Historical Cultural Context
John the Witness
While the evangelist John has a deserved reputation as a theological and mystical author, he also presents some sobering glimpses into “real history.”
In today’s Gospel Reading, we learn that John the Baptizer was not very familiar with his kinsman, Jesus, and had difficulty recognizing him (Jn 1:30, 33). In spite of this, the Baptizer proclaims himself a “witness” to Jesus.
Trials in ancient Israel were decided by the leading men of the city or synagogue who administered justice “in the gate” (see Am 5:15; Dt 19:12). They did not investigate facts but rather made a decision on the admissibility and competence of witnesses who spoke either in defense of or against an accused person. The person who could muster the most impressive array of witnesses usually won.
John’s Gospel in general has a strong forensic character. Chief among the impressive witnesses is John the Baptizer. Speaking to his opponents, Jesus says of John: “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light” (Jn 5:32-35). Other important witnesses in John’s Gospel are Jesus’ works, God, and Scripture.
Jesus’ enemies in this Gospel frequently consulted John for his testimony. At the very beginning, the Judeans sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to learn John’s identity. And when he told them, they asked why he was baptizing since he did not have the proper credentials (Jn 1:19, 25).
John was acknowledged as one who witnessed to the “truth,” something very unusual in the Mediterranean world (Jn 5:33). Culturally speaking, precious few people outside one’s close family have a right to the truth.
In John’s Gospel, the Baptizer’s function is exclusively that of a forensic witness. He came to bear witness to the light (Jn 1:7-8). He testified about the “one coming after me” (Jn 1:15). He is a consistent witness to Jesus’ sinlessness. He points to Jesus as the stainless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29, 36). He boldly affirms Jesus’ basic holiness when he says that he saw the Spirit of God on Jesus (Jn 1:32-33).
According to this Gospel, Jesus was baptized so that he might be revealed to Israel (Jn 1:31). Here it is John the witness rather than a “voice from heaven” that boldly proclaims that Jesus is none other than “Son of God” (Jn 1:34).
The Mediterranean notion of a “witness” like John baffles Americans who relish “eyewitness” testimony and factual veracity. Mediterraneans, in turn, consider our investigative behavior and “the public’s right to know” very rude and intrusive. At issue in both cultures is faith. What exactly does it mean?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible.
**From St. Louis University