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Did John the Baptist Know Jesus?

by Brant Pitre January 03, 2020 0 Comments


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What about the next question there?  This one has kind of puzzled me for a while.  After John describes his account of the spirit coming down upon Jesus, he says “I myself did not know him.”  What could that possibly mean when John is Jesus's cousin?   Well in this case I actually had to go to the Church Fathers, I went back to look at the living tradition of the Church to see how some of them explained it.  It was very interesting.  John Chrysostom, who was an ancient Church Father living in the East in Constantinople in the late fourth / early fifth century, pointed out something that I hadn't noticed before.  If you go back to the Gospel of Luke, the answer actually can be found in the Gospel of Luke.  In the Gospel of Luke 1:80, after it gives the story of the birth of John the Baptist and the blessing of his father Zechariah, at the very end of that story Luke 1:80 makes this really important point about John the Baptist.  It says this:

And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel.

The Greek word there for wilderness also means the desert and so what Chrysostom and the other Church Fathers said is that John the Baptist did not grow up with his family.  He did not grow up in Jerusalem.  He grew up in the desert apart from his family and that he only manifested himself to everyone when he began his public ministry at the time of his baptism.  So John and Jesus, although they were related, although they were cousins, would not have grown up together.  Jesus grew up in Galilee as a carpenter’s son but John grew up as an ascetic out in the desert.  Now one of the things that's interesting about that is several scholars have pointed out that we know now from the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as in the writings of Josephus, that at the Dead Sea there was a community of Essenes.  It was an ancient Jewish sect that were celibate.  They were celibate men that practiced various forms of asceticism: fasting, prayer, and reading the Scriptures like a monastic community, like a group of monks.  We know from Josephus and others that they actually — although they did not marry and have children there — would take the children of other people and they would raise them in the monastic community.  This has happened in monastic communities for centuries.  If you look at Europe, it would often be the case that monastic community's would raise young boys, especially the abandoned children of other people, or parents would dedicate their child or daughter to a monastery or convent and then they would be raised with the monks and nuns.  So it appears that the ancient Essenes did this.  They would raise children out in the desert and some modern scholars have suggested that that's what happened to John the Baptist.  After he was born, his parents dedicated him and gave him to the Essene community and they raised him.  We don't know that for a fact, it is speculation.  What is not speculation though is that John didn’t grow up in Judea.  The Bible makes it very clear that he grew up in the wilderness and he was there until his manifestation in Israel. 

So if you go back to the Gospel of John now, what is the significance of that point?  Well as St. Cyril of Jerusalem pointed out, another ancient Church Father, what John means here is that he did not know Jesus of Nazareth, his cousin, by sight.  They did not know one another.  They didn't grow up together.   And he didn’t grow up knowing him as family or a friend.  How did he know him?  He knew him then not by family relation but by divine revelation.  In other words, it's through the appearance of the Holy Spirit and the manifestation at the baptism of Christ that John the Baptist recognizes that this Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and the one who has come to baptize in the Holy Spirit.  And what St. Cyril of Jerusalem, this ancient Church Father, said was the reason God did that, the reason he separated John the Baptist and Jesus during their childhood and then only brought them together at this moment, was to show that John's identification of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God was not motivated by family preferences or favoritism toward his cousin.  He didn't even know his cousin by sight.  He only learned his identity as son of God, Lamb of God, through the revelation of the Holy Spirit.  So it is kind of an interesting passage there, but you can see very rich here in what's going on at the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in this particular Gospel.  And you can see how this is a fitting way to begin Jesus’ public ministry.

Finally, the last point, what is John's testimony?  What is he bearing witness to?  He is bearing witness to the fact that the spirit descended on Jesus and that therefore he is going to be the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.  As we will see elsewhere in the Gospels, John says “there is one who is to come who is mightier than I… I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.  I baptize you with water, he'll baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  So what is the testimony of John in this passage?  That Jesus is the one.  Jesus is the one that everyone has been waiting for.  He is the Messiah, he is the Lamb of God, he is the one who takes away the sins of the world, he's the Savior.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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