A: You said a few days ago [Feb. 6] that the man you knew as John the Baptist had been raised to believe he was one of the Essene’s two prophesied Messiahs. Tell me more about that.
J: In order to understand the history of John the Baptist, you have to understand the mindset he was raised in. Most normal people — by that I mean psychologically and emotionally well adjusted — can’t relate to the mindset. This is true regardless of what time period you’re looking at. By that I mean there were normal, well-adjusted people 2,000 years ago who were just as bewildered by John as normal people would be today. He was an extreme person — and his extreme nature brought out a lot of different reactions in people. Some people thought he was a hero. Others thought he was a nutcase. The normal people thought he was a nutcase.
A: Yet you spent several years hanging out with him.
J: I did. I genuinely believed he had important things to teach me about God. He had a masterful grasp on the sacred writings of the Hebrew tradition. His recall was phenomenal. It was rote learning, pummelled into his brain by years and years of study. I didn’t understand for a long while that rote learning isn’t the same thing as insight.
A: You thought he had insight.
J: He was so different from other people I knew. He seemed so focussed, so pure in his devotion to his calling. He never had doubts. He seemed almost . . . almost invincible. His faith seemed as sturdy as a mountain. Unshakeable. Unmoveable. I found it fascinating. I wanted to understand how to get faith like that. Of course, it turned out he had no faith in God at all. He had faith in the teachings of his religious sect, the Essenes. Faith in sacred teachings is not the same thing as faith in God.
A: I learned that one the hard way.
J: As did I. As did I. The Essenes were a breakaway sect — one of several groups that all used the sacred Hebrew texts but in very different ways. There was no single form of Judaism then. And not just Judaism. There were too many different religions at the time to count — some Greek, some Egyptian, some Persian, some mainstream, some cult-like, some offering wisdom, some offering salvation, some offering healing. It was a giant mishmash of religious options. A giant smorgasbord. People think it’s bad today. But it was much worse 2,000 years ago. It was confusing as hell.
A: So a prophet with unshakeable conviction was very appealing.
J: People need certainty. Not in everything, of course, but in their relationship with God, they want clear answers. John seemed to have those clear answers.
A: What was John’s relationship with other religious groups? How did he view other Jews, for instance? I should probably ask something else first, though, just to be sure . . . was John a Jew?
J: Most definitely. He was a circumcised male. As far as he was concerned, the tribes of Israel were the chosen people, and he was one of their chosen leaders. He had no use for Jews who fraternized with the enemy — the enemy being a rather broad category that included almost every non-Essene on the planet.
A: How did John feel about Jewish groups such as the Pharisees? The Pharisees were interested in teaching people how to live according to the laws of the Torah. So was he more sympathetic to the Pharisees?
J: No. As far as John was concerned, the Pharisees were just another bunch of corrupt, impure, impious, unfaithful Jews. Anyone who rejected the Essene’s phenomenally rigid purity laws were inferior in John’s eyes. That’s why the Pharisees are not painted in a positive light in John’s gospel.
A: Nobody’s painted in a positive light in John’s gospel except for the Son of God.
J: And maybe John the Baptist.
A: Yes, he does “show” rather well, doesn’t he?
J: It’s John who makes the definitive identification of the Messiah.
A: So if John believed he himself was the Messiah, why did he write a whole gospel dedicated to making you into the Messiah?
J: Well, you know, that’s the tricky thing. John doesn’t really make me — the fleshly, earthly me — the Messiah. He uses my name. He uses some of my own writings. He uses some of the people and events in my life. But he doesn’t tell the story of me — the man who rejected Essene teachings and the legitimacy of the Temple. He creates a myth. He creates the man he eventually believed me to be. He creates an elaborate dream-myth of mythical overlighting to explain — largely to himself — why he himself wasn’t actually the Messiah. His gospel is his justification, his justification of himself and his actions. He created a tale of a human figure who was so divine — so impossibly elevated beyond the reality of human life and human understanding — that nobody — not even the most righteous Jew — could come close to his perfection. This got John off the hook. Because if nobody could come close to the perfection of the Son of God, then John himself couldn’t come close. Not even with his impressive pedigree.
A: What do you mean by “mythical overlighting”?
J: Ah. This goes back to what we were talking about earlier today — John’s extreme but troubled mindset. As I mentioned before, John suffered from a psychotic illness throughout adulthood. His delusions came and went. But like most people who suffer from schizophrenia, he had periods where he had difficulty separating reality from delusion. Unfortunately, this is part of the illness. John’s psychopathology made him vulnerable to delusional ideas about the nature of God and humanity. He came to believe that I had not really been a human being. Not in the normal sense of the word. He knew I’d had a physical body, but in his delusional state he decided that I’d been “overlighted” by God. “Taken over,” if you will, by the divine presence. “Bumped out” and replaced by pure divine consciousness. Sort of like being “possessed,” only instead of being possessed by a demon, it’s possession by the One God.
A: Oh. That idea is still quite popular with fantasy and horror writers.
J: And many New Age gurus.
A: Yeah, that too.
J: This is partly why John’s gospel was popular with later Gnostic Christians. Gnostic Christians had an elaborate, dualistic world cosmology where good and evil were doing battle, and sparks of the divine fell to Earth to be trapped in evil human bodies. John’s portrayal of an overlighted Messiah fit right in with that.
A: And of course there was the Docetic heresy, where people read John and decided that Jesus never had a physical body at all and was just pure divine light all along — a vision of divinity that could only be seen by certain followers.
J: This is the problem with taking books that have been written by mentally ill people and labelling them “divine revelation” or “the inspiration of God.” John’s gospel isn’t balanced and isn’t truthful. It says all the wrong things about God. It’s caused no end of problems.
A: It sets the bar impossibly high for all human beings. How are we supposed to follow the example of a guy who’s the Son of God, and the living bread, and the gate, and the good shepherd, and the vine, and the light of the world, and the resurrection and the life. I mean, that’s a tall order.
J: Not if you’re God the Mother and God the Father.
A: Yeah. But John’s not talking about God. He’s talking about a man named Jesus. That’s a whole different kettle of fish.
J: It keeps people from trying too hard. If you raise the bar too high, people won’t even bother trying. That’s what John wanted, though. He wanted to raise the bar so he himself wouldn’t have to jump it.
A: That’s so selfish!
J: John was a selfish man. He and his brother James were raised to believe they were the chosen Messiahs. It was their whole life, their whole mission. They weren’t going to give it up. When circumstances forced them to give it up, they didn’t go down without a fight. John was still fighting for his birthright till the day he died. And the one thing he was determined to do was prevent anyone from following the teachings of “Jesus of Nazareth” as opposed to his divine “Jesus, Son of God.” If he couldn’t have the crown of glory, he was going to make certain I couldn’t have it, either.
A: You didn’t want it, though.
J: No. I didn’t. But John never accepted that. He was certain I was “out to get him” — that I was trying to take the crown of glory for myself. John was paranoid. And John was angry. And eventually he saw me as his enemy. It ended badly. Very, very badly.
A: What did he do to you that he would have to drag thousands — millions — of other people into his own self-serving fantasy of divine rescue?
J: He helped turn me over to the authorities. And then he stabbed me. Right in the lower gut. He thought he’d killed me, but he hadn’t.
A: Ah. That might make a person feel guilty enough to try to explain away his actions.
J: It wasn’t a very saintly thing to do.