Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Augustine, Harmony of the Evangelists.2.12: Concerning the words ascribed to John the Baptist



In this episode, we are looking at Book 2, chapter 12 where Augustine addresses issues related to the veracity of the Gospel records in reporting the recorded speech of John the Baptist.

2.12: Concerning the words ascribed to John by all four of the evangelists respectively.

Augustine here investigates how the reader might understand statements attributed to John the Baptist in each Gospel respectively, while harmonizing such statements overall as they appear throughout all four Gospels. How does one, in particular, understand statements attributed to John that seem to differ from one account to another? This discussion might be described as addressing the question of whether the evangelists reported the ipsissima verba (the very words), in this case of John the Baptist, or the ipsissima vox (the very voice, but not the exact words).

Augustine begins with a discussion of how one differentiates and recognizes direct quotation of speech. How does one distinguish between something Matthew says and something John says when the text does not use some clear grammatical indicator of direct quotations. He gives as an example the statement in Matthew 3:1-3, which begins, “1 In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea,  2 And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The question is whether or not the next statement in v. 3 [ “For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”] was also spoken by John or information added by Matthew. In other words, where does the quotation from John end? At v. 2 or at v. 3? Augustine notes that Matthew and John sometimes speak of themselves in the third person (citing Matthew 9:9 and John 21:24), so v. 3 might legitimately have been spoken by John the Baptist. If so, it harmonizes with John’s statement in John 1:23, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

Such questions, according to Augustine, should not “be deemed worth while in creating any difficulties” for the reader. He adds, “For although one writer may retain a certain order in the words, and another present a different one, there is really no contradiction in that.” He further affirms that word of God “abides eternal and unchangeable above all that is created.”

Another challenge comes with respect to the question as to whether the reported speech of persons like John are given “with the most literal accuracy.” Augustine suggests that the Christian reader does not have liberty to suppose that an evangelist has stated anything that is false either in the words or facts that he reports.

He offers an example Matthew’s record that John the Baptist said of Christ “whose shoes I am not worthy to bear” (Matthew 3:11) and Mark’s statement, “whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose” (Mark 1:7; cf. Luke 3:16). Augustine suggests that such apparent difficulties can be harmonized if one considers that perhaps each version gets the fact straight since “John did give utterance to both these sentences either on two different occasions or in one and the same connection.” Another possibility is that “one of the evangelists may have reproduced the one portion of the saying, and the rest of them the other.” In the end the most important matter is not the variety of words used by each evangelist but the truth of the facts.


According to Augustine, when it comes to addressing “the concord of the evangelists” one finds “there is not divergence [to be supposed] from the truth.” Thus, he contends that any apparent discrepancies or contradictions can be reasonably explained. For Augustine variety of expression does not mean contradiction.


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