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Matthew 11:11 (KJV) Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

What did Jesus mean in only the bolded part of this passage?

  1. Was he claiming to not be one of them that are born of women?

  2. Or is this a confession by him that John the Baptist was greater than himself?

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Neither of the alternatives we can most readily, without preconception, take from the passage sits comfortably with modern Christian belief.

One could say that Jesus was acknowledging John the Baptist as greater than himself, because in Mark 10:18 Jesus chides the disciples for regarding him as extraordinarily good, or even divine:

Mark 10:18: And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.

On the other hand, it is possible to see this passage as declaring that Jesus was not born of a woman. Neither Mark nor John has a nativity story. Many scholars dismiss the virgin birth stories in Matthew and Luke as unhistorical, for example Uta Ranke-Heinemann says in Putting Away Childish Things, page 7, the nativity accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are, with respect to time, place, and circumstances, a collection of legends. Some also suggest the nativity accounts were added to Matthew and Luke after the original gospels had begun to circulate.

Some decades later, Marcion reworked the Gospel of Luke, apparently removing Luke's story of the birth of Jesus. Shelly Matthews (Perfect Martyr, page 44) says that Marcion espouses the view that Jesus did not suffer a human nativity; for him, Jesus simply appeared as an adult during the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius. All this would be interesting but irrelevant if this view originated with Marcion, perhaps sixty years after Matthew was written. However, Shelly Matthews points to scholarship that suggests Marcion knew a 'proto-Luke' gospel, in which the nativity story was absent. Presumably he also knew Matthew so ought to have known of the birth of Jesus if Matthew, as known to him, included this detail.

It is therefore possible that Jesus was claiming to not be one of them that are born of women, and equally possible that this was a confession by him that John the Baptist was greater than himself. There is one more alternative that avoids attempting an exegesis of the passage: perhaps the words reflect something that Jesus may have said, but not very accurately.

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  • Christ is addressed many times as master, but never once as good master, except for the episode mentioned above. All three synoptic Gospels are explicit about the man being exceedingly rich; what they do not however mention explicitly, but is clearly implied from his behavior, is that he is also very polite. And since politeness can sometimes degenerate into empty gestures, such as those of the Pharisees, which Christ constantly criticized, He challenges the pious man to think deeper about the potential meaning of his own words. (As with His own Apostles, He does not dictate, but inquire). – Lucian Aug 21 '17 at 22:04
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It would be tricky to interpret almost any reported speech without at least some preconceptions. To correctly interpret the deep and complex spiritual truths that Jesus expounded is, according to Jesus Himself, impossible unless you have been born again (see John 3:5-14).

I take it that Jesus is stating that John is the greatest and last of the prophets. Others had a great work to do, but no other prophet had the immense privilege of announcing the advent of the Christ. Since prophets were held in the highest regard by the Jews, that is tantamount to saying that John is the greatest man who ever lived.

But to suggest that Jesus believed Himself to be inferior to John would require us to ignore many of the explicit and implicit claims made by Jesus Himself. To give one example, when Jesus came to be baptised by John, John said (Matthew 3:14) “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” So Jesus did not deny John's assertion that Jesus was the greater.

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  • I had to down vote this because it's a deeply opinionated and Christian answer. I'm looking for a more unbiased and scholarly answer. – brewpixels Dec 1 '15 at 14:11

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