The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
Jesus’ return to Galilee.
As Matthew says, when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he returned to Galilee. According to the Evangelist, Jesus was moved by the news of John’s imprisonment to return to Galilee and start his public ministry. He received this news when he emerged from the seclusion that had led to his temptations.
The motivation behind Jesus’ return to Galilee and his decision to start his public ministry in that region presents us with a significant difficulty. We should not take issue with the idea that Jesus was moved to start his public ministry by the news of John’s unfortunate fate, as a man who is sure of his mission would not be deterred by the prospect of persecution and suffering. However, no one who knows that a high ideal is attached to his person would recklessly court danger, and even less would he risk everything at the outset of his public ministry. Yet this is what Jesus is said to have done. De Wette believes *) that “Jesus only wanted to distance himself from the sphere of influence of John, so as not to attract dangerous attention to himself.” However, he could not have chosen a more ineffective means for this purpose, as he would have instead invited danger, since the same Herod who had imprisoned John also ruled over Galilee.
*) 1, 1, 44.
The crux of the matter is that the news of the unfortunate fate of the Baptist is said to have prompted the Lord to appear in Galilee. But why should we bother, in the manner of apologists, with the question of how that news could have prompted Jesus to take that step, why should we distress ourselves further to process a pragmatic remark that is already ill-timed and belongs only to Matthew? Why should we give more power to the letter when we can fully explain and dissolve it by understanding how it came about? Of the Synoptics, Matthew, the latest, the pragmatist, the man of reflection, is the only one who knows of this motive that is said to have driven the Lord to Galilee. Luke knows nothing of it, he only says (chapter 4, verse 14): “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee,” meaning in the power of the same Spirit that had led him to the desert, where he was tempted. Of course, Luke cannot really be an authority on this matter since he had already reported on the Baptist’s imprisonment so hastily in chapter 3, verses 19-20. But Mark steps in to untie the knot – and he really does untie it. After his account of the temptation story, he simply reports, “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee” (chapter 1, verse 14). So for his still unbiased view, the fact that the Baptist had just been imprisoned and that Jesus went to Galilee and appeared there are only connected, and it is only Matthew who connects them through the reflection that the news of his forerunner’s unfortunate end was the motive for Jesus to appear in Galilee with his preaching.
But is the view of Mark, despite all appearances of its impartiality, set by a very specific reflection? The certainty and naivety with which it appears is no reason to deny its origin from reflection from the outset, as even the most reflective pragmatism is capable and powerful enough to not need to bring reflection to the fore in its sensible mediation, but rather to process it plastically into the grouping of facts and let it work as the inner reflection. As you can see, we have the often-discussed question in mind as to whether Jesus really appeared only or even immediately after the Baptist was imprisoned. On the contrary, the fourth evangelist reports that Jesus and the Baptist worked side by side for a longer period of time. So how do the Synoptics come to their report that John was imprisoned before Jesus appeared? Well, this report is also “false” enough, de Wette replies *), it is an “inaccuracy” that “belongs to the oldest evangelical tradition.” However, the criticism of the fourth gospel has already freed us, or rather the Synoptics, from this authority, since nothing that it reports about the simultaneous activity of Jesus and the Baptist could be proven as actual history. Therefore, if until now we only expressed the suspicion **) that the ideal view, that the morning star had to go down, should the sun of salvation rise, could have pushed the imprisonment of the Baptist back, namely before Jesus appeared: now we must rather have the opposite suspicion, that it has pushed this event into a later time, so that John really appears as the morning star who must pale at the rising of the sun ***). And with this suspicion, with the certainty that it is well-founded – but why do we even speak of suspicion – with the certainty that the matter was completely different, it will be left at that. Neither could Jesus have returned to Galilee upon hearing that John had been arrested, nor at the moment when the fate of the Baptist was fulfilled. We know nothing more of Jesus going to the Jordan to receive baptism, the note that he was tempted in the wilderness after his baptism has long been resolved – so how could Jesus return to Galilee after the temptation, during which the Baptist was arrested? All this pragmatism of the Synoptics no longer exists for us, if Jesus did not go to the Jordan for baptism and those forty days he spent in the wilderness after his baptism no longer belong to his life story. How then should we go about bringing him back from the Jordan to Galilee, after the Baptist was arrested? How? We simply no longer need to bring him back, if we know nothing of him leaving Galilee beforehand. Then we also no longer know when he appeared in Galilee, and in any case, we do not know that it happened immediately after the arrest of the Baptist; the only thing we know is the present fact that evangelical pragmatism has brought the arrest of the Baptist, which may have happened years earlier, so close to the appearance of Jesus that the splendid harmony in the history of the kingdom of God becomes most evident when the Messiah immediately follows the forerunner. The evangelical perspective wants to see the idea as a fact immediately: so let us not be surprised or further torment ourselves through apologetic struggles with the torment of this pragmatism, when we notice how the inner connection between the historical appearance of the Baptist and Jesus has become the immediate chronological succession of both men.
*) loc. cit. We just don’t understand how de Wette can struggle to explain why Jesus sought to avoid Herod’s dangerous attention.
**) Kr. d. ev. Gesch. des Joh. p. 108.
***) A view that Calvin expresses with full faith in its correctness in Matthew 3:1: “But when Christ, the sun of righteousness, soon followed his John, his morning star, it is not surprising that John disappeared, so that the brightness of Christ alone might be more conspicuous.” Of course, Calvin must again struggle to reconcile the synoptic account with the fourth Gospel and somehow forget the time in which, according to the latter, John and Jesus worked simultaneously. He says: “Although Christ performed the duties of a teacher during that time, he did not properly begin the preaching of the Gospel until he succeeded John.” Any word about this excuse would be just as unnecessary as its torture. As if Jesus did not appear with the preaching of the Gospel, according to the unanimous account of the synoptics (Mark 1:15). Or would that not be Jesus’ peculiar preaching if, according to the fourth Gospel, he already taught Nicodemus and the Samaritan about the Kingdom of God before the Baptist’s imprisonment? That would not be his usual activity if he had already performed so many miracles beforehand that Nicodemus acknowledges him as a divine envoy? And that is clear enough if Jesus so violently purifies the temple!
“The oldest evangelical tradition” *) is not only to be acquitted of the mistaken notion which the fourth evangelist imputes to it, but it is also very innocent in this matter and has by no means had a hand in the chronological arrangement that was put into effect. It does not concern itself with works of such a definite nature; it leaves these to the writer and must leave them to him since he alone possesses the corresponding determining judgment. Only the fact that the Baptist was imprisoned before Jesus’ appearance was certain to tradition, and it was only Mark who brought both into the context we find in his account, which Matthew made even more anxious by shifting into Jesus the reflection that for him the time had come to appear when the Baptist had left the stage. Mark turned the inner connection of the story into a reflective intentionality of the story, and Matthew went so far as to turn it into a reflection of Jesus.
*) which, for example, de Wette charges with this “inaccuracy” in the same place.