January 17: John 1:33

John 1:33

Verse 33 is curious in that it essentially repeats the information from verses 31-32 (discussed in the previous notes). It is one of several repetitions and ‘doublets’ in this section, which commentators have sought to explain in a variety of ways. Actually, such repetition/doublets seem to be part of the Johannine literary style, and many examples could be cited from throughout the Discourses. One way to explain this, as a mode of composition by the Gospel writer, is that parallel but distinct source-traditions have been creatively combined together into a single narrative. However, in this case it is perhaps better to view the matter as a combination of different interpretive approaches by the Gospel writer to a common tradition.

It may be useful to compare verses 31-32 and 33 in context here:

Vv. 31-32
John: “And I had not seen [i.e. known] him, but (so) that he should be made to shine forth to Yisrael, through this [i.e. for this reason] I came dunking in water.”
Narration: “And Yohanan gave witness, saying that ‘I looked at the Spirit stepping down as a dove out of heaven, and it remained upon him’.”

V. 33
John: “And I had not seen [i.e. known] him, but the (One) sending me to dunk in water—that (One) said to me”
Heavenly voice: “The (one) upon whom you should see the Spirit stepping down and remaining upon him”
Trad. saying (adapted): “this is the (one) dunking in (the) holy Spirit”

There is clear parallelism at work, but, as is often the case in the Gospel of John, the apparent repetitiveness is actually a sign of careful composition and a purposeful literary structure. The reasonably precise parallelism serves to highly the differences between the two versions, and these differences are more significant than might appear at first glance. We may summarize it this way:

    • Vv. 31-32 record John’s witness as to what he saw
    • V. 33 records John’s witness as to what God revealed to him

These are both important, and complementary, aspects, from the standpoint of the Johannine theology. It also demonstrates the special and unique way that the Gospel writer adapted the established tradition. Recall that there are two fundamental components to the Baptism tradition: (a) visual (descent of the Spirit), and (b) aural (voice from heaven). These correspond to the two ‘versions’ of the Johannine account: (a) what John saw (vv. 31-32), and (b) what he heard God say to him (v. 33).

Moreover, there is a reverse progression in vv. 31-33; that is to say, verses 31-32 depend on v. 33, even though verse 33 comes after vv. 31-32 in the narrative. John would not be able to give the witness that he does in vv. 31-32, if God had not first revealed the information to him in vv. 33. In this way, the Gospel writer, through his carefully constructed narrative, takes the reader back to the revelatory point experienced by John himself. In effect, the reader, through the inspired narrative, experiences the same revelation. On the importance of John as a source of revelation regarding the person of Jesus, cf. also 3:26-30ff; 5:33-35.

Some comment must be made regarding one particular adaptation of the Baptism tradition: the use of the verb me/nw (“remain”), an important Johannine keyword, which occurs here in both verse 32 and 33. The common tradition is followed in stating that the Spirit “stepped down” (vb katabai/nw) out of heaven as a dove, coming “upon” (e)pi/) Jesus. However, the phrasing in the Johannine version involves the Spirit stepping down and remaining on Jesus. Given the importance of the verb me/nw for the Johannine theology, this is surely significant. Even though the idea of the Spirit resting upon Jesus, may be part of the traditional (Messianic) imagery, based on the wording, for example, in Isa 11:2 (cp. Testament of Judah 24:1ff; Testament of Levi 18:7), the specific Johannine use of me/nw gives to the scene an even deeper meaning.

It is at just this point, however, that the Johannine Christological portrait seems to be somewhat at odds with the Baptism tradition. In the context of the core Gospel narrative, it is only after the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism that he is empowered to proclaim the Kingdom, teach/preach the Divine message, and work healing miracles. There is not the slightest suggestion in the Synoptic Gospels of the divine pre-existence of Jesus. Fundamentally, his identity as the Son of God begins at the Baptism (Mk 1:10-11 par), marked by the coming of the Spirit upon him.

The Gospel of John, however, evinces a strong pre-existence Christology, identifying Jesus as the Son of God even prior to his life/existence on earth. This is declared (and affirmed), not only in the Prologue, but throughout the Gospel Discourses as well. It may be that the Gospel writer, here in vv. 29-34, has simply retained the core Gospel (and historical) tradition, without altering it substantially to fit the Johannine Christology. Even so, we must ask what significance the theologically charged verb me/nw has in this context.

Throughout the Johannine Discourses, this verb is used to express the abiding relationship (and union) between God the Father and Jesus (the Son). By extension, this same sense of union applies to the relationship between Jesus and believers. In the Last Discourse, in particular, Jesus repeatedly refers to his disciples “remaining” in him, and he in them. The Vine illustration (and its exposition) in 15:1-16 alone contains 11 occurrences of the verb me/nw. This abiding union is realized through the presence of the Spirit, which comes upon believers and dwells in and among them.

Based on the Johannine Christology, expressed most clearly in the Last Discourse, the Spirit also represents the bond of unity shared by God the Father and Jesus the Son. And yet, this fact renders somewhat problematic the traditional Baptism scene recorded in vv. 29-34, where the Spirit comes upon Jesus much as it does upon his disciples (believers). If Jesus is the pre-existent Son of God, sharing the Divine Life and existence with God the Father, would he not already possess the Spirit in full measure? In that case, what is the purpose of the Spirit’s descent at the Baptism?

The question might be answered by way of the kenosis-theory (based on Phil 2:6-8), whereby Jesus “emptied” (vb keno/w) himself of his Divine position and status when he came to be born and live on earth as a human being. According to the kenotic theology, the emptied human Jesus was dependent upon the special presence of the Spirit, which came and empowered him at the Baptism—an empowerment that lasted throughout the time of his life on earth. The validity of this kenotic theology, in whole or in part, continues to be debated by theologians; in any event, it is not at all clear whether (or to what extent) the Gospel writer held such a view of Jesus.

Perhaps the most serious objection to the kenotic hypothesis is that it is predicated upon a developed (post-Nicene) mode of Christological thinking, and it is highly questionable whether such a mode of thinking can (or should) be read back into the first-century context of the New Testament writings. I suspect that the Gospel writer is simply making use of the Baptism tradition without giving any real thought to all of the potential theological implications. The Johannine Christology required that there be some mention of the abiding presence of the Spirit with Jesus during his time on earth as the incarnate Word and Son of God. The Baptism tradition, with its record of the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus, was the best vehicle for establishing the fundamental connection between Jesus and the Spirit. From a literary standpoint, once this connection was established, the Gospel writer could then freely reference the incarnate Son’s possession of the Spirit—the same Spirit which God the Father possesses, and which the Father gave to the Son (3:34-35, etc)

One key point that the Johannine theology shares with the wider Gospel tradition is that Jesus’ empowerment by the Spirit’s presence was permanent, and, as such, differed fundamentally from the temporary inspiration of religious leaders and prophets (such as John the Baptist). The verb me/nw certainly captures this idea of permanence: the Spirit “remained” (e&meinen) upon Jesus. This theme also applies to our union (as believers) with Jesus—we remain in him through the abiding presence of the Spirit, and this presence is permanent.

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