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John the Baptist

Note of the Day – February 8 (Matt 3:11-15; Luke 3:16-17)

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In studying the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus in the Baptism narrative, as preserved in the Gospel tradition, we looked at the core Synoptic tradition in yesterday’s note; today we will examine how the aspect was developed in the so-called “Q” material and in the Gospel of Matthew.

Matt 3:11-12; Lk 3:16-17 (“Q”)

As I discussed in the earlier note, the saying(s) of John, corresponding with Mark 1:7-8, have a different form in Matthew and Luke (Matt 3:11 / Lk 3:16). In terms of critical source-analysis, it is likely that this derives from a source other than Mark (i.e., the so-called “Q” material), and also includes the saying in the following verse (Matt 3:12 / Lk 3:17), which is not found in Mark. The main addition to the Mk 1:8 saying are the words “and (in) fire” (kai\ puri/), which enhances the aspect of (the end-time) Judgment central to the saying which follows:

“the ‘spitting’-shovel is in his hand, and he will cleanse through(out) [i.e. thoroughly] his (place for) rolling [i.e. threshing] (grain), and he will bring together his grain into the place (where it is) set away [i.e. stored], but the husk(s) he will burn down [i.e. completely] with fire (that is) n(ever) quenched”

Luke’s version is nearly identical, the only real difference being in the form of the first two verbs, which are infinitives (expressing the purpose of the winnowing) rather than future forms. In both versions, this saying is joined to the previous ones by use of the relative pronoun ou! (“of whom”)—it refers back to “the one stronger than me” who is coming (Matt: “the one coming [i.e. who] is stronger than me”). Interestingly, there is some indication that the saying in Matt 3:12 par may have originally been separate from those in v. 11, and that the relative pronoun ou! is perhaps better explained in terms of the joining/collection of the saying in the early process of transmission. This is all the more likely given the fact that the saying(s) in v. 11 were preserved, independently (without the “Q” saying), in several strands of tradition (Mark [Synoptic], Acts [kerygma], and the Gospel of John).

Conceptually, the action in v. 12 seems to be that done by God in the end-time Judgment. However, by the time of John and Jesus, the idea was becoming reasonably well established in Jewish thought and writing that a chosen/anointed representative of God (whether human or angelic) would play a major role in the ushering in of this time of Judgment on humankind. This is expressed various ways in the Messianic thought of the period, as I have discussed in considerable detail in my series Yeshua the Anointed. It is thus easy to imagine John associated this role in the Judgment with a Messianic or Prophetic figure such as we find in Malachi 3:1ff. The original context of the Malachi passage probably referred to a heavenly Messenger, i.e. the “Messenger/Angel of YHWH” (but cp. Mal 4:4-5); on this, cf. my earlier note in the aforementioned series. In Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the (Synoptic) Gospels, this role in the end-time Judgment is filled by “the Son of Man”, a heavenly figure with whom Jesus identifies himself (see Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”).

This saying (in Matthew/Luke) culminates the teaching/preaching of John as recorded in the Synoptics. The baptism of Jesus follows (directly, in Matthew).

Matthew 3:13-15 (“M”)

Scholars often refer to material in Matthew that is not found in the other Gospels, and is presumably inherited from a source other than Mark (or comparable Synoptic source) and “Q”, as “M” (i.e. Matthean) material. The only portion of the Baptism narrative in Matthew which qualifies as “M” material is the exchange between John and Jesus in 3:13-15. In order to include this material, the author, it would seem, has adapted the core Synoptic statement describing Jesus’ baptism:

Mk 1:9:
“And it came to be in those days (that) Yeshua came from Nazareth of the Galîl and was dunked into the Yarden (river) under [i.e. by] Yohanan”

Matt 3:13:
“Then Yeshua came to be along, from the Galîl, upon the Yarden (river), (coming) toward Yohanan to be dunked under [i.e. by] him”

It was necessary for the author to interrupt the reference to Jesus being baptized, narrating instead his purpose in coming to John. This allows the Baptist to react and respond to Jesus. The dialogue format is brief and simple, with a narrative frame enclosing the two declarations, in turn:

  • John “cuts off” [i.e. prevents/restrains] Jesus (completely), i.e. from submitting to baptism
    —John’s objection: “I hold (the) obligation [xrei/a] to be dunked by you…”
    —Jesus’ response: “…it is proper for us to fulfill all justice/righteousness”
  • John “releases” [i.e. allows] Jesus to undergo baptism

Critical commentators are skeptical as to the authenticity of this tradition, since it is not found in any other Gospel, and would seem to fit an obvious apologetic purpose for early Christians. I.e., if John’s baptizing was primarily meant to bring people to repentance, resulting in the forgiveness of sin, then why would Jesus (who was without sin) have undergone baptism? The tradition of Jesus’ baptism was so well-established—and, historically, a virtual certainty (on objective grounds)—that no Gospel writer could omit the episode, especially considering the important details of the Spirit’s descent and the voice from heaven, and their place in the Gospel narrative. Yet, as time went on, it would seem to require some explanation. The same question is handled, in a different way, in an extra-canonical work called the “Gospel of the Hebrews” (identified by some scholars as the “Gospel of the Nazoreans”), preserved only in quotations by the Church Fathers; note the following extract from Jerome (Against the Pelagians 3:2):

“Behold, the mother of the Lord and his brothers were saying to him, ‘John the Baptist is baptizing for the remission of sins. Let us go and be baptized by him’. But he replied to them, ‘What sin have I committed that I should go to be baptized by him?…'” (translation by B. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures [Oxford: 2003], p. 9)

This is a rather simplistic expansion of the Synoptic narrative, ‘filling in’ details in a manner common to the (later) extra-canonical Gospels (Infancy Gospels, etc). However, it does make clear (if somewhat crudely) the problem with the tradition for early Christians.

Returning to Matt 3:14-15, it is important to give proper consideration to what Jesus says in response to John, especially if we accept the tradition recorded here as authentic. John’s objection in v. 14 is, in some ways, the inverse of the saying in v. 11 (Mk 1:7 par):

  • The one coming behind me is greater than me
    I am not fit/worthy to handle his shoes
  • I have the obligation to be baptized by you
    —and yet you come toward me

In other words, John declares that the situation should be reversed—he should be submitting to Jesus (to be baptized under him, i.e. under his authority). The core of Jesus’ response is:

“it is distinguishing for us to fulfill all justice/righteousness”

It is difficult to determine precisely what Jesus (and/or the Gospel writer) meant by this statement; however, I would suggest three aspects which should be considered:

  • In being baptized, Jesus identifies himself with the (Israelite/Jewish) people, those coming to be baptized. The evidence for this is slight, but I believe it can be affirmed, at the very least, from the similarity of language in vv. 5 and 13:
    “Then [to/te] Jerusalem and all Judea…traveled out toward [pro/$] him”
    “Then [to/te] Yeshua from Galilee came along… toward [pro/$] John”
  • This is meant to be a sign that would stand out for everyone to see. The verb pre/pw is difficult to translate literally, and carries a fairly wide range of nuance, but fundamentally refers to something which can be seen or heard, etc, clearly; often in the sense of something which is excellent, distinguished, fitting for the (ceremonial) occasion, etc.
  • The purpose was to “fulfill the justice/righteousness [dikaiosu/nh] (i.e. of God)”. This broad concept, central to Jesus’ teaching, esp. in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33), includes the fulfillment of a range of (religious) symbols and forms from the Old Testament (the Old Covenant)—the Law and Prophets, all the way down to John the Baptist (Matt 11:13 par). His baptizing ministry represents the end of the old, which Jesus fulfills, bringing about, in his own person and ministry, the beginning of a new era.

Matt 11:2-19 par (“Q”)

Mention should also be made of the material involving John the Baptist in Matt 11:2-19 and Luke 7:18-35, a “Q” section which almost certainly is to be regarded as a collection of related episodes and sayings. This material is not part of the Baptism of Jesus, and relates more properly to the next area we will be studying (Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One) in the Baptism narrative; however, it is worth noting the structure and organization of the traditions contained in the passage, in terms of the relationship between John and Jesus:

  • A question by John to Jesus regarding his identity as “the one (who is) coming”, along with Jesus’ response (vv. 2-6)
  • Jesus’ testimony regarding John (vv. 7-15)
  • The people’s (negative) reaction to Jesus and John, respectively (vv. 16-19)

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.

Note of the Day – February 5 (John 1:6, 19ff, etc)

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John 1:6-7, 19ff; 3:23ff

When we turn to examine how John the Baptist’s ministry has been handled in the Fourth Gospel, we see that, despite the extensive (theological and literary) development, important pieces of early Gospel (historical) tradition have been preserved. These vestiges appear throughout the early chapters, and will be discussed here in turn.

John 1:6-7

There are two references to John the Baptist in the Prologue (vv. 6-7 and 15). The first of these serves as the initial introduction to the Baptist, and establishes the specific emphasis on John’s role as a witness to Jesus.

“There came to be a man, se(n)t forth from God, (and the) name for him was Yohanan [i.e. John]; this (man) came unto a witness, that he should witness about the light…”

There is no real mention of John’s preaching and the emphasis on repentance which we see in the Synoptic tradition. Likewise the colorful ascetic details and desert/wilderness setting have largely disappeared. There is a definite shift in thematic focus which will develop further in the narrative of chapter 1 which follows, and, indeed, throughout the remainder of the Gospel.

John 1:19ff

As in the Synoptics, we see narrated people coming from Jerusalem to see John. However, they are not coming to be baptized, but to find out more information about the Baptist himself. There is a loose parallel to Matthew’s version of the Q episode, which has religious leaders (Pharisees and Sadducees) coming to John (Matt 3:7). The episode in Jn 1:19-27 also is similar to the Lukan tradition recorded in Lk 3:15 (to be discussed). More significant is the fact that, embedded in vv. 19-27 are two bits of early tradition:

  • The citation of Isaiah 40:3, here spoken by John himself (v. 23), and
  • The saying(s) of the Baptist, corresponding with Mark 1:7-8 par (vv. 26-27)

The way these have been incorporated into the dialogue format—a common feature in the Fourth Gospel—indicates a level of adaptation and reworking. This is confirmed by two details:

  • The ‘splitting’ of the saying corresponding to Mk 1:8 par:
    “I dunk (you) in water(, but…)” (1:26a, cf. also v. 33)
    “(…he) is the one dunking in the holy Spirit” (1:33b)
  • The way that the first portion of the saying corr. to Mk 1:7 (or a similar saying) is given an important theological (and Christological) interpretation at several points in John 1 (vv. 15, 30):
    “the one coming behind [o)pi/sw] me…”

The carefully constructed (literary) design of 1:19-51 will be discussed in an upcoming note.

John 1:28

The actual reference to John’s baptizing activity is clearly of secondary importance in the context here, and is provided almost as an afterthought. Even so, the unique detail of the location—”Bethany…across the Jordan” (presumably Transjordan, to the east)—has the ring of authenticity. It is not the sort of thing which a Christian writer would have introduced, thus causing confusion with the more familiar Bethany to the west. Commentators ancient and modern have had difficulty locating this site with any degree of certainty.

John 1:35

Here we see mention of John’s disciples, which, in the Gospel context is more important in terms of defining John’s relationship to Jesus (the subject of the next section to be studied). However, it confirms the vitality and success of John’s ministry.

John 3:23ff

In 3:23-30, the Fourth Gospel preserves a unique historical tradition, and one which most critical commentators regard as authentic (on objective grounds). It is the only instance in the Gospels where we read of Jesus and his disciples engaging in the same sort of baptizing activity as John. The difficulty of this scenario for subsequent Christians is perhaps indicated by the author’s comment in 4:2. It also suggests some sort of conflict, or even rivalry, between the followers of John and Jesus (as also in 4:1-3). While this has often been claimed by commentators on the basis of later Christian tradition, and various speculative theories, here in Jn 3:23-4:3 is the only real evidence for it in the New Testament (cf. also Acts 18:25-19:7). The historical background for the “Q” episode in Matt 11:2ff par is more difficult to determine.

What is more significant for our purposes is the way that this tradition has been expanded and adapted, in typical Johannine style; note the structure:

  • Vv. 22-26—The historical setting, showing John and Jesus (with their respective disciples), working almost side by side, with indication of possible conflict.
  • Vv. 27-30—The words/sayings of John, in his specific role (in the Fourth Gospel) as a witness to Jesus.
  • Vv. 31-35—A Johannine exposition/interpretation which builds on the Baptist’s words with such literary skill that it is difficult to determine whether it is the Baptist or the author who is supposed to be speaking in these verses.

As in the Gospel of Luke (cf. the previous note), this creative reworking of traditional material results in a separation between John and Jesus—compare John’s words (vv. 27-30, esp. verse 30) with the exposition which follows, emphasizing the identity of Jesus as God’s Son. The separation is acted out (and made complete) in the transitional narration of 4:1-3. At this point in the Gospel, John the Baptist disappears from view, and only Jesus remains.

Note of the Day – February 4 (Luke 3:2, 10-14, etc)

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Luke 3:2, 10-14, etc

Having discussed the key association with Isaiah 40:3 in the past two notes (Feb 2 & 3), we now turn to examine how the ministry of John the Baptist was developed in the Gospels of Luke and John. This will be studied in more detail when we come to the section dealing with the relationship between John and Jesus, which, in the Gospel of Luke, was established primarily in the Infancy narrative of chapters 1-2. Here also we find elements describing John’s (future) ministry role throughout:

  • The Angelic announcement to Zechariah (Lk 1:8-22)
    —John’s ascetic character (i.e. as a Nazirite), 1:15b
    —Proclamation leading people to repentance, 1:16-17
  • Birth and circumcision (1:57-66)
    —The reaction to John by the people in the surrounding region, 1:58, 65-66
  • Song of Zechariah (1:67-79)
    —Identification with the Isaiah 40:3 reference, 1:76
    —ministry leading people to forgiveness of sin, 1:77
  • Summary notice (1:80)
    —John’s time in the wilderness before appearing to the people

The notice in 1:80 is picked up again by the Gospel writer at 3:1-2. This uniquely Lukan historical/chronological setting serves as the narrative introduction to the episode, leading into the important statement in verse 2b: “the word of God came to John…in the wilderness”. The connection with the desert, as formulated here, may be an echo of Hosea 2:14. In any event, the emphasis is clearly on the specific prophetic character of John’s ministry—which begins at just this point. Note how three strands of tradition appear in sequence here in the Gospel of Luke:

  • The Synoptic narrative in vv. 3-6 (par Mk 1:3-6)
  • followed by “Q”—vv. 7-9
  • and the Lukan (“L”) material—vv. 10-14.

In verses 10-14, John is questioned by three different groups (cf. the episode in Jn 1:19-27):

  • The crowd/throng of people generally (vv. 10-11)
  • Toll-collectors (vv. 12-13)
  • Soldiers (v. 14)

To each group, John gives practical, ethical instruction regarding daily life and conduct. The teaching effectively illustrates the “good fruit… leading to repentance” mentioned in verses 8a, 9. It emphasizes a life of humility, modesty, and fair behavior, aimed especially at those with greater means or influence, directing them to show care and concern for those less fortunate. In this regard, the teaching has a good deal in common with the ethical instruction of Jesus, as seen, for example, in the parables or in the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount. However, at least as important, is the place vv. 10-14 hold in the overall structure of the narrative:

  • Narrative (historical) introduction—the current rulers (Herods, etc) (vv. 1-2)
    —The ministry of John [Isaiah 40:3-5] (vv. 3-6)
    ——Preaching for repentance: eschatological emphasis—the Judgment (vv. 7-9)
    ——The “fruits of repentance”: ethical emphasis (vv. 10-14)
    —The ministry of John: Messianic emphasis—the Judgment (vv. 15-17)
  • Narrative summary—the current ruler (Herod) (vv. 18-20)

There is an inclusive symmetry to this section, up to verse 20, which creates a separation from the actual baptism of Jesus in vv. 21-22. This separation is enhanced by the way that the Synoptic tradition has been reworked in vv. 18-20.

John’s arrest was mentioned in Mk 1:14 par, after the baptism of Jesus, and marking the beginning of the latter’s ministry. Luke has expanded this, bringing in detail related to the episode narrated in Mk 6:14-29 par—an episode which Luke does not include. He also sets this notice prior to the baptism. The result is that, conceptually, John is “closed up” in prison and is not mentioned in the baptism scene which follows. Luke, of course, was fully aware of the historical tradition regarding John’s role (i.e. that he baptized Jesus), but the author wishes to put the attention entirely on Jesus in this scene (cf. Jn 3:30).

Note of the Day – February 3 (Isa 40:3, continued)

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Isaiah 40:3 (continued)

Having briefly discussed the key passage of Isa 40:3ff in the previous note, it remains to explore further the association with John the Baptist in Gospel tradition. To understand the original context and background of this association, it is helpful to turn to the texts from the Qumran Community (the Dead Sea Scrolls). I will be discussing here two principal aspects which shed light on the establishment of the early Christian tradition regarding John the Baptist (and his relationship with Jesus):

  1. The Eschatological interpretation of Isa 40:3, as evidenced in the Qumran texts, and
  2. The possible relationship between John the Baptist and the Qumran Community

1. The Eschatological Interpretation of Isa 40:3

While the original setting of Isa 40 would appear to be the promise of the restoration of Judah and the return from exile, certain features of the prophecy, like many in (Deutero-)Isaiah, came to be viewed from an eschatological standpoint—as a promise of what God would do for his people in the future, at the end-time. Interpreted in this light, the herald (or “voice”) of vv. 3ff is calling on people to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord (YHWH) at the end-time, when he will rescue/deliver his people and bring Judgment upon the world. This eschatological orientation is reflected strongly in the Community of the Qumran texts, written primarily between the period of 150 B.C. and the first years of the common era (A.D.). Many of these writings evince a belief that the end was near, and that the Community, as the faithful ones (or “remnant”) of Israel, held a central place in the work of God that was about to take place. This is expressed most clearly in two central documents which shape and define the history and character of the Community—the “Community Rule” [1QS, etc] and the so-called Damascus Document [CD/QD]. The importance of Isaiah 40:3 in terms of the Community’s self-identity is seen in the Community Rule [1QS] 8:12-16; 9:19-20:

“And when these have become /a community/ in Israel /in compliance with these arrangements/, they are to be segregated from within the dwelling of the men of sin, to walk to the desert in order to open there His path. As it is written: ‘In the desert, prepare the way of [YHWH], straighten in the steppe a roadway for our God’. This is the study of the Law which he commanded through the hand of Moses, in order to act in compliance with all that has been revealed from age to age, and according to what the prophets have revealed through His holy Spirit.” (8:12-16a)

“This is the time for making ready the path to the desert, and he will teach them about all that has been discovered, so that they can carry it out in this moment…” (9:19-20)

The Community of these texts has separated from all other people, living apart together in the desert (presumably at the site of Khirbet Qumrân, among others[?]), devoting themselves to a strict communal lifestyle centered on the study and exposition/interpretation of the Law and Prophets. This Way (Heb. Er#D#) in the desert is a “way of holiness” (cf. Isa 35:8ff; 57:14), which also draws upon several important images and ideas from Israelite history and the oracles of the Prophets (esp. Deutero-Isaiah):

  • The return of exiles to the Land—defined in terms of the the coming of salvation from God (Isa 62:10-11)
  • This is parallel to the way of the Israelites through the wilderness (i.e. the Exodus traditions) into the Promised Land (Isa 11:16; 48:21; 51:10-11)
  • This same salvation is also understood more properly in an eschatological sense, in terms of the coming Judgment (Isa 1:27-31, etc)

These aspects play on the dual meaning of the verb bWv (šû», “turn, return”)—i.e., (1) the return from exile and the restoration of Israel, and (2) a return to God, that is, a turning back away from sin. The Qumran Community refers to itself at times as <yb!v* (š¹»îm), “ones turning/returning”, in two qualified senses:

  • The š¹»ê Yi´r¹°¢l—the faithful ones or “converts” of Israel, i.e. those who have joined the Community (CD 4:2-3; 6:3-7)
  • The š¹»ê peša±—the ones who have turned away (i.e. repented) from sin (CD 2:5; 20:17; 1QS 1:17; 10:20; 1QHa VI.24; X.9; XIV. 6); the expression is likely derived from Isaiah 59:20f.

By turning from sin and the wickedness/faithlessness of the world, and joining the Community, one follows the “way of holiness” and prepares for the end-time Judgment and the salvation God will bring for his faithful ones.

2. John and the Qumran Community

There are a number of similarities between the ministry of John the Baptist and the Community of the Qumran texts:

  • The desert location. Based on the evidence from the Gospels, as well as subsequent Christian tradition, much of John’s ministry would have taken place in the Judean desert, not all that far from the site of Qumrân.
  • The central importance of Isa 40:3 (cf. above). In Jn 1:23, it is John himself who makes the identification with Isa 40:3.
  • The practice of ritual washing/cleansing. For the importance of this for the Qumran Community, see esp. 1QS 2:25-3:12; 4:20-22; 5:8-23. Ritual washing marked the person’s entrance into the Community; in addition, there were regular washings for various times or occasions.
  • An eschatological emphasis. Warning of the coming Judgment (or anger/wrath) of God was a significant element in both the Qumran texts and in the preaching of John (according to the Gospels). For the Qumran evidence, see e.g., CD 1:5; 10:9; 1QHa VII.17; XI. 28; XXII.5; 1QpHab i.12; 4Q169 1-2.
  • The importance of repentance. Cf. the Qumran references cited directed above, as well as the self-identification based on the verb bWv (šû») listed earlier above. The related Hebrew word hb*WvT= (t®šû»â) generally corresponds to the Greek meta/noia (Mk 1:4 par, etc).
  • Opposition to Pharisees and other (religious) leaders. This is attested only indirectly in the Qumran texts, such as the pesher (commentary) on Nahum (4QpNah [4Q169] fragments 3-4); cf. also CD 5:13-14; 6:11-14, etc. In the Gospels, note Matt 3:7ff par, and Jn 1:19ff.
  • Fire and Spirit. The Baptist’s saying in Mk 1:8; Matt 3:11 par regarding cleansing/purification by fire and the (holy) Spirit has an interesting parallel, too, in the Community Rule (1QS 4:20-21):
    “the time appointed for Judgment… Then God will refine, with his truth, all men’s deeds, and will purify for himself the structure of man… and cleansing him with the spirit of holiness from every wicked deed. He will sprinkle over him the spirit of truth like lustral water (in order to cleanse him) from all… defilement”

These points of similarity have prompted many commentators to allow at least the possibility that John the Baptist had some contact with the Qumran Community (usually identified, in various ways, with the Essenes). Josephus, according to his own testimony, had spent time with the Essenes, and describes an ascetic figure similar in certain respects to John (Life §§11-12). Moreover, Josephus also refers to the Essene practice of ‘adopting’ children and raising them according to their own teachings and practices (Jewish War 2.120, for more on the Essenes, cf. throughout 2.119-161). If one accepts the biographical details of the Lukan Infancy narrative, John came from a priestly family, and his parents, presumably, would have died when he was quite young. This would have made him a strong candidate, perhaps, for joining the Essenes (and/or the Qumran Community) as a youth. All of these factors make this at least a plausible scenario.


Whether or not John the Baptist had any real contact with the Qumran Community, if he identified himself with Isa 40:3 (cf. Jn 1:23), such as they did, then we are immediately transported beyond a specific Christian interpretation of the passage. At the earliest (historical) level of Gospel tradition, John would have viewed himself as fulfilling the role of the Isaian herald, and, through his preaching and ministry, he was preparing “the Way of the Lord”—that is, preparing God’s people for His end-time appearance and the coming Judgment on humankind. It is important to keep this possibility in mind as we explore the way that the earliest traditions were interpreted and developed within the Gospel heritage.

Translations of the Qumran texts given above (adapted slightly) are from The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. by Florentino García Martínez & Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (Brill/Eerdmans: 1997-8 & 2000).

Note of the Day – February 2 (Isa 40:3)

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The central element to the portrait of John the Baptist in Gospel tradition is his association with Isaiah 40:3, which, in its original prophetic context, stands at the beginning of the second half of the book of Isaiah (so-called Deutero-Isaiah). It is generally understood to reflect a promise of restoration and return (from exile) for Judah. This is the message of comfort/consolation in verse 1, as well as the “good news” (rC@b^m=) in v. 9a. The message of the herald in vv. 9ff is preceded by two brief oracles (vv. 3-5, 6-8) which reference a voice (loq) that “cries/calls” out (arq)—the voice of a prophet uttering the word/message given to him by God. Luke’s account is the only one of the Gospels that applies this specific prophetic element to John (Lk 3:2b, cf. also 1:76). The original Hebrew of Isa 40:3, given in literal translation, reads:

“A voice (is) calling (out) in the wide open [i.e. remote/desert] (land): ‘Turn (your) face (to) the way/path of YHWH! Make straight in the (desert) plain a place (to walk) up for our God!'”

The verb hn`P* (p¹nâ), lit. “turn (your) face (to)”, often means “turn your attention to, give attention to”, in the sense of working at or preparing something. The noun Er#D# (derek) is typically translated “way” or “path”, but specifically means something trodden/trampled, i.e. where a person steps or walks. The parallel noun hL*s=m! (mislâ), from the verb lls, refers to a place that has been built or raised up—such as a ramp or staircase, and is often rendered as “highway”. The nouns rB*d=m! (mi¼b¹r) and hb*r*u& (±¦r¹»â) each refer to an open, remote area (i.e. desert, wilderness, pasture-land, etc), but with a slightly different nuance.

The Greek (LXX) translation is reasonably accurate, but interprets the Hebrew somewhat:

fwnh\ bow=nto$ e)n th=| e)rh/mw| e(toima/sate th\n o(do\n kuri/ou eu)qei/a$ poiei=te ta\$ tri/bou$ tou= qeou= h(mw=n
“(The) voice of (one) crying in the desolate (land): ‘(Make) ready the way of the Lord, make straight the broken (track)s of [i.e. for] our God!'”

Several of these differences resulted in making the verse more amenable for being applied to John the Baptist (and Jesus):

  • The opening construction—”voice of (one) crying”—points more directly to a particular person or figure (i.e. John).
  • The Greek word order allows the phrase “in the desert” to be associated with the voice crying (i.e., “voice crying in the desert”), rather than the location of the work (“make ready in the desert”).
  • The conventional rendering of the Divine name YHWH (hwhy, Yahweh) with Ku/rio$ (“Lord”) allowed Christians to interpret the passage as a reference to the coming of Jesus.
  • Instead of the idea of building up a ramp or pathway over the rough ground, the Greek conveys more the sense of smoothing out or leveling the rough places on road, etc., which better suits the image of John’s ministry urging people to repent of their sins.

All three Synoptic Gospels follow the LXX, except for the substitution of au)tou= (“his”) in place of tou= qeou= h(mw=n (“of our God”), which may have been an intentional (Christian) modification; in any case, it helps to make the passage apply to Jesus, rather than God the Father (YHWH).

One may understand the early Christian use and application of Isa 40:3 three ways, or on three distinct levels:

  1. At the historical level—i.e. what John said about himself, or how he was viewed by people at the time
  2. In an eschatological or Messianic sense—John as the herald who prepares people for the coming of God (and His Judgment) at the end-time, and
  3. In relationship to Christ—as the forerunner who prepares people for the appearance of Jesus

It is easy to conflate these and to jump immediately to the specifically Christian (or Christological) interpretation. This, of course, would have been the understanding of the Gospel writers; however, I am not so certain that it properly explains how the association of John with Isa 40:3 came to be established in the Gospel tradition in the first place. This will be discussed further in the next daily note.

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

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Today’s note is the first of several dealing with the Baptism of Jesus—the initial study in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” (see the Introduction). According to the approach I set out there, the different strands of tradition will be examined in turn:

  • The core Synoptic tradition, represented by Mark
  • “Q” material (shared by Matthew and Luke)
  • Material unique to Matthew and Luke, respectively (“M” and “L”), and
  • Johannine tradition, i.e. the Gospel of John

I also presented three main components to the Baptism of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel Tradition:

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

I begin with the first of these—The Ministry of John—and outline the following strands (cf. above):

Mark 1:3-6

The Synoptic parallels are Matt 3:1-6 and Luke 3:3-6. According to the generally accepted critical theory, Matthew and Luke both made use of the Gospel of Mark as a source. At the very least, they seem to have drawn upon a (traditional) source which has contents and a structure similar to that of Mark. The account in Matthew here corresponds closely to Mark, but with a few differences; Luke contains less Markan material at this point. Each of the four verses in Mk 1:3-6 makes a statement regarding a particular aspect of John’s ministry, as understood by early Christians. These will be discussed in turn, with the differences in Matthew and Luke being mentioned along the way.

Verse 3—The ministry of John the Baptist is introduced with a quotation from Isaiah 40:3. That this verse was connected closely with John at a very early point is indicated by how firmly it is embedded within the early Gospel tradition (cf. also Jn 1:23 and Lk 1:76). Luke has extended the citation to include vv. 4-5 (Lk 3:5-6), almost certainly to tie in verse 5 (adapted slightly) with the theme of salvation elsewhere within the Gospel (see esp. 2:30-31). Mark has joined a citation of Mal 3:1 (in v. 2) to that of Isa 40:3, bringing together the two principal Scriptures understood as prophecies of John the Baptist by early Christians. If Matthew and Luke made use of Mark, then they each (independently) eliminated that reference here, either for theological (and practical) reasons, or, perhaps, because the association was being made elsewhere (Lk 1:17; Matt 11:10). The significance of Isa 40:3 will be discussed further in the next note.

Verse 4—This is the primary statement regarding the nature and character of John’s ministry:

“and Yohanan came to be (present)[, the one] dunking [i.e. baptizing] in the desolate (land) [i.e. wilderness], and proclaiming (the need for) a change of mind [i.e. repentance] unto the release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins”

Several details are contained here: (1) his work took place in the desolate/desert region (of Judea), (2) it involved a kind of symbolic ritual cleansing (lit. dunking) in water, (3) it was aimed at bringing people to repentance, which (4) would lead to forgiveness of their sins by God. Matthew and Luke each have a slightly different way of presenting this same information:

  • Matthew abridges the corresponding Markan material, including it prior to the citation of Isa 40:3 (in Matt 3:1-2). He emphasizes the component of preaching/proclamation, adding the detail that John proclaimed (along with Jesus, Matt 4:17 par) the need for repentance because “the kingdom of God/Heaven has come near”. Critical commentators have questioned the historicity of this particular detail—i.e., the preaching of the kingdom by John—since it is not clearly attested anywhere else in the Gospels.
  • Luke has joined the information to a more elaborate narrative introduction (Lk 3:1-2), providing the historical/chronological setting for the appearance of John (and Jesus). Verse 3 is very close to Mk 1:4, but is preceded by the important Lukan addition, “the utterance [i.e. word] of God came to Yohanan son of Zakaryah…”, which connects the episode with the earlier Infancy narrative of chapters 1-2.

Verse 5—This verse summarizes John’s ministry as it took place, localizing it in the territory of Judea, around the Jordan river, relatively close to Jerusalem. It includes the specific detail that the people who were dunked (baptized) in the Jordan confessed (lit. gave out an account as one [regarding]) their sins. More or less the same statement is found in Matt 3:5-6, while Luke (3:3) has a briefer notice, perhaps because John’s ministry will be illustrated more properly by what follows (vv. 7-9ff, cf. below).

Verse 6—Here John’s striking appearance and lifestyle is described, which, apart from all other considerations, was almost certainly intended to evoke the image of Elijah in the desert (cf. 2 Kings 1:8). Matthew has the same essential information (3:4), but Luke gives no mention of it, perhaps because the association with Elijah was made more directly earlier in the Infancy narrative (1:17, cf. also vv. 76, 80). The identification of John with Elijah will be discussed in more detail in the third section, or motif, related to the Baptism of Jesus (cf. above).

Q Material—Matt 3:7-10; Luke 3:7-9

As mentioned in the Introduction, the abbreviation “Q” (for German quelle, “source”), essentially refers to material shared by Matthew and Luke, but which is not present in Mark. In terms of the Gospel Tradition, this is often called the “Double Tradition” (i.e., Matthew and Luke), rather than the “Triple Tradition” (all three Synoptic Gospels). The commonly-held “Two Source” theory posits that Matthew and Luke each (independently) made use of at least two sources—Mark and so-called “Q”. It is typically assumed that “Q” existed as a single, self-contained written document, but in my view this is far from certain. Some of the peculiarities and differences within the “Q” material are perhaps better explained by more than one traditional source, and which could include oral as well as written traditions.

With regard to the Baptism of Jesus, the Q material is limited to a single episode and (double) saying of the Baptist. It is noteworthy that here we find some of the strongest evidence for a written Q source, since the accounts in Matthew and Luke are almost identical—the closest such occurrence of comparable length in the Double Tradition. Whether or not one adopts entirely the critical theory that Matthew and Luke each made use of Mark, this “Q” episode clearly supplements the core Synoptic narrative represented by Mark 1:3-6. It vividly illustrates the preaching of John the Baptist with its emphasis on the need for repentance (Matt 3:8 par). John’s harsh and provocative message is framed by an (eschatological) warning of the coming Judgment of God on humankind (vv. 7, 10 par). Not even one’s ethnic-religious status as the ‘people of God’ (i.e. being Israelites or Jews) will save a person without true repentance. This is the first of two core sayings in the Q episode (v. 9 par). The second warns of the need for good and faithful behavior by God’s people, in light of the coming Judgment (v. 10 par). Both sayings are themselves illustrative and parabolic, drawing upon images and details from everyday life and the natural world, in a manner similar to the teaching of Jesus.

Before proceeding to the distinctive treatment of the ministry of John in Luke and the Fourth Gospel, it is necessary first to discuss the association with Isaiah 40:3 (cf. above, on Mk 1:3) in a bit more detail. This I will do in the next daily note.

The general historical accuracy of the Synoptic tradition regarding John the Baptist, including the background to the narrative in Mark 6:14-29 par, is confirmed by the information in Josephus’ Antiquities 18.116-119—the only other contemporary reference to John outside of the Gospels and book of Acts:

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness toward one another, and piety toward God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body: supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now, when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent as prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the citadel I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. (LOEB translation)


January 4: Luke 2:40, 52

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Luke 2:40, 52

In the concluding note to the main Lukan Infancy narrative (2:39-40), we find summarized a primary theme which occurs throughout the narrative, but is especially emphasized in 2:21ff (cf. the earlier note):

“And as they [i.e. Jesus’ parents] completed all the (thing)s according to the Law of the Lord, they turned back into the Galîl {Galilee} into their own city Nazaret.” (v. 39)

The fulfillment of the Law is characteristic of the faithful ones of Israel, and Jesus is born into this environment. Verse 40 provides an initial narrative summary of the child’s growth and development; as such, it is the first indication of his fulfilling the destiny marked by his name (and naming). It also concludes the John/Jesus parallel in the narrative (note the comparison with 1:80):

  • John: “And the child grew and (became) strong in (the) spirit…” (1:80)
  • Jesus: “And the child grew and (became) strong…” (2:40)

Lk 2:40 adds the following detail: “…filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him”. There is very much an echo here of the statements of the child Samuel’s growth in 1 Sam 2:21, 26 (cf. also with regard to Moses, in Josephus Antiquities 2.228-31). The statement that “the favor of God was upon him” is similar to that regarding John in 1:66—”the hand of the Lord was with him”. There is some question whether the “spirit” (pneu=ma) in 1:80 refers to the Holy Spirit, the human spirit, or to “spirit” generally. In verse 15, there is a reference to John being filled with the Holy Spirit, but the expression e)n pneu/mati (“in [the] spirit”) in verse 16 refers to a special prophetic spirit—”in (the) spirit and power of Elijah“. Most likely, the latter is intended in v. 80, especially in light of the concluding statement: “…and he was in the desert (place)s until the day of his showing up toward Israel”.

In the case of Jesus, there is greater likelihood that the Spirit (of God) is in view. There is often a close connection between Wisdom and the Spirit; note the similarity of language:

  • “he will be filled by the holy Spirit” (1:15)
  • “being filled with wisdom” (2:40)

The two are brought together in the famous Messianic passage of Isa 11:1-4ff (verse 2):

“And the Spirit of YHWH will rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding…”

Thus the wisdom characteristic of Jesus even as a young child is a sign of the presence of the Spirit of God. This is also true, it would seem, with regard to the word “favor” (xa/ri$), which has served as a kind of keyword in the narrative. You may recall that it is part of the name Yôµ¹n¹n (/n`j*oy), and its meaning: “Yah(weh) has shown favor” (cf. the earlier note on vv. 13-17). The Greek word xa/ri$ (“favor”) is especially prominent in the scene of the Angelic annunciation to Mary (cf. the note on 1:32-35). The favor (of God) extends to those touched by Jesus’ birth, beginning with Mary—1:28, 30, and note the underlying idea expressed in vv. 42-43, 45, 48ff; 2:14, etc. It hardly need be pointed out, that the use of xa/ri$ (usually translated “grace”) by Paul in his letters reflects a specialized theological understanding of the term. Here we see it used in the wider, more general sense of favor shown by God to human beings.

The concluding notice in Lk 2:40 is repeated in verse 52, following the additional episode from Jesus’ childhood (vv. 41-50):

“And Yeshua cut forward in wisdom and growth, and favor alongside God and men.”

This statement again brings together the keywords “wisdom” (sofi/a) and “favor” (xa/ri$), only now this “favor” is divided into two aspects—before God, and before human beings (i.e. from God and men). It is possible that this is an allusion to Prov 3:1-4ff (verse 4): “And you will find favor [/j@]…in the eyes of God and man”. Wisdom is emphasized in this chapter of Proverbs, especially beginning in verse 13. Even more than in Lk 2:40, there is a clear allusion to the Samuel narrative (1 Sam 2:26) in verse 52, the birth and childhood of Samuel serving as a pattern for that of Jesus in this Gospel.

The idea that Jesus grew and progressed in wisdom and favor/grace has proven somewhat problematic for Christians accustomed to emphasizing his deity—often to the exclusion of his (full/true) humanity. However, the notices in Lk 2:40, 52 must be taken seriously, as the language used by the author leaves no doubt that he is referring to ordinary (and natural) human growth and development. The verb au)ca/nw in verse 40 is a primary verb meaning “grow”, used especially in the sense of trees/vegetation growing and bearing fruit. In verse 52, the verb is proko/ptw, literally “cut forward”, i.e. advance, progress, often in a social, professional or educational context; note the similar usage in Gal 1:14. Jesus’ growth and development (his “cutting forward”) is explained and stated carefully, according to three elements:

  • sofi/a (“wisdom”)—this would seem to indicate growth in (human) understanding and discernment, especially in religious matters related to God (cf. vv. 46-47ff); however, wisdom also is a mark of the Spirit and presence of God, especially in light of a Messianic passage such as Isa 11:2 (cf. above)
  • h(liki/a (“growth”)—that is, ordinary physical growth, either in the sense of age or of size/stature (Lk 12:25 par; 19:3; Jn 9:21ff).
  • xa/ri$ (“favor”)—this word also refers to the effect (or result) of Jesus’ growth and progress; even as God increasingly showed favor to him, so also did his fellow human beings (cf. 2:47; 4:22)

With regard to the last point, the scene (4:16-30) of Jesus’ return to his hometown (Nazareth) is important for a correct understanding and interpretation. As a guest speaker, he reads and comments on the Scripture (Isa 61:1-2), and, initially at least, the response of the congregation would seem to be positive:

“And all witnessed about him, and wondered upon the words of favor [xa/ri$] traveling out of his mouth…” (4:22)

Here we see both sides of the “favor”—what he is able to say, and the impression it leaves on other people (note also the reference in v. 15). However, a different kind of favor is given emphasis in the scene, represented by the initial words quoted from the Scripture (a Messianic passage): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, on account of which he has anointed me…” (Isa 61:1f, verse 18). The reference to the Spirit ties back to the idea of Wisdom, but also to the person of Jesus, who, at this point in his life, after his baptism (3:21-22) and time in the desert (4:1-13), now returns to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (v. 14, cf. also verse 1). This certainly reflects some manner of growth and development, though just how one defines it is a matter of some dispute. At the very least, the Synoptic tradition records two threshold events—Jesus’ baptism and his temptation in the desert. Neither of these takes place until Jesus had reached a certain point in life—a particular age and level of growth. Luke, among all the Gospels, gives to this a relatively high degree of realistic detail (3:1-2, 23ff; 4:15, 16ff) which should not be ignored.

For more detail on the text of Lk 2:40 & 52, cf. my earlier Christmas note on these verses.

December 23: Luke 1:69, 78-79

By | Exegetical/Study Series, Note of the Day | No Comments

Luke 1:69, 78-79

In the previous note, I looked at the hymn of Zechariah (the Benedictus, vv. 67-79), focusing especially on the opening lines (v. 68) and the beginning of the third part (vv. 76-77) dealing specifically with John the Baptist. Today, I will continue and supplement that study, examining the verses which follow—v. 69 and 78-79, respectively.

To set verse 69 in context, here is the opening line (v. 68a), along with the first section (or strophe), vv. 68b-71:

“Well-counted [i.e. worthy of a good account] is the Lord God of Yisrael!
in that [i.e. because] He looked upon and made (the) release for His people
and raised a horn of salvation for us in the house of Dawid His child
even as He spoke through (the) mouth of His holy Foretellers from (the) Age—
Salvation out of our hostile (foe)s(‘ grasp)
and out of the hand of all the (one)s hating us”

Verse 69 is parallel to the declaration in 68b:

  • He looked upon and made the release for his people
  • He raised a horn of salvation for us

The three verbs (in italics) are all aorist indicative forms, normally used to described past action or events. The two verbs, used in tandem in v. 68b, are:

e)piske/ptomai (“look upon”)—this compound verb carries the sense of examining something closely or carefully, often in the context of an authority figure coming to examine or inspect a situation. In Jewish and early Christian tradition, it is sometimes used in a specific theological sense—of God manifesting himself to give help to his people (Lk 7:16; Acts 15:14), sometimes in a distinctive eschatological (and/or Messianic) context as here in the hymn. The related noun e)piskoph/ carries a similar meaning in Lk 19:44 and 1 Pet 2:12. For more, cf. on verse 78 below.

poie/w (“make, do”)—the common action verb here is used with the noun lu/trwsi$, which refers to action which effects the release (lit. “loosing”) of a person from debt or bondage. Typically it would indicate the payment made to free a person from his/her bond. The word is rare in the New Testament, occurring only three times (here and in Lk 2:38; Heb 9:12), always referring to the salvation or deliverance worked by God (through Christ) for his people.

In verse 69, the verb is:

e)gei/rw (“raise, rise, lift [up]”)—this common verb of motion was frequently used in reference to God’s raising of Jesus from the dead. Here it is used in the general (figurative) sense of causing a situation to come about, of bringing a person into prominence or a position of power, etc. The object of the verb is the expression “horn of salvation”, making the phrase parallel to the prior one in v. 68—”he raised…salvation” = “he made release/redemption”.

This expression “horn of salvation” (ke/ra$ swthri/a$) is an idiom taken from the Old Testament, in which the horn (ke/ra$) refers to that of a strong adult (male) animal, such as a bull. It signifies both power and prominence, and, as such, is a fitting symbol for a strong and virile king or ruler. The specific expression is found in Psalm 18:2 (2 Sam 22:3), where it refers to God (Yahweh) as a powerful protector. In Psalm 132:17, God declares:

“I will make a horn sprout for David, I have set in place a light for my anointed (one)”

This declaration of blessing and protection for the (Davidic) king, came to be understood in a future (Messianic) sense, such as we see already in Ezekiel 29:21. By the time of the New Testament, the idea was already well-established, as indicated by the 15th of the Eighteen Benedictions (Shemoneh Esreh) in Jewish tradition. The specific idea of “raising” the horn (of salvation) most likely alludes to 1 Sam 2:10, in the song of Hannah, upon which the earlier Magnificat was patterned (at least in part):

“He [i.e. the Lord] will judge the ends of the earth,
and he will give strength to his king
and will raise the horn of his anointed (one)”

The Messianic context in the Benedictus is confirmed by the qualifying phrase “in the house of David his child [pai=$]”. The Greek word pai=$ can also mean “a (young) servant”, but here it is best to retain the literal sense, as it alludes both to (1) the king (or Messiah) as God’s “son”, and (2) the narrative setting of Jesus’ birth. The Messianic type of Davidic ruler—i.e. future king from the line of David—is clearly in view, being introduced already in the Angelic announcement to Mary (vv. 27, 32-33).

When we turn to verses 78-79, the focus of the hymn has shifted to the newborn child John. For commentators who hold that these Lukan hymns are earlier productions which the author (trad. Luke) has adapted and incorporated into the narrative, verses 76-77, which relate specifically to John, must be secondary. However, taking the hymn as it stands, these verses work to form a vital third section (or strophe) which makes a fitting conclusion. I translate the section here, with vv. 78-79 marked in italics:

“And you also, (little) child—
you will be called Foreteller of the Highest
and you will travel before [i.e. ahead] in the sight of the Lord
to make ready his ways
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in (the) release of their sins
through (the) inner-organs of (the) mercy of our God
in which a rising-up out of the height will look upon us
to shine light upon the (one)s sitting in darkness and (the) shadow of death
(and) to put down our feet straight into (the) way of peace

The future role and work of John are described in verse 77, by the two verbal infinitives—”to make ready” (the ways of the Lord) and “to give knowledge” (of salvation to his people). This salvation (swthri/a), which must be understood along with the salvation and loosing/redemption (lu/trwsi$) mentioned in vv. 68-69 (cf. above), is qualified by the phrase “in the release [a&fesi$] of their sins”. Thus God’s people will be delivered and loosed, not from bondage to human captors—i.e. nations such as the Roman Empire who would dominate and enslave them—but from bondage to the power of sin. This differs markedly from the traditional role of the Messiah as one who will judge and defeat the nations, and more properly fits the work of both John and Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels.

Each of the phrases and expressions in verse 78-79 builds upon the earlier imagery of the hymn, and continues the Messianic association (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 388-9):

  • The saving work of God takes place through, and as a result of, “the inner-organs [spla/gxna]” of his mercy. This is a Semitic idiom which associates mercy and compassion with the internal organs (heart, lungs, liver, etc). There is similar phrasing (and Messianic/eschatological context) in the Jewish Testament of Zebulun 8:2 (cf. also the Christianized Testament of Levi 4:4).
  • The verb e)piske/ptomai (“look upon”) from verse 68 is repeated here (cf. above). There is some difference in the manuscripts as whether it should be read as an aorist (“[has] looked upon”, as in v. 68) or future (“will look upon”) form. The context seems to favor the future form (e)piske/yetai), since the subject is not God himself, but the “rising” light that is about to come upon his people.
  • The word a)natolh/ (“rising up”) can refer either (a) to the sprouting up of a plant (or horn, cf. above), or (b) to the rising of the sun or a star. It is used in reference to the star in Matt 2:2 (“his star in the [place of its] rising up”). A number of Scriptures or passages which came to be understood in a Messianic sense, make use of similar light imagery—cf. Num 24:17; Isa 60:1; Mal 4:2 [Heb 3:20]. At the same time, the image of a “branch” or “horn” was also associated with the (Davidic) Messiah (cf. Isa 11:1; Zech 3:8; 6:12; Testament of Judah 24:4, and note also the references cited above).
  • The expression “out of the height” (e)c u%you$) is related to the divine title “Highest” (u%yisto$) in verse 76 (and cf. the note on vv. 32, 35). For the significance of “Highest” as a name of God, cf. the earlier article on the ancient name ±Elyôn. Help from God is often seen as coming “from high” (Ps 102:19; 144:7, etc).
  • The first phrase in verse 79—”to shine light upon the ones sitting in darkness and the shadow of death”—blends together several Scripture passages, namely Isa 9:2 and Psalm 107:10 (cf. also Isa 42:6-7). The first of these was applied to Jesus, as a Messianic prophecy, already in early Christian tradition (Matt 4:14-16), and came to be associated specifically with his birth (cf. my earlier notes on Isa 9:5-6).
  • The second phrase introduces the theme of peace—”to set our feet down straight into the way of peace”. The expression “way of peace” may allude to Isa 59:8, while the verb kateuqu/nw probably derives from the idea in Isa 40:3 of “making straight” (i.e. making clear) the way for the Lord when he comes. This passage, along with Mal 3:1ff, was connected with John the Baptist’s role in preparing the people of Israel for the coming of Jesus (Lk 3:4-6 par, etc). The theme of peace in relation to the Messiah, and the coming Messianic age, will be discussed in the note on Lk 2:10-14.

In verses 68 and 78 we find two words which, if not exactly proper names, certainly would have been understood as Messianic titleske/ra$ (“horn”) and a)natolh/ (“rising/sprout[ing]”). Interestingly, the early Christian writer Justin Martyr (mid-2nd century) seems to have understood a)natolh/ in v. 78 as a kind of name (i.e. Anatol¢); in this he may be following Zech 3:8; 6:12 LXX (cf. Dialogue with Trypho §121.2).

References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977 / 1993).