By David Kowalski
Some people believe Luke 3:19-21 appears to place Jesus’ baptism after John’s imprisonment in time (making it impossible for John to do the baptizing):
“And he [John] came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…But when Herod the tetrarch was reprimanded by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the wicked things which Herod had done, 20 Herod also added this to them all: he locked John up in prison. Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened.” (Luke 3:3, 19-21 1)
Some commentators use this passage to introduce believers to the idea of “fictive” elements in the biblical narratives. “Fictive” is then said to be somehow different from “fictional,” but “fictive” actually refers to the literally untrue. These people may concede that the other Gospels plainly indicate John as the baptizer (Matthew 3:13, Mark 1:9, John 1:33-34), but they insist Luke says otherwise for reasons of his own. Perhaps he knew it was John, they say, but he wanted to edit John out of the account — so authorial intent in this passage rules out John as the baptizer in Luke’s Gospel.
I consider this to be a subtle but real challenge to the plenary inerrancy of Scripture. Once the notion of fictive elements in the narratives is accepted in principle, we find ourselves on a slippery slope. If we claim there are fictive elements in the gospels, we have no objective means of distinguishing fictive from factual, and consequently no element is unquestionably true — including the resurrection.
This fictive approach to biblical narratives also presents a serious challenge to Evangelical hermeneutics, in which authorial intent is considered determinative in understanding biblical truth. If we accept authorial intent as potential untruth, we lose all solid ground in interpreting the Bible.
Is the ordering of events in this passage less than true? Some scholars say that Luke plays with the order in which he relates events in chapter 3 to dispense with the account of John’s ministry before addressing the ministry of Jesus (an interpretation which still sees John as the baptizer). Others, however, say Luke placed Jesus’ baptism after John’s imprisonment to deemphasize John’s role and to focus more intently on Jesus and the Spirit’s role by deliberately removing John from the baptismal account. The difference between these two approaches is that the first sees John as the baptizer in Luke’s intent while in the second approach, Luke’s intent is to deny John a role in this baptism — an important distinction.
To say that Luke intentionally removes John from the account is by no means a necessary inference, however, and I consider it an unwarranted one. I believe a correct understanding of the passage sees the baptism of Jesus as a parenthesis — not the punctuation mark, but a common means of referring to events in inverted order, such that one speaks of an action after one that comes after it in time 2. Luke’s “orderly account” (Luke 1:3) does not demand strict, chronological order when a parenthesis is to be understood. Luke does speak of the baptism of Jesus after referring to the imprisonment of John, but he does not place Jesus’ baptism after John’s imprisonment in time.
Consider this parallel illustration involving a hypothetical, Springfield, Missouri 3 football team I’ll call “The Cashew Chickens” (cashew chicken is the foremost local delicacy). A thoughtful and educated journalist named Louis records an incident involving the coach, Mr. Egomaniac; the quarterback, John the Passer; and a wide receiver popularly known as “The Game Winner.” Louis writes as follows:
“During the time of the Cashew Chickens’ win in the last super bowl, John the Passer was throwing passes to various receivers, and had, as usual, been nearly perfect in his performance. This excellence on the part of John the Passer was the kind of thing that aroused jealousy in the foolish heart of Mr. Egomaniac and caused him to treat John the Passer with disdain. This jealousy is what led Mr. Egomaniac to cut John the Passer from the team. The Cashew Chickens were behind with less than a minute left on the clock. The Game Winner, due to a contract dispute that had been settled just before the game, had not played yet in the season. Dramatically, with just seconds left in the game, The Game Winner joined his team on the field and, on the very last play, received a pass to score the game winning touchdown.”
Louis, the author of this narrative, speaks of Mr. Egomaniac’s cutting John the Passer from the team as a parenthesis in the narrative because it is relevant to the immediate context. He resumes the flow of the narrative with a description of how The Game Winner steps onto the scene to receive the winning pass. Would it be accurate to say that Louis, the author of this narrative, deliberately removes John the Passer from the touchdown account simply because he does not mention his name at that point? Would it not be even more ludicrous to suggest that Louis is saying John the Passer was cut prior to the game winning pass just because the mention of this historical data precedes the description of the pass [parallel to absent John thesis]? Would it not be more reasonable to suggest that Louis interrupts the chronology of his narrative to mention a topically relevant incident in a parenthesis, and that he does not mention John the Passer by name in his description of the game winning pass because it is already clear from the context that John does the passing?
Luke does mention the imprisonment of John as a topically relevant parenthesis in the course of telling the events leading up to Jesus’ baptism. He is not saying his imprisonment and death preceded Jesus’ baptism any more than Louis was saying Mr. Egomaniac’s cutting of John the Passer occurred before the game winning pass in the illustration above.
John the Baptist baptized Jesus:
“Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him.” (Matthew 3:13)
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” (Mark 1:9)
“I [John] did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:33-34)
Luke agrees with this, and those who say otherwise should give us an idea as to whom, other than John, Luke might have been implying did the baptizing.