Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Baptism, Pt 2 (Mk 1:7-8, continued)

As a follow-up to the previous note, dealing with the sayings of John the Baptist recorded in Mark 1:7-8 par, it is worth discussing here the meaning of the sayings in their original historical-traditional context, as far as this can be determined. What is clear from the sayings, in all their versions (cf. the previous note), is that they intend to emphasize two points of contrast:

    1. The first (Mk 1:7) expresses a kind of irony, or reversal, marked by two words:
      o)pi/sw (“behind”)—Jesus comes/follows behind, or after, John
      i)sxuro/tero$ (“stronger [than]”)—at the same time, Jesus is stronger (i.e. more powerful, greater) than John
    2. The second (Mk 1:8) is more straightforward, contrasting baptism in water, with baptism in the holy Spirit

Mark 1:7

“one stronger [i)sxuro/tero$] than me comes behind [o)pi/sw] me”

For the variations of this saying in the Gospels, cf. the previous note. The portion which follows in v. 7b illustrates the statement in colorful, dramatic language. Each of the two key words will be analyzed in turn:

(a) o)pi/sw (“behind”)—this preposition more properly means “at the end or back” of something, but often in the sense of “behind”, as translated here. Typically it refers to position or location, though occasionally it can be used in a temporal sense (i.e. “after, later [than]”). Many Christians are inclined to understand o)pi/sw in the temporal sense here, since then all the saying would mean is that Jesus appeared on the scene after (i.e. later than) John. The version in Acts 13:25b is more amenable to this understanding, by using meta/ instead of o)pi/sw, and the developed Johannine tradition follows this line of interpretation as well (Jn 1:15, 30, etc). However, the more common use of o)pi/sw would indicate position—i.e. that Jesus had a position behind, or in back of, John, which is to say, a lesser position. This may simply mean that the “one coming” (Jesus) had not yet become prominent or well-known, in comparison with John. However, many commentators believe that a more precise relationship between Jesus and John is intended.

A popular interpretation, among critical commentators especially, is that Jesus had been a disciple of John. The use of o)pi/sw in the Gospels would tend to support this, as it is used frequently in reference to Jesus’ own disciples following him (Mk 1:17, 20; Matt 4:19; 10:38; Lk 14:27; Jn 6:66, cf. also 12:19). Such an historical reconstruction has been assumed to explain: (a) Jesus’ presence around John, (b) his being baptized by John, (c) the close correlation of the disciples of Jesus and John, as recorded in Johannine tradition (Jn 1:35ff; 3:22-23ff), and (d) certain points of similarity in the teaching of John and Jesus (note esp. Matt 3:2; 4:17). If this line of interpretation is valid, then, originally John may have been either: (a) declaring that one of his followers (Jesus) would have a destiny greater than his own, or (b) prophesying that one of his followers (as yet unknown) would have this greater role. The tradition recorded in Jn 1:29ff would indicate that John did not, at first, know who the “one coming after” him would be (vv. 26-27). It remains an open question, however, whether or not Jesus had been a disciple of John. Christians are doubtless uncomfortable with the idea, but there is nothing in it which is incompatible with orthodox theology or the New Testament witness as a whole. Even so, it is worth noting that Luke has apparently left out the expression “behind me” from the Baptist’s saying (Lk 3:16, cp. Acts 13:25), perhaps sensing the implication of the phrase in context and wishing to avoid it.

If Jesus had been a disciple of John, then it makes even more striking the contrast established in the saying—i.e. one who has been following me is actually far greater than I am! Consider, too, the graphic illustration in Mk 1:7b par, where John declares that he is not fit/worthy even to handle the shoes of the one coming. The act of loosening and/or picking up one’s shoes would have been the menial task of a servant or slave, but could also symbolize the behavior of a disciple to his master. In other words, this would signify an major reversal of role and position—the one leading now becomes less than a slave. For a similar thought expressed by John, cf. Jn 3:30.

(b) i)sxuro/tero$ (“stronger [than]”)—this is a comparative/superlative form of the adjective i)sxuro/$ (“capable, able, strong”). It is interesting to consider the significance of this word as used by John. As will be discussed in the next major section of this study on the Baptism of Jesus, an important component of the Gospel tradition here is the identity of Jesus as the Anointed One, in comparison with John. It should be considered possible, however, on objective grounds, that this was a point of importance in John’s own ministry at the time. Certainly, we must give the traditions recorded in Jn 1:19-27 and Lk 3:15 due consideration. If John denied that he himself was “Elijah” or “the Prophet/Messenger” to come (cf. Mal 3:1ff), then it makes sense to interpret the saying(s) of Mk 1:7f in that light. In other words, he may be granting this Prophetic/Messianic role to another—”the one coming“. This is the very question at issue, of course, in Matt 11:2ff par.

Moreover, if the sayings in Mk 1:7-8 are truly connected, at the historical level, then the greater strength/ability of the “one coming” should be related to the Spirit. Such an association with the Messiah (or a similar Prophet figure) would have been reasonably well-established at the time of John and Jesus, due in large part to the Messianic interpretation given to passages such as Isa 11:1-9 and 61:1ff. For similar associations in the Qumran texts, cf. CD 2:12; 1QS 4:20-21; 4Q521 frag. 2. Jesus, as this Anointed figure (Lk 4:1, 14, 18ff), is stronger because his ministry involves cleansing at a deeper level, through the work of the Spirit (cf. below).

Mark 1:8

“I dunk you in water, but he will dunk you in the holy Spirit”

The contrast in this saying is made more precise in the “Q” and Johannine versions, through the use of a me\nde/ construction (cf. the previous note). The historical tradition is clear that water, in John’s ministry, signified cleansing from sin (Mk 1:4 par; Matt 3:11; Josephus, Ant. 18.117). There would have been two components, or aspects, to this symbolism:

    • repentance, and the good works which follow, and
    • release (forgiveness) of sins by God

The general similarity with the ritual washing practiced by the Qumran Community has already been mentioned, and the significance of such washing at Qumran is expressed in the Community Rule (1QS 3:7-12; 4:20-21ff; 5:13-14). This sort of water-symbolism, of course, is widespread, attested in many different religious and cultural traditions. For a sampling of relevant passages in the Old Testament, cf. Exod 29:4; 30:20; Lev 8:6; 11:32ff; 14:8-9; 15:5-11; 16:4; Num 8:7; 19:7-21; Deut 23:11; 2 Kings 3:11; 5:10-13; Psa 26:6; 51:2, 7; 66:12; Prov 30:12; Isa 1:16; Jer 4:14; Ezek 16:4, 9; Zech 13:1.

Likewise, the Old Testament refers to cleansing by the Spirit, or uses water-imagery to express the work and effect of God’s Spirit—cf. Isa 4:4-5; 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:25-26. With regard to the addition of fire, parallel to the Spirit, in the “Q” version of the saying, purification by fire is also found as a symbol in the Old Testament—Psalm 12:6; Mal 3:2-3, etc (for an association between the Spirit and fire, cf. also Judg 15:14). The Malachi passage, of course, is directly relevant to the Gospel tradition regarding John the Baptist, but it also emphasizes that the cleansing—whether by water, fire, or the Spirit—is ultimately done by God. It is likely that John himself had in mind the end-time appearance of God (coming to bring Judgment), through the work and presence of God’s own Messenger (Mal 3:1ff), who would be identified with Jesus. The main point of the contrast would seem to be that John’s ministry of washing/cleansing (by water) was preparatory for the end-time purification to be brought about by God (by Spirit/fire). That this greater “cleansing” reflects two sides, or aspects, of the Judgment seems clear from the “Q” version (and the parallel in the saying of Matt 3:12 / Lk 3:17)—God’s Spirit/fire will burn up the wicked, but the righteous (i.e. the faithful ones who have repented, etc) will be purified and saved.

The view of the Gospel writers

By the time the Gospels were written, a more precise identification of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God (drawing on the David ruler and Son of Man figure-types) had been firmly established, along with John the Baptist as the Messenger (“Elijah”) of Mal 3:1ff (4:5-6) who prepares the way for his coming. As a result, the sayings by John in Mk 1:7-8 par came to take on a new significance. The author of Luke-Acts, in particular, would doubtless have in mind the scope of the Gospel story, culminating in the coming of the Spirit (as “tongues of fire”) upon the earliest believers (Lk 24:49; Acts 1:5, 8; 2:1-4ff). The Fourth Gospel works from a different line of interpretation, emphasizing the greatness of Jesus from a more definite Christological standpoint, best seen in the way that the saying of Mk 1:7 (or something akin to it) is developed and expounded in the first chapter (to be discussed). The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, in drawing upon the “Q” material of Matt 11:2-19 par, had available another avenue by which to develop the relationship between John and Jesus. In particular, note the way that the saying of Mk 1:7 has been virtually restated (by Jesus) to apply, in an eschatological (and seminal Christian) sense, to all believers (Matt 11:11 par).

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