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How did John the Baptist know enough about Jesus to question whether he should baptize Jesus (Matt. 3:13-15)?

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 3:13–15). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

if he did not know who Jesus was until after Jesus' baptism (John 1:31-34)?

31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 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.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jn 1:31–34). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

A proper interpretation should remove the seeming contradiction.

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    Thats a really good question. I've never even noticed it before. – North Feb 12 '18 at 0:31
  • In the Synoptics, Christ is immediately drawn into the wilderness for forty days following his Baptism, whereas in John he appears to dwell among men during the same period. – Lucian Feb 12 '18 at 1:40
  • Chrysostom asks the same question. – Lucian Feb 12 '18 at 2:05
  • Thanks for this question Perry. It's an inspired one. +1 – user20490 Feb 12 '18 at 2:19
  • What is the point of bringing in Matthew, if the premise may be deduced solely in John, 1:29-34? – user21676 Feb 13 '18 at 2:25
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Virtually all translations use a simple past tense in John 1:31 (and likewise in 1:33):

KJV: I knew him not ...

ESV, NIV: I myself did not know him ...

NASB: I did not recognize him ...

but the tense used in the Greek is the pluperfect, οὐκ ᾔδειν αὐτόν; perhaps better translated "I hadn't known Him."

This means that the premise that John did not know Jesus until after Jesus' baptism is not necessarily true. The Greek text says that he did not know Him up to some point in the past, after which He came to know Him; but the text does not say when that point was. Matthew's account makes clear that whenever that moment was, it must have occurred before His baptism.

John Chrysostom (c 349-407) held that the reason John stated twice that he hadn't know Jesus previously was to emphasize to his listeners that the attention that he (John the Baptist) called to Jesus was not merely due to the fact that Jesus was his relative:

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?1

This appears to have been the patristic consensus, as Theophylact made the same point in his synopsis some 600 years later.2


This is not directly related to your question, but Chrysostom here also makes an interesting observation regarding the Apocryphal childhood narratives of Jesus, which describe things that Jesus did that are not in the canonical Gospels:

He puts the “I knew Him not” repeatedly. On what account, and wherefore? He was His kinsman according to the flesh. “Behold,” saith the angel, “thy cousin Elisabeth, she also hath received a son.” (Luke 1:36) That therefore he might not seem to favor Him because of the relationship, he repeats the “I knew Him not.” And this happened with good reason; for he had passed all his time in the wilderness away from his father’s house.

How then, if he knew Him not before the descent of the Spirit, and if he then for the first time recognized Him, did he forbid Him before baptism, saying, “I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?” (Matthew 3:14), since this was a proof that he knew Him very well. Yet he knew Him not before or for a long time, and with good cause; for the marvels which took place when He was a child, as the circumstances of the Magi and others the like, had happened long before, while John himself was very young, and since much time had elapsed in the interval, He was naturally unknown to all. For had He been known, John would not have said, “That He should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing.”

Hence it remains clear to us, that the miracles which they say belong to Christ’s childhood, are false, and the inventions of certain who bring them into notice. For if He had begun from His early age to work wonders, neither could John have been ignorant of Him, nor would the multitude have needed a teacher to make Him known.3


1. Homily XVII on John (tr. from Greek)
2. Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to St. John (tr. from Greek, Chrysostom Press, 2007), p.31
3. Op. cit.

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Well we know that Jesus and John were second cousins (Luke 1:36). Also, we know that John responded to Jesus while both were still in the womb (Luke 1:41). John, physically, did not know that Jesus was the Messiah in his early years, but recognized him as the Messiah before baptizing Him in the reference you made (John 1:31-34). The Holy Spirit revealed Him to John when Jesus began his ministry, starting with His coming to be baptized, but prior to His baptism. He knew of the Messiah and knew He was there to forerun his arrival (John 1:23) but now recognized the Messiah and thus his objection to the baptism that you referenced (Matt 3:13-15).

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    There's a problem though: John the Baptist gave a testimony (conotating that this already happened. Now reading John 1:33, it says that God had revealed to him that when he sees the Spirit, John will know that that person is the Messiah. But John had protested baptising Jesus before the Holy Spirit ascended ontop of Jesus, so John wouldn't have known he was the Messiah prior to the baptism. – North Feb 12 '18 at 0:39
  • Unless I'm misreading your answer, then please excuse me – North Feb 12 '18 at 0:40
  • I am suggesting that John saw the Spirit after the baptism, but it was revealed to Him before the baptism, explaining how He was able to say "Behold the lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world" prior to baptizing Him. – user23164 Feb 12 '18 at 1:42
  • In that passage, the baptism already took placee though didnt it? – North Feb 12 '18 at 1:44
  • The timing is not specified there, but we know that Jesus was after led up by the Spirit and was tempted by the devil after his baptism (Matt 4:1). Here he is hanging about the Jordan, indicating this was most likely prior, but we of course can't be dogmatic about that. I can see your point as well that he is giving a testimony of these things. However, remember that even after all this, when John was in prison, he also sent to inquire of Jesus whether he was the Messiah. Many thing he said seems to be of the benefit of His disciples, despite his knowledge already being satisfied. – user23164 Feb 12 '18 at 1:57
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Regarding Mt 3:13–15

From the fact that John attempted to prevent Jesus from being baptized by him it does not necessarily follow that, at that moment, John knew that Jesus was the Messiah and was therefore expressing his need to be baptized by Jesus "with the Holy Spirit and with fire". Rather, John's behaviour would also follow from his knowing that Jesus was a very holy man who had always led an impeccable life. That John was aware of Jesus' holiness of life was highly plausible since they were second cousins. From this limited knowledge, John was expressing at that moment his need to be baptized by Jesus with a baptism of repentance similar to the one that John himself was ministering.

Regarding Jn 1:31–34

When John says "I did not know Him" he means "I did not know Him as the Messiah". As I said above, he knew Jesus as his second cousin and as a very holy man. Only when John saw "the Spirit descending and abiding on Him", he knew that Jesus was "the One baptizing with the Holy Spirit".

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John's baptism was unto repentance. (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 13:24, 19:4). Thus, his expression of amazement upon seeing Christ seeking to be baptized by him in the waters of the river Jordan is most naturally understood as John knowing Him to be righteous. But being righteous is not the same as being the Messiah, since there are many righteous, but only one Messiah. Then again, I might be wrong; compare Matthew 3:14 with John 1:27.

Likewise, the passage from John's Gospel seems to refer to John the Baptist being unaware of the Messiah's identity (because he constantly refers to Him by describing his various functions and attributes, rather than simply mentioning Him by name). Knowing Jesus, and knowing that He is the Christ, are two different things; compare, for instance, Matthew 16:13-17 with Mark 6:3-4.

A proper interpretation should remove the seeming contradiction.

No, it “shouldn't”. (It might, of course, but it doesn't always have to). After all, the Synoptics have Christ undergoing His forty days of fasting in the wilderness immediately following His baptism in the Jordan, whereas John's Gospel has Him preaching through Galilee during the same period, so it is not as if non-essential disagreements are unknown to exist within Scripture, as even traditional commentators such as Chrysostom acknowledge.

  • Though non-mandatory, explanations are always welcome. – Lucian Feb 14 '18 at 17:04
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This is the answer.

Matthew's account is what happened at the baptism, but John's account is after the baptism. John is saying that he didn't know that Jesus was the Son of God, but all that he knew was that He should be revealed to Israel.

Then John BORE WITNESS that "I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God."

John is just saying to the people, this is him, this is the guy who when I baptized the sky opened and the voice of God said "this is my Son." I am not even worthy to loose His shoes. Jesus is already baptized in John's account. In fact it takes place after the 40 days because immediately Jesus starts his "follow me, follow me..."

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