January 15: John 1:31

John 1:31

Verse 31 goes hand-in-hand with the saying by the Baptist in verse 30 (examined in the previous note). One of the critical aspects of these verses involves the intriguing Johannine repetitions and ‘doublets’ that we see here in the narrative. There are two different sets of repetitions: one that occurs within vv. 29-31, and another which relates to the earlier episode in vv. 19-28. This has led critical commentators to posit a number of theories regarding the composition of these two scenes, and the distinct source material that might have been used in the process.

Let us consider, first, the parallel between vv. 26-27 and 30-31. Note the similarities—in each pair of verses there is:

    • A comparative saying by the Baptist regarding the superiority of Jesus
    • A statement on how Jesus has not been seen/known (i.e. recognized) as the Messiah
    • A reference by John to his baptizing people in water

These elements occur in a different order, in vv. 26-27 and 30-31 respectively; I present them here together as a chiasm:

    • Reference to baptizing in water (v. 26)
      • Statement on not having known/recognized Jesus (v. 26)
        • Saying by the Baptist on the superiority of Jesus (v. 27)
        • Saying by the Baptist on the superiority of Jesus (v. 30)
      • Statement on not having known/recognized Jesus (v. 31a)
    • Reference to baptizing in water (v. 31b)

This cannot be coincidental. Consider the ‘outer’ parallel—the mention by John of his baptizing in water:

    • “I dunk [i.e. baptize] in water [e)n u%dati]…” (v. 26)
    • “…I came dunking in water [e)n u%dati]” (v. 31)

The reference to baptizing in water is certainly to be understood as part of the comparison, between John and Jesus, in vv. 27/30. Though implicit here, the point of contrast is specified in the Synoptic tradition (Mark 1:7 par):

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

The phrase in v. 26 (above) reads like an abbreviated version of this saying. Instead of the contrastive point “but he will dunk you in the holy Spirit,” here the Baptist completes the statement with the curious declaration: “(but) in your midst has stood (one) whom you have not seen [i.e. known]”. Instead of the idea of Jesus (“the one coming,” i.e., the Prophetic Messiah) baptizing people with the Holy Spirit, we have what some commentators have called the concept of a “hidden Messiah” —that is, an Anointed One who remains unknown until the moment he is revealed (by God) on earth.

Here is the phrase in v. 26, along with the parallel in v. 31 (cf. the chiastic arrangement above):

    • “…in your midst has stood (one) whom you have not seen [i.e. known]” (v. 26)
    • “…and I had not seen [i.e. known] him, but (so) that he should be made to shine forth to Yisrael…” (v. 31)

On the concept of the Messiah’s hiddenness, this is a theme attested, to some degree, in a number of passages in Jewish writings from the first centuries B.C. through the early Rabbinic period. Trypho, in Justin’s Dialogue (8.4; 110.1), written in mid-2nd century A.D., expresses what would seem to be a common or accepted Jewish position: “the Messiah, even if he be born and actually exist somewhere, is unknown” (cf. Brown, p. 53). On the Rabbinic references to this basic tradition we may note, e.g., Sanh. 97a; b. Pes. 54a; b. Ned. 39a; Midrash Rabbah on Exod. 25:16. It is possible that an early form of this tradition underlies, to some extent, the so-called “Messianic Secret” passages in the Synoptic Gospels, most notably in the Gospel of Mark (1:43; 4:11-12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:30; 9:9).

If the Johannine Gospel here is referencing a tradition regarding the “hiddenness” of the Messiah, it is possible the author is alluding to the specific idea of the Messiah having dwelt in heaven prior to his appearance on earth. This would certainly fit the pre-existence Christology of the Gospel (esp. in the Prologue), but suggests a Messianic ‘heavenly deliverer’ figure-type (cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”), rather than the Prophetic or Davidic Messiah. The Johannine Christological portrait of Jesus (as the pre-existent Son of God) may be compared with the heavenly “Son of Man” in 1 Enoch (cf. 46:1-3; 62:7-9, etc). By the Rabbinic period, a heavenly dwelling (or pre-existence) may have been attributed more generally to the Messiah—as one who was “hidden in the clouds” until the time came for him to appear on earth.

Turning to the central parallel in vv. 26-27 and 30-31—the saying by the Baptist on the superiority of Jesus—the statement in v. 27 corresponds more or less with the Synoptic saying in Mark 1:7 par, and clearly derives from a common historical tradition. Here is the Markan version of the Synoptic tradition:

the (one) stronger than me comes in back of me, of whom I am not fit, (hav)ing bent (down), to loosen the straps of (the thong)s bound under his (feet)

Interestingly, the two parts, indicated by bold and italics, respectively, have been separated out in the Johannine tradition. On the other hand, it may be that the Synoptic version represents a conflation of two originally distinct sayings, and that John’s Gospel accurately presents these as separate statements by the Baptist. In any case, the saying in v. 27 corresponds to the italicized part of Mk 1:7 par:

“…of whom I am not worthy that I should loosen the straps of (the thong)s bound under his (feet)”
“…of whom I am not fit…to loosen the straps of (the thong)s bound under his (feet)” [Mk 1:7]

These statements are quite close. John uses the adjective a&cio$, instead of i(kano/$ in Mark, but the basic meaning and emphasis is the same.

The saying in v. 30 corresponds with the bold portion of Mk 1:7 (above). The Matthean and Lukan versions each differ slightly from Mark. In Luke 3:16, the wording is identical, except for the omission of the expression “in back of me” (o)pi/sw mou). Matthew’s version (3:11), which uses the participle e)rxo/meno$ (“coming”) instead of the indicative e&rxetai (“comes”), is actually closer in form to the Johannine version of the saying in verse 15:

the (one) coming in back of me is greater than me” [Matthew]
the (one) coming in back of me has come to be in front of me…” [John, v. 15]

The saying in v. 30 is compares better with the Markan version of the Synoptic saying:

“the (one) stronger than me comes in back of me” [Mark]
“a man comes in back of me who has come to be in front of me…” [John, v. 30]

The main difference between the Johannine and Synoptic versions is that, instead of the straightforward comparison “stronger than me”, John has the rather awkward “has come to be in front of me”. We may rightly ask whether the Johannine version represents a modification of the Synoptic version, or reflects a separate Gospel tradition. The distinctive Johannine theological vocabulary present in v. 15/30 (cf. the previous note) suggests the former. However, one cannot rule out the possibility that both versions represent variations of the original historical tradition. This would be explained in terms of the Aramaic of the original saying of Jesus having been translated two different ways. Black (Aramaic Approach, pp. 107-8) suggests an original Aramaic of awh ymdq, which could be understood as “he is superior to me”, but also “he was before me”.

This discussion will be continued in the next daily note (on v. 32).

References marked “Brown” above are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John (I-XII), Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29 (1966).
References marked “Black” are to Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, Second Edition (Oxford: 1946, 1954).

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