Saturday, December 11, 2010

Did John the Baptist doubt that Jesus is the Christ?

St. John the Baptist in prison

Gaudete Sunday, Matthew 11:2-11
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
It is not at all uncommon (or surprising) to find modern(ist) biblical scholars claim that St. John the Baptist, the precursor of the Messiah, doubted whether Jesus is truly the Christ. Often, they will present their theory in highly psychological terms: John, in prison, nearing his execution, wonders whether his life has any real meaning or perhaps if he has misunderstood his vocation. In this distressing state of existential doubt, the Baptist questions the Lord regarding whether he truly is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
These biblical scholars present John the Baptist as a reed swaying in the wind, blown about by the happenings of the world and the persecution he know faces. But Jesus said, “This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.” No, St. John was not a reed swayed by the wind, he was a prophet and more than a prophet – and he rejoiced to see the fulfillment of the Promise.

Why did St. John send his disciples to question Christ Jesus?
St. John the Baptist most certainly knew that Jesus was the Messiah, for upon him he saw the Holy Spirit descending and remaining. St. John knew that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He did not hesitate, but testified openly that Jesus is the Christ. St. John was the dear friend of the bridegroom and he rejoiced to decrease as the Lord increased – hence, the Baptist sent his disciples (beginning with Andrew) to become followers of Christ.
Gregory the Great writes, “Did John not know him whom he had pointed out to others; or was he uncertain whether this was he, whom by foretelling, by baptizing, and by making known, he had proclaimed him to be he?” Jerome takes us forward, “Therefore he does not ask as being himself ignorant. But as the Savior asks where Lazarus is buried, in order that they who showed him the sepulcher might be so far prepared for faith, and believe that the dead was verily raised again – so John, about to be put to death by Herod, sends his disciples to Christ, that by this opportunity of seeing his signs and wonders they might believe on him, and so might learn through their master’s enquiry.” (Catena Aurea, Matthew 11: 2-6)
Just as John had given Christ the first disciples who were chosen to be apostles, so too he know sends the Lord other disciples. Instructing them to question the Lord regarding his mission, St. John the Baptist offers his followers to Christ that they might become true disciples of the Lord.
The Lord testifies to John’s faith
St. John Chrysostom tells us, “Sufficient had been now done for John’s disciples; they returned certified concerning Christ by the wonderful works which they had seen. But it behooved that the multitude also should be corrected, which had conceived many things amiss from the question of John’s disciples, not knowing the purpose of John in sending them [here, we recall the error of modernist scholars]. They  might say, he who bare such witness to Christ, is now of another mind, and doubts whether this be he. Doth he this because he hath jealousy against Jesus? Has the prison taken away his courage? Or spake he before but empty and untrue words?”
The Lord knew well the heart of John, he knew that the Baptist did not doubt but only desired to confirm his disciples in Christ’s truth. Hence, Jesus defends St. John’s consistency in faith by comparing him to a reed swayed in the wind.
St. Jerome speaks in the person of Christ saying, “Was it for this ye went out into the desert to see a man like unto a reed, and carried about by every wind, so that in lightness of mind he doubts concerning him whom once he preached?” Chrysostom continues, “That John is not as a waving reed, yourselves have shown by going out unto the desert to him. Nor can any say that John was once firm, but has since become willful and wavering; for as some are prone to anger by natural disposition, other become so by long weakness and indulgence, so in inconstancy, some are by nature inconstant, some become so by yielding to their own humor and self-indulgence. But John was neither inconstant by natural disposition; this he makes clear by saying, What went ye out for to see, a reed shaken by the wind? Neither had he corrupted an excellent nature by self-indulgence, for that he had not served the flesh is shown by his raiment, his abode in the desert, his prison.”
Whence it is clear, from the divine testimony of Christ, that the Baptist did not doubt or slacken in his faith; for he is no reed swayed in the wind, but the new Elijah.
Another exegetical option
It should be noted that both Tertullian and Justin hold that St. John the Baptist did doubt whether Jesus was truly the Christ. This opinion, for the reasons given above, seems most unlikely.
Moreover, St. Gregory the Great and also (perhaps) St. Jerome hold that the Baptist truly questioned whether Christ was the one who would come. This does not imply that John doubted whether Jesus was the Messiah, but only whether he was the one who would come – meaning the one who would come into sheol to retrieve the souls of the just who waited in the Limbo of the Fathers. Thus (according to this theory), as John neared his own death, he sought consolation from Christ who would deliver all the just from the power of death.
However, Cornelius a’ Lapide (following the majority of the Fathers and Doctors) concludes that this opinion is improbable. Rather, it seems that John sent his disciples and asked Jesus whether he was the Messiah, not as doubting about our Lord, but because, being near death, he wished his hesitating disciples to be instructed concerning Jesus, that they might be led to accept him as the Christ. This is the opinion of saints Hilary, Chrysostom, and Cyril (among others).


An Irish Catholic said...

Thank you. The bishop saying Mass today said exactly what you write in paragraph 1, namely that John doubted as he was imprisoned and near his death. He said John believed that the Messiah would come with fire and brimstone! He said instead the Messiah arrived with kindness, healing etc. He seemed to imply that John was disappointed that Jesus didn't measure up to his image of the Messiah.

I can't accept that at all. John was filled with the Holy Spirit while still in the womb, he lived a life of penance and self-denial and knew who Jesus was at the Baptism in the Jordon. He knew from the Scriptures that the Son of Man would be betrayed and put to death. So, I too believe that it was for his disciples, that they might re-directed to Jesus, the awaited one, and accept Him as the Christ.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@An Irish Catholic,
One thing that I think many forget is that true doubt is a sin against faith. Are we really ready to accuse St. John the Baptist, who was filled with the Holy Spirit from before his birth, of true doubt? Now it is one thing to say that John came to a deeper understanding of who Jesus is (hopefully, this is all the bishop meant), but it is quite another to say that he failed in his prophetic vocation by proclaiming a "violent Messiah" who never came and only latter being forced to re-think his view of the Christ!

In any case, we thank God for the sound doctrine of the Church Fathers!
Happy Advent to you!

Giova` said...

Reginaldus, your writing style is excellent and reminds me of a dear friend, with whom I spent a summer ministering to the needs of the faithful in southern Italy. I hope all is well, Pasqua`.

God bless!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Ciao Giova'! I can tell from your comment that you are "molto educato"! :-)
Blessings and a happy Advent!

kkollwitz said...

I don't think the question "“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” is intended to express doubt, but is a way of inviting Jesus to respond, such that John's disciples can communicate his answer to others who may indeed doubt that Jesus is "the one who is to come."

When I discuss marriage & children with my class, I tell them to ask their parents if they (the children) are gifts from God.

This doesn't mean I doubt that they are, or that the kids doubt. It's a way of getting an emphatic response from the parents.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

That is certainly a possibility, perhaps not even John's disciples were in doubt.
I think that they DID doubt -- remember that there was some perceived tension between John's disciples and Jesus'. Also, recall that (even after the Resurrection) there were some who remained followers of John and had to be converted to Christianity.

I don't think that John doubted at all, but it does seem to me that his disciples may have needed some additional guidance from the Lord.

Certainly, there is room for diversity on this point.
Advent blessings!

Patricius said...

I suspect that St John the Baptist- in prison and nearing the very end of his mission- was attempting to help his disciples to alter their focus from his person to Christ.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I suspect that you are quite correct. In fact, I am morally certain that John was sending his disciples to Christ so that they would become disciples of Christ after John's martyrdom.

De Liliis said...

Could the child of the Visitation forget whom he met?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@ De Lillis, I heartily concur! Filled with the Holy Spirit, St. John surely did not sin against faith by doubting in the Messiah. Blessings to you!

Anonymous said...

It is also good to read John 1:19ff. This was the Gospel in the Ancient Rite of the Mass for this past Sunday where it is clear that John knows the deal- 'I baptize with water, but among you stands one whom YOU do not know...'

Anonymous said...

Imagine making straight the path of the Lord. Imagine seeing the Spirit descend upon Jesus. Jesus began his ministry AFTER the Baptist was arrested. Imagine knowing the Lord, but never seeing His Miracles! How sad! Perhaps the Baptist like another Saint John was going through the Dark Night in prison! Thus, he sent his disciples to see firsthand the miracles of Our Lord. I'm certain that the testimony of the Baptist's disciples made his Joy complete.

Unknown said...

I am overjoyed to read this interpretation. This topic always concerned me. I was taught the first perspective on this topic. Thank you so very much for an enlightened point of view that has eased my mind! I am curious though: when I was Catholic I feel I was never taught how to have a real relationship with Christ and to come to repentance to become saves as it states in Acts 2:38. I don't understand why the Catholic Church seems to disregard the salvation process. Would you mind explaining the church's stance on this as I may be mistaken.

kcfield said...

Let us remember that the Psalmist and even Christ Himself cried out in forsakenness at a moment in time. Christ was without sin so His cry: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) in Matthew 27:46 and elsewhere--was acceptable and not sinful. If Christ, Job, the Psalmist, and John the Baptist can express feelings of doubt or forsakenness then so too are we invited to do the same as Christians. True faith embraces moments of weakness, doubt, and humanness--that is a sign of genuine and authentic faith. Just as Christ, who is God incarnate and our Lord and Savior, was free to call out to His Father in a moment of anguish so do does God invite us to be that open before Him.

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