among them being “Mary who is called Magdalen, out of whom seven devils were gone forth” (Luke, viii, 2); but he does not tell us that she is to be identified with the” sinner” of the previous chapter. In x, 38-42, he tells us of Christ’s visit to Martha and Mary” in a certain town”; it is impossible to identify this town, but it is clear from ix, 53, that Christ had definitively left Galilee, and it is quite possible that this “town” was Bethany. This seems confirmed by the preceding parable of the good Samaritan, which must almost certainly have been spoken on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. But here again we note that there is no suggestion of an identification of the three persons, viz., the “sinner”, Mary Magdalen, and Mary of Bethany; and if we had only St. Luke to guide us we should certainly have no grounds for so identifying them. St. John, however, clearly identifies Mary of Bethany with the woman who anointed Christ’s feet (xii; cf. Matt., xxvit and Mark, xiv). It is remarkable that already in xi, 2, St. John has spoken of Mary as “she that anointed the Lord’s feet”, e aleipsasa; it is commonly said that he refers to the subsequent anointing which he himself describes in xii, 3-8; but it may be questioned whether he would have used e aleipsasa if another woman, and she a “sinner” in the city, had done the same. It is conceivable that St. John, just because he is writing so long after the event and at a time when Mary was dead, wishes to point out to us that she was really the same as the “sinner”. In the same way St. Luke may have veiled her identity precisely because he did not wish to defame one who was yet living; he certainly does something similar in the case of St. Matthew whose identity with Levi the publican (v, 7) he conceals.

If the foregoing argument holds good, Mary of Bethany and the “sinner” are one and the same. But an examination of St. John’s Gospel makes it almost impossible to deny the identity of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalen. From St. John we learn the name of the “woman” who anointed Christ’s feet previous to the last supper. We may remark here that it seems unnecessary to hold that because St. Matthew and St. Mark say “two days before the Passover”, while St. John says “six days” there were, therefore, two distinct anointings following one another. St. John does not necessarily mean that the supper and the anointing took place six days before, but only that Christ came to Bethany six days before the Passover. At that supper, then, Mary received the glorious encomium, “she hath wrought a good work upon Me.. in pouring this ointment upon My body she hath done it for My burial. wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached… that also which she bath done shall be told for a memory of her.” Is it credible, in view of all this, that this Mary should have no place at the foot of the cross, nor at the tomb of Christ? Yet it is Mary Magdalen who, according to all the Evangelists, stood at the foot of the cross and assisted at the entombment and was the first recorded witness of the Resurrection. And while St. John calls, her “Mary Magdalen” in xix, 25, xx, 1, 18, he calls her simply “Mary” in xx, 11 and 16.

In the view we have advocated the series of events forms a consistent whole the “sinner” comes early in the ministry to seek for pardon; she is described immediately afterwards as Mary Magdalen “out of whom seven devils were gone forth”; shortly after, we find her “sitting at the Lord’s feet and hearing His words”. To the Catholic mind it all seems fitting and natural. At a later period Mary and Martha turn to “the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, and He restores to them their brother Lazarus; a short time afterwards they make Him a supper and Mary once more repeats the act she had performed when a penitent. At the Passion she stands near by; she sees Him laid in the tomb; and she is the first witness of His Resurrection—excepting always His Mother, to whom He must needs have appeared first, though the New Testament is silent on this point. In our view, then, there were two anointings of Christ’s feet—it should surely be no difficulty that St. Matthew and St. Mark speak of His head—the first (Luke, vii) took place at a comparatively early date; the second, two days before the last Passover. But it was one and the same woman who performed this pious act on each occasion.

SUBSEQUENT HISTORY OF ST. MARY MAGDALEN.—The Greek Church maintains that the saint retired to Ephesus with the Blessed Virgin and there died, that her relics were transferred to Constantinople in 886 and are there preserved. Gregory of Tours, “De miraculis”, I, xxx, supports the statement that she went to Ephesus. However, according to a French tradition (LAZARUS OF BETHANY, Saint), Mary, Lazarus, and some companions came to Marseilles and converted the whole of Provence. Magdalen is said to have retired to a hill, La Sainte-Baume, near by, where she gave herself up to a life of penance for thirty years. When the time of her death arrived she was carried by angels to Aix and into the oratory of St. Maximinus, where she received the viaticum; her body was then laid in an oratory constructed by St. Maximinus at Villa Lath, afterwards called St. Maxi-min. History is silent about these relics till 745, when, according to the chronicler Sigebert, they were removed to Vezelay through fear of the Saracens. No record is preserved of their return, but in 1279, when Charles II, King of Naples, erected a convent at La Sainte-Baume for the Dominicans, the shrine was found intact, with an inscription stating why they were hidden. In 1600 the relics were placed in a sarcophagus sent by Clement VIII, the head being placed in a separate vessel. In 1814 the church of La Ste Baume, wrecked during the Revolution, was restored, and in 1822 the grotto was consecrated afresh. The head of the saint now lies there, where it has lain so long, and where it has been the center of so many pilgrimages.

by Hugh Pope, in catholic.com

Uncanny Bible Coincidences

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There are many ways to argue for the historical reliability of the Gospels. One compelling approach is to point to what nineteenth-century Anglican priest J.J. Blunt called “undesigned coincidences.”

These occur when you have two texts containing pieces of information that fit together in ways that corroborate each other—without the authors having colluded to plant the information. The existence of such interlocking details in the Gospels suggest their veracity. They don’t corroborate each other in ways that you would expect if the authors were colluding. They’re not conspicuous verbatim agreements on the main facts, suggesting a conspiracy, but rather random details that fit together in subtle ways that may not be immediately apparent.

So many undesigned coincidences in the Gospels have been identified that a whole book can be written on them. But let me just share two of them.

  • Undesigned coincidence #1: Luke’s account of the feeding of the five thousand provides a detail that explains why Jesus asks Philip where they can buy some bread in John’s account of the same event (John 6:5; Luke 9:10-12).

John sets up the feeding of the five thousand with a conversation that Jesus has with Philip, in which Jesus asks, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” (John 6:5). Philip responds in distress, telling Jesus, “two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little” (v.6).

What’s important for our purposes is that Jesus asks Philip. Why does he? You might think that Jesus would ask someone a little more important, like Peter, James, or John, rather than an apostle whose name is always listed among the second tier of apostles in Scripture (Matt. 10:2-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16; Acts 1:13-14).

We find a clue at the beginning of Luke’s account of the same miracle, in chapter 9. Luke tells us that Jesus took the apostles and “withdrew apart to a city called Bethsaida” (v.10). This is important because according to John 1:43, “Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.”

Being from Bethsaida, Philip would’ve had current local knowledge of where to buy bread. Thus, we have a plausible explanation for why Jesus asks Philip. Luke provides a piece of information that John lacks, but in an indirect way that doesn’t seem to be planned; hence an “undesigned coincidence.”

But someone may object, “Of course, John 1:43 tells us that Philip was from Bethsaida, but he also says that Andrew and Peter were from there as well. So why didn’t Jesus ask Peter or Andrew? They would have had the same local knowledge, right?”

This would be true if they were all residents there at the time of the miracle. But we have evidence that they weren’t: they were residents of Capernaum. In Mark 1:21, we read about how Jesus, along with Simon, Andrew, James, and John, “went into Capernaum; and immediately on the sabbath . . . entered a synagogue and taught.” Then in verse 29, Mark tells us, “And immediately he left the synagogue, and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.”

Peter and Andrew, therefore, although originally from Bethsaida, were living in Capernaum during the time of Jesus’s ministry. As such, they wouldn’t have known the best place in Bethsaida to buy bread.  But Phillip did.

  • Undesigned coincidence #2: Mark’s account of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law (1:21, 29-32) provides a detail that explains why people in Matthew’s account waited until evening to approach Jesus for healing (8:14-16).

Here’s what we read in Matthew 8:14-16:

And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and served him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick.

Why did people wait until evening to bring to Jesus those who were possessed and sick? You would think they’d want Jesus to start healing the sick and suffering right away.

The answer is found in Mark’s parallel account of this event (Mark 1:21, 29-32):

And they went into Capernaum; and immediately on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught . . . And immediately he [Jesus] left the synagogue, and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever, and immediately they told him of her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her; and she served them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.

Notice how verse 21 tells us the day on which Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law: the Sabbath. This is why people waited until sundown, the end of the Sabbath (during which it was forbidden to do work), to bring their sick and possessed loved ones to Jesus.

They waited until evening lest the Pharisees view their attempt to bring the sick and possessed to Jesus for healing as a breach of the Sabbath rest. This is a reasonable assumption given the fact that the Pharisees viewed even the performance of a miracle as breaking the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6; John 5:16).

By themselves, undesigned coincidences might not be fully convincing for a skeptic. But they are not meant to stand alone. They form a cumulative argument: it’s strongest when the coincidences are taken as a whole. As one author put it, “it’s death by a thousand mosquito bites.” (Being from Louisiana, I know what that’s all about!) They’re even stronger when presented alongside other evidence to make a comprehensive and convincing case for the trustworthiness of the Gospels.

by Karlo Broussard, in catholic.com

Saint John the Baptist

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John the Baptist, Saint.—The principal sources of information concerning the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist are the canonical Gospels. Of these St. 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. St. Matthew’s Gospel stands in close relation with that of St. Luke, as far as John’s public ministry is concerned, but contains nothing in reference to his early life. From St. Mark, whose account of the Precursor’s life is very meagre, no new detail can be gathered. Finally, the fourth Gospel has this special feature, that it gives the testimony of St. John after the Savior’s baptism. Besides the indications supplied by these writings, passing allusions occur in such passages as Acts, xiii, 24; xix, 1-6; but these are few and bear on the subject only indirectly. To the above should be added what 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 St. Luke (i, 5); the same Evangelist, a few verses farther on (i, 26), calls her the “cousin” (suggenis) 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 St. 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 St. Luke: it was “a city of Juda”, “in the hill-country” (i, 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; D.V.: 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’s 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 southwest of Jerusalem.

The birth of the Precursor was announced in a most striking manner. Zachary and Elizabeth, as we learn from St. 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” (i, 6-7). Long they had prayed that their union might be blessed with off-spring; 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 thy 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” (i, 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” (i, 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” (i, 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 signs 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” (i, 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 bowels of the mercy of our God” (i, 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 neighbors; these could hardly help asking: “What an one, think ye, shall this child be?” (i, 66).

As to the date of the birth of John the Baptist, nothing can be said with certainty. The Gospel suggests that the Precursor was born about six months before Christ; but the year of Christ’s nativity has not so far been ascertained. Nor is there anything certain about the season of Christ’s birth, for it is well known that the assignment of the feast of Christmas to the twenty-fifth of December is not grounded on historical evidence, but is possibly suggested by merely astronomical considerations, also, perhaps, inferred from astronomico-theological reasonings. Besides, no calculations can be based upon the time of the year when the course of Abia was serving in the Temple, since each one of the twenty-four courses of priests had two turns a year. Of John’s early life St. Luke tells us only that “the child grew, and was strengthened in spirit; and was in the deserts, until the day of his manifestation to Israel” (i, 80). Should we ask just when the Precursor went into the wilderness, an old tradition echoed by Paul Warnefried (Paul the Deacon), in the hymn, “Ut queant laxis”, composed in honor of the saint, gives an answer hardly more definite than the statement of the Gospel: “Antra deserti teneris sub annis … petiit …” Other writers, however, thought they knew better. For instance, St. Peter of Alexandria believed St. John was taken into the desert to escape the wrath of Herod, who, if we may believe report, was impelled by fear of losing his kingdom to seek the life of the Precursor, just as he was, later on, to seek that of the newborn Savior. It was added also that Herod on this account had Zachary put to death between the temple and the altar, because he had prophesied the coming of the Messias (Baron., “Annal. Apparat.”, n. 53). These are worthless legends long since branded by St. Jerome as “apocryphorum somnia”.

Passing, then, with St. Luke, over a period of some thirty years, we reach what may be considered the beginning of the public ministry of St. John (see Biblical Chronology). Up to this he had led in the desert the life of an anchorite; now he comes forth to deliver his message to the world. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar … the word of the Lord was made unto John, the son of Zachary, in the desert. And he came into all the country about the Jordan, preaching” (Luke, iii, 1-3), clothed not in the soft garments of a courtier (Matt., xi, 8; Luke, vii, 24), but in those “of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle about his loins”; and “his meat “—he looked as if he came neither eating nor drinking (Matt., xi, 18; Luke, vii, 33)—”was locusts and wild honey” (Matt., iii, 4; Mark, i, 6); his whole countenance, far from suggesting the idea of a reed shaken by the wind (Matt., xi, 7; Luke, vii, 24), manifested undaunted constancy. A few incredulous scoffers feigned to be scandalized: “He hath a devil” (Matt., xi, 18). Nevertheless, “Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the country about Jordan” (Matt., iii, 5), drawn by his strong and winning personality, went out to him; the austerity of his life added immensely to the weight of his words; for the simple folk, he was truly a prophet (Matt., xi, 9; cf. Luke, i, 76, 77). “Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt., iii, 2), such was the burden of his teaching. Men of all conditions flocked round him.

Pharisees and Sadducees were there; the latter attracted perhaps by curiosity and scepticism, the former expecting possibly a word of praise for their multitudinous customs and practices, and, all, probably, more anxious to see which of the rival sects the new prophet would commend than to seek instruction. But John laid bare their hypocrisy. Drawing his similes from the surrounding scenery, and even, after the Oriental fashion, making use of a play on words (abanimbanim), he lashed their pride with this well-deserved rebuke: “Ye brood of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of penance. And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father. For I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire” (Matt., iii 7-10; Luke, iii, 7-9). It was clear something had to be done. The men of good will among the listeners asked: “What shall we do?” (Probably some were wealthy and, according to the custom of people in such circumstances, were clad in two tunics.—Joseph., “Antiq.”, XVIII, v, 7.) “And he answering, said to them: He that hath two coats, let him give to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner” (Luke, iii, 11). Some were publicans; on them he enjoined not to exact more than the rate of taxes fixed by law (Luke, iii, 13). To the soldiers (probably Jewish police officers) he recommended not to do violence to any man, nor falsely to denounce anyone, and to be content with their pay (Luke, iii, 14). In other words, he cautioned them against trusting in their national privileges, he did not countenance the tenets of any sect, nor did he advocate the forsaking of one’s ordinary state of life, but faithfulness and honesty in the fulfillment of one’s duties, and the humble confession of one’s sins.

To confirm the good dispositions of his listeners, John baptized them in the Jordan, “saying that baptism was good, not so much to free one from certain sins [cf. St. Thom., “Summ. Theol.”, III, Q. xxxviii, a. 2 and 3] as to purify the body, the soul being already cleansed from its defilements by justice” (Joseph., “Antiq.”, XVIII, vii). This feature of his ministry, more than anything else, attracted public attention to such an extent that he was surnamed “the Baptist” (i.e. Baptizer) even during his lifetime (by Christ, Matt., xi, 11; by his own disciples, Luke, vii, 20; by Herod, Matt., xiv, 2; by Herodias, Matt., xiv, 3). Still his right to baptize was questioned by some (John, i, 25); the Pharisees and the lawyers refused to comply with this ceremony, on the plea that baptism, as a preparation for the kingdom of God, was connected only with the Messias (Ezech., xxxvi, 25; Zach., xiii, 1, etc.), Elias, and the prophet spoken of in Deut., xviii, 15. John’s reply was that he was Divinely “sent to baptize with water” (John, i, 33); to this, later on, our Savior bore testimony, when, in answer to the Pharisees trying to ensnare him, he implicitly declared that John’s baptism was from heaven (Mark, xi, 30). Whilst baptizing, John, lest the people might think “that perhaps he might be the Christ” (Luke, iii, 15), did not fail to insist that his was only a forerunner’s mission: “I indeed baptize you with water; but there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to loose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: whose fan is in his hand and he will purge his floor; and will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke, iii, 16, 17). Whatever John may have meant by this baptism “with fire”, he, at all events, in this declaration clearly defined his relation to the One to come.

Here it will not be amiss to touch on the scene of the Precursor’s ministry. The locality should be sought in that part of the Jordan valley (Luke, iii, 3) which is called the desert (Mark, i, 4). Two places are mentioned in the Fourth Gospel in this connection: Bethania (John, i, 28) and Ennon (A. V. Aenon, John, iii, 23). As to Bethania, the reading Bethabara, first given by Origen, should be discarded; but the Alexandrine scholar perhaps was less wrong in suggesting the other reading, Bethara, possibly a Greek form of Betharan; at any rate, the site in question must be looked for “beyond the Jordan” (John, i, 28). The second place, Ennon, “near Salim” (John, iii, 23), the extreme northern point marked in the Madaba mosaic map, is described in Eusebius’s “Onomasticon” as being eight miles south of Scythopolis (Beisan), and should be sought probably at Ed-Deir or El-Fatur, a short distance from the Jordan (Lagrange, in “Revue Biblique”, IV, 1895, pp. 502-05). Moreover, a long-standing tradition, traced back to A.D. 333, associates the activity of the Precursor, particularly the Baptism of the Lord, with the neighborhood of Deir Mar-Yuhanna (Qasr el-Yehud).

The Precursor had been preaching and baptizing for some time (just how long is not known), when Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan, to be baptized by him. Why, it might be asked, should He “who did no sin” (I Pet., ii, 22) seek John’s “baptism of penance for the remission of sins” (Luke, iii, 3)? The Fathers of the Church answer very appropriately that this was the occasion preordained by the Father when Jesus should be manifested to the world as the Son of God; then again, by submitting to it, Jesus sanctioned the baptism of John. “But John stayed him, saying: I ought to be baptized by thee, and comest thou to me?” (Matt., 14). These words, implying, as they do, that John knew Jesus, are in seeming conflict with a later declaration of John recorded in the Fourth Gospel: “I knew him not” (John, i, 33). Most interpreters take it that the Precursor had some intimation of Jesus being the Messias: they assign this as the reason why John at first refused to baptize him; but the heavenly manifestation had, a few moments later, changed this intimation into perfect knowledge. “And Jesus answering, said to him: Suffer it to be so now. For so it becometh us to fulfil all justice. Then he suffered him. And Jesus being baptized, forthwith came out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened to him…. And, behold, a voice from heaven, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt.,15-17).

After this baptism, while Jesus was preaching through the towns of Galilee, going into Judea only occasionally for the feast days, John continued his ministry in the valley of the Jordan. It was at this time that “the Jews sent from Jerusalem priests and Levites to him, to ask him: Who art thou? And he confessed, and did not deny: and he confessed: I am not the Christ. And they asked him: What then? Art thou Elias? And he said: I am not. Art thou the prophet? And he answered: No. They said, therefore, unto him: 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” (John, i, 19-23). John denied he was Elias, whom the Jews were looking for (Matt., xvii, 10; Mark, ix, 10). Nor did Jesus admit it, though His words to His disciples at first sight seem to point that way; “Elias indeed shall come, and restore all things. But I say to you, that Elias is already come” (Matt., xvii, 11; Mark, ix, 11-12). St. Matthew notes “the disciples understood, that he had spoken to them of John the Baptist” (Matt., xvii, 13). This was equal to saying, “Elias is not to come in the flesh.” But, in speaking of John before the multitude, Jesus made it plain that he called John Elias figuratively: “If you will receive it, he is Elias that is to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt., xi, 14, 15). This had been anticipated by the angel when, announcing John’s birth to Zachary, he foretold that the child would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elias” (Luke, i, 17). “The next day, John saw Jesus coming to him and he saith: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said: After me there cometh a man, who is preferred before me: because he was before me … that he may be made manifest in Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water…. And I knew him not; but he who sent me to baptize with water, said to me: He upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining upon him, he it is that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and I gave testimony, that this is the Son of God” (John, i, 29-34).

Among the many listeners flocking to St. John, some, more deeply touched by his doctrine, stayed with him, thus forming, as around other famous doctors of the law, a group of disciples. These he exhorted to fast (Mark, ii, 18), these he taught special forms of prayer (Luke, v, 33; xi, 1). Their number, according to the pseudo-Clementine literature, reached thirty (Horn. ii, 23). Among them was Andrew of Bethsaida of Galilee (John, i, 44). One day, as Jesus was standing in the distance, John, pointing Him out, repeated his previous declaration: “Behold the Lamb of God”. Then Andrew, with another disciple of John, hearing this, followed Jesus (John, i, 36-38). This account of the calling of Andrew and Simon differs materially from that found in St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke; yet it should be noticed that St. Luke, in particular, so narrates the meeting of the two brothers with the Savior, as to let us infer they already knew Him. Now, on the other hand, since the Fourth Evangelist does not say that Andrew and his companions forthwith left their business to devote themselves exclusively to the Gospel or its preparation, there is clearly no absolute discordance between the narration of the first three Gospels and that of St. John.

The Precursor, after the lapse of several months, again appears on the scene, and he is still preaching and baptizing on the banks of the Jordan (John, iii, 23). Jesus, in the meantime, had gathered about Himself a following of disciples, and He came “into the land of Judea: and there He abode with them, and baptized (John, iii, 22),—”though Jesus himself did not baptize, but his disciples” (John, iv, 2).—”There arose a question between some of John’s disciples and the Jews [the best Greek texts have “a Jew”] concerning purification” (John, iii, 25), that is to say, as is suggested by the context, concerning the relative value of both baptisms. The disciples of John came to him: “Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond the Jordan, to whom thou gayest testimony, behold he baptizeth, and all men come to him” (John, iii, 26-27). They undoubtedly meant that Jesus should give way to John who had recommended Him, and that, by baptizing, He was encroaching upon the rights of John. “John answered and said: A man cannot receive any thing, unless it be given him from heaven. You yourselves do bear me witness, that I said, I am not Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth with joy because of the bridegroom’s voice. This my joy, therefore, is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He that cometh from above, is above all. He that is of the earth, of the earth he is, and of the earth he speaketh. He that cometh from heaven, is above all. And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth….” (John, iii, 27-36).

The above narration recalls the fact before mentioned (John, i, 28), that part of the Baptist’s ministry was exercised in Perea: Ennon, another scene of his labors, was within the borders of Galilee; both Perea and Galilee made up the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas. This prince, a son worthy of his father Herod the Great, had married, likely for political reasons, the daughter of Aretas, king of the Nabathaeans. But on a visit to Rome, he fell in love with his niece Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip (son of the younger Mariamne), and induced her to come on to Galilee. When and where the Precursor met Herod, we are not told, but from the synoptic Gospels we learn that John dared to rebuke the tetrarch for his evil deeds, especially his public adultery. Herod, swayed by Herodias, did not allow the unwelcome reprover to go unpunished: he “sent and apprehended John and bound him in prison”. Josephus tells us quite another story, containing perhaps also an element of truth. “As great crowds clustered around John, Herod became afraid lest the Baptist should abuse his moral authority over them to incite them to rebellion, as they would do anything at his bidding; therefore he thought it wiser, so as to prevent possible happenings, to take away the dangerous preacher… and he imprisoned him in the fortress of Machaerus” (Antiq., XVIII, v, 2). Whatever may have been the chief motive of the tetrarch’s policy, it is certain that Herodias nourished a bitter hatred against John: “She laid snares for him: and was desirous to put him to death” (Mark, vi, 19). Although Herod first shared her desire, yet “he feared the people: because they esteemed him as a prophet” (Matt., xiv, 5). After some time this resentment on Herod’s part seems to have abated, for, according to Mark, vi, 19, 20, he heard John willingly and did many things at his suggestion.

John, in his fetters, was attended by some of his disciples, who kept him in touch with the events of the day. He thus learned of the wonders wrought by Jesus. At this point it cannot be supposed that John’s faith wavered in the least. Some of his disciples, however, would not be convinced by his words that Jesus was the Messias. Accordingly, he sent them to Jesus, bidding them say: “John the Baptist hath sent us to thee, saying: Art thou he that art to come; or look we for another? (And in that same hour, he cured many of their [the people’s] diseases, and hurts, and evil spirits; and to many that were blind he gave sight.) And answering, he said to them: Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, to the poor the gospel is preached: and blessed is he whosoever shall not be scandalized in me” (Luke, vii, 20-23; Matt., xi, 3-6).

How this interview affected John’s disciples, we do not know; but we do know the encomium it occasioned of John from the lips of Jesus: “And when the messengers of John were departed, he began to speak to the multitudes concerning John. What went ye out into the desert to see? A reed shaken with the wind ? “All knew full well why John was in prison, and that in his captivity he was more than ever the undaunted champion of truth and virtue.—”But what went you out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are in costly apparel, and live delicately, are in the houses of kings. But what went you out to see? a prophet? Yea, I say to you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written: Behold, I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee. For I say to you: Amongst those that are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke, vii, 24-28). And continuing, Jesus pointed out the inconsistency of the world in its opinions both of himself and his precursor: “John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and you say: He hath a devil. The Son of man is come eating and drinking: and you say: Behold a man that is a glutton and a drinker of wine, a friend of publicans and sinners. And wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke, vii, 33-35).

St. John languished probably for some time in the fortress of Machaerus; but the ire of Herodias, unlike that of Herod, never abated: she watched her chance. It came at the birthday feast which Herod, after Roman fashion, gave to the “princes, and tribunes, and chief men of Galilee. And when the daughter of the same Herodias [Josephus gives her name: Salome] had come in, and had danced, and pleased Herod and them that were at table with him, the king said to the damsel: Ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee…. Who when she was gone out, said to her mother, what shall I ask? But she said: The head of John the Baptist. And when she was come in immediately with haste to the king, she asked, saying: I will that forthwith thou give me in a dish, the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad. Yet because of his oath, and because of them that were with him at table, he would not displease her: but sending an executioner, he commanded that his head should be brought in a dish: and gave it to the damsel, and the damsel gave it to her mother” (Mark, vi, 21-28). Thus was done to death the greatest “amongst them that are born of women”, the prize awarded to a dancing girl, the toll exacted for an oath rashly taken and criminally kept (St. Augustine). At such an unjustifiable execution even the Jews were shocked, and they attributed to Divine vengeance the defeat Herod sustained afterwards at the hands of Aretas, his rightful father-in-law (Joseph., loc. cit.). John’s disciples, hearing of his death, “came, and took his body, and laid it in a tomb” (Mark, vi, 29), “and came and told Jesus” (Matt., xiv, 12).

The lasting impression made by the Precursor upon those who had come within his influence cannot be better illustrated than by mentioning the awe which seized upon Herod when he heard of the wonders wrought by Jesus who, in his mind, was no other than John the Baptist come to life (Matt., xiv, 1, 2, etc.). The Precursor’s influence did not die with him. It was far-reaching, too, as we learn from Acts, xviii, 25; xix, 3, where we find that proselytes at Ephesus had received from Apollo and others the baptism of John. Moreover, early Christian writers speak of a sect taking its name from John and holding only to his baptism. The date of John the Baptist’s death, August 29, assigned in the liturgical calendars can hardly be relied upon, because it is scarcely based upon trustworthy documents. His burial-place has been fixed by an old tradition at Sebaste (Samaria). But if there be any truth in Josephus’s assertion, that John was put to death at Machaerus, it is hard to understand why he was buried so far from the Herodian fortress. Still, it is quite possible that, at a later date unknown to us, his sacred remains were carried to Sebaste. At any rate, about the middle of the fourth century, his tomb was there honored, as we are informed on the testimony of Rufinus and Theodoretus. These authors add that the shrine was desecrated under Julian the Apostate (c. A.D. 362), the bones being partly burned. A portion of the rescued relics was carried to Jerusalem, then to Alexandria; and there, on May 27, 395, these relics were laid in the gorgeous basilica just dedicated to the Precursor on the site of the once famous temple of Serapis. The tomb at Sebaste continued nevertheless, to be visited by pious pilgrims, and St. Jerome bears witness to the miracles there wrought. Perhaps some of the relics had been brought back to Sebaste. Other portions at different times found their way to many sanctuaries of the Christian world, and long is the list of the churches claiming possession of some part of the precious treasure. What became of the head of the Precursor is difficult to determine. Nicephorus (I, ix) and Metaphrastes say Herodias had. it buried in the fortress of Machaerus; others insist that it was interred in Herod’s palace at Jerusalem; there it was found during the reign of Constantine, and thence secretly taken to Emesa, in Phoenicia, where it was concealed, the place remaining unknown for years, until it was manifested by revelation in 453. In the many and discordant relations concerning this relic, unfortunately much uncertainty prevails; their discrepancies in almost every point render the problem so intricate as to baffle solution. This signal relic, in whole or in part, is claimed by several churches, among them Amiens, Nemours, St-Jean d’Angeli (France), S. Silvestro in Capite (Rome). This fact Tillemont traces to a mistaking of one St. John for another, an explanation which, in certain cases, appears to be founded on good grounds and accounts well for this otherwise puzzling multiplication of relics.

The honor paid so early and in so many places to the relics of St. John the Baptist, the zeal with which many churches have maintained at all times their ill-founded claims to some of his relics, the numberless churches, abbeys, towns, and religious families placed under his patronage, the frequency of his name among Christian people, all attest the antiquity and widespread diffusion of the devotion to the Precursor. The commemoration of his Nativity is one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest feast, introduced into both the Greek and Latin liturgies to honor a saint. But why is the feast proper, as it were, of St. John on the day of his nativity, whereas with other saints it is the day of their death? Because it was meet that the birth of him who, unlike the rest, was “filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb”, should be signalized as a day of triumph. The celebration of the Decollation of John the Baptist, on August 29, enjoys almost the same antiquity. We find also in the oldest martyrologies mention of a feast of the Conception of the Precursor on September 24. But the most solemn celebration in honor of this saint was always that of his Nativity, preceded until recently by a fast. Many places adopted the custom introduced by St. Sabas of having a double Office on this day, as on the day of the Nativity of the Lord. The first Office, intended to signify the time of the Law and the Prophets which lasted up to St. John (Luke, xvi, 16), began at sunset, and was chanted without Alleluia; the second, meant to celebrate the opening of the time of grace, and gladdened by the singing of Alleluia, was held during the night. The resemblance of the feast of St. John with that of Christmas was carried farther, for another feature of the 24th of June was the celebration of three masses: the first, in the dead of night, recalled his mission of Precursor; the second, at daybreak, commemorated the baptism he conferred; and the third, at the hour of Terce, honored his sanctity. The whole liturgy of the day, repeatedly enriched by the additions of several popes, was in suggestiveness and beauty on a par with the liturgy of Christmas. So sacred was St. John’s day deemed that two rival armies, meeting face to face on June 23, by common accord put off the battle until the morrow of the feast (Battle of Fontenay, 841). “Joy, which is the characteristic of the day, radiated from the sacred precincts. The lovely summer nights, at St. John’s tide, gave free scope to popular display of lively faith among various nationalities. Scarce had the last rays of the setting sun died away when, all the world over, immense columns of flame arose from every mountain-top, and in an instant, every town, and village, and hamlet was lighted up” (Gueranger). The custom of the “St. John’s fires”, whatever its origin, has, in certain regions, endured unto this day.

by Charles L. Souvay in catholic.com

Bible History Set in Stone

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A few weeks ago, while leading a pilgrimage tour to Israel, I couldn’t wait to bring the group to one of the greatest museums in the world: the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Packed with artifacts from the biblical period, it’s a treasure trove for anyone interested in the material remains of salvation history.

The museum also houses one of the more important archaeological finds of recent years: an artifact that has bolstered our confidence in the veracity of the Old Testament accounts of the kingdom of David, his son Solomon, and their successors.

Biblical “minimalists” had long contended that King David did not actually preside over a kingdom that originated circa the tenth century B.C., as the Bible states. Indeed, these scholars alleged that David, Solomon, and in fact the entire line of Davidic kings chronicled in the Old Testament, are nothing more than fictional characters invented by the writers of the Hebrew scriptures.

In favor of the “minimalist” argument was the lack of any evidence of David’s existence outside the Bible.

But here’s where archaeology came to the rescue. During the 1993-94 excavations at Tel Dan, in northern Israel, a stele (a stone slab bearing an inscription) was unearthed. Made from basalt, a volcanic rock plentiful in the region, it bears an account of a military victory. Scholars have postulated that the inscription commemorates an Aramean king’s defeat of Israelite forces. It may have been commissioned by Hazael or Ben-Hadad III, his son (cf. 2 Kings 10:32, 13:3, 22; 2 Chron. 22:5).

The key line on the monument, the stunning find, is the mention of the “House of David.” There it was, written in stone—independent confirmation of David’s existence and of a line of kings so powerful that defeating armies from this “House” warranted a public brag of sorts on this stele, for all passersby to read and marvel at.

Analysis of the stele dates it to the mid-ninth century BC, right around the time when, according to Scripture, David’s dynasty would have been flourishing. It appears that the stele was broken by the Israelites after they recaptured the area some time later, and was eventually repurposed into building blocks for the city wall.

After this discovery, as chronicled by Craig Evans, the minimalists changed their approach. “Okay, okay,” they admitted, “maybe David existed after all. But he was a nobody. A local tribal chief, at best, certainly not the originator of the vast, Iron-Age kingdom described in the Old Testament.”

At this point, faced with what seems like special pleading, one is tempted to respond like Jerry Seinfeld: “Really? Really?”

But don’t despair—again, archaeology is our friend here.

First of all, if David had been merely a small-time local yokel, what on earth were his descendants doing fighting battles all the way up north, near the modern-day border that separates Israel and Syria, far from his allegedly tiny operation in Jerusalem?

Also, a vast, centralized complex of buildings—in all likelihood, a government compound—has been unearthed in the Old City of Jerusalem, and can be seen on tours today. It’s located in what’s known as the “City of David” and dates to approximately the tenth century B.C.; once more, the time when Scripture says that David and Solomon were establishing their empire. Again, this seems fairly excessive if we’re talking about an insignificant tribal chieftain, but it does fit the biblical narrative of David’s expansive realm.

To this our minimalist might say, “I’ll grant you that David existed, and perhaps he did preside over a significantly large kingdom, but we still can’t trust what the Bible says about him. The people of David’s time would not have been significantly literate enough to record his exploits or those of his descendants”.

This last objection is at least partially answered by—you guessed it—yet another archaeological discovery. In 2008, an ostracon (an inscribed piece of pottery) dating to the tenth century B.C. was disinterred at the ancient fortress city of Khirbet Qeiyafa, which was the only fortified Judahite city during the reigns of David and his predecessor, King Saul (in fact, the Qeiyafa ostracon is the only extant relic that mentions Saul).

The famed French epigrapher Émile Puech regards the inscription as the earliest writing narrating the transition of Israel from a people ruled by judges into a kingdom. It shows that the people living around David’s time were literate, and in fact, more than capable of recording (and passing on) the annals of David’s dynasty, such as we see in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles.

The Tel Dan stele and the Qeiyafa ostracon are just two examples from the multitude of archaeological discoveries in Israel that have bolstered our understanding of, and in many cases substantiated the reliability of, biblical records of history. Since only roughly five percent of all biblical sites have been excavated to date (which is unbelievable considering how much has already been found), It’s truly exciting to think of how many more such finds may be unearthed in the years to come.

by Cale Clarke, in catholic.com

History of the Camino de Santiago

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The route known as the Camino de Santiago is neither a road nor a highway. It’s a walkway trod by travelers of all kinds for more than 2,000 years. Christians have traveled it for nearly 1,300 years.

Much of the route described in a 900-year old guidebook is still in use today. Some of it wends its way over the remains of pavement laid down by the Romans two millennia ago. It’s a route that writer James Michener—no stranger to world travel—calls “the finest journey in Spain, and one of two or three in the world.” He did it three times and mentions passing “through landscapes of exquisite beauty.” The European Union has designated it a European Heritage Route.

Christians are attracted to this remote corner of Europe because of a legend that Santiago de Compostela is the burial place of the apostle James the Greater. As such, it ranks along with Rome and Jerusalem as one of Christendom’s great pilgrim destinations.

The Camino de Santiago has its origins in pre-Christian times when people of the Celtic/Iberian tribes made their way from the interior to land’s end on the Atlantic coast of Galicia. For them, watching the sun set over the endless waters was a spiritual experience. As part of their conquest of Europe, the Romans occupied Iberia by 200 B.C. They built infrastructure, including a road from Bordeaux in modern France to Astorga in northwest Spain, to mine the area’s gold and silver. Some of the original road remains on today’s Camino.

When the apostles spread out across the known world to preach the Christian gospel, tradition has it that James the Greater came to Galicia. On returning to Palestine he was beheaded by Herod, becoming the first apostolic martyr. A legend that has persisted for 2,000 years claims that his followers took his body back to Galicia, where it was buried inland.

By the 12th and 13th centuries, half a million pilgrims made their way to and across northern Spain and back each year. Local kings and clergy built hospitals, hostels, roads and bridges to accommodate them. The Knights Templar patrolled the Camino, providing protection, places of hospitality, healing and worship, as well as a banking system that became one source of their fabled wealth.

Among the historical figures who made the pilgrimage to Santiago are Charlemagne, Roldan, Francis of Assisi, Dante Alighieri and Rodrigo Diaz (El Cid, Spain’s great epic hero). In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer tells us that the Wife of Bath had been to Santiago. Not all were enamored of it, however. In the 1500s, Sir Francis Drake, who did more than his share of harassing the imperial Spanish, referred to Santiago as “that center of pernicious superstition.”

A combination of the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and European wars gradually suppressed the Camino. In the 17th century Louis XIV of France forbade his subjects from going to Santiago in order to stop trade with Spain. The Camino fell into disfavor but was never abandoned.

Now, after centuries of slumber, the Camino is alive with upward of 100,000 pilgrims—and growing—yearly.

in magazine.nd.edu

The Mysterious Stories of Castle Ponferrada: Knights Templar, the Camino de Santiago and the lost Sword of Jacques de Molay

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Every pilgrim who is traveling along the French route of the Camino de Santiago, going to Santiago de Compostela, will pass through the Ponferrada in the Spanish section. Most of them have no idea that centuries ago along the same route passed the legendary Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Templar Order.

Did they travel in their famous armors? I don’t think so. It is more likely that they wore comfortable clothes, similarly to other pilgrims of their times. Just imagine, the famous Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the Templar Order, traveling from France to Santiago de Compostela, located in the northwestern part of Spain. The journey was long and perhaps took a few weeks depending on the physical condition of the pilgrim. However, at the end of the route was waiting the majestic Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The primary reason to make this pilgrimage was, and still is, to offer a prayer to the Apostle James the Elder.

The Story of the Monumental Castle

Ponferrada is known due to Castillo de Los Templarios, the Castle of the Templars which is the impressive size of 16000 square meters. Its appearance brings to mind legendary stories about the Spanish knights. A visit to the castle might inspire one to learn about the remarkable Spanish medieval history but also can allow you to travel back through time to a long lost era.

The site was known as a valuable place of defense from at least the Roman period. For centuries this land was covered with gorgeous vineyards and a heartwarming landscape. The castle was built in 1178 AD by Ferdinand II of Leon to protect the pilgrims of Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James).The property belonged to the Knights of the Templar Order. It was confiscated in 1311 when the order faced the cruelest drama among all of the Christian Knight orders. In 1340 it became the property of the Count of Lemos. 146 years later, the King of Spain incorporated the monumental Castle of Ponferrada into the crown.

Although now some defense elements of the construction have been removed, the castle still retains its characteristic style. Currently, the castle is in the process of ongoing restoration. It hosts the Templar’s Library and the Ponferrada Investigation and Study Center. Although many secrets of this place have been told, there  are dozens of stories related to the pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago still await revelation. One of the known tales is related to the famous Jacques de Molay, a Grand Master of the Templar Order.

In The Shadow of Camino de Santiago

As mentioned, the existence of the Templar Order and the story of Camino de Santiago were intertwined in medieval times. ”Much of the route described in a 900-year old guidebook is still in use today. Some of it wends its way over the remains of pavement laid down by the Romans two millennia ago. It’s a route that writer James Michener—no stranger to world travel—calls “the finest journey in Spain, and one of two or three in the world.” He did it three times and mentioned passing “through landscapes of exquisite beauty.” The European Union has designated it a European Heritage Route. Christians are attracted to this remote corner of Europe because of a legend that Santiago de Compostela is the burial place of the apostle James the Greater. As such, it ranks along with Rome and Jerusalem as one of Christendom’s great pilgrim destinations. The Camino de Santiago has its origins in pre-Christian times when people of the Celtic/Iberian tribes made their way from the interior to land’s end on the Atlantic coast of Galicia. For them, watching the sun set over the endless waters was a spiritual experience. As part of their conquest of Europe, the Romans occupied Iberia by 200 BC. They built infrastructure, including a road from Bordeaux in modern France to Astorga in northwest Spain, to mine the area’s gold and silver. Some of the original road remains on today’s Camino.”

The impressive cultural heritage of the route became a puzzle that created one of the most famous pilgrimage routes in the history of the world. This is where thousands upon thousands of people since early medieval times were traveling hoping for God’s mercy or for many different reasons. Some of the pilgrims traveled there due to the political aspects. In the case of Jacques de Molay, the pilgrimage was caused by the mixture of political and religious reasons. As he was passing through the Camino, he visited the fortresses that belonged to his Order.

The story says that when Jacques de Molay was leaving the Ponferrada Castle and going to the sanctuary, he decided to leave in the chapel his sword as a votive relic.

The Mysterious Missing Sword

The sword of Jacques de Molay is considered a legend. Although from time to time someone starts to repeat the old legend, there are no clues as to what happened to this artifact. If the story about the remarkable Templar relic is real, what happened to this object?  The answer to this is unknown. According to some stories told by the locals, it existed until Franco’s times, but it seems to be unlikely. The times of Franco reduced the number of priceless artifacts in Spain, but perhaps not in this case. The explanations that are much more convincing say that the sword was lost in the medieval period, used during fighting or taken by the cocky local ruler who wanted to look more glamorous wearing the sword of the famous de Molay. It is also possible that the sword is lying somewhere hidden under stones or earth, waiting for the glorious moment when it will be rediscovered.

By Natalia Klimczak in ancient-originas.net