Origen’s Commentary on John 6.6

Bk 6.5

Here the enquiry suggests itself whether the second testimony is concluded, and whether there is a third, addressed to those who were sent from the Pharisees. They wished to know why he baptized, if he was neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet; and he said: I baptize with water; but there stands one among you whom you know not, He that comes after me, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to unloose. Is this a third testimony, or is this which they were to report to the Pharisees a part of the second? As far as the words allow me to conjecture I should say that the word to the emissaries of the Pharisees was a third testimony. It is to be observed, however, that the first testimony asserts the divinity of the Saviour, while the second disposes of the suspicion of those who were in doubt whether John could be the Christ, and the third declares one who was already present with men although they saw Him not, and whose coming was no longer in the future. Before going on to the subsequent testimonies in which he points out Christ and witnesses to Him, let us look at the second and third, word for word, and let us, in the first place, observe that there are two embassies to the Baptist, one from Jerusalem from the Jews, who send priests and levites, to ask him, Who are you? the second sent by the Pharisees, who were in doubt about the answer which had been made to the priests and levites. Observe how what is said by the first envoys is in keeping with the character of priests and levites, and shows gentleness and a willingness to learn. Who are you? they say, and What then? Are you Elijah? and Are you that prophet? and then, Who are you, that we may give an answer to them that sent us? What do you say of yourself? There is nothing harsh or arrogant in the enquiries of these men; everything agrees well with the character of true and careful servants of God; and they raise no difficulties about the replies made to them. Those, on the contrary, who are sent from the Pharisees assail the Baptist, as it were, with arrogant and unsympathetic words: Why then do you baptize if you be not the Christ nor Elijah nor the prophet? This mission is sent scarcely for the sake of information, as in the former case of the priests and levites, but rather to debar the Baptist from baptizing, as if it were thought that no one was entitled to baptize but Christ and Elijah and the prophet. The student who desires to understand the Scripture must always proceed in this careful way; he must ask with regard to each speech, who is the speaker and on what occasion it was spoken. Thus only can we discern how speech harmonizes with the character of the speaker, as it does all through the sacred books.

Bk 6.6

Then the Jews sent priests and levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who are you? And he confessed and denied not; and he confessed, I am not the Christ. John 1:19-20 What legates should have been sent from the Jews to John, and where should they have been sent from? Should they not have been men held to stand by the election of God above their fellows, and should they not have come from that place which was chosen out of the whole of the earth, though it is all called good, from Jerusalem where was the temple of God? With such honour, then, do they enquire of John. In the case of Christ nothing of this sort is reported to have been done by the Jews; but what the Jews do to John, John does to Christ, sending his own disciples to ask him, Matthew 11:3 Are you He that should come, or do we look for another? John confesses to those sent to him, and denies not, and he afterwards declares, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness; but Christ, as having a greater testimony than John the Baptist, makes His answer by words and deeds, saying, Go and tell John those things which you do hear and see; the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them. On this passage I shall, if God permit, enlarge in its proper place. Here, however, it might be asked reasonably enough why John gives such an answer to the question put to him. The priests and levites do not ask him, Are you the Christ? but Who are you? and the Baptist’s reply to this question should have been, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. The proper reply to the question, Are you the Christ? is, I am not the Christ; and to the question, Who are you?The voice of one crying in the wilderness. To this we may say that he probably discerned in the question of the priests and levites a cautious reverence, which led them to hint the idea in their minds that he who was baptizing might be the Christ, but withheld them from openly saying so, which might have been presumptuous. He quite naturally, therefore, proceeds in the first place to remove any false impressions they might have taken up about him, and declares publicly the true state of the matter, I am not the Christ. Their second question, and also their third, show that they had conceived some such surmise about him. They supposed that he might be that second in honour to whom their hopes pointed, namely, Elijah, who held with them the next position after Christ; and so when John had answered, I am not the Christ, they asked, What then? Are you Elijah? And he said, I am not. They wish to know, in the third place, if he is the prophet, and on his answer, No, they have no longer any name to give the personage whose advent they expected, and they say, Who are you, then, that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What do you say of yourself? Their meaning is: You are not, you say, any of those personages whose advent Israel hopes and expects, and who you are, to baptize as you do, we do not know; tell us, therefore, so that we may report to those who sent us to get light upon this point. We add, as it has some bearing on the context, that the people were moved by the thought that the period of Christ’s advent was near. It was in a manner imminent in the years from the birth of Jesus and a little before, down to the publication of the preaching. Hence it was, in all likelihood, that as the scribes and lawyers had deduced the time from Holy Scripture and were expecting the Coming One, the idea was taken up by Theudas, who came forward as the Messiah and brought together a considerable multitude, and after him by the famous Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing. Acts 5:36-37 Thus the coming of the Messiah was more warmly expected and discussed, and it was natural enough for the Jews to send priests and levites from Jerusalem to John, to ask him, Who are you? and learn if he professed to be the Christ.