Intertextual Echoes in the Matthean Baptismal Narrative

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Intertextual Echoes in the Matthean Baptismal Narrative ...

Bulletin for Biblical Research 9 (1999) 37-49 [? 1999 Institute for Biblical Research]

     Intertextual Echoes in the Matthean

     Baptismal Narrative



     Matthew's story of Jesus' baptism provides evidence of an "Immanuel"

     ("God with us") Christology. In particular the first evangelist redacts

     Mark's account and envisages Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet according to

     the order of Ezekiel. Moreover, the opening of the heavens and descent of the

     Spirit echo Isaiah 63-64 and portray Jesus as God's answer to the petition

     longing for his presence and redemption. The dove image appears to have

     two intertextual functions: (1) to construe Jesus' baptism as the end of

     judgment and the beginning of new creation through the recollection of

     Noah's deliverance, and (2) to signal Jesus' role as sufferer through a lesser-

     known image of the dove as a symbol for Gods suffering people.

     Key Words: intertextuality, Matthew, baptism (of Jesus), Christology,

     apocalyptic, Holy Spirit

In The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew Ulrich Luz suggests that the

    First Gospel should be read as an extended inclusio bracketed at the

    beginning by the "Immanuel" motif, "God with us," and at the end 1by Jesus' promise, "behold, I am with you always." The Immanuel

    motif, he notes, demonstrates that Matthew's Christology takes on a coherent, narrative shape that cannot be contained in static titles or concepts; it is worked out through the story itself. In the end, Luz believes, Matthew's Gospel advances a Christology "from above"

    namely that, in Jesus, God acts. For Matthew, Luz writes,"Jesus is an 2occurrence of God."

     Luz presents a persuasive argument, particularly when inter- preting the Gospel canonically. He is able to show how the Immanuel

     1. Ulrich Luz, The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew (trans. J. Bradford Robinson;

    Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 4-5.

     2. Ibid., 31-33.

38 Bulletin for Biblical Research 9

    motif influences the pericope and drives Matthew's portrait of Jesus. Yet due to the nature of Luz's book, the author can give only scant attention to any story. His proposal, therefore, begs treatment on the level of individual episodes.

     Matthew's story of Jesus' baptism (3:13-17) provides an excellent laboratory to test Luz's proposition. If for Matthew Jesus is an oc- currence of God and this Christology is worked out in narrative and not titles, reading Matthew's episode from this perspective may yield rich results. In what follows, this article will analyze Matthew's nar- rative of Jesus' baptism with a view to its Immanuel Christology. In particular, it will concentrate on the visionary aspects of the passage

    namely, the opening of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit like a dove. In recognition of the important role played by scripture in apocalyptic visions and dreams, it will investigate these theophanic symbols as possible "echoes" of OTand perhaps otherpassages 3 Assuming Marcan priority, it will show that the evan- and images.

    gelist alters Mark by utilizing an established "symbolic field" codified in Israel's scripture. Through the recollection of Israel's past, its antic- ipated future, and their linkage with the story of Jesus as "Imman- uel," the reader can appreciate more fully the narrative's evocations.


    The Synoptic Gospels relate the story of Jesus' baptism at the begin- ning of his public ministry (Matt 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22). While the Fourth Gospel (John 1:29-34) does not contain this account, it nevertheless appears implicitly in the Baptist's witness to Jesus as the one upon whom the Spirit descends from heaven like a dove and remains. The absence of this narrative in John may be deliberate, as Stephen Gero notes, given the author's interest in decreasing the 4significance of the Baptist. At any rate, for the evangelists, Jesus'

    baptism marks the turning point in his life. Moreover, the opening of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit, and the heavenly voice's dec- laration of his Sonship proclaim God's election of Jesus as his escha- tological emissary of the Kingdom.

     The baptismal story has been interpreted in a number of ways. There are variations on these, of course, but discussion here will focus on two. First, some interpret this account as an historical event

     3. Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale Uni-

    versity Press, 1989), offers an important model for this study.

     4. Stephen Gero, "The Spirit as a Dove at the Baptism of Jesus," NovT 18 (1976)


     CAPES: Intertextual Echoes 39

    which the church embellished with mythological details (e.g., the opening of the heavens, the descent of the dove, the divine voice). These symbols serve to infuse the account with power, mystery and transcendence, magnifying the significance of Jesus to its implied 5audience. To my mind there are few serious objections to the con- clusion that John did baptize Jesus and that this event did propel him 6into public, itinerant ministry. This is all the more likely given the

    apparent embarrassment that a lesser, John, baptizes one greater, Jesus. The absence of Jesus' baptism by John in the Fourth Gospel as well as John's initial statement forbidding it (Matt 3:13-14) appear to testify to this uneasiness. Second, others interpret this account as an 7historical event in which Jesus had an apocalyptic vision. Following

    his immersion, he saw the heavens opened and God's Spirit descend in dove-like fashion on him and he heard a heavenly voice. James Dunn suggests that Jesus' baptism occasioned an experience of God which, for Jesus, had immense import, the most striking of which was the Nazarene's experience of the Spirit and cognizance of his unique 8Sonship.

     There appears to be no route through the impasse. Either you have an ecclesiastical invention designed to enlarge the stature of Jesus 9or you have an apocalyptic Jesus, a seer and transmitter of visions.

    Both conclusions offer significant discomfort for reading communi- ties, be they conservative Christians or the Jesus Seminar. But dis- comfort has never stopped the academy before, and it is not likely to stop it now.

     The present investigation is not so much addressed to the Jesus of history or the Jesus of the nondescript early church; it is intended rather, to reflect on the account as narrated in the Matthean Gospel. In Matthew these fabulous, attendant phenomena arise as divine manifestations within an apocalyptic vision. It is this reading which provides the most satisfying and coherent narrative. This is not to say that Jesus himself was a thoroughgoing apocalypticist or that the early church wished to portray him as such. But it is to say that the

     5. F. W. Beare, The Gospel according to Matthew (San Francisco: Harper & Row,

    1981) 99, remarks that these elements derive from the "realm of myth" and reflect a naive cosmology.

     6. James Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Expe- rience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament (Philadelphia:

    Westminster, 1975) 62.

     7. Ben Witherington, The Christology of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990) 148-49.

     8. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 65.

     9. Witherington, The Christology of Jesus, 151-52. If this is the content of an apoc-

    alyptic vision, it must go back to Jesus himself.

40 Bulletin for Biblical Research 9

NT documents "suggest that on certain occasions Jesus did receive vi- 10 sions which resemble the visions of apocalyptic."

     As is well known, the apocalyptic literary genre eludes adequate definition or illustration. To address this issue, in 1979 John J. Collins edited volume 14 of Semeia entitled, Apocalypse: The Morphology of a

    Genre. Therein Collins and a number of others grappled with the elusive nature of apocalyptic thought en route to a useful definition. Collins offered the following comprehensive definition:

     'Apocalypse" is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework,

     in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human

     recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal insofar

     as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves 11 another, supernatural world.

    This definition appears well suited to the present study and suggests that one should see Matthew's baptismal narrative as a piece of apocalyptic literature. First, the account is clearly mediated through a narrative framework both within and without the pericope. Sec- ond, it provides revelation to Jesus of Nazareth and those who wit- nessed his baptism. Third, otherworldly entitiesthat is, the Spirit

    and the heavenly voiceconvey the revelation. Fourth, the baptism

    and vision occur within a narrative framework which from first to last envisages God's actions in Jesus to offer eschatological salvation. Fifth, it portrays the abovebelow spatial dichotomy via the descent

    of the Spirit and the voice from above. Since the Gospel baptismal narrative contains these elements, one may reasonably classify this story as one example of early Christian apocalypses.

     Visions provide the landscape of apocalyptic literature. Among the fifteen Jewish apocalypses studied in Semeia 14, fourteen contain 12visions. In the NT, Revelation, the only thoroughgoing apocalyptic book, contains numerous visions leading up to God's final visitation. But within these visions, what is seen, how it is understood, and how it is conveyed often originate from the pages of the Hebrew Bible. Although apocalyptic literature contains few explicit quotations, it

     10. Christopher Rowland, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1982) 358. On another occasion (Luke 10:17- 20) Jesus sees a vision in which Satan falls from heaven. On apocalyptic beliefs, prac- tices, and literature in Jewish, Greek, and Roman contexts during the hellenistic era, see David Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster,

    1987) 226-40.

     11. John J. Collins, Apocalypse: Morphology of a Genre (Semeia 14; Missoula, Mont.:

    Scholars Press, 1979) 9, italics theirs.

     12. Ibid., 28.

     CAPES: Intertextual Echoes 41

abounds in symbols and imagery drawn from the OT and reinvested 13with significance for the present. As Rowland writes:

     This shows how a mind saturated in the scriptures can utilize the

     imagery to express the character of the vision. There is no conscious

     attempt to quote Scripture. It is just the case that the many facets of the

     Bible, especially those with a visionary content, tend to determine the 14 way in which the visionary expresses his experience verbally.

    Since Matthew's account of Jesus' baptism represents an apocalyptic vision and since apocalyptic accounts mine the OT for imagery and symbols to express the vision's content, what Jesus saw, how he under- stood it, and how he conveyed it must be interpreted in light of its intertextual relationships.


    It is likely that Mark contains the earliest, original story of Jesus' bap- tism which the other Gospel writers know and use with slight alterations. While Matthew's and Mark's version agree significantly, there are a few differences worthy of notation including: (1) Matthew adds i)dou= ("Behold!") to the visionary aspects of the story; (2) he changes Mark's sxizome/nouj tou_j ou)ranou/j ("the heavens were


    to h)new|/xqhsan oi( ou)ranoi/ ("the heavens were opened"); (3) he


    that Jesus saw the "Spirit of God" while Mark simply has the "Spirit"; (4) he alters Mark's phrase, the Spirit comes down "into him" (ei)j au)-

    to/n), to say that the Spirit comes upon him (e)p ) au)to/n); and (5) he

    changes the heavenly voice to say, "This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased" from Mark's more personal "You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased." This latter change, prob- ably the most well known, functions within the story to direct the voice to spectators in attendance at Jesus' baptism. In effect, God de- clares to them that Jesus is his beloved Son. But for Matthew's read- ers and hearers in the first century and beyond, it functions as a declaration of the ongoing significance of Jesus as Immanuel, "God with us," the one who promised to be "with you always, even to the end of the age."

     The Matthean alterations noted above were not stylistic matters. The evangelist was not merely attempting to smooth out Mark's brash

     13. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Philadelphia: Fortress,

    1991) 280-81. Krister Stendahl, The School of St. Matthew (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968;

    reprint, Ramsey, N.J.: Sigler, 1991) 158.

     14. Rowland, Open Heaven, 361.

42 Bulletin for Biblical Research 9

    and exaggerated approach; rather they carried significant intertex- tual import. Matthew, it seems, deliberately changes Mark's state- ment, sxi/zome/nouj tou_j ou)ranou/j ("the heavens were split"), to


    h)new|/xqhsan oi( ou)ranoi/ ("the heavens were opened"). The reason for

    this: Matthew envisages Jesus' experience as an apocalyptic seer 15against the record of another prophet and seer, Ezekie1. Numerous

    verbal and conceptual links draw these accounts together so they can be read against the other. First, both apocalyptic moments take place beside a river (Ezek 1:1: e)pi_ tou= potamou= tou_ Xobar; Matt 3:13:


    to_n )Iorda/nhn). Second, both take place against the backdrop of exile (Babylonian for Ezekiel; Roman for Jesus). Third, both visionary ac- counts begin similarly:

     Ezekiel: h)noi/xqhsan oi( ou)ranoi/, kai_ ei}don

    o(ra/seij qeou=

     Matthew: h)new|/xqhsan oi( ou)ranoi/, kai_ ei}den

    pneu=ma qeou=

    Fourth, in both accounts the seers receive the revelatory word of God (Ezekiel 1: e)ge/neto lo/goj kuri/ou; Matt 3:17: fwnh_ e)k

    tw=n ou)ranw=n).

    Therein, Ezekiel is addressed as "the Son of man" (2:1); Jesus is introduced as "the Son of God." Fifth, the Spirit comes upon both men (Ezek 2:1: e)p ) e)me/ pneu/ma; Matt 3:16: pneu/ma

    qeou= . . . e)p ) au)to/n).

    Finally, for both men this experience alters the directions of their lives; hereafter both will preach and perform through prophetic actions God's message to Israel (Ezek 2:3: "the house of Israel"; Matt 10:6: "the lost sheep of the house of Israel"). Matthew, it seems, desires to relate the inauguration of Jesus into public life via reflection on the record of Ezekiel.

     This perspective accounts for another change; Matthew adds the interjection "Behold!" (i)dou=) to the visionary account twice to accord with its frequent occurrence in Ezekiel's vision (e.g., Ezek 1:4, 15, 25). In addition to its intertextual significance, the word serves to enliven the narrative and underscore this new and extraordinary moment for the Nazarene.

     Ezekiel, of course, had already become the prototype seer and the phrase "the heavens opened" had become well entrenched in visionary texts (Isa 64:1; Acts 7:56; 10:11; Rev 4:1; 19:11; 3 Macc 6:18; T. Levi 18:6-7; T. Jud. 24:2). This perspective was no doubt available for Matthew to use in his rendering of Jesus' experience to his commu- nity. It appears, in fact, that this formula had developed into a topos

    and contained the following elements: (1) a passive verb or verbal of a)noi/gw with no agency expressed, certainly divine agency implied;

     15. Robert Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution (2d ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994) 52.

     CAPES: Intertextual Echoes 43

     (2) a reference to heaven or the gates of heaven in singular or plural form; and (3) a verb form of seeing, ei}don or qewre/w), representing the

    seer's experience. Attendant with this basic description might also have been reference to a heavenly voice and/or the word i)dou=, mark-

    ing this as a significant moment in the narrative. So it appears that these elements became a formula used customarily to convey a vision. It originatedin Greek at leastwith Ezekiel's initial vision. If this

    is so, Matthew, cognizant of this ongoing practice, renarrates Mark's 16account to accord with this (Ezekielian) tradition.

     Ezekiel does not appear to be the only textual influence upon Matthew's account. Isa 63:7-64:12 with its pleading for God to "open heaven," come down, and restore Israel in hope of a new exodus may also resonate in Matthew's scriptural memory. This psalm of praise and intercession begins (63:7-14) with a recollection of God's gra- cious deeds and acts of steadfast love, especially Israel's deliverance from Egypt. Isa 63:9 reads (NRSV):

     It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them;

     in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; 17 he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

    The poem records that it had been God's presence that saved them and nothing else. Yet God's presence is no longer with them due to their sins. It asks (63:11b-13a):

     Where is the one who brought them up out of the sea with the

     shepherds of his flock?

     Where is the one who put within them his holy spirit

     Who caused his glorious arm to march at the right hand of Moses,

     Who divided the waters before them to make for himself an

     everlasting name,

     Who led them through the depths?

    Clearly, for the poet God is no longer with his people. He is distant, nowhere to be found. In 63:15-19 the intercessor pleads with God to look down from heaven, be a father again to his people, and turn back to redeem Israel from the afflictions of its enemies. Central to this petition is Isa 64:1 (LXX 63:19) which begs God to open heaven (e)a_n a)noi/ch|j to_n ou)rano/n) and cause the mountains to

    tremble as they

    did at Mt. Sinai. The presence of God would guarantee the safety

     16. The Greek OT contains only two references to the opening of heaven in this way (Ezek 1:1ff.; Isa 64:1). The translation of Isa 64:1 into a similar formula may result from this influence. Since other NT and noncanonical texts utilize this pattern, I con- clude it originates with the translation of Ezekiel's account.

     17. The Greek text reads similarly: "In their afflictions, no messenger, no angel saved them, but the Lord himself through his love and compassion for them." John F. A.

Sawyer, Isaiah: Volume 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984) 199-20.

44 Bulletin for Biblical Research 9

    and security of God's people and Jerusalem once again. Yet the inter- cessor recognizes God's righteous anger and surrenders again to the will of the Lord, "our Father." He writes (64:8): "we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand." The prayer ends, wondering if God will continue to be silent and thereby punish his people.

     For Matthew and his church, the prayer for God's visitation is satisfied by Jesus, the Immanuel presence of God, the one who promises to be with them until the end of the age. Therefore, in the opening of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit Matthew envi- sions Jesus' baptism as God's answer to the prayer of Isaiah 63-64, a prayer pleading for God's intervention to bring about marvelous deeds like he did of old. Through Jesus this hope, left unsatisfied for so long, had become God's "Yes" to the prayer of deliverance.

     This "new exodus" perspective accords well with Matthew's in- terest in displaying Jesus as a new Moses. Already in the birth nar- ratives the evangelist recorded that like Moses the infant Jesus is imperiled by the decree of a king. Already Matthew had chronicled the family's journey into Egypt and return as the fulfillment of Hos 11:1, "out of Egypt have I called my Son" (cf. Exod 4:22). Later in the Gospel, Jesus, like Moses, will ascend the mountain to deliver his teaching on the will of God for his disciples. Yet, as Ulrich Luz points out, Matthew's story of Jesus not only overlaps, it also subverts the story of Moses:

     Egypt, formerly the land of suppression and persecution, is now a land

     of refuge. It is the King of Israel who now takes on the role of Pharaoh.

     The pagan magi, formerly members of Pharaoh's retinue, are given new

     roles and now pay homage to the infant Jesus as the King of Israel. In

     any event, readers note that Matthew is not simply retelling the Moses

     story in a new variant. Instead, the story of Jesus really is a new story; 18 Jesus is at once new Moses and the inverse of Moses.

    In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus represents the Immanuel presence of God. He is more than Moses; he is more akin to the one who opened the heavens, came down on Mt. Sinai, and caused the earth to quake. For Matthew, Jesus' baptism answers the prayer of Isaiah 63-64 and becomes that moment when God's presence again visited his people.

     This reading of Matthew is confirmed by the episodes which follow, episodes which both parallel and subvert Israel's story. Israel leaves Sinai to spend forty years wandering in the wilderness where God provides bread from heaven to sustain them. Jesus enters the wilderness, where for forty days and nights he fasts and experiences temptation (4:1-2). Though famished, unlike Israel he refuses to eat

     18. Luz, Theology of Matthew, 24-25.

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