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Jesus Traditions

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Contents of Jesus Traditions


Addenda (4)

Addendum L

The Baptism of Jesus: An Alternative Interpretation

Back to Point of Departure

For adventurous types, we offer here an alternative which attempts to tease additional Jesus material (layer 1) out of Mark’s account. It comes with a user warning.

In this segment we will present the case that can be made for assigning the vocation as messiah and suffering servant to layer 1, that is, to the original experience of Jesus at the Jordan, rather than to layer 2, representing the interpretation of Mark and the early church. Thus, at his baptism Jesus’ vocation would have been confirmed as a messiah who would realize his mission along the lines of the Servant of the Lord, in Second Isaiah. 

This particular understanding of the messianic mission is noteworthy because Jesus would have brought together two models of leadership which had never before been connected in Jewish thought. By its originality and its spiritual profundity, this kind of vocation seems not to have been invented by the early church, but may have emerged out of Jesus’ own pondering of Biblical texts, and (to add a theological perspective) out of a unique filial relationship to God. If suffering and death, the innocent for the sinful and alienated, were implied in this mission, these would have lent a particular gravity to an otherwise exultant experience for him at the Jordan River. The prospect of such a vocation would surely have called for a quite extraordinary level of commitment and self-denial on the part of Jesus.

Accordingly, John’s baptism of repentance would have been for Jesus the point at which he turned about (the etymological meaning of the Hebrew “to repent”), not from a life of sin to virtue, but from the relatively tranquil carpenter’s trade to the public and demanding servant’s vocation.

The three temptations (Matthew 4:1-11 || Luke 4:1-13) would then become intelligible as three appealing alternatives to a vocation of service and suffering:  

bulletWould it be a career built upon feeding people, as a means of gaining popular support, or would it be the cross? 
bulletWould it be a career built upon exhibitionist feats, to convince the populace that he was the leader they were looking for, or would it be the cross? 
bulletWould it be a career built upon expediency and compromise, making an alliance with evil to achieve a goal as universal ruler, or would it be the cross, to bring about the eventual downfall of evil?

It could be no easy decision.



In the interests of methodological caution, we need to consider the following issues:

   §  We proposed above as an alternative interpretation that at his baptism Jesus’ vocation was confirmed as a Messiah who would realize his mission along the lines of the (suffering) Servant of the Lord, in Second Isaiah. But the messiah part of this proposal is not entirely convincing, since the affirmation of Jesus as messiah is definitely a part of the early church’s proclamation; and,  as we shall see at a later stage of our discussion, there is a certain dissonance between Jewish messianic expectation and Jesus’ interests (click on Messianic Expectation; further discussion at Messianic Mission).

   §  The suffering part of the proposal is less easy to dismiss, in part because suffering servant texts did not seem to be widely used in the early church to support a theory of vicarious suffering; and in part because it is difficult to explain the behavior of Jesus in the events leading up to his death, if we assume that he was a person of prudence and “political” sense, who could honorably have avoided the chain of events in which he became involved. This issue will be discussed further, when we consider the Passion Narrative.

   §  Of special interest here is 1 Corinthians 15:3, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures . . . .” This text provides evidence of a theory of vicarious suffering embedded in the earliest stages of church tradition. One could argue that because the tradition being quoted by Paul is so early, perhaps within five to ten years of the crucifixion, that the text is deserving of consideration as the view of Jesus himself. On the other hand, others might argue that this text provides evidence of how early the church was busy trying to explain an otherwise tragic death. 

Back to: Point of Departure


Addendum M



2:1 – 3:6
2:1-12 ( || Matthew 9:1-8 || Luke 5:17-26)  Paralytic, healed
2:15-17 ( || Matthew 9:10-13 || Luke 5:29-32) Eating with sinners and tax collectors
2:18-22 ( || Matthew 9:14-17 || Luke 5:33-39 Fasting
Mark 2:23-28 ( || Matthew 12:1-8 || Luke 6:1-5) Plucking grain on the Sabbath
Mark 3:1-6 ( || Matthew 12:9-14 || Luke 6:6-11) Healing of man with withered hand

Mark 3:22-30 ( || Matthew 12:24-32 || Luke 11:15-23) Beelzebul controversy

[Mark 6:1-6 ( || Matthew 13:53-58)] Jesus, not honored at Nazareth

Mark 7:1-23 ( || Matthew 15:1-20) Dispute about clean and unclean

Mark 8:11-13 ( || Matthew 16:1-4 || Luke 11:29) Pharisees request a sign from heaven

Mark 11:15-19 ( || Matthew 21:12-13 || Luke 19:45-48) Temple commerce disrupted by Jesus

Mark 11:27–12:37
Mark 11:27-33 ( || Matthew 21:23-27 || Luke 20:1-8) Debate about authority
Mark 12:1-12 ( || Matthew 21:33-46 || Luke 20:9-19) An allegory: the wicked tenants
Mark 12:13-17 ( || Matthew 22:15-22 || Luke 20:20-26) Debate about tribute to Caesar
Mark 12:18-27 ( || Matthew 22:23-33 || Luke 20:27-40) Debate about the resurrection
Mark 12:28-34 ( || Matthew 22:34-40; cp. Luke 10:25-28) Discussion: the first commandment  
Mark 12:35-37 ( || Matthew 22:41-46 || Luke 20:41-44) Discussion: Davidic descent




Matthew 11:20-24 || Luke 10:13-15  Woes on cities of Galilee

Matthew 23:1-36 || Luke 11:37–12:1; 20:45-47; cp. Mark 12:38-40  The Pharisees condemned



Matthew 17:24-27  The Temple tax

Matthew 21:28-32  Parable of the two sons

Luke 4:16-30  Rejection at Nazareth

Luke 13:31-33  Derisive words about Herod


Addendum N

The Fig Tree


As already noted, this is a curious and perplexing text, which in its present form presents some difficulties. If we suppose Jesus to be a reasonable man, why would he curse a tree that was not bearing fruit, when it was not yet the season to do so? After all, the tree was right on schedule, doing its best! The text of the incident follows.


Matthew 21:18-20

Mark 11:12-14, 20-21


18In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. 
19And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it

and found nothing at all on it but leaves.

12On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.   

[Lacking in Luke, but compare Luke 13:6-9]


Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!”  14He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. . . .
                                  And the fig tree withered at once. 20When the disciples saw it they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?”  
20In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”  


It appears that there are some three layers of interpretation, as follows:

  3. The outer synoptic layer is represented by Matthew, who has telescoped the narrative from two days to one; the tree withers immediately, and the miraculous element is heightened. One notes also that Matthew drops Mark’s interpretive phrase, “for it was not the season for figs,” a phrase which would only compound the problem for Matthew by calling attention to the irrational expectation of finding fruit so early in the season.

  2. Mark’s version is the inner synoptic layer of interpretation. His account locates the fig tree story at the beginning of several highly charged controversies with the Jewish establishment (Mark 11:27–12:37). The two days of the narrative bracket the confrontational episode of Jesus disrupting Temple commerce (Mark 11:15-18). The air is heavy with denunciation, and into this heated context, the author inserts the fig tree tradition, which he (or possibly his source) likely viewed as a judgment upon Jerusalem. To be sure, these controversies have been assembled at the Passover visit, when the fig tree episode is necessarily out of place, and Mark acknowledges that there is a problem. But the symbolic impact of consigning the fig tree to destruction takes precedence for Mark over plausibility.

  1. If the fig tree episode is out of place during the Passover season, what then was the innermost layer, the original life setting of the story? The difficulty with finding an answer goes back to the fact that the gospel material circulated in isolated units during the period of oral transmission, without any context. If the location of our traditional unit was not in the first instance at Jerusalem during Passover, we may assume that it happened at some time during Jesus’ travels with his disciples, at a time when figs would ordinarily be found: Jesus approached a tree in full leaf, on closer inspection discovered no fruit and perhaps some evidence of disease, and offered the opinion that no one would ever eat fruit of this tree again, a statement which in the retelling became at some point the wish (Greek, phagoi, optative) that the tree would die.

One alternative to the preceding interpretation is to suppose that originally this story was a parable, perhaps not unlike the one we find in Luke 13:6-9, where a fig tree will be cut down if after a last attempt to cultivate and fertilize it the tree does not bear fruit.

Whatever the precise history of the fig tree episode, it appears likely that it is in the wrong context, and should be interpreted as a freely circulating unit of tradition.


Revised July 14, 2003


Contents of Jesus Traditions



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