"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 2.1

Section 2.1 Witness and Call: John the Baptist (Jn 1.19-34)


John the Baptist's testimonies actually take place over three successive days in this Gospel, two of which are covered in this section. The arrangement of the Gospel is not necessarily chronological, although it has been argued that the chronology of the Fourth Gospel was designed to dovetail with the chronology of Mark, in such way that John supplemented Mark (see Bauckham 1998 pp 154-6). But the seven signs were apparently chosen for their persuasive value, and the discourses may be arranged in such a way as to illuminate the signs rather than in a chronological sequence. So when we do have, as here, evidence of a chronological sequence, we should treat it with due seriousness.


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One of the greatest problems in dealing with this Gospel is how to understand the Evangelist's usage of the phrase 'ho Ioudaios', which occurs first here. It is a complicated situation, and the translation of the 68 occurrences of this word is itself complex. Please see the full discussion elsewhere. Suffice it to say that analysis shows the word is used in a total of three senses and two subsenses in this gospel. I have translated it as 1) Judaean, 1a) Jerusalemite, 2) Jew, 2a) Jewish, and 3) "the authorities" (always plural in this sense), according to the context.

On the broader question of 'hoi Ioudaioi' and its translation in antiquity, also see now the essays in Law and Halton 2014.

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Who are these three figures about whom speculation apparently existed relating to John the Baptist? 'Messiah' or 'the Anointed' is the Aramaic title for which 'Christos', 'Christ', is the Greek translation. The Messiah then is the successor to the anointed king, and thus the heir to David and David's line, and to God's promises about David and his descendents. (The Dead Sea Scrolls community actually expected two Messiahs, one priestly and one laic, called the Messiah of Aaron and the Messiah of Israel (according to their Community Rule, 1QS 9.11).) Opinion was divided on the question of the Messiah's physical descent from David, and there was also a belief in some circles that, whoever the Messiah was and where ever and when ever he was born, he would be hidden from view until his glorious revelation. We will see this idea of a 'hidden Messiah' later in the Fourth Gospel. The very fact that Jesus and others claimed to be the Messiah, and the fact that it was considered important to find out whether John the Baptist did so, suggests that there was a popular expectation about the Messiah in the first century CE.

When John denies that he is the Messiah, his questioners then ask whether he is Elijah. Elijah's ascension to heaven in a whirlwind, described in 2 Kings 1.9-12, left ample field for speculation about his ultimate reappearance on earth. In Malachi 3.1 and 4.5 he is apparently given a key role in the preparation for the Day of the Lord. It is easy to see from descriptions of John's preaching and his appearance why anyone might ask whether he saw himself as Elijah. It should be noted that, although John himself denied that he was Elijah, Jesus explicitly identifies him with that role in the Synoptic Gospels (eg, Matthew 11.14, 17.11-13).

The last figure about whom John is asked is 'the prophet' -- likely this refers to the Prophet like Moses promised in Deuteronomy 18.15-19: 'The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: "If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die." Then the Lord replied to me: "They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable."'

John of course denies all these roles in favour of one chosen from Isaiah 40.3, to be the one who makes straight the Lord's roads, and he claims to the Pharisees that his justification for baptism lies in his role as forerunner to one greater than himself, who will (it is implied) baptise with something more than water. We readers know that the one greater who is coming after John is Jesus, because we have heard the prologue linking John, Jesus, and the incarnate Word. But the inquirers do not know: this is perhaps an ironic use of the idea of the hidden Messiah.

See Brown 1966 pp 46-50, and Robinson 1958 for fuller discussions of these figures. An interesting 'twist' on these three is also provided in Bauckham 2007 pp 207-38, a chapter in which the author argues (among other points) that the figure of Elijah as the prophet that returns in the last days may in fact represent a priestly rather than a prophetic figure, because of the way that Elijah was conflated with Phinehas the high priest (Aaron's grandson) in the Targum of Pseudo-Jonathan, an Aramaic translation/paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible (pp 210-11). He also argues there that at times the Evangelist represents characters in the narrative as holding a popular rather than a learned view of the 'prophet like Moses', that makes him (and hence perhaps Jesus) a wonder-working popular leader, almost a king-like figure (see pp 213-25).

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This quotation is from Is 40.3. However here and in other NT quotations of and allusions to this verse the evangelists rely on the LXX translation. In the Hebrew text of Isaiah, it is the way of the Lord that is located in the wilderness. But in the Greek translation the phrase 'in the wilderness' describes the location of the voice instead, thus making it more apppropriately applicable to John the Baptist.

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John's identification of the location where this conversation recounted in vv19-27 took place (and presumably also the rest of chapter 1 and even Jesus' baptism) as Bethany across the Jordan has caused many problems. The phrase across the Jordan appears to have been added to distinguish this Bethany from the Judaean Bethany near Jerusalem, the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary (see chs 11 & 12). If so, this Bethany would be on the east side of the River Jordan, in the district called Perea in NT times. So far John's account matches well with what we learn from the Synoptic Gospels and with what Christian tradition and recent archaeology tell us about the site (or at least the principal site) at which John the Baptist worked.

We can now identify this place with a high degree of confidence. Archaeologists working in the area north of the Dead Sea on the east side of the Jordan near the Hajlah ford and the Wadi El-Kharrar historically associated with John the Baptist have uncovered a large site comprising churches, a monastery and laura (a group of hermits' cells), and baptismal pools (see Waheeb 2012). The site is also Elijah's Hill, a figure connected with John the Baptist in all four canonical gospels. The results of the digging support baptismal activity at the site as early as the 3rd or 4th century CE and continuing into the Byzantine period; the Synoptic Gospels offer a connection between the area and John the Baptist beginning in the mid to late 1st century CE; and Christian writers beginning with Origen show an unbroken chain of tradition from the early 3rd century.

However when discussing this verse (Jn 1.28) in his commentary the Alexandrian theologian Origen1 wrote:

These things happened in Bethabara2 across the Jordan, where John was baptising.

Now we are not unaware that in almost all the copies [ie, of John's Gospel] the reading is These things happened in Bethany. This also seems to have been the case even earlier: indeed we certainly read Bethany in Heracleon3. Still we are not persuaded that we should read Bethany, but Bethabara, because we have been in the places [ie, in Roman Palestine] after information about the traces of Jesus and his disciples and of the prophets. For, as this same evangelist says, Bethany (the hometown of Lazarus, and Martha, and Mary) is fifteen stadia4 away from Jerusalem. The Jordan River is 1805 stadia from it [ie Bethany] by a rough reckoning. But there is no place of the same name as Bethany around the Jordan. Still they say that Bethabara is shown6 [ie, to enquirers] along the bank of the Jordan; there they recount that John used to baptise. (Origen, Commentary on John Book 6, chapter 24 (in Patrologia Graeca 14 col 269AB)

What should we make of this? Modern scholars have roundly rejected Origen's suggested reading of Bethabara, for which the evidence is, as he himself admitted, very weak. But since he had lived for a time in Caesarea Maritima and had clearly made enquiries, I think we should take seriously the problem that he was trying to solve even if we don't adopt his solution: as early as the 220s the local population did not know the name Bethany in connection with the site at which John was said to have baptised, but knew of a place on the banks of the Jordan called Bethabara.

The main modern theories are summarised by Reisner 1987 (as well as by Parker 1955 and Waheeb 2012). We can discount those that try to explain away the problem by adopting an interpretation of the Greek text of Jn 1.28 that is grammatically improbable in order to claim the Evangelist only meant to refer to one place called Bethany. The excavations described by Professor Waheeb rule out the theories that locate Bethany across the Jordan and the site of John the Baptist's activity much farther to the north, across the Jordan from Galilee.

It appears that the only course open to us is to acknowledge that in the time of Christ there was a place - a village, a ford, a spring - in the Wadi El-Kharrar area known as Bethany and also in the early third century such a place, whether the same or another nearby we do not know, known as Bethabara, both of which were connected with John the Baptist. However the names of these sites have been lost and the exact locations indicated by them are probably not recoverable. For more detailed discussions, see Parker 1955, Brown 1966 pp 44-5, Laney 1979, Riesner 1987, and Waheeb 2012. See the comments on Jn 3.23 for a more northerly site on the opposite (that is, the western) bank of the Jordan also associated with John the Baptist's baptising.

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There are two important questions to ask about this verse, and indeed the whole testimony attributed to John the Baptist in vv 29-34. First, to whom is John the Baptist speaking here? Who hears this testimony? Second (and more importantly), what is he getting at by comparing Jesus to a lamb? What does the symbol of the lamb of God mean? It's so familiar to us from liturgy and hymns that it can be hard to step back and see what John the Baptist was trying to get across.

First, the Baptist is likely speaking here to a group of his own followers. He makes allusion to an earlier testimony in v30, the testimony that we readers also heard about in the Prologue: 'A man comes after me who was ahead of me, because he was in existence before me.' This would make no sense to the inquirers sent out from Jerusalem that were questioning John on the previous day, in vv19-28. Likewise John's reminiscence about the baptism of Jesus, and what he testifies in vv32-4 would only make sense if addressed to those who had been there. So it makes sense to suppose that these testimonies were made to John's disciples, about whom we will hear explicitly in the next section.

The second question is more difficult to answer. There are many possibilities for the image of a lamb. Given the importance of Passover symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, the Paschal Lamb springs to mind. That lamb did not take sin away, but since its blood smeared on the doorposts protected the Israelites from the Angel of Death at the time of the first Passover and since in Jesus' time the paschal lambs were killed by priests, it is not too great a stretch to see both something sacrificial and something salvific in the figure of the paschal lamb. Another possibility is that John the Baptist had in mind not an actual lamb but a symbolic one, the lamb to which the Servant is compared in Isaiah 53.7: 'He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.' The Servant in Isaiah 52.13-53.12 can certainly be said to take away sin.

Other OT antecedents have also been suggested, such as the lamb offered twice daily as part of the Temple's rites of sacrifice (see Exodus 29.38-46), which may well figure in to the imagery of John's proclamation. Another possibility offered by some scholars is the figure of an apocalyptic lamb from the Book of Enoch which has similarities with the conquering lamb figure in the Book of Revelation. But the roots of the Lamb of God imagery seem most likely to come from the Paschal Lamb, the Isaian lamb, or some synthesis of the two.

Another and deeper question however is whether the evangelist is here putting his own ideas about Jesus as the Lamb of God into the mouth of John the Baptist, instead of following the usual practice of writers in antiquity, to represent the ideas or meaning of historical subjects even when they use their own words rather than the words of their subject. On the face of it, the idea of Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world seems at odds with the picture John the Baptist offers in Matthew and Luke of the one that comes after him, baptising with the Holy Spirit and with fire, standing with his winnowing fork in his hand to gather the wheat into the granary while burning the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3.1-12, Luke 3.15-17). (In Mark and in the Fourth Gospel we hear of the more powerful one that is coming, who will not baptise with water but with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1.7-8, John 1.26-7, 33), but not the more lurid aspects of John the Baptist's preaching.)

One thing that should be kept in mind, however, is that those snippets from Matthew and Luke represent John's preaching to the crowds that came out to see him. It was intended to move them through their reactions of guilt and fear to repentance and a change of life. He emphasised purification and judgment in Jesus' coming ministry, both of which ideas are certainly taken up by Jesus in his teaching and parables. But here in the conversations reported in the Fourth Gospel John is speaking with his disciples: is it not possible that he revealed in such a context a deeper understanding of the one that was to come? It does not seem an undue stretch to say that by speaking of the Lamb of God, John the Baptist is looking beyond both repentance and judgment to discern mercy in the forgiveness of sin.

See Brown 1966 pp 58-63 and Carey 1981 for discussions of these issues from two different points of view. And see Bauckham 2007 pp 274-6 for the view that numerical composition is involved. According to this theory of composition the fact that numerical value of the letters in the name 'Jesus' and the phrase 'lamb of God' in Hebrew both add up to 391 suggest that John the Baptist's identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God is partly based on a numerological style of exegesis called 'gematria'. Not every reader would have been well-enough acquainted with this kind of rabbinic exegesis to 'get it', but the appreciation of those readers that did would have been enriched (see pp 283-4).

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Most of the MSS witnesses read 'the Son of God' here, as may be seen in the NRSV and NA28. Only a minority read 'the Chosen One of God'. Nevertheless I have chosen to adopt the minority text in this translation. First, it seems more likely that an unusual reading like 'Chosen One of God' would be changed in the course of copying to a familiar expression like 'Son of God' than that the familiar expression would be changed to the unusual one. Second, the witnesses, though fewer, are early, including some early versions, and good, and show geographical diversity. They may also include two early papyri, though Quek 2009 and NA28 are in disagreement here. Third we see in this chapter a series of affirmations of Jesus' special role and mission, culminating in Nathaniel's confession in v.49, 'you are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel' -- this confession would more force if the affirmation that Jesus is Son of God has not already occurred in v.34. So for these and other reasons, it seems preferable to prefer this reading for the translation. See Brown 1966 p 57 and Quek 2009 for further details.

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1 Origen (185/6-254/5) was a Christian scholar, philosopher, and exegete. He principally taught in Alexandria, in Egypt, but also spent significant periods of time in Caesarea Maritima on the coast of Roman Palestine, about 113 km NW of Jerusalem. For more information, see the articles in the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

2 In the PG edition, Origen's preferred placename is spelled Bethara in two places and Bethabara in one. However NA28 gives Bethabara as Origen's reading of the name and in his notes the editor of PG 14 concludes that Origen meant Bethabara. So I have normalised the spelling in all three places as Bethabara.

3 Heracleon (fl c175) was a Gnostic philosopher and exegete whose commentary on John's Gospel Origen frequently refers to and often disagreed with. Heracleon's commentary on John is the earliest one we know of.

4 Aproximately 2.8 km

5 Aproximately 33.3 km

6 Literally Bethabaras are shown; I cannot imagine a plausible explanation for this plural, though it has been suggested that it indicates several fords over the river in the same area (Riesner 1987 38).