Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Baptism, Pt 1 (Lk 3:2, 10-14 etc)

Luke 3:2, 10-14, etc

Having discussed the key association with Isaiah 40:3 in the past two notes, we now turn to examine how the ministry of John the Baptist was developed in the Gospels of Luke and John. This will be studied in more detail when we come to the section dealing with the relationship between John and Jesus, which, in the Gospel of Luke, was established primarily in the Infancy narrative of chapters 1-2. Here also we find elements describing John’s (future) ministry role throughout:

    • The Angelic announcement to Zechariah (Lk 1:8-22)
      —John’s ascetic character (i.e. as a Nazirite), 1:15b
      —Proclamation leading people to repentance, 1:16-17
    • Birth and circumcision (1:57-66)
      —The reaction to John by the people in the surrounding region, 1:58, 65-66
    • Song of Zechariah (1:67-79)
      —Identification with the Isaiah 40:3 reference, 1:76
      —ministry leading people to forgiveness of sin, 1:77
    • Summary notice (1:80)
      —John’s time in the wilderness before appearing to the people

The notice in 1:80 is picked up again by the Gospel writer at 3:1-2. This uniquely Lukan historical/chronological setting serves as the narrative introduction to the episode, leading into the important statement in verse 2b: “the word of God came to John…in the wilderness”. The connection with the desert, as formulated here, may be an echo of Hosea 2:14. In any event, the emphasis is clearly on the specific prophetic character of John’s ministry—which begins at just this point. Note how three strands of tradition appear in sequence here in the Gospel of Luke:

    • The Synoptic narrative in vv. 3-6 (par Mk 1:3-6)
    • followed by “Q”—vv. 7-9
    • and the Lukan (“L”) material—vv. 10-14.

In verses 10-14, John is questioned by three different groups (cf. the episode in Jn 1:19-27):

    • The crowd/throng of people generally (vv. 10-11)
    • Toll-collectors (vv. 12-13)
    • Soldiers (v. 14)

To each group, John gives practical, ethical instruction regarding daily life and conduct. The teaching effectively illustrates the “good fruit… leading to repentance” mentioned in verses 8a, 9. It emphasizes a life of humility, modesty, and fair behavior, aimed especially at those with greater means or influence, directing them to show care and concern for those less fortunate. In this regard, the teaching has a good deal in common with the ethical instruction of Jesus, as seen, for example, in the parables or in the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount. However, at least as important, is the place vv. 10-14 hold in the overall structure of the narrative:

  • Narrative (historical) introduction—the current rulers (Herods, etc) (vv. 1-2)
    • The ministry of John [Isaiah 40:3-5] (vv. 3-6)
      —Preaching for repentance: eschatological emphasis—the Judgment (vv. 7-9)
      —The “fruits of repentance”: ethical emphasis (vv. 10-14)
    • The ministry of John: Messianic emphasis—the Judgment (vv. 15-17)
  • Narrative summary—the current ruler (Herod) (vv. 18-20)

There is an inclusive symmetry to this section, up to verse 20, which creates a separation from the actual baptism of Jesus in vv. 21-22. This separation is enhanced by the way that the Synoptic tradition has been reworked in vv. 18-20.

John’s arrest was mentioned in Mk 1:14 par, after the baptism of Jesus, and marking the beginning of the latter’s ministry. Luke has expanded this, bringing in detail related to the episode narrated in Mk 6:14-29 par—an episode which Luke does not include. He also sets this notice prior to the baptism. The result is that, conceptually, John is “closed up” in prison and is not mentioned in the baptism scene which follows. Luke, of course, was fully aware of the historical tradition regarding John’s role (i.e. that he baptized Jesus), but the author wishes to put the attention entirely on Jesus in this scene (cf. Jn 3:30).

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