Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Baptism, Pt 1 (Mk 1:3-6 etc)

Today’s note is the first of several dealing with the Baptism of Jesus—the initial study in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” (see the Introduction). According to the approach I set out there, the different strands of tradition will be examined in turn:

    • The core Synoptic tradition, represented by Mark
    • “Q” material (shared by Matthew and Luke)
    • Material unique to Matthew and Luke, respectively (“M” and “L”), and
    • Johannine tradition, i.e. the Gospel of John

I also presented three main components to the Baptism of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel Tradition:

    1. The Ministry of John
    2. The Relationship between John and Jesus, and
    3. Jesus as the Anointed One, in comparison with John

I begin with the first of these—The Ministry of John—and outline the following strands (cf. above):

Mark 1:3-6

The Synoptic parallels are Matt 3:1-6 and Luke 3:3-6. According to the generally accepted critical theory, Matthew and Luke both made use of the Gospel of Mark as a source. At the very least, they seem to have drawn upon a (traditional) source which has contents and a structure similar to that of Mark. The account in Matthew here corresponds closely to Mark, but with a few differences; Luke contains less Markan material at this point. Each of the four verses in Mk 1:3-6 makes a statement regarding a particular aspect of John’s ministry, as understood by early Christians. These will be discussed in turn, with the differences in Matthew and Luke being mentioned along the way.

Verse 3—The ministry of John the Baptist is introduced with a quotation from Isaiah 40:3. That this verse was connected closely with John at a very early point is indicated by how firmly it is embedded within the early Gospel tradition (cf. also Jn 1:23 and Lk 1:76). Luke has extended the citation to include vv. 4-5 (Lk 3:5-6), almost certainly to tie in verse 5 (adapted slightly) with the theme of salvation elsewhere within the Gospel (see esp. 2:30-31). Mark has joined a citation of Mal 3:1 (in v. 2) to that of Isa 40:3, bringing together the two principal Scriptures understood as prophecies of John the Baptist by early Christians. If Matthew and Luke made use of Mark, then they each (independently) eliminated that reference here, either for theological (and practical) reasons, or, perhaps, because the association was being made elsewhere (Lk 1:17; Matt 11:10). The significance of Isa 40:3 will be discussed further in the next note.

Verse 4—This is the primary statement regarding the nature and character of John’s ministry:

“and Yohanan came to be (present)[, the one] dunking [i.e. baptizing] in the desolate (land) [i.e. wilderness], and proclaiming (the need for) a change of mind [i.e. repentance] unto the release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins”

Several details are contained here: (1) his work took place in the desolate/desert region (of Judea), (2) it involved a kind of symbolic ritual cleansing (lit. dunking) in water, (3) it was aimed at bringing people to repentance, which (4) would lead to forgiveness of their sins by God. Matthew and Luke each have a slightly different way of presenting this same information:

    • Matthew abridges the corresponding Markan material, including it prior to the citation of Isa 40:3 (in Matt 3:1-2). He emphasizes the component of preaching/proclamation, adding the detail that John proclaimed (along with Jesus, Matt 4:17 par) the need for repentance because “the kingdom of God/Heaven has come near”. Critical commentators have questioned the historicity of this particular detail—i.e., the preaching of the kingdom by John—since it is not clearly attested anywhere else in the Gospels.
    • Luke has joined the information to a more elaborate narrative introduction (Lk 3:1-2), providing the historical/chronological setting for the appearance of John (and Jesus). Verse 3 is very close to Mk 1:4, but is preceded by the important Lukan addition, “the utterance [i.e. word] of God came to Yohanan son of Zakaryah…”, which connects the episode with the earlier Infancy narrative of chapters 1-2.

Verse 5—This verse summarizes John’s ministry as it took place, localizing it in the territory of Judea, around the Jordan river, relatively close to Jerusalem. It includes the specific detail that the people who were dunked (baptized) in the Jordan confessed (lit. gave out an account as one [regarding]) their sins. More or less the same statement is found in Matt 3:5-6, while Luke (3:3) has a briefer notice, perhaps because John’s ministry will be illustrated more properly by what follows (vv. 7-9ff, cf. below).

Verse 6—Here John’s striking appearance and lifestyle is described, which, apart from all other considerations, was almost certainly intended to evoke the image of Elijah in the desert (cf. 2 Kings 1:8). Matthew has the same essential information (3:4), but Luke gives no mention of it, perhaps because the association with Elijah was made more directly earlier in the Infancy narrative (1:17, cf. also vv. 76, 80). The identification of John with Elijah will be discussed in more detail in the third section, or motif, related to the Baptism of Jesus (cf. above).

Q Material—Matt 3:7-10; Luke 3:7-9

As mentioned in the Introduction, the abbreviation “Q” (for German quelle, “source”), essentially refers to material shared by Matthew and Luke, but which is not present in Mark. In terms of the Gospel Tradition, this is often called the “Double Tradition” (i.e., Matthew and Luke), rather than the “Triple Tradition” (all three Synoptic Gospels). The commonly-held “Two Source” theory posits that Matthew and Luke each (independently) made use of at least two sources—Mark and so-called “Q”. It is typically assumed that “Q” existed as a single, self-contained written document, but in my view this is far from certain. Some of the peculiarities and differences within the “Q” material are perhaps better explained by more than one traditional source, and which could include oral as well as written traditions.

With regard to the Baptism of Jesus, the Q material is limited to a single episode and (double) saying of the Baptist. It is noteworthy that here we find some of the strongest evidence for a written Q source, since the accounts in Matthew and Luke are almost identical—the closest such occurrence of comparable length in the Double Tradition. Whether or not one adopts entirely the critical theory that Matthew and Luke each made use of Mark, this “Q” episode clearly supplements the core Synoptic narrative represented by Mark 1:3-6. It vividly illustrates the preaching of John the Baptist with its emphasis on the need for repentance (Matt 3:8 par). John’s harsh and provocative message is framed by an (eschatological) warning of the coming Judgment of God on humankind (vv. 7, 10 par). Not even one’s ethnic-religious status as the ‘people of God’ (i.e. being Israelites or Jews) will save a person without true repentance. This is the first of two core sayings in the Q episode (v. 9 par). The second warns of the need for good and faithful behavior by God’s people, in light of the coming Judgment (v. 10 par). Both sayings are themselves illustrative and parabolic, drawing upon images and details from everyday life and the natural world, in a manner similar to the teaching of Jesus.

Before proceeding to the distinctive treatment of the ministry of John in Luke and the Fourth Gospel, it is necessary first to discuss the association with Isaiah 40:3 (cf. above, on Mk 1:3) in a bit more detail. This I will do in the next note.

For the only contemporary to John the Baptist outside of the New Testament, see the notice in Josephus’ Antiquities (18:116-119).

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