This week’s reflection poses a question at the end to which I would welcome your response – either via the comment facility of the blog or in an email to me. (I would especially welcome comment from my ‘republican’ readers!) The reflection draws on this week’s lectionary Gospel Mark 6.14-29, as well as the Old Testament reading Amos 7.7-15 and briefly alludes to the lectionary Epistle Ephesians 1.3-14.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship
John the Baptist is not only an important figure in the pages of the New Testament – but interestingly also appears in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, who mentions him quite positively in his work, ‘The Wars of the Jews’, stating that he was a ‘good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God.’ Josephus also gives more interesting detail about the marital misdeeds of Herod, which John the Baptist had denounced. Josephus on John the Baptist – Livius
It is Josephus who tells us that the place where Herod held John in prison, and where he was eventually executed, was the desolate fortress of Machaerus, to the east of the Dead Sea (see picture above) in modern day Jordan. The Ecole Biblique of Jerusalem, where I did my own post-graduate studies, is currently excavating at Machaerus, so I have taken a special interest in the place. Like other fortresses in and to the east of the Jordan valley (such as Masada) it was built by Jewish kings between c.150BC – 30AD partly to secure the defence of the eastern borders of their kingdom.
The New Testament views John the Baptist as standing in the line of the Old Testament prophets. That is implied in this week’s lectionary Gospel, Mark 6.14-29, which implicitly describes John in terms of Elijah (Mark 6.15). This ‘Elijah’ connection is made crystal clear in Jesus’ words of Mark 9.11-13. One of the distinctive features of the stories of Old Testament prophets is the way that they stood up against, and where necessary strongly criticised kings. So Nathan the prophet rebuked King David for his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12.1-15), Elijah (with whom as we have seen John is somehow identified) critiqued King Ahab on several occasions (I Kings 17-21), and in this week’s Old Testament lectionary reading, Amos 7.7-15 criticises King Jeroboam. John’s criticism of Herod for his adultery therefore locates him firmly in the line of these Old Testament prophetic forerunners.
Back in 1979 the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote an influential article, ‘Trajectories in Old Testament literature and the sociology of Ancient Israel’ Trajectories in Old Testament Literature and the Sociology of Ancient Israel on JSTOR It considerably influenced how many people, including myself, viewed biblical literature. Brueggemann’s suggestion was that there were two main threads or trajectories running through the Old Testament, what he initially referred to as the ‘royal’ trajectory and the ‘liberation’ trajectory. Briefly (I have written about this in more detail elsewhere) the royal trajectory was associated with royal and priestly circles, especially in Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s Temple. It valued conservation rather than change: it considered the pivotal role of kings and Temple as fundamental to the welfare of society and gave particular importance to the Davidic covenant tradition.
Conversely the liberation trajectory was associated with peasants and prophets. It was egalitarian and sought change and transformation in society. It was critical of many aspects of Israel’s life and worship, including often the lived behaviour of the kings. God’s relationship was direct and with all the people, rather than requiring a royal or priestly mediator, and it gave particular importance to the Mosaic/Sinai covenant tradition.
In this article Brueggemann gave several examples of these two ‘trajectories’ ‘clashing’ with each other. He included the examples of the clashes between prophets and kings that I mentioned above. Brueggemann almost, but not quite, thinks in terms of ‘liberation trajectory good, royal trajectory bad.’ Because what is also interesting is that Brueggemann briefly explores parts of the Old Testament where the two trajectories are in a creative dialogue with each other, and their interaction means that something new and fresh is born. The part of the Old Testament which illustrates this most strongly is Isaiah 40-55, often referred to as Second Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah if you want to be posh!). I don’t think it is an accident that it is precisely these chapters which are deeply cherished by Christians.
What has all this got to do with this week’s lectionary reading? First it seems to me that in the story of the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist we do have something virtually identical to those Old Testament ‘clashes’ between the royal and the liberation trajectories. John stands firmly in the prophetic liberation stream.
But what does this say to us about Jesus himself? I find this intriguing – and not an easy question to answer. In spite of my reading of liberation theologians, I don’t think that Jesus simplistically sits within that liberation trajectory that Brueggemann describes. Unlike John the Baptist who is so clearly identified as a prophet, the way that Jesus is portrayed within the New Testament has shades of royal and priestly colours as well as prophetic ones. That is even true within the Gospel of Mark itself. Jesus dies with the words ‘King of the Jews’ inscribed above him, and though they may have been intended as mockery by those who placed them there, they contain for us a deep truth. Interestingly the very next episode to the execution of John the Baptist viz the Feeding of the 5000, itself contains a likely allusion to Jesus’ kingly status, for the words ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6.34) probably point us to the role of kings as the shepherds of their people (see for example Ezekiel 34.1). Anyone who knows me well, knows that I will refer to the transfiguration if I possibly can! But I actually do think that the way Jesus is portrayed in the transfiguration account (Mark 9.2-8), highlights his royal and priestly roles (to complement the ‘prophetic’ roles of Elijah and Moses who also appear in the story). I don’t want to deny that Jesus himself is also viewed as a ‘prophet’ in the New Testament, but I think he is seen too as ‘more than a prophet’.
So in the figure and story of Jesus himself once again we have those two ‘trajectories’ – royal and liberation – in a creative dialogue with each other. Jesus ‘pulls them together’ in his own person. Indeed I think that sense of holding together such opposites in a creative and reconciling tension is part of what is being said to us in this week’s lectionary Epistle Ephesians 1.3-14 which speaks of gathering up in Christ ‘all… things in heaven and things on earth’ (Ephesians 1.10).
As I was beginning to think about this week’s blog, I happened to come across a wonderful picture by the German Roman Catholic artist Sieger Koder. It is called ‘Magnificat’. For copyright reasons I include a link to it rather than use it as a direct illustration. (You can find an example of it with some reflective commentary at (4) Facebook). In the foreground we have the old Elizabeth embracing the young Mary, with both women clad in earthly browns, while in the mysterious blue background we can also make out the shapes of their respective sons, John and Jesus, embracing each other in a similar way. The picture itself made me think about the ‘pulling together’ of the liberation and royal trajectories, and the reconciliation of the roles of prophet, priest and king. For the prophetic John was in fact the son of a Temple priest, and the mother of the kingly and priestly Jesus sang the Magnificat, a prophetic song of joy which has been the inspiration of many liberation theologians.
One final thought to leave you with, which is something that perplexes me, rather than an issue to which I have an easy answer. I sometimes wonder how easy it is to ‘translate’ the royal and kingly imagery of the Bible, and the way it is used to describe Jesus in the New Testament, into the context of our modern world, in particular in lands, such as many in our Diocese in Europe, where monarchy, even in its constitutional form, no longer exists. There is a bit of me that feels that much traditional Christian imagery perhaps ‘works’ most readily in lands where kings (or queens) still have a place. I think there is an exercise in ‘translation’ that may need to be done for ‘republican’ lands which is often forgotten about. I don’t know what the readers of this blog may think?… but I would be interested to hear your views.