John the Baptist, Melchizedek, and the Tom Bombadil Problem

I have a real soft spot — who doesn’t? — for ‘problem characters’ of the Tom Bombadil variety, whose introduction threatens to jostle the very premise they’re being introduced to. This does not include ‘problem characters’ of, say, the Boba Fett variety, who only become threatening as a result of unpredictable audience attachment after the fact, rather than in-the-moment, either on the screen or within the text. Nor does it include problem characters of the Poochie variety, who exist only to exasperate attempts to generate a plot and are immediately, obviously effective. The Bombadil-type is immediately charismatic, implicitly perilous to either the plot or the core characters (or both), generates numerous additional complications and questions, then is usually and abruptly disappeared. Bombadil-types often activate the same pleasure/intrigue/interest/anxiety combination a good horror movie can instill, along the lines of “don’t show the whole monster at once” principle – what is that? What’s going on? Is there more?

In Boas’ original reassessment of the term problem play, “Abnormal conditions of brain and of emotion are generated, and intricate cases of conscience demand a solution by unprecedented methods….we move along dim untrodden paths, and at the close our feeling is neither of simple joy nor pain; we are excited, fascinated, perplexed, for the issues raised preclude a completely satisfactory outcome.” So it is that Tolkienists endlessly debate whether Tom Bombadil could or should have overtaken the ring-plot (and whether the decision to excise him from the movie adaptations was a necessary streamlining or an act of cowardice); so it is that a one-off character in Genesis who appears to perform a single brief ritual (“And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed [Abram]…and Abram gave him one-tenth of everything”) ends up the focal point of numerous chapters in the New Testament’s Epistle to the Hebrews, the basis for a branch of priesthood in the Latter-Day Saints church, and a jumping-off point for millennia of wild theological speculation.

“Well, Why Doesn’t He Just Do It?”

Why doesn’t Tom Bombadil just take the One Ring, if it doesn’t affect him the way it does others, and solve the plot in ten pages? Why doesn’t Melchizedek found a nation himself, if he’s already priest and king in one, and Abraham himself is tithing to him? There’s a childlike pleasure in such questions, an impulse to re-route all energy into the simplest possible format, to establish a clear-cut, universally obvious order of operations (“Why does Ross, the largest friend, not simply eat the other five?”), whereby the biggest, strongest figure is awarded the largest portion of plot, and a corresponding childlike evasion in the plot to avoid giving into such logic. Poochie has to return to his home planet, Melchizedek vanishes from the remainder of Genesis without explanation, John the Baptist is hastily assigned a “secret cousins” storyline with Jesus in the Gospel of Luke to explain his popularity that might have otherwise set him up as a potential rival.

This John — also an itinerant, apocalyptic preacher executed by state officials — became known as “the Baptizer” as part of an eschatological project involving widespread repentance/rebirth in the project of God’s imminent return to earth. The Gospel writers treated him with increasing unease and hedging, since as John Dominic Crossan puts it, “John had a monopoly [on baptism] but Jesus had a franchise.”

In Mark, Jesus is straightforwardly baptized by John in the Jordon, after which he enjoys a private vision of the Holy Spirit. In Matthew, John protests that he’s not worthy to baptize Jesus and refuses until Jesus assures him it’s all part of a prophetic plan. Luke has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized,” while [Apostle] John rewrites [Baptizer] John’s testimony of God’s approach to refer explicitly to Jesus, as if he’d only ever been a fan with advance tickets to the Jesus Christ experience, warming up the crowd for him.

What to do with this John too many? He’s mysterious (“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,’” Matt. 3:1-2), rugged (“Now John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt,” Matt. 3:4), weirdly cool (“He ate locusts and wild honey,” Mark 1:6), and running a charismatic ministry built very much along Jesus’ lines (or rather, vice versa). But he can’t very well take over the action of the Gospels, and he doesn’t join up with the twelve disciples, so how best to neutralize him between his first appearance and his eventual beheading? What does Conan Doyle do with Mycroft, Sherlock Holmes’ “smarter older brother”? Keep him offstage, or tie him up with governmental bureaucracy.

So John goes from turning up mysteriously in various deserts, bellowing terrifying demands of repentance and eating bugs, to saying things like, “Oh, Jesus, you’re here? Thank goodness, I was just keeping your seat warm for you. Gosh, you’re tall and fantastic. You want me to baptize you? Oh, I couldn’t possibly, gee if you insist, there does happen to be a river right here, but I’d really much rather you kicked me in the eye. You’re terrific. Oh my stars, look at the time, I’d better go to jail immediately.”

Exit hurriedly, pursued by a bear.