The Birth of John the Baptist.
In its original state, when transitioning to its more specific representation, Christian consciousness was far from the rigid dogmatic formulation that saw the promise of the prophets about the Son of David fulfilled in one person with bold unconcern for positive and juridical correctness, who was nonetheless known not to be of Davidic descent. However, once Christian consciousness was fixed in the realm of imagination, it could no longer maintain its freedom and had to objectify its internal relationships and connections with the past into external circumstances. Jesus was now genealogically attested and proven to be the Son of David.
What view could be bolder than that of the first followers of Jesus, who confessed that a man who, as is well known, was born in Nazareth and, as was known, was the son of his parents like his brothers and sisters, was the Son of the living God. In the Gospel of Mark, the standpoint of this view is still preserved; however, if we say that it did not retain its dominion forever and that it gave way to the idea of a real generation of Jesus by the power of divinity, we do not mean to imply corruption of the original principle in any way, but rather the necessary development of the religious categories that transform the inner determinateness of self-consciousness into external historical events and bring a heavenly world into these events.
In this process the Gospel, in which we first find the view of the miraculous generation of the personality of Jesus, has also excluded the person of the Forerunner. As a forerunner, the Baptist stood in the closest relationship to the Messiah, and because of this intimate connection, his story had to be placed in the same miraculous light that was poured over the story of the Lord. And if the Lord, because of his messianic prerogative, was the Son of the Most High, then the birth of the forerunner had to appear at least as miraculous, so that in all essential points it was unmistakably divine destiny. Thus, his parents, the priest Zacharias and Elisabeth, remained childless until their old age. When Zacharias was performing his service in the Temple in Jerusalem, the angel of the Lord appeared to him, bringing him the glad tidings that Elisabeth would give birth to a son, whom he should name John, and he revealed to him that his son, in the power and spirit of Elijah, would go before the Lord and prepare the people for his coming. Zacharias doubted and could not understand how he and his wife could still be given a son at their old age. Then the angel, who said he was Gabriel, who stood before God, came in God’s name, and his message would certainly be fulfilled, and until it happened, Zacharias would be mute as punishment for his unbelief. Elisabeth, in fact, ceases to be barren and gives birth to a son. When the child is to be circumcised on the eighth day, the relatives and friends want to give him his father’s name, but the mother wants him to be called John, although no one in her family had that name. And when the father, who was gesturing, wrote the same name on a tablet, everyone was amazed at this miraculous coincidence. But at this decisive moment, Zacharias regained his speech, and his first words were the praise of the Most High, who would give his people salvation from their enemies and forgiveness of sins.
Our judgment on this report is immediately ready and justified if we reflect on the nature of religious consciousness and in this demonstrate the origin of the idea of angels. The religious spirit is the division of self-consciousness in which its essential determination appears as a power distinct from consciousness. Before this power, self-consciousness must naturally lose itself – for in it, it has thrown its own captivity out of itself, and as far as it can still assert itself as “I”, it feels itself as nothing in front of that power, just as it must regard it as the nothingness of itself. Nevertheless, self-consciousness as “I” cannot completely lose itself. In its subjective, worldly, and morally-oriented thinking and willing, it still retains its freedom, and the religious consciousness and the historical development of the same are involuntarily drawn into this freer movement. Both religious consciousness and free self-consciousness thus come into contact, even permeation, without which the former could not be individually alive or capable of historical development. However, when this liveliness and development become the subject of religious contemplation after their initial calm, they are taken away from self-consciousness, and they appear to consciousness as a foreign act. Necessary, then, is also the mediation that it had set up within self-consciousness as its own movement, to become a machinery whose threads are directed in a transcendent world. Thus, the inner vibrations of self-consciousness appear to the spirit that has gone outside itself as the messengers of an upper world, and the crises of such times, in which an important development of religious spirit occurred, were instigated, announced, and supervised by these same messengers, by the angels. When the religious spirit finally surveys a longer series of developments of self-consciousness, it can objectify the idea of their connection and the essential unity of its inner world in no other way than by projecting unity out of itself and accepting one and the same angel or the citizens of the angelic kingdom, which remains the same above the changing appearance world of history, as servants of the divine plan. Angels who had already brought salvation to the ancient world and who served as mediators between the afterlife and this life must also serve the consummation, announce it, and glorify their entry.
When doubt about the empirical reality of these ideal effulgurations of religious consciousness arises, and the certainty that they belong only to the phenomena of the logical world of the mind sets in, then apologetics, this half-science, if it still wants to defend their objective reality, can only suffer defeats. Indeed, it must – but it does not require great effort – it must be defeated because with its words it robs the history of all dignity and significance, and one should not think that the fight is still against religion as such.
“In the environment of the greatest miracle in human history, through which it was to be placed in intimate communion with heaven,” says Neander *), “the rays of an otherwise veiled invisible world shining into humanity appear as something harmoniously related.” Indeed: in the personal fulfillment of past history, the geniuses of the spirit world must come together. But that can only be thought of in such a way that in the person of Jesus, the historical prerequisites that were previously distributed among individual historical spirits and were dispersed were united, and thus those spirits appear as servants around him who initiated and announced his arrival. This dialectic, that in the person of Jesus the preparatory prerequisites were united, has been thrown into another world for religious consciousness, and those preparations and conditions have become independent light points, now appearing as spirits of an otherwise “veiled world,” because in fact, for religious consciousness, just as for apologetics, the real historical world is a veiled one.
*) ibid. p. 18
What can apologetics achieve, even if it overwhelms itself with words, against simple, calm, sober science? What is the point when Lange*) exclaims, “one must admit that God can also have a court, so noble, so spiritually pure and high, as befits a king.” Strange! In its highest pathos, apologetics still deals with the “can,” and unbelieving criticism knows that the spirit indeed has a brilliant court, namely in the outstanding historical spirits who have enriched self-consciousness and advanced it to a higher standpoint through their struggles. Against this “court,” the “surroundings of the Lord of glory in the brightest, most sublime spaces of his creation” are the dark void of thoughtless fantasy.
*) Ibid., p. 46.
Where is apologetics looking when it says **) “Olshausen was right in saying that the religious spirit could (!) be surrounded by religious spirits when it enters the world”? Could? Were not the spirits that, torn from their previous work, were seeking rest and the solution to the riddle, actually standing around the cradle of the founder of the Christian religion? Do we still need the adornment of angels when even popular spirits and the spirits of the old religions were waiting for the future? The true environment for the appearance of Jesus was the receptivity of the historical spirit.
**) Ibid., p. 47.
Only the desperate situation of the matter can force the apologist to flee into a completely foreign territory, as when he asks *): “how many angelic apparitions could be enumerated in the poetry of modern times!” We know very few true works of art that could even be considered. And even if there were thousands, what would that prove for the prosaic reality of the angelic world? But the apologist does not have this proof in mind; he only wants to appeal to our taste and reason and remind us that we should not deny either. “The moderns, he wants to impress upon us, find this idea beautiful in the first place, not offensive to reason in the second, and this is a lot.” It is very little! It is nothing! In art, the inner determinations of the personality are objectified into independent external powers. Art can even go so far as to make the negative power and the protective positive force of the personality appear in Satan and good angels in a drama. However, it can do this only because it is certain that the same self-consciousness for which it is working will take these free points back into its absolute unity again. Mephistopheles is Faust’s inner soul to us, which may only confront him outwardly in art: but how would art strike him who wanted to prove from it that we must make friends again with the locus theologicus of the angels? Moreover, even good angels are of little use to art. The drama can only use them in a prelude because they are not capable of living movement, and painting has long since come to terms with itself and reason over the inferiority of these phantasmic figures, giving them an animal attribute in their wings.
*) Lange ibid. p. 45.
Schleiermacher famously said that the belief in angels has its root in the natural desire of our spirit to presuppose more spirit in the world than is realised in the human species, but that this desire is satisfied for us by the idea that other world bodies besides our own are populated in a corresponding way. But this would mean exchanging transcendence for another and, in this matter, an unnecessary one. Humanity had this need because it could not yet fully comprehend the infinite richness of spirit in the abundance of historical national spirits and their heroes and was not yet aware of the inner mediation of spirit in history. We no longer need to believe in angels, not because of the abundance of worlds, but because we have grasped the infinity of self-consciousness that contains all mediations within itself.
If the notion of angels does not correspond to reality, we do not need to go into further detail about the fact that there cannot be any talk of a hierarchy among them, to which Gabriel refers in his message to Zachariah. And if Lange says*): “from the idea of the angel the thought of an angel of a special position is very easily formed,” our answer is that this formation could not take place at all so easily, because the idea of angels has to do with a thing of thought, which is only with great difficulty capable of some movement and distinction. Our response is confirmed by history, which teaches us that it was only after the time of Eril [=Ezra?] that the Jews discovered that there were ranks and names among the angels, and finally, with regard to the aprioristic novelty of this assertion, we can briefly note that there is still a great distance between the “thought of an angel of a particular position,” even if it could form very easily, and the reality of such an angel, a distance that becomes greater the more the general “idea of an angel” is removed from reality.
*) ibid. p. 49.
Even the striking fact that an angel has a Hebrew name must be presented by the apologist as quite natural. Lange refers to the nature of Hebrew names in general for this purpose. “The names Adam, Abraham, Israel, for instance, he says, are such ideals of names as have been so abundantly formed in the language of Revelation, and as are therefore also recognised as real and essential designations in heaven.” However, 1. The Hebrew names appear ideal because they have religious connotations. But they are all quite uniform. 2. They are only ideal and appropriate in some cases when they are formed mythically, such as Adam, Abraham. Finally, 3. as far as their recognition is concerned, this remains forever assured to them in the heaven of perception and, if they are accurate, before the judgement seat of aesthetic evaluation, but this does not by any means prove the empirical reality of those to whom they are given.
If the angel’s apparition no longer belongs to reality, how much in the present account then falls away! It could no longer be announced to Zacharias that a son would be given to him who was destined to be the forerunner of the Messiah; the name and the way of life of the one who was to come forth in the spirit of Elijah could not be commanded before the birth of the same. Zechariah could not doubt the message, he could not be punished with muteness as a punishment for his unbelief, and the miraculous coincidence of the mother wanting to give the boy the same name that the angel had commanded no longer belongs to history.
But is it historically accurate that the Baptist came from a priestly family and that he was a late-born child? As for the latter point, Strauss has already shown that “it was commonly believed that significant men were late-born.” This assumption is in line with the “spirit of Hebrew saga poetry,” as evidenced by several cases in the Old Testament, and its motive is expressed in the New Testament, where it explicitly states that when God imposes infertility, it is for the purpose of ensuring that when it is removed, the child is recognized not as a fruit of lust, but as a divine gift *). However, this motive may not be strong enough to have produced so many similar stories, and apologists will hardly be deterred from the excuse that at least in the case of John, it happened to be true that he was a late-born child. Additionally, the category of “lust” itself is still a religious expression, and that supposed motive, far from explaining the secret soul of the “saga,” is consistently only a tautological definition of the saga, meaning that it has not yet emerged from the same magical circle. However, if instead of “lust,” we use the category of “historical mediation,” **) and say that significant men born in important epochs were regarded as late-born divine gifts because religious belief saw the mediating power of history only in the afterlife, then the matter is explained. The peculiarities of certain epochs, where history seems to have lost all reproductive and productive power and yet suddenly produces the power of a new principle and creates heroes, can only be explained by religious belief that sees the new as being miraculously worked by God. It does not see that in such epochs, the apparent exhaustion and emergence of new power are interconnected and only different manifestations of the same content. And because it cannot penetrate the secret world of self-awareness to recognize the sleep that collects new powers until necessary awakening, it instead assumes an external opposition between the upper and lower worlds instead of the internal opposition. However, even these categories cannot be purely maintained by religious consciousness as long as it behaves creatively, and to present itself, it must go into the individual, specific realm. The thought of the death of a period and the awakening of a new time, which it imprints without reflection and with a plastic instinct in the person of the epoch-making hero, who is now the late-born child of an elderly couple and a child of divine grace, reflects the need for such categories. Such a late-born child is the Baptist, for his person was the boundary marker between the exhaustion of previous centuries and the rising of the sun of salvation, and the extensive dialectic of history is now condensed into the distress of an elderly couple and their late grace with the son who was to work in the spirit of Elijah.
*) Strauss, L. I. Third edition 1, 149.
**) “Strauss (ibid.) wants to replace the expression “lust” with another one, namely “nature,” but that remains a tautology and is only the transfer of the expression from its specific determination to generality, but to a generality that still belongs to the circle of the view that is to be explained. That the religious view takes the new out of the natural context is only the fact whose explanation is only given when the secret drive of this view is described rather as the endeavor to seek the true mediation of a historical phenomenon. The religious view wants to establish the origin of such a phenomenon purely and solely in divine power and grace and exclude the “historical mediation” for this purpose. However, the first category of historical mediation is too abstract for it as a view and foreign to its plastic representation! Therefore, it can only grasp the category of the natural to conduct its polemic against it.”
As individual aspects of the presentation demonstrate, the evangelist used the Old Testament narratives that also report on the late birth of chosen men, but these reports did not lead him to his view and composition. Instead, because he found the same idea in them that guided him, he used them for his presentation.
The only thing that would remain historically from the account would be the note that John the Baptist was the son of a priest. However, one must hold this note in infinitely high esteem, as it is not just a coincidence that he happened to come from a priestly lineage. Rather, it is an expression of the art of religious contemplation. The idea that John the Baptist, who led the people to their messiah, was the most beautiful flower of the priesthood in Israel, made him the son of a priest. The belief that John appeared when the priestly mediation in Israel had lapsed and seemed powerless to produce new life made his father an elderly priest who had hoped in vain for a descendant in his marriage *). Finally, it was well known that the theocratic authority in Israel was resistant to the new, and that the priesthood could not be found in the fulfillment of the old prophecies, hence the unbelief of Zacharias, who had to play the role of his profession in his person.
*) See Weisse Evangelical History I, 192.
Criticism has taken offense at the fact that Zacharias was punished so severely for his doubts, while Mary, who also doubted the possibility of success when receiving the angel’s message, and Abraham, who committed a similar offense, were left unpunished. The apologist’s attempts to remove this contradiction from divine justice have been in vain. If he says **) that “Abraham only voiced the objection in his heart,” ***) we must remind him that God also sees into the heart. Or does he mean *) that “Zacharias’ muteness was undoubtedly a sign to him that Elizabeth would give birth to a son, a very pleasant punishment”? We refer to the report that Zacharias was simply punished with muteness. Finally, the apologist somewhat impertinently says, “if Zacharias had been given another, milder sign, the critic could be asked to specify this.” A beautiful critic who would allow himself to be tempted to become a poet! He understands only what is given and explains its origin. In the present case, he has done enough if he says that Zacharias’ muteness was intended, according to the design of the report, to keep the name of the child prescribed by the angel a secret and to emphasize the predestination of the child all the more strongly when the mother wants to give the child the same name without having heard anything from the command of the angel. As soon as this wonderful coincidence has occurred, Zacharias regains the use of his tongue. However, as Weisse has already aptly explained **), why the name could be so significant to the evangelist, the name of historically significant men gradually becomes so intertwined with their personality that both eventually seem to be one, and their connection can only be explained to religious consciousness as a divine providence.
**) Lange ibid. p. 52
***) Dear Calvin! You felt the contradictions of scripture like no one else and allowed yourself to be tormented by them, but you managed to avoid the frivolities that modern apologists engage in. If only Lange had looked into how dignified and noble Calvin sought to solve difficulties before he wrote his blasphemy. “And yet,” the reformer says of Luke 1:18, “Gideon was not rebuked when he asked for a double sign. Even Mary is such an exception. I confess that if we only look at the words, either they were all equally guilty or Zacharias had not sinned. But since it is fitting to judge the words and actions of people according to the disposition of their hearts — ex cordis affect — we must rather rest in God’s judgment, who sees into the hidden recesses of the heart.” Although Calvin errs again in regard to the saying “by your words you will be justified” (Matt. 12:37), the apologist always has to err in one direction, but he has not erred in the way that the modern apologist has babbled on.
*) Lange, p. 51
**) ibid. p. 194