Note of the Day – May 21

The first passage referring to the (Holy) Spirit in the Synoptic Tradition comes from a saying/declaration by John the Baptist (Mark 1:7-8 par), which is certainly among the very oldest/earliest to be preserved in Christian tradition. The age (and authenticity) of the saying is confirmed by the fact that it is recorded no fewer than six times in the Gospels and Acts, having been transmitted independently in at least two (or more) strands of tradition. Moreover, while John the Baptist has a central place in the earliest Gospel narrative, he soon disappeared from Christian tradition generally—he is never mentioned in the New Testament outside of the Gospels and Acts, and only once in the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers (c. 90-150 A.D.), as part of a simple Gospel/creedal formula (Ignatius, Smyrneans 1:1, cf. Rom 1:3-4). Thus the prominence of John in the primitive Gospel narrative and kerygma is virtually a guarantee of authenticity.

Mark 1:7-8 (par Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16)

Mark’s short account of John the Baptist and his ministry (Mk 1:2-8), which precedes the Baptism of Jesus (vv. 9-11), climaxes with the core saying in vv. 7-8:

“The (one) stronger than me comes behind me, of whom I am not (worthy) enough to bend (down) to loosen the straps of (the shoe)s bound under his (feet). I dunked you in water, but he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit [e)n pneu/mati a(gi/w|].”

Matthew and Luke provide a more extensive account, including additional sayings and teachings by John:

  • His words to the crowds (Matt 3:7-10 / Luke 3:7-9), exhorting them to repentance; in Matthew this is directed specifically to Pharisees and Sadducees in the crowd (v. 7).
  • The ethical instruction in Luke 3:10-14
  • The saying in Matt 3:12 / Lk 3:17 (cf. below).

The saying corresponding to Mk 1:7-8 is in Matt 3:11 / Lk 3:16. Here the three versions are presented side-by-side for comparison, with the main elements in Matthew/Luke which differ from Mark indicated by italics:

Mark 1:7-8 Matthew 3:11 Luke 3:16
“The (one) stronger than me comes behind me, of whom I am not (worthy) enough to bend (down) to loosen the straps of the (shoe)s bound under his (feet). I dunked you in water, but he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit.” “I dunk you in water into a change-of-mind [i.e. repentance]; but the (one) coming behind me is stronger than me, of whom I am not (worthy) enough to bear/carry the (shoe)s bound under (his feet)—he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit and fire.” “I dunk you in water; but the (one) stronger than me comes, of whom I am not (worthy) enough to loosen the straps of the (shoe)s bound under his (feet)—he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit and fire.”

The main difference between Mark and Matthew/Luke is twofold:

First, the syntax of the saying in Matthew/Luke sets the reference to Jesus as the one coming (who is greater than John) in the middle of the contrast between baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit:

  • I dunk you in water
    —the one who comes (who is stronger)
  • He will dunk you in the Holy Spirit (and fire)

This contrast is further establish by the use of a me\nde/ construct (i.e., “on the one hand…on other hand…”), which I did not especially bring out in the translation(s) above. The result of this framework, by implication, is that baptism in the Spirit is based on the superiority of the person of Jesus as “the one (who is) coming”. For more on this, cf. below.

Secondly, Matthew and Luke both add “and (in) fire [kai\ puri/]”. This emphasizes the coming/future Judgment of God upon humankind (cf. Matt 3:7ff par), and leads in to the added saying in Matt 3:12 / Lk 3:17 (cf. below). It also results in the thematic triad:

WaterSpiritFire

all of which are associated with purification and cleansing in Old Testament tradition. Cleansing by water is common enough (Num 8:7; 19:12; Ps 51:2; Ezek 16:4; 36:25; Zech 13:1, etc), and the imagery is occasionally extended to the (symbolic) pouring out of the Spirit of God (Isa 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:25-26). Fire is also used as a symbol of purification; in addition to the idea of burning up garbage and refuse, there is the metallurgic imagery, whereby base metal is refined and its impurities removed through fire—cf. Psalm 12:6; Isa 4:4-5; 48:10; Dan 11:35; 12:10; Zech 13:9; Mal 3:2-3. Offerings and objects consecrated to God are also burned with fire (Ex 29:18, 34, etc; Deut 13:16; Josh 6:24). These three elements (water, fire, and the Holy Spirit) are combined in the text 1QS 4:20-21 from Qumran (cf. J. A. Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX [AB vol. 28], p. 474); note the relevant details:

  • It will occur at the (end) time of God’s visitation—i.e., an eschatological setting
  • God will purge the deeds of humankind by His Truth
    • refining (by fire) a portion of humankind (i.e., the righteous/chosen ones)
    • removing every evil spirit from their flesh
    • cleansing them from wickedness with (the) holy Spirit
    • sprinkling them with the Spirit (as with water)
  • The righteous ones are cleansed with the Spirit of Truth

The fire in Matt 3:12 / Lk 3:17 more properly refers to the coming Judgment. The threshing/winnowing separates the righteous and the wicked—perhaps more accurately it separates the wicked from the righteous (cf. 2 Kings 13:7; Prov 20:8, 26; Isa 21:10; 27:12; 30:24; 41:16; Hos 13:3; Mic 4:12-13; Hab 3:12; Jer 4:11; 15:7; Dan 2:35). The ominous closing reference to being burned up “with fire unquenchable” (puri\ a)sbe/stw|) is likely an allusion to Isa 66:24 (cf. Mark 9:43, 48 par). It may draw upon the image of the garbage-burning and furnaces of the Ge-Hinnom (Valley of Hinnom).

The importance of the saying in Mark 1:7-8 par ultimately lies in the identification of Jesus as the (end-time) figure through whom God will visit His people and bring Judgment upon humankind. This is marked by three elements in the passage:

  • Jesus is the one who comes [e&rxetai] (or the one coming [o( e)rxo/meno$]). This almost certainly derives from Malachi 3:1ff, which proved to be a central Messianic passage in the early Gospel tradition. I have discussed this in some detail in prior notes and articles.
  • He is greater/mightier [i)sxuro/tero$] than John. Luke sets the saying by John (Lk 3:16-17) in the narrative context of questions by the people as to whether John might be the Anointed One (Xristo/$, “Christ/Messiah”). As I have discussed previously, the term “Anointed One” here likely refers to an end-time Prophet according to the type of Elijah, who will precede the visitation and Judgment of God (Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6). Vv. 16-17 are said to be John’s answer to this (cf. Jn 1:19-27).
  • He will baptize people with the Holy Spirit. Already in the Old Testament Prophets, the pouring out of God’s Spirit upon His people is seen as a mark of the coming New Age (Isa 44:3; Joel 2:28-29; Ezek 39:29; cf. also Zech 12:10). For the association with the Judgment of God, cf. above. In Acts 2:14-21, the prophecy of Joel 2:28-29 is said to have been fulfilled with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.

It should be noted that the saying by John the Baptist is recorded twice more, in Acts 1:5 and again in Acts 11:16, though in both these passages it is presented as a saying of Jesus, which would seem to indicate a separate tradition:

“…that Yohanan {John} dunked in water, but you will be dunked in (the) holy Spirit after not many of these days [i.e. in a few days].” (Acts 1:5)

(Peter speaking) “and I remembered the utterance of the Lord as he said, ‘Yohanan dunked in water, but you will be dunked in (the) holy Spirit’.” (Acts 11:16)

This raises the intriguing question as to whether (or to what extent) the words attributed to John in Mark 1:7-8 par in the Gospel narrative have been shaped by a saying of Jesus. Unfortunately, it is not possible to delve into this possibility in these notes; I leave it as something to ponder.

Finally, the Baptist’s saying is also attested in the Gospel of John, but with important differences, which will be dealt with in the next daily note.

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