Jesus the Baptist (John 4:2)

by Yuri Kuchinsky

[posted and discussed in various Internet discussion groups in April 2004]


Greetings, friends,

Did the Historical Jesus perform baptisms? This is the question on which there are many opinions.

Only the Gospel of John addresses the question directly, but even here we find an apparent contradiction between different passages. Indeed, while Jn 3:22 and 3:26 state pretty clearly that Jesus did baptize, and while this is also repeated in Jn 4:1, the next verse happens to feature the following disclaimer,
 

(Jn 4:2 RSV) Although Jesus himself did not baptise, but only his disciples.
(Jn 4:2 Greek) kaitoige IhsouV autoV ouk ebaptizen, all oi maqhtai autou


So, obviously, these passages create quite a problem for the commentators to deal with.

I have surveyed what the standard Commentaries are saying here, and it seems like most of their authors are inclined to see this verse 4:2 as a late editorial gloss. And most English translations even put the whole verse in parentheses, presumably because this is so obviously a gloss (a later editorial comment).

But why would have a later editor of John wanted to deny that Jesus performed baptisms? The answer here is not all that difficult to guess. For example, this is what C. K. Barrett says on the subject,
 

"[T]he clause, which interrupts the sequence of vv. 1 and 3, may be an insertion by an editor who was anxious to distinguish between Jesus and John; but there is no textual evidence for its omission ..." (C. K. Barrett, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. JOHN; London: SRCK, 1955, p. 192)


So, yes, I agree with Dr. Barrett. It sure seems like some later Christians were a bit uncomfortable with Jesus appearing to be merely on the same general level as John the Baptist. For them, Jesus had to be seen as someone special, so he could not just be performing water baptisms in the same way as John was doing. Hence the disclaimer, one can suppose...

But if we take Dr. Barrett's word for it, there is no textual evidence for the omission of John 4:2... This means that all our existing manuscripts that contain this Johannine passage seem to include this verse.

And the same is also stated in Hoskyns' Commentary,
 

"Some modern commentators (e.g. Bernard) treat the parenthesis in v. 2 as a gloss added by a later hand. There is, however, no support for this in the manuscripts ..." (E. C. Hoskyns, THE FOURTH GOSPEL; F. N. Davey, ed., London: Faber & Faber, 1947)


And, indeed, my own survey of all the standard editions of the Greek NT seems to confirm this; none of them show an omission here in our existing manuscripts.

But is this really the case?

Well, dear friends, I'm afraid that Drs. Barrett and Hoskyns are wrong here! In fact, unbeknownst to them, and apparently to all the editors of the Greek NT -- such as Dr. Aland et al -- there are in fact _four_ old manuscripts lacking such a disclaimer that Jesus did not perform baptisms!

Isn't this incredible? The whole biblical profession must have been sleeping?!

Two of these manuscripts are Diatessaronic, and two are the straight manuscripts of John, one of which is the ancient Aramaic Sinaitic MS, dating all the way back to the 4th century. And this valuable Aramaic MS is also closely supported by a medieval Persian MS of the gospels.

So this is quite an interesting line-up of textual witnesses, I must say... Of course it's already been known in scholarship for a long time that old Persian gospel manuscripts stay pretty close to the Aramaic, so this should not come as much of a surprise.

On the other hand, the two Diatessaronic manuscripts in question are typically seen as representing the Latin textual tradition, and they may also have been based originally on the Aramaic text of John (rather than on the Greek text).
 

ACADEMIC BIASES

So this is quite an interesting case, isn't it? All those great exegetes who write these big and weighty commentary tomes (Bultmann, Jeremias, Dodd, Bernard, etc.) think that this passage is probably an interpolation... and yet nobody yet bothered to look at the _actual manuscripts_ here, to see if they might support these abstract scholarly flights of intuition?

Sure seems bizarre to me... What sort of an ignorance is that?

Well, this ignorance does appear to be, at least in part, political in nature. What we are seeing in the profession, it seems, is a pervasive political bias against the Semitic manuscripts of the gospels -- against the ancient Aramaic manuscripts, written as they were in the language of Jesus. Believe it or not, far from studying them diligently, great many professional biblical scholars don't even know that they exist!

So that's what I call the Great Aramaic Cover-up. Didn't you know it, Jesus was a Greek! -- or at least this is what our professional biblical scholars are seemingly inclined to believe...
 

TEXTUAL EVIDENCE

So here are these four manuscripts that I've identified so far, that are lacking any qualification on Jesus' baptising activities.

The straight omission of John 4:2 is found in the Magdalene Gospel, and in the Dutch Diatessaron -- the two very valuable Diatessaronic manuscripts that have often been mentioned in my textual studies.

For example, here's the Magdalene Gospel's version of this passage,
 

(MG 13:5) "And as soon as Jesus had heard that John was imprisoned, and that the Pharisees were grumbling that he was baptising so many people, then Jesus left Judea, and went down to Galilee."


And the Dutch Diatessaron stays even closer to the canonical text of John, except that it also happens to omit John 4:2 outright.

The fact that both these manuscripts omit this apparent gloss sure indicates that this omission is very ancient. It was probably found in the Old Latin Diatessaron, on which both the Magdalene Gospel and the Dutch Diatessaron ultimately seem to have depended.

And now, here are the details about the two manuscripts of John that I'm talking about. Although both of them do feature verse 4:2, the way it reads there is very different. Thus, according to these two valuable textual witnesses, there is no doubt that Jesus performed baptisms.
 

THE OLD SYRIAC ARAMAIC SINAITIC MANUSCRIPT

So here is an ancient Aramaic version of this passage. First I give the English translation by Dr. Burkitt, then the pronunciation of the Aramaic text, and then the transliteration.

(Jn 4:2 Sinaitic)
Because not only was our Lord baptizing, but his disciples.

Metul d'lay hwa hu Maran balahwad memd hwa, yelay talmiydahy.

mTl dl) hw) hw Mrn blxwd m(md hw), )l) tlmydwhy

For reference, here's our other Old Syriac manuscript, the Curetonian. In it, this verse reads quite close to the canonical Greek.

(Jn 4:2 Curetonian)
Not that Jesus [himself] was baptizing, but his disciples.

W'lo hwa hu Yeshua memd hwa, yelay talmiydahy.

wl) hw) hw y$w( m(md hw), )l) tlm:ydwhy
 

A MEDIEVAL PERSIAN MANUSCRIPT OF JOHN

And here is how we find this verse in a medieval Persian manuscript, as published in the London Polyglot of 1657 (Walton's Polyglot),
 

"Jesus was not alone who baptized, but the disciples also baptized."


So this reads quite similarly to the Old Syriac.

According to Metzger (Bruce M. Metzger, THE EARLY VERSIONS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 277), this Persian manuscript was produced in 1341 CE and, at the time of Walton's publication, belonged to Edward Pococke, a Professor at Oxford. It was generally believed to have been translated from the Syriac Peshitta, but this particular reading obviously contradicts such a view, since the Peshitta's version of this verse stays very close to the canonical.

So it sure looks to me like this Persian manuscript may generally be a lot closer to the Old Syriac rather than to the Peshitta. There are also quite a few other medieval Persian manuscripts of the gospels that survive to our time (more than a dozen), but they are not very well studied...

The only Commentary that I've been able to find that mentions this Persian reading is John Gill's Commentary, published originally in 1809. Of course, in Dr. Gill's time, the Aramaic Sinaitic MS was still unknown, so, as a result, nobody has pointed out this connection between these two manuscripts before the present study.

(Well, in a manner of speaking, the Aramaic Sinaitic MS is _still_ unknown, because the overwhelming majority of biblical scholars today have never even laid their eyes on it. That's the political bias!)
 

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THESE AGREEMENTS

As mentioned above, the fact that both the Magdalene Gospel and the Dutch Diatessaron happen to agree in this passage clearly points to their common Old Latin archetype as the source of this agreement.

And, to be sure, this is just one example of such agreements between these two medieval manuscripts -- one out of the hundreds of such agreements.

These two manuscripts are clearly genealogically related. Nobody in their right mind can claim that all these massive agreements between the Magdalene Gospel and the Dutch Diatessaron (as itemised in great detail by Dr. Plooij, for example) are purely coincidental. They certainly could not have been produced by some isolated medieval editor in England out of his or her imagination...

Likewise, the fact that the Pococke Persian MS of the gospels supports the reading in the Old Syriac is also quite significant. This indicates that the OS Sinaitic version of John 4:2 was not some sort of a minor local variant, but rather it represents a very widespread trend within the Aramaic textual tradition of John. If this OS reading travelled as far as Persia, surely it was quite widespread -- so this must have been a very well established reading indeed.

And, of course, a confluence in this case of the Old Latin and the Old Syriac texts also represents a very broad trend within the textual tradition of the gospels. Such Syro-Latin agreements against the canonical Greek text have been studied in detail by quite a few scholars about a century ago, before the current Aramaic Cover-up in biblical studies was yet fully in place.
 

POSSIBLE TEXTUAL HISTORY OF THIS PASSAGE

A question may now be asked, What was the chronological sequence among these 3 readings that we have been considering here. Which of them is the earliest?

Well, in a case like this, we will need to follow a general rule of textual criticism, "That reading is best which best explains the others". And from this point of view, it certainly looks like our two Diatessaronic witnesses do preserve the earliest version of this text -- the version where, quite simply and plainly, and without any further elaboration, Jesus is said to have performed baptisms.

On the other hand, the Aramaic/Persian version of John 4:2 does not really seem to me like the earliest.
 

(Jn 4:2 Sinaitic) Because not only was our Lord baptizing, but his disciples.


Rather this seems like a deliberate correction of the canonical version, that was born probably in the theological controversies of the 2nd/3rd centuries -- the controversies that were unfolding in regard to the exact nature and significance of the connection that bound Jesus and John the Baptist. And, in essence, this controversy was, of course, part and parcel of the larger problem, namely, how to define Jesus' own attitude to Judaism, and to what extent should Christianity be seen as a continuation of Jewish religious tradition.

It is very clear from many historical sources (such as, for example, in regard to the quartodeciman controversy) that the Aramaic-speaking Christians of Syria/Palestine kept insisting that the faith tradition they received from the earliest Apostles was considerably more Jewish-oriented, than that which the Greek-speaking Christians were following at the time, and which eventually became the official Catholic position. Those who have investigated in some detail the ancient Aramaic gospel manuscripts know that, in great many passages, they demonstrate some considerable closeness to Judaism, as compared to the Greek gospel texts of the same period.

And so, here is the historical sequence of the editorial development of this passage that I'm suggesting.

1. Jesus was baptising: no qualification.
2. The canonical version of John 4:2 is introduced, with its qualification of Jesus' activities.
3. The Aramaic/Persian version of John 4:2 is introduced, as a deliberate correction of the above qualifying gloss.

From my point of view, such a sequence would be the easiest to understand from the historical perspective. On the other hand, it would be rather difficult to explain (a) how this verse 4:2 could have dropped out accidentally from these two Diatessaronic manuscripts -- and only from them, or (b) how the canonical version of this passage could have derived so easily from the Aramaic/Persian version.

Thus, in my view, just like all those Johannine commentators have suggested, John 4:2 does represent a subsequent gloss -- whether we are talking about the Greek or the OS Sinaitic version of this passage.
 

CONCLUSION

So it seems like this case of John 4:2 is really quite similar to the situation with John 7:8 (the previous long study that I've done,

Did Jesus Tell a Lie? (John 7:8)
     http://www.globalserve.net/~yuku/bbl/jn7jes.htm

about whether or not Jesus deceived his brothers) in so far as both these passages have big theological significance, but have mostly been ignored by the biblical commentators in so far as the textual side of it is concerned.

This is what is happening to the biblical studies today. NT textual criticism is in the dumps -- the decline in such studies has been marked and profound. So rather than deal with the complex reality of ancient manuscripts and languages, the scholars would rather be merrily playing games in their little sand-box -- remaining oblivious to the hard world of reality out there, with all its challenges and complexities. Their sand-box, of course, is the current edition of Nestle-Aland Greek NT. If some textual variant is not listed there, therefore it doesn't exist -- that's how their logic goes!

So, Welcome to the Wonderland of biblical studies -- this World Beyond the Looking Glass -- where all sorts of weighty and important-sounding theories are typically floating in mid-air, without a shred of hard textual evidence to support them, or to dress them up!

Sure looks like these august biblical authorities have all been levitating in regard to this passage -- it's a miracle!

Thus, in the existing atmosphere, our academic biblical scholarship becomes a purely abstract pursuit dissociated from reality. These guys and gals really don't have any intention of connecting with the real world!

Because, in the real world, textual criticism really should come first, before an exegete begins to interpret the text. First you need a text, before you can interpret it... But in the world of biblical studies today, textual criticism is really just a poor relative, relegated far to the sidelines.

It's smug ignorance -- that's how I would characterise the world of New Testament studies today. Ignorance protected by the thick walls of prejudice that the scholars have built around themselves.

Best regards,

Yuri.


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