Son of God. IN THE OLD TESTAMENT.—The title “son of God” is frequent in the Old Testament. The word “son” was employed among the Semites to signify not only filiation, but other close connection or intimate relationship. Thus, “a son of strength” was a hero, a warrior, “son of wickedness” a wicked man, “sons of pride” wild beasts, “son of possession” a possessor, “son of pledging” a hostage, “son of lightning” a swift bird, “son of death” one doomed to death, “son of a bow” an arrow, “son of Belial” a wicked man, “sons of prophets” disciples of prophets, etc. The title “son of God” was applied in the Old Testament to persons having any special relationship with God. Angels, just and pious men, the descendants of Seth, were called “sons of God” (Job, i, 6; ii, 1; Ps. lxxxviii, 7; Wisd., ii, 13; etc.). In a similar manner it was given to Israelites (Deut., xiv, 1); and of Israel, as a nation, we read: “And thou shalt say to him: Thus saith the Lord: Israel is my son, my firstborn. I have said to thee: Let my son go, that he may serve me” (Ex., iv, 22 sq.). The leaders of the people, kings, princes, judges, as holding authority from God, were called sons of God. The theocratic king as lieutenant of God, and especially when he was providentially selected to be a type of the Messiah, was honored with the title “son of God”. But the Messiah, the Chosen One, the Elect of God, was par excellence called the Son of God (Pa. ii, 7). Even Wellhausen admits that Ps. ii is Messianic (see Hast., “Dict. of the Bible”, IV, 571). The prophecies regarding the Messiah became clearer as time went on, and the result is ably summed up by Sanday (ibid.): “The Scriptures of which we have been speaking mark so many different contributions to the total result, but the result, when it is attained, has the completeness of an organic whole. A Figure was created—projected as it were upon the clouds which was invested with all the attributes of a person. And the minds of men were turned towards it in an attitude of expectation. It makes no matter that the lines of the Figure are drawn from different originals. They meet at last in a single portraiture. And we should never have known how perfectly they meet if we had not the New Testament picture to compare with that of the Old Testament. The most literal fulfillment of prediction would not be more conclusive proof that all the course of the world and all the threads of history are in one guiding Hand.” The Messiah besides being the Son of God was to be called Emmanuel (God with us), Wonderful, Counselor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, Prince of Peace (Is., viii, 8; ix, 6) (see Messiah).
IN THE NEW TESTAMENT.—The title “the Son of God” is frequently applied to Jesus Christ in the Gospels and Epistles. In the latter it is everywhere employed as a short formula for expressing His Divinity (Sanday); and this usage throws light on the meaning to be attached to it in many passages of the Gospels. The angel announced: “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High … the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke, i, 32, 35). Nathaniel, at his first meeting, called Him the Son of God (John, i, 49). The devils called Him by the same name, the Jews ironically, and the Apostles after He quelled the storm. In all these cases its meaning was equivalent to the Messiah, at least. But much more is implied in the confession of St. Peter, the testimony of the Father, and the words of Jesus Christ.
Confession of St. Peter.—We read in Matt., xvi, 15, 16: “Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.” The parallel passages have: “Thou art the Christ” (Mark, viii, 29), “The Christ of God” (Luke, ix, 20). There can be no doubt that St. Matthew gives the original form of the expression, and that St. Mark and St. Luke in giving “the Christ” (the Messiah), instead, used it in the sense in which they understood it when they wrote, viz. as equivalent to “the incarnate Son of God” (see Rose, VI). Sanday, writing of St. Peter’s confession, says: “the context clearly proves that Matthew had before him some further tradition, possibly that of the Logia, but in any case a tradition that has the look of being original” (Hastings, “Dict. of the Bible”). As Rose well points out, in the minds of the Evangelists Jesus Christ was the Messiah because He was the Son of God, and not the Son of God because He was the Messiah.
Testimony of the Father.—At the Baptism.—”And Jesus being baptized, forthwith came out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened to him: and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him. And behold a voice from heaven, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt., iii, 16, 17). “And there came a voice from heaven: Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased” (Mark, i, 11; Luke, iii, 22).
At the Transfiguration.—”And lo, a voice out of the cloud, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him” (Matt., xvii, 5; Mark, ix, 6; Luke, ix, 35). Though Rose admits that the words spoken at the Baptism need not necessarily mean more than what was suggested by the Old Testament, viz. Son of God is equal to the Messiah, still, as the same words were used on both occasions, it is likely they had the same meaning in both cases. The Transfiguration took place within a week after St. Peter’s confession, and the words were used in the meaning in which the three disciples would then understand them; and at the Baptism it is probable that only Christ, and perhaps the Baptist, heard them, so that it is not necessary to interpret them according to the current opinions of the crowd. Even so cautious a critic as the Anglican Professor Sanday writes on these passages: “And if, on the occasions in question, the Spirit of God did intimate prophetically to chosen witnesses, more or fewer, a revelation couched partly in the language of the ancient Scriptures, it would by no means follow that the meaning of the revelation was limited to the meaning of the older Scriptures. On the contrary, it would be likely enough that the old words would be charged with new meaning—that, indeed the revelation … would yet be in substance a new revelation ….And we may assume that to His (Christ’s) mind the announcement `Thou art my Son’ meant not only all that it ever meant to the most enlightened seers of the past, but, yet more, all that the response of His own heart told Him that it meant in the present…. But it is possible, and we should be justified in supposing—not by way of dogmatic assertion but by way of pious belief—in view of the later history and the progress of subsequent revelation, that the words were intended to suggest a new truth, not hitherto made known, viz. that the Son was Son not only in the sense of the Messianic King, or of an Ideal People, but that the idea of sonship was fulfilled in Him in a way yet more mysterious and yet more essential; in other words, that He was Son, not merely in prophetic revelation, but in actual transcendent fact before the foundation of the world” (Hastings, “Dict. of the Bible”).
Testimony of Jesus Christ.—(I) The Synoptics.—The key to this is contained in His words, after the Resurrection: “I ascend to my Father and to your Father” (John, xx, 17). He always spoke of my Father, never of our Father. He said to the disciples: “Thus then shall you pray: Our Father”, etc. He everywhere draws the clearest possible distinction between the way in which God was His Father and in which He was the Father of all creatures. His expressions clearly prove that He claimed to be of the same nature with God; and His claims to Divine Sonship are contained very clearly in the Synoptic Gospels, though not as frequently as in St. John.
“Did you not know, that I must be about my father’s business?” (Luke, ii, 49); “Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. Many will say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have not we prophesied in thy name, and cast out devils in thy name, and done many miracles in thy name? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me you, that work iniquity” (Matt., vii, 21-23). “Everyone therefore that shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt., x, 32). “At that time Jesus answered and said: I confess to thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to little ones. Yea, Father; for so hath it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered to me by my Father. And no one knoweth the Son, but the Father: neither doth any one know the Father, but the Son, and he to whom it shall please the Son to reveal him. Come to me, all you that labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you” (Matt., xi, 25-30; Luke, x, 21, 22). In the parable of the wicked husbandmen the son is distinguished from all other messengers: “Therefore having yet one son, most dear to him; he also sent him unto them last of all, saying: They will reverence my son. But the husbandmen said one to another: This is the heir; come let us kill him” (Mark, xii, 6). Compare Matt., xxii, 2, “The kingdom of heaven is likened to a king, who made a marriage for his son.” In Matt., xvii, 25, He states that as Son of God He is free from the temple tax. “David therefore himself calleth him Lord, and whence is he then his son?” (Mark, xii, 37). He is Lord of the angels. He shall come “in the clouds of heaven with much power and majesty. And he shall send his angels” (Matt., xxiv, 30, 31). He confessed before Caiphas that he was the Son of the blessed God (Mark, xiv, 61-2). “Going therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost … and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matt., xxviii, 19, 20).
The claims of Jesus Christ, as set forth in the Synoptic Gospels, are so great that Salmon is justified in writing (Introd. to New Test., p. 197): “We deny that they [Christ’s utterances in the Fourth Gospel] are at all inconsistent with what is attributed to Him in the Synoptic Gospels. On the contrary, the dignity of our Savior’s person, and the duty of adhering to Him, are as strongly stated in the discourses which St. Matthew puts into His mouth as in any later Gospel…. The Synoptic Evangelists all agree in representing Jesus as persisting in this claim [of Supreme Judge] to the end, and finally incurring condemnation for blasphemy from the high-priest and the Jewish Council. . It follows that the claims which the Synoptic Gospels represent our Lord as making for Himself are so high … that, if we accept the Synoptic Gospels as truly representing the character of our Lord’s language about Himself, we certainly have no right to reject St. John’s account, on the score that he puts too exalted language about Himself into the mouth of our Lord.”
St. John’s Gospel.—It will not be necessary to give more than a few passages from St. John’s Gospel. “My Father worketh until now; and I work. For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things which he himself doth: and greater works than these will he shew him, that you may wonder. For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and giveth life: so the Son also giveth life to whom he will. For neither doth the Father judge any man, but hath given’ all judgment to the Son. That all may honor the Son, as they honor the Father” (v, 17, 20-23). “And this is the will of my Father that sent me: that everyone who seeth the Son, and believeth in him, may have life everlasting, and I will raise him up in the last day” (vi, 40). “Father, the hour is come, glorify thy Son, that thy Son may glorify thee….And now glorify thou me, O Father, with thyself, with the glory which I had, before the world was, with thee” (xvii, 1, 5).
St. Paul.—St. Paul in the Epistles, which were written much earlier than most of our Gospels, clearly teaches the Divinity of Jesus Christ, and that He was the true Son of God; and it is important to remember that his enemies the Judaizers never dared to attack this teaching, a fact which proves that they could not find the smallest semblance of a discrepancy between his doctrines on this point and that of the other Apostles.
Son of Man.—In the Old Testament “son of man” is always translated in the Septuaginst without the article as Greek: uios anthropou. It is employed as a poetical synonym for man, or for the ideal man, e.g. “God is not as a man, that he should lie, nor as a son of man, that he should be changed” (Num., xxiii, 19). “Blessed is the man that doth this and the son of man that shall lay hold on this” (Is., lvi, 2). “Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand: and upon the son of man whom thou hast confirmed for thyself” (Ps. lxxix, 18). The Prophet Ezechiel is addressed by God as “son of man” more than ninety times, e.g. “Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak to thee” (Ezech., ii, 1). This usage is confined to Ezechiel except one passage in Daniel, where Gabriel said: “Understand, O son of man, for in the time of the end the vision shall be fulfilled” (Dan., viii, 17).
In the great vision of Daniel, after the appearance of the four beasts, we read: “I beheld therefore in the vision of the night, and lo, one like a son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and he came even to the Ancient of days: and they presented him before him. And he gave him power, and glory, and a kingdom: and all peoples, tribes, and tongues shall serve him: his power is an everlasting power that shall not be taken away: and his kingdom shall not be destroyed” (vii, 13 sq.). The person who appears here as son of man is interpreted by many non-Catholics as representing the Messianic kingdom, but there is nothing to prevent the passage from being taken to represent not only the Messianic kingdom, but par excellence the Messianic king. In the explanation, verse 17, the four beasts are “four kings” R.V., not “four kingdoms” as translated by D. V., though they appear to signify four kingdoms as well, for the characteristics of oriental kingdoms were identified with the characters of their kings. So when it is said in verse 18: “But the saints of the most high God shall take the kingdom: and they shall possess the kingdom for ever and ever”, the king is no more excluded here than in the case of the four beasts. The “son of man” here was early interpreted of the Messiah, in the Book of Henoch, where the expression is used almost as a Messianic title, though there is a good deal in Drummond’s argument that even here it was not used as a Messianic title notwithstanding the fact that it was understood of the Messiah. It has to be added that in the time of Christ it was not very widely, if at all, known as a Messianic title.
The employment of the expression in the Gospels is very remarkable. It is used to designate Jesus Christ no fewer than eighty-one times—thirty times in St. Matthew, fourteen times in St. Mark, twenty-five times in St. Luke, and twelve times in St. John. Contrary to what obtains in the Septuagint, it appears everywhere with the article, as o uios tou anthropou. Greek scholars are agreed that the correct translation of this is “the son of man”, not “the son of the man”. The possible ambiguity may be one of the reasons why it is seldom or never found in the early Greek Fathers as a title for Christ. But the most remarkable thing connected with “the Son of Man” is that it is found only in the mouth of Christ. It is never employed by the disciples or Evangelists, nor by the early Christian writers. It is found once only in Acts, where St. Stephen exclaims: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God” (vii, 55). The whole incident proves that it was a well-known expression of Christ’s. Though the saying was so frequently employed by Christ, the disciples preferred some more honorific title and we do not find it at all in St. Paul nor in the other Epistles. St. Paul perhaps uses something like an equivalent when he calls Christ the second or last Adam. The writers of the Epistles, moreover, probably wished to avoid the Greek ambiguity just alluded to.
The expression is Christ’s, in spite of the futile attempts of some German Rationalists and others to show that He could not have used it. It was not invented by the writers of the Gospels to whom it did not appear to be a favorite title, as they never use it of Christ themselves. It was not derived by them from what is asserted was a false interpretation of Daniel, because it appears in the early portions of the public ministry where there is no reference to Daniel. The objection that Christ could not have used it in Aramaic because the only similar expression was bar-nasha, which then meant only “man”, bar having by that time lost its meaning of “son”, is not of much weight. Only little is known of the Aramaic spoken in Palestine in the time of Christ; and as Drummond points out special meaning could be given to the word by the emphasis with which it was pronounced, even if bar-nasha had lost its primary meaning in Palestine, which is not at all proved. As the same writer shows, there were other expressions in Aramaic which Christ could have employed for the purpose, and Sanday suggests that He may have occasionally spoken in Greek.
The early Fathers were of the opinion that the expression was used out of humility and to show Christ’s human nature, and this is very probable considering the early rise of Docetism. This is also the opinion of Cornelius a Lapide. Others, such as Knabenbauer, think that He adopted a title which would not give umbrage to His enemies, and which, as time went on, was capable of being applied so as to cover His Messianic claims—to include everything that had been foretold of the representative man, the second Adam, the suffering servant of Jehovah, the Messianic king.
By C. Aherne in catholic.com
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?
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.” 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.”
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.”
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.
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].” 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.
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.
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.” 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.” 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.
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.
 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).
 “H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, trans., The Works of Lucian of Samosata, Vol. II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), 129–31.”
 Ibid, 130.
 Ibid, 134.
 “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.”
 “Jonas Grethlein, Experience and Teleology in Ancient Historiography: “Futures Past” from Herodotus to Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 64.
 “Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 110.”
 “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.”
 “Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 67.”
 Ibid., 249.
 “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.”
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
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
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