This note will explore the theme of John the Baptist’s relationship to Jesus, as developed in the Fourth Gospel. The previous note did the same for the Gospel of Luke. The way this theme is handled in the Gospel of John is extremely complex, and shows a highly advanced mode of adapting traditional material. This, indeed, is quite typical of the Fourth Gospel, where, as I have argued in detail elsewhere, sayings and teachings of Jesus have been shaped into highly precise (and complex) dialogue forms which evince a layer of interpretation added to the historical traditions. Much of this style and method of interpretation can be seen clearly in the ‘Prologue’ of the Gospel (1:1-18), where we begin.
Jesus and John in the Prologue (Jn 1:6-8, 15)
Many commentators consider that the references to the Baptist (“John”) in vv. 6-8 and 15 are authorial/editorial insertions into an otherwise self-contained hymn—one which the author may have adapted. Certainly vv. 6-8 and 15 seem to interrupt the flow of the poetry; note especially how verse 16 picks up right away from v. 14, and also, to a lesser extent, verse 9 from v. 5. This is easier to explain than it might appear at first. The essential Gospel tradition begins with the introduction of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus (cf. Mark), and so here with verses 19ff. The hymnic Prologue has been added to this core, just like the Infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. It makes sense that some effort to relate vv. 1-18 with 19ff would be made. But there is also a theological reason which underlies the insertions, and it relates to the way that the entire Baptist/Baptism tradition has been developed in the first chapter. This is essentially summarized in vv. 6-8:
“There came to be a man, se(n)t forth from alongside [i.e. by] God, (and) the name for him (was) Yohanan—this (man) came unto a witness, that he should witness about the light, (so) that all (people) might trust through him. That (man) was not the light, but (he came) that he might witness about the light.”
As I have already mentioned in an earlier note, this is a very different description of John’s role and purpose in ministry than we see in the Synoptic Gospels, where the emphasis is on preaching to bring people to repentance and the forgiveness of sin by God, in preparation for the coming Judgment. It is also more directly related to the person of Jesus, and to Jesus’ identity as the Son of God (cf. below).
If vv. 6-8 present a different introduction to John’s ministry (cp. Mark 1:2-6), the insertion in v. 15 would appear to give a very distinct interpretation to the saying of the Baptist in Mk 1:7 par (or something similar to it):
“John witnesses about him, and has cried (out) saying: ‘This was he of whom I said, “The one coming (in) back of me has come to be in front of me, (in) that he was first/foremost o(ver) me“‘.”
The importance of the words in italics, which certainly express powerfully the relationship between John and Jesus, is seen by the fact that it is stated again (almost verbatim) in the narrative which follows (v. 30).
The Johannine Baptism Narrative (Jn 1:19-51)
Of all the Gospel treatments of the Baptism of Jesus, that in the Gospel of John is by far the most complex. It also is highly instructive within the context of this study series, since, in my view, it both (a) preserves early historical tradition, and (b) gives to it a pronounced Christian (and Christological) interpretation beyond anything we see in the Synoptics. This is done both by creative (literary) arrangement of material and use of a distinct set of (Johannine) vocabulary and imagery. To begin with, note the structure of the narrative, which is divided into four parts:
The way the author has deftly blended the Baptism narrative with traditions regarding the call of the first disciples is impressive indeed. This is done with considerable literary skill, as can be seen by the simple device of having each episode occur on a separate “day” (four in sequence). Following vv. 19-28, each of the three sections begins with the expression th=| e)pau/rion, something like “upon the morrow”, i.e. “the next morning”, “(on) the next day” (vv. 19, 35, 43). This repetition creates a strophic rhythm to the scenes which is most appealing (and effective). A glimpse at the outline above shows how, little by little, John disappears from the scene and Jesus takes center stage (cp. Jn 3:30). These episodes will be discussed in more detail in the next portion of our study (on Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One, cf. the upcoming notes), but it is worth pointing out several details and features here:
Section 1 (Jn 1:19-28)
The dialogue format of vv. 19-27 is unique to the Fourth Gospel, and doubtless is literary as much as historical; but there can be no doubt that authentic (historical) traditions are recorded here, including:
- The citation of Isa 40:3, which is actually spoken by John himself in the context here (v. 23)
- The sayings corresponding to Mk 1:7 (partial) and 1:8 in vv. 26-27 (cp. Acts 13:25)
- The reference to John’s baptizing activity, otherwise of little significance to the narrative here, including the peculiar detail of the location “Bethany across the Jordan” (v. 28)
To this may be added the confrontation involving the religious leaders (Pharisees, etc, vv. 19, 24), which is attested in Matthew (3:7). More significant is the setting regarding John’s possible identity as the Messiah (vv. 20ff), which is also found in Luke 3:15, and likewise precedes the sayings corresponding to Mk 1:7-8.
Section 2 (Jn 1:29-34)
This section effectively narrates the Baptism of Jesus, but in an usual manner—indirectly, as described by John, in terms of his own experience. This emphasizes all the more vividly John’s relationship to Jesus, according to the theme in the Fourth Gospel—of John as one who acts as a witness to Jesus’ identity. The unique treatment of the Baptism in this section can be outlined as follows:
- V. 29—John’s declaration upon seeing Jesus coming toward him: “See! the Lamb of God: the (one) taking (up) the sin of the world!” Unlike in the Synoptic tradition, here Jesus is not coming toward John (cf. Matt 3:13) in order to be baptized; the baptism presumably had already taken place some time before. The significance of Jesus’ coming (e)rxo/menon) is found in the saying/statement which follows in v. 30. This witness to Jesus as the one taking up/away sin replaces the Synoptic emphasis regarding the purpose of John’s baptizing (i.e., for the release/forgiveness of sins).
- V. 30—the important saying, repeated from v. 15, is related in some way to the traditional saying which corresponds to Mark 1:7 par, marked by basic formula, using the verb e&rxomai (“come”) and the preposition o)pi/sw (“in back of, behind”). It was dealt with in detail as part of an earlier study, and will be discussed again in upcoming notes.
- V. 31—John’s admission that he had not seen Jesus (that is, did not recognize who he truly was) prior to the Baptism. It is possible that this draws upon a tradition that John did not know Jesus at all before his baptism, but that is not what the Gospel is emphasizing.
- This same verse records John stating the purpose for his baptizing ministry, as given to him by God—that this “one (who is) coming” should be revealed to Israel.
- Vv. 32-33 have John narrating the Baptism scene, more or less as it is depicted in the Synoptic tradition. Verse 33 is unique in its repetition of the themes from v. 31. John witnessed the visual/visionary descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism, and thus knew (only then) that Jesus was the “one coming”. John states here that his entire baptizing ministry was for this one purpose—to see/know who this person was, and to make his identity known to the world.
- V. 34—Here John essentially takes the place of the voice from heaven in the Synoptic tradition, by declaring that Jesus (“this [man]”) is the Son of God (some MSS read “Elect/Chosen One of God”).
Section 3 (Jn 1:35-42)
This episode begins just as the prior one did, with John seeing Jesus and declaring “See! the Lamb of God!” (v. 36). Only here his witness is not to people at large, but specifically to his own disciples, who hear him utter the statement. Two of these men (including Andrew, of the traditional Twelve), decide to follow Jesus. This detail establishes the important information, otherwise unattested in the Gospels, that at least two of Jesus’ followers had previously been disciples of John the Baptist. That they leave John to follow Jesus is an implicit affirmation of the latter’s superior status. This same motif appears in 3:22-23ff (cf. below). What is especially significant, in the context of the Johannine narrative, is that the men follow Jesus on the basis of the Baptist’s witness. This process continues as the disciples proceed to witness to others regarding Jesus’ identity (vv. 41, 45). Indeed, John serves as a type or figure for the purpose of the Fourth Gospel itself, as stated in 20:31.
Here again, this section, unrelated to the Baptism of Jesus, shows how the Fourth Gospel begins with historical tradition and develops it, expounding the details and fundamental points to form a rich and complex narrative. Note the structure:
- The historical tradition regarding the disciples of John and Jesus, working almost side by side, with a similar baptizing ministry, but also with a sense of possible conflict or rivalry developing (3:22-26)
- The testimony of John the Baptist regarding Jesus (3:27-30)
- A Johannine statement/exposition regarding the identity of Jesus as the Son of God (3:31-36)
The thematic similarities with 1:19-42 are obvious. It is not clear whether vv. 31-36 here are meant to be taken as a continuation of the Baptist’s words, or a statement by the author (or by Jesus?). This very ambiguity is part of the artistic and spiritual power of the discourses in the Gospel of John. For the purposes of this study, it is the central testimony of John the Baptist in vv. 27-30 that is most relevant, as it clearly expresses his relationship with Jesus:
- John’s words in v. 27 hint at the heavenly/divine nature of Jesus, especially in the immediate context of the Gospel (cf. vv. 13, 31ff)
- He is not the Anointed One, but only the one sent (by God) to appear in front of (i.e. before, ahead of) him (v. 28)
- A parable/illustration that John is not the “bridegroom”, but only the friend who attends to him and hears his voice (v. 29)
- The climactic statement which summarizes the relationship (v. 30):
“It is necessary for that (one) to grow (greater), but (for) me to become smaller”
That declaration has the ring of authenticity about it, and generally corresponds with the thought expressed in the better-established traditional sayings of Mark 1:7-8 par.