In Tents #14 More About Jesus the Pharisee, Beginning with John the Baptizer

Interpretation is transparent to us, as I suggested in my last post, so transparent that we think of what we do as reading, hearing, or receiving the plain sense of a story, essay, passage, song, speech or talk. Interpreting is what someone else does. I’m sure I’m not the only missionary who ever heard someone say (and probably said myself), “You’re putting an interpretation on God’s word,” meaning, “You’re not reading what’s actually there.” We often think of interpretation as a synonym for spin, someone trying to impose a meaning on something instead of accepting the obvious meaning, or trying to make something objectionable sound like it really isn’t.

Often it isn’t until we hear someone we trust give their own transparent reading of a passage that we start thinking about alternate interpretations, that we start thinking there might be more than one correct interpretation of a story or poem or scripture. We should be natural interpreters if we understand Nephi’s method of teaching (see I Nephi 19:23). We just don’t call it interpreting, we call it likening the scriptures (though I grant a lot of us don’t particularly like the scriptures, or we think of the language as archaic, difficult and lichen-encrusted).

Individuals are not the only ones who interpret–cultures do as well, and often the culture’s interpretation guides our own. My premise in this series is that the disastrous split between Jews who accepted Yeshua as their mashiach and those who didn’t was accompanied by a reinterpretation of passages in the gospels to emphasize Yeshua’s differences with the Jews. I didn’t say “with other Jews” because part of the reinterpretation and transl(iter)ation of the gospel into Greek (Yeshua became Iesous and mashiach became Messiah or Christos) was to de-emphasize Jesus’s Jewish identity.

The split was so thorough, so disastrous, that Jesus’s Jewish identity was lost not only to Christians but to Jews as well. I heard Maurice Sendak speak at the University of Warshington in 1985 or 6 and he told about a book he had just illustrated, a nativity. When he told the person who was commissioning the project that he was a Jew and knew nothing about illustrating a Christian story the man said, “Maurice, they were all Jews.” (I don’t know the name of the book. I don’t see anything in Wikipedia’s bibliography that sounds like a Christmas story.)

So, if they were all Jews, what happened? A good place to begin reexamining Yeshua’s relationship with other Jews, and Pharisees in particular, is with Yohanan the baptizer’s statement at the Yarden river, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

I thought I would find the statement in Mark because he begins with Yohanan, but it’s not there. It’s in the third chapter of Luke:

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?

Does that sound harsh? rude? Well, the story does tell us John was dressed rudely and his words were no less rude than the roaring of Amos, who begins by pronouncing Yahweh’s judgments on Damascus, Gaza, Tyrus, Edom and Ammon, and, having made short work of Israel’s enemies moves to Israel’s sibling kingdom:

4 Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they have despised the law of the Lord, and have not kept his commandments, and their lies caused them to err, after the which their fathers have walked: 5 But I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem.

But Amos doesn’t stop with Israel’s enemies and sibling rival. This is no feel-good sermon. Indeed, rhetorically the prophecy suggests a movement from lesser to greater, with these words addressed to the greatest sinners:

6 Thus saith the Lord; For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; 7 That pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the meek: and a man and his father will go in unto the same maid, to profane my holy name: 8 And they lay themselves down upon clothes laid to pledge by every altar, and they drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god (Amos 2:4-8).

And the five transgressions, yea the six, in that paragraph are just the beginning of Amos’s sermon. Yohanan’s words also begin a sermon, but before we talk about the sermon and why we don’t think of it as a sermon I should emphasize that Luke 3 is not the first place most readers encounter the question, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Assuming most of us read the New Testament sequentially our first glimpse of Yohanan is in Matthew 3.

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?

I suspect most of us read verse 7 as meaning something like, “Who told you you could come to the party?” or, “who invited you?” Our practice of printing scriptures as discrete verses with each verse capitalized even when the first word doesn’t begin a sentence works against the sense of narrative continuity. We try to compensate for that by putting paragraph markers where we think they should go, but look where the paragraph marker is. At verse 7. Is that because of the word but, a word we usually use to note an exception? Splitting the paragraph there may suggest that the Pharisees and Saducees (this is also our first glimpse of them) are not part of the group that came to confess their sins and be baptized.

Let me suggest a different reading. First, but may be simply a transition word there. Second, the paragraph need not break at verse 6, and may break there only because the King James (or later) paragraphers saw but as a word meant to break the thought, to introduce an exception, rather than a transition from one sentence to another. Third, the phrase “Pharisees and Saducees” may simply be a more specific rendering of what Luke referred to as “the multitude that came forth.”

If for Matthew the Pharisees and Saducees are the multitude that detail tells us the Pharisees and Saducees believed the words of this messenger who said he was preparing the way of the Lord and came forth to confess their sins and be baptized. But if they weren’t enemies at all why the invective? Why the insult?

Well, consider this comment, “I’ve been to your church, and I won’t go again. Your preacher didn’t make me feel half sinful enough, not by a longshot.” What the woman was telling us, and I’m sure we’re not the only missionaries who ever heard something similar, was that she went to church to be convicted of her sins. She wouldn’t have felt insulted if the preacher had shaken a finger at the congregation, moving it across the room as he said, “O generation of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? O sinners, who told you to flock to the Lord’s house and flee the wrath to come? O SINNERS who told you, Repent! REPENT, for the day of wrath is come!” Indeed she would have felt insulted or let down if he hadn’t addressed the congregation’s sinfulness.

We even have a name for that type of sermon. No, not “Argument weak here–Shout like hell,” rather, a hellfire and damnation sermon. Maybe we don’t think of Yohanan’s words as a sermon because we don’t have a phrase like “Sermon at the Yarden” to describe them. And maybe because we hear so little of his words. Here’s the rest of his words as Matthew gives them. Verse 8 sounds a lot like instructions to someone about to be baptized, and the other verses elaborate on why we need to repent:

8 Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: 9 And think 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. 10 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: 12 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
(Matthew 3:5-12)

Luke gives us a fuller account of the sermon. Note the word preaching in verse 3, to mark the beginning of the sermon, and preached in verse 18 to mark the end. Note also that Yohanan opens his sermon by quoting Esaias and commenting, just as his cousin later opens his ministry by quoting Esaias with comment,(see Luke 4:18-19) and Jacob opened his in II Nephi by quoting the same prophet and commenting.

3 And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins; 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; 6 And all flesh shall see the salvation of God. 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.

Now Yohanan takes questions from his audience:

10 And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? 11 He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.

12 Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? 13 And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you.

14 And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.

15 And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not; 16 John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: 17 Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable.

Luke ends his record of Yohanan’s sermon with the formula we hear so often from Book of Mormon editors, who tell us there just isn’t room to include everything:

18 And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.
(Luke 3:3-18)

And there’s not room in a single blog post for much more. We’ll talk about Yeshua’s first encounter with the Pharisees in May. But before that a little break to talk more about the nature of interpretation, with an excerpt from the AML paper I will have just given about Jesus’ trial before Pilate and how the early church reinterpreted that trial to divert attention and guilt (responsibility) from the Romans and focus guilt on the Jews.

I’ll look at the possibility that the people gathered in Pilate’s courtyard were there not to call for Yeshua’s crucifixion but his release, and that those calling for the crucifixion were planted by Pilate and possibly others.

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