Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Testimony Of John The Immerser, John 1:19-34

From Patheos:

The Testimony of John the Immerser: John 1:19-34

January 24, 2011
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By William Hamblin

Like Mark, the Gospel of John provides no background on the early life of Jesus. Instead there is an abrupt transition from the preexistent divine Word, to the sudden encounter between the "Word made flesh" (1:14) and John the Baptist, or "Immerser" (1:29). Any information we glean about the early life of Jesus before his meeting with John comes only from incidental comments throughout the Gospel. For John, Jesus' mortal mission begins when he is publicly recognized as the Messiah by John the Immerser.

The Testimony of John the Baptist

Read the account of Jesus' encounter with John the Immerser (1:19-34), and try to discover what's missing in the story. Don't peek! The synoptic gospels all describe John baptizing Jesus (Mt. 3:16; Mk. 1:9-10; Lk. 3:21), but the Gospel of John does not. As in the other three gospels, Jesus comes to John (1:29), John testifies that Jesus is the Messiah (1:29-30, 34), and the Spirit descends upon Jesus (1:32-34). Although it is clear that all the gospels are describing the same event, the Gospel of John never describes John the Immerser as actually immersing Jesus. Was this intentional? Or did John simply assume that his readers would understand that Jesus had been baptized by John without the need to explicitly mention it—why else would Jesus come to the Immerser?

My assumption is that John intended to imply that Jesus was immersed by John. However, it may be that John is veiling this event to emphasize Jesus' superiority to John, which is one of his main points here. Matthew takes pains to emphasize that John is not superior to Jesus even though John baptized Jesus (Mt. 3:14-15). It may have been that contemporary late first-century disciples of the Immerser were claiming their master's superiority to Jesus by pointing to the fact that Jesus had been baptized by John, and hence must have been some type of disciple of John.

Why does John begin with the story of John the Immerser? It is clear from all the Gospels that John's ministry both preceded and overlapped with the ministry of Jesus. John the Immerser already had many disciples and had attracted the attention of the Jewish authorities at Jerusalem before Jesus began his preaching (Jn. 1:19; Mt. 3:5-6; Mk. 1:5). For John the Beloved, Jesus' ministry begins with John the Immerser, and the first mortal revelation of his true nature as the Messiah. It is the Spirit's descent upon Jesus, as witnessed by John, that begins Jesus' ministry, and thus John is the first witness that Jesus is the Messiah.

In his testimony, John the Immerser emphasizes a number of important characteristics of Jesus that will be major themes throughout John's Gospel:

•Jesus is the Messiah (implied in 1:25-27).

•Jesus is the "lamb of God" (amnos tou theou) (1:29, 36).

•Jesus "takes away the sin of the world" (1:29).

•Jesus "ranks above" and "was before" John (1:30), probably alluding to his preexistent divine status as the Word.

•The Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove (1:32).

•Jesus will immerse his followers with the Holy Spirit (1:33).

•Jesus is the Son of God (1:34).

In other words, in just a few verses John the Immerser lays out much of his messianic theology that will be developed throughout the rest of John's gospel. Note, also, John does not mention a voice from heaven confirming Jesus as the Son of God, as do the other gospels (Mt. 3:17; Mk. 1:10; Lk. 3:22), although John does describe a similar incident later (Jn. 12:28-30).

Finally, it is worth noting the importance of witnesses in the Gospel of John. The Immerser's major role in the Beloved's account is that of witness to Jesus as the Messiah (Jn. 1:7, 15, 32, 34). As we shall see, this becomes an important theme in John 5:31-39, where Jesus discusses the importance of witnesses in establishing that he is the Messiah.

The Lamb of God

The Gospel of John is the only gospel that uses the title "Lamb of God" (amnos tou theou) for Jesus, and only in the mouth of John the Immerser (Jn. 1:29, 36). Furthermore, this Lamb was to "take away the sins of the world." What would a first-century reader make of such a title? From the text itself, John's disciples saw it as a messianic title, for, shortly after being told by John the Immerser that Jesus is the "Lamb of God," the disciples tell their friends, "we have found the Messiah" (Jn. 1:36, 41). Something about this title apparently made the disciples think of the Messiah. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the Hebrew Bible that makes an explicit connection between messianic expectations and the title "Lamb of God." Scholars have proposed four possible antecedents.

•The Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah are closely linked with early Christian expectations of a suffering Messiah who would "go like a lamb (amnos) to the slaughter" (Is. 52:13-53:12), a connection made explicit in Acts 8:32. The link to taking away sin is found in Isaiah 53:5, where the Suffering Servant is "wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought up peace." Thus, the lamb-like Servant suffers for our sins.

•Jesus is the Paschal/Passover lamb. Elsewhere in the New Testament Paul calls Jesus "our Passover lamb (pascha)" (1 Cor. 5:7). Peter likewise calls Jesus, "a lamb (amnos) without blemish and without spot" (1 Pet. 1:19). John, however, says that the Messianic Lamb will "take away the sins of the world" (1:29). It is important to note, therefore, that the Passover lamb was not a sin offering (Ex. 12). Rather, each family offered its own lamb so houses marked with the sacrificial blood would be protected from the angel of Death, who would "pass over" them (Ex. 12:3, 7, 12-13). Thus, when God offers his Passover lamb, it is as Father of all Mankind, so that Death will pass over all who accept the blood of his Lamb. On the other hand, the term for lamb in John 1:29 and 36 is amnos, while the term for the paschal lamb in the Greek Septuagint—the Bible often quoted in the New Testament and used by the earliest Christians—is probaton (Ex. 12:3-5), which means sheep in general, but not necessarily lamb. Would John's earliest readers have understood these two terms as synonymous?

The Triumphant Lamb from Revelation; mosaic from the altar of the Church of Augusta Victoria, Mount of Olives, Jerusalem (photo by William Hamblin)

•Messiah as conquering Lamb. Although the association of the Messiah with a lamb is never explicitly made in the Hebrew Bible, it is found in some intertestamental literature. Enoch 89 gives an extended allegorical prophecy where Israel is described as sheep being ravaged by wild animals until the Lord raises a sheep, the Messiah, who defends and saves them (Enoch 89:41-50 = OTP 1:67). Likewise, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, describes a Messianic Lamb: "I saw a virgin was from Judah, wearing a linen stole; and from her was born a spotless lamb. . . . And all the wild animals rushed against him, but the lamb conquered them, and destroyed them, trampling them underfoot" (Joseph 19:8 = OTP 1:824). This Testament probably dates from the 2nd century B.C.E., and although many scholars see parts of 19:8 as a later Christian interpolation, it is likely that the conquering lamb-Messiah symbolism is ancient, and thus may have influenced John. This conquering Lamb imagery is most clearly found in the book of Revelation. There, however, the Greek term for Lamb is arnion, while in John 1 it is amnos, so the connection between the two may seem more explicit in English than it would have appeared to first-century Greek readers.

•Finally, there is the image of the Lamb as a sacrificial offering in the Israelite temple cult. (Note by cult I mean system of ritual and sacrifice, not a fringe religious movement.) The emphasis here is on Christ's death as an atoning sacrifice typologically linked to the sacrificial sheep in the temple. In the Septuagint, the term amnos generally has reference to a one-year-old lamb required in certain expiatory sacrifices (Lev. 14; Num. 7), as well as the regular sacrificial schedule (Num. 28-29). Likewise, Ezekiel's temple vision requires amnos/lamb sacrifices. All of these passages talk about a one-year-old amnos, using precisely the same Greek term as John's "Lamb of God." They are also frequently required to be "without blemish" (amōmos), just as the amnos/lamb of 1 Peter 1:19. This is the most clear connection to a lamb that "takes away the sins of the world," but it lacks a clear context of why this should lamb should be associated with the Messiah.

Thus, although there are a number of possible antecedents to the idea of the Lamb of God in John, it is not certain which one John had in mind, or if he is alluding to a combination of several or even all these concepts.

Baptism/Water Immersion

What did immersion in water mean in first-century Palestine? Basically there were three different aspects to Jewish water immersion: 1) body purification (for entrance to the temple); 2) proselyte baptism, and 3) initiation into a Jewish sect. Christian baptism may have been a combination of all three of these elements.

Body purification immersions began in ancient Israel as a requirement for priests before they could enter the temple if they had been defiled through contact with the dead, certain sicknesses, blood, or unclean substances (Lev. 11-15). This developed into regular priestly immersions to insure purification in case of unknown defilement. The reason the priest and Levites were unwilling to help the stricken man on the road to Jericho was in part because contact with blood and death would render them defiled and unable to perform their duties in the temple (Lk. 10:25-37). Initially these requirements seem to have applied only to priests, but they were eventually required of all who entered the temple, probably to prevent surreptitious defilement of priests by contact with unclean worshippers inside the temple precinct. Only if all who entered the temple were ritually pure could it be guaranteed that priests would not become defiled by accidentally touching someone who was impure. Furthermore, by the first century many Jews felt that they should try to remain in a temple-worthy purified state throughout daily life, even if they did not have immediate plans to visit the temple.

By the time of Jesus anyone wishing to enter the temple was required to immerse himself in a mikveh, a special ritual immersion pool. Dozens of these from the first century have been discovered by archaeologists (see photos). The practice still continues among many Jews today before the Sabbath, and on other special occasions. This immersion, however, was done by oneself. The person simply entered the pool, dunked himself under the water (perhaps several times), and came out of the water. No one was required to immerse you.

Two mikvot from the time of Jesus, uncovered in excavations on the southeast corner of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem. Jews preparing to enter the temple would descend the steps and immerse themselves in a pool of water. (Photos by W. Hamblin
Thus many early Jews would have seen John's baptism in light of this ritual purification of the mikveh, and would have seen it linked in some way to preparation for entering the temple, perhaps in preparation for the eschatological purification of the temple itself. Josephus, writing in the late first century, describes John's baptism as a "purification of the body" (Antiquities, 18.117), probably reflecting this standard Jewish perspective. Thus, immersion was a necessary purification ritual for entering the temple, and, as we shall see next week, the first public act of Jesus after his immersion/purification by John was entering and purifying the temple (Jn. 2:13-25).

Immersion purification was also required by gentile converts to Judaism, a practice that would have been known to first-century Jews. There is also evidence of sectarian immersion rituals within Judaism, that is, an immersion ritual as a sign of joining a sub-group or denomination within Judaism. This is especially clear in the Qumran community, where repentance and ritual immersion were required of people wishing to join the community. This has led some scholars to speculate about a possible relationship between John the Baptizer and the Qumran community, though these parallels may simply reflect a shared set of religious assumptions. Be that as it may, it is clear that the idea of immersion as a purification ritual associated with either a gentile joining Judaism, or a Jew joining a Jewish sectarian movement would have been familiar to John's Jewish readers of the first century.

John's immersion ritual, though it follows these broad patterns, was nonetheless distinctive in certain aspects. First of all, John in some way performed the baptism. It is not clear exactly how this was done, but the people were baptized by John; they didn't just immerse themselves. John's baptism was not merely purification of the body so that the candidate could enter into the presence of God in the temple, though this was, of course, part of what was going on. John's immersion ritual went further. It was intended to purify the body so that the body became a proper receptacle for the presence of God through immersion in the Spirit. This is precisely what is described on a number of occasions in Christian baptism, Jesus' baptism being the most famous example. Thus, when John says "he [God] who sent me to immerse with water said to me: ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who immerses with the holy Spirit [of God]'" (Jn. 1:33), he is saying that he immerses with water to purify the body so it can be immersed in the presence of God as manifest by the Spirit, even when outside the temple. John is thus taking temple purification ideology of the mikveh one step further. You are not purified so that you can enter the presence of God in the temple—as standard Jewish mikveh theology would have it—but you are purified so the presence of God can enter into you.

According to the synoptic gospels, John's baptism required repentance as a prerequisite (Mt. 3:8-11; Lk. 3:8). It was a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mk. 1:4; Lk. 3:3). John, however, does not mention repentance as an aspect of John the Immerser's ritual. (Indeed, John never uses the term "repent" at all in his Gospel). This does not necessarily mean that it wasn't a part of the purpose of immersion, but John the Evangelist wants to emphasize something else.

Then why does John baptize? John baptizes first simply because God commanded him to (1:33), but, more importantly: "for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he [Jesus the Messiah] might be revealed to Israel" (1:31). How does John's immersion ritual reveal that Jesus is the Messiah? First, when Jesus comes to John for baptism, John receives the witness of the special sign he had been promised from God: "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who immerses with the Holy Spirit" (1:33). John's (implied) water immersion of Jesus prepares the way for Spirit's immersion of Jesus, which reveals him as the Messiah to John, as prophesied by God. Furthermore, water immersion of disciples likewise reveals Jesus as the Messiah. The disciple is immersed in water (John's baptism) for temple-style purification in preparation for the immersion in the Spirit (Jesus' baptism). The Spirit will then reveal to the baptized disciple that Jesus is the Messiah (3:5-6, 14:17-16, 15:26).

Bethany across the Jordan

John is said to have baptized in "Bethany across the Jordan" (1:28), not to be confused with the Bethany near Jerusalem where Lazarus and Mary dwelt (12:1-8). There is a variant reading at this point between the older and widely attested Bethany, and Bethabara, which is found in the Textus Receptus (the Greek New Testament as it came to Western Europe in the 15th century), and hence in early English translations such as the King James Version. All other references to Bethany in the New Testament are to Lazarus's city near Jerusalem. In Aramaic Bethabara means the "house/place of crossing," in other words, a ford across the Jordan river. It is obviously not a textual error, but an alternate name. (It may be that Bethabara was the name of a ford, and Bethany was a village nearby.) Bethabara can be seen on the 6th-century Byzantine Christian Madaba map, and was the location of a major Christian church and baptismal site on Byzantine Christian pilgrimage itineraries (4th through 7th centuries). This site was recently excavated and can now be visited in Jordan (see photos).

Left: Painting of the baptism of Jesus in the new Greek Orthodox church at Bethany, Jordan. Right: remains of the 6th century Byzantine shrine at the traditional site of the baptism of Jesus, at Bethany/Bethabara in Jordan. (Photos by William Hamblin)

Most Christians naturally think of John the Immerser as a forerunner of Jesus, but it is clear that not all Jews of the first century saw things this way. Many saw John as a prophet in his own right. The Gospel of John thus wants to emphasize that the Baptist is the forerunner of the Messiah, but is not himself the Messiah (Jn. 1:20), probably to counteract claims of disciples of the Immerser in the first century. There are hints in the New Testament of followers of John who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. These movements continued during the first centuries after Jesus. The most important ancient Baptizer community was the Mandaeans, who still survive today in southern Iraq and continue to practice ritual baptism in John's name.

John and Jesus were the two best known Jewish prophets from the first half of the first century, though there were actually many others, mainly known through brief notices by Josephus. Many of these first-century prophets and messiahs were executed or otherwise killed by members of the Jewish and Roman aristocracies. John the Immerser may have been a better known prophet in the mid-first century than Jesus, since Josephus, the major Jewish historian of the period, devotes about three times as much space to his discussion of John the Immerser as he does to Jesus (Antiquities, 18.5.2 [John] and 18.3.3 [Jesus]). This may reflect the relative impact of the two prophets in the minds of aristocratic Jews of the first century.

John the Messiah?

The Beloved's account of the Immerser begins with the "Jews of Jerusalem" sending "priests and Levites" to question John (1:19). They ask three questions. Is John: 1) the Messiah, 2) Elijah, or 3) "the Prophet" (1:20-21, 25)? He answers each question negatively. Obviously the Jerusalem authorities would not have asked these questions if rumors hadn't been circulating that John was each of these figures. So, who are these three eschatological figures, and why would first-century Jews suspect that John might be one of them?

•Messiah. The term Messiah is a transliteration of the Hebrew māšîaḥ, which means one who has been anointed with olive oil. Christ, on the other hand, is an anglicized transliteration of the Greek word christos, which likewise means "anointed." In the Septuagint, christos (and its variants) generally translate the Hebrew word māšîaḥ. In the Hebrew Bible, priests, kings, and sometimes prophets were anointed as part of a ritual of consecration. The "anointed/māšîaḥ" thus generally had reference to either a king or priest in ancient Israel. This is most striking in Isaiah 45:1, where YHWH calls the Persian king Cyrus his "anointed" or māšîaḥ/christos. As we shall see, for John, Christ uniquely and simultaneously fulfills all these three of these roles—prophet, priest, and king—and thus is the ultimate "Anointed One."

John the Beloved himself makes this linguistic connection between Messiah and Christ clear in John 1:41: "‘We have found the Messiah (messias)'—which is translated Anointed (christos)" (see also 4:25). Thus John is consciously using the Greek word christos to translate the Hebrew māšîaḥ. In English, Messiah is a transliteration of the Hebrew māšîaḥ/anointed one, while Christ is the English transliteration of the Greek christos/anointed one. Christos itself is the Greek translation of the Hebrew māšîaḥ. This creates three synonymous words in English—Messiah, Christ, and Anointed One—for precisely the same ancient concept. The name Jesus Christ in English is equivalent to "Jesus the Messiah" or "Jesus the Anointed One."

At the time of Jesus there was widespread eschatological expectation of the imminent coming of the Messiah. However, not all Jews believed the coming of the Messiah was near, and different Jews understood the nature of the expected Messiah quite differently. Most believed the Messiah was to be the prophesied ideal righteous king who would defeat Israel's enemies. Some believed he would be a mortal militant leader of armies. Others expected a more supernatural Messiah, accompanied by miraculous signs. Still others thought that the Messiah would be an exalted Son of God. As we shall see the concept of Son of God and Messiah are synonymous for John (1:49, 11:27, 20:31).

•Elijah. The expectation of an eschatological Elijah derives from two biblical passages. First, Elijah was taken into heaven in without dying (2 Kg. 2.1, 11), and second, Malachi prophesied that Elijah would return "before the great and terrible day of YHWH" (Mal. 4:5). Thus among many first-century Jews, the return of Elijah was an expected sign that the eschatological day of YHWH, including the coming of the Messiah, was at hand. Some intertestamental texts expressed the same idea (1 Enoch 90:31, 89:52; Sirach 48:10-12). Some contemporaries also thought Jesus was Elijah returned (Mk. 6:14-15, 8:27-28; Mt. 16:13-14; Lk. 9:7-8, 18-19). According to the Beloved, John the Immerser denied that he is Elijah (1:21-22), but Matthew reports that Jesus taught that John was Elijah returned (Mt. 11:13-14, 17:10-13; cf. Lk. 1:17). Elijah's appearance at the Transfiguration (Mk. 9:2-8; Mt. 17:1-8; Lk. 9:28-36) probably reflects this same eschatological expectation.

•Prophet. In first-century Israel there was a widespread (though not universal) belief that prophecy had ceased in ancient days, and a hope for the coming of a new prophet and new prophetic age (1 Maccabees 4:46, 14:41). More importantly, however, Moses had prophesied that there would arise a prophet like Moses (Dt. 18:15-19). Early Christians saw Jesus as this Moses-like prophet (Acts 3:22, 7:37), who brought the new covenant. The Qumran sectarians had similar views: "there shall come the prophet and the messiahs of Aaron and Israel" (1QS9.11 = Vermes, Complete Dead Sea Scrolls, 110). (Note the belief here in a priestly Messiah of Aaron's line, and a royal Messiah of David's line.)

It is clear that John the Immerser continued to have disciples and followers in the decades after his death (Jn. 4:1). Apollos, for example, apparently accepted Jesus as the Messiah, but followed John's form of baptism rather than Jesus' (Acts 18:24-19:7). The (Pseudo)-Clementine Recognitions, probably written in first quarter of the 3rd century, almost two centuries after the death of John the Immerser, describe a still active community of John's disciples, sometimes in opposition to Christians. These disciples claimed that John the Immerser was the Messiah, was greater than Jesus, and that he had been hidden away by God (Clementine Recognitions, 1.54.8, 1.60.1-2; cf. Mk 6:14), presumably for an eschatological return. Thus the Beloved's concern in chapter one emphasizing that John the Immerser expressly said that he was not the Messiah (1:20), and that Jesus was the Messiah (1:26-34), is perhaps in response to these types of claims by the Immerser's disciples.

Crying out in the Wilderness

In response to the questions of the temple priests, John describes himself as "the one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!'" (Jn. 1:23). John is quoting the famous prophesy of Isaiah 40:3, which is part of the chapter proclaiming comfort to Jerusalem. In the first-century, citation of one verse from the Hebrew Bible was often a shorthand reference to an entire passage. (At the time of Jesus, the Hebrew Bible was not yet divided into standardized chapters and verses, as can be seen from biblical texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls.) Thus, what John is actually saying is "I am the person crying in the wilderness prophesied in Isaiah 40." By citing one verse from Isaiah, John is expecting his readers to be familiar with this passage and make additional connections with the entire passage, not just the single verse explicitly mentioned. When we read all of Isaiah 40 in this light, we see a number of messianic motifs that are important in John. If we look at Isaiah with a messianic perspective in mind, we see the following motifs: God's prophet is speaking comfort (40:1), iniquity is pardoned (40:2), the glory of YHWH is revealed (40:5, a title for Jesus in John), a herald proclaiming the "good news" that Jerusalem will "behold your God" (40:9), a good shepherd motif (40:11), and the coming of the "Spirit of YHWH" upon one who will teach knowledge, justice, and understanding (40:13-14). As we shall see, these are all important themes for John.

Thus John the Immerser is the first man to recognized Jesus as the Messiah, and the Beloved's account of this encounter introduces major themes that will be fully developed throughout the gospel.

A pdf of the full version of this column, with extensive references and notes, can be found here.

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William James Hamblin is professor of Near Eastern History at Brigham Young University. You can follow and discuss "An Enigmatic Mirror" on Facebook.

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