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2019-02-06

Note of the Day – February 7 (Mark 1:7-8, continued)

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As a follow-up to yesterday’s note, dealing with the sayings of John the Baptist recorded in Mark 1:7-8 par, it is worth discussing here the meaning of the sayings in their original historical-traditional context, as far as this can be determined. What is clear from the sayings, in all their versions (cf. the previous note), is that they intend to emphasize two points of contrast:

  1. The first (Mk 1:7) expresses a kind of irony, or reversal, marked by two words:
    o)pi/sw (“behind”)—Jesus comes/follows behind, or after, John
    i)sxuro/tero$ (“stronger [than]”)—at the same time, Jesus is stronger (i.e. more powerful, greater) than John
  2. The second (Mk 1:8) is more straightforward, contrasting baptism in water, with baptism in the holy Spirit

Mark 1:7

“one stronger [i)sxuro/tero$] than me comes behind [o)pi/sw] me”

For the variations of this saying in the Gospels, cf. the previous daily note. The portion which follows in v. 7b illustrates the statement in colorful, dramatic language. Each of the two key words will be analyzed in turn:

(a) o)pi/sw (“behind”)—this preposition more properly means “at the end or back” of something, but often in the sense of “behind”, as translated here. Typically it refers to position or location, though occasionally it can be used in a temporal sense (i.e. “after, later [than]”). Many Christians are inclined to understand o)pi/sw in the temporal sense here, since then all the saying would mean is that Jesus appeared on the scene after (i.e. later than) John. The version in Acts 13:25b is more amenable to this understanding, by using meta/ instead of o)pi/sw, and the developed Johannine tradition follows this line of interpretation as well (Jn 1:15, 30, etc). However, the more common use of o)pi/sw would indicate position—i.e. that Jesus had a position behind, or in back of, John, which is to say, a lesser position. This may simply mean that the “one coming” (Jesus) had not yet become prominent or well-known, in comparison with John. However, many commentators believe that a more precise relationship between Jesus and John is intended.

A popular interpretation, among critical commentators especially, is that Jesus had been a disciple of John. The use of o)pi/sw in the Gospels would tend to support this, as it is used frequently in reference to Jesus’ own disciples following him (Mk 1:17, 20; Matt 4:19; 10:38; Lk 14:27; Jn 6:66, cf. also 12:19). Such an historical reconstruction has been assumed to explain: (a) Jesus’ presence around John, (b) his being baptized by John, (c) the close correlation of the disciples of Jesus and John, as recorded in Johannine tradition (Jn 1:35ff; 3:22-23ff), and (d) certain points of similarity in the teaching of John and Jesus (note esp. Matt 3:2; 4:17). If this line of interpretation is valid, then, originally John may have been either: (a) declaring that one of his followers (Jesus) would have a destiny greater than his own, or (b) prophesying that one of his followers (as yet unknown) would have this greater role. The tradition recorded in Jn 1:29ff would indicate that John did not, at first, know who the “one coming after” him would be (vv. 26-27). It remains an open question, however, whether or not Jesus had been a disciple of John. Christians are doubtless uncomfortable with the idea, but there is nothing in it which is incompatible with orthordox theology or the New Testament witness as a whole. Even so, it is worth noting that Luke has apparently left out the expression “behind me” from the Baptist’s saying (Lk 3:16, cp. Acts 13:25), perhaps sensing the implication of the phrase in context and wishing to avoid it.

If Jesus had been a disciple of John, then it makes even more striking the contrast established in the saying—i.e. one who has been following me is actually far greater than I am! Consider, too, the graphic illustration in Mk 1:7b par, where John declares that he is not fit/worthy even to handle the shoes of the one coming. The act of loosening and/or picking up one’s shoes would have been the menial task of a servant or slave, but could also symbolize the behavior of a disciple to his master. In other words, this would signify an major reversal of role and position—the one leading now becomes less than a slave. For a similar thought expressed by John, cf. Jn 3:30.

(b) i)sxuro/tero$ (“stronger [than]”)—this is a comparative/superlative form of the adjective i)sxuro/$ (“capable, able, strong”). It is interesting to consider the significance of this word as used by John. As will be discussed in the next major section of this study on the Baptism of Jesus, an important component of the Gospel tradition here is the identity of Jesus as the Anointed One, in comparison with John. It should be considered possible, however, on objective grounds, that this was a point of importance in John’s own ministry at the time. Certainly, we must give the traditions recorded in Jn 1:19-27 and Lk 3:15 due consideration. If John denied that he himself was “Elijah” or “the Prophet/Messenger” to come (cf. Mal 3:1ff), then it makes sense to interpret the saying(s) of Mk 1:7f in that light. In other words, he may be granting this Prophetic/Messianic role to another—”the one coming”. This is the very question at issue, of course, in Matt 11:2ff par.

Moreover, if the sayings in Mk 1:7-8 are truly connected, at the historical level, then the greater strength/ability of the “one coming” should be related to the Spirit. Such an association with the Messiah (or a similar Prophet figure) would have been reasonably well-established at the time of John and Jesus, due in large part to the Messianic interpretation given to passages such as Isa 11:1-9 and 61:1ff. For similar associations in the Qumran texts, cf. CD 2:12; 1QS 4:20-21; 4Q521 frag. 2. Jesus, as this Anointed figure (Lk 4:1, 14, 18ff), is stronger because his ministry involves cleansing at a deeper level, through the work of the Spirit (cf. below).

Mark 1:8

“I dunk you in water, but he will dunk you in the holy Spirit”

The contrast in this saying is made more precise in the “Q” and Johannine versions, through the use of a me\nde/ construction (cf. the previous note). The historical tradition is clear that water, in John’s ministry, signified cleansing from sin (Mk 1:4 par; Matt 3:11; Josephus, Ant. 18.117). There would have been two components, or aspects, to this symbolism:

  • repentance, and the good works which follow, and
  • release (forgiveness) of sins by God

The general similarity with the ritual washing practiced by the Qumran Community has already been mentioned, and the significance of such washing at Qumran is expressed in the Community Rule (1QS 3:7-12; 4:20-21ff; 5:13-14). This sort of water-symbolism, of course, is widespread, attested in many different religious and cultural traditions. For a sampling of relevant passages in the Old Testament, cf. Exod 29:4; 30:20; Lev 8:6; 11:32ff; 14:8-9; 15:5-11; 16:4; Num 8:7; 19:7-21; Deut 23:11; 2 Kings 3:11; 5:10-13; Psa 26:6; 51:2, 7; 66:12; Prov 30:12; Isa 1:16; Jer 4:14; Ezek 16:4, 9; Zech 13:1.

Likewise, the Old Testament refers to cleansing by the Spirit, or uses water-imagery to express the work and effect of God’s Spirit—cf. Isa 4:4-5; 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:25-26. With regard to the addition of fire, parallel to the Spirit, in the “Q” version of the saying, purification by fire is also found as a symbol in the Old Testament—Psalm 12:6; Mal 3:2-3, etc (for an association between the Spirit and fire, cf. also Judg 15:14). The Malachi passage, of course, is directly relevant to the Gospel tradition regarding John the Baptist, but it also emphasizes that the cleansing—whether by water, fire, or the Spirit—is ultimately done by God. It is likely that John himself had in mind the end-time appearance of God (coming to bring Judgment), through the work and presence of God’s own Messenger (Mal 3:1ff), who would be identified with Jesus. The main point of the contrast would seem to be that John’s ministry of washing/cleansing (by water) was preparatory for the end-time purification to be brought about by God (by Spirit/fire). That this greater “cleansing” reflects two sides, or aspects, of the Judgment seems clear from the “Q” version (and the parallel in the saying of Matt 3:12 / Lk 3:17)—God’s Spirit/fire will burn up the wicked, but the righteous (i.e. the faithful ones who have repented, etc) will be purified and saved.

The view of the Gospel writers

By the time the Gospels were written, a more precise identification of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God (drawing on the David ruler and Son of Man figure-types) had been firmly established, along with John the Baptist as the Messenger (“Elijah”) of Mal 3:1ff (4:5-6) who prepares the way for his coming. As a result, the sayings by John in Mk 1:7-8 par came to take on a new significance. The author of Luke-Acts, in particular, would doubtless have in mind the scope of the Gospel story, culminating in the coming of the Spirit (as “tongues of fire”) upon the earliest believers (Lk 24:49; Acts 1:5, 8; 2:1-4ff). The Fourth Gospel works from a different line of interpretation, emphasizing the greatness of Jesus from a more definite Christological standpoint, best seen in the way that the saying of Mk 1:7 (or something akin to it) is developed and expounded in the first chapter (to be discussed). The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, in drawing upon the “Q” material of Matt 11:2-19 par, had available another avenue by which to develop the relationship between John and Jesus. In particular, note the way that the saying of Mk 1:7 has been virtually restated (by Jesus) to apply, in an eschatological (and seminal Christian) sense, to all believers (Matt 11:11 par).

Note of the Day – February 6 (Mark 1:3, 7-9, etc)

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We now proceed to the second main component, or theme, of the Baptism of Jesus in the Gospel Tradition:

  1. The Ministry of John
  2. The Relationship between John and Jesus
  3. Jesus as the Anointed One, in comparison with John

This component—the relationship between John and Jesus—is more closely related to the process of development which seems to have taken place, moving beyond the simple historical tradition(s), to an early Christian interpretation regarding them.

Mark 1:3, 7-9 (Acts 1:5, etc)

According to the approach and method of study I am using, we begin here with the Synoptic tradition, represented by the Gospel of Mark, but looking also at a separate strand of tradition—namely, the early Gospel preaching as recorded in the book of Acts. Many critical commentators would seriously question whether, or to what extent, Acts genuinely preserves such early tradition. The sermon-speeches in the book are often thought to be largely the work of the author (trad. Luke), perhaps reflecting the sort of preaching familiar to him at the time (c. 70-80 A.D.). However, as I have discussed elsewhere (cf. my series on the Speeches of Acts), there are many signs that early preaching (kerygma) has, in fact, been preserved, even if one grants a substantial reworking of the material by the author (and/or the traditions he has inherited) to form the speeches as they appear in the book. The pieces related to John the Baptist prove to be useful examples in this regard, as they do not appear to be simple reproductions from the Lukan Gospel (and the Synoptics), and may, in fact, stem from a separate line of tradition. Moreover, if this truly reflects the earliest Gospel preaching, in substance, then it may allow us to glimpse something of how the Synoptic tradition came to be formed. Three key components, related to John and the Baptism of Jesus, are preserved separately in Acts:

  • 1:5 (and 11:16)—the saying attributed to John in Mark 1:8 par
  • 10:37-38—the coordination of John’s ministry (baptizing) with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Mk 1:4, 9, 14 par)
  • 13:24-25—the ministry of John and the saying in Mark 1:7 par

If we add to this the citation of Isa 40:3, these pieces effectively make up the Synoptic narrative. In the Gospel of Mark, the relationship between John and Jesus is expressed at three points:

  1. The citation of Isa 40:3—Mk 1:3
  2. The saying(s) of the Baptist in Mk 1:7-8
  3. The actual Baptism of Jesus—Mk 1:9

1. Mark 1:3

The central citation from Isaiah 40:3ff has been discussed in prior notes, and will be dealt with again in the next section (on Jesus as the Anointed One).

2. Mark 1:7-8

The Synoptic parallels for the saying(s) of John are Matt 3:11 and Luke 3:16. Versions of them are also found in Acts 1:5 (11:16) + 13:25, and in John 1:26-27. It is possible that two separate sayings have been combined; this might account for some of the differences between the versions. I will discuss, in turn: (a) the variations between the versions of the saying(s), (b) the original meaning of the sayings, and (c) how the Gospel writers understood them.

(a) The Variations

The saying in Mark 1:7 is made up of two phrases:

(1) “one stronger than me comes behind [o)pi/sw] me”
(2) “I am not fit [i(kano$] to loose the strap of the (shoe)s bound under his (feet) [i.e. his shoes]”

(1) The Greek in Mark is: e&rxetai o( i)sxuro/tero/$ mou o)pi/sw mou. Here are the other versions and variations:

  • Acts 13:25b—”(one) comes after [meta/] me”
  • Luke 3:16—”one stronger than me comes” {omits “behind me”}
  • Matt 3:11—”the one coming behind me is stronger than me”
  • John 1:27a—”the one coming behind me…”

The versions in Acts and John are simpler, with no reference to the comparative i)sxuro/tero$ (“stronger”). Matthew and Luke both seem to have reworked the phrase in different ways.

(2) Mark’s version has added the participle ku/ya$ (“bending [down]), probably for dramatic emphasis: “I am not fit, (even) bending (down), to loose the strap…”. The other versions:

  • Acts 13:25b—”I am not worth(y enough) [a&cio$] to loose the (shoe) bound under (his) feet”
  • Luke 3:16—nearly identical to Mark
  • Matt 3:11—”I am not fit to pick up the (shoe)s bound under (his feet)”
  • John 1:27a—”I am not worthy(y enough) [a&cio$] that I should (even) loose the strap of his (shoe)s bound under (his feet)”

Interestingly, as with the first phrase (1), John’s version has a point in common with the saying in Acts—a mark, perhaps, of an early detail which was preserved in two strands of tradition. It is conceivable that the variant i(kano/$ vs. a%cio$ could be the result of different ways of translating an original Aramaic version of the saying (cf. M. Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, 3rd ed. [Oxford: 1967], pp. 144-6).

The saying in Mark 1:8, follows the second phrase of the saying in v. 7 by establishing a contrast between John and the “one coming”; here is the version in Mark:

“I dunked you in water, but he will dunk you in [e)n] the holy Spirit”
e)gw/ e)ba/ptisa u(ma=$ u%dati, au)to\$ de\ bapti/sei u(ma=$ e)n pneu/mati a(gi/w|

The other Synoptics (Matt 3:11 / Luke 3:16), are very close to the Markan saying, but share three key differences:

  • Both use a me\nde/ construction—i.e. “on the one hand…on the other…”
  • Each includes the saying corresponding to Mk 1:7 in the middle of the saying corr. to Mk 1:8—i.e. “I dunk you in water…, but the one coming… he will dunk you in the holy Spirit”
  • Each adds “and (in) fire”—”he will dunk you in the holy Spirit and (in) fire

For those commentators who hold that Matthew and Luke have each made use of Mark, these common differences suggest that here they depend on a different source (so-called “Q”). This is likely since the saying which follows (Matt 3:12 / Lk 3:17) is also “Q” material. Matthew has also included the words “unto repentance” (ei)$ meta/noian)—”I dunk you in water unto repentance [lit. change of mind], but he…”.

Interestingly, the version in Acts (1:5, par 11:16) represents a saying by Jesus, indicating something which Jesus had told his disciples about John:

“(On the one hand) John dunked in water, but (other other hand) you will be dunked in the holy Spirit” (1:5)

It uses the same me\nde/ comparative construction as the “Q” (Matt/Luke) version of the saying (cf. above). At the same time, the passive form of the second verb (baptisqh/sesqe, “you will be dunked”) is a bit surprising. Given the version in the Synoptics, we might have expected Jesus to say “I will dunk you…”. Instead, the passive verb suggests that a “divine passive” is meant—i.e. God as the assumed actor. With regard to the sending of the Spirit, early Christian tradition variously describes this as being both the work of God the Father and Jesus.

The version in John (Jn 1:26 & 33) shows a more substantial reworking of the tradition, which will be discussed further in the upcoming notes.

The numerous differences and variations in these sayings may seem strange—even troubling—to readers who expect more uniformity in the inspired writings of the New Testament. However, in many instances, as here, it is actually a strong indication of the authenticity and historical reliability of the traditions (on objective grounds). The differences may be seen, in large part, as a marker of very early traditions (Levels 1-3, cf. the Introduction) which have been independently transmitted, and preserved, in multiple strands of the wider Gospel Tradition.

(b) The original meaning of the sayings &
(c) How the Gospel writers understood the sayings

These points will be discussed in the next daily note.

3. Mark 1:9

Mk 1:9 narrates the Baptism of Jesus itself, which will be discussed in more detail in the upcoming notes. The event is summarized simply:

“And it came to be in those days (that) Yeshua came from Nazaret in the Galîl and was dunked into the Yarden (river) under [i.e. by] Yohanan”

We will see how the Gospel writers adapt this basic account, beginning with Matthew (in the following note). The Baptism of Jesus, as recorded in the Synoptic tradition, is comprised of three distinct statements:

  • Reference to the Baptism itself (v. 9)
  • The visual/visionary phenomena which took place upon Jesus’ being baptized (v. 10)
  • The voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be God’s son (v. 11)

The last two statements belong more properly to the third section of our study on the Baptism—Jesus as the Anointed One. Despite the theological (and Christological) aspects of these details, they are surprisingly consistent within the early Gospel tradition, and, in and of themselves, have undergone relatively little development. However, the Gospel writers have each handled them in distinctive ways, as we shall see.