Sunday, 20 December 2015

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 3

For the next weeks, my Sunday postings will be a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966).

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.

What did educated Jersey clergy think in those days? This is a scholar study by a local clergyman who was also a historian, and one who had exception gifts in writing; few local historians can match his use of the English language to bring subjects alive. It shows also a scholar who was well acquainted with the best New Testament critics of his day, and who could also bring an independent turn of mind to the subject matter, sometimes surprisingly so.

The Prophet In The Wilderness
By G.R. Bailleine

PALESTINE was nursing a stupendous hope and seething with suppressed fury. Any spark might cause an explosion. But there was no leader. In olden days there had been a constant succession of Prophets; but for four hundred years prophecy had ceased. A late psalm laments, `There is no more any Prophet.' But everyone believed that this silence would cease. In the days of the Maccabees Simon was made Governor, `till a faithful Prophet should arise'. The profaned altar-stones were `laid in a convenient place, till there should come a Prophet to show what should be done with them'. A Prophet at any rate must appear to prepare the way for the Messiah. His appearance would be the sign that the crisis had come.

One day `in the fifteenth year of Tiberius' (i.e. between August A.D. 28 and August 29) a rumour ran round Capernaum that a Prophet was preaching in the Wilderness of Judea. This was the desolate region where rocks had been tortured into hideous shapes by volcanic eruptions, which stretched from the Dead Sea almost to the walls of Jerusalem. Pilgrims crossing it had been startled by a gaunt figure, wearing nothing but a leather loin-cloth and a camel-hair cloak. His food was rough Bedouin fare, such as sun-dried locusts' and wild honey. He had stopped them with the cry: `Repent' The Malkuth is at hand.'

They were deeply impressed. Here at last was a Prophet, a modern Amos, a new Elijah, a Messenger from God.

The Wilderness had many hermits. Greek self-indulgence had so leavened life in Palestine that it had caused in some quarters a reaction towards asceticism. Pharisees had begun to fast twice a week. The Nazarite vow with its teetotal pledge was revived. Settlements of monk-like Jews, called Essenes, had sprung up near the Dead Sea, with vows strict as those of Trappists or the Buddhist monks of Tibet. Even the worldly Josephus joined for a time a hermit named Bannus, who lived on berries in the Wilderness.

The new Prophet was one of these hermits. His name was John. He was said to be a young priest who had broken away from the Temple. His soul had revolted against the stately formalism of its services. Its ritual seemed stale and profitless. The very psalms he chanted flung down the challenge: `Thinkest thou that I eat bulls' flesh or drink the blood of goats?' He had fled to the Wilderness, and prayed and pondered, till, in the fine old Hebrew phrase, `the word of the Lord came to him'. He felt God had given him a message.

According to Josephus he began with `Jews who were training themselves in virtue', probably the Wilderness ascetics, and urged all `whose souls had been thoroughly cleansed by righteousness' to be baptized, `not for pardon of sins, but for purification of the body'. His early baptisms were apparently merely an outward sign that the soul had been purged from sin. A clean soul must be given a clean body to dwell in.

Washing is so obvious a symbol that we find it in most religions. In Greece bathing admitted neophytes to the Eleusinian Mysteries, in Egypt to those of Isis. In India the Ganges is black at times with pilgrims seeking cleansing. In Judaism proselytes were washed before admission to the Jewish Church. Josephus' teacher Bannus `bathed frequently day and night for religious purity'. And John laid such stress on Baptism that he was called `the Baptist'.'

[The Greek word baptistet means literally the `Dipper'. The Septuagint uses it when it says that Naaman `dipped seven times in the Jordan'. ]

His fame spread, and crowds flocked out to hear him. `There went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the Jordan district.' His message was: `The Malkuth is at handl Repent ere it is too late! Awful will be the fate of sinners, when the Day of Wrath dawns.' He said little about the Kingdom, but much about the coming Doom. The closing warning of the Old Testament was ever on his lips, `The day cometh that shall burn as an oven, and the wicked shall be stubble.' `Repent or perish,' was his cry,

`God will burn the dross out of the silver. He will burn the trees that are fruitless. He will sweep the chaff from His threshing-floor into unquenchable fire.'

The effect was terrific. `Many turned to John,' wrote Josephus, `for by listening to him their souls were mightily uplifted; and Herod feared lest his great influence might cause them to rebel, for they seemed ready to do whatever he suggested.' But the rulers dared not interfere, `for,' says Mark, `everyone believed John to be a Prophet'. They need not have been nervous. His aim was Repentance not Revolt. And now he found a new use for his favourite rite of Dipping. He could lash the people by his eloquence into a frenzy of fear; but he needed something that would register their resolve to start a new life, something to commit them irrevocably in their own eyes and in the eyes of others.

So he moved to the Jordan Valley. A public plunge beneath the water of the river would be a confession of uncleanness, an acted prayer, `Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow,' a death unto sin, followed by a stepping out to a new, clean life of righteousness. He called all who wished to be ready for the Malkuth to follow him into the water. `And they were baptized by him in the Jordan confessing their sins.'

When Simon heard this, he could not stay away. He and Andrew sailed their boat to the south of the lake and set out on foot to find the Prophet. The Jordan valley is one of the strangest spots on earth. `There may be something,' writes G. A. Smith,' `on another planet to match it. There is nothing on this.' It is a deep rift in the earth's surface, sixty-five miles long, which sinks 1,300 feet below sea-level. Much of it is jungle, through which the river rushes angrily. The time must have been winter, for, says Smith, `from each Spring to late Autumn the heat in this trench is intolerable'.

Somewhere near the hamlet of Bethabara, on high ground beyond the river, Simon found the great bivouac. Men of all types were there, priests and profligates, brigands and shepherds, soldiers and scribes. There was some opposition, the most dangerous being, `They said, He hath a devil.' But the majority were profoundly moved.

Simon stood and listened. Part of John's preaching thrilled him. He had often prayed that he might see the coming of the Kingdom. But, when John pressed for repentance, Simon shook his head. Gentiles, of course, would have a bad time when Messiah came. He would `dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel'. But Simon had always assumed that he and his would be safe. They were God's Chosen People. Pagan proselytes might need washing before they could enter the fold, but not members of God's Family! He sympathized with someone who shouted, `We are Abraham's children!' But the Prophet retorted: 'Abraham's children! Some of you are more like children of vipers. Pedigrees mean nothing. God can raise from these stones children of Abraham. Character, not genealogy, is the thing that counts. God wants better men than you to help build up His Kingdom.'

As Simon listened, old sins began to sting his conscience. If sinners were doomed, could he escape? When the crowd thinned, he went to John, and asked, `What can I do?' John made him confess his sins, and, when satisfied that he was sincere, he led him down into the river, and there, behind the gigantic thistles, where no eye but God's could see, with a brief prayer he plunged him under the water. This was an emotional experience that Simon never forgot. As he gasped half drowned, while the Baptist held him down, he felt that his old life was dying, his old sins were being swept away into the Dead Sea; and he stumbled back up the river bank determined to live a new life. Later he always laid tremendous stress on baptism. To the Whitsunday crowd he cried, `Repent, and be baptized every one of you.'

For some weeks he and Andrew remained with John. He, whose life was one long fast, taught his disciples to fast. He gave them lessons in prayer. But one thing about him puzzled them: How did he fit into the apocalyptic programme? From stray Old Testament texts Scribes had worked out a time-table. First would come a Prophet like Moses; then Elijah would reappear; then the Messiah would reveal himself. Was John the promised Prophet? or Elijah? Or could he be the Messiah?

He disclaimed all these titles. The only Old Testament title he claimed was `a Voice crying in the Wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord'. `I am nobody,' he said, `only a Voice. It is the Coming One you must watch for, whose sandal-straps I am not fit to unlace. All that has happened yet is only a prelude. The dramatic day for which the ages have waited is about to dawn.'

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