In Tents #76 The Rhetoric of Baptism Narratives

The Friday before I post I usually get a note from Jonathan Langford: “You’re up for Tuesday.” Instead, Friday after work I opened up my email and saw a whole bunch of letters with the ominous subject line “Jonathan Langford.” My phone shows the first few words of each letter below the subject line, so I saw the word heartbroken in Margaret Young’s letter, which confirmed the omen. (I wondered if anyone had told my brother Dennis, then found out from my sister that Dennis was in the hospital after back surgery.) So I’ve been thinking about Jonathan off and on all weekend. On the bus Monday morning I realized I’ve probably also been waiting for someone to say, “April Fools.”

This column was a gift from Jonathan. When he invited me to do a regular column I wondered what to write about, then realized I could use it to work out some ideas about reinterpretation as a form of scriptural corruption. “Preach[ing] at the stand east of the Temple,” Sunday, Oct. 15, 1843, Joseph Smith famously said,

I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors (quoted in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 327, with the whole sermon found in DH 6:56-59).

We generally read this as a statement about altering the text of scripture, but exegesis is also a form of transmitting scripture, and people who use fancy Greek words instead of vulgar words like “teaching and interpreting scripture” may use them to convey a sense that scriptural interpretation is best left to scholars, to gatekeepers of knowledge.

(Then there are those playful souls who use archaic meanings of words and leave people scratching their heads and wondering what’s vulgar about interpreting scripture–to the consternation of people like Sidney Rigdon who wanted modern language and went through many of the revelations a preparing for the Book of Commandments changing phrases like thou shalt to you shall and “thee & thy family” to “you & your family” (Revelation, September 1830–F [D&C 31], “Revelation Book 1,” p. 43, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed April 4, 2017. JosephSmithPapers.org includes both a photograph of the page and a transcript; however, the website’s transcript doesn’t include Rigdon’s corrections, incorporated in D&C 31, or the photographic facsimile from the printed volumes with its color-coding for scribes.))

Creeds can also act as gatekeepers, telling us how to interpret texts, or pre-interpreting them for us. As can commentaries and blog posts, so Joseph’s warning about creeds just before the statement quoted above is worth keeping in mind:

I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to, though all of them have some truth. I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes, and say, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further’; which I cannot subscribe to. (TPJS 327)

That is, we don’t simply transmit texts, we transmit ideas about how to read them, so the chapter summary for Genesis 49 in the LDS edition of the Bible includes this note, “Judah will rule until Shiloh (Christ) comes.” Notes for Jewish, Protestant or Catholic editions would be different. And even if we don’t include our ideas in the text itself, just transmit it without footnotes, cross references, variant readings, page headings, italicized words, words in red or any other readers’ aids, we still transmit ideas when we ask, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” or answer that question with a question like, “Who’s this passage talking about?

It’s useful to understand that the texts we receive and use in our worship and study come to us with ideas about those texts. One of the thoughts I keep thinking as I’ve worked through these posts on the rhetoric of scriptures and prophets is that The Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants present us with very different ideas about scripture than other religious traditions, but we often use the exegetical tools and assumptions of those traditions, particularly the Prostestant tradition.

Let me put that a different way. We believe in an open canon, in continuous revelation, but we often use the interpretive tools and assumptions of traditions examining and defending a closed canon. Here’s a brief example from the discussion on Isaiah.

It’s a common belief among scholars that the second half of Isaiah was written by a different prophet than the first half, during the Babylonian captivity. One reason is the name Cyrus in 44:28 and 45:1, a name associated with the return from Babylon. How did that name get there if that part of Isaiah wasn’t written during or after the exile? One obvious answer would be that a scribe added it during the exile, but I don’t recall ever hearing that answer proposed. Why not? Probably because the interpretive tradition around Isaiah assumes a closed canon and unchanging texts, assumes that no scribe would presume to alter the words of God to a prophet.

But we don’t have to use the assumptions of a closed canon of unchanging texts. The Book of Mormon shows us a prophetic tradition where part of a prophet’s calling includes the right to revise the work of other prophets, so a prophet wouldn’t have felt any guilt at adding the name Cyrus as a gloss or as part of the text. (For a more detailed discussion see #65.)

When we close off the canon we also close off interpretation in some important ways, and we transmit the closed interpretation with the closed canon. Consider II Nephi 29 where Nephi makes a direct address to people who will reject his words because they already have a Bible. In verse 4 he says,

But thus saith the Lord God: O fools, they shall have a Bible; and it shall proceed forth from the Jews, mine ancient covenant people. And what thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them?

That is, the tradition that will reject an open canon and pass down a closed canon will pass down with the closed canon a closed mind toward the Jews who gave them the canon–and not simply a closed mind towards them. In verse 5 the Lord makes this explicit,

O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them.

So what is the connection between maintaining a closed canon and hating the Lord’s “ancient covenant people”? This column is slowly wending our way (with joy, I hope) towards an answer.

Several years ago I came across Willis Barnstone’s translation and commentary The New Covenant, vol 1: The Four Gospels and Apocalypse. Barnstone wonders how a religion founded by a rabbi came to forget that its founder was a Jew. His notes give a picture of the tragic struggle between Jews who accepted Yeshua as mashiach, and those who didn’t. That struggle affected the gospel texts as Hellenizing gentiles who thought of Iesous as their Messiah translated names and concepts into other languages and cultures. (See #4 for more detail.)

Barnstone sees the Gospel texts as “highly redacted,” passing through many hands, but I wonder how much of that high redaction was done by interpretation rather than by rewriting the text? We’ve been talking about infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, who next move on to the place where Mark starts, the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus.

St. John the Baptist Preaching by Luca Giordano (1634-1705, Italy)

The three accounts are quite different, though we don’t often explore the differences. Mark is more interested in John as a person than in the people who come to hear him. He tells us more about John’s clothing and diet, and nothing about the people who come to hear him, as Luke does.

And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey; (Mark 1:6)

In The Five Books of Moses Robert Alter talks about the importance of the first words that come out of a character’s mouth, and how they define that character. He also talks about the sequence of perceptions in a narrative. (See #75 for an example)

So the sequence of perceptions in Mark 1 starts with our hearing a herald for John:

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;

2 As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.

3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Next we learn what the voice in the wilderness was doing to prepare the way of the Lord:

4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.

Next we hear how people reacted to his preaching:

5 And there went out unto him all the land of Judæa, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.

Then we see his dress and food:

6 And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;

Then we hear his words, which are also about clothing:

7 And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.

8 I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.

And having spoken of one mightier, that one appears in the next verse.

9 And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.

10 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:

11 And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

So this is the beginning of the Gospel: Forerunner, baptism, heavens opening, dove descending, and voice from heaven giving divine confirmation of the one the forerunner is running before (but not shouting, “glory is fleeting”).

Matthew and Luke have something else in mind. One thing they want to do is present John as one of the great biblical prophets, fulfilling an Isaian prophecy as Jesus does later at the start of his ministry, so they give some of John’s prophetic words. Here’s Luke’s record of the words:

7 Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

8 Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.

9 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

Luke 3:7-9

Matthew records the same words, but introduces them differently. Where Luke introduce’s John’s words with the quote from Isaiah, Matthew tells us what John did before addressing the generation of vipers:

5 Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judæa, and all the region round about Jordan,

6 And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Matthew 3:5-7

I don’t know what the Greek conjunction is at the beginning of verse 7, but the English conjunction usually denotes exception to what has just been said, so it sounds like John has been baptizing until the Pharisees and Saducees show up, then asks them, “Who invited you?”

Luke presents the words differently, as something John says to everyone coming for baptism, as a sermon or call to repentance. Luke is usually seen as writing after Mark and Matthew. If so, Luke may represent a significant correction to Matthew. If Matthew meant to question the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ worthiness for baptism, Luke softens the impact of the words by having the people ask how they can repent.

But we don’t generally think of Matthew and Luke as having a different focus from Mark, and Luke correcting Matthew. Maybe seeing the Gospels as synoptic teaches us not to look at the differences. Or perhaps the synoptic label was given these three gospels by church fathers who wanted to smooth over differences in the accounts. But Matthew also comes first, so people reading the New Testament books in order will read Matthew’s words ahead of Luke’s and likely not notice the differences because there’s so much in common.

This is Matthew’s introduction to the Pharisees and Saducees, and I’m not sure his attitude toward them is as harsh as this scene suggests. That’s one of the things I want to examine in future columns. In this case we have another evangelist offering a reinterpretation of a scene. I don’t know how often Luke does that, but as we look at other encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees I want to examine different ways the scenes could be interpreted.

If Luke provides some of those ways it will be interesting to see what insights he offers. In the meantime, here’s one suggestion for reimaging the debates between Jesus and others. We usually think of Jesus and the Pharisees as enemies, but they may simply be opponents–in the same way two stick-pullers are opponents, or two players at any game. Or perhaps the encounters are more like the classroom debates between students and their teachers, or other students.

Your turn.

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