Friday, 24 June 2016

John the Baptist in Literature

To celebrate the birthday of John the Baptist, there follows a chapter taken from my PhD thesis, which was a rezeptionsgeschicte of John.


1.1 Introduction.
In the previous chapter, ‘John the Baptist in Art’, the various incidents and events in the life of John the Baptist were followed through works of art. This was a relatively easy task, since every aspect of John’s life is depicted in some way. In literary works featuring John, writers have similarly drawn upon various incidents of John’s life and incorporated them into their work. This chapter, then, will focus upon literary studies of John the Baptist.

1.2 Aims.
To apply the knowledge gained in previous chapters of traditions of John the Baptist to a study of literature featuring John.

1.3 Approach.
The approach will be to isolate the elements of John’s life story, and then to arrange the literary works according to the themes identified in previous chapters.

2. Literature featuring John the Baptist.
The following list provides the titles, authors and a brief introduction to the literature that is to be discussed in this chapter:

Alighieri, Dante (1265-1321), The Divine Comedy. In this poem, which was completed shortly before Dante’s death, Dante is guided though Inferno and Purgatory by the poet Virgil. He meets and speaks with lost friends and former enemies. Once in Paradise, a world of beauty, light and song, Dante is guided by Beatrice, his love whom he lost in 1290. The Divine Comedy speculates upon life after death, as well as offering moral edification. Dante drew from his extensive knowledge of philosophy, astronomy, natural science and history for the symbolism and allusion found in this work (Drabble 1985:235, 278).

Beattie, James (1735-1803), The Minstrel. Anticipating Wordsworth, The Minstrel, published 1771-4, follows the progress of a poetical genius, Edwin, the sensitive son of a shepherd, who finds his education in nature.

Browning, Robert (1812-82), Fra Lippo Lippi. A dramatic monologue first published in 1863, the poem takes the form of an imaginary conversation between the painter Fra Lippi Lippo and the reader. It makes several references to that artist’s frescoes, painted 1452-66, depicting scenes from the life of John the Baptist in Prato Cathedral.

Camus, Albert (1913-60), La Chute, first published 1956. Camus’s approach is usually an expression of his pessimism and isolation in a world that he feels to be absurd. In La Chute, his voice is the character Jean-Baptiste Clamence. The narrator is a refugee at Amsterdam, where he lives as a hermit and prophet. His story is one of a confusion calculée (1962:2007). Clamence places his own life on trial to facilitate the judgement of others.

Carlyle, Thomas (1795-1881), Sartor Resartus. This novel was first published in Frazer’s Magazine 1833-4, then as a separate volume in 1836. It consists of two parts. The first is a discourse upon the philosophy of clothes (sartos resartus meaning ‘the tailor repatched’) based upon the speculation of the imaginary Professor Teifelsdröckh, and leading to the conclusion that all symbols, forms and human institutions are properly clothes, and, therefore, temporary. The second discourse is a spiritual autobiography of Carlisle disguised as a biography of Teifelsdröckh (Drabble 1985:866). Carlisle, who took an interest in German transcendentalism, explores this philosophy through the character Teifelsdröckh. John the Baptist is used to make the point that the inner spirit of a person cannot be hidden or enhanced by their clothes

Chaucer Geoffrey (c. 1343-1400), The Romaunt of the Rose is a translation of fragments of a thirteen century love poem by Guillaume de Lornis (Drabble 167). It explores the psychology of falling in love as it describes a dream (Cooper web site).

Conrad, Joseph (1857-1924), Heart of Darkness, first published in 1902. This novella is based upon Conrad’s own experiences in the Congo in 1890. For Conrad, John the Baptist represents ‘a model of perfect fidelity’ (Purdy 1984:92) against which one might measure pretence and insincerity. In Nostromo (1904), which explores Conrad’s main preoccupation, man’s vulnerability and corruptibility, he goes as far as to name his eponymous character Gian’ Battista. However, it is in Heart of Darkness, which carries the topic to a horrific conclusion, that the reader encounters the full flowering of the character of John the Baptist in Conrad. This is achieved by several subtle devices, one of which even reverses or inverts one interpretation of the Baptist’s mission.

Dickens, Charles (1812-70), The Life of Our Lord. ‘My great-great-grandfather wrote The Life of Our Lord for a very special reason – he wrote it for his family. He wanted his children to learn about the life and teaching of Jesus Christ in as plain and simple a way as possible, and he decided the best way to achieve that was to write it himself and give it to his family as a gift’ (Gerald Charles Dickens 1999:7).

Dixon, Roger (b. 1930), The Messiah explores Jesus’ early life as the realisation of his own identity and mission dawn upon him.

Dryden, John (1631-1700), MacFlecknoe is the result of a series of occasional and lighthearted personal, professional and critical disputes between Dryden and the contemporary dramatist, Shadwell. In the poem, Shadwell is the heir to the Kingdom ruled by the minor writer MacFlecknoe.

Edwards, Gene (b. 1933), The Prisoner in the Third Cell. This novel explores the concept that God does not always live up to the expectations of the believer. Using the example of John the Baptist’s life and experience, Edwards confronts the reader with the thought that God’s ways are not always comprehensible.

Eliot, T.S. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1888-1965). Published c. 1917, this poem provides a voice to spiritually weary people living in a dispassionate environment. Prufrock, a representative character, is aware of the meaninglessness of his life, but is unable to change it.

Fitzgerald, Edward (1809-83), The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. First published in 1859, this is a free translation of the poem by Omar Khayyam, the twelfth century Persian poet. It concerns divine providence, of which it is sceptical, and mocks the transience of human grandeur. Its main focus is the pleasure of the fleeting moment. John, or prophets and prophecy, appear in stanzas 7 and 26 (Drabble 1985:719).

Flaubert, Gustave (1821-1880), Herodias, a short story in dramatic style, focusing upon the political, ethnic and cultural elements of first century Palestine, and which form the background of the story of John the Baptist.

Josephus (c. 37-92/3?), The Jewish War, Slavonic additions. This text contains passages that are not found in the extant Greek version of Josephus’ history, The Jewish War. Two such passages concern a figure usually accepted as being John the Baptist, notwithstanding the fact that he is not mentioned by name in either of them.

Kazantzakis, Nikos (1883-1957), The Last Temptation. First published in 1951 (ET 1961), The Last Temptation is a study of ‘the dual substance of Christ’ and ‘the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh’ The novel takes the form of a quest, in which Jesus seeks to identify and then to accept his destiny.

Langland, William (c. 1330-c. 1386), Piers the Ploughman. Langland was a fourteenth-century cleric, who set his work in his own time. Piers the Ploughman expounds the meaning of a person’s life in relation to his or her ultimate destiny. It takes place over the course of one human life, that of Piers, which is depicted as a pilgrimage lived out on ‘middle earth’ between the ‘Tower of Truth’ and the ‘Dungeons of Falsehood’ (Goodridge’s introduction 1996:11).

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth (1807-82), St John. This poem describes John’s wandering over the face of the earth expounding his message, which he feels has gone unheard or misinterpreted. His meandering is compared with that of the Jordan, in the region of which much of his ministry was held.

Milton, John (1608-74), Paradise Regained. This sequel to Paradise Lost focuses upon the temptation of Christ. Paradise is regained due to Christ’s refusal to submit to the devil’s temptation.

Pope, Alexander (1688-1744), Dunciad, is a satire against ‘Dulness’ in general, during the course of which those authors who have earned Pope’s condemnation are ridiculed. Cibber, called Bayes in the poem, became Pope’s victim when he became Poet Lauriate in 1730. Dunciad was published in its final form in 1728 (Drabble 1985:299).

Sterne, Lawrence (1713-68), Tristram Shandy. Ostensibly a novel about the life and opinions of the eponymous hero. However, he is not born until the fourth volume, and he promptly disappears after the sixth. Coleman (2000:web page) notes that Tristram Shandy is a novel about writing a novel. The narrator engages the reader, questioning how much a person can know, even about themselves. Sterne uses parody and satire to explore the human condition.

Wilde, Oscar (1854-1900), Salomé. Wilde explores the dark side of the human soul. A tale of sexual intrigue, homosexuality and incest, it preserves the purity of John the Baptist and emphasises his asceticism.

Wile, Mary Lee (dates unknown), Ancient Rage. In this novel, published in 1995, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, pours out her grief and anger towards God over the way in which he has treated her son as well as his own to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Of these works, some are specifically about John the Baptist. He is the main character, or else an event of his life is openly used for the main plot of the narrative. In other works, John is alluded to, or perhaps mentioned by name, and used to illustrate a point or to provide a comparison with another character. There are, however, works in which the character and life-events of John are embedded within the text and must be drawn out. Engaging with the literature will highlight how the knowledge gained during the studies of John in previous chapters can enhance a study of John in literature.

3 Themes of John the Baptist.
The themes of John the Baptist as identified in previous chapters and arranged in the order in which they would appear in a narrative of John’s life are: birth and childhood, the wilderness, prophet, Elijah, voice, preaching, disciples, John and Jesus, baptism, death of John, descent into hell and saint.

3.1 Birth and Childhood.
The most comprehensive literary treatment of John’s early days remains the Gospel of Luke. Here, most of the elements that have come to be associated with John are to be found. His miraculous birth is expressed in Luke’s assertion that John’s parents are elderly and his mother is barren (1.7). John’s divine ordination (1.13), announced by the same angel who announced the birth of Jesus (1.19; cf. 1.26), is accentuated by God’s choosing of his name (1.13). John’s mission is to recognise and proclaim Christ (1.41). Luke then relates the story of John’s birth in which these factors are drawn together. After this, he abandons John for a time, leaving his readers with a vague image of John as a mysterious desert figure.
The lacunae in Luke’s account of John’s childhood are addressed in the Protevangelium of James. This infancy Gospel speaks of John as being a potential victim of Herod’s slaughter of the male babies of two years or under (Mt. 2.16). He is saved when a mountain miraculously opens to allow John and his mother to hide (Prot. Jas. 22.3). These events are consolidated and narrated in a collection of works known as the Golden Legend.
Mary Lee Wile’s Ancient Rage emphasises the coincidence of John’s conception with one of the greatest Jewish festivals, Tabernacles (1995:39). The significance of this celebration is that it commemorates the ‘years of desert wandering after the flight from Egypt’ (1995:34; cf. Ex. 35-6). Wile, therefore, connects John with the desert from the very beginning of his life. Moreover, the exodus meant freedom and salvation, and was the endorsement of Israel as God’s chosen people. John’s mission was also one of salvation. This is seen in his baptism, whereby people came to express remorse for their sins and to show that they had changed their ways. By this means, they were accepted and forgiven by God.
Wile is correct to time John’s conception at the feast of Tabernacles, which occurs in September to October, since it brings the date of John’s birth to late June. As already seen, 24 June is the date upon which this event is celebrated in the Christian calendar.
Wile cleverly weaves the various indicators of John’s pre-ordained mission into her story. Nevertheless, she highlights the conflict between John’s divine mission, ‘your job is to prepare for your cousin Jesus, the chosen Son of God’ (1995:51), with the expectation that he would follow in his father’s footsteps at the Temple. John cannot accept what he sees as an irrational, even hypocritical vocation. His frustration is expressed in derision, which he directs at his father, ‘A Sadducee who didn’t believe in angels, Zechariah had been visited by one’ (1995:55). Wile shows John joining the Essenes, whose desert activities he had been watching with interest: ‘I want to be adopted as one of the Sons of Light’ (1995:53), he announces to his parents. The irony is not lost upon Elizabeth, who recalls that John was conceived as the ‘Festival flames lit the night sky’ (1995:53).
Wile’s portrayal of John’s attitude to his Temple duties contrasts with Dixon’s treatment of John’s early years. In The Messiah (1975:44), John does take over his father’s duties and becomes ‘famous for his wisdom and teaching’. Yet, good priest though he is, he refuses the peoples’ nomination of him to the high priesthood (1975:44). Dixon’s John knows that his mission lies elsewhere, even though he does not yet know where. He succumbs to the lure of the desert, its inherent dangers notwithstanding. In Dixon as in Luke, John becomes ‘the hidden one’ (1975:45). Dixon’s use of this epithet for John is interesting considering the tradition of concealment surrounding John. This tradition was drawn from several sources: Lk. 1.24; Prot. Jas 22.1, 8; 23.1-3; 1-2 Clem. Rec 54.8. John’s association with Elijah, who was hidden in the desert, made such a tradition appropriate. It appeared to be connected with John’s role of forerunner.
The concealment theme is also used by Edwards. In a passage borrowed from Prot. Jas., Edwards (1991:1-3) relates how John is hidden by his parents in order to escape Herod’s murderous soldiers. Here, however, John is accompanied by both parents, not just Elizabeth, and their destination is a disguised Qumran, here simply referred to as ‘the largest of the Essene settlements’ (1991:5). Later, following the deaths of both parents, John is faced with a choice. Given the option of living with his pious uncle Hannel, his materialistic uncle Parnach, or Joseph and Mary, he rejects them all and opts to return to the Essenes (1991:9-12). Edwards (1991:13) shows that John was ‘a boy not yet thirteen’. His observation agrees with Caxton (1900:258), who notes that John was perhaps twelve years old when he departed for the desert.
In each of these novels, John is aware of a sense of destiny, even though he is uncertain what that destiny is. The authors of these stories seek to convey the mystery of God’s purpose, which is reflected in John’s uncertainty. There are three possible hypotheses with regard to John’s desert sojourn. First, the intellectual rejection of Zechariah’s office. Second, the lure of an inexplicable longing. Finally, a desire to return to the people with whom he spent his childhood, the Essenes.  Common to each is that John goes to the desert to seek answers to as yet unspecified questions

3.2 The Wilderness.
John’s environment is one of austerity and self-denial. Thomas Parnell’s The Hermit offers a glimpse of the Baptist, and a celebration of his asceticism:

Far in a Wild, unknown to publick View
From Youth to Age a rev’rend Hermit grew;
The Moss his bed, the Cave his humble Cell,
His Food the Fruits, his Drink the crystal Well:
Remote from Man, with God he pass’d the Days,
Pray’r all his Bus’ness, all his Pleasure Praise

This is the life John is expected to lead. Parnell has emphasised the hermit’s isolation, setting him in a ‘Wild’ place, ‘unknown to publick View’. This reflects the mystery of John’s life prior to his appearance upon the world stage at the beginning of his ministry. Nowhere is this more tangible than in Mark’s introduction of him, ‘John the Baptist appeared …’ (1.4). He simply appeared from nowhere.
Several words and phrases draw attention to the hermit’s communion with God and liken him to a monk, ‘rev’rend, ‘Cell’, ‘with God he pass’d the days’, ‘Pray’r all his Bus’ness, all his pleasure Praise’. As noted In chapter two, the monastic world has a reverence for John, whom it sees as its ideal. Parnell’s hermit is vegetarian, and as such, he resembles the John of the Ebionites, ‘And his food was wild honey, which had the taste of manna, like cake [made] with oil’ (Epiphanius Hereries 30.5, quoted in Tatum (1994:91). He drinks only water, which, given its crystal purity, must be living, or running, water, a fresh stream with which a baptiser might wash away sin. The water and the moss lend verdure and freshness to the scene that clearly contrasts with the desert more usually associated with John.
Parnell’s work carries echoes of Josephus. The first-century historian describes John as having, ‘just come out of the forest like a wild animal’ (1981:397). John, he adds, ‘never touched bread … wine and other strong drink he would not allow to be brought near him, and animal food he absolutely refused — fruit was all he needed’.
Forest also features in Longfellow’s St John, through which the eponymous prophet meanders like the Jordan:

Through the Lake of Galilee,
Through forests and level lands.

Beattie’s The Minstrel recalls the ‘crystal Well’ of Parnell, ‘his drink the living water from the rock’. This recalls images by the Circle of Annibale Carracci or Martino Piazza, wherein John takes water that seems to flow from the surrounding rocks.
The beauty and romance of the wilderness finds expression in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, ‘all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men’ (1994:9). Once again, the reader is brought to wildness and mystery, which serves both as John’s environment and as a metaphor for him. This is also beautifully captured by Sint Jans, whose John sits in calm serenity, surrounded by beauty and life. Such imagery is also the subject of a study by Hieronymous Bosch. Here, John’s lush surroundings take on a more sinister aspect, which is perfectly encapsulated by Conrad, ‘And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness born of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect’ (48-9).
That John’s wilderness environment should appear in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is not surprising. This tale, set upon one river, the Congo, related upon another, the Thames (1994:5), might alert the reader to allusions of the Baptist, whose ministry took place upon the banks of another river, the Jordan. Other allusions are not far to seek. At Brussels, in the Company headquarters, the staircase is ‘as arid as a desert’ (1994:14). The threatening atmosphere of Bosch’s work pervades this novella like a dense fog. Marlow speaks of a military camp being lost in a wilderness, ‘like a needle in a bundle of hay’ (1994:9). This recalls John’s apocalyptic speech (Q 3.9, 17), with his agricultural metaphors, axe, roots of trees, winnowing fork, threshing floor, wheat and chaff. The primaeval forest is ‘great, expectant, mute’, impenetrable, the interior no more imaginable that an angel or fiend (1994:38). Conrad hints that, in the desert, one might communicate with God or the devil. Marlow experiences the latter of these beings, ‘I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire’. He was soon to meet ‘a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly’ (1994:23). This is reminiscent of Q 7.34, wherein Jesus is made to say of John, ‘he has a demon’. Perhaps Marlow’s experiences in such an environment had lent him the ‘ascetic aspect’ upon which one of his companions remarks (1994:9).
The desert, then, is far from being the romantic, mysterious place, wherein one might commune with God and live as one with the earth. In Chaucer’s The Romaunt of the Rose, John’s wilderness home is rejected by Fals-Semblant, who declares him quite welcome to it:

All desertes and holtes hore,
And grete wodes everichon,
I lete hem to the Baptist John
I quethe hym quyt and hem relesse
Of Egipt all the wildernesse

Dixon (1975:54), who establishes John in his more familiar setting by the Jordan, shows that river to be ‘unclean’, thus alluding to sinfulness and the need for purification. Kazantzakis (1975:241) strengthens the allusion and directly links John’s location with sin and destruction. In showing John preaching by the Jordan, he agrees with the Synoptic evangelists (Mk 1.5 and par). Unlike them, he points out its significance. Kazantzakis places John close to where God had previously shown his anger and judgement, the Dead Sea, ‘If you were pious and you leaned over it, you could see the two rotted whores, Sodom and Gomorrah, embracing on the black bottom’ (1975:241). Thus, John preaches divine wrath, judgement and redemption near the very spot where God had destroyed those two decadent cities (Gen. 19.24). Kazantzakis (1975:242) describes John’s haunt as reedy, the river lukewarm and slimy. It is an abode of black snakes, perhaps the inspiration for John’s reference to vipers (Q 3.7), with ‘roaring’ heat, and the southern wind ‘which blew from the Dead Sea carried a heavy stench of rotted carcasses.’ This is a place of danger, disease and death. It stands as a metaphor for wickedness and the result of turning away from God. The dreadful scene of the manifestation of God’s anger is the ideal place for a preacher of repentance and redemption.

3.3.1 Prophet.
As noted in chapter one, Christianity regards John’s prophetic status as being second only to his role of forerunner. This is reflected not only in the Gospels, but also in church liturgy. Islam also esteems John as a prophet, as do the Mandaeans, although to a lesser degree.
Each of these traditions lend John a sense of destiny. In Christianity, this is shown most distinctly by Luke, whose infancy narrative makes clear John’s miraculous origins and the divine provenance of his mission (1.1-17). Islam takes a similar approach, adding that John’s birth was the reward for Zakariya’s piety and faith (Qu’ran 3.38-41; 19.2-15). Mandaeism acknowledges John as a prophet, ‘Yohana will receive the Jordan and become a prophet in Jerusalem’ (Book of John 18). However, this aspect of his career is subordinate to that of redeemer figure. In each of these traditions, there is a sense of destiny or fate at work, with the implication that John’s mission is not entirely of his own choosing. This phenomenon is applied also to Conrad’s Marlow, who felt himself charged with ‘a heavenly mission’ (1994:11). In literature, however, John’s prophetic status is expressed in allusions to Elijah, John as a voice and his preaching.

3.3.2 Elijah.
Allied to John’s status of prophet is his association with Elijah. As discussed in chapter one, this association is directly connected with his role of forerunner to Christ. Elijah’s coming is part of tradition inspired by Mal 3.1, which was reiterated in Mal 4.5, and later transferred to John (Mk 1.2). Conrad subtly applies this same phenomenon to Marlow, whose coming to the Congo had been foretold by word of mouth, ‘the same people who sent him specially also recommended you’ (1994:36) and in writing, ‘somebody had been writing to him about me. These special recommendations were turning up again’ (1994:86). Also subtle is Edwards’ (1991:17) approach:

Everything within John was for God. The devotion of an Abraham, of a Moses, of an Elijah, of an Elisha, of an Amos, paled in the presence of this single-minded celibate whose only friend and companion was his Lord.

Here, Edwards echoes the Qu’ran (6.85), wherein John is listed with Zechariah, Jesus and Elijah, all righteous men who have lived solitary lives. Indeed, solitude is one of the themes of John’s connection with Elijah, as emphasised by Wile (1995:70), ‘But why to the desert? There’s no one there, nothing to eat. How will you live? Do you expect God to send you ravens as he did Elijah?’
More lonely than even Wile’s John/Elijah is that of Camus (1962:1533), who wearily states that he is, Elie sans Messie. Elsewhere John’s association with Elijah is far from solitary. Flaubert (1999:96-7) declares John’s status to the crowd:

The Messiah … was to be preceded by the coming of Elias
Jacob replied:
‘But Elias has come!’
‘Elias! Elias! The crowd repeated, right down to the far end of the hall …
‘His name?’

Flaubert’s version shares some similarity to the account of the Transfiguration (Mk 9.11-13 and par.). First, the belief is expressed that Elijah must come before Christ (Mk 9.11 and par.). Second, this belief is endorsed (Mk 9.12 and par.). Finally, it is implied that John the Baptist was Elijah (Mk 9.13; cf. Mt. 17.13, wherein any doubt that Jesus’ words should be taken to mean John the Baptist is removed). Kazantzakis (1975:240), on the other hand, uses Hebrew Bible imagery as he makes the connection between John and Elijah:

He is the veritable Elijah. He rushed down from Mount Carmel to heal man’s soul once more with fire. One night, with my own eyes, I saw the fiery chariot circle over his head; another night I saw a crow bring in its beak a lighted coal for him to eat.

Here, the setting is Elijah’s competition with the prophets of Baal, Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18.19), which recalls the ‘high mountain’ of the Transfiguration (Mk 9.2 and par.). The association with fire is obvious. Elijah’s sacrifice is consumed by ‘the fire of the Lord’ (1 Kings 17.38), as were the fifty who were sent to kill Elijah (2 Kings 1.10, 12, 14), just as the unrepentant will be if they do not submit to John’s baptism (Q 3.9, 17). The fiery chariot applies to Elijah (2 Kings 2.11), but not to John. Nevertheless, its association with Elijah is enough to enhance that prophet’s connection to John in this context. The same observation applies to Kazantzakis’ mention of a crow feeding Elijah with a lighted coal, which alludes to 1 Kings 17. 4-6.

3.3.3 Voice.
As John emerges at the beginning of the Gospel, he is but a voice. The primary means of describing the Baptist and his mission to the readers of the Gospels is the passage taken from Isaiah (40.3), ‘A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”’. This passage is used by each of the four evangelists. Mark (1.3), Matthew (3.3) and Luke (3.4) apply it to John in the third person. This approach is echoed in Conrad’s character, Marlow, ‘for a long time he, sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice’ (1994:39).  The Fourth Evangelist uniquely presents the Isaiah passage in the first person, with John speaking the words of himself. This technique is used by Dixon, whose John goes to the covenanters at Qumran and announces ‘I am the one of whom it is written, “There was a voice crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord”’ (1975:54).

3.3.4 Preaching.
John’s message is essentially one of salvation (Mk 1.4). This is won through repentance, but also through right behaviour. John’s speech in which he teaches codes of behaviour to various groups (Lk 3.10-14) suggests that part of John’s mission is to bring enlightenment.  There is an echo of this in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, ‘each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing’ (1994:47). This is reflected in the Company’s philosophy, which is exemplified by the report compiled by Kurtz at the request of the ‘International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs’ (1994:71).
Other allusions to John’s preaching mission appear in Heart of Darkness. The blank space on the map about which Marlow would dream had since become ‘a place of darkness’, the river flowing through it ‘resembling an immense snake uncoiled’ (1994:12). Hints of John’s ‘brood of vipers’ (Q 3.7) are discernable here. Marlow is a ‘wanderer’ (1994:8), which recalls artistic images of John in the wilderness, as well as the meandering river metaphor of Longfellow’s St John, which was noted above. In a passage that recalls Jn 1.6-8, Marlow’s aunt calls him an ‘emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle’ (1994:18). This allusion is enhanced by Marlow’s observation that the white Europeans are ‘at the end of countless ages’ (1994:58). The eschatological connotations of this allude to John’s apocalyptic warnings of ‘the wrath to come’ (Q 3.7), with its threat of devastation, ‘the fire that destroyed the things of wealth, calico, cotton, prints, beds … burnt into a blaze so suddenly that you would have thought the earth had opened to let an avenging fire consume all that trash’ (1994:33). The allusion is strengthened in the glance of the station manager, which is ‘as trenchant and heavy as an axe’ (1994:30); that which is ‘laid to the root of the trees’ (Q 3.9), perhaps? Like John’s message, that of the Company is preached to those living under oppression. Marlow’s observance that ‘the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago … Light came out of the river since’ (1994:8), links the Roman oppression of first-century Palestine to the nineteenth-century experience of the Belgian Congo. For Conrad, the beneficiaries of this message of enlightenment and emancipation are ‘the black men walking erect … baskets on their heads, chained together’ (1994:22).
As dark as his character might be, sometimes Conrad’s Kurtz is a Baptist figure. Marlow describes him as being ‘very little more than a voice. And I heard him — it — this voice … ’ (1994:69; cf. Mk 1.3 and par.). Kurtz came to the tribes, ‘with thunder and lightning, you know – and they had never seen anything like it – and very terrible’ (1994:80). Here, Kurtz echoes John’s fierce and doom-laden Q speech (3.7-17), with all its ferocity and fiery threats. Like John, Kurtz gives a monologue on ‘love, justice and conduct of life’ (1994:84), which is reminiscent of John’s moral teaching of Lk. 3.10-14. Reluctantly, perhaps, Marlow (1994:67-8), nevertheless, pays the highest compliments to Kurtz:

The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words — the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.

Marlow’s exaltation of Kurtz reflects Jesus’ words about John (Q 7.19). Conrad has captured three vital essences of John. First, the eloquent speech of this voice (cf. Ant 18.118). Second, the association with light, of which he was a witness (Jn 1.7). Third, that the light contrasts with the darkness in Gnosticism, recalling John’s dual role in that tradition. To the Mandaeans, he is a being of light and a redeemer figure. To the Cathars, he is evil, a creature of darkness and an emissary of the devil.
At times Kurtz and Marlow blend into one another, reflecting the similarities between the missions of John and Jesus: ‘I found myself lumped along with Kurtz as a partisan of methods for which the time was not ripe (1994:89). This phenomenon, which occurs in Jn 3.22; 4.1-2, is also featured in Kazantzakis (1975:301), wherein John and Jesus seem to become one:

Jesus stood in the doorway, his feet bloody, his clothes covered with mud, his face unrecognizable. Who was it: the sweet teacher or the savage Baptist? … His forcefully-clenched fist, his hair, cheeks and eyes were identical with those of the Baptist. The open-mouthed disciples looked at him silently. Could the two men have joined and become one?

The two became one or, perhaps, they reversed their roles. Kazantzakis (1975:294-5) suggests this in a scene wherein a lamb’s head served to Jesus’ disciples reminds them of the recently executed John. As they gazed at the head, lying in its dish, Simon the Cyrenian taunts them, saying that the head is really John’s. John has taken Jesus’ place as the sacrificial lamb.
Dickens draws out the altruistic nature of John’s ministry, which serves the needs of both people and God, ‘And people being wicked, and violent, and killing each other, and not minding their duty towards God, John (to teach them better) went about the country, preaching to them, and entreating them to be better men and women’ (1999:27). This entirely orthodox approach is influenced by Dickens’ need to adapt his style to suit his young readership. On the other hand, Carlyle’s (2000:23-4) Sartor Resartus, suggests that, despite his outward appearance, the Baptist’s ministry is conducted with eloquence and precision:

In our wild Seer, shaggy and unkempt, like a Baptist living on locusts and wild honey, there is an untutored energy, a silent as it were unconscious strength, which, except in the higher walks of Literature, must be rare. Many a deep glance, and often with unspeakable precision, has he cast into Mysterious Nature, and the still more mysterious Life of Man. Wonderful it is with what cutting words, now and then, he serves asunder the confusion; sheers down, were it furlongs deep, into the true centre of the matter; and there not only hits the nail on the head, but with crushing force smites it home, and buries it.

Carlyle captures Josephus’ image of John, whose ‘face was like a savage’ (Williamson 1981:397). Yet this ‘savage’ was capable of an ‘eloquence that had such an effect on mankind’ (Ant. 18.118).
John’s call for repentance, however, no matter how finely communicated, is rejected by those who would favour a more sensual lifestyle, such as Fitzgerald in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing
Stanza 7

Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
Of the Two Worlds so learned are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
And scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.
Stanza 26.

In La Chute, it is God’s salvation as preached by John that is rejected by Camus’ Jean-Baptiste Clamence. Living as he does by the Zuiderzee, ‘a dead sea, or nearly so’.  Clamence does not believe in, nor look forward to, a final judgement by God, ‘You speak of the Last Judgement. Permit me to laugh respectfully. I await it resolutely: I know what there is to fear, it is the judgement of men’ (1962:1530).
Perhaps worse than rejection is misinterpretation or misunderstanding. It is people’s inability to correctly interpret his message that condemns Longfellow’s St John to roam the earth until his message is finally understood and accepted:

The life of man is a gleam
Of light, that comes and goes
Like the course of the Holy Stream,
The Cityless river that flows
From fountains no one knows,
Through the Lake of Galilee,
Through forests and level lands,
Over rocks, and shallows, and sand
Of a wilderness wild and vast,
Till it findeth its rest at last
In the desolate Dead Sea!
But alas! alas for me,
Not yet this rest shall be!

The standpoint of Fitzgerald, Camus and Longfellow finds no support in the Gospels, wherein it is found, ‘and there went out to him all the country of Judaea, and all the people of Jerusalem’ (Mk 1.5).
3.4 Disciples.
Many of those who submitted to John’s baptism returned to their lives to live out the short time remaining before the judgement of God would sweep them to salvation. Some, however, attached themselves to John. As already noted, Josephus mentions such people, referring to them, somewhat enigmatically as ‘others’ (Ant 18.118). These people may have been disciples, of whom, we are told, John had several (Mk 2.18 and par,; 6.29 and par.; Lk. 11.1). Disciples of John are also found in literature, where they take different forms.
Dixon (1975:145) shows John’s disciples aggressively protecting their master. As hard and unforgiving as the environment in which they live, they do not reveal John’s whereabouts even to Jesus:

‘I’m looking for John ben Zacharias. Perhaps you know him better as “the hidden one”’?
‘I want to talk to him. To seek his advice.’
‘How do we know you’re not a spy?’ One of the others spoke now and Jesus turned to him.
‘Does a spy travel on foot and unarmed?’
‘A clever one might’, a third put in. ‘They’re always up to something new.’

This short exchange indicates that the fierceness of the disciples arises from the danger that they face. Prophets such as John are threatened by the Roman authorities. Dixon might have been inspired by Josephus (Ant 18.116-19), who explains that Herod’s persecution of John stems from his fear that the Baptist would inspire sedition. Dixon’s disciples, therefore, reflect the background against which the author sets his narrative. They also say something of John’s character. Here, he hides out, is secretive and enigmatic. In the latter, Dixon’s John recalls him as he is encountered in the Gospels. We know only what the evangelists want us to know. The rest is shrouded in an almost impenetrable mystery.
For Edwards, John’s disciples are little more than the means by which the story is continued. They act as commentators. One in particular, Nadab (1991:33) keeps John abreast of Jesus’ ministry, while imparting small details of John’s: ‘Presently he is in Galilee. He, like you, has twelve disciples … ’ Later, Nadab is sent by John to address a question to Jesus: ‘Teacher, the question John would ask of you is this … Are you the Messiah, or should we look for another?’ (1991:47). This question is a pivotal one for Edwards’ narrative. It provides the basis for Edwards’ exploration of the doubts and uncertainties of believers when faced with a God whose motives and actions cannot be understood. Since Edwards uses John as the vehicle for this exploration, it is entirely appropriate that this passage, taken from Q 7.19, should be used to further the story. Moreover, Nadab, as Edwards’ commentator, is the appropriate character to use as the spokesman for John’s doubts.
The approach taken by Flaubert is similar to that of Edwards, in that he uses a disciple of John to highlight a facet of John’s personality. Flaubert (1999:76) gives John a ‘stoical Essene’ named Phanuel as a disciple. Phanuel appears ‘in a white robe, barefoot’, in contrast to John’s ‘animal skin’, given to him by Flaubert, the evangelists (Mk 1.6 and par.) and Josephus (Williamson 1981:397). Their temperaments, too, could not be more disparate. John’s wrath contrasts with the gentleness of Phanuel, who even upbraids the Baptist for it, ‘he is too violent in his anger’ (1999:80).
For Dixon and Flaubert, then, John’s disciples help to reveal traits of one or another of the characters. Edwards uses them in a similar way to an extent. However, he relies upon them more to continue the story and to act as commentators.

3.5 John and Jesus.
That John is understood to have acted as the forerunner to Christ is the principal reason for his exaltation by the church. Christianity is in no doubt that John fulfilled this role. Dryden’s MacFlecknoe (1808:425-57) inverts John’s purpose. MacFlecknoe is a literary anti-Baptist, a ‘dunce … sent before but to prepare the way’ (lines 31, 32) for a literary anti-Christ. The task of the latter is ‘to reign, and wage war with wit’ (line 12), equipped with ‘thoughtless majesty’ (line 26). This makes an interesting if amusing comparison with the Cathar view of John as an evil entity.
John’s intimate connection with a divine being is reflected in Conrad’s Marlow. Here, the divinity is Kurtz. Marlow becomes obsessed with Kurtz, who is described as ‘a special being’ (1994:36) by an awestruck young agent. This assessment can be compared with the supposed judgements of Jesus made by his contemporaries. Suggestions that he was John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets (Mk 8.28 and par.) indicate that Jesus was seen as special in some way. More specifically, the Roman centurion saw in him, ‘the Son of God’ (Mk 15.39). Kurtz is exalted: ‘You don’t talk with that man – you listen to him’, says the harlequin (1994:76; cf. Mt 7.28-9, where Jesus’ speech enthrals the crowd), who is described as Kurtz’ ‘last disciple’ (1994:84). Kurtz speaks to this multicoloured disciple of love (1994:79; cf. Q 6.27; Lk 10.27). A tribe follows Kurtz through the villages round a lake (1994:80). This invites comparison with Jesus’ ministry, which takes place near the Sea of Galilee (Mk 5.1 and par.; 6.45 and par.). Nevertheless, like Jesus, Kurtz was ‘shamefully abandoned. A man like this, with such ideas. Shamefully! Shamefully!’ (1994:84; cf. Mk 14.50 and par.). Yet his death appears to have had some deeper purpose, raising it above that of ordinary mortals, ‘it was as though a veil had been rent (1994:99; cf. Mk 15.38). Indeed, for the harlequin, Kurtz was ‘one of the immortals’ (1994:90; cf. Mk 16.6 and par.). Finally, as Kurtz’ fiancée grieves at his loss, she consoles herself with the thought that Kurtz’ memory would live on:

‘His words will remain’, Marlow assures her. ‘And his example’, she whispered to herself. ‘Men looked up to him – his goodness shone in every act’ (1994:109).

This compares with the Fourth Evangelist’s statement that he has recorded many of the words and deeds of Jesus (21.24-5).
Perhaps Kurtz is connected with judgement? This is suggested by his painting, which depicts ‘a woman, draped and blindfolded’ (1994:36), and who resembles the goddess, Justice. John’s Coming One was to judge (Q 3.9, 17). With this divinity, then, Marlow becomes increasingly obsessed.
Dixon (1975:174) focuses upon John’s inability to recognise the one whose coming he had foretold:

I have long foretold the coming. This has been my privilege, and the great blessing that God, in his infinite mercy, has bestowed on me. Sometimes … I wondered if he would also spare me to behold his Chosen One but never, in my wildest dreams did I imagine that when, at last, he appeared, he would be one of my own kinsfolk …

A similar sense of uncertainty pervades Kazantzakis’ novel. Here, however, the incertitude comes as much from John as Jesus. Of course, this is the story of Jesus’ quest to find his true identity and purpose. As such, doubts are a means of exploring these important questions. At Judas’ suggestion, they go to John:

We’ll go to John the Baptist. He will be able to tell us. He shouts ‘He’s coming! He’s coming!’ doesn’t he? Well then, as soon as he sees you, he’ll understand whether or not you’re the one who is coming.

John is less certain of Jesus’ identity than Jesus:

It’s him, him, the Baptist was thinking. His heart thumped furiously and he could not, dared not, decide. Once more he stretched forward his neck: ‘Who are you?’ he asked again.
Haven’t you read the Scriptures?’ Jesus answered in a voice sweet yet complaining, as though he were scolding him. Haven’t you read the prophets? What does Isaiah say? Forerunner, don’t you remember?’

These approaches are, perhaps, literary treatments of the Markan Messianic Secret. However, similar secrecy exists in Josephus (Williamson 1981:397), wherein John speaks of ‘the secret that is in your midst’. This in turn recalls the Fourth Gospel, when John tells the Jerusalem delegation that ‘among you stands one whom you do not know’ (1.26). Indeed, in the Fourth Gospel, John is unaware of the identity of the one whose coming he had proclaimed. Christ was only revealed to John at the baptism of Jesus (1.29-34). This device is used by Edwards (1991:31-2), for whom John’s unawareness highlights John’s lack of understanding of God’s ways, thus serving the novel’s purpose.

3.6 Baptism.
John’s baptism of Jesus is perhaps the most significant event of his ministry. Having proclaimed the one to come, whom Christianity interprets as Jesus, it is now for John to baptise him. The sacred character of this event is disturbed by the unorthodox approach taken by Pope in the poem, Dunciad:

The Goddess then o’er his anointed head,
With mystic words the sacred Opium sheds;
And lo! her Bird (a monster of a fowl!
Something betwixt a H- and an Owl)
Perch’d on his crown. All hail! and hail again
My son! the promis’d land expects thy reign

The poem speaks of the ‘Goddess of Dulness’ and her effects upon the muse. As she pours her ‘Opium’ over the head of still another writer of whom great things are expected, the image recalls John’s baptism of Jesus. The most obvious connection is the reference to the ‘anointed head’, since Christ means ‘anointed one’. However, other Christ imagery is present, particularly the crown, as in the crown of thorns or the crown of the ‘King of Kings’. The ‘promis’d land’ might allude to Israel, to whom Jesus directed his message, ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles’ (Mt. 10.5). That Israel expects ‘thy reign’ refers to the belief, held by some Jews, that the Messiah would come.
John’s baptism of Jesus, then, might be seen as an anointing. This important interpretation of the rite tends to overshadow the Gospel accounts that tell us that John baptised many people in addition to Jesus. This aspect of John’s mission, however, is not overlooked by Kazantzakis, who presents a humorous account of the baptism of Simon of Cyrene (1975:237):

‘Have you noticed any improvement?’ Judas repeated.
‘I swear to you by my wine that the bath did me a lot of good, yes, a lot of good. I felt relieved. The Baptist says I was relieved of my sins. But – just between you and me – I think I was relieved of a few grease-spots, because when I came out of the Jordan, there was a film of oil on the water an inch deep’.

Simon’s failure to grasp the meaning of John’s baptism brings back echoes of Longfellow’s poem. Little wonder, then, that the Baptist can find no rest!
Kazantzakis’ (1975:245-6) John consents to baptise Jesus only when the latter insists upon it:

Then he [John] turns to Jesus: ‘Now I can depart.’
‘Not yet, Forerunner. First you must baptise me.’ Jesus’ voice had become sure, decisive.
I? You are the one who must baptise me, Lord … ’
This exchange is a treatment of Mt. 3.14, ‘Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptised by him. John would have prevented him, saying. ‘“I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?”’ Kazantzakis’ approach is also that of Dickens (1999:28), who offers perhaps the most orthodox treatment of Jesus’ baptism:

There was a river, not very far from Jerusalem, called the River Jordan; and in this water John baptized those people who would come to him, and promise to be better. A great many people went to him in crowds. Jesus Christ went too. But when John saw, [sic] John said, ‘Why should I baptize you, who are so much better than I!’ Jesus Christ made answer, ‘Suffer it to be so. So John baptized Him. And when He was baptized, the sky opened, and a beautiful bird like a dove came flying down, and the voice of God, speaking up in Heaven, was heard to say, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!’
Like Kazantzakis, Dickens also favours Matthew’s version. In Matthew, however, John is speaking from the viewpoint of conviction, not doubt. He is well aware of who Jesus is. When Kazantzakis’ John baptises Jesus, he does not even know his name. His lack of faith is sharply contrasted by the instant recognition of Jesus by the pagan river god, Jordan (1975:245). This god, here represented as a ‘shaggy elf in the form of a simple old man entwined with seaweed’, greets Jesus with a mixture of ‘joy and fear’. The image of the river-god is familiar, since he has already been encountered on a mosaic at Ravenna. The symbolism possibly represents the triumph of Christianity over paganism. It might also provide a foretaste of Christ’s power over nature. Pagan gods are nature spirits. Many of Jesus’ miracles concern his ability to control the natural elements, as in the Markan account of the calming of the storm (4.3541 ), or his imperviousness to natural laws, such as his ability to walk upon water (Mk. 6.4552 and par.). Kazantzakis, therefore, combines Gospel-authenticated details of Jesus’ powers with a literary device used to further enhance his story.
This scene is mirrored in Conrad (1994:68), whose Marlow flings his blood-soaked shoes ‘unto the devil-god of that river’. Here, however, the old gods have won. Having just realised that he might never meet and hear the divinely eloquent Kurtz, Marlow throws his shoes into the river with the thought that ‘he has vanished — the gift has vanished’ (1994:69). Elsewhere, Conrad makes a subtle allusion to John’s baptism, or rather, its raison d’être. He refers to Brussels, in which the headquarters of the Company are situated, as ‘a whited sepulchre’ (1994:14) or a sepulchral city (1994:35). This recalls Jerusalem and the Temple. ‘They were going … to make no end of coin by trade’ (1994:14), Marlow muses. Here is an allusion to the corruption of the Temple and the insincerity of the sacrifice that John’s baptism was partly intended to replace.
Edwards’ (1991:3.12) approach to Jesus’ baptism by John appears to be influenced primarily by the Fourth Gospel (1.3234) and Luke (3.21). As John speaks to the crowd, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, flutters down from an opening in the heavens and lands upon one of the spectators. The movement and unnatural light catch the Baptist’s eye. As he scans the faces of the crowd, he comes to realise that only he has seen the phenomenon. Knowing this to be ‘the sign of the Messiah’, John searches the crowd. Spontaneously he roars, ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’ This is very similar to the Fourth Evangelist’s account, in which the spirit in the form of a dove descends upon Jesus, and it is a sign to John that the one it remains upon is the one who is to come. The influence of Luke lies in Edwards’ placing Jesus within a large crowd, ‘now when all the people had been baptised, and Jesus also had been baptised’. As in Luke, the reader is left to wonder whether or not John actually did baptise Jesus. However, Luke tells us beforehand that John had been arrested (3.1819). Edwards recounts John’s ministry in flashback. As such, the ambiguity is largely academic.
In a way, Wile’s (1995:86) portrayal of Jesus’ baptism also follows the Fourth Gospel, since it is told as reminiscence. This time, however, the event is seen not from John’s perspective, but Elizabeth’s:

She had been there the day Jesus came. She had watched the cousins together, John’s hands spilling water over Jesus’ head, the drops catching light like the circles spreading out and out until she herself was caught in their embrace.

The imagery reflects Daniel Bonnell’s striking drawing of John’s baptism of the people.  In that drawing, the light of God, represented by the sun, permeates the water that runs through the Baptist’s fingers and touches the eagerly awaiting penitents. Wile speaks of ‘drops catching light like fire’ to which she adds, ‘so the flashing water was spirit’. God, the sun, fire, water flowing from John’s hands onto Jesus, all combine to show the power of God working through nature, and bestowing that power upon the Messiah.
Early verses of Milton’s Paradise Regained speak of John’s baptism of Jesus, and the subsequent divine proclamation:

Heaven open’d, and in likeness of a Dove
The Spirit descended, while the Fathers voice
From Heav’n pronounc’d him his beloved Son.
That heard the Adversary, who roving still
About the world, at that assembly fam’d
Would not be last, and with the voice divine
Nigh Thunder-struck, th’ exalted man, to whom
Such high attest was giv’n, a while survey’d
With wonder, then with envy fraught and rage
Flies to his place, nor rests, but in mid air
To Councel summons all his mighty Peers


The heavenly voice is a feature of all three synoptic Gospels (Mk 1.11; Mt. 3.17; Lk. 3.22). In the Fourth Gospel, it is to John alone that the voice addresses itself. The dove, whose presence appears in each account, and which alights upon Jesus, marks the point at which Jesus of Nazareth becomes Christ. John’s baptism, then, is a understood as a holy and sacred event. One outcome of it, however, is quite profane. According to Milton, the event awakens the devil to Christ’s presence. John’s baptism has evil connotations. There is an obvious connection between Jesus’ baptism as it is related here and the Pseudo-Clementines’ 1 Rec. 1.53-54.1:

For the people were divided into many beliefs that began in the days of John the Baptist. For as the Messiah was ready to be revealed for the abolition of sacrifices and in order to reveal and show forth baptism, the slanderer who was opposed recognized from predestination the point in time and created sects and divisions, so that if the former sin should receive renunciation and correction, a second vice would be able to obstruct redemption.

John’s baptism, according to this source, marks the point at which the devil should make his second attempt to lead humanity to its fall. Another connection between John’s baptism and the devil exists in Cathar belief. As noted in chapter four, the Cathars regard John as an evil spirit or emissary of the devil. His baptism is considered evil because it uses water. Cathars, as Gnostics, believe that the physical earth was made by Satan. As such, John’s water baptism uses corrupt material, and so can only be defiling.

3.7 Death of John.
The death of John, as it is related in Mark (6.17-29) and Matthew (14.3-12), is ultimately compatible with Josephus’ account (Ant 18.116-19). Literature tends to place emphasis upon one source or another. Josephus provides the inspiration for Dixon’s version of events by setting John within the dangerous world of the desert prophets. He stresses the blurred line between apocalyptic preachers, who speak of fire, wrath and judgement, and those who reinforce their preaching with militant action. For Dixon (1975:55), John belongs to the former class. However, his message appeals to one whose methods are hardly innocent:

… but he [John] preached that a mortal should not reign over Israel, but the Most High, and that made him popular with the people who took it to be a further sign that the days of suppression were soon to end. Judas himself came out of hiding to be baptized while the son of Herod was away, together with his followers, and John’s baptism became more than a sign of the repentance from sin; it was a bond of unity and liberty — so that, whether he wished it or not, when Judas proclaimed himself the Messiah, people remembered the baptism and … some took it as signifying John’s approval.

Dixon, then, shows John moving in the same circles as a man dismissed by Gamaliel as a false Messiah (Acts 5.37). Such people were, as noted earlier, severely punished by the Roman occupiers of Israel. That John would share their fate was, perhaps, inevitable. An allusion to this can be found in Conrad (1994:13). Marlow finds that his predecessor, Fresleven, who had ‘been a couple of years out already there engaged in the noble cause’, had been killed.
Edwards (1991:25-6) presents John’s altercation with the religious authorities. John preaches to merchants, soldiers, camel drivers, farmers and fishermen, housewives, ‘women of renown’ and those of the streets, all of whom are ‘seeking something to fill a deep vacancy in their lives’. Here is a tacit indictment of the Temple establishment, who apparently fail to cater for the spiritual needs of the people. This could be Christian evangelism on Edwards’ part. However, as his novel uses John’s imprisonment as its premise, Edwards must find a way to incarcerate him. His condemnation of the Jerusalem delegation provides the means. John unleashes his anger upon them:

He wanted every human being present to know how he felt about the chains which traditionalists had forged upon the hearts and souls of God’s people.

As Edwards extends his prison theme to John’s own thoughts, he shows the Baptist spewing out his ‘brood of vipers’ speech at these men. The public humiliation at the hands of the preacher prompts the religious leaders to seek revenge against him.
This speech, of Q 3.9, is also used by Wile (1995:85). As John preaches, ‘Temple priests and Pharisees’ come to bear him, as in the Fourth Gospel (1.19-28). However, John’s reply to their questions comes directly from Q. John picks up a handful of stones, which he hurls onto the riverbank where the men are standing, ‘God could raise sons from these stones if he wanted to’, he bellows. In a clever connection between John’s training as an Essene and Q 3.9, Wile describes John raising his hatchet, a piece of equipment carried by the covenanters at Qumran, as he thunders, ‘even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree, and every tree that fails to bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire’ (1995:85-6). Wile implies that the unfruitful tree is in fact the religious system of Israel. The cutting down and burning of it will make way for a new, more fruitful, system, that of Christ. This ties in with Wile’s Christian perspective. Later, when John is arrested, Wile (1995:98-9) will show the Temple priests refusing to help John because of his preaching against them.
By showing John to be in conflict with the religious authorities, authors are able to play upon the church’s idea that the Baptist’s death was in some way linked to that of Jesus. Indeed, it is commonly understood as a precursor of Jesus’ own decease. John, Jesus’ forerunner in life, becomes in this way his forerunner in death too. If Jesus incurred the anger of the religious leaders, who were ultimately held responsible for his arrest (Mk 14.43, 53 55; 15.1-15 and par.; Jn 18.3, 13-14. 28-40), then John must have done so too. This belief is cleverly echoed in Conrad, whose Marlow often casts his thoughts back to the two women he had encountered at the Company headquarters (1994:14, 15). The older one, especially, made an impression upon him, ‘She seemed uncanny and fateful’(1994:16). As fateful as Herodias, perhaps? Also sinister is the doctor’s preoccupation with Marlow’s head (1994:16), which has vague associations with John’s ultimate fate.
Although the evangelists lay the blame for Jesus’ detention at the hands of the religious authorities, Mark (6.17-181), Matthew (14.34) and Luke (3.19), agree that Herod was responsible for that of John. Flaubert (1999:79) shows Herod being warned of the consequences of his actions by Phanuel, John’s Essene disciple: ‘the Almighty sends out one of his sons from time to time. Iaokannan is such a one. If you treat him badly, you will be punished’. Josephus (Ant 18.116-19) implies that Phanuel’s warning is ignored, and that his prediction comes true:

But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist.

Chaucer, in The Pardoner’s Tale, takes a less orthodox approach. He uses John’s death to exemplify the foolishness to which those who indulge in too much alcohol are reduced:

The hooly writ take I to my witness
That luxurise in wyn and drunkennesse
Lo how that dronken looth, unkyndely
Lay by his doghters two, unwityngly;
So dronk he was, he nyste what he wroghte
Herodes, whoso wel the stories soght,
Whan he of wyn was repleet at his feest
Right at his owene table he yaf his heeste,
to sleen the Baptist John, ful guilteless

Chaucer draws out several aspects of Herod’s character as he is depicted in the Gospels. His unnatural marriage (Mk 6.18 and par.), the influence of the women in his life (Mk 6.19, 22, 24 and par.), here referred to as daughters, and his rash promise, made while merry with wine (Mk 6.23). However, it should be noted that the evangelists do not state that Herod was drunk. He is simply taken to be because of his birthday celebrations.
Although captive, John is not entirely separated from the world. The Gospels imply that he had visitors, among whom were some disciples (Q 7.18-23) and Herod (Mk 6.20). Flaubert (1999:45) introduces Phanuel as a disciple of John who is trying to gain access to his master. Edwards also gives John visitors (1991:51), but adds the interesting dimension of two prison companions. These men occupy cells one and two, while John is the eponymous prisoner in the third cell. The first of these companions is Parnach, whom Edwards had introduced earlier as a wealthy and powerful relative of John (1991:10-11). Parnach had been proud of his status, but was imprisoned by Herod for undisclosed crimes. Like John, he had no trial. Herod had become rich on Parnach’s wealth (1991:41-2). The second companion, Hannel, has likewise been met (1991:9-10). He is John’s pious relative, who had prided himself upon his devoutness and learning, now languishes in his cell, cursing God for having abandoned him (1991:43-4). A connection can be made between these two characters and Jer. 9-23, wherein it states, ‘Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches.’ This passage speaks of wisdom, might and riches, all of which were rejected by Edwards’ John. He rejected conventional wisdom when he refused to live with Hannel following the death of his parents. He rejected wealth when he refused Parnach’s offer of a home at the same period in his life. However, all three attributes are combined in the religious leaders who came to question John prior to his arrest. John’s altercation with them was born of a rejection of all that they stood for.
According to Wilde, it was rejection of another kind that led to John’s death, his rejection of Salome’s sexual advances. In this erotic play, Salome attempts to seduce John. The ascetic, however, turns her down each time, ‘back! daughter of Babylon. By woman came evil into the world’ (1996:11). He sends Salome to Jesus, from whom she should ask ‘remission of thy sins’ (1996:13). As in the Gospels, Wilde’s Salome asks for John’s head on a platter as the reward for her dancing. Here, however, it is not at her mother’s bidding that she makes the request, but does so of her own accord. As soon as the head is handed to her, the reason for her desire for such a trophy becomes obvious, had it not already been guessed. Holding the head level with her own, she croons, ‘Ah! Thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. Well, I will kiss it now … (1996:34). John is executed not because he preached against Herod’s marriage to Herodias. Nor was it because he posed a threat to the stability of society, or because he might have led an insurrection against the Romans. Rather, it was because he would not yield to Salome’s advances. Wilde’s Salome acts according to the adage, ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’.
However it is portrayed, the killing of John has an air of senselessness about it. He is the luckless victim of a weak man, or a scheming woman. The depressing mood that pervades descriptions of this event perfectly matches the melancholy atmosphere of T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. This poem, a sombre monologue spoken by the eponymous hero, is suffused with an overwhelming sense of lost opportunities and time gone by too swiftly. Prufrock laments:

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald)
brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;
In the previous chapter it was seen that the execution of John the Baptist inspired some of the most vivid and disturbing images. The work of Fra Lippo Lippi inspired Robert Browning whose poem, Fra Lippo Lippi, includes the gruesome detail of the bloody-stained weapon:

His, elbowing on his comrade in the door
With the pike and lantern, — for the slave that holds
John Baptist’s head a-dangle by the hair
With one hand (‘Look you, now’. As who should say)
And his weapon in the other, yet unwiped!

3.8 Descent into Hell.
In Christian tradition, John goes into hell following his death. Here, he preaches the coming of Christ to the righteous dead. His post-death mission, therefore, is a continuation of his earthly one. This phase of John’s career provides the inspiration for Langland’s Piers the Ploughman.
In the first part of this story, Piers the Ploughman is the first leader who guides the narrator, later identified as Will, through his pilgrimage to Truth. He later appears, transfigured, his action making him indistinguishable from Christ. Will, delighted to have encountered Piers once again, asks him to knock down some fruit from the tree of Charity. As Piers obliges, it is revealed that the fruit consists of holy men, Adam, Abraham, Isaiah, Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist. As they fall from the tree, the devil gathers them and carries them off to the Limbo of Hell, where only Christ can save them:

Then I begged Piers to pluck down an apple, if he would, and let me try its taste. So he threw something at the top of the tree … For as the fruits kept dropping down, the Devil stood waiting to carry them off. He heaped them together, big ones and small indiscriminately – Adam, Abraham, Isaiah, the prophets, Samson, Samuel, and St John the Baptist – and carried them boldly away, for there was no one to stop him. So he made a hoard of holy men in the Limbo of Hell, where there is darkness and terror and only the Devil is master (1966:200-1).

John now takes over Abraham’s role in heaven. It had previously been for Abraham to care for the souls of the righteous dead, whom he kept in his bosom (Lk 16.22-3). Langland calls John ‘God’s herald on earth’ because, as the herald and baptiser of Christ, he is the ‘father of all who believe’ (Rom. 4.11)

‘So I [Abraham] have always been the herald, on earth and in Hell, and have comforted many suffering souls that wait for His coming.
‘And that is why I am seeking Him’, Abraham said. ‘I have heard recently that a man, John the Baptist, has baptised Him. And this man has told the souls in Hell, the patriarchs and prophets, that he has seen the Lord, who will save us all, walking on this earth. - “Ecce agnus dei – Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world”.’

John the Baptist, as the last snatched by the devil, is able to tell those who went before him of Christ’s presence on earth, and his imminent descent into hell.
John’s new environment is generally described as consisting of several circles. Conrad’s Marlow refers to ‘the gloomy circle of some Inferno’ (1994:24). Meanwhile, the concentric circles of Amsterdam’s canals remind Camus’ Jean-Baptiste Clamence of the circles of hell (1962:1481). This concept is more clearly defined by Dante. In ‘Paradiso’ XXXI-11 of The Divine Comedy, Dante is taken into Empyrean, the sempiternal rose of Paradise. Here, he encounters angels and the souls of the elect. His escort, St Bernard of Clairvaux, points out to him the throne of the Virgin Mary at the summit of Paradise. Opposite this throne sits John the Baptist,

So, opposite there is that of the great John
Who, ever holy, endured the desert and martyrdom.
And after that was two years in hell (Paradiso XXX11.3 1 -3).

The Divine Comedy features the two attributes that earned John his place among the Christian saints, which were discussed in chapter two. The first is his willingness to do God’s will, exemplified by his asceticism and self-sacrifice in the wilderness. The second is his martyr’s death, as seen from the Christian perspective. Further proof of John’s exalted status within Christianity lies in his position in Paradise opposite the Virgin Mary. As seen in the previous chapter, such exaltation inspired many works of art wherein John is closely associated with Mary. One example of this is John’s strong presence within the Life of Mary cycle, and the joint efforts of John and Mary on behalf of sinners as depicted in the Last Judgement portal of Reims Cathedral. John performs a similar service in the Deesis section of the Harbaville triptych (fig. 53), where he is seen once again opposite Mary.
Dante declares that John was two years in hell. According to Higgins ( 1998:731), this hell is in fact Limbo, the first circle of Inferno. It is the abode of unbaptised children, good pagans, famous poets such as Homer and Ovid, leaders such as Caesar and Saladin, heroes and heroines of Troy, philosophers, and the like (1998:28).
The people in Limbo have ‘committed no sin’ (‘Inferno’ IV.34), meaning that their souls are tainted by Original Sin alone. However, John was believed to have been born free from Original Sin , so another reason why he should be there must be found. Dante provides the answer:

… if they have merits,
That is not enough, because they are not baptised,
Which all must be to enter the faith which is yours (‘Inferno’ IV.34-6).

Here lies the reason for John’s sojourn in Limbo, he who baptised others was not baptised himself, and so he had to await Christ’s Harrowing of Hell before he could attain his place in Paradise.
John’s baptism has now taken on an entirely different purpose. John originally baptised in order to purify the body as an outward sign that baptisands had repented of their sins and had received divine forgiveness. The early church promoted it to an initiation ceremony. As Acts 1.22 declares, only he who had been a disciple of Jesus, ‘beginning from the baptism of John’ was deemed qualified to replace Judas as an apostle. Dante has taken this concept a step further, so that now baptism is understood as the only means of salvation. This imperfect theology, which seems unaware of the redemptive death of Christ, is explained by the fact that it is given to Dante by Virgil, who died nineteen years prior to Jesus’ birth (‘Inferno’ 1.67-81).
Dante does not suggest what task John might have accomplished in Limbo. This omission is corrected by Flaubert (1999:105). Phanuel the Essene shows John’s head, still lying on its platter, to two disciples. One of them assures Phanuel, ‘Take comfort! He has gone down among the dead to proclaim the Christ!’ For Phanuel, this declaration provides the explanation for John’s words, ‘For him to increase, I must decrease’ (Jn 3.30).

3.9 Saint.
Literary encounters with John the Baptist as a saint are rare. However, they do exist. Sterne’s Tristram Shandy features a character named Dr Slop, who curses:

May St. John, the Praecursor, and St. John the Baptist, and St. Peter, and St. Paul, and St. Andrew, and all other Christ’s apostles, together curse him.

The forerunner and Baptist elements of John’s ministry are divided here. Sterne emphasises the diversity of John’s role, as well as describing him as an apostle (Jn 1.6, where the Greek term apestalmenos, ‘having been sent’, contains the stem of the word apostle’).
Elsewhere it is allusions to John’s relics that are encountered. The richest source is Conrad, whose Marlow recalls that ‘a skinny forefinger beckoned me into the sanctuary’ (1994:15). Later, the doctor lifts a forefinger in warning to Marlow (1994:17). Of the would-be assistant-manager, Marlow notes, ‘if I tried I could poke my finger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe’ (1994:37). In each of these passages are allusions to John’s forefinger. This relic is held sacred because John used it to indicate Christ and well as in accusation of Herod.

4 Conclusion.
The aim of this chapter was to apply the knowledge gained in previous chapters of traditions of John the Baptist to a study of the literature featuring John. In order to continue this study it was necessary to choose an approach. The best approach seemed to be to take elements of John’s life story and arrange them according to the themes identified in previous chapters. The literary works themselves were then introduced. Finally, the themes of John as identified in these works were given, which provided a framework for the study.
Literature featuring John the Baptist can be divided into two classes. There are those that treat John as a character in his own right. Others take a trait of John or an element of his mission and apply it to one or more literary characters.
Works of the former class tend to use John as the vehicle for a message or to express a point. Perhaps the best example of this is Edwards’ The Prisoner in the Third Cell. Here, the author seeks to instruct and bring comfort to believers who find themselves unable to understand God’s adverse actions in their lives.
In other works, the elements of John’s character and mission must be looked for in other characters. John can be discerned in Eliot’s unfortunate Alfred Prufrock, who laments his meaningless end. Sometimes, those characters are John’s disciples, who offer insights of John in their dialogue. Disciples also impart information about John’s ministry, or serve to continue the story. This is the approach of Edwards, Wile and Flaubert.
A survey of the literature featuring John reveals all the elements that one would expect to find are present. Thus, John is a prophet who preached in the wilderness. He is portrayed as voice. His association with Elijah is evident. John’s baptism and the uncertainty of whether or not it was appropriate to baptise Jesus are found. There is a sense of destiny surrounding John and his mission, as well as speculation that his message might not be received, or at least that it might be misunderstood. Each of these elements will be recognised by anyone familiar with the John of the Gospels and the Apocrypha, even if the last mentioned contradicts what is found there. For other elements, the reader must not look to John traditions, but those connected with Christ. For example, John’s descent into hell was a natural extension of the tradition in which Christ went into underworld in order to save the souls of the righteous dead. John’s sainthood did not originate with the Gospels, but with the Church Fathers. It is lightly touched upon in literature, in the form of Sterne’s curse and Conrad’s relics. One unexpected detail is the presence of the pagan river-god, who was also encountered upon a mosaic at Ravenna. However, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of John in literature comes, not in the portrayal of John as a character, but as he and his mission are expressed by his environment. Parnell’s The Hermit, Longfellow’s St John and Beattie’s The Minstrel all use the wilderness, whether it be a mossy location, a lush forest or the more customary Jordan region. Kazantzakis draws out the significance of John’s chosen environment, with its connotations of judgement and divine wrath. Wile, in a most subtle way, uses the timing of John’s conception, at the Feast of Tabernacles, to accentuate his link with the desert and salvation.
Throughout this study, one writer in whose work the character of John the Baptist appeared to flourish more than in any other was continually encountered, Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness provided perhaps the most comprehensive study of John in the forms of Marlow and Kurtz. Elements of John that were discovered embedded within this novella included John’s apostolic mission of enlightenment, his environment in the form of three rivers and allusions to the desert. In the latter, the menace of the wilderness as it is recalled in Sint-Jans’ painting is particularly marked. A strong Gnostic flavour ran throughout the story, providing a contrast between the enlightenment supposedly brought by the Company and the dark deeds committed by Kurtz. The story focussed upon one special being and another’s obsession with him. Allusions to the devil, a voice, serpent metaphors and a sense of destiny and prophecy recalled further aspects of John’s mission. Finally, references to fingers and Marlow’s head recall John’s relics.
Unlike those engaged in the visual arts, writers cannot physically portray John in vivid imagery. Their canvas is the page, and their paint, words. Nevertheless, the skilful writer can paint such pictures within the mind of the reader, so that they become part of the world about which they are reading. Words can convey an expression, an emotion, a sense of place, as well as providing the reader with the physical attributes of the characters. They stimulate the imagination, so that the reader is able to visualise the scene before them. However, in another art form all these things are laid before the observer, so that little imagination is needed, the cinema. As with John in art and John in literature, the approach taken by film makers to John is dictated by the medium in which they work. This, then, is the subject of the final chapter.


  1. Hello there.. Can anyone translate the inscriptions on the icon of John the Baptist preaching in Hades above (also found at Thanks a lot. Reda


How Old was Katherine Howard?

The question of when Katherine Howard was born has long exercised scholars. The answer is vital as it helps us to understand how old she w...