This note will look at the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus, as developed in the Gospel of Luke. There are three areas where we can see this:
- In the Lukan Infancy narrative of chapters 1-2
- In the structure of the Baptism narrative in chapter 3, and
- Specific details in the Lukan Baptism narrative
The Infancy Narrative (Luke 1-2)
I have discussed the Lukan Infancy narrative in some detail in earlier notes and articles, most recently in the Advent/Christmas series “And You Shall Call His Name…” There is good reason to believe that the Infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew each, independently, represent a somewhat later development within the Gospel Tradition. By all accounts, the core Gospel (and Synoptic) narrative effectively begins with the ministry of John and the baptism of Jesus, as we see in Mark (and also the Fourth Gospel). In Luke, the central figures from the baptism scene—John and Jesus—are kept together in the Infancy narrative which precede it. There is a clear parallelism that runs through the first two chapters, focusing on John and Jesus in turn; for each there is:
- An announcement of his coming birth by a heavenly Messenger (Gabriel), following a similar pattern, including a declaration of the child’s name and his future destiny/role in God’s plan of salvation for his people (1:8-23, 26-38)
- The mother is not able at the time to bear a child (for different reasons), the conception/birth being the result of God’s miraculous action (1:7, 27 & 34)
- The parent who receives the heavenly announcement (Zechariah, Mary) utters a song/hymn of praise to God (1:46-55, 67-79)
- The mothers (Elizabeth, Mary) meet together in a central scene, in the same house (1:39-56); each utters an inspired hymn or declaration (vv. 42-45, 46ff)
- The special circumstances surrounding the child’s birth become known to people in the surrounding area, who react with wonder (1:58, 65-66; 2:8-20)
- The circumcision and naming of the child is narrated (1:59ff; 2:21)
- The parents are both described/depicted as devout and observant of the Law (Torah), which includes fulfilling their religious duties/obligations at the Temple in Jerusalem (1:6, 8-10, 23, 59; 2:21-24ff, 39, 41-42)
- An aged, devout pair (male and female) is associated with the child, in different ways—Zechariah/Elizabeth and Simeon/Anna (1:5-6, etc; 2:25-38)
- An aged, devout figure (Zechariah, Simeon) utters an oracle regarding the child’s future destiny (1:76-79; 2:29-35)
- A summary notice of the child’s growth and development (1:80; 2:40 & 52)
More significantly, the relationship between John and Jesus, established in the Synoptic tradition at the baptism, is, in Luke, partially transferred to the Infancy narrative, where it is enhanced. Interestingly, this is done almost entirely in two places: (a) the Angelic annunciations, and (b) the oracles by Zechariah and Simeon.
(a) The Angelic Annunciation
The heavenly Messenger’s announcement to Zechariah (1:13-20) includes a declaration of the child John’s future destiny, in which it is said of him:
“and many of the sons of Yisrael he will turn (back) upon [i.e. to] the Lord their God, and he will go before [i.e. forward] in His sight, in (the) spirit and power of Eliyyah, to turn (the) hearts of fathers (back) upon [i.e. to] (their) offspring, and (the ones) unpersuaded (by the truth) in(to) the (way of) thinking of (the) right(eous)” (vv. 16-17)
This statement clearly draws upon Malachi 3:1ff, which, along with Isaiah 40:3, is the principal Scripture (and prophecy) associated with John the Baptist in the Gospel tradition. Keep in mind that the opening of Mark’s Gospel (Mk 1:2-3), introducing John and his ministry, combines Mal 3:1 and Isa 40:3. It is likely that this combination is secondary to the primary Synoptic tradition, since the overall citation refers only to Isa 40:3 (“even as it has been written in Yesha’yah the Foreteller [i.e. Isaiah the Prophet]”, v. 2). Matthew and Luke only include the Isaiah reference, Mal 3:1 being applied to John elsewhere in Gospel, in the “Q” material (Matt 11:10 / Lk 7:27). If Luke was following Mark in the main Synoptic narrative, then he (along with Matthew) has omitted any reference to Mal 3:1 in the introduction to John’s ministry. For Luke, there would have been less need to include it there, since he already established the association in the Infancy narrative. The reference to “Elijah” and the thought expressed in Lk 1:16-17 stems largely from the interpretation found at the end of Malachi (4:5-6 [Heb 3:23-24]). It is likely that this is a (secondary) explanation of the original oracle in 3:1ff, interpreting the Messenger of the passage in the light of certain traditions related to Elijah. Jewish tradition and eschatology generally followed the line of interpretation, which was picked up and utilized by early Christians as well.
The “Lord” (ku/rio$) of Mal 3:1 LXX, and here in Lk 1:16-17, is God the Father (YHWH, Yahweh); however, early Christian tradition, due to its use of ku/rio$ in reference to Jesus (as “Lord”), was able to apply the prophecy to the coming of Jesus. This relates to the second Annunciation scene, to Mary, regarding the conception and birth of Jesus (1:26-38). Here, in the parallel declaration of the child’s future destiny, it is said of him: “This (child) will be great, and will be called ‘Son of the Highest’…” (v. 32a). This passage is rich in Messianic associations and allusions, but the two phrases quoted here are especially important in terms of the relationship between John and Jesus:
- “This (one) will be great” (ou!to$ e&stai me/ga$), which should be compared with what is said of John:
“He will be great in the sight of the Lord” (v. 15)
The unqualified use of me/ga$ for Jesus almost certainly indicates a superior position, and, indeed, a special divine status.
- “He will be called Son of the Highest”, which is similar with what is prophecied of John in the song of Zechariah (cf. below):
“You will be called Prophet of the Highest”
- “This (one) will be great” (ou!to$ e&stai me/ga$), which should be compared with what is said of John:
This implicit relationship is expressed in the following scene, of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (1:39-56). The babe John, in the womb, is said to have “jumped” at the sound of Mary’s greeting (vv. 41, 44). The idea, expressed dramatically (and most creatively) in the narrative, is that John is, in a sense, recognizing Jesus. Elizabeth, too, in what is said to be an inspired utterance (v. 41b), calls Mary “the mother of my Lord [ku/rio$]” (v. 43). This plays on the same dual-meaning of ku/rio$ for early Christians (cf. above) and echoes the Mal 3:1 reference as applied to John.
(b) The Oracles
“And also (for) you, my little child—you will be called Foreteller [i.e. Prophet] of the Highest, for you will travel before in the sight of the Lord to make ready his ways…” (v. 76)
If the “Lord” (ku/rio$) in 1:16-17 was YHWH, here it should be understood primarily in reference to Jesus. That is certainly how the Gospel writer would have understood it, in light of early Christian tradition and interpretation of Isa 40:3/Mal 3:1. This relationship is further clarified through the language and imagery expressed in vv. 77-79, with the emphasis on salvation—”to give knowledge of salvation to his people…” (v. 77). This, too, is the emphasis in the song of Simeon in 2:29-32, which, like the song of Zechariah, is full of Messianic allusions, especially in its use of key passages from Isaiah (on this, cf. my earlier notes on the song). The Infancy narrative rather clearly expresses the idea which would become standard among early Christians—that Jesus was the Anointed One (Messiah) of God, in the sense of being the chosen Davidic ruler and “Son of God”, and that John was preparing the way for him (according to Isa 40:3 / Mal 3:1ff).
John and Jesus: A Unique detail
The main factual/historical detail presented in the narrative, unique to the Gospel of Luke, is that John and Jesus were apparently related—as cousins, presumably, of some degree. This can be inferred from 1:36 and use of the word suggenh/$—one who has “come to be [born] together with” another, often in the sense of family relations; it also fits the setting of the visitation scene which follows. Critical scholars are naturally skeptical of this datum, since it not attested (or even suggested) anywhere else in the New Testament. Be that as it may, it is clearly of significance for Luke, since it establishes a special relationship between John and Jesus which gives added meaning to the baptism scene which follows in chapter 3.
The Baptism Narrative (Luke 3)
Given the central importance of the theme in the Infancy Narrative—the relationship between John and Jesus—does not feature as prominently in the Baptism narrative itself. We can see something of the approach taken by the Gospel writer, in terms of adapting and developing the traditional material, by examining the structure of the narrative. Note the following outline:
It is important to notice how John’s ministry is kept separate from Jesus’ baptism, which the Gospel writer does through a careful reworking and (subtle) arrangement of material. In this regard, the Lukan portrait is quite distinct from the other Gospels. Here is an outline of verses 1-20, which demonstrates how it is, in many ways, an enclosed section:
- Narrative (historical) introduction—the current rulers (Herods, etc) (vv. 1-2)
- Narrative summary—the current ruler (Herod) (vv. 18-20)
In terms of source criticism, the Lukan narrative here is complex:
(a) The narrative summaries in vv. 1-2, 18-20 are a Lukan refashioning of traditional (and Synoptic) material
(b) Vv. 3-6, 7-9, and 10-14 can be marked Synoptic [Mark], “Q”, and “L” material, respectively
(c) Vv. 15-17 would seem to combine Synoptic [Mark], “Q”, and “L” (?)
The strands of tradition, such as the author has inherited them, have been blended together with consummate (literary) skill to create a unified whole. It begins with a notice on the start of John’s ministry, and ends with a notice of his imprisonment. This effectively ‘removes’ John from the baptism scene. Of course, the author understood the historical tradition, that John baptized Jesus, but he does not emphasize this. For him, the baptism tradition serves a different purpose, which is two-fold, establishing two key themes regarding Jesus’ identity, which will carry on through the Gospel:
- The descent (i.e. anointing) of the Spirit—Jesus as the Chosen/Anointed of God
- Jesus as the Son of God
The latter theme is developed, most creatively, through the inclusion of the genealogy of Jesus in vv. 23ff. These points will be discussed further in the next main section of our study (on Jesus as the Anointed One).
Details in the Baptism Narrative
These have been mentioned, to some extent, above. However, there are several other special points which should be noted:
- Lk 3:2b, a Lukan addition to the traditional (Synoptic) narrative, is a clear echo of the Infancy narrative and the (prophetic) role of John expressed there.
- Luke is the one Gospel writer who extends the citation of Isaiah 40:3 to include vv. 4-5 (3:5-6). This is almost certainly an intentional adaptation so as to introduce the motif that “all flesh” will see “the salvation of God”, the reading of the Greek (LXX) version of v. 5. This connects back to the theme of salvation in the Song of Zechariah (1:77ff) and the Song of Simeon (cf. above), and, in turn, touches on John’s role (as the Messenger of Mal 3:1ff) in relation to Jesus (the Messiah and “Lord”).
- Lk 3:15 is another Lukan addition, but one which almost certainly reflects early tradition (cf. Jn 1:19ff). It will be dealt with more fully in upcoming notes, but it is important to see how the author has included it ahead of the Baptist’s sayings in vv. 16-17, joining it with those well-established traditions. In Luke’s version, the sayings are in response to questions that John might be the Anointed One (Messiah). Much the same occurs in the Fourth Gospel (to be discussed in the next note).
- In 3:16a the phrase o)pi/sw mou (“in back of, behind me”) has been omitted or is otherwise not included (cp. Mk 1:7, etc). It is possible that the expression was intentionally left out because of the implication that Jesus was a follower (disciple) of John, such as many commentators believe to be the case. The version in Acts 13:25, which may stem from a separate tradition, uses meta/ instead of o)pi/sw, and is more readily understood in a temporal/chronological sense (i.e. “after, later [than]”).
- The Lukan addition in 3:18 emphasizes again John as one who speaks the word (v. 2b), and who proclaims the “good message”. This provides another allusion to the Infancy narrative (1:16ff, 68-69ff, 77; 2:10f).