In verse 31 (cf. the previous note), the Baptist states that “I had not known him [that is, Jesus].” On the surface, this would simply mean that John was unfamiliar with Jesus, and did not known him personally, prior to his coming forward to be baptized. However, as I have discussed, the terminology of seeing/knowing (here represented by the verb ei&dw, “see”), in the Johannine writings, has special theological meaning. From the standpoint of the Johaninne theology, the Baptist’s statement means that he had not recognized Jesus’ true identity (as the Son of God) before this moment. This Christological awareness applies even more to the context of verse 26, when the Baptist says, of the religious leaders in Jerusalem, that they “have not seen [i.e. known]” who Jesus is: “in your midst has stood (one) whom you have not seen”. The irony in this statement runs deep, since, as repeatedly documented in the Gospel narrative, the Jewish religious leaders refused (or were unable) to acknowledge who Jesus was—the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God. Chapter 9 deals extensively with this special sense of “seeing”.
The tense of the verb in v. 31 is the pluperfect (“I had seen,” h&|dein), used only rarely in the New Testament. The implication is that John had not understood who Jesus was until the present moment. Now he does realize the truth of Jesus’ identity, for it has been revealed to him by God. This is indicated in the remainder of verse 31: “…but (so) that he should be made to shine forth to Israel, through this [i.e. for this purpose] I came dunking in water”. Apparently, John now realizes the purpose of his baptizing ministry: it was to make known the person of Jesus—his identity as the Messiah and Son of God.
In the Gospel Tradition, the baptism of Jesus marks the beginning of his public ministry. The core Tradition says virtually nothing of Jesus’ life prior to the baptism. According to the Synoptic narrative, Jesus’ ministry begins almost immediately after his baptism (Mk 1:9-11 par)—following a short period of time spent in the desert (Mk 1:12-13 par). Being filled with the Spirit of God (cf. Lk 4:1, 14, 18), Jesus begins to teach and perform healing miracles.
The Johannine account of the Baptism is unusual in that it is presented indirectly, as a narration by the Baptist. Whether this difference is intrinsic to the Johannine tradition, or represents a literary development by the Gospel writer, is difficult to say. For more discussion on such critical questions, consult the articles on the Baptism of Jesus in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” (the Johannine version of the Baptism is treated most extensively in Part 3).
Here is the summary of the Johannine account in verse 32:
“And Yohanan gave witness [e)martu/rhsen], saying that ‘I have looked at [teqe/amai] the Spirit stepping down [katabai=non] as a dove out of heaven, and it remained [e&meinen] upon him’.”
This generally corresponds with the Synoptic narrative, and we can be fairly certain that the Johannine tradition preserved an account of the Baptism that more or less resembled the statement in Mark 1:10 par:
“And, straightaway, stepping up [a)nabai/nwn] out of the water, he saw the heavens being split, and the Spirit as a dove stepping down [katabai=non] <upon> him.”
[The Markan version reads “into/unto [ei)$] him”, while Matthew [3:16] has “upon [e)pi] him”, as in the Johannine account]
The two main differences in John’s version are: (a) the event is reported as witnessed by the Baptist, and (b) the verbs, reflecting the distinctive Johannine (theological) vocabulary, that are used in the narration.
(a) The Baptism witnessed by John the Baptist
While this may be part of the underlying Johannine tradition, and rooted in historical tradition, it takes on added meaning in the Gospel context. Its significance is informed by the references to John the Baptist in the Prologue, where the Baptist is described specifically as a witness (marturi/a, vb marture/w) to the Light (vv. 6-9), by which is meant a witness to Jesus’ identity as the pre-existent Son of God (v. 15). John the Baptist is the first such witness to Jesus’ true identity, an identity that was revealed to John during the Baptism-event. In the Markan account, it is Jesus who sees and hears the Divine phenomena (descent of the Spirit, voice from Heaven), while Matthew seems to present the phenomena as observable by the wider audience.
The Johannine version certainly departs from the Matthean portrait—the public did not see or hear the heavenly phenomena (a point reinforced by the scene at the close of Jesus’ ministry, in 12:27-30ff). The presence of the Spirit and the voice of God from heaven were witnessed only by John, and it is he who reports them (as a witness) to others. This is of vital importance to the thematic structure of the narrative in 1:19-51.
(b) The Johannine Vocabulary
Four verbs are used in v. 32, and they all have special significance as part of the Johannine theological vocabulary:
1. marture/w (“[give] witness”)—John the Baptist as a witness was emphasized above (cf. verses 6-9, 15 of the Prologue); however, these references are only the first of a considerable number throughout the Gospel. The verb marture/w occurs 33 times in the Gospel of John (compared with just 2 in the Synoptic Gospels combined). In addition, it is used 10 times in the Letters of John, and another 4 in the book of Revelation (1:2; 22:16, 18, 20). In comparison with these 47 Johannine occurrences, the verb occurs just 29 times in the remainder of the New Testament.
The theological meaning of the “witness” is three-fold:
- Jesus gives witness about himself—i.e., who he is, as Son of God the Father—both through his words and deeds
- People (believers) give witness about Jesus through their trust in him; others, by contrast, give witness that they are not believers
- The Spirit will bear witness, continuing the witness of Jesus himself, and will continue working in believers (i.e., their trust and love)
2. qea/omai (“look [closely] at”)—this is one of a number of verbs, used in the Gospel, denoting sight/vision, the others being ei&dw, ble/pw, o(ra/w, and qeore/w. To “see” Jesus, in the theological sense, is to trust in him, recognizing his identity as the Son of God. The verb qea/omai occurs first in the Prologue (v. 14), where this meaning is implied. The context of the Prologue-hymn is the incarnation of the pre-existent Logos, by which is meant the birth and life of Jesus on earth. The beginning of his life and ministry is suggested in v. 14, and is certainly indicated in the Baptism scene (cf. above). The verb qea/omai may also allude to the beginning of awareness and understanding (cf. 4:35; 11:45). The full force of the verb, in the context of the Johannine theology, can be seen in 1 Jn 1:1; 4:12, 14.
3. katabai/nw (“step down”)—This is the first occurrence of the verb in the Gospel, which, along with the corresponding a)nabai/nw (“step up”), will be used repeatedly, and almost always with special Christological significance. The verb pair is used in the Synoptic account of the Baptism of Jesus (cf. above), and this important traditional context may well have influenced the Johannine usage. The verbs are used together in 1:51, and then variously, at a number of key points in the Discourses (3:13; 6:33-58, 62, etc). Even when they seem to be used in a simple narrative setting (e.g., of Jesus “going up” to Jerusalem), the theological meaning is doubtless present, at a deeper level, as well. The fundamental significance involves the “descent” (katabai/nw) of the Son from the Father (in heaven), and to his eventual “ascent” (a)nabai/nw) back to Him (20:17).
4. me/nw (“remain”)—The importance of this key verb in the Johannine Gospel can scarcely be overemphasized. It occurs 40 times in the Gospel, and another 27 in the Letters of John—more than half of all NT occurrences (118). It carries a powerful theological meaning, referring at once to the union between God the Father and Jesus (the Son), and between Jesus and believers. Through our trust, we come to “remain” in Jesus, and he “remains” in us—the bond of union being effected (and maintained) through the abiding presence of the Spirit. This idea is expounded by Jesus throughout the Last Discourse, with the verb me/nw occurring 14 times between 14:10 and 15:16, and being especially prominent as part of the Vine illustration in 15:1-3ff.
Here in v. 32, however, there is a difficulty in understanding the precise force of me/nw in the context of the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus, since the significance of the core Gospel tradition in this regard seems to be at odds with the Christological portrait in the Johannine Gospel. This will be discussed further, along with verse 33, in the next daily note.