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.