Wikipedia:Centralized discussion/200 verses of Matthew/Example2

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While the infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew differ from each other, and are a complete digression from Mark's narrative, the narratives immediately following them in both Luke and Matthew pick up the narrative of Mark. Both infancy narratives abruptly end, with Jesus suddenly being reintroduced as a man somewhere in his late twenties or early thirties. While Matthew doesn't indicate the size of this narrative jump, Luke explains it as being thirty years later.

John the Baptist[edit]

The narrative begins with a description of a man that Matthew and Luke name as John the Baptist, while Mark refers to him as John the Baptiser. Anabaptists however disagree with these, usual, translations, claiming that it should instead be translated as John the Immerser. John has his title owing to his practice of baptising people in the Jordan. While most scholars agree with the Anabaptists that John was probably immersing those that came to see him, most Christians that are not Anabaptists do not consider this the only valid form of baptism.

John is placed by the passage in the wilderness of Judea, which is generally taken to refer to the region of Judea sloping down from the highlands to the Dead Sea, an arid area not well suited to habitation. The term is occasionally translated as desert, although there was enough moisture to allow for pastoralism. According to Pliny this region was home to the Essenes, and John could plausibly have been one of their major leaders. According to Guthrie, at the time this wilderness was considered much closer to God, than the corruption of cities.

Source text[edit]

In the King James Version of the Bible the text reads:

In those days came John
the Baptist, preaching in
the wilderness of Judaea,
And saying, Repent ye: for the
kingdom of heaven is at hand.
For this is he that was spoken
of by the prophet Esaias, saying,
The voice of one crying in the
wilderness, Prepare ye the way of
the Lord, make his paths straight.
And the same John had his raiment
of camel's hair, and a leathern
girdle about his loins; and his
meat was locusts and wild honey.
Then people from Jerusalem,
all of Judea, and all the region
around the Jordan went out to him.
And were baptized of him in
Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many of the
Pharisees and Sadducees come
to his baptism, he said unto
them, O generation of vipers,
who hath warned you to flee
from the wrath to come?
Bring forth therefore
fruits meet for repentance:
And think not to say within yourselves,
We have Abraham to our father: for I
say unto you, that God is able of these
stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
And now also the axe is laid
unto the root of the trees:
therefore every tree which
bringeth not forth good fruit is
hewn down, and cast into the fire.
I indeed baptize you with water unto
repentance. but he that cometh after
me is mightier than I, whose shoes I
am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize
you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:
Whose fan is in his hand, and
he will thoroughly purge his floor,
and gather his wheat into the
garner; but he will burn up
the chaff with unquenchable fire.
Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to
Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.
But John forbad him, saying,
I have need to be baptized of
thee, and comest thou to me?
And Jesus answering said unto him,
Suffer it to be so now: for thus
it becometh us to fulfil all
righteousness. Then he suffered him
And Jesus, when he was baptized, went
up straightway out of the water: and,
lo, the heavens were opened unto him,
and he saw the Spirit of God descending
like a dove, and lighting upon him:
And lo a voice from heaven,
saying, This is my beloved
Son, in whom I am well pleased.

The World English Bible translates the passage as:

In those days John the
Baptist came, preaching
in the Desert of Judea
and saying, "Repent, for the
kingdom of heaven is near."
This is he who was spoken of
through the prophet Isaiah: "A
voice of one calling in the
desert, 'Prepare the way for the
Lord, make straight paths for him.'"
Now John himself wore clothing
made of camel's hair, with a
leather belt around his waist.
His food was locusts and wild honey.
Then people from Jerusalem,
all of Judea, and all the region
around the Jordan went out to him.
They were baptized by him in
the Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many of the
Pharisees and Sadducees coming
for his baptism, he said to them,
"You offspring of vipers, who warned
you to flee from the wrath to come?
Therefore bring forth
fruit worthy of repentance!
Don't think to yourselves, ‘We have
Abraham for our father,’ for I tell
you that God is able to raise up
children to Abraham from these stones.
"Even now the axe lies at the
root of the trees. Therefore,
every tree that doesn't bring
forth good fruit is cut down,
and cast into the fire.
"I baptize you with water for repentance.
But after me will come one who is more
powerful than I, whose sandals I am not
fit to carry. He will baptize you
with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
His winnowing fork is in his
hand, and he will thoroughly
cleanse his threshing floor. He
will gather his wheat into the
barn, but the chaff he will
burn up with unquenchable fire."
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the
Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.
But John would have hindered
him, saying, "I need to be baptized
by you, and you come to me?"
But Jesus, answering, said to him,
"Allow it now, for this is the
fitting way for us to fulfill all
righteousness." Then he allowed him.
Jesus, when he was baptized, went up
directly from the water: and behold,
the heavens were opened to him. He
saw the Spirit of God descending
as a dove, and coming on him.
Behold, a voice out of the
heavens said, "This is my beloved
Son, with whom I am well pleased."


John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Geertgen tot Sint Jans
An illustration of John the Baptist preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, from the 1875 Young People's Illustrated Bible History
A woodcut from the 1516 Das Plenarium oder Ewangely buoch showing John the Baptist preaching
James Tissot's John and the Pharisees
An angry John the Baptist, played by Mario Socrate, in Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew. The film portrays John as yelling at a group of Pharisees passing on a nearby road, instead of having them seek him out.
Alexander Ivanov's The Appearance of Christ to the People showing Jesus arriving at the Jordan
The Baptism of Christ, by Piero della Francesca, 1449
Francesco Albani's The Baptism of Christ

The persona of John the Baptist[edit]

John is described as having sparse food and uncomfortable clothing, including the wearing of hairshirts. The description of John the Baptist has played an important role in the development of Christian monasticism, with John viewed as a model ascetic. Calvin, and consequently most modern Protestants, however wholly rejected this interpretation, seeing this description simply as an accurate portrait of anyone that was forced to live in the wilderness, and instead seeing John's holiness and popularity not because of his asceticism but despite of it. Albright and Mann state that the description of John the Baptist's clothing is clearly meant to echo the similar description of Elijah in Kings.

John the Baptist's diet, which the bible indicates was locusts and honey, has been the centre of much discussion. For many years it was traditional to interpret locust not as referring to the insect, but rather to the seed pods of the carob tree. Albright and Mann believe that this attempt to portray John the Baptist as eating seed pods was a combination of concern for having such a revered figure eating insects and also a belief that a true ascetic should be completely vegetarian. It is certainly the case that in Greek the two words are very similar, but most scholars today feel this passage is referring to the insects, particularly as the other 22 times the word is used it is quite clearly referring to insects. Locusts are still commonly eaten in Arabia, and whether eaten raw or roasted they are quite nutritious, and a good source of vitamins. While most insects were considered unclean, Leviticus is quite adamant that locusts are permitted. What is meant by honey is also a subject that has been under dispute. Aside from the obvious product of bees, scholars such as Jones believe that it refers to gum from the tamarisk tree, a tasteless but nutritional liquid.

John's message[edit]

Clarke notes that this is the first of twenty-nine references to the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospel of Matthew. Luke and Mark tend to prefer the term "kingdom of God." That Matthew uses the word heaven is often seen as a reflection of the sensibilities of the Jewish audience this gospel was directed to, and thus tried to avoid the word God. Most scholars feel the two phrases are theologically identical. Robert Foster rejects this view. He finds the standard explanation hard to believe as Matthew uses to word God many other time and even uses the phrase Kingdom of God four times. Foster argues that to Matthew the two concepts were different. He feels that the word heaven had an important role in Matthew's theology and links the phrase especially to Father in Heaven, which Matthew frequently uses to refer to God. Foster argues that the Kingdom of God represents the earthly domain that Jesus' opponents such as Pharisees thought they resided in, while the Kingdom of Heaven represents the truer spiritual domain of Jesus and his disciples.

Scholars believe that when it was written this phrase intended to be eschatological with the Kingdom of Heaven referring to the end times. When the last judgement failed to occur Christian scholars gradually redefined the term to refer to a spiritual state within, or worked to justify a much delayed end time. This passage presents a difficulty in this later endeavour as the phrase translated as "at hand" or "is near" both refer to an imminent event. Albright and Mann suggest better translation would state that the kingdom is "fast approaching." France sees it as even more immediate suggesting that the phrase should be read as referring to "a state of affairs that is already beginning and demands immediate action."

According to France the word translated as repent means "return to God." Albright and Mann state that at the time a general repentance was seen as necessary before the arrival of the messiah. Clarke notes that in the Vulgate of St. Jerome the word is translated as be penitent both here and in Matthew 4:17. This translation played a central role in the development of the Catholic doctrine of penance. With the increased knowledge of Greek in the Renaissance this translation began to be criticized with Lorenzo Valla first pointing out the error. In Erasmus' 1516 translation and commentary he became the first to use repentance rather than penitence. It was from the doctrine of penitence that the concept of indulgences had grown, and these new translations played an important role in Martin Luther and other Protestant's reappraisal of these practices. Today the word is universally translated as repentance and the Catholic doctrine is grounded more in theology than in scripture.

The quote from Isaiah[edit]

In all three of the synoptic Gospels, John the baptist is described as completing a prophecy made by Isaiah; as the individual who would make straight the paths of him. The quote, coming from Isaiah 40:3, is taken somewhat out of context, and the original referred to making straight the paths of God. In Isaiah, the passage was referring to how escape from the Babylonian Captivity would come about, whereas the synoptic Gospels have reinterpreted it as being a more metaphysical escape. The quote otherwise has the wording of the Septuagint, in preference to that of the Masoretic text. There are actually two justifiable punctuations for the quote, the traditional one being the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare ...., whereas, based on the Hebrew, modern scholars feel that Isaiah was intending the passage to read the voice of one crying: In the wilderness prepare ...., which quite substantially changes the meaning. The latter meaning is far less able to apply to John the Baptist, and hence this interpretation is not favoured by those of a more fundamentalist persuasion.

The importance of John[edit]

Matthew and Luke describe Jews coming from Jerusalem, all of Judea, and the areas around the Jordan River to hear John the Baptist preach. This description is considered quite historically credible as it is backed up by Josephus. In his Antiquities of the Jews he says of John the Baptist that the others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved by hearing his words [1]. At the time Josephus was writing, around 97 AD, John the Baptist seems to have been an exceptionally more significant figure than Jesus - while John is frequently mentioned, hardly anyone appears to have mentioned Jesus at all, in all of Josephus' writing, there are only two very short passages which could possibly refer to Jesus, and these are heavily disputed with most scholars seeing them as forgeries.

Unlike Luke and Mark, Matthew has John being hesitant about baptising Jesus, with John stating that Jesus should be the one baptising him, though it doesn't exactly state why. The Gospel of the Nazarenes, a text which has very strong similarities to Matthew, adds a clarification to this story, stating that it was because of Jesus' sinlessness that John felt he was the one who should be baptised. In the environment the author of Matthew is presumed to have been writing in there would still have been many followers of John the Baptist who felt he was equal or superior to Jesus. And while the followers of John are often presented as becoming followers of Jesus, the ancient Mandaean religion, which survives much reduced to the present day, claims to originate in a direct line from the followers of John, without being tainted by following Jesus. This, and the fact that even circa 60 years after Jesus' supposed death, John remains considered a much more significant figure by most, have led several people to propose that John's humility in the face of Jesus here is a fabrication by Matthew.

The tirade against the Pharisees and Sadducees[edit]

Once John has been introduced into the narrative, both Matthew and Luke have him immediately described as meeting a group of people, and calling them a brood of vipers, urging them to repent. That Mark does not contain this lecture while the other two synoptics do has led scholars to believe that this section comes from the Q document. Luke has John addressing the people that have come to see him in general, while Matthew has him address the Pharisees and Sadducees in particular. According to several scholars, the presence of the Pharisees and Saducees is not owing to their intent to join John's movement, but instead to investigate it and decide if it is a threat to their own power. The two groups carrying out a joint investigation is however quite unlikely to have been historical, since the Pharisees and Sadducees were bitter and ancient rivals.

A number of theories have been advanced to explain why Matthew directs John's attack to these groups while Luke focuses on the general multitude. Schweizer feels that since Matthew was writing for a more Jewish audience than Luke, Matthew did not want to offend all Jews and thus focused only on the religious authorities, who had become a direct threat to the Christianity of Matthew's time. Most other scholars disagree with this view, holding instead that Pharisees and Sadducees should be understood as a catch-all term for the Jews in general.

Brood of vipers was a common expression at the time indicating those filled with malice, which France speculates could be rooted in Jeremiah ( at 46:22). This insult has been borrowed by a number of other writers, including Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida, Anthony Trollope in Barchester Towers, Somerset Maugham in Catalina, and in the title of François Mauriac's Le noeud de viperes. In Matthew and Luke, the word used for brood implies illegitimacy, and so scholars, such as Malina and Rohrbaugh, consider a more literal translation to be snake bastards.

Superficially, this and the phrase don't think to yourselves "we have Abraham for a father" could be seen as an attack on the importance that Judaism placed on bloodlines. Fundamentalist Christians, such as France, do not support this interpretation, and instead see the phrase as a reference to the reliance of the Pharisees and Sadducees on their own religious authority to achieve salvation. For obvious reasons, most other Christians, having formal hierarchies in their church, particularly Roman Catholicism in regard to the Pope, do not support the interpretation of France.

John goes on to refer to future wrath, although it is important to understand that Christians interpret this as referring to the righteous indignation of God. To avoid this wrath, John is described as stating that the fruit of repentance should be made manifest, with every tree not bearing fruit being subject to destruction. The imagery used is of God as a lumberjack cutting down trees and then burning them, much like the imagery at Isaiah 10:34 and Jeremiah 45:22, which may have been the ultimate origin of this verse. An argument for Aramaic primacy can be put forward by this since in Aramaic, the word for a tree root is ikkar, while cutting down is kar, hence in Aramaic the description is an example of punning. Most scholars feel that this verse originally referred to an imminent last judgement, which, when it failed to occur, was re-interpreted by later Christianity as referring to individual damnation.

This passage has become a source of much dispute over soteriology. While the passage could be read as indicating that good works are merely the outgrowth of internal repentance like good fruit being the product of a healthy tree, it could also be more simply be regarded as indicating that good works are repentance. This verse thus became a part of the larger debate over the doctrine held by Protestants about justification by faith. The Augsburg Confession, for instance, states that it is taught among us that such faith should produce good fruits and good works and that we must do all such good works as God has commanded, but we should do them for God’s sake and not place our trust in them as if thereby to merit favor before God.

In Luke, the crowd react favourably to John's speech, but Matthew neglects to mention the reaction of the crowd, presumably due to wanting to present the Pharisees and Sadducees as unrepentant.


In both Luke and Mark, John is described as baptising people to remove their sin. However, Matthew seems to be offended by this, and instead presents people merely as confessing their sins after they have been baptised. France argues that Matthew's theology differs from the other two synoptics by holding that unlike the other two, Matthew sees sin as only being possible to forgive once Jesus has been resurrected.

The origins of John's baptism ritual are much discussed amongst scholars. While various forms of baptism were practiced throughout the Jewish world at this time, only those of John the Baptist and Qumran are associated with eschatological purpose, leading many scholars to connect John to the group that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. In Qumran, however, baptism was a regular ritual for individuals rather than the one-time event that the synoptics present it as. Obviously that the synoptics describe John as baptising people in the once-off form could simply be due to them putting a spin on John's historic behaviour due to being motivated to present him in accordance with Christian theology.

John the Baptist is described by Mark, Luke, and Matthew, as making reference to a successor, who will baptise with the Holy spirit and with fire. While John is presented as describing this successor as coming after him, it is important to note that the word usually translated after does not have a chronological meaning, but indicates that the individual will be a follower or disciple of his. At the time, the disciple of a Rabbi would be expected to perform menial chores, but as sandals were considered unclean, a view still persisting in the Middle East today, not even a disciple would deal with them, only the lowest slave. Thus when the text has John presenting himself as not worthy to carry/untie the sandals of his successor, he is presenting himself as extremely lowly in comparison.

Fire was often a symbol of wrath, and so linking the Holy Spirit with it superficially appears to clash with portrayals of this Spirit elsewhere in the New Testament as a gentle thing. Some translations avoid using the word fire due to this, but when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, it appeared that several of its texts make the connection between Holy Spirit and wrath, and so most scholars now see the wording here as original, and the other portrayals as misinterpreted.

It is worth noting that John baptising by water and his successor by fire has parallels with Sumerian mythology. Enki, who the Babylonians later knew as Ea, had become known as Oannes by the time of John, and Oannes is almost identical to Ioannes, which is how the name of John the Baptist is spelt in the original Greek of the New Testament. Enki/Oannes was the god of (pure) water, and although the first god, the god of creation, over time he lost significance, while the sun god grew more important. Hence in folklore of the period in the surrounding region, Oannes, god of water, was superseeded by the god of the sun, the god of fire. That this folklore surrounding Oannes may have influenced a narrative built around a historic figure named Ioannes, is of course somewhat tenuous, though the connection is frequently made by those who question the Historicity of Jesus.

John goes on, in the narrative, to refer to his successor as separating the wheat from the chaff, via wind winnowing. The term winnowing fork is most likely to be the implement that the original narrative described the successor as using to do this, but older translations are very variant, for example having fan, shovel, or broom. In the Eastern Orthodox church the word was most often interpreted as broom and consequently Jesus is commonly depicted holding a broom in Eastern Orthodox iconography.

For the same reason that John's humility in the face of Jesus is often doubted, John, whose movement appears to have remained far more significant at the turn of the first century than Christianity was, is often considered by non-Christian scholars to never to have made such a prediction about his successor, it instead being pious forgery by the authors of the synoptics.

Jesus' baptism[edit]

Although most of the narrative here concerns John, Jesus re-enters it so that he can himself be baptised. According to tradition, Jesus meets John at the Jordan River, five miles south of the Allenby Bridge, in order for this to happen, and this location is today the site of an Greek Orthodox monastery dedicated to John the Baptist. While in Luke, Jesus is merely another member of the crowd that had come to see John, and is baptised by an unnamed individual that may or may not be John, in Matthew Jesus seeks out John, and, apparently with just the two of them present, John baptises Jesus.

At this event, are the first words that Matthew records Jesus as speaking, and since Matthew has traditionally been placed as the first book in the New Testament, these are consequently the first words in the Bible that are attributed to Jesus. Consequently scholars have paid considerable attention to them, especially owing to their vagueness. Matthew has Jesus saying that John should baptise him to fulfill all righteousness. These words are unique to Matthew, and are regarded by textual critics as being an addition to justify Jesus being baptised by the supposedly lesser John.

Righteousness is an important concept in Matthew and it is usually considered that Matthew uses it to mean obedience to God. Matthew often uses the word fulfill, usually using it to indicate that a prophecy has been fulfilled by Jesus, hence the phrase fulfill all righteousness could thus be interpreted as implying that Jesus fulfilled some divine rules which the passage doesn't elaborate on. Following Christian interpretations of the event, Cullman instead emphasises the word all, arguing that Jesus was to be baptised to obtain righteousness for all humanity.

Another important issue is why Jesus, who in Christian theology is sinless, should go through a ritual that supposedly cleanses sin, and one of two explanations is usually given:

  • that Jesus by being baptised in order that humanity, generally taking his actions to be good examples of conduct, regard it as important.
  • that Jesus being baptised is part of a larger process of taking on the burden of all the sin of humanity

Quite what Jesus is doing by being baptised ties in intimately with many of the differing views of Christology, and so different Christian groups can give quite different answers. Unlike Luke and Mark, Matthew does, however, put emphasis into recounting Jesus as quickly leaving the water. Gundry believes this is because the baptism would traditionally have been followed by a confessing of sins and the author of Matthew wanted to indicate that Jesus did not undergo this part of the ritual owing to being sinless.

Divine provenance[edit]

After having been baptised, the narrative describes the heavens as opening and the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and a voice announces that Jesus is God's beloved Son, and that God is well pleased with him. The heavens opening echoes the beginning of the Book of Ezekiel, which, if a deliberate reference, may be an attempt to represent the ability to prophecy returning to earth. Some ancient manuscripts read opened up to him rather than just opened up, suggesting that this event is more private and provides a solution to whey the crowds that Luke claims were present do not notice this announcement about Jesus. This, together with the symbology of the dove, is seen as one of the most Trinitarian passages in the entire New Testament, although it must be pointed out that the idea of the Holy Ghost being a distinct figure only became a mainstream view some centuries after Matthew was written. While the voice identifies Jesus as God's beloved Son, this terminology was often used in Hebrew writing simply to refer to an ordinary priest, and it cannot concretely be said to unambiguously assert a Christology.

While Luke is explicit about the Spirit of God descending in the shape of a dove, the wording of Matthew is vague enough that it could be interpreted only to suggest that this Spirit descended in the style of a dove. There was a wide array of symbolism attached to the dove at the time these passages were written. While Clarke feels the symbolism pointed to Noah sending out a dove to search out new land, and hence is a symbol of re-birth, Albright and Mann note that in Hosea, the dove is a symbol for the nation of Israel. While in the Graeco-Roman world the dove was at the time seen as a symbol of lust, due to it being the symbol of Aphrodite, it was also a symbol of purity due to its whiteness and the belief that it had no bile. Whatever the interpretation behind it, the dove imagery has become a well known one, and based on it, the dove has long been a symbol for the Holy Ghost in Christian art.


  • Albright, W.F. and C.S. Mann. "Matthew." The Anchor Bible Series. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971.
  • Clarke, Howard W. The Gospel of Matthew and its Readers: A Historical Introduction to the First Gospel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
  • France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew: an Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1985.
  • Gundry, Robert H. Matthew a Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982.
  • Guthrie, Donald. The New Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970.
  • Hill, David. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981
  • Hurtago, Larry W. "Generation of Vipers." A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. David Lyle Jeffrey, general editor. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992.
  • Jones, Alexander. The Gospel According to St. Matthew. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1965.
  • Malina, Bruce J. and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
  • Schweizer, Eduard. The Good News According to Matthew. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975