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Matthew 3 vs. John 1

May 18, 2011

So let’s look at the difference between Matthew’s and John’s accounts of John the Baptist’s seeing the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus. Notice that a baptism isn’t the common factor here. The Gospel of John never even references a baptism for Jesus. Here’s John 1:29-34:

29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

 32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

This gives me the sense that John was describing the first and only time he saw the Spirit descending on Jesus. However, the passages are not necessarily contradictory. Verse 35 does exclude the possibility, perhaps allowed by Matthew 4:1’s “then,” that the scene described in John took place later the day of the baptism. John tells us that, instead of going into the wilderness, Jesus was in the same place the next day and eventually left there for Galilee.

Of course, beyond Matthew’s “then,” Mark 1:12 says that Jesus went into the wilderness “at once” after his baptism. I think that clearly eliminates the possibility that the statement by John the Baptist in John 1:32 came from the same time as the baptism. This leaves the possibilities that he said it before or after.

I really only have one objection to John 1:29-34 happening before the baptism: I see no point for John the Baptist to witness the Spirit of God descending upon Jesus, if really he had seen it already. Everything else I think would work together. Matthew has Jesus starting his ministry right after the baptism, but John doesn’t have the ministry begin right away. (Well, there is John 2:23, but that could even be after the baptism and the forty days in the wilderness.) If you think it is reasonable to have John see the Spirit descend again, then you’ll probably not find a problem here.

The fact that Matthew and Mark have Jesus begin his ministry right away, and also take Simon and Andrew to be his disciples, immediately after the baptism, are the very reasons I don’t accept that the sceranio that Jesus came back to see John after the baptism. In that case, Jesus wouldn’t have started his ministry yet at the time he returned to see John. More important, the Gospel of John strongly implies that Jesus hadn’t met Andrew and Peter at the time of John 1:29-42.

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