The announcement of John the Baptist in Luke 3


This Sunday’s gospel lectionary reading for Advent 2 in Year C is Luke 3.1–6, the location and opening of John the Baptist’s ministry. We will hear more about the content of John’s ministry next week; for now, we are just given the setting.

During the last year, we have got used to reading Mark by looking at the narrative shape of what he says, and the way he does his Christology and makes his theological points by his arrangement of his material. I am beginning to feel that, returning to Luke, we will need to be alert to this even more. As many commentators now note, Luke appears to be making a deliberate effort to meet the criteria for what was expected of good historiography in his day, and this is shown in his sometimes complex and subtle arrangement of material. This week’s reading is a good example.

There are several interesting things to note about the opening list of rulers in Luke 3.1. This is not the first time that Luke has located his story in the context of the wider world. After his short prologue outlining his purposes and method, he introduces us to Zechariah ‘in the days of Herod [the Great] king of Judea’. The birth of Jesus  is set in Luke 2.1 at the time of ‘Caesar Augustus’ who issued a census, and Luke further qualifies that this is the ‘first [of importance?] when Quirinius was governor of Syria’. Despite our confusion about what Luke means here, he appears to be wanting to locate the events he narrates with some precision.

The much longer list does a number of things. Most obviously, it tells us that time has moved on; Herod the Great has died, and Luke mentions two of his three sons who succeeded him (omitting mention here of Herod Archelaus, who was removed by the Romans, and Pilate now governs what has become the Roman Province of Judea). In fact, it allows us to date the ministry of John with some accuracy; the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius would be 28 or 29, depending on the exact time of year. This is a remarkable thing to know about someone who is an apocalyptic prophet in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire; we know this only from Luke’s gospel, but it correlates perfectly with other information we have about dating the events of the gospels and Acts.

The second thing this list does is illustrate Luke’s concern for historiographical accuracy. Although some English translations obscure it, Luke is careful to use the correct titles for each of the rules, so Pilate is ‘governor’ whilst Herod, Philip and Lysanias are ‘tetrarchs’ ruling parts of Herod the Great’s domain after it was divided up. A classic text exploring the historicity of the New Testament was F F Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: are they reliable? (I have the 1960 fifth edition reprinting which I bought in 1980) which you can read online. Bruce notes:

Whatever his sources were, Luke made good use of them. And he sets his story in the context of imperial history. Of all the New Testament writers, he is the only one who so much as names a Roman emperor. Three emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius) are mentioned by name; the Emperor Nero is also referred to, but not by his personal name—he is the ‘Caesar’ to whom Paul appealed. The birth of Jesus is fixed in the reign of the Emperor Augustus, when Herod the Great was king of Judaea, at the time of an imperial census. The commencement of the public ministry of John the Baptist, with which the ‘Kerygma’ proper begins, elaborately dated by a series of synchronisms in the Greek historical manner, reminding the classical student of the synchronisms with which, for example, Thucydides dates the formal outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in the beginning of the second book of his History.

Names of note in the Jewish and Gentile world of his day appear in Luke’s pages; in addition to the emperors, we meet the Roman governors Quirinius, Pilate, Sergius Paullus, Gallio, Felix, and Festus; Herod the Great and some of his descendants—Herod Antipas the tetrarch of Galilee, the vassal kings Herod Agrippa I and II, Berenice and Drusilla; leading members of the Jewish priestly caste such as Annas, Caiaphas, and Ananias; Gamaliel, the greatest contemporary Rabbi and Pharisaic leader. A writer who thus relates his story to the wider context of world history is courting trouble if he is not careful; he affords his critical readers so many opportunities for testing his accuracy. Luke takes this risk, and stands the test admirably. One of the most remarkable tokens of his accuracy is his sure familiarity with the proper titles of all the notable persons who are mentioned in his pages. This was by no means such an easy feat in his days as it is in ours, when it is so simple to consult convenient books of reference.

Bruce goes on to list the correct names that Luke uses throughout Acts—including those that change at particular times, so Luke would need to know the exact timing and changes to record them accurately, which he always does.

There are two questions about the inclusion of Lysanias. The first is whether Luke was in error, since Josephus mentions a person by that name from a much earlier period—but the accuracy of Luke’s reference was confirmed by the discovery of an inscription in the nineteenth century that mentioned a ‘tetrarch Lysanias’ (the first two words on the fourth line in the image on the right) in the correct period.

The second is why Luke includes him at all? He is an otherwise insignificant figure, and the small territory he ruled over is not significant in the gospels, and doesn’t really complete a systematic geographical description. I have not found an explanation in commentaries, but I would like to suggest a solution in the light of Luke’s interest in numerical composition, which is evident in other places in the gospel and Acts: Luke here offers us a list of seven names, and so in some sense is describing a ‘complete’ historical location for John’s ministry. Four of these seven (Pilate, Herod Antipas, Annas and Caiaphas) play important parts in the narrative that follows.

Although the main part of this list focuses on the ‘secular’ power of rulers, he completes it with mention of the two high priests; into the international scene of political and military power, he folds the national scene of ‘religious’ power. Annas was high priest from 6 to 15, so by now no longer holds office, but he was succeeded by his five sons, his son-in-law Joseph Caiaphas (from 18 to 36/37) and perhaps a grandson.

Annas had…near-dynastic control of the office…As the head of the temple and its cult, Caiaphas and Annas would have exercised virtually unrivalled power and privilege among the Jewish people (Joel Green, NICNT on Luke, p 169).

What would be the rhetorical impact of this introduction? I wonder how it would feel if we did something similar in introducing a local event?

At the time when Boris Johnson was Prime Minister of Great Britain, when Joe Biden was President of the United States, Xi Jinping was President of the People’s Republic of China, Nicola Sturgeon was First Minister of Scotland, and Emmanuel Macron was the President of France, when Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell were Archbishops of Canterbury and York, John Smith was appointed vicar of St Muggles in the Marsh.

At one level, there is a sense of absurd contrast between the large scale of the canvas on which the story is painted, and the quaint parochialism of the story itself. And yet at the same time it suggests that there is a connection between the two; we might expect that John Smith is going to do something quite dramatic in order to merit this introduction. It reminds me of the beginning of the Lord of the Rings, where on the one hand we are aware of the weighty history and centres of power represented by Minas Tirith and the land of Mordor—but then we suddenly find ourselves in the comparative humdrum of a birthday party!

More than that, we might begin to think about the implications of the context. The seven names I have included hint at the exit of the UK from the EU, and the uncertainties that has brought; conflicts with France about fishing rights, trade, and migrants; questions about the Union and Scottish independence; the political tensions around Trumpism in the US; the growing threat of China in trade, military power, and cyber warfare; and closer to home the challenges facing the Church of England, and its disputes about mission, parishes, and church planting.

For Luke’s readers, they will be aware of the reign of Tiberius as marked by his decline in mental health and the terror of his final years, including the expulsion of Jews from Rome. Pilate was known for his ruthlessness, a man who was ‘inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentless’, who held the Jews in low esteem, introducing tokens of emperor worship into the temple at Jerusalem and taking money from the temple treasury. Herod Antipas built his Hellenized capital, Tiberias, on a graveyard, which would be unclean for Jews, placed images in public places, and was fiercely loyal to Rome. Philip reigned in a Gentile area, in which he accelerated Hellenization.

Luke’s synchronism in Luke 3.1–2a provides, therefore, more than an historical setting for or local colour to the narrative. Rather, they bespeak a particular, tension-filled, top-heavy, socio-historical milieu (Green, ibid).

Into this context of power, threat, and instability, ‘the word of the Lord’ comes to John. This is the language of the Old Testament patriarchs, kings, and (especially) prophets: the word of the Lord comes to Abraham (Gen 15.1); Samuel (1 Sam 15.10); Nathan (2 Sam 7.4); Solomon (1 Kings 6.11); Elijah (1 Kings 17.2); Isaiah (Is 38.4); Jeremiah (Jer 1.4 and 22 times more!); Ezekiel (Ezek 1.3)—well, you get the idea! The phrase comes 98 times in the OT, but Luke alone uses it in relation to John the Baptist. And we find a similar mention of geo-political markers juxtaposed with the coming of the ‘word of the Lord’ in many prophets (see Is 1.1, Jer 1.2–3, Joe 1.1). Into a scene of power, conflict, and oppression, God speaks his word and announces the coming of the promised king.

John is introduced both in terms that remind us of the preceding chapters, taking us back across the strong sense of introduction in these opening verses back to the preparation that God has made (‘son of Zechariah’, again unique to Luke). The mention of his being ‘in the wilderness’ also connects us with where we left him in Luke 1.80, but, along with mention of the Jordan, points further back to the Exodus wanderings and entrance into the promised land.

Luke agrees with Mark’s phraseology in describing his message as ‘preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. Like the prophets of old, John is preparing the people for the imminent eschatological coming of God to his people in both liberation and judgement.

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins… (Luke 1.76–77).

The idea of baptism, administered by a third party, appears to be novel. Gentile converts to Judaism (proselytes) had to undergo a ritual washing as part of their initiation, but this signified a change of ethnic affiliation, and here John is baptising Jews who remain Jews. Ritual washing in the miqveh was practised at Qumran and in connection with the temple, but only began around this time, was self-administered, and was a repeated action where John is offering a once-for-all action in preparation for the coming of God.

But there is a sense in which the people of God are very familiar with the idea of passing through water as preparation for the action of God. They passed through the waters of the Red Sea as preparation for journeying in the wilderness (hence Paul’s language of ‘baptism in Moses’ in 1 Cor 10.2); they then passed through the waters of the Jordan to enter the Promised Land; the psalmist is rescued through the deep waters of death by God (eg in Ps 18.16); and in returning from exile God has rescued them as they ‘pass through the waters’ (Is 43.2). This multiple significance was captured rather nicely in the prayer over the water in the ASB 1980 Baptism service (sadly emaciated in the Common Worship service).

John’s baptism is offered as a sign of ‘repentance’, of turning back to the way of God after having strayed, and anticipates Jesus’ own preaching about the right response to the kingdom. (It is often suggested that the Greek term metanoia has a sense of ‘thinking again’ because of its etymology, but words do not always mean what their etymology suggests, and it is a synonym of the verb (epi)strepho which in the LXX translates shuv meaning a literal or metaphorical turning around and changing direction.)

Through submitting to repentance-baptism, in which their roles were passive, they signified their surrender to God’s aim, distanced themselves from past ways of life oriented away from God’s purpose, and professed their renewed allegiance to his will. By coming out into the wilderness to meet John they symbolized that separation from ordinary life, through baptism embraced a conversion of loyalties and were themselves embraced into it the community of God’s people, and by returning to their everyday lives they accepted the vocation to reflect behaviours apropos true children of Abraham (Green, NICNT, p 165).

The citation of Isaiah 40.3–5 is fuller than Matthew’s brief citation, and more disciplined that Mark, who combines Isaiah with Malachi. (It is interesting that Luke describes it as ‘the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet’, avoiding contemporary issues of authorship!) The citation brings together the themes of preparation for God’s coming and judgement in the desert place, and so this continues Luke’s themes rather than being a biblical aside; he has already provided the evidence which correlates the words of Isaiah with the actions of John.

Although the Christological claims implicit here are slightly more muted than in Mark, they are still present, as they have been from the beginning of Luke: the Lord, Yahweh, Israel’s God who comes to his people, arrives in the person of Jesus for whom John is making preparation.

There is a powerful parallelism between ‘mountain/made low’, ‘crooked/straight’, ‘rough/smooth’ and ‘people/salvation’. The mighty will be brought down from their thrones, the crooked powers will be straightened, and the challenging times will be made bearable, when God’s salvation comes. Crooked and sinful people, within and without Israel, will have the offer of forgiveness and salvation held out to them, in ways they cannot yet imagine. There is an inclusio between the mention of Caesar in verse 1 and ‘all flesh’ in verse 6, an inclusio that shapes the whole of Luke’s account which ends in Acts 28 with the good news of the kingdom being preached by Paul to all—in Rome, the heart of the empire at whose fringes this action begins.

The picture at the top is John the Baptist in the Wilderness, held at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, by the French nineteenth-century artist James Tissot. One of the reasons I like it is that John looks like a 1970s rock star…

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37 thoughts on “The announcement of John the Baptist in Luke 3”

  1. Just to note that the ASB Prayer over the Water is available, almost exactly word-for-word, as one of the options in CW. It’s included as the prayer when baptism is celebrated within a vigil service (CW: Initiation p 141) and, in a responsive form, as a seasonal alternative in Eastertide (p158).

  2. The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius would be 28 or 29.
    No, it was some time between October 25 and October 27.

    Also, I don’t think there is ‘multiple significance’ in John’s baptism in the way suggested. Baptism into Moses at the Red Sea relates to the old covenant. Passing through the Jordan to enter the Promised Land is the contemporary significance (though with reference to the future when Jesus will lead them from exile into the land). And Isa 43:2 in context refers to the future: the immediately following verses (Isa 43:3-7) remain unfulfilled, though proleptically the future does come into play.

    Isa 40:4-5, referring to the same occasion as 43:2-7, have also not yet been fulfilled, and Isaiah does not refer to ‘crooked powers’. The sense is: prepare (while you are not in possession of the land) for God in the person of his Messiah to come to you in power and glory. Jesus, heralded by a voice in the wilderness, revealed himself two thousand years ago in humility and weakness so that his people might be prepared for that future day (and we likewise), by accepting the forgiveness of sins he offered. Only when he comes in power will all flesh see his glory and every mountain be made low (Rev 6:14).

    Luke’s describing the book of Isaiah as ‘the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet’ is not a way of avoiding the question of authorship. Luke qua Gentile physician had nothing to say on the question (not a live one in his day). However, through the Holy Spirit he does address the point, by confirming that ‘the’ book – the entire book – contains the very words of the prophet. If Isa 40 et seq (interpreted as ‘Deutero-Isaiah’), were written centuries after Isaiah, those chapters – not least the passage quoted – could not have recorded the words of the prophet.

    • ‘The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius would be 28 or 29.
      No, it was some time between October 25 and October 27’.

      How is that? Tiberius was invited to be emperor by the senate in September 14. Assuming he accepted immediately, the first year of his reign would be in 14 to 15. Thus the 15th year would be 28 or 29. I make 14 plus 14 to be 28…?

      It might have been calculated to be a year later in our calendar, since Suetonius describes how he delayed in accepting the invitation, possibly from (false) modesty.

      • Tiberius’s reign could have been counted either from the inception of his co-regency with Augustus or from his accession as sole ruler. The practice of Hebrew historiography was to count ordinal years from the co-regency if the new king was the principal ruler, otherwise from his sole reign. Luke probably would have followed this tradition if he knew of it. (As you say, the Romans counted from Tiberius’s sole reign.) Tiberius assumed control from October AD 11 (per Velleius Paterculus) or AD 12 (per Suetonius), when the senate made him joint governor of the provinces; by then, Augustus was seriously ill. If we take this event as the starting point, John began preaching some time between October 25 and October 27.

        Daniel’s prophecy in Dan 9 suggests March or August 26. If you are interested in the reasoning behind that, I have included a link beneath my name.

        Another clue is that the first Passover mentioned in the gospels came 46 years after Herod began renovating the Temple (John 2:13-20). Herod began the work in 20/19 BC, probably in the autumn, so this takes us to the year AD 27/28, with the first Passover in 28. How long this was after John began preaching we are not told. The last-mentioned Passover was the third, in AD 30.

  3. Steven

    Baptism into Moses at the Red Sea does relate to the OC but it also typologically pointed to the NC as Ian’s reference to 1 Cor 10 points out.

    • I’m glad you agree. John did not baptise at the River Jordan, after all, and the OC was not the NC. Paul’s point was that Moses was a type prefiguring Christ (Deut 18:15).

      • ‘John did not baptise at the River Jordan after all.’

        How do you read Matt 3.5f: ‘Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins’?

        • Thank you for the correction. One can think one is writing one thing and in fact it’s the opposite – I meant the Red Sea.

          • But what an oddly wooden way of reading. Because John was not baptising at the Red Sea, there were no echoes of the exodus and crossing the Jordan?

            I think you will find yourself alone in that reading.

          • So where, exactly, are the echoes in the Luke passage, beyond the presence of water? Limits need to be placed on this type of freewheeling word-association. It’s not exegesis.

          • It is called reading intertextually. It has been a part of the discipline of biblical studies for a good few decades.

            I think most commentators would point to the ‘word of God came to’, mention of wilderness, Jordan, proclamation of God’s imminent coming, and the citation of Isaiah, which picks up on many of these, and itself describes God’s deliverance of the people from exile as a kind of ‘new exodus’.

            Luke particularly emphasises these connections; in the transfiguration, Jesus is talking to Moses and Elijah about ‘his exodus which he was about to accomplish’ (Luke 9.31).

          • If you prefer: limits need to be placed on intertextual reading of the kind exemplified. I was not questioning the approach in principle (if you read my own comment carefully).

            The question is whether it is illuminating in this particular context to lump together Israel’s passing through the waters of the Red Sea into the wilderness, Israel’s passing out of the wilderness into the Promised Land, and the unfulfilled prophecy of Isa 43:2 (metaphorically alluding to that experience of passing through the waters of the Red Sea and the Jordan River), as if they were all basically the same.

            An allusion is clear enough to Joshua’s leading Israel across the Jordan (John baptising indeed at the very location where Israel went across). The significance of the acted-out allusion was that repentance had to precede rightful possession of the land, and that Israel would only rightfully and permanently possess the land if and when Yeshua/Joshua led them into it. That is why, in rejecting their Messiah, the Jews 40 years later were ejected from the land, back into the wilderness. Some Jews, of course, embraced their Messiah and so escaped the coming wrath (Luke 3:7). Spiritually they entered the kingdom, being baptised into the Messiah who fulfilled all righteousness by being himself the Passover Lamb. Having resisted all temptation in the wilderness, he went ahead to prepare a place for them in his father’s kingdom. Jesus re-enacted the Exodus, they re-enacted the crossing of the Jordan. The ground was dry because Yahweh, as represented by the ark of the covenant, had gone through the waters on their behalf.

  4. I have noticed re-reading Luke this year that Luke records the date of the birth and the date of the start of John’s ministry rather differently. The second time is precise to the year – 15th year of Tiberius – but the dating of the birth is less precise, the emperor Augustus, the census, and in the previous chapter the mention of Herod the Great. The census and Herod do not fit easily (as historians point out) – though some think you can make the Greek prote mean before, but even that doesn’t really solve the difficulties.
    But maybe Luke was either not as clear in his own mind on the birth year as he was on the start of ministry, or maybe he wanted to announce theologically, the birth of the Messiah at the point when the Emperor who proclaimed his own version of Peace was taking control of Judea, at the point where Judea and so Jerusalem became a Roman Province, at that point the true Prince of Peace was born. Equally Luke knows that the births of the two boys happens in the reign of Herod. Maybe Luke indicates this by not being as precise about the birth-year as he is about the start of ministry.

    I think John’s baptism is more about re-enacting the entry into the promised land, calling the people back, (re-)claiming the land and also signing back up with God a la Joshua, but I am intrigued howbaptism came to mean what it did in the eyes of the early church, and the development of thought, and how much of a gap was there if any between the end of John’s baptising and the ongoing baptising by Jesus and his disciples (??) and then baptism emerging as an entry-sign, mark of initiation for the first Christians? How does what we do today relate to the early Church, to what Jesus’ disciples did, and to what John was doing? Did Jesus reinterpret what John was doing or was it the disciples post-resurrection who reinterpreted it?

  5. Ian- o/t here, but I notice that the chaplain of St Edmund’s College is annoyed that you try to destroy people’s Christmas every year by relying upon the Bible instead of Christmas cards and nativity plays. His opinion piece, linked by “Thinking Anglicans “, complains that you don’t think the Holy Family was dirt-poor but offers no counter to your words except a long tradition of preaching and Christmas carols.
    I hope he doesn’t mark theology essays with the same lack of historical rigour his essay shows.
    (He’s also annoyed that you don’t like mitres, whichI suspect is your primary offence.)

    • Yes it is odd—we used to get on quite well. It is such an odd piece—he accuses me of not attending to the texts, then mentions the texts not once.

      An oddly snarky piece, which I don’t think does him any favours. I wonder if there is another subject on which we disagree which is the real problem…

  6. I’m happy to be corrected on this, but if Luke’s gospel was indeed written in 85AD, give or take 5 to 10 years, during the reign of Domitian (the successor of Titus, who sacked Jerusalem and its temple in 70AD, then the response to it would have been profound.

    Its readers would have seen God’s hand in the ultimately fortuitous dispersion of Christians from Jerusalem. They would have also interpreted Titus’ horrific siege and destruction of the Jerusalem and its Temple as divine retribution and fulfilment of Christ’s prophecy (Luke 13:34,35)

    The destruction of the Temple also brought to an end the Sadduceean aristocracy that handed over Christ to a Gentile travesty of justice.

    JTB’s mortal enemy, Herod Antipas had been defeated by his indignant former father-in-law, King Aretas. Herodias who plotted the prophet’s demise joined Antipas in his shameful demotion and exile to Gaul.

    These events would have been interpreted as just desserts for their egregiously unlawful marriage and their complicity in the execution of God’s prophet.

    In fact, by 85AD, the might of the Herodian dynasty had dwindled to all but an irrelevance. Agrippa II, its last prince, is so impotent that he cannot suppress rebellion in Jerusalem.

    For those emperors that Luke mentions (Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius), death is filled with suspicion of foul play and evidence of treachery.

    Even if they relegate Pontius Pilate’s purported suicide to little more than tradition, most of Luke’s contemporaries would know that the Procurator’s merciless career had ended in a shameful recall to Rome and ultimate disgrace.

    So, it doesn’t take much creative imagination to understand how Luke’s record of John the Baptist’s stern warnings would have been understood.

    Luke’s gospel doesn’t merely mention of specific Roman and Jewish rulers to attest to his accuracy. Those rulers and their hapless fate that befell them also gives credence to the ‘word of the Lord’.

    The fate of these rulers is juxtaposed with the inexorable spread of the gospel and underscores the authority of the ‘word of the Lord’:
    “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth…The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:5, 9)

    Recent first-century events provided those reading Luke’s gospel with ample evidence that “ne’er a truer word was spoken”.

    • I think that is a very interesting reading. I wonder whether we have avoided it because it looks rather anti-Jewish—the Jewish nation was destroyed because they did not accept Jesus.

      • I should think that early Christians would have considered Jewish converts to Christ to be the faithful remnant of a nation whose wayward leaders, according to their history, had apostatised time and time again with dire consequences.

        The Herodian dynasty was not Jewish, but Edomite in origin and derived its power from allegiance to Rome.

        According to Josephus, many Jews were scandalised by Antipas’ patent contempt for Torah in remarrying his brother’s wife, Herodias (although, whereas JTB denounced the king for this, the Jewish historian fixed blame on Herodias).

        So, a reading that interprets the demise of Caesars under suspicious circumstances and the downfall of the house of Herod and the end of Sadduceean aristocracy as fulfilment of JTB’s prophetic warnings is only ‘anti-Jewish’ to the extent that modern minds view Jewishness through the superficial ‘lens’ of broad-brush ethnic groupings.

      • And, if so, how much more or less will God judge Christianity, with the full and living word/Word and the gift of adoption, of Holy Spirit, where Jesus is not Lord? With outward form, but missing figure/Person?

        Is it happening now?

    • If Luke’s gospel was indeed written in 85AD, give or take 5 to 10 years …
      Luke implies that his account was based on the testimony of eye-witnesses (Luke 1:1-4), nearly all of whom would have been dead by AD 85. Mary, the likely source of much of chs 1-2 and the genealogy of ch 3, would have been long dead. Luke would have been an old man. Why would he have waited that long to write down his gospel? Acts appears to have been written before Paul’s death and after the gospel, therefore no later than AD 67.

      Its readers would have seen God’s hand in the ultimately fortuitous dispersion of Christians from Jerusalem.
      I’m not sure what you mean by ‘fortuitous’, but readers would have seen God’s hand in events regardless of the date of composition. Readers prior to AD 70 would have understood John’s words as prophecy, and understood them also in the light of Jesus’s prophecy in Luke 19:41-44. Readers after AD 70 would have had cause to reflect, as you say, that “ne’er a truer word was spoken”. That remains so for readers today.

      Like Joel 3:30-31, “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth…” remains to be fulfilled. Unless you are aware of a Palestine-wide, if not world-wide, earthquake that flattened the earth’s topography? I have already cited Rev 6:14. Those days are very near now.

      • I wrote: “ I’m happy to be corrected on this” because I don’t hold myself out as an expert on the subject.

        Nevertheless, if you’re insistent that the prophetic references to topography are not moral metaphors, but, instead literal, then I’d wonder why JTB didn’t walk around with a pick-axe to ‘prepare the way (דֶּ֣רֶךְ ) of the Lord’.

        But, perhaps, Luke 3:9 suggest that he did!

        • I know that it’s difficult to take in, given both the enormity of such an event and the tendency of theologians to spiritualise, even ridicule, whatever they do not understand, but Isa 40:4 and Rev 6:14 are far from the only scriptures indicating that this is what will culminate the period of wrath. Another example is Isa 2:12-21 (note in particular v. 14, and also v. 2). An approach which reduces all the particularities of such passages to a mush of ‘moral metaphors’, while ostensibly a spiritual one, is in fact an unspiritual approach, betokening an absence of godly fear very similar to that expressed in Jer 5:12 and Rev 18:7, and surely just one example of the things we need to repent of as Christians, if we humble ourselves before this passage and allow the words of John the Baptist to speak to us.

          • “ An approach which reduces all the particularities of such passages to a mush of ‘moral metaphors’”… is in fact an unspiritual approach”.

            Er…I didn’t attempt to reduce *all* of those peculiarities in that way. So, if your comment refers to my previous comment, then it’s an appeal to extremes and a ‘straw man’.

      • I can’t see a single piece of evidence that Acts was written before Paul’s death. We would need such evidence in order to base anything on it.

        Luke would not have been an old man in 85. He would have been around 55 perhaps. Nor would he have been in 95. He would have been around 65 then perhaps. And NT writings are very largely written by the older generation – they are the ones with the authority.

        There is a tradition Luke died in Boeotia aged around 84.

        • And I can’t see any evidence that it was written AFTER his death. The fact that Luke does *not mention the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 (and his description of tge fall of the city does not match what happened) was the basis of John Robinson’s Redating the New Testament many years ago and I have seen nothing to refute his argument.
          The late dating of Luke is based on Marcan dating.
          A recent Tyndale Bulletin bolstered the case for an early dating of Luke.

          • He speaks of Barnabas as though he has already died.

            He speaks as though his hearers were unaware what Barnabas was like.

            His distance from events like Theudas and the death of Antipas leads to telescoping.

            But by far the main argument is the complex one from the overall network of interrelationships between the NT writings.

            If people are writing about an historical period then we cannot *require* that they speak of big events outside that period. In fact we can test this. Does Acts speak of anything at all outside its own time period? The only thing I can think of is the wolves coming into the Ephesus church, which is to some degree imprecise. So, as a writing, it would not be expected to refer to things outside its own time period *whatever* date it was written at.

            And further, historians may not have a finishing-date in mind. After all, history and the expansion of Christianity are 2 things that do not finish neatly at any particular point. So Luke writes the story and sees how far he gets. Never does history come to a. He had to finish the book we call Acts in his account of the year 62 because that was the most that could fit on any one scroll. If he never published another volume it is a given that there would be people on both sides of the divide re whether he intended to or not.

        • When his gospel was written, and subsequently Acts, is a matter of judgement and preconceptions. Some who have considered the matter in depth have plumped for dates well before AD 70, others for dates after AD 70. It’s a big topic beyond the scope of this discussion. ‘Evidence’ here is inevitably circumstantial, one way or the other. In chapter 9 of The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History Colin Hemer listed fifteen ‘general indications’ which cumulatively pointed to a date before AD 70 and inferred a date around 62. In my opinion the balance of probabilities comes down strongly in that direction.

          Luke begins his gospel by stating that he had ‘closely followed from the first’ all matters pertaining to what he was about to write. This suggests – but again, not conclusively – that he was an adult observer if not disciple while Jesus was still alive, in which case a minimum age of around 20 at the end of Jesus’s ministry seems reasonable. Fifty to sixty years later he would have been 70-80 years of age.

          Luke begins Acts by referring to his ‘first book’, in a way that suggests no great interval between the writing of the first and the second; they constituted essentially one project. As a historian of the most momentous time in recorded history, he was eager to write it all down and deeply concerned about accuracy, and that depended on having access to reliable witnesses of the events. Having been on the second missionary journey, he himself was an ear- and eye-witness of some of the material, and an intimate of the man whose history was central to the book, Paul himself. What he could not say from first-hand knowledge, he was able to state from talking with and questioning Paul while he was still alive. In my opinion he is also likely to have asked the apostle to read over his manuscript and check that he had got his reporting right. I think I would have done in his shoes. That would entail Paul’s being still alive when the book was finished.

          Thank you James for the reference to the Tyndale Bulletin.

        • Link to the TB paper for those interested (full text available):

          Alexander Mittelstaedt (2005) has provided new impetus to a long-standing opinion that Luke-Acts was written in the early 60s of the first century AD. Karl L. Armstrong (2017) provides a recent overview of the dating debate and argues that an early date makes best sense of the extensive evidence. This paper suggests three considerations arising from the historical character of the rest of the century which support Mittelstaedt’s and Armstrong’s view. The first: AD 66–98 was a time of intense anti-Jewish sentiment, in which articulation of the nationalistic Jewish hopes expressed in the third Gospel and Acts would have been dangerous, and unlikely for a careful author. Second, it was also a time that ill accords with Acts’ assumption of Jewish legitimacy and its plea for the acceptance of Gentile Christianity. Third, the attention given to the voyage as Acts draws to its conclusion bespeaks an author who knew nothing of the cataclysmic avalanche of events that took place from AD 62–70.

          • What is the significance of the year 98? Is it because Nerva not Trajan was on the throne?

            Points 1-2 are essentially the same point.
            As I date Acts circa 98 anyway because of an interconnected web of reasons, none of that would apply.

            As for point 3:
            Luke gives the attention to the voyage that anyone would give to the most exciting or nerve-wracking event in one’s own experience.

            None of this deals with the biggest issue, which is how to cope with the interconnected evidence for the dating of the various NT books as a whole. Any approach that views Luke-Acts in a vacuum here is doomed to fail, since in reality it is not in a vacuum. Mark has numerous references to the handover from Vitellius to Vespasian (late 69) and other material that pits Jesus agains Vespasian; and probably a sequence of references to Vespasian’s Triumph over Judea in 71 (TL Schmidt NTS 1995). Luke is acknowledged to have used Mark, but as I mentioned in a recent thread, he will have used Matthew as well since the reverse theory cannot give a coherent account of his Deut and Elijah material in the central section.

  7. “the Greek term metanoia has a sense of ‘thinking again’ because of its etymology, but words do not always mean what their etymology suggests, and in the LXX it is used to translate shuv meaning a literal or metaphorical turning around and changing direction.”

    Using the Step Bible (, for which thanks, I have looked in vain for a place where the LXX translates shuv with metanoia, or its cognate verb metanoeō. Rather, the latter verb is commonly used as the translation of ni.ham in the Nifal.
    They are not unconnected. In Jonah 3.9 they are a parallel: the people of Nineveh hope that God may turn (shuv) and relent (ni.ham). In the next verse the relenting of God is the response to the turning of the people. This same pairing of action and response is in Jeremiah 18:8 & 18:10.

    If one wants an association bewteen metanoeō and turning, then Acts 3:18-26 is a good example. The call to repentance is explained at the start by a turning back in v18 (epistrefō) and at the end by a turning from apostrefō.

    • You are right, and I have been found out! I copied this para from the one last year on Mark 1, and someone (you?) corrected me then!

      As a result, I have just written this elsewhere:

      Modern translations render the phrase ‘unless you change’ or ‘turn’ or ‘turn around’, translating the verb strepho; this verb, and its cognate epistrepho, are used in the Greek OT (the Septuagint, LXX) to translate the Hebrew verb shuv. Both verbs are used to describe a literal change of direction but also serve as a metaphor for what Israel needs to do in leaving its life of sin and returning to live in obedience to the holy commands of God.

      In the New Testament, epistrepho is a synonym with the more common verb metanoieo, usually translated ‘repent’. At the beginning of his gospel, Mark summarises Jesus’ preaching as he bursts with energetic dynamism onto the scene in Galilee, in this way:

      The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1.15)

      In Jewish, biblical terms, that moment pointed to by the prophets, when God himself would visit his people to liberate them and renew them, had come. In the language of apocalyptic (which pervades the whole New Testament), this old age was coming to an end, and the new age of God’s reign was at hand. The only appropriate response to this was to turn from sin and receive the good news of God’s coming to reign amongst his people in the person of Jesus.

  8. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but there seems to be a sparseness of references in this post to the historical/ political and, of course, theological context of the setting for the call of John the Baptist; namely Isaiah 40 onwards.
    In the first place, there are several allusions to Jerusalem beginning in chapter 40:
    “Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem —- that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned [1-2].”
    Isaiah 40: 9 – 11 ” Get up to a high mountain O Zion —– O Jerusalem, herald of good news —— Behold, the Lord God comes with might —–He will tend his flock like a Shepherd —-.”
    Isaiah 41:27 “I was the first to say to Zion: ‘ Behold, here they are and I give to Jerusalem a herald of good news’. ”
    And finally: Isaiah 44:28 – 49: ” —who says to *Cyrus* ‘ He is my shepherd and he shall fulfil my purpose; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid’. Thus says the Lord to his anointed [messiah] , to Cyrus —-to open doors before him — ‘I will go before you and level the exalted places’.”
    There is also extra biblical evidence which, I believe, nails down the actual period referred to in these passages: namely towards the end of the Babylonian captivity and prior to the supersession of that Kingdom by the Persians under Cyrus. Verse 3 of chapter 40 has echoes of a Babylonian hymn a great procession of their gods including Nabu [ see Isa 46:1 – “Nebo”]. The hymn included the words: ” Make Nabu’s way good,renew his road – Make straight his path, hew out for him a track.”

    However as we see from the final chapters of Isaiah, the fulfilment of this prophecy did not transpire after the exilic return. The full flourescence was to be realized initially in the coming of *the Messiah* as the suffering servant, but completed in his end- of- time return. In the words of Iasiah 40:11: ” I am the Lord, and besides me there is no Saviour.” Perhaps then, in the light of the foregoing passages,the first few verses of Revelation 21 will provide some extra food for thought?

  9. I think there’s a danger of muddying waters here rather than making them clearer. Isa 40:9-11 is part of the prophecy beginning at v.1, referring primarily to the second coming. Isa 41:27 and 44:28-49 refer to Cyrus (and therefore not to the time of John the Baptist) and not referenced by either John or Luke. As I have said, the text itelf needs to place limits on the extent to which commentators freely associate, otherwise commentary will resemble a parlour game.

    The similarity to the Babylonian hymn was first noted by Herbert in his commentary on the prophet, but unfortunately neither he nor any of those who have repeated the comparison give a reference back to the source of the quotation, and I have not been able to track it down independently. In any case the hymn’s focus on Nabu suggests that it post-dated Isaiah, since Nabu (an element of the name Nebuchadrezzar) only came into prominence in the neo-Babylonian period. If the verbal similarity suggests indebtedness (an open question, I would say), then the Babylonian hymn got its phraseology from Isaiah, copies of which might well have been circulating in Babylon during the Babylonian Exile.

    The best commentary on Luke 3:4-6 is in fact Luke 3:3 and 7-9. It is these verses which explain why Isa 40:3-5 is conceived as apposite. We prepare the way of the Lord by repenting, then and now – indeed now especially – for the Lord is like a refiner’s fire.

  10. Steven If I am guilty of muddying the waters , I think you could be a little bit guilty of wallowing in quicksand.Your final two sentences make a quantum leap between Isaiah 40 : 1 f and (a) Luke 3:3 and 7-9 and thereafter (b) to the present . Nowhere do you attempt to expound the Isaiah passage in its own context.You say that Isa 40 :1 ff is “referring primarily to the second coming”.What is your evidence for this assertion? You assert that passages referring to Cyrus are not related “therefore to the time of John the Baptist”. Of course they are not! I never said that they were!
    The fact is that the text from Isaiah 40:1 – 6 (in Luke) is incorporated into the very heart of the calling and mission of John should at least create a desire to explore the text of Isaiah 40 in order to see, not only what these passages say in their own context,but also to explore explore meaningful connections betweeen the respective situations. I have a strong sense of unease regarding a “proof trext” exploration of the OT in order to bolster particular brands of theological juggling; often based upon incomplete assumptions. That is the real “parlour game”!

    • As always, it’s important to read and seek to understand the actual text.
      1. It seems obvious to me – not to you, I grant – that Jerusalem’s ‘warfare’ (Isa 40:2) had not ended as at the time of John and Jesus. John did not ‘speak tenderly’, and in AD 70 Jerusalem experienced the bloodiest catastrophe in its entire history.
      2. No valleys were lifted up or mountains levelled at this time. As I have pointed out, numerous scriptures indicate that this is a prophecy relating to what is still future, concerning ‘a great earthquake such as has never been since men were on the earth’ (Rev 16:18).
      3. All flesh did not see the glory of the Lord – that too lies in the future (Matt 24:27).

      “Proof text” exploration of the OT in order to bolster particular brands of theological juggling is indeed to be avoided.


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