Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What Kind of Lamb, and How Will He Remove Sin?

In John 1:29, John the Baptist says that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  (I draw here from the KJV.)  This passage has long puzzled me.  Did John the Baptist believe that Jesus would die on the cross for people's sins, in a time when many Jews did not have that particular conception of the Messiah?  If so, then why did John arrive at a point where he seriously questioned that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 11:13; Luke 7:18-20), perhaps because he expected for the Messiah to overthrow Israel's oppressors, and there he was in prison?  I realize that I'm conflating John's Gospel with the synoptics, which is probably a no-no within biblical scholarship.  Still, I wonder: did the author of the Gospel of John seriously believe that John the Baptist had an awareness of the plan of God that so many people in that day lacked?

Lee Harmon, in John's Gospel: The Way It Happened, looks at Second Temple literature (and the Testament of Joseph, whenever that is dated) to explain what John the Baptist in John's Gospel may have meant when he called Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Lee puts the following into the mouth of the character Matthew:

"Enoch wrote about a great horned bull that morphs into a lamb with black horns.  That's what the Baptizer talked about, a heroic victory by the lamb, purging the world of sin...Enoch wrote: 'Purify the earth from all oppression, from all injustice, from all crime, from all impiety, and from all the pollution which is committed upon it.  Exterminate them from the earth.  Then shall all the children of men be righteous, and all nations shall pay me divine honors, and bless me; and all shall adore me.  The earth shall be cleansed from all corruption, from every crime, from all punishment, and from all suffering.'...And the Testament of Joseph tells how the lamb overcomes evil beasts and crushes them underfoot."

According to Lee, John the Baptist in John's Gospel thought that Jesus was a lamb who would purify the world of sin through judgment, not through atonement, in accordance with certain Jewish eschatological expectations.  But one can make the case that, even if that were John the Baptist's intent in John's Gospel, he could have been talking about Jesus' role as the lamb who would atone for people's sins, without realizing that he was doing so.  After all, in John 11:50 and 18:14, the point is made that the priest Caiaphas said that it is better for one man to die for the people.  Caiaphas meant that Jesus should be offered up to the Romans for execution, since that is preferable to the Romans wiping out Israel out of concern for the Messianic foment that could take place there.  But the Gospel of John applies that to the plan of God, in which Jesus dies for people.

Lee does not provide references to the parts of I Enoch and the Testament of Joseph that he mentions, but the part about the horned bull becoming a lamb is in I Enoch90:38.  The part about the purification of the earth is in I Enoch 10:20-22.  And the Testament of Joseph passage is in Testament of Joseph 19:8.  Click here for R.H. Charles' translation of I Enoch.    Click here to read Robert Sinker's translation of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.

Lee may have a point about the Enoch passages.  I'm still trying to figure out if he does.  I Enoch 90:38 mentions a bull that becomes a lamb with big black horns, but it does not refer to that lamb conquering.  Rather, it appears that the eschatological era of peace has already arrived by the time that the bull becomes a lamb.  Perhaps the bull becomes a lamb because he no longer needs to fight and can thus be peaceful.  I'm just guessing here, and I'm open to correction on this.  Regarding I Enoch 10:20-22, that does not mention a lamb, but, if I Enoch 90:38 is indeed about a lamb who conquers, then a first century Jew such as Matthew could have conflated I Enoch 90:38 with an earlier section of Enoch that describes God's purification of the earth of sin.  My question is: Does I Enoch 90:38 describe a conquering lamb?

In Testament of Joseph 19:8, there is indeed a conquering lamb.  But the thing about the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs is that parts of it are Jewish, and parts of it are Christian.  As I look at Testament of Joseph 19, it strikes me as Christian:

"Hear ye also, my children, the visions which I saw. There were twelve deer feeding, and the nine were divided and scattered in the land, likewise also the three. And I saw that from Judah was born a virgin wearing a linen garment, and from her went forth a Lamb, without spot, and on His left hand there was as it were a lion; and all the beasts rushed against Him, and the lamb overcame them, and destroyed them, and trod them under foot. And because of Him the angels rejoiced, and men, and all the earth. And these things shall take place in their season, in the last days. Do ye therefore, my children, observe the commandments of the Lord, and honour Judah and Levi; for from them shall arise unto you the Lamb of God, by grace saving all the Gentiles and Israel. For His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, which shall not be shaken; but my kingdom among you shall come to an end as a watcher's hammock, which after the summer will not appear."

In this passage, we see such concepts as the virgin birth and grace that saves Gentiles and Israel.  That sounds rather Christian to me.  When the Testament of Joseph here mentions the lamb conquering, I think that it's echoing Revelation.  The point in Revelation and the Testament of Joseph 19, in my opinion, is that the same lamb who died for people's sins, Jesus Christ, would overcome evil.  I should also note that there are some scholars who have argued that Jesus in Revelation actually conquers evil through his death.  In this scenario, the lamb imagery in Revelation cannot really be separated from Jesus' atoning work on the cross.

Perhaps Lee is correct that John the Baptist in John 1:29 thought that Jesus would be a conquering lamb who would purify the earth through judgment.  Or maybe John the Baptist in that passage had a brief moment of inspiration in which he grasped that Jesus would somehow be a lamb who would die for people's sin.  I'm open on this. 


  1. Hey, James, let's discuss! The Synoptic "John the Baptist" is no lamb; that's a Johannine claim. "Taking away the sins of the world" is also Johannine thinking. More typical of the Synoptic picture is judgement and fire.

    Says the Baptist in Matthew, "He will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

    However, Mark's Gospel (the one John had unquestionably read) has no fire. The Messiah is promised to baptize with the spirit, not fire.

    So we see two divergent lines of thought away from Mark. One toward John, one toward Matthew/Luke. From this, I conjecture that the more historically accurate (if one direction MUST be chosen) would be that which matches the expectations presented in other writings of the day.

    You think I'm on the wrong track?

  2. Hi Lee! I need clarification here. So the historically accurate one would be that John the Baptist taught purification of the world through judgment, as other writings of the day had? If so, did Mark depart from that by saying that there would be baptism by the spirit? But Matthew was more faithful in conveying John the Baptist's actual teaching?

  3. :) Well, that remains a matter of opinion. My opinion remains that the Baptist taught a conventional apocalyptic message, a Messiah who would use force to set the world right. Those who didn't side with God were playing with fire.

    Mark's message is more gentle, but both Matthew and Luke enhance Mark with fire. They pull from a common source, probably predating Mark.

    So, yes, perhaps Mark downplayed the Baptist's original message. Perhaps John, drawing upon Mark, made it even more gentle with the "lamb" image (John so loves that lamb image!)

    Or, perhaps John the Apostle truly wrote John's Gospel, which could make him the one Gospel writer who actually witnessed the ministry of the Baptist, and that would lend strength to his portrayal!

    In the end, who knows, eh?

  4. Yeah, I tend to agree with you that John the Baptist taught an apocalyptic message.


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