January 20: John 2:13-22

The second episode in John 2 is the “cleansing” of the Temple (for the first [the miracle at Cana] see the previous day’s note), which here is comprised of two parts: (1) the action in the Temple (2:13-17) and (2) the saying about the Temple (2:18-22). A proper treatment of this passage requires that one touch upon historical-critical questions more than I would normally do in these notes and articles. I will briefly discuss each relevant point, in sequence.

    1. The Chronology of the Passage
    2. The Relation between Temple Action (Sign) and Saying
    3. Significance of the Temple Action (at the Historical level)
    4. The Gospel Tradition regarding the Temple Action
    5. The Johannine Narrative

1. The Chronology of the Passage. In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 11:15-19; Matthew 21:12-16; Luke 19:45-47), the “cleansing” episode is narrated near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, just after the Entry into Jerusalem; in John, on the other hand, it appears to take place at the beginning of his ministry. Some traditional-conservative commentators, taking the apparent chronologies literally, harmonize by positing two separate “cleansing” incidents. This is highly unlikely. The narratives (in the Synoptics and John) are close enough that we can be relatively certain that a single historical tradition underlies both accounts. If this is so, then which ‘chronology’ is more accurate? The Synoptics really only record one visit of Jesus to Jerusalem (at the end of his ministry); on the basis of this arrangement, various traditions which take place within a Jerusalem setting, might naturally be included as part of this last visit. Many scholars would view the multiple visits to Jerusalem (with three different Passover settings) as technically and historically more accurate, and thus favor an earlier date for the “cleansing”. On the other hand, the dramatic nature of the episode, which (at the historical level) must have greatly increased opposition to Jesus from the religious authorities, fits better a time closer to his death. If the saying in 2:18-22 was actually uttered at the time of the “cleansing” (on this see below), then again a moment nearer to his trial and crucifixion is to be preferred.

2. Relation between Temple Action (Sign) and Saying. Most critical scholars would hold that the historical “cleansing” episode (2:13-17) and the saying in 2:18-22 likely took place on separate occasions, or, at least, reflect separate traditions which the Gospel writer has joined together here. I think that this is quite possible. The Temple setting would be enough to bring them together, which could be done simply by way of adding verse 18 (cf. Mark 11:28 par. for a similar question). The Synoptic accounts of the “cleansing” make no mention of such a statement by Jesus, which is curious, considering that a similar saying is brought up as an accusation in the ‘trial’ before the Sanhedrin narrated just a few chapters later (cf. Mark 14:58; Matt 26:61, also Mark 15:29 par). However, it clear enough from these references (by multiple attestation between John and the Synoptics) that Jesus must have made some statement which involved destroying and rebuilding the Temple. Indeed, that he predicted the destruction of the Temple is virtually certain (on purely objective grounds), cf. the references above and Mark 13:1-2 par. [esp. Lk 21:5-6].

3. Significance of the “Cleansing” (at the Historical level). On the basis of an objective analysis of the Gospel accounts, there would seem to be two main possibilities with regard to what Jesus intended to convey by his action:

a. Cleansing/Purifying the Temple. This is the most common interpretation, and is suggested particularly by the Synoptic accounts (see below). But cleansing in what sense? It can be understood several ways:

    • Jesus was focusing on the presence of the sellers of animals and money-changers in the Temple precincts. The general language used in the Synoptic accounts would suggest that he was targeting any commerce taking place in the Temple precincts (“the [ones] selling and the [ones] buying” Mark 11:15 par). Even though these transactions would have occurred in the outer court (of the Gentiles), and not the sanctuary, Jesus may have objected to their taking place in the Temple precincts at all. The symbolism might be understood in terms that the entire Temple (complex) should be holy.
    • Jesus was targeting not the Temple commerce per se, but rather the corruption and profiteering which was taking place. This is a popular view, but there is little evidence for it in the texts beyond a superficial reading of the second part of the saying in Mark 11:17 par (from Jer 7:11). More plausibly, Jesus is targeting the burden which the Temple commerce places upon the poor—cf. the emphasis on overturning the tables of the money-changers and sellers-of-doves (the sacrificial animal of the poor).
    • Jesus’ emphasis was on the Temple ritual as a whole. Since the system of sacrifice, and the tax to fund the Temple, could not exist without the purchase of animals and exchange of coinage, Jesus’ driving out the sellers and money-changers could be viewed as an attack on the Temple ritual itself. However, apart from this episode, there it little evidence in the Gospels for such an explicit attack on the Temple. It will become more prominent later on (cf. the speech of Stephen in Acts 7 [esp. vv. 38-50], the epistle to the Hebrews, and, possibly, within the Gospel of John [see below]). Still, the quotation of Isa 56:7 in Mark 11:17 par. could indicate that Jesus had a different role for the Temple in mind. See the earlier Christmas season article on the Temple.
    • Jesus was attacking the current Temple administration. This was characteristic of the Community of the Qumran texts, which did not oppose the Temple as such, but rather the illegitimacy and corruption of the ruling Priesthood that oversaw the Temple machinery. In the Gospels certainly we find more instances of Jesus speaking out against the current religious authorities than against the Temple; however, it is hard to find much evidence of that in the episode here.
    • It was a general symbol of cleansing related to the idea of the Temple’s holiness. In other words, the Temple as symbolic of the place where people encounter the Presence of God, requires (at its fundamental religious and spiritual level) the removal of anything profane. I think it quite possible that this is closer to Jesus’ intention than the other interpretations mentioned above. For more on this view in relation to the Gospel accounts, see down below.

b. Destruction of the Temple. Here more emphasis is placed on the overturning of tables, etc. as a symbol of judgment. We have additional evidence that Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple on more than one occastion (Mark 14:58; Matt 26:61, also Mark 15:29 par.; Mark 13:1-2 par. [esp. Lk 21:5-6]). As mentioned above, if the saying in Jn 2:18-22 originally took place at the time of the the Temple action, then it makes this interpretation more likely. Again, one may consider several different aspects to the theme of judgment/destruction:

    • The corruption of the current Temple/priesthood. This view is similar to several of the “cleansing” interpretations offered above. The current apparatus will be destroyed and replaced with a new, pure Temple (whether real or symbolic).
    • The Restoration of Israel. In the exilic and post-exilic Prophets, as well as in later Judaism, a new (ideal) Temple is part of the (Messianic) restoration of Israel. See the Temple description in Ezekiel 40-48, and especially Isa 56:1-8 and Zech 14:16-21, both of which are reflected in the Gospel accounts. Also, note that Mark, in particular, connects the Temple episode with the withering of the fig tree (an Old Testament symbol for Israel), Mk 11:12-14, 20-21.
    • Jesus himself replaces the Temple (cult). This is more appropriate as an early Christian interpretation (which will be discussed); however, it is noteworthy in the Synoptic accounts that, after this episode, Jesus spends much of the time teaching within the Temple precincts. At the historical level, Jesus appears to have consciously identified himself with the (Messianic) king of Zech 9-14 (cf. Mark 11:1-11 par.), and may have intentionally tied his presence in Jerusalem (and the Temple) to Zech 14:16-21 (see the curious detail found only in Mk 11:16).

Is it possible that symbolism both of cleansing and destruction apply equally to the event? If we take the Gospel accounts at face value, there are two elements to Jesus’ action (Luke only mentioned the first of these):

  • Driving out the buyers and sellers
  • Overturning the tables of the money-changers (and sellers of doves)

(To be continued in the next day’s note)

January 19: John 2:1-11

The miracle at Cana is traditionally commemorated around Epiphany (esp. the second Sunday after Epiphany [Jan 19, 2020]). I will be discussing this today as the first of two notes on the two episodes in the second chapter of John—the miracle at Cana (John 2:1-11) and the “cleansing” of the Temple (John 2:13-23). That these are roughly parallel episodes, reflecting “signs” done by Jesus, can be seen by comparing the general structure:

  • Introduction to the narrative—a festal setting (Wedding/Passover)—one in Galilee, the other in Judea (Jerusalem), which Jesus attends (v. 1-2, 13)
  • The “Sign”—miracle of changing water to wine (vv. 3-10), and the “cleansing” of the Temple; the latter is two-fold: Temple action (vv. 14-17) and Temple saying (vv. 18-22)
  • Belief/trust in Jesus—his disciples, because of the sign (v. 11); and many in Jerusalem, because of the signs (v. 23)
  • Narrative summary—Jesus resides with this relatives and disciples in Capernaum for “not many” days (v. 12); notice that Jesus did not entrust himself to the people in Jerusalem (vv. 24-25)

It is possible that these two episodes are also meant to reflect the very beginning, and the end, of Jesus’ ministry, i.e. encapsulating the narratives and discourses in chapters 3-12 (“Book of Signs”). Indeed, critical scholars have variously proposed that one or both of these episodes is “misplaced” chronologically—i.e., would have occurred at the historical level at a different point than indicated in the Gospel structure. This question is more obvious with regard to the Temple episode (discussed in the next note), but some commentators have suggested that the miracle at Cana better fits a setting during Jesus’ youth, the main reasons being:

  1. The setting in Galilee, where Jesus is with his mother and relatives; this would have been more likely to take place prior to the beginning of his adult ministry.
  2. The exchange between Jesus and his mother, with his rebuke of Mary’s question, has a vague similarity to that narrated in Luke 2:41-51.
  3. The character and setting of the miracle itself is generally similar to several of the miracles narrated in extra-canonical works such as the (Infancy) Gospel of Thomas.

Each of these points can be debated, but have to be admitted as technically possible—a tradition from Jesus’ childhood could have been adapted for the context here simply by adding “with his disciples” (in v. 2) and including the notice in verse 11. However, I find the theory rather speculative; in any event, we must deal with the narrative as it has come down to us. In many ways, it is a curious episode, and one might question why it was included at all. Apart from its place as Jesus’ first significant miracle (taking the notice in v. 11 at face value), what other meaning does it contain? I would suggest three possible areas for interpretation:

1. Foreshadowing of future events. One might point out here several details:

  • “On the third day” (th=| h(me/ra| th=| tri/th|), v. 1. There is always a danger of rushing to read the death and resurrection of Jesus into such references, since “three days” is a common narrative device which could occur in any number of contexts. However, the specific wording “(on) the third day” does appear frequently in relation to Jesus’ resurrection (Matt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 46; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor 15:4; cf. also Matt 27:64; Lk 13:32; 24:21), though not in John. The only other use of the phrase occurs in Acts 27:19. In nearly all of these references the wording is th=| tri/th| h(me/ra|, but in Lk 18:33 and 1 Cor 15:4 it is th=| h(me/ra| th=| tri/th| as in Jn 2:1. On the surface, the expression here is a simple narrative device, which may tie back to the episodes narrated in chapter 1 (commentators have various theories on just how). In the previous note, I discussed the “three days” of Jn 1:29-50—there are three sections, dealing with the witness of John the Baptist and the disciples to the person of Jesus, each of which begins with the phrase th=| e)pau/rion (“upon the morrow [i.e. the next day]”).
  • The presence of Mary, Jesus’ mother (v. 1ff). The only other time Mary appears in the Fourth Gospel is when Jesus is on the cross (Jn 19:25-27). On both occasions, Jesus addresses her as “Woman” (gu/nai). This sounds rather harsh in English, but it is the way Jesus addresses all women in the Gospel of John (see Jn 4:21; 8:10; 20:15). However, here (and in Jn 19:26), it probably does indicate a subordination of family ties to Jesus’ own (higher) mission and identity. If this episode actually stems from Jesus’ youth (see above), then there may be a parallel with Luke 2:48-50.
  • “My hour has not yet come” (v. 4). There are two expressions Jesus uses in the Gospel of John: (1) “(the) hour is coming” [e&rxetai w%ra], an eschatological phrase, with both a present future aspect, tied to the person and work of Christ (Jn 4:21, 23; 5:25, 28; 16:2, 25, 32; cf. also 16:4, 21); and (2) “(my) hour has come” [e)lh/luqen h( w%ra], a reference to the time for Jesus’ death/departure (see, with related forms, Jn 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 16:21, 32; 17:1). Every other use of “(my) hour has (not) come” in John refers to Jesus’ death (and subsequent exaltation); for a similar sense of “hour” in the Synoptics, cf. Mark 14:35, 41 par; Luke 22:53. The immediate context in Jn 2:1-11 would suggest that Jesus’ saying relates to the time for him to begin his public ministry (by working miracles), or simply that the time/situation was not right for him to intervene. The verb used here is h%kw, which is generally synonymous with e&rxomai, but carries the sense of arriving, or reaching a point (in time); that the verbs are interchangeable, cf. notably Jn 6:37; 8:42.

2. Elements of the miracle itself. Here too there are several key details to examine:

  • The Wedding feast (v. 1ff). The “signs” and discourses of Jesus in Jn 2-12 typically take place in the context of a Jewish feast or holy day (Sabbath, Passover, Sukkoth, Dedication). Here it is a wedding, which is a unique setting in that, as a celebration, it would have both a “religious” and “secular” aspect. That is an ordinary wedding feast is clearly indicated throughout the passage. However, wedding/marriage imagery (emphasizing the bride/bridegroom) is widely used as religious or spiritual symbolism—of many Old Testament examples, see Psalm 19:5; 45; Isa 61:10; 62:5; Hos 1-2; Joel 2:16, and the Song of Songs. Weddings occur in Jesus’ parables and sayings (Mark 2:19ff par; Matt 22:2ff; 25:1-13; Luke 12:36; 14:8). Believers as the Bride of Christ (the Bridegroom) would become a popular early Christian motif (Jn 3:29; 2 Cor 11:2; Rev 18:23; 21:2, 9; 22:17). The Wedding feast itself was a significant image (Song 3:11, etc; Psalm 45; 78:63; Jer 7:34; 33:10-11; Matt 25:10), which could merge together with the idea of an eschatological feast (for the righteous, Rev 19:6-9, cf. Isa 25:6, etc).
  • The Wine (v. 3ff). Wine is a widespread poetic and religious symbol; numerous references can be found in the Old Testament (Gen 27:28; Song 1:1-2; Isa 25:6; 65:8; Hos 2:21-22; Amos 9:13; Joel 3:18, etc), the New Testament (Mark 2:22 par; Acts 2:[13]; Rev 14:8, 10, etc), and throughout the Ancient Near East and Greco-Roman world. For its association with the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist), see below.
  • The Jars of Water (v. 6). Here we have the general motif of water/cleansing, with the specific religious image of ritual purification (kaqarismo/$).
  • The Filling (v. 7ff). Jesus tells them “Fill [gemi/sate] the water-jars with water” and “they filled [e)ge/misan] them until over (the top)”. The verb gemi/zw, rarely used in the New Testament, refers to filling up something completely—usually an empty space is implied (of a house, boat, jar, sponge, etc). They are filled with water, otherwise to be used for ritual purification, and miraculously changed to wine. Here is an image of the substance of a religious object (and symbol) being transformed (one is reminded of Jesus’ saying in Mark 2:22 par). This theme will carry on throughout the subsequent miracles and discourses, with their festal settings—Jesus’ presence symbolically fills and transforms the holy days, and fulfills various details related to the religious background of Israel (he is the true bread, water, light, shepherd, et al.).

3. Eucharistic theme. It would be reading far too much into John 2:1-11 itself to find any substantial eucharistic symbolism here. However, there are several interesting parallels elsewhere in the Gospel which are worth considering:

  • Water and Blood come out from Jesus’ side upon his death (Jn 19:34)
  • There eucharistic symbolism (at some level) related to the drinking of Jesus Blood (= Wine of the Cup) in Jn 6:53-56.
  • Jesus connects new birth (“birth from above”) with being born out of Water and the Spirit (Jn 3:5)
  • That these three—Water, Blood (=Wine?), Spirit—are closely connected can be seen in 1 Jn 5:6-8.

Perhaps a stronger eucharistic connection can be established in the way the Miracles of John 2-12 are inter-related:

There are six major miracles narrated in the so-called “Book of Signs” (chs. 2-12), three in chapters 2-5 and three in chapters 6-11. They can be grouped two ways—First:

  • Two introductory miracles, which are narrated with little comment or explanation by Jesus:
    • The miracle at Cana (water into wine), 2:1-11—”This (was the) beginning [i.e. first] of the signs Jesus did…”
    • The healing of an official’s son (near Cana), 4:46-54—”This…(was the) second sign Jesus did…”
  • Four miracles, each of which lead into a discourse, or incorporate an extended dialogue, with a central “I Am” saying:
    • The healing of the invalid at Bethesda, 5:1-17 (Sabbath setting)
      Discourse: 5:19-47 (no “I am” statement, but note the frequent use of e)gw/ [“I”] in connection with the Father)
    • The miraculous feeding of the multitude, 6:1-15 (Passover setting?)
      Discourse: 6:22-71 (“I am the Bread of Life” v. 35, 41, 48, 51)
    • The healing of a blind man, 9:1-41 (Dedication setting? cf. 10:22)
      Dialogue (“I am the Light of the world” v. 5)
    • The raising of Lazarus from the dead, 11:1-44 (Passover setting? cf. 12:1)
      Dialogue (“I am the Resurrection [and the Life]” v. 25)

Another way to group the miracles is in three pairs, the second of which has a dialogue setting and central “I am” statement (along with a statement to the wider meaning/purpose of the miracle):

  • First pair—miracle involving transformation of food to provide for a large gathering:
    • The miracle at Cana, 2:1-11 (water/wine, for drinking)
    • The miraculous feeding, 6:1-15 (bread, for eating)
      “I am the Bread of Life” v. 35, 41, 48, 51
      “Whoever eats my flesh [bread] and drinks my blood [wine]…” v. 53ff
  • Second pair—healing of a man disabled for many years:
    • The healing of the invalid at Bethesda, 5:1-17
    • The healing of the blind man, 9:1-41
      “I am the Light of the world” v. 5
      “For judgment I came… the ones not seeing would see, and the ones seeing would become blind” v. 39
  • Third pair—miracle involving a young man near death:
    • The healing of an official’s son, 4:46-54
    • The raising of Lazarus from the dead, 11:1-44
      “I am the Resurrection [and the Life]” v. 25
      “The one believing in me, even if he were to die, he will live…” v. 25-26

Once the miracle of Cana is paired with the miraculous feeding and discourse of chapter 6, a eucharistic association (at the spiritual level at least), comes more clearly into view (cf. 6:53-58, 63).

Saturday Series: John 3:16

John 3:16

This week I would like to address again the importance of studying a verse or passage in context. I turn to John 3:16, one of the most famous verses in all the New Testament. Countless Christians (and non-Christians as well) are familiar with it, yet I wonder how many have ever really read or studied it in its context within the Gospel of John.

It is part of Jn 3:1-21, one of the great Discourses of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. These Discourses, which are really unlike anything in the other (Synoptic) Gospels, present the historical traditions—that is, Jesus’ words and actions—within a very distinctive literary setting, utilizing a dialogue format. Generally, they follow a common structure:

    • Narrative introduction, which establishes the setting and action of the historical episode, often a miracle or encounter episode.
    • A central saying or statement by Jesus
    • The reaction of those who see/hear him, reflecting some measure of misunderstanding
    • An explanation by Jesus of the true, deeper meaning of his words

Sometimes there are multiple exchanges between Jesus and his audience, so that the discourse preserves a more extensive dialogue. The outline of John 3:1-21 should be examined according to this pattern:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)—an encounter episode, between Jesus and Nicodemus (a member of the Jewish Council [Sanhedrin]), presumably in Jerusalem (see 2:13-25). Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night (secretly?), and addresses him (verse 2).
    • Central saying/statement by Jesus (v. 3).
    • Reaction by Nicodemus who has not understood the true meaning of Jesus’ words (v. 4)
    • Explanation by Jesus (vv. 5-8)
    • Second reaction (question) by Nicodemus (v. 9)
    • Explanation/exposition by Jesus (vv. 10-21)

The central saying by Jesus is in verse 3:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, if one does not come to be (born) from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God”

This statement is apparently in response to Nicodemus’ address in verse 2, in which he recognizes that Jesus is “a teaching (who) has come from God”, yet does not fully realize Jesus’ identity. The implication is that only the person who has been “born from above” can see and recognize Jesus truly. The recognition of Jesus is described in more conventional religious terms, drawn from Old Testament and Jewish thought, as seeing “the kingdom of God”.

From verse 4, it is clear that Nicodemus has misunderstood Jesus. This is based on a bit of wordplay in Greek. The adverb anœthen literally means “from above”, but can also have the sense of “from the beginning, again”. This is how Nicodemus takes it, thinking that Jesus is referring to a second physical birth from the mother’s womb. Jesus’ explanation, touching on the true meaning of his words, begins with a statement parallel to that of verse 3:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, if one does not come to be (born) out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God” (v. 5)

Clearly, being born “from above” is essentially the same as being born “out of water and (the) Spirit”. The exact relationship between water and the Spirit in this statement continues to be debated by commentators. Some take it as a reference to the need for (Christian) Baptism, but this likely would not have been Jesus primary meaning, if we accept the substance of the saying as genuine. A simpler interpretation, in accord with that of verse 3 (and the discourse as a whole), would be that, without a spiritual birth (from above), in addition to one’s natural human birth (out of water), one cannot see/enter the Kingdom. Nicodemus is still thinking and experiencing things from the ordinary human standpoint. In verse 8, Jesus identifies the birth “from above” specifically with being born “out of [i.e. from] the Spirit“.

A second question from Nicodemus (“How are these things able to come to be?”, v. 9) introduces the exposition (by Jesus) which makes up the remainder of the discourse. This exposition can be divided into two parts:

    1. Jesus as the Son of Man who has come down from Heaven (vv. 10-15), and
    2. Jesus as the Son (of God) who brings light and life into the world (vv. 16-21)

At first glance, it may not seem obvious how these sections relate to the exchange with Nicodemus in vv. 1-9. But I believe that the key lies in a narrative technique found in the Gospel of John sometimes referred to as “step-parallelism”, in which a word or idea from a prior passage is taken up to start the next. Remember that the central idea in Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus was that of being born “from above” (anœthen, verse 3). It is this motif that Jesus expounds in response to Nicodemus’ question. There are two components to the first part of Jesus’ explanation (vv. 11-15): (a) the heavenly source of Jesus’ words (his testimony), vv. 11-12, and (b) the heavenly origin of Jesus (the “Son of Man”), vv. 13-15. Consider how these two aspects relate, centered on the motif of heaven (i.e. from above):

    • Earthly things (v. 12a)
      —Heavenly things (v. 12b)
      —Ascent to Heaven (v. 13a)
    • Descent from Heaven [to earth] (v. 13b)

In verse 13-15 Jesus picks up and further expounds this motif of ascent/descent (using the verbs anabainœ and katabainœ, literally “step up” and “step down”, see last week’s study on John 1:51). According the Johannine view of Jesus, as expressed (by Jesus) in the other discourses, this ascent/descent concept is one of several in the Gospel which serves as a comprehensive symbol or image of both the death and exaltation of Jesus. Another such concept involves the verb hypsoœ (“lift high”) which Jesus uses in vv. 14-15:

“And even as Moshe lifted (up) high the snake in the desert, so it is necessary (for) the Son of Man to be lifted high, (so) that every one trusting [in him] may have [lit. hold] (the) Life of the Age [i.e. Eternal Life].”

The primary emphasis here has shifted to Jesus’ sacrificial death (on the cross) which will bring (eternal) life to every one who trusts in him. This now becomes the transition to the second half of Jesus’ exposition (vv. 16-21), which begins with the famous verse 16 (note the points of similarity with vv. 14-15):

“For God loved the world this (way), so (that) he even gave his only (born) [monogen¢s] Son, so that every one trusting into him will not be destroyed, but might have/hold (the) Life of the Age [i.e. Eternal Life].”

The joining word which introduces vv. 16-21 is the adverb houtœ[s], related to the demonstrative pronoun houtos (“this”). The idea seems to be that God loved the world “this way”, referring to what precedes—i.e. the “lifting up” of the Son of Man in the manner of the snake upon the pole (Numbers 21:9). This connection also serves to identify Jesus the “Son of Man” as the “only Son” of God (see the earlier study on John 1:18). Once again, by way of step-parallelism, Jesus takes up this motif and continues it for the remainder of the exposition:

    • God sent forth his Son into the world, so that the world might be saved through him (v. 17)
    • Salvation comes through trusting (vb. pisteuœ) in [lit. “into”, eis] God’s Son (v. 18)

Two important Johannine motifs are blending into verse 18: (1) the adjective monogen¢s (“only [born]”), i.e. God’s only Son, and (2) the identification of the person (Jesus) with his name. According to ancient Near Eastern thought, the essence of a person was seen has being bound up, in a quasi-magical sort of way, with his/her name. This took on special significance for Israelites and Jews with regard to the name of God (YHWH), and early Christians developed a similar reverence for the name of Yeshua/Jesus. In the Gospel of John, we find the important idea that Jesus (the Son) reveals God (the Father) by making known his name (i.e., who He truly is)—see 5:43; 10:25; 12:26; 17:6-26. At the same time, the Father acts on behalf of believers in the Son’s name (14:13-14, 26; 15:16, 21; 16:23-26). This inter-relationship of Father and Son is typical of John’s theology and Christology, and is found all throughout the Discourses of Jesus.

In verse 17-21 there is an interesting shift, from the theme of life (vv. 17-18) to that of light (19-21). Both are central to the Gospel of John and feature prominently in the Prologue (1:4-9ff). After the reference to Jesus’ death in verse 14, it seems that it is the incarnation of the Son (Jesus) which is more clearly in view in vv. 17-21. Jesus, in his very person, brings life and light into the world. The reference to light in verse 19 also introduces an aspect of dualism into the discourse—light vs. darkness. This takes us back to the original saying in verse 3. The word “from above” reflects a similar sort of dualism—above vs. below, heavenly vs. earthly. Only those who belong to the light, etc, are able to come to it (i.e. trust in Jesus). Trust is not a matter of human will-power, nor even of repentance and sacrifice, but of belonging to God. This is perhaps best expressed by Jesus words (to Pilate) in John 18:37:

“Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] I have come to be (born) and unto this I have come into the world, that I should give witness to the truth—every one being out of [i.e. who is from/of] the truth hears my voice.”

And consider also the words of Jn 1:12-13:

“(for) as many as received him, he gave to them authority to come to be offspring of God, to the ones trusting in his name—the (one)s which, not out of blood, and not out of the will of the flesh, and not out of the will of man, but out of God, came to be (born)”

This concludes our study of John 3:16 in the context of the discourse (vv. 1-21). Often it is useful, and even necessary, to consider the wider context of the book as well. I would thus encourage you to go back and read again the first two chapters of John, paying especially close attention to chapter two and episode(s) of verses 13-25. As you read these verses, keep in mind your study of 3:1-21.

And I will see you again next Saturday.

January 18: John 1:29-51

In a previous note, I offered a basic outline for John 1:19-51; however, there is an alternative way to outline 1:29-51:

The Three Days of John 1:29-51

One can demarcate three sections, each of which begins with the phrase th=| e)pau/rion, “upon the (morning) air” (i.e. “upon the morrow”, in conventional English, “the next day, next morning”):

Th=| e)pau/rion (vv. 29-34)

  • Witness of John the Baptist—Jesus coming toward [e)rxo/menon pro/$] him (“See, the Lamb of God…”), v. 29
    • Statement of John the Baptist concerning the true nature and superiority of Jesus (v. 30); his baptizing reveals Jesus to Israel (v. 31)
    • Statement of John the Baptist (v. 32); Jesus’ true nature (and superiority) revealed in John’s baptizing (v. 33)—descent of the Spirit & Divine announcement (baptism of Jesus implied)
  • Witness of John the Baptist—”This (one) is the Son of God”, v. 34

Th=| e)pau/rion (vv. 35-42)

  • Witness of John the Baptist (with his followers)—Jesus traveling alongside (“See, the Lamb of God…”), v. 35-36
  • The Baptist’s disciples leave to follow Jesus; their exchange with Jesus—they remained [e&meinen] with him, vv. 37-39
  • Jesus’ followers witness to others (Andrew to Simon), including—(1) a confession of Jesus’ identity (“Messiah”) and (2) a statement by Jesus to the new disciple (Simon), vv. 40-42

Th=| e)pau/rion (vv. 43-50)

  • (Short prefatory narrative introducing Philip, vv. 43-44)
  • Jesus’ follower witnesses to another (Philip to Nathanael), with a confession of Jesus’ identity (“the one of whom Moses… and the prophets wrote”), vv. 45-46
  • Nathanael leaves to find Jesus; his exchange with Jesus, vv. 47-48
  • Witness of Jesus’ follower—(1) a confession of Jesus’ identity (“Son of God”, “King of Israel”) and (2) a statement by Jesus to the new disciple, vv. 49-50

While not completely symmetrical, there are clear points of parallelism between the three sections. One can even detect a trace of “staircase” parallelism (a Johannine technique), whereby the first element of a line or section picks up and builds on the last element of the prior one. Note also that each section contains at least two separate titles for Jesus, each given as a revelatory declaration by the speaker:

    • “Lamb of God” (v. 29) / “Son of God” (or “Elect of God”) (v. 34)
    • “Lamb of God” (v. 35) / “Messiah” (v. 41)
    • “The One of whom Moses… and the Prophets wrote” (v. 45) / “Son of God” and “King of Israel” (v. 49)

The “Three Days” culminate with the statement in verse 50:

“Because I said to you that I saw you underneath the fig-tree, you trust (in me)?
Greater than these (things) you will see.”

Nathanael had responded to a miraculous (but apparently mundane) bit of foreknowledge by Jesus (what Jesus saw); Jesus responds in turn by emphasizing what the disciple will see. This sort of simple but powerful wordplay occurs over and over again throughout the Gospel of John. It also stresses the important Johannine theme of seeing.

John 1:51

Verse 51 may well be a separate (detached) saying of Jesus that has been appended here by the Gospel writer. The saying on its own:

“Amen, amen, I say to you: ‘You will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down [i.e. ascending and descending] upon the Son of Man'”

At the narrative level, it is hard to explain just how it relates to the preceding section. A precise or definite interpretation of the saying itself is also extremely difficult; many pages of possible explanation could be offered. However, I would suggest three primary avenues for interpretation:

1. Jacob’s Ladder. The central image of Messengers (Angels) of God “ascending and descending” almost certainly reflects Jacob’s dream vision at Bethel (Genesis 28:12ff):

And he dreamed and see!—a ‘ladder’ being made to stand up (from) the earth, and its head was touching (to) the heavens; and see!—Messengers of the Mightiest One [i.e. God/Elohim] were going up and coming down on it. 13And see!—YHWH stood himself upon it [i.e. over it] and said…

The Septuagint (LXX) phrase is nearly identical to that of Jn 1:51oi( a&ggeloi qeou= a)ne/bainon kai\ kate/bainon e)p’ au)th=$ (“the Messengers of God stepped up and stepped down [i.e. ascended and descended] upon it”). The early Rabbis offered various interpretations of the ladder and the vision as a whole (see in Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 68-69); interestingly, they explored the possibility that the suffixed preposition oB in v. 12 might be read “on him” instead of “on it“—in other words, the Angels were ascending/descending on Jacob rather than the ladder. Similarly for the preposition wyl*u* in v. 13: YHWH was standing over/upon him [Jacob] instead of it [the ladder]. It is impossible to know just how old this interpretation is, but it would provide a close parallel with Jn 1:51. Significantly, it is not only the angels, but YHWH himself who is over/upon the ladder (or Jacob); and, while this is not specified in Jn 1:51, the fulness of this Heavenly/Divine glory may be implied. The Aramaic Targums typically substitute the Memra/Shekinah (personified Word/Glory) for YHWH himself in such anthropomoprhic appearances, and so in Gen 28:13 (cf. Onkelos). This is certainly part of the Jewish background to the Word (Lo/go$) concept in the Gospel of John (and note here the interpretation of Jn 1:51 in Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 86:2). One other bit of Christological detail: in the alternative Rabbic interpretation of Gen 28:12-13 mentioned above, the angels ascending and descending represent the exaltation and humiliation of Jacob, respectively (cf. Genesis Rabbah 68.12)—comparable to the “two states” of the incarnate Christ in classical theology.

2. The Baptism of Jesus. A number of words and images in the Jn 1:51 saying are closely related to the Baptism of Jesus:

  • Seeing the heavens opened (o&yesqe to\n ou)rano\n a)new|go/ta, “you will see the heaven opened up”). In Mark 1:4, it is said that “he [Jesus] saw [ei@den]” the heavens split and the Spirit/dove descending; also in Matt 3:16 he [Jesus] saw [ei@den] the Spirit/dove, while the heaven opening is a narrative declaration (“see! [i)dou/]”). In John, while the Baptism is not narrated as such, there are numerous references to seeing—the Baptist sees [ble/pei] Jesus (v. 29, 36, “See [i&de], the Lamb of God…”); twice John states that he did not know/see [h&|dein] Jesus (v. 31, 33); he beheld [teqe/amai] the Spirit descending (v. 32, also v. 33 “you will see [i&dh|$] the Spirit…”); and he testifies “I have seen [e(w/raka] and witnessed…” (v. 34); cf. also v. 39, 46, 50. The verb o)pta/nomai (also used in v. 39 and 50), emphasizes looking “with (open) eyes”, i.e. gazing, perceiving (similar to qea/omai), and occurs in John almost exclusively in terms of perceiving Jesus and beholding his glory (Jn 3:36; 11:40; 16:16-17, 19, 22; 19:37; 1 Jn 3:2). The fact that this verb ends verse 50 may be one reason that v. 51 (if originally a separate saying) was added here, by way of “catchword-bonding”.
    The verb a)noi/gw (“open up”) is used in the Matthean and Lukan accounts of the Baptism (Matt 3:16; Luke 3:21). Even though the Gospel of John has no comparable account, it is clear enough from 1:29-34 that the author was familiar with the same underlying tradition preserved in the Synoptics, which had a reference to the heavens “opening”. Otherwise, this verb is used in John almost exclusively for “opening the eyes” of the blind (in Jn 9; 10:21; 11:37), and occurs frequently in the Johannine book of Revelation.
  • Use of the verb a)nabai/nw (lit. “step up”). In the Mark and Matthean accounts of the Baptism (Mark 1:10; Matt 3:16), this verb is used to describe Jesus’ “coming up” out of (or from) the water. The verb occurs somewhat frequently in John, in a related two-fold sense—(1) to describe Jesus’ “going up” to Jerusalem (Jn 2:13; 5:1; 7:8, 10, 14), and (2) for Jesus’ “ascension” to Heaven to the Father (Jn 3:13; 6:62; 20:17; note esp. reference to the “Son of Man” in 6:62).
  • Use of the verb katabai/nw (lit. “step down”). In all three Synoptic accounts of the Baptism, and in Jn 1:32-33, the verb is used to describe the Spirit coming down “as a dove”. In Matt 3:16; Lk 3:22, as in Jn 1:32-33 and 51, we find the expression “coming down upon him [e)p’ au)to/n]”. Parallel to the related verb a)nabai/nw, in the Gospel of John katabai/nw is used in reference to Jesus’ “coming down” (out of heaven [e)c ou)ranou=])—cf. Jn 3:13; 6:33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58.
  • Even though it does not occur in the canonical accounts, mention perhaps should be made of the early tradition whereby a great light (i.e. fire/glory) shone from the water at Jesus’ baptism. This is actually narrated in Latin MSS of Matthew 3:15-16 (a vgms), was apparently mentioned in the Diatessaron (Gospel Harmony) of Tatian (2nd century), and is cited by Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 88). The motif was especially emphasized in the Eastern churches, and became a prominent part of the Baptismal liturgies. For more on the relation of this theme to Baptism (and the Baptism of Jesus), see my earlier Epiphany note.

3. The Son of Man. Of the many sayings of Jesus involving the Son of Man, a number relate to his (eschatological) coming in judgment and glory (see esp. Mark 13:26; 14:62 par.; Matt 24:27, 30, 37, 39; Lk 12:40; 17:22-30; 18:8). The Son of Man is specifically associated with angels in Mark 13:26-27 par.; Matt 13:41. In the Gospel of John, the “Son of Man” is mentioned primarily in the context of being glorified, lifted up, ascending, etc.—Jn 3:13-14; 6:62; 8:28; 12:23, 34; 13:31. In Jn 3:13, Jesus speaks of the Son of Man having ascended (a)nabai/nw) and descended (katabai/nw), a significant parallel to the saying in Jn 1:51. There are also quite a few references, in the Synoptics at least, to the suffering of the Son of Man (Mark 8:28; 9:12, 31; 10:33; 14:21, 41, et al. and par.); it may be worth considering in this regard the Rabbinic interpretation of Gen 28:12 (see above), whereby the angels ascending and descending (upon Jacob) refer to his exaltation and humiliation.

January 17: The Temptation

January 17 is the traditional date to commemorate St. Anthony (Antony), c. 250-356 A.D., the most famous of the so-called Desert Fathers and a pioneering figure of early Monasticism. He was born somewhere in Middle Egypt (the town of Coma, according to Sozomen’s Church History I.13). As a young man, inspired by the teachings (Matt 6:34; 19:21) and example of Jesus (see below), Anthony sold off his possessions, gave away the money, and embarked on the solitary, ascetic life. Over time, he moved further and further away from his home region—first under the tutelage of an older hermit, then alone in an empty tomb vault (until he was 35), and then for many years in a deserted fort along the Nile (the “outer mountain” at Pispir). At about this time he began to attract disciples around him whom he instructed in the ascetic way (cf. Athanasius’ Life §14-43). Later on, he moved further out across the eastern desert to a favorable location at the base of a mountain (the “inner mountain”, site known as Deir Mar Antonios), where he would reside the rest of his life, while making occasional visits elsewhere and himself receiving many visitors. In spite of this popular ideal of ascetic simplicity, by all accounts Anthony was well-read and familiar with Greek philosophy, fully able to engage in philosophical and theological discussion; according to Athanasius (Life §68-80), he was also a staunch defender of Nicene orthodoxy (against Arianism). At least partly due to Anthony’s influence, the monastic way of life began to flourish in Egypt, the settlement at Pispir maintaining a prominent position.

The lasting popularity and fame of Anthony was due in no small measure the biography written by Athanasius (the Life of St. Antony), composed within a few years of the Desert Father’s death (356). It proved to be a “best-seller”, and, after the New Testament, perhaps the most widely read writing from the early Church. Athanasius himself (celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Churches on Jan 18), was a towering figure, holding a position in the East at least comparable to that of Augustine in the West. He was born in Alexandria at the end of the 3rd century (c. 296), and, as a relatively young man, attended the Council of Nicea in 325. Soon after (328), he was consecrated bishop of Alexandria, he became perhaps the most prominent and renowned theologian of his time. He was a staunch defender of the Nicene formula defining the Person of Christ, and fought hard against ‘Arian’ (and so-called ‘semi-Arian’) influence. Indeed, much of what we know of Arius and early “Arianism” comes from Athanasius’ history and famous orations. Battling for Nicene orthodoxy, he became an ambassador and diplomat, seeking to gain support and allies to the cause, working to draft creeds, organizing councils and meetings with high officials; with the changing tides of (Imperial) religious politics, he was forced into exile numerous times, always to return, until his death in 373. With the accession of emperor Theodosius in 379 and the Council of Constantinople in 381, the Nicene formula (and Athanasius’ theology) eventually won the day. Athanasius’ influence was extensive, as indicated by his many surviving writings, most famous of which are: his treatise on the Incarnation; his Defense of the Nicene Council; the Apology, History and Orations against Arianism; his Easter letters, the 39th of which helped establish the canon of Scripture; and, of course, his Life of Anthony. A well-known creed (the Athanasian) bears his name, testament to his many years of theological and apologetic work.

The Life of Anthony helped to create and define the popular image of Egyptian Monasticism and the character of the Desert Fathers: a life of uncompromising austerity and asceticism, self-denial, enduring hardship and deprivation, bodily discipline, intense spiritual warfare against demonic visions and attacks, miracles, a deep-seated wisdom and personal integrity which attracted many people, and so on. It is a peculiarity of the time that a number of these retiring solitaries ended up becoming celebrities—visitors from miles away would come to receive advice and instruction, inspiration and blessing, from men such as Anthony, Evagrius Ponticus, and Simeon Stylites. A flourishing literature sprang up which recorded the sayings, discourses, and lives of these “Desert Fathers”. It is extremely hard for Christians today, in the modern West especially, to appreciate just how powerful and appealing all of this was to the serious and spiritually minded believer. While having much in common with Greco-Roman ascetic philosophies of the period, the monastic or solitary way of life, typified by the Desert Fathers, was viewed simply as a natural extension (one might say, the purest form) of the New Testament ethic of Jesus and the Apostles.

In this regard, there can be no doubt that the descriptions of the Desert Fathers enduring temptation and demonic attack were shaped, to a large extent, by the Gospel narrative of the Temptation of Jesus. The simplest (and most primitive) form of this is found in the Gospel of Mark:

And straight away [i.e. right after the baptism] the Spirit casts him out into the desolate (region) [i.e. desert/wilderness], and he was in the desolate (region) forty days, being tested under [i.e. by] the Satan, and he was with the (wild) beasts, and the Messengers ministered to [i.e. attended/served] him. (Mk 1:12-13)

Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13) preserve the same tradition (by way of Mark, according to the common critical view), but ‘expand’ it by added a separate tradition—a dialogue or disputation between Jesus and o( diabo/lo$ (“the Accuser”), from diaba/llw (“throw through/across”), i.e. the (one) “casting (accusations) across”. In Matt 4:3, the term o( peira/zwn (“the [one] testing”, i.e., “the Tester/Tempter”) occurs instead of o( diabo/lo$. The figure confronting Jesus in these episodes acts more as a Tester/Tempter than Accuser. The Matthean and Lukan accounts are quite close overall, clearly deriving from a common tradition (part of the so-called Q [Quelle/”source”]), the main difference being in the order of the three tests. Luke has created a much stronger dramatic framework, both in the opening—

And Yeshua (being) full of the Holy Spirit turned back from the Yarden, and was led in the Spirit in(to) the desolate (region), forty days being tested under [by] the Accuser… (Lk 4:1-2a)

and closing—

And having finished with every test, the Accuser stood [i.e. went] (away) from him until a(n opportune) season. (Lk 4:13)

as well as enhancing the role of the Accuser (v. 5-7). It is probably the Lukan version which best accords with the ascetic traditions attributed to the Desert Fathers.

Interestingly, even though there are (moderately) ascetic teachings and passages in the New Testament, outside of the Gospels here, there is no mention at all of this Temptation scene. The Epistle to the Hebrews provides the only specific mention of Jesus’ being tested/tempted (Heb 2:17-18; 4:15; 5:2), though it can be inferred fairly from the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:13; Luke 11:4) and 1 Cor 10:13 as well. However, the emphasis in Matt 4:1-11 and Lk 4:1-13 here is not merely the testing/tempting that is common to all human beings, but that which relates specifically to Jesus’ nature as the incarnate Son of God—cf. Matt 4:3/Lk 4:3. Even here, the Christological point was, in a sense, passed on into Eastern Orthodox theology, in the doctrine of theosis (“deification”) of the believer—for the self-denial and purification (asceticism) required by the true believer is preparatory to (and functions in tandem with) the sanctifying gift of God’s grace, with the goal of union with God (in Christ and through the Spirit). This synergistic emphasis is generally foreign to mainstream Western (and Protestant) Christian thought, but is fundamental to an understanding of monasticism and Eastern Orthodox spirituality.

There is a collection of seven letters apparently written by St. Anthony. Jerome (Lives of Illustrious Men 88) and other Eastern Fathers mention such a collection; however, scholars have debated whether the seven which have come down to us are authentic or pseudonymous. They are sometimes considered too reasoned, moderate, and philosophically oriented to come from ‘simple’ ascetics such as Anthony. However, by all accounts, many of the Desert Fathers were much more well-read than the popular picture might suggest. One need only consult the works of Evagrius Ponticus, for example, or the Conferences of Cassian, to see that many had a strong knowledge of Greco-Roman and early Christian philosophy. The writings of Origen, in particular, were valued highly by the monks of Egypt and Palestine (until they were condemned as heretical in the 6th century). For a translation with commentary on the seven Antonian letters, cf. S. Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, Fortress Press 1990, 1995.

January 16: John 1:32-34

This is the last of three notes on John 1:29-34 (commemorating the Baptism of Jesus); each of the Baptist’s three revelatory statements is being discussed in turn. To summarize:

  • First—”See, the Lamb of God, the (one) taking up/away the sins of the world” (v. 29)
  • Second—”A man comes (in) back of me who has come to be in front of me, (in) that he was first/foremost (over) me” (v. 30)

John 1:32-34

Verse 32 begins: And Yoµanan {John} witnessed, saying/relating that…

“I beheld the Spirit stepping down as a dove out of heaven, and it remained upon him”

This is the closest parallel to the Synoptic accounts of the Baptism of Jesus:

Mark 1:10

“And straight away stepping up out of the water, he [i.e. Jesus] saw the heavens being split (open) and the Spirit as a dove stepping down unto/into him”

Matthew 3:16

“But having been dipped/dunked, Yeshua straight away stepped up from the water, and see!—the heavens were opened [for him] and he saw [the] Spirit of God stepping down as if a dove and coming upon him”

Luke 3:21-22a

“And it came to be, among the entire people being dipped/dunked, Yeshua also was being dipped/dunked and (as he) was praying—(see! the) opening up of heaven and (the) stepping down of the Holy Spirit, in bodily shape seen as a dove, upon him…”

Note: The Lukan version is difficult to render literally into English, in particular the construct e)geneto + infinitives with accusative, which is prefatory and builds to the main clause: the voice (of God) from heaven. A more conventional rendering to capture the sense of this might be:

“And it came to be, as all the people were being dipped/dunked, Yeshua also was dipped/dunked and (as he) was praying, the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit, in bodily shape as a dove came down upon him, and…”

The unique elements of the Johannine account are:

  • The Baptist sees the descent of the Spirit. The Matthean and Lukan accounts increasingly emphasize the public character of the event (and the vision), whereas in Mark it is narrated more as a private vision to Jesus. The implication in John is that it is a special revelation vouchsafed to the Baptist.
  • Use of the verb qea/omai, which literally means “wonder (at), look/view in wonder”, but can also have the sense of “observe (closely)”, “perceive”, “contemplate”, etc (the archaic English “behold” approximates this reasonably well). This verb appears most often (among several verbs of seeing) in the Gospel and First Epistle of John, occasionally in the context of a revelatory observing of Jesus (cf. Jn 1:14; 11:45; 1 Jn 1:1; 4:14).
  • The dove/Spirit comes out of heaven (e)c ou)ranou=). This phrase occurs frequently in John, referring to Jesus as one who comes “out of [i.e. from] heaven” (Jn 3:13, 31; 6:32-33, 38 [a)po], 41-42, 50-51, 58; cf. also 1:51; 3:27; 12:28).
  • The dove/Spirit comes [lit. steps] down upon Jesus (as in the Synoptics), but also remains (e&meinen) upon him. The verb me/nw (“remain, abide”) occurs often in the Gospel and First Epistle, reflecting a profound spiritual-theological sense of the relationship between Christ and the believer (see Jn 5:38; 6:27, 56; 8:31, 35, et al.).

Perhaps most significant of all is that the actual baptism of Jesus is nowhere mentioned (at best it is implied in 1:31); in fact, if the Synoptic accounts were not available for comparison, we might not guess from John 1 that Jesus had been baptized at all. In my view, this is an intentional and careful omission. Especially noteworthy in this regard is the purpose of John’s baptizing: as stated in the Synoptics (Mark 1:4 par.) it was a baptism “of repentance unto the release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins”. In the Fourth Gospel, however, the emphasis is on Jesus as the one “taking away sins” (Jn 1:29, 35), and a very different purpose is indicated for John’s baptizing (see below).

It will be helpful here to consider the parallel structure of vv. 30-31 and 32-33; in each we have—(a) the witness of John in direct speech (a revelatory declaration about Jesus, i.e. John as the “voice”), and (b) the witness in action (the divine revelatory purpose/reason for John’s baptizing). In between is a statement by John: “and I did not see/know him” (ka)gw\ ou)k h&|dein au)to/n).

  • The witness in speech: “A man comes… ” (v. 30)
    And I did not see/know him
    • The witness in action: Reason for baptizing in water:
      So that Jesus might be made to shine forth [i.e. appear] to Israel (v. 31)
  • The witness in speech: “I beheld the Spirit…” (v. 32)
    “And I did not see/know him”
    • The witness in action: Reason for baptizing in water:
      Message of God revealing Jesus unto John: “He upon whom you see the Spirit…
      …this is the one baptizing in the Spirit” (v. 33)

In the Synoptics, the emphasis in John’s baptizing is on the people (“repentance unto the release of sins”); in the Fourth Gospel, it is on the person of Jesus (to reveal him as the Messiah / Son of God). This becomes clear when we examine the concluding verse 34:

“And I have seen and have witnessed that this (one) is the { } of God”

The majority reading is “Son” (ui(o/$) where the braces occur above; however, in a number of manuscripts and versions (Ë5vid a* 77 218 b e ff2* and Old Syriac versions) it is “elect/chosen (one)” (e)klekto/$ lit. “gathered out”)—i.e. “the Son of God” vs. “the Elect (One) of God”. The former is more common as a title for Jesus; for the latter, see Luke 9:35; 23:35. In early Gospel tradition (and the earliest Christian theology), these would probably have been interchangeable as titles for Jesus, with “Son of God” not necessarily carrying the full force of later Christology (for example, see John 1:49). Some scholars have expressed doubt whether “Son of God” would have been understood as a ‘Messianic’ title in Jesus’ own time; but the royal/Davidic theology, with its background of the (anointed) king as God’s “son” (Psalm 2; 2 Samuel 7), makes this likely (cf. 4Q246 from Qumran and the earlier article on this text). I feel confident in stating that both “Son of God” and “Elect/Chosen (One) of God” in this context would serve equally well to identify Jesus principally as the Divinely “Anointed” One (Messiah/Christ).

On the Subordination of John to Jesus:

I noted above the lack of any mention of Jesus’ actual baptism by John in the Fourth Gospel, and to the very different reason given for John’s baptizing. These details are part of a definite and (it would seem) theologically motivated effort to subordinate John to Jesus. This appears to have been an important emphasis in early Gospel tradition; there are several ways this is reflected in the Synoptic Gospels:

  • John is portrayed as the Prophet/Messenger (Elijah) who prepares the way for the Messiah (Mal 3:1; 4:5; cf. Mark 1:2; 9:12-13 par.; Matt 11:9ff; Luke 1:17). However, in the Fourth Gospel, John specifically denies being Elijah (Jn 1:21), seemingly in contrast to Jesus’ own words recorded elsewhere (Matt 11:14; Mark 9:12-13 par.).
  • Luke gives the birth narratives of John and Jesus a parallel structure and places them side-by-side (Lk 1:5-2:40), creating an implicit comparison between the two.
  • Matthew adds/includes the exchange between John and Jesus prior to the baptism, in which John expresses that he is unworthy to baptize Jesus. Common to all four Gospels, of course, is the saying of John (more objectively verifiable) in Mark 1:7; Matt 3:11; Luke 3:16; Jn 1:27; Acts 13:23.

In the fourth Gospel, this comparison (between John and Jesus) runs much deeper, is developed to a greater extent, and runs throughout the early chapters (especially in chapter 1). Consider:

  • The parenthetical statements inserted in the prologue (Jn 1:1-18)—verses 6-8 (John was not the true Light, but only bore witness to it); and verse 15 (a declaration of John nearly identical to that in v. 30 [see in the prior note]).
  • The tradition(s) recorded in vv. 19-27, where John specifically denies being the Messiah (v. 20), Elijah, or the Prophet to come (v. 21). To this is appended the traditional saying in v. 27 (cf. also v. 26), which will be ‘expounded’ in the next section.
  • The statements in vv. 29-34 (especially that in v. 30), along with the explanations for John’s baptizing and the fact that Jesus’ actual baptism is not narrated (on these points, see above).
  • In vv. 35-42, followers of the Baptist leave John to follow Jesus. The inclusion of John’s declaration in v. 36 (identical to that in v. 29) implies that he instigates or encourages their departure. Nothing similar is narrated in the Synoptics.
  • John’s testimony in 3:27-30, which is set in the context of a peculiar episode wherein the followers of John and Jesus appear side by side.

The fact that Jesus was baptized by John is virtually certain (on purely objective grounds); this has suggested to some critical scholars that Jesus had been a disciple of John before setting out on his own ministry. That there was some rivalry between the disciples of John and Jesus is suggested by the account in Jn 3:22-30 and by later tradition as well (e.g. the Ps-Clementine Recognitions 1.54, 60). More to the point, it has been theorized that the author of the Fourth Gospel is combating the view that John the Baptist was the Messiah. Given the decisive and repeated sayings and traditions recorded in chapter 1, and the way they are included in the narrative, this certainly is possible.

January 15: John 1:30-31

This is the second of three notes on John 1:29-34, in celebration of the Baptism of Jesus—the first discussed the revelatory statement of the Baptist in verse 29 (“See, the Lamb of God…”); today’s note will explore verses 30-31.

John 1:30-31

These verses build upon the statement in v. 29: “See, the Lamb of God, the (one) taking up the sins of the world”. V. 30 begins “This is (the one) over whom I said…”—then follows the difficult saying:

o)pi/sw mou e&rxetai a)nh\r o^$ e&mprosqe/n mou ge/gonen o%ti prw=to/$ mou h@n
“(in) back of me comes a man who has come to be in front of me (in) that [i.e. because] he was first/foremost (over) me”

This is nearly identical to verse 15, which begins “Yoµanan {John} witnessed about him and cried out, relating/saying, ‘This was (the one of) whom I said…”

o( o)pi/sw mou e)rxo/meno$ e&mprosqe/n mou ge/gonen o%ti prw=to/$ mou h@n
“the (one) coming (in) back of me has come to be in front of me (in) that [i.e. because] he was first/foremost (over) me”

There are three phrases in this saying (in v. 30), each of which is governed by a specific verb (and form) which is most significant to observe (the distinctions being generally obscured in translation):

    • “a man comes [e&rxetai]  in back of [o)pi/sw] me”
    • “who has come to be [ge/gonen] in front of [e&mprosqe/n] me”
    • “(he) was [h@n] first/foremost [prw=to/$] (over) me”

These three verbs are used with great care in the Gospel, when applied to Jesus, and especially in the ‘Prologue’ (Jn 1:1-18). Let us consider them in turn (references to verses in the Prologue exclude v. 15 which is largely identical to v. 30):

e&rxomai is a basic verb in narration and description which fundamentally means “come, go”. It is used frequently in the Gospel of John, often with a deeper theological or spiritual nuance than ordinary coming/going—in particular Jesus speaks of coming from the Father and going (back) to the Father; believers also come to Jesus (and to the Father). In the Prologue, the verb occurs three times (outside of v. 15):

    1. John came [h@lqen] as a witness to the (true) Light (v. 7)
    2. The reference is to someone coming [e)rxo/menon] into the world (v. 9). It is not entirely clear whether this relates to “every man” or “the true Light”; the latter is to be preferred, making it a reference to the Word (Christ) coming into the world
    3. The Word (Christ) came [h@lqen] to his own… (v. 11)

These references all relate to the appearance/presence of a human being in the world (i.e. among people). The present indicative form [e&rxetai] in verse 30 is closest to the present participle in v. 9 (and 15). In terms of Christ (the incarnate Word), we might speak here of the “historical Jesus”—that is, the man who was born, lived, and ministered in the world, among his own (the people of Israel).

gi/nomai has the primary meaning “come to be, become”, again common in narration and description, and, like e&rxomai, is often used with special significance in the Gospel of John. It can carry the nuance of “come to be born”, and, as such, is very close to the related verb genna/w. This latter verb is used in John for the spiritual “birth” of believers (Jn 1:13; 3:3-8) and gi/nomai also is used frequently to describe coming to faith (i.e. “becoming” believers, Jn 12:36; 13:19; 14:29; 15:8, etc). Gi/nomai occurs 8 times in the Prologue (outside of v. 15):

    1. For the things which came-to-be [e)ge/neto/ge/gonen] through the Word (v. 3 [x 3], 10)
    2. A man (John) came-to-be (born) [e)ge/neto] (v. 6)
    3. The Word came-to-be [e)ge/neto] flesh… (v. 14)
    4. “Grace and truth” came-to-be [e)ge/neto] through Christ (v. 17)—contrast with “the Law was given” through Moses.
    5. Those who received (Christ) are given authority to become [gene/sqai] sons of God (v. 12)

The perfect form [ge/gonen] in verse 30 (and 15) creates a difficulty in interpretation (discussed below), however it would seem to relate to the aorist form [e)ge/neto] in v. 14 (“the Word became flesh”).

ei)mi is the primary (existential) verb of being. In the prologue it occurs 10 times (outside of v. 15):

    1. Three times in v. 1: the Logos was [h@n] (on this, see below); and in v. 2.
    2. Twice in v. 4: In him (the Word) was [h@n] life, and the life was [h@n] the light…; and in v. 9 “the true light was [h@n]…”
    3. John was [h@n] not the (true) light (v. 8)
    4. The Word (Christ) was [h@n] in the world (v. 10)

The three occurrences of h@n in verse 1 form a definite contrast to the three forms of gi/nomai in verse 3:

  • In the beginning the Logos was
  • The Logos was toward [pro/$] God
  • God was the Logos
    (given in the literal word order, i.e. the Logos was God)
    • All things came to be [e)ge/neto] through him
    • Apart from him came to be [e)ge/neto] not even one (thing)
    • {one (thing)} which has come to be [ge/gonen]

In other words, the things in creation come to be (gi/nomai), but God is (ei)mi). For a similar contrast, see John 8:58: pri\n  )Abraa\m gene/sqai e)gw\ ei)mi/ (“before Abraham came to be, I am“). So the use of ei)mi in verse 30 in context clearly refers to the Divine existence of Jesus. Let us explore a little further how these three verbs—e&rxomai, gi/nomai and ei)mi—may relate here by glossing the terms in each phrase:

1. o)pi/sw mou e&rxetai a)nh\r (“[in] back of me comes a man”):

o)pi/sw mou (“[in] back of me”)—this can mean: (a) Jesus is younger, and has appeared publicly later than, John; or (b) Jesus is/was a follower of John; or even (c) Jesus was unknown or less well known than John. Many critical scholars accept (b) as an authentic historical detail, which can be debated. In terms of Gospel tradition as it has come down to us, and the overall presentation in the Gospel of John here, probably little more than (a), or some combination of (a) and (c), is intended.

e&rxetai (“comes”)—that is, the immediate (historical) presence/appearance of the man Jesus, publicly, in the midst of the people (see above on e&rxomai in 1:7, 9, 11).

a)nh\r (“a man”)—i.e., the “historical Jesus”, a real human being, a man like all the other people around John.

2. o^$ e&mprosqe/n mou ge/gonen (“who has come to be in front of me”):

o^$ (“who/which”)—relative particle qualifying a)nh\r and serving to join the first and second phrases.

e&mprosqe/n mou (“in front of me”)—this is clearly a contrast with o)pi/sw mou (“[in] back of me”), but in what sense? Much depends on the interpretation of ge/gonen, but I see this a typical bit of Johannine wordplay, whereby the immediate (apparent) sense is overshadowed (and may even be contrary) to the deeper (true) meaning. One might think that the Baptist (or the Gospel writer) here is simply saying that Jesus, who was younger than John and relatively unknown, is now coming into greater prominence. The immediate context would certainly suggest this—those who were following John now follow Christ (vv. 35ff, cf. also 3:27-30).

ge/gonen (“has come to be”)—the usage of gi/nomai in the Prologue (see above), and especially in verse 14 (“the Word became [e)ge/neto] flesh”), strongly suggests that the Incarnation be understood here. In other words, Jesus has come to be “in front of” John because he is the eternal Word (Lo/go$) that became flesh. The perfect form here (ge/gonen, parallel to the occurrence in v. 3) may be meant to indicate that something which took place in the (eternal) past, is presently true.

3. o%ti prw=to/$ mou h@n (“[in] that he was first/foremost [over] me”):

o%ti (“[in] that [i.e. because]”)—the reason why Jesus is “in front of” John.

prw=to/$ mou (“first/foremost [over] me”)—the superlative adjective prw=to$ is the climax of a step-parallelism (a favorite Johannine technique) with the earlier prepositions o)pi/sw (“[in] back of”) and e&mprosqen (“in front of”). Not only is Jesus “in front of” John, but he is “first (of all)” or “foremost” over him; indeed, this is the reason for his being “in front”. It is a dense and powerful symbolic chain of argument.

h@n (“was”)—this is the same form of ei)mi used throughout the Prologue (esp. vv. 1-2), and serves to identify Jesus, in no uncertain terms, with the Divine (and pre-existent) Word (Lo/go$) of God.

Many critical scholars have expressed doubts that this remarkable saying could have come from the historical John; it seems rather more like a theological-christological declaration by the Gospel writer. The point certainly can be debated; however, even if it does not preserve the ipsissima verba of the Baptist, the words very likely stem from a genuine saying. Other traditions, more objectively verifiable, are recorded, in all four Gospels, whereby John confesses the (far) greater status of Jesus (Mark 1:7-8 par.; Matt 3:14-15; John 3:27-30). In the concluding note, I will look at the idea that the Fourth Gospel has a special christological purpose in subordinating John to Jesus. In context here, verse 31 clearly is supplemental to v. 30, building on the earlier statement in more practical (historical) terms:

“And I did not see [i.e. know/perceive] him, but that he might be made to shine forth [i.e. appear], through this [i.e. for this reason] I came dipping/dunking {baptizing} in water”

There is both a text-critical and interpretative question involving the perfect form ge/gonen in Jn 1:4. Verses 3-4 can be read two ways:
(1) “all things came to be through him, and apart from him came to be not even one (thing) which has come to be [ge/gonen]. In him was life…”
(2) “all things came to be through him, and apart from him came to be not even one (thing). That which has come to be [ge/gonen] in him was life…”
In addition, (2) can be also rendered two ways: (a) “that which has come to be, in him was life…” or (b) “that which has come to be in him was life…”. Commentators and textual critics remain divided on which of these is the correct intepretation. See an earlier article of mine for more detail, including arguments supporting the different readings.

January 14: John 1:29

The Gospel of John differs markedly from the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew-Mark-Luke), and nowhere more so than in describing the Baptism of Jesus (commemorated on the octave of Epiphany, January 13). While clearly drawing from common traditions, the Fourth Gospel offers no narrative description of the baptism such as is found three-fold in Mark 1:9-11, Matthew 3:13-17, and Luke 3:21-22. Instead, we find testimony given by John the Baptist (John 1:29-34), involving three revelatory statements (one might treat these as pieces of early Christian kerygma) which serve to demarcate this brief narrative:

    1. John 1:29—”See! the Lamb of God…”
    2. John 1:30-31—”This is he over whom I said…”
    3. John 1:32-34—”I beheld the Spirit…”

I will be discussing each of these over three successive notes.

John 1:29

It is important first to consider the place of this episode in the structure of the Gospel (chapter 1). I would outline this as follows:

  • The Prologue (Jn 1:1-18)—this famous and remarkable section may reflect an earlier Jewish-Christian hymn which has been adapted by the Gospel writer. Notably, two (parenthetical) references to John the Baptist have been inserted:
    (1) Introducing John, with a statement that he was not the true Light, but only bore witness to it (1:6-8)
    (2) A statement summarizing John’s witness (1:15, nearly identical with v. 30).
  • The testimony of John the Baptist (Jn 1:19-28)—”I am not the Christ… (nor) the Prophet…”
    • The theological witness of John the Baptist (Jn 1:29-34)—”See, the Lamb of God…”
    • The evangelistic witness John the Baptist (Jn 1:35-39)—”See, the Lamb of God…”
  • The testimony of the first followers (Jn 1:41-51)—”We have found the Messiah… of whom Moses.. and the prophets wrote…”

In John 1:19-28 is narrated not only the Baptist’s testimony (in answer to questions by priests and Levites from Jerusalem), but a description of his baptizing (lit. dipping/dunking) and the reason for it. This sets the stage for verse 29:

“Upon the morrow he sees Yeshua coming toward him and says/relates: ‘See—the lamb of God, the (one) taking up the sins of the world!'”

The interpretation of this verse involves determining the meaning and context for two expressions:

    • “the lamb of God” (o( a)mno\$ tou= qeou=)
    • ” the (one) taking up the sins of the world” (o( ai&rwn th\n a(marti/an tou= ko/smou)

The first expression “Lamb of God” is so familiar as a Christian title for Jesus, it may be surprising to learn that it occurs nowhere else in the New Testament outside of the parallel references in John 1:29, 36. Elsewhere, the idea of Jesus as a lamb only appears in 1 Peter 1:10 and in the book of Revelation (29 times), although there the word a)rni/on (diminutive of a)rh/n) is used. a)mno/$ occurs only twice in the New Testament outside of John 1:29, 36 (in Acts 8:32 [quoting Isa 53:7], and 1 Peter 1:19). There are three primary images associated with the Lamb (a)mno/$) relevant to the context here:

1. The Lamb as a symbol of innocence and meekness (in the face of suffering). This actually reflects two themes: (a) the gentleness/innocence of the lamb, often contrasted with the wolf (Isa 11:6; 65:25); and (b) the helplessness of the lamb (Isa 40:11; Luke 10:3, etc), especially as one led for slaughter (Isa 53:7; Jer 51:40). The use of a)mno/$ in Isa 53:7, would especially come to mind for early Christians, for it was a passage applied to the suffering and death of Christ from the earliest time—it is read/quoted in Acts 8:32, and note the silence of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and Pilate in the Passion accounts (Mark 14:61; 15:5, and par.).

2. The Sacrificial (Passover) Lamb. a)rni/on (or a)rh/n) is used in the LXX for the burnt offering (Lev 1:10) and for the Passover lamb in Ex 12:5; whereas a)mno/$ is used for the daily offering (Ex 29:38-39) and for ‘guilt’/purification offerings in (Lev 14:10; Num 6:12). So, a)mno/$ here would better fit the idea of sacrifice for ‘sin’ or sacrifice in general. However, the Gospel of John makes frequent use of Passover motifs and symbols, including an explicit identification of Jesus with the Passover lamb in Jn 19:14, 31-36. The Passover Lamb also seems to be in mind with the use of a)mno/$ in 1 Pet 1:19.

3. The Conquering Lamb (of Judgment). This is an important theme in the book of Revelation (from the same author and/or community as the Gospel): Jesus is not only the “lamb that was slain” (Rev 5:12; 13:8, “blood of the lamb” in 7:14; 12:11), but also is exalted/worshiped as the Lamb in Heaven (Rev 5:6-12; 7:9-10, 17; 14:1ff, etc.); included within this motif is the Lamb as a conquering figure in the eschatological Judgment (6:1, 16; 17:14, etc). The book of Revelation uses a)rni/on instead of a)mno/$, but, as seen above, these words are relatively interchangeable. Now the theme of (eschatological) Judgment was central in John the Baptist’s preaching, much more than Christians today may wish to admit (cf. Matt 3:7-12; Luke 3:7-9, 17; and the central citation of Isa 40:3/Mal 3:1 in Mark 1:2-3 par.). It is certainly possible that he (perhaps moreso than the Gospel writer) has this association in mind—as a possible parallel, cf. the Testament of Joseph 19:8 (which may however be a Christian interpolation).

In my view the second image above (that of the Sacrificial Lamb) is most directly applicable in Jn 1:29. However what of the other expression “the (one) taking up the sins of the world”?

“The sins of the world” (th\n a(marti/an tou= ko/smou) is fairly straightforward, as it reflects closely the idea that Jesus acts on the behalf of the sins of (many) people (cf. Matt 1:21; 13:41; 26:28; Mark 2:10; 3:28; Lk 11:4; 24:47; Jn 8:24; 15:22, 24; 16:8-9; 20:23, etc. and all pars.). In the Gospel of John there also is a frequent association of “the world” (o( ko/smo$) with darkness, evil, and sin (Jn 1:10; 3:17-19; 7:7; 8:23; 9:39; 12:31; 14:17, 19, 30; 15:18-19; 16:8, 11, 20, et al.), which may be responsible for the unique expression as it stands here. The more difficult point of interpretation is in the use of the verb ai&rw, which has the primary meaning “take up”—here o( ai&rwn (“the [one] taking up…”). This can be understood in one of three ways:

  • “taking up” as in lifting, bearing, carrying—the emphasis would be that the Lamb takes up or carries the (burden of) the world’s sins. Language involving “lifting” or “raising” occurs often in the Gospel of John, including use of the verb ai&rw; see for example in context of the Good Shepherd parable(s), Jn 10:18, 24. This motif would better apply to the Day of Atonement than Passover, but it could be understood from the standpoint of vicarious sacrifice in general. Jesus is “lifted up” on the cross as the slain Passover lamb in Jn 19:14, 31-36 (cf. also Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34).
  • “taking up” in the sense of taking away—i.e., forgiveness. This is no doubt the most common understanding of the expression here; however, “forgiveness of sin” as such is normally expressed with the verb a)fi/hmi (“send [away] from” or “let [go] from”) or the noun a&fesi$ (“release”)—cf. Mark 1:4; 2:9; 3:28; 6:12, 14-15; Matt 9:2, 5-6; 12:31-32; 26:28; Lk 24:47; John 20:23; Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43, etc.
  • “taking up” as taking away, but in the sense of removing or destroying sins—i.e. esp. in the (eschatological) Judgment. For something of this idea, see Matthew 13:41, which is reasonably close to the scene of Judgment in John’s preaching (Matt 3:12; Lk 3:9, 17); that the Baptist himself understood this in terms of an (imminent) eschatological Judgment seems clear enough from Lk 3:7. See also in this regard the ethical saying of Jesus to “cut off” the cause of sin (Mk 9:42-47 par., again in the context of the Judgment). In other words, the Johannine image of Jesus as savior of the world (John 3:16-17; 4:42; 6:33; 12:47, etc) involves not just forgiveness, but destruction of sin. This is the two-fold aspect of (the coming) Judgment (and wrath of God): salvation and destruction—see Jn 3:17, 19; 7:7; 9:39; 12:46-47; 16:8-11.

Perhaps the soundest guide to interpretation of the expressions in Jn 1:29 come from the closest parallel, namely 1 John 3:5:

“and know that this one [i.e. Jesus] was made to shine forth [i.e. appear] so that he might take up/away [a&rh|] sins; and in him there is no sin”

for which there is a parallel, explanatory statement in 1 John 3:8b:

“and unto this the Son of God was made to shine forth [i.e. appear] so that he might loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] the works of the Accuser [i.e. Devil]”

In other words, “taking away sins” is connected with “dissolving the works of the Devil”. In 1 Jn 3:5 we also have mention of Jesus’ sinlessness, which can be understood as a parallel to the (Passover) Lamb without spot or blemish (cf. 1 Peter 1:19 [a)mno/$]).

For several references and observations in these posts on John 1:29-34, I am indebted to the discussion in R. E. Brown’s classic Commentary (John 1-12, Anchor Bible vol. 29, 1966, pp. 58-67).

For more on the Baptism of Jesus, see the recently posted daily notes for Jan 6 and Jan 13.

One critical theory is that a)mno/$ (“lamb”) in John 1:29 reflects an ambiguity in, or misunderstanding of, an original Aramaic word (ay`l=f^ ‰alyâ, Heb. hl#f*) which can mean both “lamb” or “child, youth, servant”. Now pai=$ also can carry the sense of “servant”; so the argument goes that the original expression would have been something like ah*l*ad@ ay`l=f^, i.e., “Servant of God”, which ought to have been rendered in Greek as o( pai=$ qeou=, was instead (mistakenly) translated o( a)mno/$ qeou=. It is an intriguing argument (for a more detailed summary cf. J. Jeremias, TDNT I:338-340), but apart from all other objections, the process by which original sayings of Jesus and John the Baptist, etc., presumably given in Aramaic, were turned into traditional oral and written (Greek) sources for our Gospels is still quite uncertain (and have been hotly debated by scholars). Even if John originally used the word ay`l=f^, the idea that it was then ‘mistranslated’ into Greek is highly speculative.

Birth of the Son of God: Mark 1:9-11 par

The octave of Epiphany (Jan 13) in the West has traditionally commemorated the baptism of Jesus. It is in the context of Jesus’ baptism, as recorded in the Gospels, that we find some of the most intriguing and provocative references to the “birth of the Son of God” (the theme of these Christmas season notes).

Mark 1:9-11 par

The core narrative, in its clearest form, is that of Mark 1:9-11:

  • In verse 9 it is simply stated that Jesus was dunked/dipped (i.e. baptized) in the Jordan river by John
  • In verse 10, a three-fold sequence of ascent/descent is narrated:
    • Jesus stepping up [a)nabai/nwn] out of the water
      —he saw the heavens splitting open
    • The Spirit as a dove stepping down [katabai/nwn] (out of heaven) into/unto him
  • In verse 11—”there came to be a voice out of the heavens: “You are my Son the (be)loved, I think/consider good in you [i.e. I think well of you, I have delight in you]”

Both Matthew and Luke include tradition(s) regarding John’s ministry (Matt 3:7-12; Lk 3:7-20), which expands the narrative. Luke’s account of the baptism itself (Lk 3:21-22) is rather brief, shorter even than that in Mark, with several extra details:

  • It is mentioned that, while being baptized, Jesus was praying (lit. “speaking out toward [God]”)
  • Instead of Jesus seeing the heavens split open, it is simply stated that “the heaven opened up”
  • It is said that the Spirit descends in bodily appearance as a dove
  • (For the textual variants involving the words of the heavenly voice, cf. below)

Matthew includes a brief exchange between John and Jesus (Matt 3:13-15), but otherwise his account of the baptism is essentially a blend of the wording in Mark and Luke. The heavenly voice differs slightly—”This is my Son the (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good“—as a declaration rather than a personal address to Jesus.

The Gospel of John does not given an account of the baptism as such—it is narrated indirectly as part of John the Baptist’s testimony in Jn 1:29-34. The concluding declaration essentially takes the place of the heavenly voice in identifying Jesus as God’s Son:

“and I have seen and have given witness that this is the Son of God” (v. 34)

The Johannine account (Jn 1:29-34) is discussed in more detail in an upcoming note.

Textual variants in Luke 3:22 and John 1:34

There are two key variant readings which are worth noting:

  1. In John 1:34 (cf. above), instead of “the Son of God” (o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=), several manuscripts and versions (Ë5vid a* b e ff2* syrs,c) read “the (one) gathered out [i.e. Chosen one] of God” (o( e)klekto\$ tou= qeou=) or the conflation “the Chosen Son of God” (a ff2c syrpal sah). The conflate reading is certainly secondary, but some scholars have argued that “the Elect/Chosen (One) of God” is original (cf. Ehrman, pp. 69-70). However, the external manuscript evidence, as well as Johannine usage, would seem to favor “the Son of God”.
  2. In Luke 3:22, a number of (Western) witnesses (D a b c d ff2 l r1) record the heavenly voice quoting Psalm 2:7—”You are my Son, today I have caused you to be (born)”—instead of the declaration “You are my (be)loved Son…” It is also attested by quite a few Church Fathers in the 2d-4th centuries, and a minority of textual critics accept it as original (cf. Ehrman, pp. 62-67). I have discussed the question in some detail in a previous note.

Psalm 2:7, of course, was one of the principal “Messianic” passages interpreted as referring to Jesus in the early Church, as I have noted on a number of occasions. The oldest application seems to have been to Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to heaven—i.e., the moment when he is “born” as God’s Son—as indicated by its use in Acts 13:32-33ff [note the similar use of Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:24-36]; cf. also Rom 1:4 and Rom 8:22-23, 29; Col 1:18; Rev 1:5. Orthodox Christology would come to understand Psalm 2:7 (along with Ps 110:1) in terms of Jesus’ eternal, pre-existent Sonship, as association which is already reflected in Heb 1:5ff. Actually, Hebrews seems to combine both views—Jesus as pre-existent Son and “Son” as a result of the resurrection/exaltation—based on a careful study of chapter 1 and the way Ps 2:7 and 110:1 are cited in chapter 5 (cf. also Heb 2:8-13, etc). We find a similar combination in Paul’s writings (cf. Rom 1:3-4; Phil 2:6-11).

The Transfiguration Scene (Mark 9:7; Matt 17:5; Lk 9:35)

There is a clear parallel with the Baptism of Jesus in the Transfiguration scene narrated in the Synoptics (Mark 9:2-8 / Matt 17:1-8 / Lk 9:28-36) and referenced in 2 Peter 1:17-18. In Mark 9:7, a voice from Heaven declares:

This is my Son the (be)loved, hear [i.e. listen to] him!”

The italicized portion is closest to the form of the divine voice in Matthew’s account of the Baptism (cf. above), also reflected in the Matthean Transfiguration scene (Matt 17:5):

This is my Son the (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good—hear him!”

The words in italics are identical to that of the voice in Matt 3:17, which strongly suggests that an original 2nd person address there was modified to match the form in the Transfiguration scene (and vice versa!). The Lukan version (Lk 9:35) matches the shorter form in Mark, with one major difference (noted by italics):

“This is my Son the (One) gathered out [i.e. Elect/Chosen One], hear him!”

Instead of the adjective a)gaphto/$ (“[be]loved”), Luke has the participle e)klelegme/no$ (“having been gathered out”). While many manuscripts of Lk 9:35, naturally enough, read a)gaphto/$ (harmonizing with Matt/Mark), e)klelegme/no$ is most likely original (cf. TCGNT, p. 124, and Ehrman, pp. 67-68). The verb e)kle/gomai (“gather out”, i.e. “select, choose”) is relatively common in Luke-Acts (11 of the 22 NT occurrences), but is used elsewhere in the Synoptics only once (Mark 13:20).

Finally, we should mention the reference to the heavenly voice at the Transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:17, which, interestingly enough, matches the version in Matthew (specifically Matthew’s account of the Baptism):

“This is my Son, my (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good”
Differs from Matt 3:17 only in word order and inclusion of a second mou (“my”)

The Symbolism of Baptism

A number of key passages in the New Testament which refer either to believers as “sons/children” of God, or specifically as being “born”, are in a context relating in some way to baptism. Most of these have already been discussed in the previous Christmas season notes; I point out here again the most relevant passages:

  • John 3:3-8—especially significant is the expression “come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] out of water and (the) Spirit” (v. 5), parallel to “come to be (born) from above” in v. 3. Nearly all of the instances in the New Testament where water and Spirit are juxtaposed refer to baptism—either of Jesus or of believers (Mark 1:8-10 par; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 8:39; 10:47; 11:16; the reference in 1 John 5:6-8 is more complicated).
  • Galatians 3:26-27ff—the idea of believers as the “sons of God” (v. 26, cf. also v. 29) is connected specifically with baptism in verse 27.
  • Romans 6:3-4ff; 8:12-23, 29—In Paul’s thought, baptism is symbolic of the believer’s identification with, and participation in, the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:3-4ff; cf. also Col 2:12). As pointed out above, it is through his resurrection (and exaltation) that Jesus was understood as God’s “Son” in early Christian preaching (Acts 13:32-33; Rom 1:4, etc), and it is also the means by which believers are “born” as “sons/children” of God, at least in one strand of Christian tradition (cf. Rom 8:12-23, 29; 1 Pet 1:3; Heb 2:10, also 1 Cor 15:20, 23, 36-37, 42ff). On the specific expression “firstborn of the dead” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5), cf. the prior article.

This concludes the series of Christmas season notes, devoted to the theme of “the Birth of the Son of God”. During this season, it is right and proper that we should celebrate both Jesus own birth—whether from Mary, in the Baptism, by his Resurrection, or eternally from God—as well as our own birth as sons and daughters, children of God, in union with Christ. It is to be hoped that this survey and study of all the New Testament passages related to this theme has been informative and enriching, in at least some small way, for those who have followed it.

References above marked “TCGNT” are to the Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition, 1994/2002); those marked “Ehrman” are to Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford: 1993).

Birth of the Son of God: The Firstborn

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

One specific image related to the “birth of the Son of God” (the theme of these Christmas season notes) is the firstborn. In Greek, the word typically translated “firstborn” is prwto/toko$ (prœtótokos), which is more accurately rendered “first-produced“. The component word to/ko$ (tókos), like te/knon (téknon), both derive from the verb ti/ktw and refer fundamentally to something which is produced, as in the concrete sense of something coming out of the ground (from a seed) or out of the mother’s body. The word te/knon (plural te/kna) is normally translated “child”, but I have tried to preserve something of the etymology by rendering it as “offspring”. The term prwto/toko$ is used eight times in the New Testament (Luke 2:7; Rom 8:29; Col 1:15, 18; Heb 1:6; 11:28; 12:23; Rev 1:5, cf. also Lk 2:23). The corresponding Hebrew word is rokB=, referring to something which comes early (or first); the closely related plural word <yr!WKB! refers to the early/first ripened grain and fruit that is harvested (i.e. “firstfruits”). In Greek, a different word (a)parxh/) is used for “firstfruits”, unrelated to prwto/toko$ (“firstborn”); it specifically means the beginning of i.e. the harvest.

Significance of the Firstborn

The (theological) importance of “firstborn” in the New Testament and early Christian thought has to be understood in terms of the ancient cultural background of the idea, especially within the context of Israelite religion. Three aspects should be noted:

1. The uniqueness of the Firstborn

Until other children are born to a husband and wife, the firstborn is unique—an only child. This is a simple fact; and yet, the uniqueness of the firstborn/only child (especially of a son) becomes an important image in Judaism and early Christianity, in two respects—the uniqueness of Israel as God’s (chosen) people, and Jesus’ unique position as God’s “Son”. Both of these points are discussed below, but it is worth pointing out that an only child may be expressed in Greek by the term monogenh/$ (monogen¢¡s). Sometimes translated (rather inaccurately) as “only-begotten”, monogenh/$ literally means something like “(the) only (one who has) come to be”, and is often used in the general sense of “only (one), one of a kind, unique,” etc. It occurs in the New Testament with the basic meaning of “only (child)”—cf. Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38; Heb 11:17; however, in the Gospel of John it is used in reference to Jesus as the only/unique Son of God (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; also 1 Jn 4:9). In this regard, it is significant that neither the Gospel nor the Letters of John refer to believers as “sons [ui(oi] of God”, always using “offspring/children [te/kna] of God” instead—only Jesus is truly the Son [ui(o$] of God.

2. The special position of the Firstborn

Apart from any theological or religious significance, the firstborn child is bound to hold a special place for its parents (particularly the mother). In the ancient Near East, far more than in Western societies today, there was a decided negative stigma attached to the woman who was barren or otherwise childless (cf. for example, the sentiment expressed by Elizabeth in Luke 1:25). Consider also the far higher rate of infant mortality, along with inherent dangers of childbirth, in ancient cultures—the birth of the first living child would have been a particular source of joy and relief. Within the family and household, the firstborn held a position of prominence, with the first born son being regarded as the primary (or sole) heir (cf. Gen 27:19, 32; 29:26; 43:33; 48:18; 49:3, etc).

Beyond this, however, according to the ancient tradition recorded in the Pentateuch (and preserved as commands in the Torah), God declared that all firstborn—especially the first born males, of humans and animals alike—are set apart, belonging specially to Him (Exod 13:2, 12). This is expressed dramatically within the Exodus narrative (Exod 4:22-23; 11:5; chaps 12-13) and as a legal-religious principle throughout the Torah (Exod 22:29; 34:19-20; Lev 27:26; Num 3:12-13, etc). It would seem that, initially, the idea was that the firstborn sons would serve as priests before God for the family and community, eventually being replaced, within the priestly construct centered around the Tabernacle/Temple, by the members of the tribe of Levi (Num 3:40-50; 8:16-18). With the Levites now serving this role, but in order to preserve the consecrated status of the firstborn, a ritual was established by which the family would symbolically “buy back” the child—sometimes referred to as the redemption of the firstborn (cf. Num 3:46ff). Joseph and Mary fulfilled this regulation for Jesus at the Temple precincts (according to Luke 2:22b-23). Interestingly, Paul also connects sonship with redemption in Galatians 4:4-7, but in a different sense: Christ, through his sacrificial death, buys humankind out from bondage under the Law (and from slavery to sin), which makes it possible for believers (in Christ) to become sons of God. For more on this, see below.

3. Israel as God’s “Firstborn”

In several key Old Testament passages (Hos 11:1f; Isa 1:2ff; 30:1, 9; Mal 3:1, also Sirach 36:17), the people of Israel (collectively) are referred to as God’s “son” in a symbolic or spiritual sense. Twice, however, Israel is specifically called God’s firstborn son—in Exod 4:22 and Jer 31:9—the reference in Exodus begin connected with the death of the firstborn in Egypt. It was through the Exodus that Israel, in a very real sense, was “born” as God’s children. For more on this association, see the deutero-canonical Wisdom 18:5-19 (esp. verse 13). Eventually, the righteous would be described as God’s “son” (or “sons, children”) in a similar manner (cf. my earlier note on this point).

Jesus and Believers as “Firstborn”

To begin with, simply on the historical level, Mary gave birth to Jesus as her “firstborn” child (Luke 2:7, cf. Matt 1:25). According to Gospel tradition (in the Infancy narratives), Mary was a virgin prior to conceiving and giving birth to Jesus (Lk 1:27, 34; Matt 1:18-25); this, in and of itself, provides special significance to the idea of Jesus as “firstborn”. As mentioned above, his parents faithfully fulfilled the religious and legal requirement with regard to the consecration and redemption of the firstborn (Luke 2:22-23). The reference to Jesus as Mary’s “firstborn son” (Lk 2:7) has prompted a good deal of speculation on the question of whether Joseph and Mary and other (natural) children together, especially in the overall context of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. There are several other ways that Jesus may be understood as the “firstborn”, that is, of God:

  • The use of monogenh/$ in reference to Jesus as the only (true) Son of God (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 Jn 4:9, and cf. above)—reflecting a special relationship to God the Father, indicating divine nature and pre-existence. Cf. also the use of “firstborn” (prwto/toko$) in Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:6.
  • The Anointed One (“Messiah/Christ”) as the “son of God”—drawing upon the ancient Near Eastern idea of the king as God’s “son”, a similar idea is expressed of the Israelite (Davidic) ruler in Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14, both passages coming to be interpreted in a Messianic sense in Jewish and early Christian tradition (cf. 4Q174; Acts 13:32-33; Heb 1:5; 5:5), where it was applied to Jesus. In Psalm 89:27, this Davidic ruler is further called God’s “firstborn”; there may be similar ‘Messianic’ reference to a king as (God’s) firstborn in the fragmentary Qumran text 4Q369 (cf. also 4Q458).
  • Jesus as “firstborn” (or “firstfruits”) in terms of the resurrection. As I have previously discussed, by all accounts, it is in the context of his resurrection (and exaltation to Heaven), that Jesus was understood to be “born” as God’s Son in the earliest layers of Christian preaching—cf. Acts 13:32-37 (citing Psalm 2:7, and note a similar use of Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:24-36, cp. Heb 1:5, 13; 5:5); and Romans 1:3-4. The same early kerygma would seem to underlie the references to Jesus as “firstborn” in Rom 8:29; Col 1:18; and Rev 1:5.

Along with the numerous passages in the New Testament where believers are called the “sons” (ui(oi/) or “offspring/children” (te/kna) of God, in several instances, the expression “firstborn” (prwto/toko$) is also used:

Romans 8:29

“…(the ones) whom He knew before(hand) He also marked (out) before(hand) (to be) together in (the) form/shape of the image of His Son, unto his [i.e. Jesus’] being the first-produced [prwto/toko$ i.e. ‘firstborn’] among many brothers”

Here the key phrase is summo/rfou$ th=$ ei)ko/no$ tou= ui(ou= au)tou= (“together in the form/shape of the image of His Son”). Paul elsewhere refers to Jesus as the ei)kw/n (“image”) of God in 2 Cor 4:4 and Col 1:15—the last of these is noteworthy since it combines ei)kw/n specifically with prwto/toko$—and cf. also 1 Cor 15:49; 2 Cor 3:18, where likewise believers are said to become formed into the image of Christ. In Paul’s thought, this conformity with Christ is the result of our identification with, and participation in, the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6:5-11; 8:9-11; Gal 2:19-20, etc). This takes place through trust/faith in Christ and by the work of the Spirit, symbolized in the ritual of baptism (Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:26-27; Col 2:12). Earlier in Rom 8:18-25 Paul develops the image of creation groaning (like a woman in labor) waiting for the manifestation of (i.e. giving ‘birth’ to) the “sons of God” (believers); and we, too, groan within for the same thing (v. 23)—even though we are already God’s “sons/children” through faith in Christ and by the Spirit, this will not be fully realized until the resurrection at the end-time (described as “the redemption [lit. loosing from {bondage}] of our bodies”).

Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5

The expression prwto/toko$ e)k tw=n nekrw=n (“first-produced [i.e. firstborn] out of the dead [pl.]”) in Col 1:18; Rev 1:5 must be understood in a similar manner as the use of prwto/toko$ in Rom 8:29. Christ, in being raised from the dead, becomes the first of many “sons/children” (believers), who will likewise be raised at the end time—even now, we are united spiritually in his resurrection. In this sense, we, as believers, are not only “children of God”, but are in union with the true (firstborn) Son, and partake of this (collective) “firstborn” status.

Hebrews 12:23

The reference in Heb 12:22-24 is to the divine/heavenly inheritance that waits for believers, and that is already being experienced now, by faith (cf. chapter 11):

22but you have come toward mount ‚iyyôn {Zion} and (the) city of (the) living God, Yerûshalaim {Jerusalem} upon-the-Heaven(s), and the multitude of Messengers all gathered (in one place), 23and the assembly of the first-born having been written from (the list) in the Heavens, and God (the) judge of all, and the spirits of (the) just/righteous (one)s having been made complete, 24and Yeshua (the) mediator of the new (agreement) set forth, and the blood of (ritual) sprinkling…”

It may not be clear in translation, but the nouns throughout vv. 22-24 are in the dative case, each related back to the verb proselhlu/qate (“you have come toward…”)—that believers approaching Heaven will encounter:

    • Mount Zion, identified also as “city of the living God” and “Jerusalem upon the Heavens [i.e. Heavenly Jerusalem]”
    • The multitude of (heavenly) Messengers [i.e. Angels] all gathered together, as in the town/city square (a)gora/)
    • The assembly of the firstborn…the spirits of the just/righteous ones… (v. 23ff)

In context, the identification of the “firstborn” is not entirely certain. Some commentators have thought that it is parallel with the “multitude of (heavenly) Messengers” in v. 22, referring to the Angels. The reference to the firstborn being enrolled or registered (“written [down] from [the list]”) in Heaven, however, makes it more likely that human saints (believers) are meant—cf., for example, Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:29; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1; Luke 10:20; Rev 13:18; 17:8. It is interesting the way that verses 23-24 are structured:

    • Assembly of the first born
      —written down in Heaven
    • God the Judge of all
    • Spirits of the just/righteous ones
      —made complete
    • Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant

The parallelism seems to make clear that the “firstborn” are the same as the “just/righteous” ones—i.e., human believers. The basic scenario is that of standing before God as Judge, with Jesus in his mediating role as Priest, who has established a new covenant between God and His people (believers), through his sacrificial and atoning death (note the qualifying phrase in verse 24, “the blood of [ritual] sprinkling”).