Matthew 3:13 TRANSLATION

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John to be dipped by him in the Jordan. He tried to stop him, saying, “I have need of being dipped by you, and you come to me!” But in answer Jesus said, “For this time, allow it; it is fitting for us to fill the jar of justice to the brim.” Then John allowed him. After Jesus had been dipped, he rose up from the water, and –See this- the heavens were opened, and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and coming upon him. And –See this- a voice from heaven saying, “This is my son, my beloved; I am delighted with him.”

In this apparently simple narrative there are many subtle hints of deeper meaning. Why did Jesus ask for baptism, along with sinners? Because in God’s justice he will not separate himself from them but rather make common cause with them, even to the point of death. We are reminded of that death in the dipping, which was an image of dying. After it he “rose up from the water” as he rose up from death. At his dipping as at his resurrection, the heavens were opened, and God’s Spirit of life came upon him. Jewish teachers interpreted the brooding Spirit of Genesis 1:2 as being like a dove. Matthew sees Jesus as the one in whom God’s creation is perfected. The voice from heaven, which in Mark says “You are…” here says, “This is….”; no longer an experience of Jesus but a public announcement. The words come from Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1 more of the latter which speaks of God’s “ beloved servant in whom his soul delights” than of the former in which God proclaims the King as his son. Both the prophecy and the psalm are applied to Jesus by Mark, or by his source. Matthew would have seen the rich mixture of gentle justice (Isaiah) and effortless conquest (Psalm 2) conferred on Jesus. In a story of dipping, all themes of the gospel are encapsulated.

So what do I think is going on in this passage? Well, I judge that there is some factual basis for it. All four gospels are at pains to include John in their story, in all cases as a forerunner of Jesus, a great prophet, but not part of the messianic era. There are two different areas of fact in this: 1. The actual mutual involvement of Jesus and John. 2.,The later Christian community’s placement of John as part of its story.

I judge that Jesus almost certainly knew John, possibly as one of his disciples, and was dipped by him. The gospel accounts arise from this, and perhaps from the fact that there were Jewish people who continued their discipleship of John into the time of the Christian assemblies. I guess that the depiction of John’s ministry in the gospels is not too far from the public memory of him, as found in the historian Josephus.

On the other hand, I think that the gospels’ adoption of the Christian view that John proclaimed himself as preparing the way for Jesus is almost certainly not factual, but rather a way of including John in their story of Messiah Jesus. Probably Jesus was dipped as a disciple of John, a fact that would be difficult for the Christian assemblies to admit.

Most of the Christian processing of this history had taken place before Matthew wrote his expansion of the Gospel of Mark. He makes explicit what Mark leaves implicit, that the junior agent of God’s kingdom dipped the senior. This allows Matthew to provide as explanation Jesus’ commitment to filling up the jar of justice or righteousness to the brim. This is one of Matthew’s special themes in his gospel, linking Jesus to the Hebrew tradition of justice, in the law and the prophets. As I have noted above, the story of Jesus’ dipping becomes the penultimate in a series of stories which Matthew uses to define Jesus and his ministry before it begins. A single fact – that Jesus was dipped by John- becomes a mighty magical construct in the story of God’s work in Jesus.

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