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John 1
30 This is He of whom I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know Him, but the reason I came baptizing with water” was that He might be revealed to Israel.

Both their births having been a marvel not only to their parents but to the people of the day, I would imagine that John himself heard the extraordinary circumstances of Messiah's birth in having no precedence to it, atleast from his mother and her cousin Mary, his aunt also, since family ties back then were robust, and even more so because of what Angel Gabriel said to Mary about Messiah concerning the whole nation of Israel.

Why does John then say the things he says in John 1:30-31?

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  • The same way the apostles believed that Christ was the messiah but did not have absolute conviction until after his death, except that John the Baptist is different because his faith was stronger prior to his death. Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 15:47
  • John isn't answering from a standpoint of doubt, but of not knowing who Messiah was, at all. Which fact, as I highlighted, I found inconsistent with the angelic testimonies concerning both of them, and which he had to know as they were from his own mother, and another from his own father, yet another from his aunt Mary, Messiah's mother.
    – Ted O
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 22:55

2 Answers 2

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John does not mean that he didn't know anything at all about Jesus, but rather that he was not close friends with him. This is explained in the 4th century commentary on this passage by John Chrysostom:

Here he renders his testimony free from suspicion, by showing that it was not from human friendship, but had been caused by divine revelation. “I knew Him not,” he saith. How then couldest thou be a trustworthy witness? How shalt thou teach others, while thou thyself art ignorant? He did not say “I know Him not,” but, “I knew Him not”; so that in this way he would be shown most trustworthy; for why should he have shown favor to one of whom he was ignorant?

Homily XVII on the Gospel According to St. John

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  • Rightly observed, +1. Still concerning the unique testimony from Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah about the unequivocably extraordinary birth's of the 2 cousins, I don't see how John could have been in the dark about. So I still hope to see another view that factors in these aspects, in addition to a few that you cited.
    – Ted O
    Commented Feb 22, 2017 at 22:48
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There are two basic ways to understand "I knew him not." It could mean that John did not recognize Jesus as his relative, because the two families did not communicate. Or it could mean that he did not know him as the Messiah until the moment that Jesus was baptized. A problem arises, however, when we compare John's account with Matthew's, which implies John's prior knowledge of Jesus' spiritual status:

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 fulfil all righteousness.” Then he consented. (Mt. 3:13-15)

Meyer's Commentary explains the apparent contradiction this way:

That Jesus was the Messiah became known to the Baptist only at the baptism itself, by the sign of the descending dove; and this sign was immediately preceded only by the prophetic presentiment of which Matthew 3:14 is the impress. Accordingly, we are not to assume any contradiction between our text and Matt.

Matthew Poole and others take the opposite tack, namely that John did not know Jesus personally at all.

Lest any should think that Christ and John had compacted together to give one another credit, or that there was some near relation between John and Christ, John saith, 'I knew him not;' for Christ had spent his time at home, Luke 2:51, John had lived in desert places; the providence of God so ordering it, that John should not know Christ so much as by face, until that time came when Christ was to be made manifest to Israel.

Rather than choosing one explanation over the other, I offer them both. The reader can decide for himself, or, like me be content to admit he doesn't know. More commentaries here

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