John the Baptist in Matthew

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This pages is part of the Jesus Database project and relates especially to 213 John the Baptist

John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew (see also John the Baptist in LukeActs)

GMatthew comes from late in the 1C: typically dated somewhere in the 80s and seen as reflecting to some extent the tensions as the followers of Jesus diverged from the Torah-observant Jewish neighbors in the final quarter of the first century. Matthew used Mark as a primary source for his basic narrative, supplementing that story line with the more extensive traditions of Jesus' teaching in the Sayings Gospel Q. As there is no reason to think that Matthew used Luke or John, this gospel may preserve a distinctive view of Jewish Christianity and of John the Baptist.

Unlike Luke, Matthew makes no reference to John the Baptist or his parents (Zechariah and Elizabeth) in his infancy narrative. Matthew, then, does not treat Jesus and John as cousins.

Matthew 3:1-12 introduces John at the commencement of Jesus' public activity:

  • Verses 1-6 reconfigure the material in Mark 1:2-6,14-15. In the process, Matthew corrects Mark's mistaken attribution of Malachi 3:1 to Isaiah and omits the words not found in Isaiah. There appears to be no significant difference in their view of John.
  • Verses 7-10 draw on the Q Gospel for a brief resume of John's message, with very similar words being found in Luke 3:7-9. Matthew does not present the instructions to special interest groups (including tax-collectors and soldiers) that we find attributed to John in Luke 3:10-14.
  • Verses 11-12 portray John as the precursor who was consciously preparing the crowds for the more powerful one coming after him. Matthew supplements the tradition from Mark with a Q saying about the winnowing fork that the Coming One will wield as he separates the wheat from the chaff.

Where Luke immediately follows this scene with an expurgated reference to John's death at the orders of Herod Antipas, Matthew follows the example of Mark and deals with the death of John later in the narrative (Matt 14:3-12).

All three Synoptic Gospels then recount the story of Jesus' baptism by John. Matthew's significant variation to the Markan story is to add a discourse in which Jesus re-assures John that his baptism is appropriate despite his personal virtue:

John would have prevented him, saying,

"I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"
But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so for now;
for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."

Then he consented. [Matt 3:14-15]

The only other significant Matthean change is to clarify that "the Spirit" that descended like a dove was "the Spirit of God" (3:16).

John's arrest is mentioned in Matt 4:12, closely following the information found in Mark 1:14.

The question about fasting (Matt 9:14-17) reflects an awareness that the practices of John's disciples were similar to those of the Pharisees, while those of Jesus and his followers were distinctively less ascetical. Jesus' reply implies that he is the bridegroom, while John was a figure of lesser significance.

John's question to Jesus (Matt 11:2-6 = Luke 7:18-23) forms the first part of an extended discussion of the relative significance of these two figures. From his prison, John sends disciples to ask whether Jesus is "the one who is to come" or whether they should wait for another? In response Jesus cites his miracles of deliverance (for the blind, the lame, lepers, the deaf, the dead and the poor) and pronounces a beatitude on anyone who takes no offence at him.

Jesus' words about John then follow immediately (Matt 11:7-19) just as they do in Luke 7. John's special significance is developed using the symbol of Elijah, whose return was anticipated by some Jews as a precursor to the arrival of the Messiah. Unlike Matthew, Luke avoided identifying John with Elijah since he was going to apply the motif of Elijah's ascent to heaven and the outpouring of his spirit on Elisha to empower Elisha for ministry to the ascension of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.

Herod fears Jesus is John redivivus in Matt 14:1-2 (=Mark 6:14-16 = Luke 9:7-9), and this provides Matthew with the opportunity to recount the story of John's execution. Matthew's version is a simpler form of the more detailed story found in Mark 6:17-29. The only point where Matthew elaborates the version found in Mark is when he adds a sentence about Herod's high regard for John:

Though Herod wanted to put him to death,

he feared the crowd,

because they regarded him as a prophet. [Matt 14:5]

Jesus learns of John's death in a scene that is unique to Matthew:

Then [the disciples of John] went and told Jesus.

Now when Jesus heard this,

he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. [Matt 14:12b-13a]

The confession at Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:13-23 = Mark 8:27-33 = Luke 9:18-22) includes a mention of the belief that Jesus was in some sense a resurrected John the Baptist:

[Jesus] asked his disciples,

"Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
And they said, "Some say John the Baptist,

but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." [Matt 16:13b-14]

The interpretation of John as Elijah (already mentioned above) is the main focus of Matt 17:9-13, which follows Mark 9:9-13 but which Luke was to entirely omit for reasons already cited:

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them,

"Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
And the disciples asked him, "Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?"
He replied, "Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things;
but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him,
but they did to him whatever they pleased.
So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands."

Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

John the Baptist makes a final appearance in Matthew when Jesus is questioned over the source of his authority:

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Jesus said to them, "I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" And they argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. [Matt 21:23-27 = Mark 11:27-33 = Luke 20:1-8]

From this brief review of the way that John the Baptist functions in Matthew's Gospel, we can see that Matthew follows Mark more closely than Luke was to do. In Matthew, John the Baptist is clearly a figure of lesser significance. Although not the subject of his own birth narratives (as in Luke), John still has considerable dignity as the Elijah figure who comes to prepare for the arrival of the Coming One. The underlying unity of the Baptist and Jesus communities is reflected in the frequent references to Jesus as a resurrected John, in the assumption that they shared similar prophetic status, and in the questions over their (surprisingly?) differing attitudes to fasting.

Greg Jenks