John 1:29-34
Separated Cousins?

by Rev. Richard A. Miserendino
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

Home Page
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index

John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’  I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.”  John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain un him.  I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’  Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”

While everyone enjoys a good story, there are some who enjoy finding the plot holes or inconsistencies in one almost as much as they enjoyed the work itself.  Those eagle-eyed readers would spot what seems to be a contradiction in our Gospel today (Jn 1:29-34).  John the Baptist has this to say about Jesus: "He is the one of whom I said, 'A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me'.  I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel."

Did you catch it?  John says (twice) that he didn't know Jesus.  How is that possible if Jesus and John the Baptist are cousins?  After all, we even have an entire mystery of the rosary named for the first time they met.  John the Baptist even leapt in Elizabeth's womb.  Is this a plot hole then?  How do we explain this?

A possible answer appears if we use a bit of historical and archaeological detective work, and then combine that with the biblical data using reason.  Granted, this is all speculation, and we don't know for sure, but consider a few points: 

When Elizabeth became pregnant with John, the Bible tells us that both she and Zechariah were already "advanced in years."  That, in fact, was part of the miracle of John's conception.  Given life expectancies in those days, it was thus very likely that both of John's parent died when he was very young, leaving him an orphan.

Meanwhile, Mary, Joseph and Jesus had relocated to Nazareth (about 150 km from the location of the Visitation - Ein Karem), which was only accessible by a lengthy journey through territory of varying degrees of hostility.  thus, family visits were even less likely.

Yet, things become even more interesting when we consider what likely happened to John as he grew up.  We hear fro Luke's Gospel (Lk 1:80) that "The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel."  John's youth wasn't spent in Jerusalem or even a small town, but in the desert.  The plot thickens: who raised him, then?

Here's where a bit more speculation comes into play:  The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has taught us a lot about religious communities in the time of Jesus.  In particular, we've learned a lot about a group called the Essenes, a monastic society of celibate men living a life of prayer and asceticism out in the desert.  Geographically speaking, they were in John's neighborhood.  Theologically speaking, there are many similarities between that community and the life of John the Baptist.  Moreover, from history, we know that the Essenes had a practice of adopting orphans.

Thus, a possible picture emerges: Perhaps John, orphaned at a young age, was taken in by this monastic group and raised in the wilderness.  Since his life was one separated from family and even a surrounding civilization, it's reasonable that he wouldn't have met Jesus in a way that he would have remembered.  Here faith and reason come together to suggest a possible solution to our (apparent) plot hole.

With respect to John the Baptist and us, this also presents a beautiful image: John the Baptist had a family connection to Jesus that needed restoring and lived in one of the most unlikely places for that necessary encounter to happen.  Yet, Christ went to meet him even there in the desert.  In doing so, he fulfills the deepest desires of John's heart and gives meaning to his life.  As for us: What has Jesus come to do if not bring us back into the family of God through baptism?  He'll even venture out into our personal deserts to meet us, reveal what our hearts have been seeking all this time, and welcome us home to the kingdom.