Today’s note will examine what is perhaps the final stage of development regarding the Baptism of Jesus in the Gospel Tradition—the theme of Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One (and Son of God) in the Gospel of John. I have already discussed this to some extent in the earlier notes, but here I will be highlighting how this particular theme, or aspect, of the Tradition has been developed. To review the structure of the Gospel, chapter 1 is made up of five sections—(1) the Prologue (vv. 1-18), and (2) a sequence of four episodes, narrated as four “days”, during which the focus shifts from John the Baptist to Jesus (cf. Jn 3:30):
- 1:19-28—The testimony of John the Baptist regarding his own identity
- 1:29-34—The testimony of John regarding the identity of Jesus
- 1:35-42—Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of John’s witness
- 1:43-51—Disciples follow/encounter Jesus as the result of his (and other disciples’) witness
I begin with the two references to John the Baptist in the Prologue:
Here in the Prologue the lo/go$ (Logos, “Word”) of God is referred to as the “true Light” (to\ fw=$ to\ a)lhqino/n, vv. 5, 9), which, in the context of the Fourth Gospel, clearly refers to the divine nature and origin of Jesus, and to the primary purpose of his appearance (incarnation) on earth (vv. 5, 12, 14, 18, etc)—to reveal (make known, “shine forth”) God the Father to humankind (the elect/believers). In vv. 6-8 the statement is made specifically that John (the Baptist) was not the Light, but only came to be a witness to the Light. It is sometimes thought by commentators that this reference, taken together with the remainder of the narrative in chapter 1, as well as the episode in 3:22-23ff, indicates that there were followers of the Baptist who believed strongly that he was the Messiah (cf. Lk 3:15).
Jn 1:15, 30
Here in verse 15 (and repeated in v. 30) we have the saying by the Baptist (cp. Mk 1:7 par [cf. the earlier note]), which, it would seem, has been given a unique Christological interpretation in its context in the Gospel of John. This interpretation is based on a distinctly Johannine use of the three verbs appearing in sequence—e)rxomai (“come”), gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), and ei)mi (vb. of being, “am/is/was”, etc). It clearly points to Jesus’ identity as the pre-existent Son of God (vv. 14, 18, 34). For a detailed exposition, cf. the discussion in my earlier note (previously referenced).
When we turn to the next four sections (or “days”), the first “day” is the most significant in terms of Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One (Messiah), in comparison with John.
The narrative structure of this episode consists of an exchange (dialogue form) between the Baptist and a deputation of religious leaders (Scribes, Levites, Pharisees), from Jerusalem, who have come to ask him “Who are you?” (v. 19). This question specifically relates to three eschatological/Messianic figures:
- “The Anointed One” (o( xristo/$, v. 20)—It is worth noting that this is not asked of John, but, apparently, the statement comes from the Baptist’s initiative (perhaps anticipating the purpose of their question):
“And he gave account as one [i.e. confessed], and did not deny (it)—indeed he gave account as one (saying) that ‘I am not the Anointed (One)’.”
- “Elijah” (Eliyyah[û], Gk. Hli/a$, v. 21a)
- “The Prophet” (o( profh/th$, v. 21b)—most likely a reference to the “Prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15-20) who, in Jewish (eschatological) tradition, was expected to appear at/before the end-time.
John denies being each of these last two (Prophetic) figures, in response to the question, “What then? Are you…?” It is significant that John denies being “Elijah”, since this identification came to be so well-established among early Christians and, as we have seen, is attested in the Gospel (Synoptic) tradition. According to Mark 9:13 par (and Matt 11:14), it would seem that Jesus himself identified John as the “Elijah (who is) to come”. While, in the Fourth Gospel at least, John the Baptist denies being any of these Messianic figures, he does identify himself as the herald (the “voice”) of Isaiah 40:3ff, which, of course, is also the primary Scripture associated with him in the Gospel Tradition (Mk 1:3 par).
It is worth considering just what is meant here in this passage by o( xristo/$ (“the Anointed One”, i.e. Messiah). For many early Christians, at least at the time the Gospels were written (c. 60-90 A.D.), the primary association would be with the traditional figure of the coming Ruler, from the line of David, who would judge/subdue the nations and bring about the deliverance/restoration of Israel. Yet, it is hard to see how the Baptist could have been viewed in this light, if we accept the historical portrait of him in the Gospels (and Josephus). There are two other possibilities:
- The “Anointed One” here refers to a different Prophetic figure, possibly the one anointed by God in Isa 61:1ff, or the Messenger of the Lord in Mal 3:1ff. Both roles seem to have been applied to Jesus, either at the historical level (during his ministry), or in the earliest strands of Gospel tradition. In this case, there would still be three Messianic figures mentioned in the passage.
- It refers to a Messianic end-time (Prophet) figure more generally, whether the type of Elijah, Moses, or something else. According to this view, the figures of “Elijah” and “The Prophet” would only represent two specific Messianic figure types, while John denies being this Messiah in any sense.
If we accept the historicity of the scene, then it seems to me that the latter option is perhaps more likely; while, at the same time, the Gospel writer (and/or his readers) may have understood it as referring to three distinct figures, among which “the Anointed One” could have still meant the traditional Davidic Ruler type. It is also interesting that these Messianic figures are connected, in the mind of the questioners, with John’s baptizing ministry (v. 25). At first glance, this may appear somewhat strange, until we realize that John himself seems to have cast his ministry in eschatological and prophetic terms (as discussed in the prior notes). A version of the Baptist’s traditional sayings (cp. Mk 1:7-8 par) are included here, in the context of the narrative, at this point (vv. 26-27). One unique detail in the Johannine version should be pointed out—the following phrase from v. 26:
“…in your midst stands one whom you do not see [i.e. know]”
Here the historical tradition is given added significance from the standpoint of Johannine theology—that of people (believers) seeing/knowing Christ (as the [true] Light, etc).
The next three “days” each contain important declarations regarding Jesus’ identity, as well as a central narrative episode in which people encounter Jesus—the narrative being marked by a distinctive (Johannine) use of the verbs e&rxomai (“come”) and me/nw (“remain”), as well the motif of seeing/knowing:
Day 1 (1:29-34):
Declaration 1—”See! the Lamb of God…” (v. 29)
- Jesus coming toward John (vv. 29-30)
- John came to baptize (Jesus) (vv. 31, 33)
[The Baptism of Jesus, as described by John]
- The Spirit stepping down (i.e. coming down) and remaining on Jesus (vv. 32-33)
- Before this, John had not seen/known Jesus (i.e. recognized his identity) (vv. 31, 33)
Declaration 2—”This is the Son of God” (v. 34)
[Note: Some MSS read “this is the Elect/Chosen (One) of God”; on this, cf. the next daily note]
Day 2 (1:35-42):
- Jesus passing by—two of John’s disciples leave him to follow Jesus (v. 37)
[Disciples/Believers encountering Jesus]
- Disciples ask Jesus: “Where do you remain/abide?” (v. 38)
- Jesus responds to them: “Come and see” (v. 39)
—They came and saw and remained with him
Declaration 2—”We have found the Messiah!” (v. 41)
Day 3 (1:43-51):
- Disciples encourage others to follow Jesus (vv. 44-45), according to Jesus’ own example (v. 43)
- “Come and see” (v. 46)
[Disciples/Believers encountering Jesus]
- Disciple asks Jesus: “From where do you know me?” (v. 48a)
- Jesus responds to him: “I saw you…before he called you” (v. 48b)
Declaration 2—”You are the Son of God…the King of Israel!” (v. 49)
The declaration by Nathanael shows that, at the level of the early traditional material, we still find the identification of Jesus as the Anointed One or Messiah (“King of Israel”, i.e. the Davidic Ruler figure-type) and Son of God (in a Messianic sense). However, elsewhere in the narrative, it is clear that the identification has moved beyond this, to a deeper Christological interpretation—of Jesus as the One sent by God, of divine origin, even the pre-existent Son of God. This, of course, is the portrait we find in the Fourth Gospel, from the Prologue all the way to its very end (20:31).
Mention should also be made here of the concluding visionary statement (a declaration by Jesus) in verse 51: “You will see…”. I have discussed this verse at some length in an earlier study, but it is worth pointing out several clear parallels with the Baptism scene from Gospel tradition:
- The heaven opening up [vb. a)noi/gw, compare Mk 1:10 par]
- The descent of a heavenly/divine presence—Messengers (i.e. Angels) of God, vs. the (holy) Spirit of God (cf. verses 32-33 and the Synoptic par)
- The use of the verb katabai/nw (“step down”, i.e. “come down”)
- The Messengers/Spirit coming down upon [e)pi/] Jesus [Mk uses ei)$ “unto”]
- Jesus is identified as a Messianic and/or Divine figure (“Son of God”)—these are effectively blended together in the figure “Son of Man”, as found in the sayings of Jesus throughout the Gospel tradition