In Tents #77 The Rhetoric of Baptism Narratives, part 2

Last month we talked about the differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s baptism narratives. Matthew and Luke record a brief sermon from John beginning, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” But they introduce the words differently.

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

What do we make of the conjunction in verse 7? But typically denotes an exception in English, an exception to what has just been said, but every time I listen to the King James Bible I notice a lot of passages where speakers 400 years after 1611 would use and instead of but. So I wanted to find out what the Greek conjunction connotes. My search for an online version of Strong’s Concordance and a lexicon led me to Bible Study Tools, which has lexicons, translations and commentaries.  (It’s a useful site, but I had to play around with it for about an hour before I could figure out how to find what I wanted. See my comment on last month’s post  for an account of my visit–though an easier way to get to the interlinear Bible is through the Read menu.)

Clicking on the conjunction in the Interlinear Bible took me to The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon, which gave me the original word–δε (ε has an acute accent), a transliteration–De, definition, word origin, part of speech, and other information.

The definition for De reads, “but, moreover, and, etc.”  That confirmed my sense that the meaning of the conjunction is ambiguous. The word origin further confirms that the conjunction is ambiguous: “a primary particle (adversative or continuative).” That is, De can either mark an exception to what has just been said (but) or a continuation (and).

I checked the 14 commentary links back on the Interlinear Bible page. They have lots of good information, but none discusses the conjunction. It’s worth discussing, though. Conjunctions are a way we make sense of our perceptions.

Think for a minute about the sequence of perceptions in Mark 1 that we looked at in #76. It starts by introducing John as a preparer of the way for the Lord, tells us baptism is the preparation, and John both baptized and taught “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (verse 4). We hear that people responded to John by seeking baptism. In verse 6, after hearing about John we see him, then hear his voice in verses 7-8.

Here’s the sequence in Matthew:

1 In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judæa,
2 And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

So we first hear John, then we learn he is a preparer of the way:

3 For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Next we see John:

4 And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.

Then we hear the reaction to his preaching:

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.

So this is the order in which Matthew introduces our perceptions of John. But something else is happening as well. Matthew has more information to tell us. Perhaps he can’t express it in his linear introduction to John. He could have said,

Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judæa, and all the region round about Jordan, including Pharisees and Sadducees,

but that might not have fit the impression he wants to give that everyone is coming to see and hear John. That is, verse 5 may be too soon for Matthew to break  the people down into groups. Introducing the smaller groups later suggests that Matthew wants us to know that people were coming from all over the land to be baptized, before he tells us about specific groups within the pilgrims. Or Matthew might be thinking of Pharisees and Sadducees as appositives for the people who were coming. He’s just told us people are coming from all over, so he may now be telling us what kind of people are coming for baptism–Pharisees and Sadducees.

Conjunctions join separate things in some way, but they don’t always tell us the emotional flavor of the conjunction. Consider the second conjunction in verse 7 and (και–Kai, Definition: “and, also, even, indeed, but”). The second conjunction joins two contrasting terms, “Pharisees and Sadducees.”

Here’s how my seminary teacher told us how to remember the contrast. “The Pharisees believed in the resurrection, but the Sadducees didn’t. And that’s why they were sad, you see.” As I told the Gospel Doctrine class when I was substituting recently, it’s a silly joke, but for more than 40 years it’s been a quick and easy way to tell the difference between the two groups. But it wasn’t until I started preparing this post that it occurred to me how odd the term Pharisees and Sadducees is.

The conjunction suggests the two groups go together, and we often see them together, as in Matthew 16:1:

1 The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven.

and again in verse 6:

6 Then Jesus said unto them [the disciples], Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.

These verses sound like the Pharisees and Sadducees are working together, but what doesn’t come through to us is that the two were not natural allies. (I suspect that for First-Century Jews the phrase would have emotional connotations similar to what we would hear in pairings like “the Tea Party and AARP,” “liberals and the NRA,” or “Lamanites and Nephites.”)

Because the room where I had The Jewish Annotated New Testament. and Willis Barnstone’s The New Covenant, vol. 1 was recently rearranged and its contents put elsewhere, I can’t give an exact quote, but I think it was Barnstone who said the Pharisees would have been Jesus’ natural allies because they were open to new revelation but the Sadducees had pretty much closed the canon at Deuteronomy.

(I thought I had written about this earlier, and when I searched on the word Sadducees, I find that I wrote about John’s sermon in #14, came to a lot of the same conclusions I’ve mentioned here, said I’d continue the thought in a couple of months, but next month I was going to detour and talk about Jesus and Pilate. That digression turned out to be very long, and then I started thinking about rhetoric and that I ought to say something about our rhetorical expectations of scripture. Thus it looks like the end of our wanderings is to come back to #14 and reach conclusions I had forgotten I’d come to.)

So if the Pharisees would have been Jesus’ natural allies, open to new revelation and belief in the Resurrection, how did we get to see them as ultra-conservative, tradition-bound people so concerned about the letter of the law that they couldn’t understand the spirit of the law?

I suspect part of the answer is that the phrase “Pharisees and Sadducees” became a synecdoche for Jews in general, and then Jews became a term of opprobrium. The Pharisees and Sadducees were not the only two factions among Jews. There were also Herodians and Zealots and publicans and sinners, among others. When the Messianic Jews mixed with the Christian Greeks–that is, when mashiach was translated into Greek as khristos–and the Christians no longer considered themselves Jews, they lost the distinctions in phrases like “Pharisees and Sadducees,” and just considered everyone to be Jews, and Jews to be opponents, and eventually enemies. (Opponent and enemy are not wholly synonymous, unless you consider the other team in a game, or the other party, your enemies.)

Another way of saying that is that the phrase expanded into synecdoche and the synecdoche displaced the differences inherent in the terms. Let me end with two other examples of how ambiguous a synecdoche can be.

Listening to the audiobook of Jesus the Christ  last year my ear caught this comment on the cleansing of the temple in Matthew:

The Jews, by which term we mean the priestly officials and rulers of the people, dared not protest this vigorous action on the ground of unrighteousness; they, learned in the law, stood self-convicted of corruption, avarice, and of personal responsibility for the temple’s defilement (p. 155).

It caught my ear because my memory of reading Talmage in the mission field is that he was quite critical of the Jews, but here he uses the phrase the Jews, as a synecdoche (or metonymy), in the same way I had noticed Nephi using the phrase the Jew in a way that sounds like a synecdoche for all the Israelites around Jerusalem:

I have charity for the Jew—I say Jew, because I mean them from whence I came (II Nephi 33:8)

But did Talmage and Nephi maintain the synecdoches or did the synecdoches expand? That is, whenever I came to a passage that was critical of the Jews I would wonder if Talmage was still using the phrase as a synecdoche for the leaders, or if it had expanded to include all Jews? And Nephi is not always careful to distinguish the the people at Jerusalem from the Jews. Think about his instructions in II Nephi 25:1 about learning “the manner of prophesying among the Jews.” In verse 2 he says,

For I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews; for their works were works of darkness, and their doings were doings of abominations.

It’s easy for the synecdoche to expand so that a phrase meant to represent the Israelites around Jerusalem comes to mean all Jews everywhere, or even all remnants of the house of Israel in Palestine.

Now surely someone is thinking, “How did we go from conjunction to synecdoche? Isn’t that a lot of burden to put on a three-letter word?” Sure it is. Maybe expansion of the conjoined terms into a larger field is one of the perils of conjunction. (See #35  and #34 for a fuller discussion of displacement and figurative language.)

I’d love to hear what you all think about this.

2 Thoughts on “In Tents #77 The Rhetoric of Baptism Narratives, part 2

  1. Harlow Clark on May 3, 2017 at 9:49 am said:

    I added a link and tags, took out an extra space, and expanded the following paragraph:
    I suspect part of the answer is that the phrase “Pharisees and Sadducees” became a synecdoche for Jews in general. The Pharisees and Sadducees were not the only two factions among Jews. There were also Herodians and Zealots and publicans and sinners. When the Messianic Jews mixed with the Christian Greeks–that is, when mashiach was translated into Greek as khristos–and the Christians no longer considered themselves Jew, they lost the distinctions in phrases like “Pharisees and Sadducees,” and just considered everyone to be Jews.

    so it now reads,
    I suspect part of the answer is that the phrase “Pharisees and Sadducees” became a synecdoche for Jews in general, and then Jews became a term of opprobrium. The Pharisees and Sadducees were not the only two factions among Jews. There were also Herodians and Zealots and publicans and sinners. When the Messianic Jews mixed with the Christian Greeks–that is, when mashiach was translated into Greek as khristos–and the Christians no longer considered themselves Jew, they lost the distinctions in phrases like “Pharisees and Sadducees,” and just considered everyone to be Jews, and Jews to be opponents, and eventually enemies. (Opponent and enemy are not wholly synonymous, unless you consider the other team in a game, or the other party, your enemies.)

  2. Harlow Clark on May 3, 2017 at 12:39 pm said:

    Writing websites will tell you that if you want to attract readers create a list post, like “6 Destructive Trends Happening in Your Church.” No one can resist a list (or a little rhyme). So here’s #3 on this list, a sidebar article on Bible Study Tools, drawn from Jared C. Wilson’s The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo,:

    3. The prevalent eisegesis in Bible study classes and small groups.
    “Eisegesis” basically means “reading into the Bible.” It is the opposite of “exegesis,” the process of examining the text and “drawing out” its true meaning. Many leaders today either don’t have the spiritual gift of teaching or haven’t received adequate training, and the unfortunate result is that most of our Bible studies are rife with phrases like, “What does this text mean to you?” as opposed to, “What does this text mean?” Application supplants interpretation in the work of Bible study, so it has become less important to see what the Bible means and more important to make sure the Bible is meaningful to us.

    My first reaction to this was to think of Nephi’s “for I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning” (I Nephi 19:23). That is, the scriptures are designed for us. They’re not simply about people who lived a long time ago and far, far away in the coasts of Bohemia. There’s not one meaning, or one correct meaning. There are as many correct meanings as there are people who seek meaningful guidance in the scriptures.

    My second reaction was to think, Hey, this relates to the question I asked in my post about how we went from thinking about the Pharisees as a group Paul was proud to own to the symbols of tradition-bound blind belief. Jared Wilson isn’t talking about people who apply to scriptures to their lives as much as he’s talking about people who appropriate the scriptures to justify what they’re trying to do.

    Bart Ehrman suggests in one of his lectures on Lost Christianities that a lot of the fiercely anti-Jewish rhetoric in early Christian writing was an attempt to legitimize the new church and delegitimize the synagogue–In the same way, I suppose, that 40 years ago in seminary, and in the mission field, I heard a lot of anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant rhetoric about The Great Apostasy and apostate teachings to legitimize the need for a restoration and delegitimize other churches.

    That kind of rhetorical climate does not lend itself to thoughtful consideration of the fine points of other peoples’ beliefs. Rather, the goal is to show how those people are wrong for holding those beliefs.

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