The Baptisms of John and Jesus: An Exegesis of John 1:19-34

Lloyd Lee Wilson

Introduction to the Problem

A distinctive of early Friends which they frequently defended in debates with other English Christians in the 17th century was their rejection of water baptism as a necessary part of the Christian life. Not only was it unnecessary, these Friends argued, it was actually spiritually harmful, as a “dead ritual”. Robert Barclay, often described as “the first, greatest, and last Quaker theologian”, in 1678 articulated the Quaker position on Baptism in his Twelfth Proposition:

As there is one Lord and one faith, so there is “one baptism, which is not the putting away the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience before God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” And this baptism is a pure and spiritual thing, to wit, the baptism of the spirit and fire, by which we are buried with him, that being washed and purged from our sins, we may “walk in newness of life;” of which the baptism of John was a figure, which was commanded for a time and not to continue for ever. As to the baptism of infants, it is a mere human tradition, for which neither precept nor practice is to be found in all the Scripture.1

Following this line of thought, early Friends understood that the baptism of John, i.e., water baptism, was not to be practiced by Christians forever, but the baptism of the Spirit was always the experience of the true Christian. The apophatic spirituality of Friends led them to strip away everything that was not essential to their relationship with and obedience to God, including the practice of water baptism. They defended this position vigorously with arguments from Scripture and logic.

This distinctive Quaker view of water baptism has been sustained into the 21st century, but is now threatened on both sides. Some pastoral Friends, becoming more closely acculturated into mainstream Protestant thought, now feel that water baptism is at least acceptable, and perhaps desirable, for Christians. On the other extreme, some liberal Friends’ rejection of water baptism has taken the form of dogma, with no understanding of the early Friends reasoning.

This study undertakes an exegesis of John 1:19-51 in order to understand the Fourth Gospel’s presentation of baptism, by water and by the Holy Spirit. An understanding of the meaning of this passage, based on current scholarship, can help the contemporary Christian understand baptism as first century Christians did. A comparison of this understanding with the arguments put forward by the first Quakers will help the contemporary Quaker discern whether the distinctively Quaker rejection of water baptism is supported by a sound understanding of Scripture. That discernment, in turn, will influence the decision to maintain or abandon the traditional position, or perhaps will lead to a more nuanced understanding of the biblical forms of baptism.

Friends Understanding of Scripture

Friends’ unusual understanding of the position of Scripture in the Christian life has been a distinctive of the movement from its earliest days. Friends have often been accused of not believing or valuing the Bible, but that is not the case. It is true that Friends have never considered the Scripture a final authority for Christians, giving that honor to the immediate and perceptible guidance of the Holy Spirit. Looking again to Robert Barclay, one finds this principle expressed in his Third Proposition:

From these revelations of the Spirit of God to the saints, have proceeded the scriptures of truth, which contain,

I. A faithful historical account of the actings of God’s people in divers ages, with many singular and remarkable providences attending them.

II. A prophetical account of several things, whereof some are already past, and some yet to come.

III. A full and ample account of all the chief principles of the doctrine of Christ, held forth in divers precious declarations, exhortations and sentences, which, by the moving of God’s spirit, were at several times, and upon sundry occasions, spoken and written unto some churches and their pastors: nevertheless, because they are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners. Yet because they give a true and faithful testimony of the first foundation, they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty; for as by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know them, so they testify, that the Spirit is that guide by which the saints are led into all truth: therefore, according to the scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader. And seeing we do therefore receive and believe the scriptures, because they proceeded from the Spirit; therefore also the Spirit more originally and principally the rule, according to that received maxim in the schools, Propter quod unumquodque est tale, illud ipsum est magis tale. Englished thus: ‘That for which a thing is such, that thing itself is more such.’2

A common modern paraphrase of this principle is that since a Christian can understand the scriptures only with the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, which is one’s foremost Guide, then Christians should turn their attention entirely to that Guide, and not be bound by the written word. Nevertheless, scripture is a faithful and true record which can be of great value to the Christian and the Christian community.

A more recent statement about the authority of Scripture is included in the statement of doctrines and principles issued by North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends at Woodland, North Carolina in 1935:

We believe any doctrine, belief or practice that contradicts the Scriptures is not to be accepted, and that they are the most perfect outward rule of faith and practice, but not the primary rule, which we attribute to the Spirit that gave them forth, by which alone their meaning can be rightly understood, and we believe without this Spirit none should endeavor to study or teach them.3

Conservative Friends (like those in Woodland, NC) find themselves in another particular context with regard to academic study of the Bible. “A Brief Synopsis . . .” approved by all seven Conservative yearly meetings of Friends in 1912, regards the whole subject of “Higher Criticism” of the Bible with some suspicion:

Neither would we have any think that our attitude toward the Holy Scriptures, (which we believe is the scriptural one) is induced by any leaning toward, or sympathy for that refined species of unbelief, known as “Higher Criticism,” which, calling in question many things recorded in the Bible; that are super-natural [sic], or miraculous, doubtless has shaken the faith of many an honest enquirer after Truth. What we, in this age of materialism need, is not higher criticism, but a higher, deeper, broader faith in God, and in his Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; and a deeper reverence for things Divine, not omitting the Bible, which, in its entirety, is always precious to the humble, devoted Christian.4

There is beginning to be some discussion among seasoned Conservative Friends in North Carolina about formally modifying this statement about higher criticism. Recent Conservative Quaker experience with Bible study in general and the techniques of higher criticism in particular has been characterized by having one’s primary attention continually re-directed and re-focused on the guidance of the Holy Spirit of God, the Guide and Teacher as called by Friends. It is being experienced that faith in the True Authority is deepened by academic study of the Bible, not weakened.

There is much to be learned from the Bible, and the more one studies it, the more one can learn. However, as Barclay and North Carolina Yearly Meeting-Conservative have said, the scriptures can only be considered a secondary rule, not the primary one. Regarding this particular exegesis, therefore, the results (whatever they may be) cannot be binding on the Quaker position with regard to water baptism. They can and should, however, be a tool for more clearly understanding what the Holy Spirit is trying to illuminate, and how to be faithful to that illumination.

This particular exegesis approaches the chosen passage (John 1:19-34) with this “baptismal problem” in mind, and in the context of the Friends understanding of scripture as a context. A scripture passage cannot be studied in isolation, of course. It must be considered as part of a larger pericope (or textual unit), and as part of the book in which it is found; and that book must itself be understood in terms of its historical setting and context. A fuller understanding of any smaller division of the gospel must therefore start with an examination of the Fourth Gospel as a unit.

The Gospel of John

Genre of Gospel: The Fourth Gospel is first and foremost a gospel; within that general grouping, it is a narrative gospel. The genre of Christian narrative gospel consists of works that proclaim the good news about the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, arranged in a story line that serves to advance the particular perspective or agenda of the author/editor.5 In general, then, the reader/hearer can expect the text to proclaim and explain the good news that the Christ of God has come to humankind. This genre of “gospel” has long been considered a new literary form, represented primarily by the first four books of the Christian New Testament.6 If the gospels had been an entirely new genre, however, those hearing or reading it would not have known what to expect, and would have faced an obstacle in knowing how to interpret and understand what they were hearing or reading. There must be a close similarity between the gospel genre and some already existing genre that would have been familiar to the original audiences, such as history or biography.

The gospel genre is not intended to be history as the contemporary reader understands history. The gospel writer felt free to re-organize sequences of events and settings in ways that supported the particular points he wanted to emphasize, and to embellish or omit parts of the story of Jesus as needed. For this reason, it is impossible to construct a perfect chronological harmony of the gospels. The gospel writer was not a disinterested observer, but a partisan, whose intent was to tell his story in such a way that the reader comes to the same conclusion about who Jesus Christ that the writer had. The Fourth Evangelist 7 tells the reader exactly this near the end of his story, when he writes:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. 8

Some scholars have seen the Fourth Gospel as primarily a theological work; 9 but more recently it has been argued that the Gospels can be understood as a form of the Greco-Roman biography. 10 There are both clear connections between the gospels and examples of Greco-Roman biography11 and distinctive characteristics shared by the four canonical gospels, including their subject (Jesus of Nazareth) and the evangelical message he preached. The canonical gospels are also distinct from the noncanonical gospels, both apocryphal12 and gnostic.13

The early reader or hearer of the canonical gospels, therefore, would have recognized the canonical gospels as being in the genre of biography, and from that recognition would have known what to expect. One can gain a better understanding of the Fourth Gospel by comparing it with the other three. They are all concerned with the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth for the reader, and have many incidents and accounts in common. However, they also differ from one another in illuminating ways.

The Fourth Evangelist has omitted mention of several incidents which would seem to be important to the Christ story. There is no birth or infancy/childhood narrative in the Fourth Gospel, no temptation of Christ, and no Transfiguration. The order of events is different from that in the Synoptic Gospels, and where parallel accounts are given, they often differ in significant detail. For example, Jesus teaches by means of long discourses in the Fourth Gospel, rather than in the parables that predominate in the other gospels.

This could be evidence that the Evangelist did not know of the other gospels, or that he knew of them and was deliberate in his different account. The Fourth Gospel is still considered to be the last written of the four canonical gospels, although not as late as once thought perhaps 100-110 C.E. for a final edition.14 If so, there was certainly time for the synoptic gospels, and in particular Mark, to have diffused over a sufficiently large geographical area that the Fourth Evangelist would have known of them. On the other hand, some scholars suggest that the first edition of John may have been assembled as early as 80-85 C.E., only a decade or so after Mark.15 Paul Anderson makes a convincing argument that the best way of understanding the relationship between Mark’s Gospel and John’s Gospel is to assume an interfluence in both directions, beginning with the oral traditions behind each; that the Fourth Evangelist built around Mark’s Gospel, adding to it additional material thought to be important, and correcting the record in certain places where needed.16

Beyond the interplay between the Markan tradition and that of the Fourth Gospel, several topics can be seen as of particular concern to the Fourth Evangelist. Much of the Fourth Gospel expresses a high christology, describing Jesus as the divine pre-existent Word, on a par with the Father-Creator. This may account for the lack of infancy or childhood narratives and the omission of any genealogy of Jesus. The Fourth Evangelist may have considered Jesus too divine to have been seriously tempted by the devil, and therefore left out that story.

There are also the matters of the increasingly strained relationship between the new Christians and Synagogue Judaism; the persistence of the sect of followers of John the Baptist, and the infiltration of Gnostic/Docetic ideas into the early church.17 The matter of dealing with the sect of followers of John the Baptist has been proposed by some as a main purpose for the entire Fourth Gospel.18 In this paradigm, the gospel writer would shape his story to emphasize the subordination of the Baptist to Jesus, and this is in fact a significant difference between the portrayal of John the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel and in the Synoptics. This paradigm will be further explored later in this paper.

The Proem (1:1-51)

The Fourth Gospel is easily separated into several sections. There is an introductory section, or proem, a section dealing primarily with the signs, or miracles, Jesus did, a section dealing with the Passion, and a concluding section. Each of these sections can in turn be broken down in more detail. The passage of interest in this study is part of the Proem, or introduction to the Fourth Gospel. This occupies the entire first chapter of the gospel, and comes to an end with the beginning of the second chapter, when the subject abruptly turns to the first of Jesus’ signs: the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana.

This is a strikingly long introduction in comparison with those of the Synoptics. Matthew’s and Mark’s introductions are a single verse each, and Luke takes only four verses to introduce his gospel to Theophilus. The Fourth Evangelist, by contrast, spends 51 verses introducing his gospel. This difference itself attracts the serious reader to examine the first chapter in more detail.

The first chapter or proem is easily divided into two parts: verses 1-18 (Prologue) and verses 19-51 (Testimony of John the Baptist) by style and content. The first section is theological and poetic, the latter is practical and narrative. If the Prologue were deleted, v. 19 could serve as the beginning of the gospel in a style very similar to that of Mark. It begins to look as if the Fourth Gospel has two introductions, one after the other, and the second is much closer in style to the signs section that immediately follows.

(This is not the only way to outline the structure of the gospel; Painter, for example, considers only the Prologue as introduction and 1:19 as the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.19 In either structure, there are significant breaks in the flow of the text between verses 18 and 19, and again between the end of chapter one and the beginning of chapter two. In discussing exegetical issues in the Fourth Gospel, Painter calls the pericope 1:19-51 “The Quest for the Messiah: Act One”.)20

The Prologue is material included by the Fourth Evangelist that the other gospel writers left out of their story, and as such it gives us an important insight to the Fourth Evangelist’s particular purpose in writing. The Synoptic gospels have very perfunctory introductions, and move directly into their story, which begins with the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Fourth Gospel, by contrast, has an extensive introduction, which places the beginning of Jesus’ story before the Creation: “In the beginning the Word already was.”21 For the Synoptics, the story is how the human being, Jesus of Nazareth, came to embody the Divine and fulfilled the plan of God for the salvation of humankind; for the Fourth Evangelist the story is that the Eternal Divine, co-existent with God, became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and dwelt among human beings for the salvation of humankind. This difference of emphasis begins to illuminate for the exegete the “why” of the Fourth Gospel.

One similarity and one difference between the Prologue and the Testimony of John are of interest to this study. The similarity is that both the Prologue (verses 6-8, 15) and the Testimony (verses 26-27, 30-31, 34) are concerned to establish the Baptist’s subordination to Jesus. As discussed earlier, this is an important characteristic of the Fourth Gospel as a whole. Finding indications of this subordination in both sections is an indication of their literary unity. However, it is also possible to see the subordination verses in the Prologue as later insertions in an already existing literary unit.

The difference between Prologue and Testimony lies in their Christology. The Prologue presents a high Christology: Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God, eternally present, divine Son of God. The testimony of John, in contrast, offers a relatively low Christology: to the Baptist Jesus is the Lamb of God and the Chosen One of God.22 Jesus’ new disciples call him “rabbi” (v. 38) and messiah (v. 41). These are terms of high regard, but not terms of divinity.23

From these indications one may posit a redactional history of the beginning of the Fourth Gospel. If one assumes with Anderson an interfluence of the Johannine and Markan traditions, and with Ehrman that the Johannine community experienced a trajectory of higher and higher Christology as the years went by,24 it may be concluded that the Prologue is a later composition, added to the beginning of the gospel at some later date. The Testimony of John would be the earlier composition, and at one time the beginning of the entire gospel. The fact that the Fourth Evangelist twice in the Testimony uses Aramaic words (rabbi, messiah) may also indicate, as Ehrman suggests, an earlier date of composition for the Testimony of John. Painter sees the insertion of the Greek equivalents of these Aramaic words as a sign of later editorial work to ready the gospel for a wider audience.25 This also implies that the Testimony was put into writing at a relatively early date.

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