February 22, 2014

The Death of John the Baptist as a Collective Memory Trauma

If you had been one of those Jews who thought the Baptizer was really somebody special, would you have stopped thinking about him just because he went to prison? According to Josephus, you would not.

Josephus says “the Jews” (and/or “Judeans”?) remembered John in a significant way when they cited “divine vengeance” for the Nabatean defeat of Herod Antipas’ army at Gamala. Granted, this defeat was merely five or so years after John’s beheading,* so these memories were fresh, but then connecting John’s death to the defeat of an army made a sensational story, much easier to pass along. Evidently, of course, there must have been some number of people passing along this version of current events around AD 35 to 37 in order for such sentiments to still be significant decades later – when Josephus last lived in Judea in the period of the war, c. 66-70 AD – in order for Josephus ultimately to pass this along in his publication of the Antiquities (c.93-94).   [*John’s arrest and eventual beheading took place around 30 AD (in 29 and 31, on the Heroman timeline) and Aretas’ advance into Philip’s territory lasted between 33/34, when Philip died, and early 37, when Governor A.Vitellius marched south from Antioch. For much more on all this, see relevant posts listed on my pages about Paul and Herodians.]

There’s a lot more to untangle here than the story of Antipas’ killing John. That’s the biblical part. Then there’s the story of Antipas and Aretas the Nabatean jockeying for the Golan Heights (while Tiberius crept toward his deathbed) because Philip the Tetrarch had died and Rome gave his territory to an absentee Governor of Syria. That’s the historical part. Then there’s the story of how Josephus collected his information and decided what to narrate about, and why it was worth sharing. That’s the literary part. But the aspect of things I want to focus on at the moment is the memory part.

People remembered John the Baptist. They knew that he was especially devoted to God, and that he had been killed, and that this had seemed unjust. Some people probably remembered a few other things, and a few people might not have remembered anything, but collectively there were enough people who remembered at least these three points that they regulated the basic structure of Josephus’ narrative, when he wrote down his own account from the various stories available, decades after the facts. Or, to invert that last point, there are details which add character to Josephus’ narration, but the basic structure of Josephus’ story about John seems to be based on three major points: John was Godly, John was killed, and his end was unjust.

If we take those three points back in time, we can reconstruct a basic social memory of John the Baptist at its organic inception, merely days after the actual beheading. The people who cared about John already knew that John had been a godly man, but once John was dead their knowledge about him grew by these additional two points, and became a final account, suitable for building upon by creating various memorializations. As the Gospels allude, there had been much talking done about John. What I want to focus on is the third point: that his death was unjust.

What would have been justice, for John? Note that I’m not asking about justice, but I’m wondering what his initial posterity – those Judeans and Galileans who cared to think about John – what had they been expecting?

Consider Nelson Mandela. On the day South Africa released him from prison, his supporters rallied and cheered, cried and shouted, chanted and celebrated. They had been hoping and praying for that day, wishing for it and imagining it, dreading that it would not come but believing that their best possible future would be for this thing that they wanted. On the day Mandela walked free, the outpouring of joy was a release of tempered but long-held expectations. For others, it may have been a day they’d long been dreading. But for Mandela’s supporters, it was – quite literally – a dream coming true.

So, again, what would have been justice, for John? To get out of prison? That doesn’t seem it was ever likely to happen, but plausibility isn’t the idea. Hope is the idea. People need hope to survive.

What did people envision? Was it possible that Antipas was going to be influenced by John, that John would baptize the Herod and God would retake the northern kingdom? Not realistically, no, but it’s entirely possible that some individuals or even whole synagogues had considered such a scenario. Did they think it was realistic? Again, not likely, no, but just to have a moment of considering such things was a delightful spark of a moment. Those kind of sparks are important to people.

What did people hope for? John’s disciples were still at large, and they had some means of communicating with him. Did people hope John might take up his work again, somehow vicariously, through his disciples? Maybe. Possibly. But the point just now isn’t for me to invent an idea so you and I might decide whether anyone else had that idea, back then, while John was still living in prison. Rather, the point is that people were probably having these kinds of ideas when John was still living in prison.

Jesus, of course, was moving around Galilee during John’s entire imprisonment. Jesus was going around, doing his thing. But people were still thinking about John. Maybe some expected that Jesus would eventually get popular enough that Herod would have to release John. Maybe some thought that Jesus would eventually claim political power and release John directly. It’s possible, of course, that nobody was thinking anything exactly like this, but it’s very probable that many people were occasionally thinking about something like this.

John was an important man, and John was godly. There were ungodly men in charge of the nation, and Jesus is going around talking about the Kingdom. And after John died, people thought it was unjust. They thought God wanted revenge. I don’t think many pondered long whether God wanted John to be killed or whether God didn’t want John to be killed. They just thought this particular death made God mad.

But none of that is my point.

Before John died, people had some idea of what would have been just. Maybe the least anyone hoped for John at that point was a long life in prison, and perhaps the most they hoped for would occasionally be some kind of earth-shaking realignment of things, but people thought about John with some sense of expectant potential. They did not expect him to die. They did not want him to die. The status quo for generations was that change was uncommon, but if the great man John was alive, then dreams were possible. While John was alive, hope was alive.

After John died, it changed the political dynamic for both Jesus and Antipas, though in different ways. Antipas soon began hunting Jesus, and Jesus began skirting the boundaries of Galilee, but Antipas realized that he’d prefer letting Jesus go down to Judea. Two dead prophets was too much blood for one set of hands, if those hands wanted to avoid trouble from his subjects in Galilee. And Jesus’ death in Judea was partly the result of escalating tensions caused by Jesus’ extended time in Judea, which had only begun since John the Baptist had died. Obiously, all of these changes were significant results of John’s death, going forward.

But none of that is my point.

Here is my point.

The biggest change after John’s death, at least the change most overlooked until now, is the way that it changed people’s outlook on what kinds of futures were possible. It was not that anyone’s lives changed in practical ways, but it was a more direct effect on people’s actual lives, because this affected their inner lives.

John’s death changed the projected storylines that were constantly being written and rewritten on the insides of everyone’s heads – or at least the insides of a great many heads – every day, day after day. While John was alive in prison, people went on carrying whatever set of hoped for or potential scenarios they might have been envisioning. For some people it may have been nothing more than John’s continued aliveness making it easier to believe God would deliver Israel. Again, it doesn’t matter specifically what they were thinking. What matters is that when John died an enormous, incalculable quantity of collective mental and emotional energy lost a big chunk of its focus. When John died, those scenarios could no longer be imagined, whatever they were. Whatever people might have been hoping for was suddenly and utterly gone. A vast number of scripts had just been wiped blank.

To some degree or another, this was a traumatic event. John’s place as a cultural figure makes it collectively traumatic, for some significant portion of the Palestinian-Jewish population at that time. And this brings me back to what I reflected on the other day, and to what I’ve been ruminating about in terms of basic social memory since last January, which I re-combobulated most recently here.

Consider the United States in November of 1963. When John F Kennedy was killed, it didn’t matter what people thought of him. Everyone was shocked. It had seemed unthinkable. That same day they swore in Lyndon Johnson as President, and many things were about to change, but it’s not a long stretch to argue that what changed most of all was the mental state of everyone in America. Whatever people had recently been imagining about the near future of their lives in this country, those scenarios all had Kennedy in them. Regardless of whatever expectations you’d hoped for or been dreading – unless you were the killer(s?) – everyone’s near-future scripts, and many people’s far-future scripts also, were wiped blank in an instant. For decades afterward, people would ask one another, “Where were you when Kennedy died?” and everyone would remember. Likewise, everyone of a certain age knows where they were when 9/11 took place, and it’s not so much because these events changed the exterior world – which they did – but because they changed people’s internal worlds. The real world ramifications from such events work themselves out slowly and gradually. When we think about civil rights law, today, do we think about LBJ replacing JFK? I don’t think we do. Thus, the actual developing results aren’t the primary thing that makes certain kinds of events so memorable.

Rather, the primary reason these kinds of events are so incredibly memorable is because of how completely and how instantly they alter everyone’s mental reality. The way we live in this world is by constantly writing scripts – large and small – about what is going to happen. Even the times we spend writing scripts about the past – those efforts are typically driven by present concerns, which are actually concerns for the future. That is, Historians call this “presentism” but technically we are not genuinely concerned for the immediate present, for the precise “present” is constantly passing away, moment by moment. No, what we care most about is the immediate future, the near-future, and for the ongoing human sense of a “present”, which – again – is how we envision the future. Thus, the primary reason traumatic events shake our lives so completely is because they put an end to whatever we’d become accustomed to envisioning, or expecting, or hoping. People even mourn the loss of predictability when its dreadful. “Better the devil you know”, as they say.

When John the Baptist died, people obviously found ways to move on. The world doesn’t end, after all, when hopes and dreams die so suddenly. But the world does dramatically pause for a moment. It takes a span of time for human beings to change mental habits. The stories we tell ourselves in our daily lives are habitual, because we tell them repeatedly. Perhaps we alter the story – or stories – a bit every day, but that changing story nevertheless remains the same story, under gradual revision. However, on the day when a central figure in someone’s common projection (their internal future storyline) is suddenly taken away, that same story cannot be told anymore. And yet, because it’s the story we’ve become mentally accustomed to telling ourselves, we keep trying to tell it. And yet we cannot.

Consider how often a widow or widower has been known to remark, “I just can’t believe they’re really gone” or “I just keep thinking I’ll walk in and see them at home”. This is precisely that accustomed expectation of our self-storying mentality, which takes some time to reset itself. People don’t talk about death very often, and we rarely talk about memories of funeral weeks, but I’ve heard many times that when you lose someone important, especially at a young age, that it never leaves you. You never get over such losses. It seems possible, then, that what this common experience reflects is that significant losses are extremely memorable. What “stays with you” is that initial shock, the circumstances of the traumatic loss and its immediate aftermath, themselves. In those days the brain goes on trying to re-learn how to write future scripts, but you don’t necessarily want it to do so. You don’t really want to begin imagining your future without the departed.

Or, for a different example, we can briefly consider the horrifying trauma of rape. A common testimony among survivors of rape is that losing one’s feeling of safety can be the worst part of the experience, perhaps because it’s the most lasting. The mind’s ability to write future scripts was working just fine before the attack, but afterwards it keeps trying to write normal scripts and it cannot. It’s as if safety itself has just died, as if safety can no longer be written into the script, as if the mind can no longer imagine a world in which people don’t try to rape you. There can’t be anything more awful, and forgive me for bringing it up, but the point is that whether someone has died or whether your safety and innocence have been stolen by a vicious attack, there are certain kinds of experiences that leave us all struggling to imagine the rest of today or tomorrow.

It is such days of blank futures, I suggest, which make the present so vividly memorable.

If all this is valid, then such was equally true for a good number of Judeans and Galileans when they heard John the Baptist was killed. The first thing, evidently, is that there had been a large group of people who focused intently on John’s life while he had been alive; on its meaning, on its potential ramifications, even when John had been rotting in prison for months, a year, perhaps two years altogether. And then, suddenly, John was dead.

If that collective re-writing of future scripts was traumatic enough, and inclusive enough – as evidently it was – then this would explain why John’s beheading is such a significant linchpin of the historical events being retold by the Gospels. What I mean by that is another topic, but in short, John’s death is like the most visible link in a chain of causality. Remember John’s death, and you start remembering what led up to John’s death. Less specifically perhaps, you also start remembering some of what followed.

In the Gospels – particularly the synoptics – the events leading  to John’s death are crystal clear. There’s a precise chain of events, each tied to corresponding circumstances. When John’s arrested, Jesus leaves Judea. While John’s in prison, Jesus travels in Galilee. When John dies, what comes next is more foggy but a pattern presents itself. Overall, from then on, the writers stop telling stories about Galilee and start telling about Jesus in other places, and soon thereafter he’s moving into Judea. While there’s no profit in taking narrative sequence as a stand-in for chronological history, these basic patterns of the narrative structure reveal an overarching chain of causality [or maybe 'skeletal chain of causality' is a more apt metaphor].

The basic chronology of Jesus’ ministry which the Gospels reflect is that Jesus’ Galilean phase corresponded to John’s imprisonment, and that Jesus’ extra-Galilean phase began after John was beheaded. This, precisely, is how ancient chronology was usually marked in historical literature: by the death of great men. In this case, John obviously was not a King, but as with the death of a king, such as Herod the Great, or the death a president, like JFK, or the release of a messiah-like figure, like Nelson Mandela, so was John’s death a significantly memorable event, in and of itself. While the memorability of John’s death does not require stories to be centered around it (the fourth gospel certainly avoided this structure) it does naturally present such a narrative structure as a convenient and helpful pattern for organizing the past.

The Gospel writers had plenty of angles, opinions, literary motifs and theological agendas, but John’s death was used as a key plot point because it was readily available as such.

The first draft of social memory is sometimes written because pages went blank.

But none of that is my point.

I began this long blogpost by asking the question, “If you had been one of those Jews who thought the Baptizer was really somebody special, would you have stopped thinking about him just because he went to prison?” And while I hope you’ve enjoyed all the fascinating avenues we’ve explored during this thought train, there’s honestly one point above all that I think we might best remember ourselves, when disembarking from this delightful excursion.

The contours of Josephus’ story, and the Gospels themselves, show that John was remembered. And the way that John was remembered reflects how people thought about John while John was still alive. That means that John was a significant person to many Jews in Judea and Galilee, even while the poor man himself was languishing, confused and desperate, in prison. We have often reflected on the gospel stories about John and felt sorry for poor John. He questioned everything and may have felt he died for nothing. But today I’m suggesting we can focus on the people who outlived John the Baptist, the ones to whom he was such a great man. We can focus on the fact that these ones who thought his death was so wickedly unjust simply must have spent many months, while he was in prison, hoping that something more just would befall him, and give them all hope for a greater portion of God's justice.

If you wish to step into that portion of History, then put yourself in that time and that place and imagine how much he meant to them all. Then imagine that moment, that week. Imagine what it was like… to lose hope for a while.

Can we take a moment of silence?

John the Baptist is dead.



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