Did Jesus Baptize? – A Test Case for Brodie’s ‘Unity of John’ Thesis

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by Neil Godfrey

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. — John 3:22

And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” — John 3:26

The Gospel of John here says that Jesus baptized. “There is no ambiguity: the verb is singular and refers to Jesus.” (Brodie, 219)

Then at the beginning of the next chapter the same idea is expressed:

Therefore when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John. (4:1)

But then, immediately, there is a further comment: “Although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples. (4:2)

Did he or did he not? The contradiction seems so glaring that some commentators have regarded 4:2 as an insertion, as reflecting an editorial process. In fact, Dodd and Brown see 4:2 as one of the gospel’s best examples of the whole phenomenon of editing. For Brown (164) it serves as almost indisputable evidence of the presence of several hands in the composition of John. . . . (Brodie, 219-220)

So Brodie acknowledges that if this is one of the best pieces of evidence for John being a work that was composed layer by layer over several authorial or editorial processes, then it should also be taken as a test case for his own thesis that this Gospel was composed as a unitary work by a single author.

In my previous post on Brodie’s Commentary on John I explained that Brodie argues that the jarring intrusions or contradictory statements that pop up unexpectedly throughout this Gospel are placed there as deliberately by the original author to shock and confront the reader just as much as the words he puts into the mouth of Jesus to shock the narrative’s characters. That is, they point to a higher spiritual theological meaning that goes against the surface flow of the narrative. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that these apparent intrusions and contradictions are indicators that this Gospel was the product of many authors or redactors adding, over time, additional “layers” or “insertions” to the original composition.

The traditional view would see evidence of mixed authorship or editorializing in the instances of the Nicodemus, Samaritan woman, and Final discourse scenes, for example. But for Brodie, Nicodemus, who is described as “a man” though he is of high repute in his society, opens a conversation with Jesus only to have Jesus retort that there is something wrong with his birth as a man; Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for water and when she responds according to the social norms Jesus tells her that she should have replied by asking him for a drink; when Jesus says after a long monologue to his disciples, “Arise, let’s go somewhere else”, he goes nowhere but continues to keep on talking — but of a higher spiritual truth.

Brodie sees a similar play at work here when the author set up his readers to see Jesus baptizing disciples only to suddenly tell them something else.

Before explaining the way Brodie understands this particular conflict (that the baptizing Jesus was not baptizing) it’s instructive to glimpse some of the arguments for the author creating his characters as theological symbols. They may be read as literal people, but Brodie also finds reasons within the Gospel to believe the author created them to function as symbols.

The Water of Life Discourse between Jesus and ...
The Water of Life Discourse between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, by Giacomo Franceschini, 17-18th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One example is the Samaritan woman at the well. It is widely recognized that this scene imitates a classic literary convention of an encounter with a betrothed at a well. What this type-scene in John lacks, however, is the concluding meal and betrothal. But Brodie points out that these classical elements of this conventional scene actually are present in John’s description, but in a symbolical spiritual sense: the disciples return with bread but Jesus tells them he is nourished well enough on the spiritual “bread” of doing God’s will ; and after Jesus exposes the Samaritan woman as being “overbetrothed” to five husbands plus another, she and the Samaritans invite Jesus to “believe” and “abide” with them, which he does for two days. “Believing” and “Abiding” with Jesus is, throughout the Gospel of John, clearly a metaphor for such a unity and bliss that it is a form of spiritual betrothal. Nor can we overlook other wedding metaphors throughout the Gospel. Read “the first love scene” in my earlier post, Novelistic Plot and Motifs in the Gospel of John, for details.

Add to those features, the additional details Brodie points to, such as the woman seemingly mocking Jesus (as Homer’s Penelope mocked her unrecognized husband Odysseus on his return) suggesting he is claiming to be greater than Jacob, yet ironically calling him “Sir/Lord/Kyrie“, the Greek word also capable of meaning “Husband”.

So the scene of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is structured as a not very subtle courtship and betrothal scene, and this alerts readers to its narrative symbolism of the making of a spiritual marriage.

Further evidence of the author’s intention that the characters were to be read as symbols lies in the way the author sets up the disciples and the woman as two sides of the same coin. Both fail to comprehend Jesus’ meaning: the disciples fail to understand his spiritual meaning for “bread” as the woman misses the meaning of Jesus’ speaking of (spiritual) “water”. The scene begins with Jesus coming to a vaguely referenced “field” and concludes with a pointer to many fields that are ripe for the harvest. This encounter happens at “the sixth hour”, linking it to the hour of Jesus was led away to be crucified.

In a chiastic or bookend type structure, the disciples go off to find literal bread while the woman comes to retrieve literal water. As the woman discovers the spiritual water the disciples return to learn about spiritual bread. The woman leaves to spread the message about Jesus to the Samaritans and brings many to Jesus, while the disciples are told they are about to enter the labours of others and make many conversions themselves. But there is enough here alone for a very lengthy post so I’ll move on.

The point is that the author structures the identity and role of the characters, as well as narrative types and structures. to symbolize spiritual messages. Brodie makes a similar case for the mother at the wedding of Cana — another linking of a wedding with a death, along with all the extras. That, too, will have to be saved for another post.

So we can see that this Gospel’s characters and narratives have symbolic meanings.

Now back to the “test case”.

Brodie points out that the setting of this event, Sychar, “is completely unknown in history” (219). A casual web search suggests to me that the name references “Sepulchre”, and this possible meaning is interesting alongside Brodie’s remark that the event took place at the sixth hour thus linking it to the time of Jesus’ death. (It is worth noting, now that we encounter one place-name unknown historically, that the same gospel (1:28 and 3:23) sets events in other places also unknown to history: Bethany and Aenon.)

Another geographic anomaly arises when the Gospel’s author writes that “it was necessary” for Jesus to pass through Samaria. That was not true. There was an alternate route through the Jordan valley.

So what’s going on here?

Brodie turns to the thorough Raymond E. Brown (169) for an answer:

elsewhere in the gospel (3:14) the expression of necessity means that God’s will or plan is involved.

Brodie explains (219)

Such an idea [that this “necessity” is God’s plan or will] is corroborated by the opening words: “When the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus . . . ” At first sight this looks so awkward that many ancient copyists and modern commentators have changed it to read “When Jesus knew that the Pharisees had heard that he. . . . ” But the awkward-looking text, like the puzzle which Jesus put to Nicodemus, has a purpose — to engage the mind of the reader and alert it to a further dimension of the story, in this case the involvement of the Lord, the fact that the events reflect God’s will or plan.

Brodie here returns us to our initial question:

It is within this context of allusions to God’s plan that a further problem must be considered — the notorious statement that Jesus did not baptize (4:2).

Now if we hypothesize that a later editor added the statement that Jesus did not baptize we are still left with problems:

It [the editorial hypothesis] may sound plausible at first, but on reflection it does not really explain why 4:2 is as it is. If an editor wanted to correct the text, to remove the impression that Jesus baptized, then why not simply do so, particularly since it would have been quite easy. Thus Bultman (176), while going along with the idea that 4:2 is an editorial gloss, nonetheless expresses a doubt: “It is hard to see why the editor did not make the correction at 3:22.” To leave standing a statement of fact and then bluntly to state its opposite is not a very good method of communicating one’s view.

More importantly, it does not correspond to any known process of editing.

As Brown (286) says with regard to some of the alleged editorializing in chap. 6: “Any editor who would add these verses would naturally make an effort to bring them into harmony with their new context.”

This touches the essence of the question: “editing” is generally understood, even in John, as involving at least a minimal process of harmonizing the text. In 4:2 it is exactly such basic harmony which is missing. Thus, however the text is to be accounted for, it is not by an appeal to an undefined process of “editing.” Editing, insofar as it has any coherent meaning, would remove this kind of problem, not cause it. (p. 220, my formatting and bolding)

Brodie therefore proposes that

the apparently contradictory statement has a purpose: to alert the reader to the fact that within God’s plan, particularly as portrayed in chaps. 3–4, Jesus is changing roles. He no longer does all the things he used to do. There comes a time when his role gives way to that of the disciples. Hence the puzzling account: “Jesus . . . baptized;” “Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples.” (my emphasis)

In chapters 3 and 4, Brodie explains, Jesus is seen to be changing roles. The disciples are becoming more conspicuous and Jesus’ voice, at one point (3:16-21) appears to fade. Jesus has still been very much in charge, however.

Now, however, there is a fading which is much more explicit: Jesus is exhausted, literally, labored out (4:6, kekopiakos, from kopiao, “to labor”), and it is the task of the disciples to take over, to labor where others have labored (4:38, , kopiao . . . kopiao, the same rare verb, otherwise not used in John).

This picture of yielding to the disciples tells of Jesus as an individual experiencing limitation, and of his realizing, in some way, that others will replace him. It evokes an intimation of mortality.

Brodie sees earlier hints of this change-to-come. In Jerusalem Jesus appears to have become suddenly cautious, and the text implies some element of withdrawal:

Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person. (2:23-25)

Note also, with Brodie, that even when Jesus was described earlier as baptizing in the presence of his disciples,

his togetherness with them was described as a “sojourning” (dia-tribo), in other words, as a process of just passing through, living like an alien, living on limited time.

(John’s only other use of dia-tribo is in 11:54 — when Jesus is about to die; cf. 11:53.)

Now, in 4:1-3, immediately before and after the reference to not baptizing, the shadow of withdrawal darkens: in the face of pressure, Jesus decides to lave. The overall effect of these allusions is to suggest that, at a level which is not felt clearly either by Jesus or by the reader, something fundamental is changing. Jesus is doing well, very well; but he is also moving away, moving on. Beneath the surface of his world the plates are shifting.

Such dimensions of the story are easy to miss. The colorful narrative, with its overtones of impending betrothal, can lull a person into a relaxed enjoyment of the whole encounter. But the opening contradiction sounds an alert. It prefaces the evoking of love (the betrothal) with an evoking of death. (pp. 220-221, my formatting)

Love and death. Of course. I am beginning to see something to Brodie’s point here. It is in this Gospel that God so loved the world that he gave his son to die. That explains the betrothal scene at the well being linked to the hour of death.

The context that Brodie observes is that the several symbolic pointers to Jesus’ death (see above), and Jesus becoming weary as this hour approaches. Jesus, physically exhausted, sits down at the well, a source of life-giving water, and it is the hour of his death (19:13-14). Further, it is God, the Lord, who had brought Jesus to this place, Sychar, apparently meaning sepulchre, as by necessary plan.

Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour. (John 4:6)

So the entire scene is related to the crucifixion. It points to the time when Jesus hands over his mission to his disciples. In his final talk with them he tells them they will be doing the same works, and greater, as he has done. His death is related directly to the giving of the spirit, which is the message he gives to the Samaritan woman as he is weary and “labored out”.

As Brodie intimates, the scene is either terribly muddled history or beautifully cogent theology.

If Brodie is right, I can’t be sure that the author of this Gospel has succeeded perfectly in creating a felicitous artistic presentation of so many themes. But to make a proper assessment of that I would need to know Greek well and the intended audience of this Gospel.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Did Jesus Baptize? – A Test Case for Brodie’s ‘Unity of John’ Thesis”

  1. Many modern NT scholars are single-mindedly focused on finding history in the gospels. Hence, they neglect interpretations like Brodie’s, missing camels while they strain for gnats.

    Take Blomberg, e.g., in The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel. He writes, citing D.M. Smith, “By putting Jesus in the same category as John the Baptist, the Evangelist is probably drawing on ‘ancient tradition, if not historical fact, that the Synoptics have suppressed or ignored.'”

    I liken Blomberg’s attitude toward the gospels to bumper bowling, where they put inflatable tubes in the gutters so that kids can throw the ball down the lane and always be assured of knocking down some pins. When John conforms to the Synoptics, it’s proof that it’s true. When John doesn’t conform to the Synoptics, he’s a witness to an alternate tradition, which must be true. Lucky Blomberg bowls another strike.

    1. Another “literary analyst” is Ronald Hock who writes a lot setting the New Testament literature in the context of secular contemporary literature, thereby demonstrating how so many details that we read as “sacred” or “uniquely biblical” are really commonplace idioms, concepts, expressions of their day. Poor form criticism continues to get hammered through this sort of analysis. Another post I want to do, an adaptation of an article by Hock, shows that the reasons form critics have traditionally seen Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan as originating from a tale older than its gospel setting — the apparent seams and inconsistencies — disappear totally when the parable and setting are set against a wider knowledge of contemporary classical literature.

      The seams and inconsistencies that we’ve seen may well have been the consequence of our wearing blinkers that protected us from glimpsing the wide range of texts from the matrix of the gospels. I don’t say that’s true of every form-critical argument. But it does resolve the evidence underlying some of them with simpler explanations.

      Whenever I read the literature that was known around the time the gospels were being written I am always struck by so many resonances in the Bible. Hock informs me that if I was skilled in Greek I’d see a whole lot more.

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