"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 3 New Beginnings

Section 3.4: Section 3.4: New Witness by John the Baptist (prompted by Jesus' baptismal ministry) (Jn 3.22-36)


GENERAL COMMENTS


This is John the Baptist's last appearance in the Fourth Gospel. His role is purely that of a witness, testifying to his own disciples and the authorities about Jesus. Only here do we get a sense of John as exercising his own baptismal ministry, and we never see a glimpse, as we do in the Synoptic Gospels, of John as an eschatological prophet, speaking fiery words about the final judgment. Further we are never told in this Gospel what it was about John that attracted so much attention: why would the Jerusalem authorities send to ask if he were the Messiah? What had he done to draw disciples or to bring repentant sinners to baptism in the Jordan? Because all the focus has been on Jesus' signs, we have been given no sense of John's preaching. This suggests that the Evangelist expected that his readers would be familiar with the Synoptic picture of John and understand his importance in the religious environment in which Jesus conducted his own ministry.

The major issue here is the identity of the speaker in vv.31-6. The theories are: that John the Baptist continues to speak, that the Evangelist breaks in with commentary, or that Jesus himself is the speaker. The latter theory is often associated with textual emendation, moving a section of text to make vv.31-6 part of the monologue in vv.12-21, as in Bultmann 1971, in which he moved vv. 31-6 to follow v.21 (pp 160-7). The NRSV suggests the theory that the Evangelist is commenting should be preferred while observing that some interpreters assign the verses to the Baptist. Brown 1966 observes (pp 159-60) that the language of vv.31-6 is very close to that used by Jesus in his discussions and discourses. Dodd 1953 theorises that these verses are a recapitulation by the Evangelist of some of the key points of the previous Nicodemos episode (pp 308-9).

The majority of modern commentators seem to prefer the theory that the Evangelist is commenting; in this light, the theory laid out in Thatcher 2011 about the memory techniques of ancient rhetoric and their relevance to the Evangelist's composition is intriguing. Thatcher (pp 83-90, especially 88-9) theorises that we can use a technique called “memory theatre” (essentially visualising a series of images in a given order connected to the layout of a building as a way for an orator to remember an oration he was to give) to explain features of the Evangelist's writing viewed by others as 'aporias'. These are disconnects or disjunctions in the text that can be explained only by assuming forced dislocation of verses, or thoughtless or careless editing. Here and earlier in chapter 3 (for vv.12-21), Thatcher offers as an explanation that these passages are extended 'asides' by the Evangelist to his audience. They result not from aporias but from 'dual visualisation' in the course of traversing his 'memory theatre', that is, envisioning both Jesus' or the Baptist's original audience and the contemporary audience for whom he is writing, which caused the Evangelist to move seamlessly from recounting Jesus or the Baptist addressing the former to himself addressing the latter.

The difficulty here is that, although it seems possible to justify the assumption of a Hellenistic education, including ancient rhetoric, in the case of St Paul, it is harder to do so in the case of the Beloved Disciple. The sources cited by Thatcher are primarily Latin rhetorical writers such as Quintillian and Cicero. It is clear that the Evangelist knew Greek, and enough about rhetoric and the conventions of ancient biography to construct one, but it is not clear at all that he knew Latin. In the end, I have preferred to follow Barrett [[GET REFS]] in reading vv.31-6 as part of the Baptist's reply to his disciples. Those verses do pick up themes from the prologue and the conversation with Nicodemos but, more importantly to this discussion, they pick up themes and phrases from vv.27-30 (see below).

 

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COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES


The Gk word 'gē' (γῆ) normally means 'land' or 'country' but here it seems it must refer to the countryside as opposed to the city, since the last two episodes in the gospel were set in Jerusalem, unquestionably part of the land of Judaea.

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The name 'Aenon' comes from the Aramaic word for 'springs'; it is not known for certain where these springs were, nor the location of 'Salem'. The traditional identifications rest on late tradition. Two potential 'Salim's or 'Salem's, can be identified, both south of Beth-Shean (the ancient Scythopolis) in northern Judaea, at the juncture of the Jordan River Valley with the Jezreel Valley. There is also an 'Ainum' northeast of Nablus (the ancient Shechem) in the West Bank, near the source of Wadi Fa'rah. See Jesus and His World: An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary, John J Rousseau and Rami Arav eds (Fortress Press, 1995), 7-8. The principal site of John's baptising appears to have been further south; see the discussion of Jn 1.28

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This parenthetical remark is one of two verses in John's Gospel that Richard Bauckham argues are intended to orient readers who know Mark's Gospel to the different chronology of John (the other is Jn 11.2) In fact it alerts readers of Mark to the fact that John 1.19 to 4.43 fits between Mark 1.13 and 1.14, that is between the Baptism and Temptations of Jesus and the arrest of John the Baptist. Bauckham argues that after this the alert reader of Mark would be able to fit other bits of John and Mark together chronologically, as the Evangelist (of GJohn) intended. See Bauckham 1998 pp 150-161.

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Of course the disciples of John should not have been surprised by or annoyed at Jesus' ascendancy over their teacher, since they had heard John's earlier witness (as v.28 shows) but this is easily explained as another example of the misunderstanding motif discussed earlier: the action of John's disciples in coming to him upset over Jesus' success as a baptiser are very like the misunderstandings by Jesus' disciples or interlocutors. And it serves a similar purpose in providing an opportunity for John to reassert his understanding of who Jesus is and his own relationship to Jesus. So it seems mistaken to treat this as a serious 'sequential difficulty', as in Brown 1966 p 153.

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The Evangelist apparently puts vv31-6 in the mouth of the Baptist, for there is no indication of a change of speaker and no-one present to whom they might be better attributed. They don't sound very much like the John the Baptist we see in the Synoptic Gospels except at the very end (v36) when he speaks of the divine wrath remaining on those that do not obey the Son -- an interesting choice of words. The parallelism of thought between v36a and v36b seems to demand something like 'those that do not put their trust in the Son' instead. This seems to offer at least the possibility that this reflects the actual teaching of John the Baptist. These verses also develop the theme of witness, a key concept in this gospel as we shall see. Whereas the previous verses (v27-30) show John discussing his own witness to Jesus, this section develops the idea of Jesus himself as a witness to the heavenly things he has seen and heard. Likewise in the two sections, the Baptist contrasts two divine sendings: he was sent as a forerunner (v.27), while Jesus was sent to speak God's words, echoing contrasts in the prologue and his earlier witness in ch 1.

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