Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 3: 1-12, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for Sunday, December 8. Your comments are always welcomed. John mixes quite a few metaphors, but my suspicion is that many of them are reflective of theological disputes common among the contending groups within Judaism of his day; or, perhaps they are common among the contending groups of Judaism in Matthew's community. Lacking the specific context for John's language, we are left with many mixed metaphors which seem quite powerful in sparking the imagination.
1 Ἐν δὲ ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις παραγίνεται Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτιστὴς κηρύσσων
ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τῆς Ἰουδαίας
Yet in those days John the Baptist came forth preaching in the wilderness to the Judeans
παραγίνεται: PMI 3s, παραγίνομαι, 1) to be present, to come near, approach 2) to come forth, make one's public appearance
κηρύσσων: PAPart nms, κηρύσσω, 1) to be a herald, to officiate as a herald 1a) to proclaim after the manner of a herald
1. The verb here is that John the Baptist “came forth.” The participles describing the nature of that coming forth are “preaching” and “saying.”
2 [καὶ] λέγων, Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
[and] saying, “Repent, for the reign of heaven has drawn near.”
ἤγγικεν: PerfAI 3s, ἐγγίζω, 1) to bring near, to join one thing to another 2) to draw or come near to, to approach
1. Some ancient manuscripts have “preaching and saying ‘Repent ...’” That construction might indicate that the message of “Repent ...” is not the summation of John’s preaching, but is in addition to his preaching.
3 οὗτος γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ῥηθεὶς διὰ Ἠσαΐου τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος, Φωνὴ
βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε
τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ.
For this is the one who was spoken by Isaiah the prophet saying, “A voice cries out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
ῥηθεὶς: APPart nms, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 1a) affirm over, maintain 1b) to teach 1c) to exhort, advise, to command, direct 1d) to point out with words, intend, mean, mean to say 1e) to call by name, to call, name 1f) to speak out, speak of, mention
βοῶντος: PAPart, gms, βοάω, 1) to raise a cry, of joy pain etc. 2) to cry, speak with a high, strong voice 3) to cry to one for help, to implore his aid
Ἑτοιμάσατε : AAImpv 2pl, ἑτοιμάζω, 1) to make ready, prepare 1a) to make the necessary preparations, get everything ready 2) metaph.
ποιεῖτε : AAImpv 2pl, ποιέω, 1) to make 1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct, form, fashion, etc. 1b) to be the authors of, the cause
1. Whenever capitalization and punctuation were added to this verse, the words of the voice became, “Prepare the way ....” Without capitalization or punctuation it could read – as Isaiah 40:3 is typically translated – “In the wilderness prepare the way ....” The difference would be whether John is preaching in the wilderness or whether the Lord is coming in the wilderness and that’s where the way must be prepared.
4Αὐτὸς δὲ ὁ Ἰωάννης εἶχεν τὸ ἔνδυμα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τριχῶν καμήλου καὶ ζώνην δερματίνην περὶ τὴν ὀσφὺν αὐτοῦ, ἡ δὲ τροφὴ ἦν αὐτοῦ ἀκρίδες καὶ μέλι
Yet John himself wore his garment from camel hair and a leather belt around his loins, yet his food was locust and wild honey.
εἶχεν: IAI 3s, ἔχω,v 1) to have, i.e. to hold 1a) to have (hold) in the hand, in the sense of wearing
II Kings 1:7-8 says, “He said to them, "What kind of man was he who came up to meet you and spoke these words to you?" They answered him, "He was a hairy man with a leather girdle bound about his loins." And he said, "It is Elijah the Tishbite."
1. Right after citing Isaiah, Matthew echoes the appearance of Elijah as a way of identifying John and, consequently, Jesus.
5 τότε ἐξεπορεύετο πρὸς αὐτὸν Ἱεροσόλυμα καὶ πᾶσα ἡ Ἰουδαία καὶ πᾶσα
ἡ περίχωρος τοῦ Ἰορδάνου,
Then Jerusalem were going out to him and all of Judea and all the region of the Jordan,
ἐξεπορεύετο: IMI 3s, ἐκπορεύομαι, 1) to go forth, go out, depart
6 καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ὑπ' αὐτοῦ ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς
and were being baptized in the Jordan river by him confessing their sins.
ἐβαπτίζοντο: IPI 3p, βαπτίζω, 1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk) 2) to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water, to wash one's self, bathe
ἐξομολογούμενοι: PMPart npm, ἐξομολογέω, 1) to confess 2) to profess 2a) acknowledge openly and joyfully 2b) to one's honour: to celebrate, give praise to 2c) to profess that one will do something, to promise, agree, engage.
1. The “all” of v.5 is still in effect here. All of them were going out and all of them were being baptized. This is an amazingly popular response to John and not a mixed review as we will see regarding Jesus later in the story. But, the question quickly arises whether coming out to be baptized is, in itself, a good thing.
7 Ἰδὼν δὲ πολλοὺς τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶ Σαδδουκαίων ἐρχομένους ἐπὶ τὸ
βάπτισμα αὐτοῦ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν, τίς ὑπέδειξεν ὑμῖν
φυγεῖν ἀπὸ τῆς μελλούσης ὀργῆς;
Yet seeing many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism he said to them, “Spawn of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
ἐρχομένους: PMPart apm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 1a) of persons
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Γεννήματα: vpn, γέννημα, 1) that which has been born or begotten 1a) the offspring or progeny of men or animals
ὑπέδειξεν: AAI 3s, ὑποδείκνυμι, 1) to show by placing under (i.e. before) the eyes 2) to show by words and arguments, i.e. to teach
φυγεῖν: AAInf, φεύγω, 1) to flee away, seek safety by flight
μελλούσης : PAPart gfs, μέλλω, 1) to be about 1a) to be on the point of doing or suffering something 1b) to intend, have in mind, think to
1. Two things about this verse seem striking to me. One is that many of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John’s baptism. Another is that coming to John for his baptism may not be an admirable act in itself.
2. Jesus uses the phrase “Brood of vipers” in Matthew 12:34, saying to the Pharisees, “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” And again, in
Matthew 23:33 to the Scribes and Pharisees, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” This last reference is particularly biting because Jesus goes on to say, “Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify.”
8 ποιήσατε οὖν καρπὸν ἄξιον τῆς μετανοίας:
Therefore bear fruit worthy of the repentance;
ποιήσατε: AAImpv 2p, ποιέω, 1) to make
1. This brief verse seems to be the axiom of John’s message. It harkens back to the “repentance” that John was commanding in v.2. To the crowd, John says “repent”; to the Pharisees and Sadducees – children of vipers – he says “bear fruit worthy of the repentance.” Both are imperatives.
2. Since John is lashing out at the Pharisees and Sadducees - before they do anything meriting criticism in Matthew’s story - we have to assume a back story. It may be that John is part of the Essene community, which was vigorously critical of both the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Or, it may be that Matthew’s community is struggling with the Pharisees (although the Sadducee movement seems to have died out with the temple’s destruction in 70CE.) Or, it may be that Matthew is foreshadowing, anticipating the role of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the forthcoming chapters.
3. The word ἄξιος has several potential meanings: “1) weighing, having weight, having the weight of another thing of like value, worth as much 2) befitting, congruous, corresponding to a thing 3) of one who has merited anything worthy.” It is the term attributed to John in Luke and Acts as saying, “The laces of whose sandals I am not worthy to unloose,” but it is not the term that Matthew employs in v.11.
9 καὶ μὴ δόξητε λέγειν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς, Πατέρα ἔχομεν τὸν Ἀβραάμ, λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι δύναται ὁ θεὸς ἐκ τῶν λίθων τούτων ἐγεῖραι τέκνα τῷ Ἀβραάμ.
And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have father Abraham,’ for I say to you that God is able out of these stones to raise up children of Abraham.
δόξητε: AASubj 2p, δοκέω, 1) to be of opinion, think, suppose
λέγειν: PAInf, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἔχομεν: PAI 1p, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
δύναται: PMI 3s, δύναμαι, 1) to be able,
ἐγεῖραι: AAInf, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise
1. I am giving the verb δοκέω the flavor of “presume” because John is deconstructing what may be a popular presumption of Abrahamic lineage.
2. I don’t know if “We have father Abraham” was a popular phrase among Pharisees and Sadducees or if John is speaking of origins in order to set up the next verse regarding the axe set to the root of the tree.
3. The phrase “God is able to raise up children of Abraham out of these stones” is incredibly profound. We assume that rocks are minerals and not life or life-giving as roots are. God can produce life from non-life. Likewise, a tree can be cut off from its root source, making it no more alive than we presume a stone to be. The space between life and death is a thin place through which God can pass freely.
10 ἤδη δὲ ἡ ἀξίνη πρὸς τὴν ῥίζαν τῶν δένδρων κεῖται: πᾶν οὖν δένδρον μὴ
ποιοῦν καρπὸν καλὸν ἐκκόπτεται καὶ εἰς πῦρ βάλλεται.
Yet now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; therefore any tree that is not producing good fruit is being cut down and thrown into the fire.
κεῖται: PMI 3s, κεῖμαι, 1) to lie 1a) of an infant 1b) of one buried 1c) of things that quietly cover some spot 1c1) of a city situated on a hill
ποιοῦν: PAPart nsn, ποιέω, 1) to make 1a) with the names of things made, to produce,
ἐκκόπτεται: PPI 3s, ἐκκόπτω, 1) to cut out, cut off 1a) of a tree
βάλλεται: PPI 3s, βάλλω, 1) to throw or let go of a thing without caring where it falls
1. There has to be an etymological connection between ἄξιον (worthy, v.8) and ἀξίνη (transliterated into English as “axe”), yes? Is Matthew giving us a play on words – like I did when I used “axiom” to talk about v.8? Come on, Greek scholars, we can do this!
2. This is quite a judgment being leveled at the people who stem from the root of Abraham. As the red letters indicate, each of the verbs is in the present tense, so John’s words are not prophecies of a future but an ‘even now’ reality. Is this Matthew’s way of interpreting the recent destruction of the temple?
11 ἐγὼ μὲν ὑμᾶς βαπτίζω ἐν ὕδατι εἰς μετάνοιαν: ὁ δὲ ὀπίσω μου ἐρχόμενος
ἰσχυρότερός μού ἐστιν, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς τὰ ὑποδήματα βαστάσαι: αὐτὸς
ὑμᾶς βαπτίσει ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί:
I baptize you in water into repentance; yet one who follows me is coming who is before me, for whom I am not sufficient to carry his sandals; he will baptize you in a holy and fiery spirit;
βαπτίζω: PAI 1s, βαπτίζω, 1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk) 2) to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water, to wash one's self, bathe 3) to overwhelm
ἐρχόμενος: PMPart nms, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
εἰμὶ: PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
βαστάσαι: AAInf, βαστάζω, 1) to take up with the hands
βαπτίσει: FAI 3s, βαπτίζω, 1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels
1. One reason John is often presumed to have been part of the Essene community, and not just a wilderness hermit, is because they practiced immersion in water as a ritual repentance and cleansing. I’m remembering (and perhaps not well) that they did so often, and not just ‘one and done’.
2. The whole linguistically confusing “one who follows me is before me” might be a way of challenging a prominent thought that earlier voices have precedent over later voices. The Sadducees, for example, were known for strict adherence to the Torah and for rejecting novel interpretations of Scripture that followed. The Essenes – I seem to remember – had a very dynamic interpretation of Scripture that some call (fairly or not, I don’t know) “spiritual exegesis.”
3. Okay, I am bucking the trend with “a holy and fiery spirit,” but all three of these words are dative singular neuter and could be either nouns or adjectives, depending on their use. Matthew has used the phrase “holy spirit” already, in 1:18 and 1:20. There is no definite article in any of these uses.
12 οὗ τὸ πτύον ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ, καὶ διακαθαριεῖ τὴν ἅλωνα αὐτοῦ, καὶ
συνάξει τὸν σῖτον αὐτοῦ εἰς τὴν ἀποθήκην, τὸ δὲ ἄχυρον κατακαύσει πυρὶ
of whom the winnowing shovel in his hand, and he will thoroughly clean his threshing floor, and gather his wheat into the granary, yet the stalks he will burn in asbestos fire.
διακαθαριεῖ: FAI 3s, διακαθαρίζω, 1) to cleanse thoroughly
συνάξει: FAI 3s, συνάγω, 1) to gather together, to gather
κατακαύσει: FAI 3s, κατακαίω, 1) to burn up, consume by fire
1. The first phrase lacks a verb, so most translations supply an “is”.
2. Just a thought: There are two words in the Scriptures seem to generate a strong reaction from modern ears, but perhaps they didn’t have such connotations in biblical times. “Fire” was a common way to dispose of trash, leftovers, remnants, etc. and “asbestos fire” (or fire that doesn’t burn out) might refer to a commonly known landfill for burning. Likewise, “blood” was a fairly common substance that people came in contact with daily. It might signify life and the ending of life, but not necessarily the kind of violence we often associate with it because of crime shows, etc.