John the interruption

John was liminal, uncivilized. When people went to him, they went out: ἐξεπορεύετο . He eats wild, raw food; he is dressed as if fresh from Eden. Cooking, weaving, urban habitation – all the trappings of someone who is part of the world of ordinary, civilized, organized life are missing. John is a surd; he defies categorization. He is a disruptive element, and is to be found in the only place he could belong: in the desert. He is an interruption.

This interruption is what the continuity, the ongoing stability suggested by Mark’s “as it is written” looks like.

2 Thoughts on “John the interruption

  1. Though at the same time John fits into certain patterns and expectations – patterns of what an ascetic/world-renouncing lifestyle should look like. I suppose he couldn’t do otherwise, as soon as he’s described. “The desert” is a place where a certain _type_ of person belongs. Then note discussions of John’s relationship to the Essenes, etc. Result: he _can_ always be read in a way that allows him not to be an interruption to “ordinary, civilised, organised life” at all, but the other over against which ordinary life has to define itself. (As soon as we talk about civilisation we also “need” to talk about the desert, etc). Which makes me think that the real shock, interruption, disruption might not be just John’s appearance but the fact that people (_all_ the people!) “went out” to him; ie not one side or the other of the civilised/uncivilised, cooked/raw pairings, but the crossing of the boundary between them. But if _all_ the people go, whatever does that mean? We really don’t know where “ordinary life” is any more…

  2. You’re right, of course. But even everyone ‘going out’ doesn’t save us, if the liminal position occupied by John is not simply implied by the very definition of ‘civilised’ – i.e., a semantic necessity, as it were – but also a socially functional necessity: one of the safety valves that allows the functioning of ‘ordinary life’ (e.g., by allowing for forms of cleansing ritual in a context where the atoning rituals of the temple have become too obviously embroiled in the political struggles between factions in ordinary life). John would then be an ‘interruption’ that, as it were, ordinary life used to perpetuate itself – a ruse of power, perhaps.

    I don’t think there’s any quick argument against a reading that would exhaust John’s significance in this plausibly sceptical way. The claim that something else, something other, was becoming visible even in this process by which the ordinary self-perpetuates, is fragile and difficult to pin down. I find myself echoing some earlier hermeneutical comments, and thinking that it is by looking at what John’s appearance makes possible, even despite itself – and despite his semantic and functional necessity – that matters. But that may be too facile a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

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