Matthew Chapter 3 in toto

We start Chapter 3. This offers the choice of one post that’s too long, or two that are too short. I’m also going to try doing two verses together when they’re very short and/or have an awkward break in the middle of the sentence.

1 Ἐν δὲ ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις παραγίνεται Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτιστὴς κηρύσσων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τῆς Ἰουδαίας

2 [καὶ] λέγων, Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.

In those days, there appeared John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness of Judea, [and] saying, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven approaches”.

Right off the bat there’s a lot to get us started. Working in reverse order, we have “Repent…” In Greek, this is an intransitive verb, used as it is here. However, the Vulgate below us renders this as “Do penance”. The verb is transitive; so John is actually telling us to change our outlook and be pentitent; however, the western church, working from the Latin version, invented the sacrament of Reconciliation, better known as Confession. The rediscovery of the original Greek meaning of this sentence in the 15th Century sent a shock wave through the western church. Had it been misinterpreting the NT for 1,500 years? Seems like it. What else, people began to wonder, had it gotten wrong? [Note: papal infallibility did not become official doctrine until the 19th Century. But still…] I won’t say this re-translation caused the Reformation, but it was an important part of the process that did lead to the Reformation.

In all of the QHJ material, and the discussions of Q, and all the other scholarship, a great deal is made of the order in which things are placed. The sequence of the events described is a great clue to deciphering the mysteries of the text, that then help us determine the more primitive readings, and a host of other arcane topics. Sorry, don’t buy it. Take a look back at how Mark arranged this, vs how Matthew does here. Mark starts with the quote from Isaiah; Matthew gets right to the Baptist. Is this significant? No. Matthew was re-writing Mark; he wasn’t copying Mark. Matthew made different editorial choices. He moved things around. There is no deep significance. Now, I realize that the different order in these first few verses is different from a change in the sequence in which episodes are placed. Like, whether Jesus healed the leper before or after he told the parable of the mustard seed [I made that up]. We have to stop thinking about the traditions coming down to the evangelists as if the evangelists were given stone tablets that came down from Mt Sinai. The stories were told in chunks. One at a time. In no particular order, but according to the need of the moment. Then, as time went on, when the story became more fully fleshed out, then perhaps a certain sequence appeared, or was settled upon.

It is important–crucial–to understand that another order would have been possible (to an extent, of course), and this different order would not have mattered. These stories evolved. They changed. Words were substituted for other words. Sentences changed structure. Some stories were dropped completely. Others were added, made up at later dates. It was only after Mark wrote that a certain sequence was settled, but this sequence was, to some degree, arbitrary. It has been noted that Mark is written in discreet chunks, bridged, barely, by sequence words like “and then”. Or even just “and”.  I noted that at some point. What this (over)use of “and” as a bridge between stories indicates is that many–most?–of these stories existed as quasi-independent blocks that could be told in any order whatever, because they were just stories, not a continuous narrative that was intended to follow a particular order.

I am currently reading Who Wrote The New Testament? by Burton Mack. He is so certain that Q existed, and as a document, and as a document that was written very early that his whole understanding of the situation is warped. I’ll talk about the book more as I read more (about 100 pages in at the moment), but he takes the Q document as an absolute given. This means that the stories of Jesus have a fixed and specific and meaningful order for him. He is so set on seeing Q as a document–of the sort he is accustomed to reading–that he doesn’t understand the nature of Q as a collection of stories. And that many–most?–of these stories had existed semi-independently of each other for decades.

So no, there is no significance to the fact that Matthew changes the order here. Perhaps he felt that leading with the Baptist instead of Isaiah had more of the feel of ‘in medias res’, in the middle of things, which is how a good novel is supposed to start because that makes it more interesting and lively. 

Now, what does matter is that here, John says “the kingdom of heaven is nigh”. In Mark, it is Jesus who says, “The kingdom of God is nigh”.  It does not matter that this pronouncement is made before Jesus is baptised here, and after Jesus is baptised in Mark. First why the change from “God” to “heaven”? Does it matter? I don’t think so. Rather, I suspect the choice of words was artistic, and not theological. But why did Matthew put the words into John’s mouth? Would there not have been more dramatic impact to leave them for Jesus?

While the answer to that last question is probably affirmative, I think the reason for the change has to do with the expanding role of John. I have suggested, many times, that the later followers of Jesus were eager to strengthen the ties of Jesus to the Baptist, and were not at all interested in playing this connection down. Here is a great example. By having John announce the coming kingdom, the recognition of this cosmic event is pushed back more firmly into the Jewish tradition, thereby lengthening the pedigree of the Jesus movement by several hundred years. As I have argued, John stayed within the boundaries of traditional Judaism, thereby diminishing his potential as an emissary to non-Jews. But his deep roots still mattered. By having John say this, Jesus was no longer an innovator, but the fulfillment of something that even John had recognized and understood. Jesus, thus, became the completion of the story of Israel, and not someone knocking over the house of Judah. Thus the cosmic scale is shifted, the rift between Jesus and the Jews becomes less abrupt, is more a continuation rather than a disruption. And remember: if the intended audience for this is pagans, rather than Jews, there would be less chance that the degree of disruption would be noticed; a Jew who was versed in his or her tradition would have felt the change; a pagan, perhaps not so much. And if that pagan were told that John saw the kingdom coming, he or she would have been more easily convinced of the continuity.

1 In diebus autem illis venit Ioannes Baptista praedicans in deserto Iudaeae

2 et dicens: “ Paenitentiam agite; appropinquavit enim regnum caelorum ”.

3 οὗτος γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ῥηθεὶς διὰ Ἠσαΐου τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος, Φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ.

For this was what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah, saying, “A voice (is) crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths’.”

The quote from Isaiah is verbatim. Now, if you want proof that Matthew was copying from Mark, and not directly from the LXX, this seems pretty conclusive. Instead of just “make straight his paths”, the LXX adds “of our God”. It’s kind of an odd thing; why did both Mark and Matthew leave it off? Matthew, presumably, because Mark did, but why didn’t Mark add the three extra words << του θεου ημων >>? I’m not sure there is a real, or a good answer to that. As for why Matthew did, it’s likely because he’s taking it from Mark. The question in this case is, “why”? Again, the answer is mostly likely stylistic, so we could argue our way around the cobbler’s bench and never catch the weasel.   

3 Hic est enim, qui dictus est per Isaiam prophetam dicentem:

“ Vox clamantis in deserto: / “Parate viam Domini, / rectas facite semitas eius!” ”.

4 Αὐτὸς δὲ ὁ Ἰωάννης εἶχεν τὸ ἔνδυμα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τριχῶν καμήλου καὶ ζώνην δερματίνην περὶ τὴν ὀσφὺν αὐτοῦ, ἡ δὲ τροφὴ ἦν αὐτοῦ ἀκρίδες καὶ μέλι ἄγριον.

For John had (as) his clothing the skin of a camel and a leather belt around his waist, his food was locusts and wild honey.

Again, the part about the camel-skin clothes, leather belt, and John’s diet is pretty much verbatim from Mark. 

4 Ipse autem Ioannes habebat vestimentum de pilis cameli et zonam pelliceam circa lumbos suos; esca autem eius erat locustae et mel silvestre.

5 τότε ἐξεπορεύετο πρὸς αὐτὸν Ἱεροσόλυμα καὶ πᾶσα ἡ Ἰουδαία καὶ πᾶσα ἡπερίχωρος τοῦ Ἰορδάνου,

6 καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν.

And Jerusalem came out to him, and all Judea, and all the land surrounding the Jordan, and they were dunked in the River Jordan by him for the forgiveness of their sins.

Once again, still following Mark basically word-for-word. But what about the implications. Recall, Josephus tells us that John did the submersion for the cleansing of the actual physical body, and specifically says that the immersion was not for the removal of sins. The repentance had occurred before the submersion. This means that the baptism was pretty much what gets called a ritual lustration. Pilate washing his hands, literally, was meant to symbolise something very similar. And given First Century religious practice, both Jewish, pagan, and other, such washing of the exterior was a pretty standard feature of religious practice. Some of this was practical. Remember, washing one’s hands before eating was not necessarily common practice in a world without running water. As such, washing one’s outer body before participating in a religious ritual meant that one was going off the normal path to mark the occasion. But both Mark and Matthew (the latter in the words of the former) specify that this immersion was done for the forgiveness of sins. 

Now, what did they mean by “sins”? The Greek word, at root, means “fault”, or failing, which is more or less the meaning of the term used in Latin, “peccatus“. Interestingly, the Latin root for our word “sin” means “guilt”, in the sense of “criminal”. OK, that’s all great, but what did this mean to the people who wrote it? In Jewish terms, Mack says that a sinner was one who did not live according to Torah. And that will actually do, for the Greek and Latin have a similar implication, that of “failure to meet a standard”. Having been raised in a Christian culture, the idea of everyone being a sinner is pretty much part of the wallpaper. I don’t get the impression that this was a deeply-held attitude before the advent of Christiandom as a geo-political/religious concept. But still, it was there. People fell short, expiation was needed, the wrong had to be set right. But what we need to do is get a better handle on what the authors of the works that became the Christian NT. After three of Paul’s letters and a previous gospel, I still don’t feel like this has been set out all that clearly. What that means, of course, is that the Christianity I was taught by the Dominican sisters may not have exactly been what was in the NT. No wonder the Roman tradition doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on laypersons actually reading the Bible.

5 Tunc exibat ad eum Hierosolyma et omnis Iudaea et omnis regio circa Iordanem,

6 et baptizabantur in Iordane flumine ab eo, confitentes peccata sua.

7  Ἰδὼν δὲ πολλοὺς τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶ Σαδδουκαίων ἐρχομένους ἐπὶ τὸ βάπτισμα αὐτοῦ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν, τίς ὑπέδειξεν ὑμῖν φυγεῖν ἀπὸ τῆς μελλούσης ὀργῆς;

8 ποιήσατε οὖν καρπὸν ἄξιον τῆς μετανοίας:

Seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for the baptism by him, (John) said to them “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the intended wrath? Therefore make fruit worthy of repentance.

Generally, it’s rendered as the “coming wrath”, and that is a perfectly suitable translation. However, it misses the implication of being willed, or of intention. Even more, the base meaning of the word in Greek has the sense of “being destined”, per Liddell & Scott. Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that sort of changes things a bit. “Destined” is a word with lots of conflicting implications. One one hand, it suggests pagan ideas of fixed outcomes that can be predicted by astrology. OTOH, it can refer to divine intention. Jews, and especially later Christians had a real problem with the idea of astrology, especially with the idea that the future was knowable. But then, what is a prophet? Someone who can foretell events to come. Here, I suspect, it refers to divine intention. As such, this should be related to the idea of the coming kingdom, no? If it’s approaching (as per above in 3:2), then wouldn’t we expect the destined wrath to be part of the deal? This is, of course, related to whether Jesus had a message about End Times, whether he was a preacher of apocalypse, as JD Crossan believes. And this is the problem. There are a number of little clues like this that seem to indicate one thing or another, but they don’t seem to be consistent throughout the gospel, so that we can still be arguing about this fifty or a hundred or five hundred years later. 

Now, this is not in Mark. This is one of the “sayings” that was supposed to be in Q. Frankly, I find that hard to swallow. First, it’s not something Jesus said. Second, it’s something the Baptist said, and I do not believe that the earlier traditions were all that keen on the Baptist. For notice how John’s role has been expanded here. Yes, it could be due to Mark’s ignorance of Q, but that’s one thing that has never been explained. It is just assumed that Mark was ignorant of Q. How do we know this? Because the “Q material” (which we know for a fact was in the document that we know existed that we have chosen to call Q) is not in Mark. Why wasn’t it in Mark? Because Mark didn’t know about it. Personally, I’m beginning to suspect that some of these bits and pieces, these scattered clues got inserted after the fact, that they don’t date back to Jesus at all. As such, they couldn’t have been part of Q, even if such a document ever existed. So tracing something like this to Q because it’s in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark is a bit…how to put this? Well, wrong.

You see, if you google the term “begging the question” (petitio principii), you will find an example like that which I just presented. This book is popular because it’s good. How do we know it’s good? Because it’s popular. This is also called a circular argument, and it’s the proper use of the term “begging the question”. Because the Q proponents–like Mack–find the argument and/or evidence for Q to be entirely self-evident, I have never really seen a good case presented for why Mark was unaware of Q. On one hand, it was, according to Mack, an incredibly early document, probably composed by about 40 CE, and it was so widespread that both Matthew and Luke used it, but Mark somehow missed it. Because he lived in Rome. (I guess). And Paul makes not even the vaguest allusion to anything that could possibly have begun to be taken as a document like Q. This is why the issues of Markan priority is usually bound up with the case for/against Q. If Mark is held to be a later summary of Matthew, the problem of Mark’s ignorance of Q simply goes away: he didn’t include the Q material because he chose not to. Because he wanted to tell the story of Jesus, but didn’t want to include much that Jesus actually said. And he was less convincing, and less convinced that Jesus was divine and was the Christ than previous gospels because…well, just because. 

No. This wording about the brood of vipers was the invention of Matthew. Why? Because Matthew shows himself capable of introducing other issues as well. Like what? Like the Sadducees. Mark makes reference to this group exactly once, in Chapter 12, to tell us that they did not believe in the resurrection of the body. Matthew introduces them here (and forgets about them until Chapter 16). Why did Mark ignore them, but Matthew didn’t? Is it because this group became more prominent in the minds of the Jesus communities between the time Mark wrote and the time Matthew wrote? Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body. As the story of Jesus’ being raised from the dead took hold among more of the Jesus communities, did they increasingly invoke the scorn of the Sadducees? That is an interesting thought. Can’t be proven, but interesting. But then, it’s as likely as a lot of other things suggested. 

 7 Videns autem multos pharisaeorum et sadducaeorum venientes ad baptismum suum, dixit eis: “ Progenies viperarum, quis demonstravit vobis fugere a futura ira?

8 Facite ergo fructum dignum paenitentiae.

9 καὶ μὴ δόξητε λέγειν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς, Πατέρα ἔχομεν τὸνἈβραάμ, λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι δύναται ὁ θεὸς ἐκ τῶν λίθων τούτων ἐγεῖραι τέκνα τῷ Ἀβραάμ.

“And do not say amongst yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as a father’. For I tell you that God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.

Let’s see: this bit about children of Abraham is in Matthew, it is in Luke, it is not in Mark. Are we to take it that it’s part of Q? As it turns out, Mack, in his The Lost Gospel of Q does not put this in the lowest, earliest stratum of the Q document. He does, however, put it in the second layer, which means that it existed before Matthew. However, based on content,  I feel pretty confident to say that this is a later addition to the corpus. The point here is that Jews have lost their position of preference amongst God’s creation. They are no longer the Chosen People. Now, children of Abraham could just as easily be rocks that get turned into people. From what I have read so far in Who Wrote The New Testament. I believe he would suggest that this sentiment developed early; indeed, it was part of Jesus’ message of the kingdom. In contrast, it seems much more likely to me that this was added at that point when most new followers of Jesus, and probably most followers of Jesus were of pagan, rather than Jewish heritage. This sentence, and this sentiment were meant to express that the Jews had been superseded by pagans, by Gentiles who had thereby become the “True Israel”. A lot of this is tied in with his interpretation of the Jerusalem Community. I will probably have more to say on this as we go along, but, for now, let me leave it at that. I believe that the sentiment expressed here was a new one, and that Matthew was the first to put it so definitively in writing.

9 et ne velitis dicere intra vos: “Patrem habemus Abraham”; dico enim vobis quoniam potest Deus de lapidibus istis suscitare Abrahae filios.

10 ἤδη δὲ ἡ ἀξίνη πρὸς τὴν ῥίζαν τῶν δένδρων κεῖται: πᾶν οὖν δένδρον μὴ ποιοῦν καρπὸν καλὸν ἐκκόπτεται καὶ εἰς πῦρ βάλλεται.

Already the axe lies at the root of the tree. So all trees not producing good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Is this a reference to the “coming” destruction of Jerusalem? Seems like it, especially when coupled with the idea from the last verse about rocks becoming the children of Abraham. In these two verses Matthew is telling us that the Jews have been supplanted and their claim to primacy is about to be destroyed. The Jews rejected Jesus, so they did not bear good fruit, so they were cut down and thrown into the fiery destruction of the Roman crucible. Now Matthew was most likely a Jew by heritage, but I don’t think this exempted him from feeling a certain…self-righteousness given what had happened to the city and its Temple. As such, he could say that the axe was already at the root. And note, this was image was also missing from Mark. I believe that the ideas expressed in this verse and the previous reflect developments that occurred long after Q, with all its strata, had been “written”.

10 Iam enim securis ad radicem arborum posita est; omnis ergo arbor, quae non facit fructum bonum, exciditur et in ignem mittitur.

11 ἐγὼ μὲν ὑμᾶς βαπτίζωἐν ὕδατι εἰς μετάνοιαν: ὁ δὲ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος ἰσχυρότερός μού ἐστιν, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς τὰ ὑποδήματα βαστάσαι: αὐτὸς ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί:

I immerse you with water towards repentance. The one coming after me is mightier than I am; I am not worthy to carry his sandal. He will immerse you in the sacred breath and fire.

Here’s a thought: the reference to fire, I think, may be the source of Luke’s tongues of fire that appeared on  Pentecost. Think about it: the combination of the sacred breath and fire…I think that Luke took some of the images and suggestions of Matthew and re-interpreted them in a more poetic fashion.

But, for Matthew, I suspect that the fire is another reference to the “coming” destruction of Jerusalem. Mark also referred to the mightier one; but note how Matthew has changed the description of John’s unworthiness. In Mark, John was not worthy to loosen the strap of Jesus’ sandal; here, John is not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandal. Why the change? Because Matthew is re-working Mark, not making a new copy. Because Mark says that the mightier one will baptise with the sacred breath; Matthew adds the “and with fire”. Luke follows Matthew and adds the fire. So was this in Q? Which? The holy spirit, or the holy spirit and fire? If the first, why is it in Mark? If the second, why is the part about the holy spirit in Mark? Does it not make more sense that Matthew added the part about the fire, and then Luke copied Matthew, because Luke used Matthew as well as Mark? This completely eliminates the need for Q altogether. Matthew and Luke agree on stuff that’s not in Mark because Luke used Matthew, rather than using Mark and some hypothetical Q.

This is the crux of the debate: were there three sources, or only two? I’ve been doing some research on this, but I’m still not entirely sure why Q is necessary. Now, it may be that I’m obtuse (highly possible), or it may be that the “argument” for Q simply doesn’t carry much water. I can’t figure it out because there’s really nothing there to grasp. It’s a tough call. Either scenario (obtuse or obscure?) is very possible.

11 Ego quidem vos baptizo in aqua in paenitentiam; qui autem post me venturus est, fortior me est, cuius non sum dignus calceamenta portare; ipse vos baptizabit in Spiritu Sancto et igni,

12 οὗ τὸ πτύον ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ, καὶ διακαθαριεῖ τὴν ἅλωνα αὐτοῦ, καὶ συνάξει τὸν σῖτον αὐτοῦ εἰς τὴν ἀποθήκην, τὸ δὲ ἄχυρον κατακαύσει πυρὶ ἀσβέστῳ.

“Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and he will gather together his grain in his barn, but the chaff will be tossed in the unquenchable fire.”

The fact that Matthew and Luke don’t always follow the order of Mark, IIRC, is supposed to be proof for the existence of Q. The thinking goes something like this: if Matthew or Luke doesn’t follow the order of Mark, then the one deviating from Mark’s order is following Q. Mark, of course, can’t follow Q because he’s not aware of it. So the fact that he, apparently, does follow the order of Q most of the time is just one of those things. It’s never really discussed. I bring this up at this point because of the term “unquenchable fire”. Matthew and Luke both use the term once, and in the context of reporting the speech of the Baptist to the Pharisees and/or Sadducees. Mark uses the term twice, both of them in Chapter 9, in conjunction with the lesson on cutting off your hand if it causes you to sin. So, the question is, if changing the order of events is significant, what about taking a very specific phrase like “unquenchable fire”, one that is used exactly four times in the NT, out of the context in which Mark used it? What, if anything, does this signify? Or did Mark deviate from the usage in Q because he wasn’t aware of it, while Matthew and Luke were faithful to Q? Or did Matthew move the usage to the speech of the Baptist because he thought it had more impact here, and Luke followed suit because Luke follows Matthew pretty faithfully for the most part?

This is. I suppose, a bit of a reductio ad absurdem.  I am not a textual scholar; I do not come from a background of analysing and comparing Scripture. I am not a theologian. Exactly because I’m not, I believe that I look at the problem very differently than Burton Mack, or JD Crossan, or Bart Ehrman. I find a lot of their textual analysis to be a bit thin on the convincing scale. Yes, there are differences. But are all the differences significant? If not, what is the criterion, or what are the criteria that make a difference significant? Too often it seems to be when the scholar has a very firm conviction about what the Evangelist would have done given a particular set of circumstances. “Why of course Luke wouldn’t have ignored that, given his interest in…” I would bet that Matthew took the phrase “unquenchable fire” from Mark, even though he changed the context. Why isn’t that significant? What am I missing here?

But enough of this. Let’s talk about the meaning of the phrase. To us, after 2,000 years of discussion, we immediately assume that the term refers to the fires of Hell. And they may very well do so. But, at this stage of the game, we don’t know that. Remember that Mark’s allusions to damnation were incredibly vague, and maybe only made sense because we could fill in the blanks with our developed Christian knowledge. The fact is, if we were to read (or hear) this passage in isolation, without a lot of background. chances are we would not quite know what to do with this expression. What unquenchable fire? Perhaps new initiates to the faith were given background on this, just as any Christian received in Sunday school or religion class. This is yet another of those threads that need to be watched as we proceed.

My point hereis simple: A lot of the stuff that we know about the NT, about Christianity owes a lot–an awful lot–to several hundred years of inference and inductive reasoning. The leaders of the Reformation understood that, and tried to strip away a lot of the extra-scriptural doctrines that had accumulated, Purgatory being the classic example. The thing is, they still did not question a large body of buried assumptions. Purgatory was nulll and void, but Hell was accepted without question.

 12 cuius ventilabrum in manu sua, et permundabit aream suam et congregabit triticum suum in horreum, paleas autem comburet igni inexstinguibili ”.

13 Τότε παραγίνεται ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἀπὸ τῆς Γαλιλαίας ἐπὶ τὸν Ἰορδάνην πρὸς τὸν Ἰωάννην τοῦ βαπτισθῆναι ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ.

14 ὁ δὲ Ἰωάννης διεκώλυεν αὐτὸν λέγων,Ἐγὼ χρείαν ἔχω ὑπὸ σοῦ βαπτισθῆναι, καὶ σὺ ἔρχῃ πρός με;

Then Jesus came out of Galilee to the Jordan, towards John the Baptist to be baptized by him. But John refused, saying “I have need to be baptized by you, and you have come to me”.

Why did Jesus get baptized? Why did he seek out John to have this ritual performed?  Presumably, this implies that Jesus was, in some way, disciple of John’s. However, saying that assumes that John had disciples. Yes, there was a scene in Mark, or will be a scene in Matthew or Luke where John’s disciples come to Jesus, but there is about a zero probability that this story has any historical value. Really, based on this tale, it doesn’t sound like John had disciples; he was more the hermit-type, and people came out to him. But, in the least, that Jesus sought out this ritual implies that he was on board with John’s message.

Of course this assumes Jesus actually did get baptized by John. Now, Josephus tells us about John, so there is good reason to believe John was historical, and he did baptize people. The question becomes, did Jesus undergo the ritual. Now, there are those who say that having Jesus start out as a disciple of John is embarrassing to the later church, so it seems more likely to be true. However, I disagree with this assessment that it was embarrassing. The story here is longer than the story in Mark. That is not what would happen if the later followers of Jesus–like Matthew, were embarrassed to admit Jesus’ relationship to John. That Matthew expands the story tells me that Matthew wanted to increase the connection to John. This actually mitigates against–albeit in a minor, or marginal way, Jesus being baptized.

However, the decisive point in favor of the baptism is that this is where Mark’s story starts. Yes, Mark had reason to tie Jesus to John, just as Matthew did, in order to put Jesus firmly in the Jewish tradition. The very old, very respected Jewish tradition. But then Mark also has the point about Jesus beginning his ministry when John was arrested, as if there is a causal connection there. As such, I think there was a relationship, with John in the role of the mentor. (And, incidentally, this relationship puts a hole in Mack’s argument that Jesus was a cynic-like sage, more Greek than Hebrew; how big that hole is, however, is a matter worthy of some discussion).

Finally, of course there is John’s demurral. Now, I see absolutely no reason to take this as anything other than later  propaganda foisted upon us by Matthew. Yes, Matthew wanted to stress the connection; no, Matthew did not want to leave it that John was the superior, the mentor. Rather, John is only the herald, a relationship that is underscored by this demurral on the part of John. That Jesus insisted that the ritual occur probably indicates that the tradition of Jesus’ baptism was too strong to be ignored–although John the Evangelist does exactly that. 

13 Tunc venit Iesus a Galilaea in Iordanem ad Ioannem, ut baptizaretur ab eo.

14 Ioannes autem prohibebat eum dicens: “ Ego a te debeo baptizari, et tu venis ad me? ”.

15 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτόν, Ἄφες ἄρτι, οὕτως γὰρ πρέπον ἐστὶν ἡμῖν πληρῶσαι πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην. τότε ἀφίησιν αὐτόν.

But Jesus responding, said to him “Let it happen now, for in this way by us it is seemly to fulfill all righteousness.” The he allowed him.

That translation is a bit awkward, but the sentence is a bit awkward. It gets the point across well enough. Of course it opens (but does not beg) the question of why this is seemly and righteous. This is an innovation of John, so what is being fulfilled. Really, it’s just another little flourish for Matthew to have Jesus put his stamp of approval on the act. On second thought, it’s a bit more that. Perhaps quite a bit. The point here is to let us know that there is some divine purpose being acted upon here, that this has to be done because it’s God’s will, and that this act is about cosmic balance. In this way, we are to realize that Jesus does what he does because it’s God’s purpose that he do it. 

15 Respondens autem Iesus dixit ei: “ Sine modo, sic enim decet nos implere omnem iustitiam ”. Tunc dimittit eum.

16 βαπτισθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εὐθὺς ἀνέβηἀπὸ τοῦ ὕδατος: καὶ ἰδοὺ ἠνεῴχθησαν [αὐτῷ] οἱ οὐρανοί, καὶ εἶδεν [τὸ] πνεῦμα[τοῦ] θεοῦ καταβαῖνον ὡσεὶ περιστερὰν [καὶ] ἐρχόμενον ἐπ’ αὐτόν:

17 καὶ ἰδοὺ φωνὴ ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν λέγουσα, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν ᾧ εὐδόκησα.

Jesus having been submerged (dunked), immediately he came up out of the water, and lo! the heavens opened and he saw the spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him. And lo! a voice from the heavens said, “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I delight”.

16 Baptizatus autem Iesus, confestim ascendit de aqua; et ecce aperti sunt ei caeli, et vidit Spiritum Dei descendentem sicut columbam et venientem super se.

17 Et ecce vox de caelis dicens: “Hic est Filius meus dilectus, in quo mihi complacui ”.

It’s important to understand that John did not baptize Jesus; rather, he submerged Jesus completely in the water. Thus our Baptist brethren (and sisteren) practice full-immersion baptism, rather than the symbolic dripping of water as practiced by the Roman Rite, and the Episcopalians (and probably others).

Second, I still haven’t figured out what to do with << ἰδοὺ >>. There just really is not English equivalent.

Finally, we have the heavens opening and the voice. One interesting change in detail is that Matthew calls this the spirit of God, rather than just the spirit, or the sacred breath. The form of the dove again brings to mind Zeus taking the form of a bull or a swan. Granted, when Zeus did this, he had an actual physical body, rather than what is probably meant to be taken as just a general form without physical substance because it’s “as a dove”. That at least leaves it ambiguous. Mark’s language is virtually identical; Luke will be a bit more clear that it’s just a shape.

Now, unlike in Mark, there is no surprise that Jesus is the son. In Mark, that was the first time we were told this; hence, the Adoptionist heresy. Here, we have already been told that Jesus was conceived by the sacred breath of God, so no surprises here.  

 

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on October 11, 2014, in Chapter 3, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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