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.

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