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Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol IX:
Epistle to Gregory and Origen's Commentary on the Gospel of John.: Chapter XIV

Early Church Fathers  Index     

14.  Comparison of the Statements of the Four Evangelists Respecting John the Baptist, the Prophecies Regarding Him, His Addresses to the Multitude and to the Pharisees, Etc.

We deem it necessary to compare with the expression of the passage we are considering the similar expressions found elsewhere in the Gospels.  This we shall continue to do point by point to the end of this work, so that terms which appear to disagree may be shown to be in harmony, and that the peculiar meanings present in each may be explained.  This we shall do in the present passage.  The words, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord,” are placed by John, who was a disciple, in the mouth of the Baptist.  In Mark, on the other hand, the same words are recorded at the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in accordance with the Scripture of Isaiah, as thus:  “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, Behold, I send My messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.  The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.”  Now the words, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” added by John, are not found in the prophet.  Perhaps John was seeking to compress the “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God,” and so wrote, “Make straight the way of the Lord;” while Mark combined two prophecies spoken by two different prophets in different places, and made one prophecy out of them, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, Behold I send My messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way.  The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.”  The words, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness,” are written immediately after the narrative of Hezekiah’s recovery from his sickness, 4895 while the words, “Behold I send My messenger before thy face,” are written by Malachi. 4896   What John does here, abbreviating the text he quotes, we find done by Mark also at another point.  For while the words of the prophet are, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God,” Mark writes, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.”  And John practises a similar abbreviation in the text, “Behold I send My messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee,” when he does not add the words “before thee,” as in the original.  Coming now to the statement, “They were sent from the Pharisees and they asked Him,” 4897 we have been led by our examination of the passage to prefix the enquiry of the Pharisees—which Matthew does not mention—to the occurrence recorded in Matthew, when John saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, and said to them, “Ye generations of vipers,” etc.  For the natural sequence is that they should first enquire and then come.  And we have to observe how, when Matthew reports that there went out to John Jerusalem and all Judæa, and all the region round about Jordan, to be baptized by him in Jordan, confessing their sins, it was not these people who heard from the Baptist any word of rebuke or refutation, but only those many Pharisees and Sadducees whom he saw coming.  They it was who were greeted with the address, “Ye offspring of vipers,” etc. 4898   Mark, again, does not record any words of reproof as having been used by John to those who came to him, being all the country of Judæa and all of them of Jerusalem, who were baptized by him in the Jordan and confessed their sins.  This is because Mark does not mention the Pharisees and Sadducees as having come to John.  A further circumstance which we must mention is that both Matthew and Mark state that, in the one case, all Jerusalem and all Judæa, and the whole region round about Jordan, in the other, the whole land of Judæa and all they of Jerusalem, were baptized, confessing their sins; but when Matthew introduces the Pharisees and Sadducees as coming to the baptism, he does not say that they confessed their sins, and this might very likely and very naturally be the reason why they were addressed as “offspring of vipers.”  Do not suppose, reader, that there is anything improper in our adducing in our discussion of the question of those who were sent from the Pharisees and put questions to John, the parallel passages from the other Gospels too.  For if we have indicated the proper connection between the enquiry of the Pharisees, rep. 364 corded by the disciple John, and their baptism which is found in Matthew, we could scarcely avoid inquiring into the passages in question, nor recording the observations made on them.  Luke, like Mark, remembers the passage, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness,” but he for his part treats it as follows: 4899   “The word of God came unto John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.  And he came into all the region round about Jordan preaching the baptism of repentance unto remission of sins; as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.”  Luke, however, added the continuation of the prophecy:  “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough ways smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  He writes, like Mark, “Make His ways straight;” curtailing, as we saw before, the text, “Make straight the ways of our God.”  In the phrase, “And all the crooked shall become straight,” he leaves out the “all,” and the word “straight” he converts from a plural into a singular.  Instead of the phrase, moreover, “The rough land into a plain,” he gives, “The rough ways into smooth ways,” and he leaves out “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” and gives what follows, “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  These observations are of use as showing how the evangelists are accustomed to abbreviate the sayings of the prophets.  It has also to be observed that the speech, “Offspring of vipers,” etc., is said by Matthew to have been spoken to the Pharisees and Sadducees when coming to baptism, they being a different set of people from those who confessed their sins, and to whom no words of this kind were spoken.  With Luke, on the contrary, these words were addressed to the multitudes who came out to be baptized by John, and there were not two divisions of those who were baptized, as we found in Matthew.  But Matthew, as the careful observer will see, does not speak of the multitudes in the way of praise, and he probably means the Baptist’s address, Offspring of vipers, etc., to be understood as addressed to them also.  Another point is, that to the Pharisees and Sadducees he says, “Bring forth a fruit,” in the singular, “worthy of repentance,” but to the multitudes he uses the plural, “Bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.”  Perhaps the Pharisees are required to yield the special fruit of repentance, which is no other than the Son and faith in Him, while the multitudes, who have not even a beginning of good things, are asked for all the fruits of repentance, and so the plural is used to them.  Further, it is said to the Pharisees, “Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father.”  For the multitudes now have a beginning, appearing as they do to be introduced into the divine Word, and to approach the truth; and thus they begin to say within themselves, “We have Abraham for our father.”  The Pharisees, on the contrary, are not beginning to this, but have long held it to be so.  But both classes see John point to the stones aforesaid and declare that even from these children can be raised up to Abraham, rising up out of unconsciousness and deadness.  And observe how it is said to the Pharisees, 4900 according to the word of the prophet, 4901 “Ye have eaten false fruit,” and they have false fruit,—“Every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire,” while to the multitudes which do not bear fruit at all, 4902 “Every tree which bringeth not forth fruit is hewn down.”  For that which has no fruit at all has not good fruit, and, therefore, it is worthy to be hewn down.  But that which bears fruit has by no means good fruit, whence it also calls for the axe to lay it low.  But, if we look more closely into this about the fruit, we shall find that it is impossible that that which has just begun to be cultivated, even should it not prove fruitless, should bear the first good fruits.  The husbandman is content that the tree just coming into cultivation should bear him at first such fruits as it may; afterwards, when he has pruned and trained it according to his art, he will receive, not the fruits it chanced to bear at first, but good fruits.  The law itself favours this interpretation, for it says 4903 that the planter is to wait for three years, having the trees pruned and not eating the fruit of them.  “Three years,” it says, “the fruit shall be unpurified to you, and shall not be eaten, but in the fourth year all the fruit shall be holy, for giving praise unto the Lord.”  This explains how the word “good” is omitted from the address to the multitudes, “Every tree, therefore, which bears not fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.”  The tree p. 365 which goes on bearing such fruit as it did at first, is a tree which does not bear good fruit, and is, therefore, cut down, and cast into the fire, since, when the three years have passed and the fourth comes round, it does not bear good fruit, for praise unto the Lord.  In thus adducing the passages from the other Gospels I may appear to be digressing, but I cannot think it useless, or without bearing on our present subject.  For the Pharisees send to John, after the priests and levites who came from Jerusalem, men who came to ask him who he was, and enquire, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?  After making this enquiry they straightway come for baptism, as Matthew records, and then they hear words suited to their quackery and hypocrisy.  But the words addressed to them were very similar to those spoken to the multitudes, and hence the necessity to look carefully at both speeches, and to compare them together.  It was while we were so engaged that various points arose in the sequence of the matter, which we had to consider.  To what has been said we must add the following.  We find mention made in John of two orders of persons sending:  the one, that of the Jews from Jerusalem sending priests and levites; the other, that of the Pharisees who want to know why he baptizes.  And we found that, after the enquiry, the Pharisees present themselves for baptism.  May it not be that the Jews, who had sent the earlier mission from Jerusalem, received John’s words before those who sent the second mission, namely, the Pharisees, and hence arrived before them?  For Jerusalem and all Judæa, and, in consequence, the whole region round about Jordan, were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins; or, as Mark says, “There went out to him the whole land of Judæa, and all they of Jerusalem, and were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”  Now, neither does Matthew introduce the Pharisees and Sadducees, to whom the words, “Offspring of vipers,” etc., are addressed; nor does Luke introduce the multitudes who meet with the same rebuke, as confessing their sins.  And the question may be raised how, if the whole city of Jerusalem, and the whole of Judæa, and the whole region round about Jordan, were baptized of John in Jordan, the Saviour could say, 4904 “John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking, and ye say he hath a devil;” and how could He say to those who asked Him, 4905 “By what authority doest thou these things?  I also will ask you one word, which if ye tell me, I also will tell you by what authority I do these things.  The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven or of men?  And they reason, and say, If we shall say, From heaven, He will say, Why did ye not believe him?”  The solution of the difficulty is this.  The Pharisees, addressed by John, as we saw before, with his “Offspring of vipers,” etc., came to the baptism, without believing in him, probably because they feared the multitudes, and, with their accustomed hypocrisy towards them, deemed it right to undergo the washing, so as not to appear hostile to those who did so.  Their belief was, then, that he derived his baptism from men, and not from heaven, but, on account of the multitude, lest they should be stoned, they are afraid to say what they think.  Thus there is no contradiction between the Saviour’s speech to the Pharisees and the narratives in the Gospels about the multitudes who frequented John’s baptism.  It was part of the effrontery of the Pharisees that they declared John to have a devil, as, also, that they declared Jesus to have performed His wonderful works by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils.


Footnotes

363:4895

Isa. xl. 3.

363:4896

Mal. 3.1.

363:4897

John i. 24.

363:4898

Matt. iii. 7.

364:4899

Luke iii. 2.

364:4900

Matt. iii. 10.

364:4901

Hos. x. 13.

364:4902

Luke iii. 9.

364:4903

Deut. xix. 23.

365:4904

Matt. xi. 13.

365:4905

Matt. xxi. 23.


Next: Chapter XV

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