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There is significant debate over how John 1:15 should be interpreted (see the question Does John the Baptist's witness imply the pre-incarnate existence of Jesus?).

"John testified concerning Him. He cried out, saying, “This is He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’ ”"

An important point in favour of the temporal interpretation of 'before' is Jesus' statement at John 8:58, which is also a point of significant controversy in terms of proper translation, but is something like

"“Truly, truly, I tell you,” Jesus declared, “before Abraham was born, I am!”"

If we assume that John 1:15's 'before' is to be understood temporally, and we note that 1:15 says John is testifying concerning Jesus, it seems reasonable to hold the phrase "He was before me" would have meant something important to John the Baptist's audience (otherwise it wouldn't have meant much as testimony).

Note this is reiterated at John 1:30, but there John the Baptist explicitly claims a man comes after him who was before him.

Similarly, at 8:58, when Jesus says He was before Abraham, the audience seems to understand this as having a certain kind of meaning - it means something important.

Yet note at 1:15 no one is picking up stones to kill John the Baptist for claiming this about another man, while they do pick up stones at 8:58 when Jesus says something similar (on our assumption 1:15 is meant temporally).

So, what are our options for a plausible interpretation of how John the Baptist's claim that Jesus was temporally before John the Baptist would be understood by devout 1st century Jews? In particular, which figure or type of being would they have thought he might be indicating by saying this someone was temporally before him?

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    Did we not answer this question in the previous instance you specifically referenced? The answer to this question (being answered in the other question) is also given in John 8:58, 59 - the Jews wanted to kill Jesus for blasphemy. You have already stated this, so what are you actually asking?
    – Dottard
    Jul 7 at 8:21
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    @Dottard I don't follow you here. Was John the Baptist committing blasphemy here? Jul 7 at 15:05
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    @Dottard The answer to which question? Would John the Baptist have been committing blasphemy if Jesus wasn't God? Jul 7 at 21:24
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    As stated in my answer to the previous question, John 1:15 only established three things: (a) Jesus came chronologically after John in terms of birth and ministry (b) Jesus was more important than John (c) Jesus had a pre-exitence before John. This says nothing about Jesus' divinity or otherwise as the same could said of (say) an angel. By contrast, John 8:58 says two things: (a) Jesus existed before Abraham and (b) Jesus was the "I AM" of the OT for which the Jews accused Him of blasphemy.
    – Dottard
    Jul 7 at 21:32
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    @Dottard But John was testifying about Jesus in his statement. What did John the Baptist think it meant if it was a temporal precedence, which he would want his audience to understand? Jul 7 at 21:45

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What did the Jewish listeners understand John to say?

“This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes [ἐρχόμενος] after me ranks [γέγονεν] before me, because he was [ἦν] before me.’ ” (Jn 1:15, ESV)

While John as a relative would know the details of Jesus' birth, apparently the general public did not. The following passage shows they did not know he was born in Bethlehem.

Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? 42 Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” (John 7:41–42, ESV)

Most o the people would understand "comes after me" to mean Jesus started his ministry after John. Normally that would mean John would be a superior to Jesus, but "ranks [γέγονεν] before me" or "becomes ahead of me" means Jesus' ministry became superior to John's.

However, what "because he was [ἦν] before me" meant to the general public is difficult to know. We only have this recorded in Greek, and the context John, the author, uses the verb that points to Jesus' preexistence before his birth. See Does John the Baptist's witness imply the pre-incarnate existence of Jesus?

Franz Delitzsch translate this:

הַבָּא אַחֲרַי הָיָה לְפָנָי כִּי קֹדֶם־לִי הָיָה

The Bible Society of Israel translated this:

׳הַבָּא אַחֲרַי הוּא כְּבָר לְפָנַי, כִּי קֹדֶם לִי הָיָה׳

The Hebrew translations tend to mean, "The next one after me is ahead of me because he preceded me." The Peshitta tends to mean, "He would come after me and yet he was before me because he was earlier than me."

It is true that what John the Baptist said may not have been taken by the general public to refer to Jesus' preexistence, but John, the apostle and author, took it to mean that as he wrote it in Greek.

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  • Any ideas about who in the audience's mind this person who was before would be? Jul 8 at 1:38
  • In John 5:33 Jesus claimed this identity in public. So, by that time, they would make the connection. John's statement led the public that the person would come soon after John started his ministry.
    – Perry Webb
    Jul 8 at 9:08
  • Right, but who in the audience's mind do you think John the Baptist intended to point out? I don't mean 'Jesus of Nazareth', but was it the Christ who was before? Elijah? And so on. Jul 8 at 18:07
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John 1:15 is found in the Prologue: the lens through which the entire Gospel is to be apprehended. It is the writer's introduction which reflects their understanding of the significance of the narrative which follows.

In the Prologue the Baptist's witness is broken in two parts:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. (1:6-7 ESV)

(John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) (1:15)

Therefore, as an introduction, the writer condenses the witness of what John the Baptist said to a single message:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him...“This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”

What did people understand when the words were spoken?

First, one of the central aspects of the Fourth Gospel is that people did not have the proper understanding of events when they occurred; only after Jesus was glorified (crucified and resurrected) one could believe. Second, the Baptist describes the reaction to his message: He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony (3:32). Therefore, how John's message was initially understood is of little interest to the Gospel writer.

Instead, a believer may only retrospectively look back on the events to understand their proper meaning. One may presume neither John's disciples, Jesus disciples, or "the crowd" correctly understood what John said at the time it was said. If one is to attach any significance to the immediate understanding (or lack), it is to contrast what was initially lacking with that of the Spirit given truth given to the post-resurrection believer.

Verse 15 appears to be a summary of what the Gospel provides as the final witness of the Baptist:

27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. 33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3)

This is not what those who heard John understood; rather it is the Baptist's own witness. The first part uses the same word, ἔμπροσθεν. In context the meaning could be taken to mean I was sent to baptize before Christ began His work. However, as if to prevent that misunderstanding, the Baptist continues by contrasting his origin, he who is of the earth with that of Christ, He who comes from above. And if the Father who loves the Son points one to God, then the Son of and from the Father, must exist before the Baptist.

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  • +1 "Second, the Baptist describes the reaction to his message: He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony (3:32)." Who do you understand the 'his' here to be referring to? Jul 8 at 18:35
  • @OneGodtheFather I think it is John speaking of himself but it certainly applies to Jesus as well. John's testimony about himself wasn't received nor was his testimony about Jesus received, as the Gospel writer records it. Jul 8 at 18:49
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    "One may presume neither John's disciples, Jesus disciples, or "the crowd" correctly understood what John said at the time" But Andrew (one of John's disciples at the time) correctly understood John was talking about the Christ, no? Jul 8 at 19:29
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    @OneGodtheFather Yes and no. Yes he understood Jesus was the Christ, but he did not understand the meaning of the Christ. So when Andrew told Peter he had found the Christ, he did not know He was also the Savior of the World, the Bread of Life, etc., who would give His life because God loved the world, or would be raised from the dead, or would return to the Father, and would send the Holy Spirit. Even in the case of "knowing" the disciples did not know until after the death, resurrection, and receiving the Holy Spirit. Jul 8 at 20:17
  • What do you think John the Baptist himself understood? Jul 8 at 23:09
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Jesus claimed to be God: That's blasphemy.

John claimed that someone greater than he would return: That's common knowledge.

The annual Jewish Passover Seder includes ceremonially pouring a cup of wine and opening the door to invite Elijah to attend. Elijah's return is believed to signal the imminent arrival of the Messiah.

In John 1:21, they even asked John whether he was Elijah:

And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” …

Had he said "yes", that might have been considered blasphemy.

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  • Ya, but what did people understand John the Baptist to mean when he said a man was temporally before him? This doesn't answer the question. Jul 7 at 15:06
  • @OneGodtheFather, any of those listening could have made the same claim themselves, as they believed that Elijah, who lived long before them and was greater than them, will someday appear after them. To confirm that this wasn't a blasphemous claim, they responded by asking whether John meant that he was the Elijah that would precede the Messiah, which they might have taken as blasphemous. Jul 7 at 15:24
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    (God's name in Hebrew isn't 'I am', btw. Nor is it even 'I am' ('ego eimi') in the Greek of the Septuagint. The whole argument from 'I am' -> Jesus claiming to be Yahweh is a mess IMO.) Jul 7 at 18:56
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    According to your view, then, the Jews only had 2 choices for a pre-existent person, Elijah or God? Jul 7 at 18:58
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    OK, I'm trying to understand who the other possibilities might be from your perspective. Jul 7 at 19:25
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Elijah (as Ray Butterworth's answer discusses) would have been an obvious target of temporal precedence, as Elijah was expected to return (before the Messiah came).

Matthew 16:13-14 discusses some other possibilities.

"Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."(ESV)

This passage (written after John the Baptist has been beheaded) highlights a belief in transmigration. How could 'Jeremiah or one of the prophets' return? Presumably through a similar mechanism as the then-deceased John the Baptist. Elijah had been 'taken up into heaven' and perhaps hadn't died, although it might also apply to Elijah.

Yet, John the Baptist didn't intend for people to think Jesus was Elijah, Jeremiah, or another of the prophets. Who did John the Baptist go on to identify Jesus as? Just after John 1:30 (where John the Baptist says Jesus is before him) John the Baptist goes on to say

"I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God."

John then says (1:35, also 1:29)

"Look, the Lamb of God!"

Andrew, taking John's cue, then tells Peter (1:41)

"“We have found the Messiah” (which is translated as Christ)."

So from the reference to the Lamb of God and or the reference to the Son of God, Andrew infers this is the Christ.

Philip then tells Nathanael (1:45)

"“We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law, the One the prophets foretold"

Nathanael then says to Jesus (1:49)

"“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”"

which is a Messianic description.

So it's clear that the point of John the Baptist's testimony is that Jesus is the Christ, and John the narrator reiterates this in his summary of his Gospel at 20:31.

But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.

But would people have understood the Christ as being temporally before John the Baptist?

Not in a literal sense. But there are grounds for believing people thought the Christ pre-existed 'in the mind of God', or notionally.

If this is so, John the Baptist might have meant for his audience to understand temporal precedence as a reference to the Christ who 'pre-existed' in the mind of God. The article Jesus' Pre-existence - Literal of ideal? by Greg Deuble discusses this.

You can see the idea in the NT at 1 Peter 1:20.

"He was known before the foundation of the world, but was revealed in the last times for your sake."

You see a similar idea in the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahi 54a)

"Seven things were created before the world was made, and these are they [...] And the name of the Messiah: “His name shall endure forever and has existed before the sun”"

Similarly, the Genesis Rabbah says

"Six things preceded the creation of the world [...] The name of Messiah was contemplated, for it is written, “His name exists before the sun”"

The article contains many more quotations and discussion.

So, if John the Baptist was indeed speaking of temporal precedence, a reasonable conclusion is that he intended for people to understand he was referring to the Christ pre-existing ideally or notionally.

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