Monday, January 2, 2017

Resistance and Permission

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 3:13-17, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the first Sunday after Epiphany.    

For an exploration of the baptism stories and Matthew’s story in particular, see my article in the Politics of Scripture blog.

13Τότε παραγίνεται  Ἰησοῦς ἀπὸ τῆς Γαλιλαίας ἐπὶ τὸν Ἰορδάνην πρὸς τὸν 
Ἰωάννην τοῦ βαπτισθῆναι ὑπ' αὐτοῦ. 
Then Jesus comes from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. 
παραγίνεται: PMI 3s, παραγίνομαι, 1) to be present, to come near, approach 
βαπτισθῆναι: APInf, βαπτίζω, 1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge
1. V.1 had indicated that John was in the wilderness of Judea baptizing. Here the Jordan River is added as the location.

14 δὲ Ἰωάννης διεκώλυεν αὐτὸν λέγων, Ἐγὼ χρείαν ἔχω ὑπὸ σοῦ 
βαπτισθῆναι, καὶ σὺ ἔρχῃ πρός με; 
But John was declining him saying, “I have a need to be baptized by you and do you come to me?”
διεκώλυεν: IAI 3s, διακωλύω, 1) to hinder, prevent.
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἔχω: PAI 1s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
βαπτισθῆναι: APInf, βαπτίζω, 1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge
ἔρχῃ: PMI 2s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  
1. Eugene Boring says διεκώλυεν is a ‘conative imperfect, indicating attempted action.’ For Boring, the verb indicates John’s attempt to dissuade Jesus. However, says “διά in this compound does not denote effort as is commonly said, but separation, ... to separate by shutting, shut out.” I take that to mean that John was not trying to refuse baptizing Jesus, but was in fact refusing to baptize Jesus. As an imperfect, not an aorist, διεκώλυεν carries the meaning of an ongoing action, not just a single attempt.

15 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ  Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτόν, Ἄφες ἄρτι, οὕτως γὰρ πρέπον 
ἐστὶν ἡμῖν πληρῶσαι πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην. τότε ἀφίησιν αὐτόν. 
But having answered Jesus said to him, “Permit now, for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.  Then he permits it.” 
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἄφες: AAImpv 2s, ἀφίημι, 1) to send away  ...  1c) to let go, let alone, let be  ...  2) to permit, allow, not to hinder, to give up a thing to a person
ἐστὶν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
πληρῶσαι: AAInf, πληρόω, 1) to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full
ἀφίησιν: PAI 3s, ἀφίημι, 1) to send away  ...  1c) to let go, let alone, let be  ...  2) to permit, allow, not to hinder, to give up a thing to a person
1. The word πρέπον (“fitting”) is fairly rare in the NT and this is the only use in the gospels. I’ve often heard this word and text interpreted to mean that the baptism is just aiming at an apparent fulfillment of righteousness, more or less a gesture, since Jesus has no real need for repentance and baptism. But, πρέπον means what is right, what is fitting, or proper, not what is apparent. It is right for Jesus to be baptized, just as it is right for saints to act like saints, for doctrine to be sound, etc. as we see in other uses of πρέπον in the NT:
I Corinthians 11:13  Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled?
Ephesians 5:3 But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints.
I Timothy 2:10  … but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.
Titus 2:1  But as for you, teach what is consistent with sound doctrine.
Hebrews 2:10   It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
Hebrews 7:26  For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.
2. These are the first words that Jesus speaks in MT. Boring says they indicate both Jesus’ control of this encounter with John and Jesus’ obedience to God’s will.
3. The word ἀφίημι is extremely versatile in the NT. Here, I have translated it “permit” because of the contrast to John’s resistance (διακωλύω) in v.14. One popular translation of ἀφίημι, however, is “to forgive.” I am guessing that if this were anyone else other than Jesus, translators would be quicker to imagine that forgiveness might be at stake with this baptism, rendering it, with the baptizee saying, “Forgive now, for in this way it is appropriate for us to fulfill all righteousness.” And of the baptizer, the narrator saying, “Then he forgives it.” But, since this is Jesus, nobody will go there, I reckon.
4. The concession in this verse seems quick and easy, but if we take the imperative verb of v.14 (see n.1 above) as indicating John’s ongoing resistance to Jesus, then this concession might just be the end of a long argument.

16 βαπτισθεὶς δὲ  Ἰησοῦς εὐθὺς ἀνέβη ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕδατος: καὶ ἰδοὺ ἠνεῴχθησαν 
[αὐτῷ] οἱ οὐρανοί, καὶ εἶδεν [τὸ] πνεῦμα [τοῦ] θεοῦ καταβαῖνον ὡσεὶ 
περιστερὰν [καὶ] ἐρχόμενον ἐπ' αὐτόν: 
Yet Jesus having been baptized, immediately went up from the water, and behold the heavens were opened up [to him], and he saw [the] spirit of [the] God descending as a dove [and] landing on him;
βαπτισθεὶς: APPart nsm, βαπτίζω, 1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge
ἀνέβη: AAI 3s, ἀναβαίνω, 1) ascend  1a) to go up  1b) to rise,
ἠνεῴχθησαν: API 3p, ἀνοίγω, 1) to open
εἶδεν: AAI 3s, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes
καταβαῖνον: PAPart asn, καταβαίνω, 1) to go down, come down, descend
ἐρχόμενον: PMPart asn, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons
1. For whatever reason, this verse has been worked over quite a bit in the manuscripts, as indicated by the bracketed words.
2. The verb ἀναβαίνω (to go up) is the futball that has been kicked all over the schoolyard in debates over immersion v. sprinkling v. washing v. whatever forms of baptism. For advocates of immersion, it means that Jesus, having been immersed, is now plunging up out of the water. For advocates of other forms of baptism, it means that Jesus, having been baptized, now steps out of the river. I don’t know that anything grammatical or historical can aid this conversation and “experts” only give it a ring of authority that masks their own opinions.
3. I have interpreted ἐρχόμενον as “landing” on him, because of the preposition ἐπ' (on).

17καὶ ἰδοὺ φωνὴ ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν λέγουσα, Οὗτός ἐστιν  υἱός μου  
ἀγαπητός, ἐν  εὐδόκησα. 
And behold a voice speaking out of the heavens, “This is my beloved son [or, “my son, the beloved”], in whom I am pleased.” 
λέγουσα: PAPart, nfs, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἐστὶν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
εὐδόκησα: AAI 1s, εὐδοκέω, 1) it seems good to one, is one's good pleasure

1. The saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am pleased,” is Matthew’s interpretation of Isaiah 42:1. He will quote it two more times. In 12:18-21, Matthew offers an interesting quotation of Isaiah 42:1-4, as a way of explaining why Jesus ordered the crowds not to make him known. (Go ahead; compare them. It will be time well spent.) Matthew’s final use of this quote is on the mountain of transfiguration, when the words again come from a voice out of the heavens. If Matthew anticipates that the readers are aware of Isaiah 42, then this is not just an indication of approval but also an indication of Jesus’ calling.


  1. Mark... once again it all looks like Greek to me.... but, once again you have teased out some notions of what might have been meant with the fairhandedness of a reporter - the facts, just the facts - along with fair warning when you intend to stick your own two cents worth in... and, once again, I have eagerly anticipated reading your take on what the original manuscript might have been trying to convey... all said, I suspect there are many of us our here in the never never land of preaching that, probably, couldn't make the trek down the road of learning Greek even if we were given a world class support team to take care of everything except for our own thinking powers - so - again Thank You!! Bless You!!! and Go You!!!! later..Richard

  2. As a comment on your notation of the use of brackets...and I will rely on your Greek interpretation skills here...could the "he" in the "he saw the Spirit" John who saw the Spirit alighting on "him " meaning Jesus? Using John 1: 31-33 as a support for this was the dove descending on Jesus that told John Jesus was the Messiah..."I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, "The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit."


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