“Yohanan the Immerser and the Kingdom of Heaven” complex

& LOY Commentary 3 Comments

The Hebrew Life of Yeshua, the source that Robert Lindsey believed ultimately lies behind the Synoptic Gospels, contained a conversation about John the Baptist and his relationship to the Kingdom of Heaven. David N. Bivin and Joshua N. Tilton attempt to reconstruct that conversation here.

The above image is of an 18th-century icon depicting John the Baptist as an angel, based on the identification of John as the angel (or “messenger”) whom God will send to announce the eschatological judgment (Mal. 3:1; cf. Matt. 11:10; Luke 7:27). Malachi 3:23 (Eng. 4:5) identifies the promised angel (or “messenger”) as the prophet Elijah. The halo in the icon represents John’s martyr’s crown. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Revised: 17-September-2018

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both contain a block of material concerning John the Baptist (Matt. 11:2-19; Luke 7:18-35). Despite insertions or deletions on the part of the author(s) of Matthew and/or Luke, their agreed upon order of three pericopae in this block of material demonstrates that both authors drew the core of this unit on John the Baptist en bloc from their common source,[1] the Anthology (Anth.):

Matthew 11:2-19 Luke 7:18-35
Yohanan the Immerser’s Question (Matt. 11:2-6) Yohanan the Immerser’s Question (Luke 7:18-23)
Yeshua’s Words about Yohanan the Immerser (Matt. 11:7-11) Yeshua’s Words about Yohanan the Immerser (Luke 7:24-28)
Pharisees Reject God’s Purpose (Luke 7:29-30)
The Kingdom of Heaven Is Increasing (Matt. 11:12-13)
John the Baptist Is Elijah (Matt. 11:14-15)
“Like Children Playing” (Matt. 11:16-19) “Like Children Playing” (Luke 7:31-35)

The three pericopae common to Matthew and Luke in this unit on John the Baptist (Yohanan the Immerser’s Question; Yeshua’s Words about Yohanan the Immerser; “Like Children Playing”) form the indubitable core of Anth.’s block of material on the Baptist.

The Pharisees Reject God’s Purpose pericope (Luke 7:29-30), which is absent in the parallel section of Matthew, reads like an editorial aside. Moreover, Pharisees Reject God’s Purpose has a loose parallel in Matt. 21:31b-32, so it is likely that both the authors of Matthew and Luke inserted a contextless saying from Anth. into different locations which each author regarded as an appropriate setting.[2] Thus, with reasonable certainty we can exclude Pharisees Reject God’s Purpose from Anth.’s block of material on John the Baptist.[3]

The Kingdom of Heaven Is Increasing pericope, which Matthew includes in the unit on John the Baptist, has a parallel in Luke 16:16. Whereas Matthew’s placement of The Kingdom of Heaven Is Increasing suits the context in which it appears, Luke’s version of The Kingdom of Heaven Is Increasing has no clear connection to its context. It also appears that the author of Luke copied his version of The Kingdom of Heaven Is Increasing from his second source, the First Reconstruction (FR), rather than from Anth.[4] We believe that The Kingdom of Heaven Is Increasing probably did belong to Anth.’s block of material on John the Baptist,[5] and that the author of Luke omitted it in preference for the FR version he copied in Luke 16:16.[6]

John the Baptist Is Elijah (Matt. 11:14-15) is unique to the Gospel of Matthew and is probably a Matthean composition.[7] The author of Matthew likely penned Matt. 11:14 in order to bring speculations about John the Baptist’s role in salvation history to a definite conclusion. Our suspicion that he did so is strengthened by observing the Matthean redaction to the Elijah Must Come First pericope (Matt. 17:10-13 // Mark 9:11-13), where the author of Matthew followed a similar procedure, adding an explicit identification of John the Baptist as Elijah (Matt. 17:13), although it is lacking in the Markan parallel, the source upon which Matthew’s version of Elijah Must Come First is based.[8] In any case, such an explicit statement about the role of John the Baptist is uncharacteristic of Jesus, who was generally evasive regarding his own unique status,[9] and therefore probably equally reticent regarding the status of others. To the explicit statement regarding John the Baptist’s role in John the Baptist Is Elijah (Matt. 11:14), the author of Matthew appended the proclamation “The one having ears, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15). The author of Matthew employed this proclamation in another redactional context (Matt. 13:43) to underscore a dramatic saying, and it is likely that the proclamation’s presence in Matt. 11:15 is redactional, too.[10] Thus, it is unlikely that John the Baptist Is Elijah was found in Anth.’s block of material on John.[11]

We therefore conjecture that at a pre-synoptic stage the block of material on John the Baptist upon which Matt. 11:2-19 and Luke 7:18-35 are based looked like this:

The reconstructed “Yohanan the Immerser and the Kingdom of Heaven” complex as it appeared in the Hebrew Life of Yeshua.

Robert Lindsey believed that Anth.’s blocks of thematically-related material were created in the following manner: The creator of Anth., whom we will refer to as the Anthologizer, was heir to a Greek translation of a Hebrew biography of Jesus (the conjectured Hebrew Life of Yeshua). In the Hebrew Life of Yeshua and in its Greek translation much of the material was presented in an integrated style, according to which a narrative incident would give rise to a teaching discourse delivered by Jesus, and to drive home the teaching’s message, the discourse would be followed up by colorful illustrations,[12] often in the form of twin parables.[13] For some reason,[14] the Anthologizer found it to be useful to split apart these narrative-sayings “complexes” into their component pieces. Whenever possible,[15] the Anthologizer detached teaching materials from narratives, and illustrations (parables and similes) from teachings. The Anthologizer then rearranged these detached units according to genre, collecting narratives into one section, teaching materials into another, and parables into a third.[16] For this reason Lindsey sometimes referred to the Anthology as the “Reorganized Scroll.”[17] Within these three main divisions the Anthologizer organized his materials into subsections according to theme.

The Anthologizer’s changes to the “Yohanan the Immerser and the Kingdom of Heaven” complex.

In the present instance, it appears that the Anthologizer found it either impossible or undesirable to detach the teaching portion of Yohanan the Immerser’s Question from its narrative introduction. Yeshua’s Words about Yohanan the Immerser and The Kingdom of Heaven Is Increasing were probably the continuation of Jesus’ teaching prompted by the incident of the arrival of John the Baptist’s disciples. The illustrations that likely followed up this teaching discourse were removed by the Anthologizer and placed in the parables and similes section of his work. Then, into the vacant place where the parables and similes had been, the Anthologizer tacked “Like Children Playing” because it too was about John the Baptist, although it had originally belonged to a different context.[18]

The author of Luke’s changes to the Anthology’s unit on John the Baptist.

Lindsey believed that by careful analysis of the themes and vocabulary of discrete units of material in the Synoptic Gospels, it is sometimes possible to reconstruct these narrative-sayings complexes, as they appeared prior to their discomposure by the Anthologizer. With regard to the material concerning John the Baptist, Lindsey noted that the twin Mustard Seed (Matt. 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19) and Starter Dough (Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:20-21) parables make for excellent illustrations of the idea of the dramatic expansion of the Kingdom of Heaven described in The Kingdom of Heaven Is Increasing (Matt. 11:12-13; Luke 16:16).[19] Building on his suggestion, we have attempted, in the LOY segments to follow, to reconstruct the “Yohanan the Immerser and the Kingdom of Heaven” complex as it existed prior to its discomposure at the hands of the Anthologizer.

The author of Matthew’s changes to the Anthology’s unit on John the Baptist.

Click on the following titles to view the Reconstruction and Commentary for each pericope in the “Yohanan the Immerser and the Kingdom of Heaven” complex.


Yohanan the Immerser’s Question


Yeshua’s Words about Yohanan the Immerser (Newly Published!)


The Kingdom of Heaven Is Increasing (Coming Soon!)



Mustard Seed and Starter Dough parables (in preparation)



Click here to return to “The Life of Yeshua: A Suggested Reconstruction” main page.


Premium Members
If you are not a Premium Member, please consider becoming one starting at $10/month (paid monthly) or only $5/month (paid annually):

One Time Purchase Rather Than Membership
Rather than a membership, you may also purchase access to this entire page for $1.99 USD. (If you do not have an account select "Register & Purchase.")

Login & Purchase
  • [1] Cf. Bundy, 166, 199; Marshall, 287; Fitzmyer, 1:662; Davies-Allison, 2:235. For abbreviations and bibliographical references, see “Introduction to ‘The Life of Yeshua: A Suggested Reconstruction.’
  • [2] It appears that in addition to secondarily incorporating this pericope into their respective settings, both authors also subjected it to heavy redaction.
  • [3] Cf. Allen, Matt., 116; Manson, Sayings, 70; Marshall, 297; Fitzmyer, 1:270-271.
  • [4] That Luke’s version of The Kingdom of Heaven Is Increasing is derived from FR seems likely since, in the first place, there is a high degree of verbal disparity between the Lukan and Matthean versions of The Kingdom of Heaven Is Increasing. Lindsey usually attributed the phenomenon of high verbal disparity in Double Tradition pericopae to Luke’s use of FR, which Lindsey described as a paraphrastic epitome of Anth. In the second place, Luke’s version of The Kingdom of Heaven Is Increasing appears in a short string of pithy sayings. Lindsey attributed two other such strings of pithy sayings (Luke 8:16-18; 9:23-27) to FR. See Robert L. Lindsey, “From Luke to Mark to Matthew: A Discussion of the Sources of Markan ‘Pick-ups’ and the Use of a Basic Non-canonical Source by All the Synoptists,” under the subheading “Lukan Doublets: Sayings Doublets.” An important difference between the string of sayings in Luke 16:16-18 and those in Luke 8:16-18 and Luke 9:23-27, however, is that whereas the latter two consist entirely of Lukan Doublets, there are no doublets to the string of sayings in Luke 16:16-18.
  • [5] Cf. Jeremias, Theology, 46; Fitzmyer, 1:662.
  • [6] Cf. Bovon, 1:279.
  • [7] Cf. Manson, Sayings, 185; Fitzmyer, 1:663; Davies-Allison, 2:236, 258; Luz, 2:136.
  • [8] See Manson, Sayings, 185.
  • [9] Jesus customarily referred to his own unique status by means of hints and scriptural allusions.
  • [10] See Davies-Allison, 2:259; Nolland, Matt., 459.
  • [11] Cf. Manson, Sayings, 68.
  • [12] See Lindsey, “From Luke to Mark to Matthew,” under the subheading “Restoration of Narrative-Sayings Complexes”; idem, TJS, 38-39, 42-43.
  • [13] For a discussion of Jesus’ use of twin illustrations, see Robert L. Lindsey, “Jesus’ Twin Parables.”
  • [14] Even today, modern readers often like to separate Jesus’ teachings from their narrative contexts, as we see in red-letter editions of the Gospels. Likewise, it is not uncommon to find collections of Jesus’ parables which are made for different types of audiences (children, students and scholars).
  • [15] Sometimes the Anthologizer found it impossible to divorce a saying from its narrative introduction without destroying its meaning, in which case he allowed the narrative to remain joined to the teaching. Apparently, the Anthologizer had fewer qualms about separating parables from the teachings they originally illustrated.
  • [16] See Lindsey, TJS, 39.
  • [17] See Lindsey, TJS, 36.
  • [18] Lindsey (LHNS, 53; JRL, 161) suggested that “Like Children Playing” may have been the continuation of Jesus’ response to the question about why he and his disciples did not fast. Cf. Tomson, 139; R. Steven Notley, “Luke 5:35: ‘When the Bridegroom is taken Away’—Anticipation of the Destruction of the Second Temple,” in The Gospels in First-Century Judaea (ed. R. Steven Notley and Jeffrey Paul García; Leiden: Brill, 2006), 107-121, esp. 110.
    The application of the verb ἔρχεσθαι (erchesthai, “to come”) to John the Baptist and to Jesus in the “Like Children Playing” saying (Matt. 11:18, 19 // Luke 7:33, 34) may have been a significant factor in the Anthologizer’s decision to append “Like Children Playing” to the end of the discourse on John the Baptist, as the discourse had been prompted by the Baptist’s query whether Jesus was ὁ ἐρχόμενος (ho erchomenos, “he who is coming”; Matt. 11:3 // Luke 7:19). See Richard A. Edwards, “Matthew’s Use of Q in Chapter 11,” in Logia Les Paroles de Jésus—The Sayings of Jesus: Mémorial Joseph Coppens (ed. Joël Delobel; Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1982), 257-275, esp. 267.
  • [19] See Lindsey, JRL, 76-77.