Yesterday I wrote a post titled “Parallel genealogies: Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-28″. For those studying the genealogies maybe this video from Michael Licona will spark your interest. Let me know your thoughts:
In his most recent NT Pod titled “Conflicting Christmas Stories” Mark Goodacre juxtaposes the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke.
As always, Goodacre’s podcast will be worth fifteen minutes of your attention (and more if the podcast were longer, of course).
I have been reading Jonathan T. Pennington‘s marvelous new book Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction and it has helped me a lot when it comes to thinking about hermeneutics, particularly the function of the historical-critical/grammatical approach juxtaposed with literary readings and canonical/theological readings. In “Chapter Five: Texts and History: The Testimony of the Fourfold Witness” Pennington examines the historical-critical approach, explains it value, and critiques its weaknesses. For Pennington the danger of putting all our eggs into the historical-critical/grammatical basket is that this is limits our reading of the Gospels, refuses to listen to the Gospels as the Gospels are designed to be heard, and ignores the limitations of the historical-critical/grammatical hermeneutic (as well as recent criticisms from the field of philosophical hermeneutics, exemplified by the likes of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricour to name a couple). The Gospels make claims that presuppose things like the existence of Israel’s God and you cannot appeal to deity when doing critical historical studies. There are some things that can be understood about Jesus through historical-critical study, but one can never reach the theological claims of the church through this approach. This is a danger Pennington thinks we must avoid, but he doesn’t think the answer to the problem of the historical-critical lens is one that abandons the importance of history like a Docetic Christology. He writes:
“If we approach the Gospels only as repositories of grand theological ideas and ideals, divorced from the historical reality of the incarnation and the resurrection, then we lose the history. Yet if we (even as believers) draw near to the Gospels thinking we must abandon all orthodox, creedal, and ecclesial notions and constraints on our reading or, less strictly, at least grow our theological construction in pure historical soil, then we not only fool ourselves in these possibilities, but we also deny the canonical nature of the Gospels.” (Kindle Location 2354)
He concludes that the language of “testimony” as presented by Richard Bauckham is a better avenue upon which one can approach studying the Gospels from a confessional perspective. Testimony honors both the aim of these works as a form of bios claiming to speak about historical events as well as recognizing that the theological claims of the Gospels move into a new frontier making the Gospels a unique subcategory of bioi. Likewise, testimony doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that historiography ancient or modern can ever be anything but interpretive (i.e., never fully objective as some claim). Since all history is interpretation the Gospels as testimony about Jesus care about historical events as interpreted through the apostolic kerygma.
I won’t delve much further into Pennington’s argument against limiting ourselves to the historical-critical approach—because it would be unfair to the author for me to try to condense a very well written, thoughtful chapter into a short blog post—but I will (1) encourage you to read this book; (2) provide a book review on this blog when I finish it; and (3) share the approach Pennington suggest for people who read the Gospels both as testimony of historical events and Scripture.
Pennington advocates reading the Gospels from multiple hermeneutical paradigms. He writes, “…my goal in reading is interwoven with the biblical idea of wisdom more than the modern scientific idea of knowledge, understood narrowly and impersonally.” (Kindle Location 2431) So in “Chapter Six: Reading Holy Scripture Well” he provides “three avenues of reading” that I will share and then use as a way to approach studying the doctrine of the virgin birth so that you can understand where Pennington is trying to take his readers.
First, “Behind the Text” or Historical, which includes redaction, form, and source criticism, social-scientific criticism, historical criticism, grammatical-historical exegesis, and movements like the Quest(s) for the historical (historian’s) Jesus.
Second, “In the Text” or Literary, which focuses on literary criticism, genre analysis, narrative criticism, composition criticism, and intertextuality.
Third, “In Front of the Text” or Canonical/Theological, which includes the history of interpretation, reception, history, Wirkungsgeshichte, biblical theology, redemptive history, theological reading, Regula fidei, figural reading, and intertextuality.
Let’s examine the doctrine of the virgin birth from these angles. First, the “Behind the Text” approach aims to understand not the message of the text itself alone, but the culture within which it was proclaimed. Honestly, if we use traditional historical-critical criteria as found in academic discussion we will not arrive at a virgin birth because solutions that cannot be reached by means of methodological naturalism are disqualified immediately. In other words, when doing history in this context, we cannot say, “Well, yes, it is impossible for this to happen, but God…” This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, if we acknowledge the “language game” in which we chose to partake if we do academic history. If a scholar of Islam happened to be a confessing Muslim we Christians would question his academic biography on the Prophet Muhammad if when s/he reached the tradition about the Prophet’s ascent into heaven s/he begged-the-question by telling readers, “This happened because Allah…” This is not to say that it is impossible in reality that Allah accepted the Prophet into heaven, but rather that there are limitations on doing academic history that attempt to prevent any and every suggestion from having the same value (e.g., the abduction of a famous person is easier explained as having a human protagonist, even if the mystery is never solved as to who did it, than it is an alien from space, even if the alien theory is theoretically possible it is not the most probable).
On the other hand, historical-grammatical readings of the text might have more wiggle-room when it comes to discussing the doctrine of the virgin birth. In fact, I propose that most evangelical scholars who delve into historical research do so from a historical-grammatical angle rather than a historical-critical one. In the words of Gadamer the difference is between approaching a text with the hermeneutical of suspicion over against the hermeneutic of trust. Christians, even when engaging these texts as historians, tend to give the authors to benefit of a doubt in a way that a scholar who is not a Christian is not likely to do. This is not to say that one is better or more objective in my opinion. There are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches. For example, if Jesus did not resurrect from the dead a confessional scholar is not likely to see this because of the presuppositions brought to the study of the proclaimed event. Likewise, a skeptical scholar is not likely to come to affirm the reality of the resurrection, even if it did happen, because of the presuppositions brought to the study of the proclaimed event. I don’t mean to say that it is “all relative”, but it is subjective, always.
The historical-grammatical reading aims to make sense of a proclaimed event by means of studying the historical context in which it was proclaimed (e.g., the resurrection can be understood as a event proclaimed to have happened in first century Judea, near Jerusalem, under Roman governance, and so forth, and honestly, the presuppositions with which one approaches this topic will likely inform how this historical data “functions”, just compare the works of people like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan to others like N.T. Wright or Michael Licona). So when one studies the doctrine of the virgin birth through a historical-grammatical lens it might be one and the same with the historical-critical, or it may be from a confessional standpoint where the virgin birth is understood as something that did happen, and then the study of everything from ancient womanhood, birth practices, first century Bethlehem, and other factors will be considered.
The “In the Text” is not concerned with the historical events within which the doctrine of the virgin birth is proclaimed. Even the Synoptic Problem falls into the first category better, though there are points of contact. This second approach may study things like how the doctrine of the virgin birth is proclaimed in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and how this claims fits into the immediate narrative and how that narrative fits into the larger message of the Gospel. This approach can be used by the atheist scholar who doesn’t find these Gospels to produce much truth as well as the pastor who is preparing a sermon for Sunday and who wants to make sure that s/he proclaims a particular text in such a way that the literary message is received by the audience. One could discuss how the doctrine of the virgin birth fits into the message of the beginning of the Gospel of Luke without ever discussing the archaeology of Bethlehem, the socio-cultural role of “shepherds” in the first century, and other elements that are “Behind the Text”, though very helpful to understanding the text itself.
Finally, we have the approach that is “In Front of the Text”, i.e., an acceptable presupposition that informs how we read a text. For example, if one reads the Gospel of Matthew from approaches one or two it doesn’t matter all that much whether the Old Testament canon ends with Malachi as we find in the Christian tradition or Chronicles as it does in most versions of the Hebrew Bible. In this third paradigm it does matter though because Malachi ends with a proclamation to remember the Law of Moses and a promise to send the prophet Elijah before the “Day of the Lord” (4:4-6) whereas the Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of “Jesus the Messiah” (1:1), describes his birth of a virgin, the visit of the magi, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents, and then we have “Elijah”, or John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. If you use approaches one or two you want to read Luke-Acts together, but if you read it canonically you know that John recreates the contexts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and ends the fourfold Gospel transitioning to Acts which moves through the sequence of three main figures—Jesus to Peter to Paul—which then escorts the reader into Romans, the gateway and interpretive key to the Pauline corpus. Canonically Matthew transitions readers from the Old Testament to the fulfillment of the Old Testament, Jesus. Acts transitions from Jesus to his authoritative apostles, including Paul, and validates the Pauline corpus that comes next (I owe these insights to Brevard Childs).
Is there a way (singular) to approach the Gospels? Pennington will suggest “no” if you are a Christian. I concur. If you are a Christian willing to discuss the “historian’s Jesus” then you must enter that language game knowing what you can and cannot say and prove about Jesus. The goal and aim is to show that some really important things can be said about Jesus, even through the limitations of modern critical historiography, e.g., Jesus was a first century Jew; Jesus was remembered as a miracle worker and an exorcist; Jesus was crucified; Jesus’ followers did not disperse but became convinced for some reason that the eschatological resurrection of the dead has an “already, but not yet” exception in Jesus of Nazareth and they were willing to die for their believe. All of this is fantastically interesting, but you can’t secure the confession that the Spirit has raised Jesus from the dead, or that Jesus has been made Lord and Christ, or that Jesus is the Logos of God, or that Jesus is the second person of the one God as Trinity.
I think the historical-critical method is immensely valuable, as does Pennington, but it does have limitations. It is a matter of epistemology (what can we “know” through the restraints of academic historiography?), rather than objective truth (the dozens upon dozens of historical Jesus models you will find should be sufficient evidence of this). Sometimes the use of the Gospels to get “Behind the Text” to the historical Jesus misleads us into misreading the Gospels themselves. We ignore the message of the evangelists about Jesus for some piece of solid footing upon which we can reconstruct Jesus. Again, this is good and necessary in certain venues, but it doesn’t determine truth.
Likewise, the third approach tells us a bit about how Christians should read Scripture as Christians in the ancient-to-contemporary community of the faithful. If we use the historical critical approach we may conclude that Mark as the earliest Gospel shows no interest in a virgin birth, so he did not know about it or (from a more skeptical view) the myth had not been invented when Mark was composed. Matthew received or invented the tradition somewhere. Luke received it somewhere, maybe from Matthew. John’s Logos Christology doesn’t need a virgin birth as long as you affirm that Jesus is the Son of God come from God the Father in heaven. A canonical/theological reading realizes that Mark doesn’t need the virgin birth if it doesn’t fit the literary message because the Spirit has provided this proclamation in Matthew and Luke, already, and that John’s Logos Christology should be interpreted canonically, meaning, the Logos of God entered this world through the virgin birth—this is the beginning of how Christians discuss Christology in the language of faith.
All three approaches have value. Where we Christians struggle at times is realizing that these different approaches are different language games sometimes intended for a variety of audiences. When we try to use the historical-critical method apologetically to “prove” something like the doctrine of the virgin birth we have gone the wrong direction, not because it didn’t happen in space-time history, but because historical-critical methodology includes the presupposition of methodological naturalism, something that can never “discover” a virgin birth anymore than one may have been able to discover Jesus was born of a virgin if his DNA was studied to examine the genetics of his “father”. We can believe in the doctrine of the virgin birth from a confessional perspective, and we may have decent reasons for believing it happened historically (e.g., Matthews awkward use of Isaiah 7:14 leads me to think Matthew already believed in the doctrine and he sought a passage of Scripture to support it, rather than he happened to read Isaiah 7:14 one day and thought, “This proves Jesus was born of a virgin!”), but we cannot prove it historical-critically, and that is OK. We must recover some comfort with speaking the language of faith and sometimes faith demands that we speak of things catholically, rather than individualistically, as if something can be true if and only if I can verify it through means that make me the final authority, rather than the church and the Scripture of the church.
“The most ancient tradition of the Christian church is that the fourfold gospel came into existence in response to the needs experienced in some locality for an authoritative written word in addition to the continuous oral and unwritten preaching of the gospels by the earliest apostles.” Black, D. 2010, p.21
I first encountered the academic argument concerning the apostles as the original and authoritative eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus, in both oral and written form, while reading Richard Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’. Until then much of my reading and understanding of the Gospels and their purpose had oscillated between Bultmann’s form criticism and Dunn’s oral tradition. Somewhere along the way I had settled for an inspired redaction theory of the gospels and their portrayal of Jesus; especially when it came to the gospel of Matthew. Upon reflection I am left wondering if both Bauckham and Black might provide a way through the haze, although it must be said there are some big assumptions which must be deconstructed if we are going to except the Patristic evidence as presented by Black!
In the 2nd chapter entitled of ‘Why Four Gospels’ entitled, “The Origins of the Gospels” Black seeks to bridge the gap between critical historical scholarship and the witness of the early church fathers. It is apparent, even to a novice such as myself, the majority of gospel scholarship has determined this witness to be unreliable. This strikes me as peculiar. Can someone explain it to me?
It all goes back to the Enlightenment (as do many of our academic and spiritual ills it seems). It is Black’s claim, and I would agree, the enlightenment sought to install human reason as the “final arbiter in all human affairs in place of Christian faith”. As it relates to Biblical studies, in particular studies of the Gospels, it would appear the overwhelming consensus of critical scholars is the witness of the early church fathers is unreliable. Personally I find this most puzzling. As Black argues, the philosophy of the 18th century determined it was impossible for the Gospels to have been written by the apostles and therefore were the result of “legend and hearsay”. The result for Gospel scholarship was enlightenment thinking was given precedence over Christian antiquity and tradition. Presumably if the Gospels were not reliable, those who supposedly gave witness to them were also unreliable!
I will not repost Black’s short but detailed account of the early church father’s writings on these matters. Needless to say it is Black’s conclusion that integrity of the early church father’s witness is solid. As a result of Black’s belief in the patristic witness he argues for Mathean priori over Markan priori arguing the sources reveal Mark as being written after Matthew. Black goes on to evaluate, and once again I won’t rewrite the argument, the Markan priori hypothesis (and we must remember that is what it is!). Black goes on to argue his belief that Matthew was followed by Luke and Mark was a written version of Peter’s preaching (which Black argues was based on Matthew and Luke) and John came some time later. I’ll leave it to Dave to explain how and why he believes this!
Essentially what Black does in this chapter is ground his working hypothesis regarding the purpose and order of the Gospels within the context of the earliest witnesses the church has. The results being his conclusions fly in the face of much modern critical scholarship. For this I am sure he wins few friends amongst the guild!
I like the extremely positive and trusting approach Black has to these earliest witnesses and the authority his hypothesis restores to the Gospels. It says that you and I can trust the historical Jesus of the Gospels. Black does not seek to recreate the Jesus behind the gospels as some Gospel scholars seek to do, or create an anonymous community within the Gospels as many, myself included, are prone to do over and above the Gospel witness of Jesus the Messiah! The result, in my mind at least, is a Jesus we can know and trust as if the Apostles themselves were preaching to us!
Almost two weeks ago I asked whether or not there was a basic confession that initiated people into the Kingdom of God (here). I am not asking this in order to settle for doctrinal relativism or pseudo-ecumenism. Rather, I have two motives: (1) determining what it means, and what it has meant, to be a true follower of Christ, so that despite our differences we can journey together and (2) what it means to name heresy and error when it may be salvific so that we have some sort of taxonomy of doctrine.
If our differences are important (like the difference between the Catholic and various Evangelical views of the Eucharist/communion rite) we should acknowledge that without condemning one another. If our differences are more serious (like seeing Jesus as the risen Lord or merely a good, historical Jewish prophet) than we need to be aware of this as well because more is at stake. If our Lord prayed that we would be one (Jn. 17.20-21) we must ask what it means to be unified in spite our disagreements while also asking the hard question, “Who is actually a follower of the Lord?”
While some understand the Gospel of Thomas to be the earliest gospel because it is a so-called “sayings” gospel, most agree that the Synoptics are the three earliest, preserved narratives of Jesus that we have today. Most scholars affirm Markan priority of some sort with the Gospel of Matthew or Luke being the next, likely dependent upon Mark for much of the content, though different in some important areas where the evangelist had differing nuances that needed to be emphasized for their audience.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke we see a lot of what these writers wanted us to know about Jesus. In Matthew we may suggest Jesus is the Shepherd-King of Israel, in Mark he is a Apocalyptic-Messianic figure who shares continuation and discontinuation with common Jewish messianic expectations (if we can say there was much in common). In Luke he is the Jewish Lord and there are implication for Gentiles who must now recognize the God of Israel. (For those who have given more time to these various gospels, please feel free to provide a different emphasis, as you see it, in the comments section.)
All three gospels ask us to affirm one thing specifically: Jesus is the Messiah of God. This cannot be disconnected from all that has come before it in the story of Israel as the various gnostic sects attempted as well as Marcion and his followers. Jesus as the Messiah is the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes. While each evangelist has his own particular approach this seems to be the common thread.
The pinnacle confession (what must be believed about Jesus) in the First Gospel is Peter’s confession: “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.” (Mt. 16.16) In the Second Gospel we have the shorter confession upon which Matthew expounded: “You are the Christ.” (Mk. 8.29) In the Third Gospel this reality leads to Christ’s own crucifixion. The elders of Israel ask Jesus if he claims to be the Messiah and the son of God. Jesus affirms this (Lk. 22.66-71).
In acknowledging this commonality do I also suggest that the synoptic evangelists had the goal of merely seeing people say the words, “Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God.” No, each evangelist described how this tied into Israel’s story as well as what it “looked like” to make this confession.
One thing we sometimes forget when discussion creeds, confessions and orthodoxy is that it is more than the cognitive aspect. We cannot say “Jesus is the Christ, the son of God” and then live as if this is a lie. We cannot confess this and ignore the narrative within which the evangelist placed this confession. We must realize that the early Christian communities understood that once one confessed this truth (and the public manner in which this was done appears to be baptism, which leads us to a whole different discussion) there was an adjacent submission.
If a Roman citizen confessed “Caesar is Lord” and then disobeyed the laws of the Empire, one could conclude that this person did not see Caesar as Lord. Lordship includes obedience and political allegiance. To confess Christ as Lord includes obedience and allegiance. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. If Jesus is Lord, the Satan is not.
One final statement: it is not as if we can say now, “Well, the Matthean community confessed this about Jesus and since they did not have what we find in the other gospels, or the Pauline epistles, this must be a sufficient confession.” Maybe this is true to some extent, but I think this is a bit anachronistic. If we have any Pneumatology at all we can expect that the Spirit would lead the church catholic to a greater understanding and unity by bringing together what we now see as the canon of the church. No, we should not see every canonized author as parroting one another (Matthew is not Luke, Luke is not James, James is not Paul), but the Spirit brought together these basic writings to provide us with a greater understanding of who Christ was and is. We are responsible to acknowledge that as the Spirit shows it to us.
At the same time, if a new convert to Christianity sits in a jail cell in Iran with only two-third of Matthew’s gospels, and the affirming conviction that he believes what he was told about Jesus by the Christians who preached the gospel to him, I have no doubt he is part of the Kingdom. Does he know the fullness of who Christ was and is? Unlikely, but he confesses as Lord the one whom he knows in part. Don’t we all do this? Don’t we all see Christ through a glass darkly? Don’t we all await the day we will be like him because we see him face to face and we know him as he knows us?
John the Baptizer According to Luke
In the third part of this series I contrasted the picture of John the Baptizer presented in the First Gospel. Now we will examine the Third Gospel. As with Matthew our primary concern is how Luke differentiates from Mark though we will keep Matthew in mind as well.
I had a professor who suggested that when John died he was not “saved” because he had lost his faith in Christ. In Matthew 11.7-15 we have Jesus praising John but he says that the “least in the Kingdom of Heaven” is greater than John. Since this professor equated “Kingdom of Heaven” with “salvation” he concluded John lost out at the end of his life.
He should have read Luke’s take before saying such an absurd thing. In 16.14-17 Jesus is criticizing Pharisees for their love of money and corrupt hearts. He makes a statement regarding the breaking in of the kingdom of God and in doing so marks the old era by saying “The law and the prophets were until John.” Jesus did not think John was lost. Jesus saw in himself the arrival of the Kingdom of God and since John is the last prophet prior to Jesus’ act of introducing the Kingdom of God he is not technically “part” of the Kingdom. We should note that this is high praise of John but it is also clearly a reminder than after John’s ministry something much, much greater took place in the person of Jesus. This will be important to realize when we see how Luke presents John in Acts 19.
As with the other evangelist Luke is very pro-John with qualifiers like the one just noted. John is seen as one who is filled with the Spirit from birth (1.11-17). As we consider the importance of Pneumatology in Luke-Acts this is a bold statement. Is there a difference between John’s infilling and that of those at Pentecost? Maybe, maybe not. Either way this is high praise of John who is an old era character with a new era experience.
As with Matthew and Mark we have a depiction of John as the prophet who functions as YHWH’s forerunner as Luke shows by quoting Is. 40.3-5. In 3.1-19 we have extensive coverage of John and his ministry. John is again depicted by several characteristics that he shares in the other gospels: (1) he is a baptizer (3.7a); (2) he preaches a message of repentance (3.7b-8a); (3) he is critical of Israel’s assumption that being descendants of Abraham is sufficient (3.8b-9). A Lukan addition is the specific instructions regarding types of “social justice” that is the fruit of repentance including giving away extra, unnecessary possessions; being fair when collecting taxes (to tax collectors); and using your might for good and not for bullying (to soldiers).
In vv.15-20 Luke deals directly with the question of John as Messiah. He is clear that John is not the Messiah even though the people pondered this as a possibility. In an expanded quotation Luke reemphasizes what Matthew and Mark have already said: Jesus, the one who baptizes with the New Covenant Spirit, is the one who you are seeking. John’s ministry ends with his execution under Herod.
One interesting departure from Matthew (where Luke sides with Mark) is the lack of any statement from John at Jesus’ baptism that would suggest John felt inadequate for he job. The voice and the Spirit descending are like the other two. Jesus is obviously understood to be a Messianic figure in that he is annointed by the Spirit Himself in a way that John is not indicating superiority over John, but not in a way as elaborate as that of Matthew.
As we will see in Acts 19.1-7 it is a concern of Luke to clarify that Jesus’ disciples are not worse than John’s. In 5.33-35 we see the see the same criticism’s of Jesus’ disciples for their lack of ascetic behavior as we saw in Mt. 9.14-17. As with Matthew so Luke in pointing out that Jesus was present and there was no reason to fast while Jesus was present. Of course, this implies that current disciples of Jesus should fast. Likewise, it implies that because John had his disciples fast while he was present this somehow makes John less than Jesus.
In 11.1-4 the disciples seem a bit ashamed of their inability to pray. John had taught his disciples so Jesus’ disciples ask for the same lesson. There should be no doubts that John’s disciples were an impressive bunch.
In 7.17-29 we have a parallel of Mt. 11.2-15. Luke says many of the same things Matthew said. John had doubts, Jesus relieves those doubts by appealing to his actions as characteristic of a Messiah figure, and Jesus speaks highly of John to the people while noting that the least in the Kingdom is still greater than John. This is an eschatological statement of great significance.
In 9.1-11 we have a parallel of Mt. 6.13-21 and Mk. 8.27-31. The Jesus-John contrast in these three passages is important in one specific area, namely that Jesus is not merely John raised from the dead. Again, it is odd because “resurrection” before the eschaton is not a common Jewish category, but there must have been some myth that circulated suggesting that some (including Herod) believed this to be possible (see vv.7-9).
One final parallel of importance is 20.1-8 with Mt. 21.23-27 and Mk. 11.27-33. As with those other passages Jesus secures himself in the prophetic tradition of John. He acknowledges John’s authority and dares anyone to challenge it. As we depart from the Synoptics it is important to notice that (a) John is a revered figure and (b) he is subordinate to Jesus. For those most part the statement about John are close in content with each evangelist saying something here or there that is slightly distinct but contributes to this overall motif. We will now move to John’s identity in the Book of Acts.
John the Baptizer According to Matthew
The Gospel of Matthew introduces John after exploring the birth and early childhood of Jesus. As in the Second Gospel we see a prophetic figure whose ministry occurs in the wilderness (i.e. away from the established Temple system), who preaches a message of repentance, who is in line with the prophetic tradition (again, Is. 40.3 is cited to explain John’s role as the one who prepares for YHWH’s arrival in Zion), who has an unkempt presentation, and who baptizes in the Jordan presenting an ritual alternative to the washing rituals of the Temple (3.1-6)
Another similarity is that John sees his baptism as insufficient compared to that of the coming One. The coming One baptizes with the Holy Spirit. The coming One baptizes people into the prophesied New Covenant (3.11-12). This is the same depiction made by Mark and it will be something to which Luke hints in the Book of Acts. For Mark, Matthew, and Luke one major difference between John and Jesus is that Jesus is the means by which the Holy Spirit came.
In 3.7-10 John is depicted as a critic of the Pharisees and the Jewish leaders who thought being a descendant of Abraham equated to a privileged relationship with God. John has no problem with the idea that God could start from scratch. He tells the Pharisees, “God can create children of Abraham from these very stones!” (v. 9).
One begins to wonder if a young Paul of Tarsus ever heard some of his fellow Pharisees talking about the message of John. Later, especially in his letter to the church in Galatia, we see Paul using a similar critique of the idea that Jewishness is to be equated with being in covenant with God. Of course, there were other reforming groups in Judaism at the time (e.g. the Essenes) so there is no way to prove that Paul heard of John’s criticism and later used them, but it is an interesting side note.
Where we find the first important contrast between Mark and Matthew is at the baptism of Jesus (3.13-16). In Mark we have hints that Jesus is superior in that the Father speaks from heaven and the Spirit descends. John understood himself to be a forerunner at best. But in Mark he never objects to baptizing Jesus. In Matthew he protest saying, “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you, so why are you coming to me?” (v. 15) This additional element does not contradict Mark but it is a step toward intensifying the difference between Jesus and John.
The most interesting exposition on the person of John the Baptizer comes in 11.1-19. First, John is in prison as it was so in Mark. In Matthew we find that John has begun to doubt Jesus. In v. 2 he asks his followers to go to Jesus to make sure that Jesus is the expected one, the Messiah. It may be that John thought the Messiah would not let him rot in jail, yet there he was.
A John who doubts Jesus is important in two ways: (1) It gives room for later disciples who did not quickly accept what John had said about Jesus. If John could begin to doubt why not his disciples. Also, we know John is martyred. It could be that this caused some of John’s disciples to lose faith in Jesus’ messianic claims. (2) It “humanizes” John. In Mark we have John being so revered that Herod think Jesus may be John back from the dead. In Matthew we have a John whose life ends in the most defeating way. He will not be set free. He doesn’t even know if his life’s work was completed.
In 14.1-12 we have a record of the death of John. It is much like that of Mark. One major difference is the lack of any reference to Herod fearing that Jesus was John raised from the dead. While it may be that this part was left out because it didn’t fit Mathew’s narrative it could also be true that it was a tad embarrassing to admit at this juncture that John was such a powerful figure that being resurrected from the dead was a plausible fear of the puppet king.
Even the high “praise” of John from the lips of Jesus in 11.7-15 minimizes John. John is more than a prophet (v. 9). He is the forerunner foreshadowed in Mal. 3.1 (v. 10). In fact, of all those ever born he is the greatest (v. 11a). Yet here is the catch–even the “least” in the coming Kingdom is greater than John (v. 11b). John remains a figure of the Old Covenant like Moses and Elijah. Great? Yes! But all those who were to be part of the New Covenant, the new eschatological age, that of the Messiah, were superior to John.
If there were still disciples of John at the time that this gospel was written–and we are safe to assume this to be so–a clear message is being sent. Those who had decided not to follow Jesus while maintaining some sort of high regard for John are being told that even the least of Jesus’ followers are greater than John himself!
Jesus did not parrot John’s ministry. In 11.16-19 we have Jesus contrasting his celebratory life to John’s asceticism. Jesus does this to show that John was hated for being the opposite of Jesus and Jesus was hated for being the opposite of John. In other words, the opponents of the movement started by John and continued by Jesus had no logical critique. Rather, they were simply opposed to John and Jesus.
For the first audience there may have been an embedded apologetic here. It would be no surprise if some of the remaining disciples of John had criticized followers of Jesus because there leader not lived as dedicated a life as John. For followers of Jesus this was not a problem. Jesus was different than John but Jesus was not worse than John. Jesus’ ministry and approach was different than John’s yet part of the same movement of God.
In 9.14-17 we have a narrative where the disciples of John made these very criticism during Jesus’ time. John’s disciples wanted to know why Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast like they did and like the Pharisees did. Jesus tells a few mini-parables that basically express the idea that he is an important figure whose very presence is cause for celebration. There is no reason for fasting; no reason for mourning. When Jesus goes away then fasting can resume but why fast while he is present?
Between these two narratives we see that the differences between the disciples of Jesus and John had caused tension from the time of Jesus and likely into the present. As we note this differences between these two groups it may explain why John shrinks in importance. It may be that by the time Matthew wrote his gospel there was more concern regarding the still existing disciples of John than when Mark wrote his gospel. This would have led to Matthew filling out his narrative with more sayings and actions that minimize John.
In my next post I will explore how Luke portrays John in his gospel.