Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Baptism, Pt 1 (Jn 1:6, 19ff etc)

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

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

John 1:6-7

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

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

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

John 1:19ff

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

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

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

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

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

John 1:28

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

John 1:35

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

John 3:23ff

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

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

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

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

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