John, the voice in the wilderness

καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ

ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου
ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου
φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ
ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου
εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ

ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν

Mark 1:2-4

In what sense is John the ‘voice crying in the wilderness’? In what sense is he YHWH’s messenger? At first sight, the connection between John and the prophecy appears to have been made with uncritical literalism by early followers of John and then of Jesus – followers who found a verse about one proclaiming in the wilderness, and grabbed it to speak about this Jordan-based preacher, and who had to change the syntax of the verse from Isaiah in the process (to attach ‘wilderness’ to the ‘voice’ rather than to the ‘making straight’).

I suspect, however that this is a secondary, accidental and in its way playful connection dependent upon a deeper connection that had already been found: John’s ministry of repentance was, I suspect, a ministry that self-consciously performed a preparation for the coming of YHWH as already understood in ways shaped by verses like these from Isaiah. John prepares for the coming of the Lord – and when the Lord comes in ways unexpected even by John, John’s ministry of repentance does not cease to be a preparation for it.

“Proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”: Proclaiming a washing, a purification, a rite of passage, a way through the Jordan, a return to the true Israel – for or into the forgiveness of sins: into a renewed Israel, an Israel whose sins have been taken away, an Israel made straight, levelled for the coming King. If John proclaims (consciously? despite himself?) Jesus, he does so only by proclaiming the renewal of Israel.

4 Thoughts on “John, the voice in the wilderness

  1. Pingback: The Coding Humanist

  2. douglas on January 5, 2006 at 7:12 pm said:

    So have we got to Elijah yet? Does this very sophisticated hermeneutic allow us typology?
    I agree that if we understand that we have to think in terms of the eschaton, abduction is not (vicious) supersession (I always thought it had an ‘s’ rather than a ‘c’ – one person sitting above another rather than cutting them off?) Eschatology means that we have to say that we do not yet know who we are, or may become, and we may all become who we are only in Christ – that is in the form or type of Christ. Thus, surely typology is fine, so let us get on with it. John is Elijah come to rid us of the prohets of Baal, just as a preview to the Son of God himself?

  3. I hope it allows us typology. I’m all for typological interpretation, in fact. I learnt a love of it from Hans Frei – see, e.g., this piece.

  4. Just another note to myself, on re-reading:
    This post, it seems to me, points in the direction of part of the answer to the question I have just posed in my question to the last substantive post: that Mark’s strong reading of John was uncomfortable undialectical. This post suggests one way in which the reading might not be quite as ‘strong’ as it looks at first. Hmmm.

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