§ 46. Jesus’ discourse on the Baptist


§ 46.

Jesus’ discourse on the Baptist.

Matth. 11, 7 -19.

In the form in which Luke communicates it (C. 7, 24-28.), the speech of Jesus has a very lively course, a quickened rhythm, and the movement of the whole is very definitely calculated to surprise suddenly and vividly by the point that the Baptist is more than a prophet, that he is the greatest prophet and less than the least in the kingdom of heaven. With the punch line that he is above all prophets and below the smallest citizen of the kingdom of heaven, the speech closes.

Now consider the structure of the speech: “What have you gone to see in the wilderness? A reed moved by the wind *)? If not that, what have you gone out to see? A man in soft garments **)? Behold, they that live in glorious apparel and lusts are in the royal courts. Or what then have ye gone out to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than one prophet! This is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thee, which shall prepare the way before thee. For I say unto you, Among them that are born of woman there is no greater prophet than John the Baptist: but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Consider, then, this structure and ask yourself whether a saying of this kind came to Luke from tradition and was not rather a free literary product. It is nothing but a free elaboration of the remark about the Baptist which Jesus is said to have made after the transfiguration.

*) That is, just to look at the reeds and canes in the desert, which is why you did not go out?

**) Luke brings in this contrast the note of Mark about the clothing of the Baptist, which he had omitted.

Matthew copies the speech verbatim (C. 11, 7-11.). The only change worthy of mention which he has allowed himself is that he writes (v. 11.): among those born of woman there arose none greater than John the Baptist. So he omits the word “prophet”, probably because he did not know how to find his way into the context, how it could be said of the Baptist at one time that he was more than a prophet, and at another time that there was no greater prophet than he was. But when he lets the speech continue, when he says in vv. 12-15: “But from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and those who do violence seize it. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And (if you want to accept it) he himself is the Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” – if the speech continues beyond the point by only one element, let alone by several elements, even with sayings that are not even related to each other, it is clear from the beginning that this continuation is a later addition which the original type does not know and must not recognise. But the matter also proves itself thus: before, the Baptist and his relation to the kingdom of heaven was the object on which the reflection was directed; now, the kingdom of heaven itself and its position in the world is the central point of the thought, and the Baptist is mentioned only in an incidental way, because from his time on, the kingdom of heaven has been the goal of violent striving. So what does this saying have to do with the previous speech? Nothing, at least in substance nothing, and the only connection is that the Baptist is mentioned before and after – and both times in an essentially different way. Only this name is to blame for Matthew’s inclusion of a saying that he finds in another place in Luke’s writing (C. 16,16.). But he did not borrow the whole supplement from Luke. If the Baptist’s name (v.12.13.) was meant only by chance and as a chronological marker, what is the purpose of v. 14’s remark about him being the promised Elijah? Why the printer: he who has ears to hear, let him hear! Why does the Baptist suddenly become the only object of consideration? Because Matthew wants it that way, because after the insertion of the foreign saying here, he feels the need to return the discourse to its actual theme. But even apart from the strangeness of the intermediary, the speech, even when the conclusion (v. 14, 15) returns to the beginning, is deprived of its original beautiful construction, since now the same idea occurs twice, and the second time even in such a way as if it had not even been hinted at before. If it is said in v. 14, “if you will accept it, he himself is the Elijah who is to come,” and if even in v. 15, with the printer, “He who has ears, let him hear!” this opening is described as a new and in itself mysterious one, it is impossible that the same thing had already been said before in clear, unambiguous words. Nevertheless, this had happened and the Baptist had been identified (v. 10) as the one of whom Malachi (C. 3, 1.) had prophesied – without further ado: the explanation of Jesus about the Baptist (Marc. 9, 13.), which Luke later omits because he had already given it earlier, which Matthew, when he reported the transfiguration of Jesus, copied from Mark, he also gives here, although he had immediately before written down the same explanation in the form that Luke had given it. First he writes it down as a clear, unambiguous one (v.10 He, John, is the one Malachi prophesied about*) – but now he sees the same explanation kept in mysterious darkness in the writing of Mark (Jesus only says that the expected Elijah has already come), and so now (V. 14.) he lets the Lord speak as if he were giving an explanation that had never been uttered until this moment and that the hearers could only put together if they took pains. As if any effort were needed when the Baptist himself is already named (αυτος) as the Elijah and is not to be guessed as such by the readers.


Thus, after the separation of this superfluous part, we would have received the saying of the violence which the kingdom of heaven suffers in its first independence; but not yet in its first form and inner construction, for in the way Matthew has placed the two limbs v. 12. 13 to each other, the second member has been dislocated too much despite all the pathos of the beginning: “for all the prophets and the ” law ” has been reduced to a highly superfluous, almost only chronological” note, which is supposed to explain the determination of the first member, that since the days of John this new thing, this pressing for the kingdom of heaven has occurred. In his writing it is said (C. 16,16.): “the Law and the prophets until John! From then on the kingdom of God is preached and everyone enters it by force!” That’s right! Thus the saying about that which was valid before John is really a saying about the thing which, in the position which Matthew has given him, he is not – he is not the incidental remark explaining a single chronological determination, but the necessary, integrating member of a remark about the historical course of the revelation of the Kingdom of God. Matthew has rearranged the links and made the first one a mere appendage in order to have John’s name at the end of this remark and to conveniently attach the saying that he is the promised Elijah.


Now the saying itself! It came into being very late – only when Luke was writing. John could only receive the epithet of the Baptist later, when his person lived on in historical memory only for the sake of this one act, that he had marked a period in history through his baptism *) and was absorbed into the ideal pathos of this one activity **). Moreover, Gfrörer has already remarked ***), the days of the Baptist must have long since passed when they were reckoned, as they are in this saying, to a later time. Many, many years must have passed, and ages may have passed, since the time of the deed, before one could say: “from the days of John the kingdom of heaven suffers violence.” As far as the meaning of the sentence is concerned, Gfrörer *), for example, explained that “it refers to the Messianic uprisings among the Jews,” i.e. to those “upheavals where robbers and armed men seized the kingdom of God. Gfrörer has in mind the form to which Matthew has developed the saying, but it is precisely in this form that the saying must most decisively resist that explanation, although it does not submit more willingly in the form in which Luke originally formed it. Gfrörer says that “the sentence Matth. 11,12 contains an overall judgment about the seventy-year period from John the Baptist to the fall of the holy city;” but according to his explanation he should not say “overall judgment,” but “a historical note,” a note in which those troublemakers are characterized as robbers. But the sentence is really a judgement! “Robbers usurp the kingdom of heaven,” this sentence is intended to explain that which has happened since the kingdom of heaven came, namely, that it suffers violence, or, as Luke says, that everyone enters it by force, and to designate it as the right, natural thing. Only with bold daring, but not if one hesitates and procrastinates, squeamish and embarrassed, does one win the kingdom of heaven **). Matthew has correctly explained Luke’s simpler saying, whether by chance or not is not to be decided.

*) Josephus, ArchLol. 18, 5, 2.

**) Theologians have always had a fine sense for danger. So says Bengel to Matth. 11, 11: hoc cognomen jam tum additum ob rei novitatem et magnitudinem; non postea ad discernendum duntaxat ab Johanne apostolo.

***) d. heil. Sage 2, S2.

*) Ibid. x. 94. 95.

**) Weisse II, 70.


But to whom shall I liken this generation,” Jesus continues (Matt. 11:16-19), “it is like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling unto their playmates, saying, We have played unto you, and ye have not danced; we have sung unto you mourning, and ye have not lamented. For John came, and did neither eat nor drink, and they say, He is mad. The Son of Man came, and did eat and drink, and they say, Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of publicans and sinners! And wisdom has received her right from her children”, i.e. ironically: her children have understood how to do her right.


But if Jesus is to say, “But to whom have I to compare this generation,” then not only should the people’s attitude to himself and to the Baptist have been spoken of immediately beforehand, but there should also have been the complaint that this generation had not respected the divine counsel and had not done him justice. None of this was said immediately beforehand: on the contrary! The speech was concluded when the mystery which is the subject of this speech was solved (v. 14.15.). In the interpolated sentence about the violence which the kingdom of heaven suffers, it was even praised that it went valiantly and courageously in the storm of the heavenly fortress, and if we now go back to the beginning of the speech, it was assumed here that the people had gone diligently into the wilderness to see “a prophet”.

Matthew took the saying from the Gospel of Luke, but left the motive and the explanatory introduction. Luke knows very well that the speech, which is based on that passage borrowed from Mark, is perfectly concluded with the explanation that the Baptist is the greatest prophet but smaller than the smallest in the kingdom of heaven. He knows, therefore, that he must make a strong separation if he still feels the need to make a remark about the reception that the Baptist and, following the connection of the thoughts through the contrast, the Lord encountered with their opposed way of life among the rulers and representatives of the people. Thus, he introduces the following parable – narratively – with the remark (C. 7, 29-30), “And when all the people heard him, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” By writing this historical note, he turns it into words with which the Lord introduced the following parable, or at least it is too tedious for him to put words in the Lord’s mouth that would take up that note again. Anyway, he has the Lord immediately follow with the words, “To what then shall I compare the people of this generation?” after which the parable follows, which Matthew inserted into his speech without any preparation.


If it is certain that the saying could not have come into being until late, when the history of Jesus had become the subject of reflerion, this certainty is still increased, and its definite origin placed beyond doubt, when we remember that only Luke knows to tell us more exactly that the Baptist was forbidden to drink wine, and that to the same writer (compare C. 11, 49.) belongs the idea of the wisdom which guides the course of the history of the kingdom of God. The accusation that the Son of Man was a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of tax collectors and sinners could not have been unknown to a man who was so well versed in the writings of Mareus (C.2, 15-22.).


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