Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Baptism, Pt 2 (Matt 3:11-15; Lk 3:16-17)

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

Matt 3:11-12; Lk 3:16-17 (“Q”)

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 3:13-15 (“M”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt 11:2-19 par (“Q”)

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

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

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