Problem: John the Baptist knew or didn't know Jesus
Verses: Matthew 3:13-16, John 1:32-34; Status: Minor

In Matthew's gospel, when Jesus comes to John to be baptised, John hesitates, as he feels unworthy. This is Matthew 3:13-16:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; (ESV)

So he knows who Jesus is before anything happens. However, this is John 1:32-34:

And John bore witness: "I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God." (ESV)

The most natural reading of John is that the Baptist did not recognise Jesus as the Messiah until after he witnessed the Spirit descending on him (which in Matthew, happens after the baptism). However, it is possible to say that "I did not know him" means "I was not acquanted with him". In that case, John's words mean something like:

"Even though I did not know him personally, I can still say that he is the Son of God, for I have seen absolute proof!"

This just about works, and doesn't contradict Matthew, though it's not really a natural reading. Also, since I don't read ancient Greek, I don't know if it's actually a legitimate way to understand the text.

Other suggestions

A less plausible suggestion that I've seen is that "I did not know him" means "I was not completely sure it was him", but this doesn't work in English and I wonder if it works in the Greek.

A third suggestion is that Jesus basically told John who he was, and John, not knowing whether to believe him, played along (as described in Matthew) and only became sure after the baptism. This view is problematic, though: in Luke 1:41 John seems to have the ability to just sense the presence of holiness.

At any rate, there's a lot of wriggle room here.

Updated: Summer 2008

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