Sunday, November 27, 2022

Barren Roots, Fertile Rocks, and a Fiery Spirit

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 3: 1-12, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the second Sunday of Advent. Your comments are always welcomed.

John the Baptist 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  βαπτιστὴς κηρύσσων 
ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τῆς Ἰουδαίας 
Yet in those days John the Baptist came forth preaching in the wilderness of Judea
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 (in v.2) “saying.”
2. I need to press myself a little more in attending to the theology of space in the gospels. Across the gospels, the wilderness/desert seems to be where John offers his proclamations. What is the significance of that space? It is primarily an echo of the wilderness experiences of the OT? It is a place apart from Rome's purview, with soldiers posted mostly in cities? It is a sign of John's asceticism, and therefore a sign of how God works outside of the grids of power? As someone raised in the evangelical notion that we have to "go" and evangelize, there is a possibility here that one proclaims and God gathers people to where that proclamation is happening. 
3. The verb κηρύσσω appears 61x in the synoptics, Acts, letters, and even once in Revelation, but not a single time in John's gospel. One reason that surprises me is because Rudolph Bultmann put so much emphasis on the "kerygma" and grounded so much of his work on John's gospel. Hmm... 

2 [καὶ] λέγων, Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ  βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
[and] saying, “Repent, for the reign of heaven has drawn near.”
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Μετανοεῖτε: PAImpv 2p, μετανοέω, 1) to change one's mind, i.e. to repent  2) to change one's mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence  of one's past sins
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. Without the conjunction, it might suggest that this verse is essentially the message.
2. Young’s Literal Translation has “Reform” as opposed to “Repent.” I think that is fair.
3. The imperative “Repent/Reform” is plural. This is not primarily about “personal salvation,” a term that seems widely misused to me.
4. In the season of Advent, one is tempted to interpret the nearness of the kingdom of heaven to be a reference to Jesus. Indeed the next verse – preparing the way of the Lord – would reinforce that. However, the fullness of Isaiah’s text is about filling valleys and bringing mountains low – something that is echoed in Mary's "Magnificat" in Luke and sounds more like a kind of wholesale structural change that is part of the Lord’s coming.

 3 οὗτος γάρ ἐστιν  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.’”
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
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 
λέγοντος: PAPart gsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
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, it is the voice that is in the wilderness, crying out, “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.
2. Isaiah was a prophet speaking about the coming of a prophet speaking about the coming of the Lord.

 4 Αὐτὸς δὲ  Ἰωάννης εἶχεν τὸ ἔνδυμα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τριχῶν καμήλου καὶ ζώνην δερματίνην περὶ τὴν ὀσφὺν αὐτοῦ,  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
1. This seems to be an intertextual reference as much as a description. 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."
2. Right after citing Isaiah, Matthew echoes the appearance of Elijah as a way of identifying John and, consequently, Jesus.
3. What is the significance of “wild honey”? (Let alone locust, which is a delicacy that is unfamiliar to me.) Does it signify that John is off the grid, so to speak, not dependent on cultivated hives, which would be a sign of ‘civilization’ and ‘city life?’ Does that kind of ‘wilderness poverty’ offer him more freedom to speak boldly?

5 τότε ἐξεπορεύετο πρὸς αὐτὸν Ἱεροσόλυμα καὶ πᾶσα  Ἰουδαία καὶ πᾶσα 
ἡ περίχωρος τοῦ Ἰορδάνου,
Then Jerusalem and all of Judea and all the region of the Jordan were going out to him,
ἐξεπορεύετο: IMI 3s, ἐκπορεύομαι, 1) to go forth, go out, depart 
1. It is interesting to me that Galilee and Galileans are not mentioned specifically here (since the Jordan runs north and south, perhaps Galilee could be implied as part of the region of the Jordan). V. 13 will introduce Jesus as having come from Galilee to John at the Jordan.

6 καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ὑπ' αὐτοῦ ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς 
ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν.
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 enough 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 warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Ἰδὼν: AAPart nsm, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes
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. In addition to John’s use here, Jesus uses the phrase “Spawn of vipers” twice in Matthew. In 12:34, he says 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.”
3. One comment that was left on this blog in past years came from Wendy: "Could epi in verse 7 actually mean 'coming against' instead of 'coming for' as William Herzog proposes in Feasting on the Word for Advent 2? Would make sense that the Pharisees and Sadducees would be coming out against what JBap was doing." Thank you, Wendy, for bringing this to my attention. Translations tend to go with less confrontational options, like "to" and "for," but Young's Literal Translation offers "about," which might be taken to indicate some concern on the Pharisees' and Sadducees' parts. Herzog's suggestion - and I'm not sure what exactly he is basing it on, so I need to go read it myself - would certainly make John's harsh words to these leaders more understandable. Thanks again. 

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. Or, it may be as Herzog suggests (see v.7, n.3 above) that John is reacting to a challenge.
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  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  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. The word κεῖμαι, passive here meaning “is laid” is the same word used to describe Jesus being put into the tomb as well as – in Luke’s gospel – the infant Jesus lying in a manger.
3. 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 (for his audience) destruction of the temple?

11 ἐγὼ μὲν ὑμᾶς βαπτίζω ἐν ὕδατι εἰς μετάνοιαν:  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.’ I find it fascinating that the early church took a tradition – about which there is very little Old Testament precedent – and made it such a significant demonstrative act. I am always amazed that something which showed creativity and expressive power could so quickly become a ritual that is embedded in dogma, only done by someone invested with ordained power, only ‘true’ if done with a certain kind of formula, necessary for salvation, etc. It is tragic and sad to see a moment of creative power rusted into a means of maintaining hierarchical power.
I wonder sometimes if the best way to recover the creative power behind “sacraments” is to de-sacramentalize them meaningfully and deliberately.
2. The whole linguistically confusing “one who follows me is before me” might be a way of challenging a prominent cultural assumption 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.
4. I get the feeling that we are looking at someone who actually is filled with God’s own dynamic Spirit and, as such, is not interested in being evaluated or certified by the official representatives of the faith who have come out to his baptism.

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. I use the phrase “asbestos fire” because I am transliterating ἀσβέστῳ. The word means “unquenchable.” The material called asbestos is a fire retardant. the dust of which is deadly if breathed too much. I wonder if this is a sideways reference to the burning bush which was not consumed – that there is a kind of God-given fire that will consume what is thrown in there, but will not consume or spread beyond its given space.
3. 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.  

So, for the second Sunday of Advent we have a reading of John the Baptizer, who is – on the one hand – enormously popular, promising the coming of one who will bring justice and equity to a structure of peaks and valleys. And who – on the other hand – has no use for the recognized representatives of his tradition, but rather sees them as under judgment as part of that great leveling. It leaves an established church wondering if we ought to be shouting or shuddering at the coming of the Lord.

I am ever intrigued by John’s question to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” I don’t know what it means.


  1. I always look for your header in the textweek list. As a not so sharp Greek scholar I really value your work and comments. thank you for being my Greek guru.

  2. Thanks, Barbara. I'm not sure if "Greek guru" is a title that I deserve, but I am very happy to share both my work and my ignorance with you. Just, please feel free to set me straight when the occasion arises. We'll all be better off for it.

  3. Thank you. "A holy and fiery spirit" that is unquenchable like that burning bush. That inspires hope and devotion in a way the fires of hell can't.

  4. Could epi in verse 7 actually mean 'coming against' instead of 'coming for' as William Herzog proposes in Feasting on the Word for Advent 2? Would make sense that the Pharisees and Sadducees would be coming out against what JBap was doing.

  5. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” - somehow strikes me as a sarcastic comment towards cultural/political leadership who come to religious events in order to be seen as pious. Maybe just my take.


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