June 1: Mark 1:7-8 par

For the daily notes beginning in the month of June, I will be following up on the earlier (pre-Pentecost) series on the Spirit of God in the Old Testament. In the light of those studies, we will examine how this understanding of the presence and work of God’s Spirit—and, specifically, the idea of His “holy Spirit” —was developed in early Christian thought. It is a subject I have discussed, with regard to the Gospel Tradition, in a prior set of notes; here, however, the focus will be on how the earlier Old Testament (and Jewish) tradition regarding God’s Spirit was developed.

We begin with a core set of the earliest Gospel traditions (esp. the Synoptic Tradition); as these have already been discussed in some detail in the aforementioned series, the treatment will be more limited here.

Mark 1:7-8 par

The first passage referring to the (Holy) Spirit in the Synoptic Tradition comes from a saying/declaration by John the Baptist (Mark 1:7-8 par), which is certainly among the very oldest/earliest to be preserved in Christian tradition (cf. the articles on the Baptism of Jesus in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”). The age (and authenticity) of the saying is confirmed by the fact that it is recorded no fewer than six times in the Gospels and Acts, having been transmitted independently in at least two (or more) strands of tradition. Moreover, while John the Baptist has a central place in the earliest Gospel narrative, he soon disappeared from Christian tradition generally—he is never mentioned in the New Testament outside of the Gospels and Acts, and only once in the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers (c. 90-150 A.D.), as part of a simple Gospel/creedal formula (Ignatius, Smyrneans 1:1, cf. Rom 1:3-4). Thus the prominence of John in the primitive Gospel narrative and kerygma is virtually a guarantee of authenticity.

Admittedly, some commentators have questioned the authenticity of such a reference to the “holy Spirit” by John the Baptist, considering the historical detail in Acts 19:1-3ff to the effect that disciples of John the Baptist were apparently unaware of the existence of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, however, the numerous occurrences of the expression “holy spirit” (= “spirit of holiness”) in the Qumran texts would tend to increase the likelihood that John, indeed, might make use of the same expression. In particular, there is a certain similarity between Johannine/Christian baptism and the water-ritual for entrants into the Qumran Community (cf. 1QS 3:6-9, discussed in a prior article), and the “holy spirit” of God plays a central role in both.

Mark’s short account of John the Baptist and his ministry (Mk 1:2-8), which precedes the Baptism of Jesus (vv. 9-11), climaxes with the core saying in vv. 7-8:

“The (one) stronger than me comes behind me, of whom I am not (worthy) enough to bend (down) to loosen the straps of (the shoe)s bound under his (feet). I dunked you in water, but he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit [e)n pneu/mati a(gi/w|].”

Matthew and Luke provide a more extensive account, including additional sayings and teachings by John; the saying corresponding to Mk 1:7-8 is in Matt 3:11 / Lk 3:16. Here the three versions are presented side-by-side for comparison, with the main elements in Matthew/Luke which differ from Mark indicated by italics:

Mark 1:7-8 Matthew 3:11 Luke 3:16
“The (one) stronger than me comes behind me, of whom I am not (worthy) enough to bend (down) to loosen the straps of the (shoe)s bound under his (feet). I dunked you in water, but he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit.” “I dunk you in water into a change-of-mind [i.e. repentance]; but the (one) coming behind me is stronger than me, of whom I am not (worthy) enough to bear/carry the (shoe)s bound under (his feet)—he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit and fire.” “I dunk you in water; but the (one) stronger than me comes, of whom I am not (worthy) enough to loosen the straps of the (shoe)s bound under his (feet)—he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit and fire.”

For more on the differences between Mark and Matthew/Luke, cf. my earlier note. Of special significance is that Matthew and Luke both add “and (in) fire [kai\ puri/]”. This emphasizes the coming/future Judgment of God upon humankind (cf. Matt 3:7ff par), and leads into the added saying in Matt 3:12 / Lk 3:17. The common idea shared by the “holy Spirit” and “fire” is that of cleansing, which also happens to be the principal meaning of the baptism water-rite.

Moreover, the triad of water-spirit-fire all represent elements associated with purification and cleansing in Old Testament tradition. Cleansing by water is common enough (Num 8:7; 19:12; Ps 51:2; Ezek 16:4; 36:25; Zech 13:1, etc), and the imagery is occasionally extended to the (symbolic) pouring out of the Spirit of God (Isa 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:25-26). Fire is also used as a symbol of purification; in addition to the idea of burning up garbage and refuse, there is the metallurgic imagery, whereby base metal is refined and its impurities removed through fire—cf. Psalm 12:6; Isa 4:4-5; 48:10; Dan 11:35; 12:10; Zech 13:9; Mal 3:2-3. Offerings and objects consecrated to God are also burned with fire (Ex 29:18, 34, etc; Deut 13:16; Josh 6:24). These three elements (water, fire, and the “holy spirit”) are combined in 1QS 4:20-21 from Qumran (cf. J. A. Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX [AB vol. 28], p. 474); the following details are relevant to the setting of John’s ministry:

      • It will occur at the (end) time of God’s visitation—i.e., an eschatological setting
      • God will purge the deeds of humankind by His Truth
        • refining (by fire) a portion of humankind (i.e., the righteous/chosen ones)
        • removing every evil spirit from their flesh
        • cleansing them from wickedness with (the) holy Spirit
        • sprinkling them with the Spirit (as with water)
      • The righteous ones are cleansed with the Spirit of Truth

Let us look a bit more closely at the saying in Mark 1:8, which follows the second phrase of the saying in v. 7 by establishing a contrast between John and the “one coming”; here is the version in Mark:

“I dunked you in water, but he will dunk you in [e)n] the holy Spirit”
e)gw/ e)ba/ptisa u(ma=$ u%dati, au)to\$ de\ bapti/sei u(ma=$ e)n pneu/mati a(gi/w|

For the other Synoptic versions (Matt 3:11 / Luke 3:16), they are very close to the Markan saying (as noted above), but share three key differences:

    • Both use a me\nde/ construction—i.e. “on the one hand…on the other…”
    • Each includes the saying corresponding to Mk 1:7 in the middle of the saying corr. to Mk 1:8—i.e. “I dunk you in water…, but the one coming… he will dunk you in the holy Spirit”
    • Each adds “and (in) fire”—”he will dunk you in the holy Spirit and (in) fire

The version in Acts (1:5, par 11:16) represents a saying by Jesus, indicating something which Jesus had told his disciples about John:

“(On the one hand) John dunked in water, but (other other hand) you will be dunked in the holy Spirit” (1:5)

The version in John (Jn 1:26 & 33) shows a more substantial reworking of the tradition; the reference to the holy Spirit does not occur until John the Baptist’s reporting of the baptism of Jesus.

The Development of Tradition

How does this saying of the Baptist relate to the Old Testament and Jewish traditions regarding the Spirit of God and the “holy Spirit”? Two points need to be considered:

    • The association of the holy Spirit with the water-ritual (dunking/baptism), and
    • Its significance in relation to “the one coming” (o( e)rxo/meno$)

The first point can be illustrated by the water-ritual of the Qumran Community (cf. above). As the physical ritual (sprinkling/bathing) with water is performed, it symbolizes the underlying reality of purification by God’s Spirit (“spirit of [His] holiness”), through which the entrant’s own “spirit” is made completely holy. This idea builds upon the earlier Prophetic tradition regarding the role of God’s Spirit in the future restoration of Israel. This is a theme we find in a number of the 6th century Prophets (Joel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah). In the coming New Age of Israel’s restoration, associated with the specific idea of the return of Israel/Judah to their land, the people will be given a “new heart” and a ‘new spirit’, purified and made holy (and obedient to God’s covenant) through the presence and work of God’s own spirit. The the “pouring out” of God’s Spirit upon His people is seen as a mark of the coming New Age (Isa 44:3; Joel 2:28-29; Ezek 39:29; cf. also Zech 12:10); for discussion of these passages, cf. the notes in the series on the Spirit of God in the Old Testament.

By the time of the Qumran texts, this restoration-theme had come to be understood in a strongly eschatological and Messianic sense. The Qumran Community viewed itself as the “remnant” of Israel, the faithful ones of the end-time, who would be delivered and led by the Anointed One(s) of God. By all accounts, John the Baptist’s preaching had much of the same flavor, proclaiming the coming of an Anointed figure (i.e. Messiah) who would deliver the faithful and usher in God’s end-time Judgment. The cleansing of his baptism rite was in preparation for this eschatological event, much as we see at Qumran (cp. 1QS 3:6-9 with 4:20-21). There is little reason to doubt the historical accuracy of this aspect of John’s ministry, given what we know of Jewish eschatology and Messianism from the Qumran texts and other Jewish writings of the period.

In this regard, John’s use of the expression “the one coming” (o( e)rxo/meno$) provides the key to the meaning and context of the saying in Mark 1:8 par. In Mk 1:7 (also Lk 3:16; cp. Acts 13:25), the Greek wording is “(one) stronger than me comes [e&rxetai]…”, but in Matthew (3:11) the wording is:

“the (one) coming [e)rxo/meno$]…is stronger than me”

This use of the participle also occurs in the question posed by the Baptist in Matt 11:3 / Lk 7:19:

“Are you the (one) coming [o( e)rxo/meno$]…?”

The same expression occurs in the Baptist’s saying in Jn 1:15, 27. Most likely, it is derived from Malachi 3:1, and the last clause— “the Messenger of the covenant, whom you take pleasure in, see! he will come“. In the Greek [LXX] version, the form is e&rxetai, as in Mark/Luke (cf. above). In other words, “the one coming” [o( e)rxo/meno$] likely refers to the Messenger of Mal 3:1, a point I discuss in a supplemental note to the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. While the “messenger” (Ea*l=m^) of the original prophecy would have referred to a heavenly being who served as God’s representative (representing YHWH Himself), by the 1st century A.D. it would have been interpreted in a more distinctly Messianic sense. The origins of this interpretation can be found in the closing verses of the book of Malachi itself (4:5-6), identifying the “messenger” with a future appearance of “Elijah”.

Thus, it seems probable that John the Baptist envisioned the coming of a Messianic Prophet, according to the figure-type of Elijah, who would serve as God’s representative and usher in the Judgment. The New Testament evidence, regarding just who fulfills this expected Messianic role, is exceedingly complex. On the one hand, nearly all of the evidence—and certainly from the Galilean ministry period in the Synoptic narrative—points to Jesus as the Anointed Prophet like Elijah. Indeed, in Jn 1:20-21ff, John explicitly denies being the Elijah-to-come, presumably reserving it for another (Jesus). Yet, at the same time, in at least one tradition, Jesus states the reverse—that John is the Elijah-to-come (Matt 11:14; cf. 17:12-13 par). Subsequent Christian tradition followed the identification of John with Elijah, but this identification is by no means so certain in earliest strands of the Gospel tradition itself. I discuss the matter at some length in prior notes and articles (e.g., Parts 23 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”).

What is the relation of the “holy Spirit” to this end-time Anointed Prophet—the role ultimately fulfilled by Jesus? The context of the saying in Mk 1:7-8, clearly indicates a comparison—the “one coming” is greater/mightier [i)sxuro/tero$] than John, but yet he will continue the Baptist’s work of cleansing God’s people, only in a more intense and complete way. Instead of using a water-rite that may symbolize cleansing by God’s Spirit, he will purify people with the Spirit itself, under the related image of fire.

As noted above, 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.

Interestingly, it is only in the Gospel of John that we actually read of Jesus doing anything like baptizing his followers in the Spirit; this is in Jn 20:19-23, the climactic scene of Jesus with his disciples after the resurrection:

“…even as the Father has set me forth from (Him), so I (am) send(ing) you. And saying this, he blew [i.e. breathed] in/on (them) and said to them: ‘Receive (the) holy Spirit…'” (vv. 21b-22)

This should be taken as indicating what the Gospel writer (and/or his tradition) understood by ‘dunking/baptizing in the Spirit’. Of course, in the traditions of Luke-Acts, this event is realized even more dramatically in the Pentecost scene of 2:1-4ff, though, in that narrative, the sending of the Spirit is less clearly presented as something that Jesus himself does. On the ambiguity of the Spirit being sent by God the Father, Jesus (the Son), or both—cf. especially the ‘Paraclete’ passages in the Johannine Last Discourse (chaps. 14-16). The dual-identification of the Holy Spirit with the Spirit of God, and also the Spirit of Christ, represents a uniquely Christian development, that will be discussed further in these notes.


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