In this verse we encounter for the first time a formula of revelation that John uses on several occasions. M. de Goedt, NTS 8 (1961–62), 142–50, has analyzed the formula thus: a messenger of God sees a person and says, “Look!” This is followed by a description wherein the seer reveals the mystery of the person’s mission. Other instances of the pattern are found in 1:35–37, 47–51, 19:24–27. This formula has its roots in the OT, for instance in 1 Sam 9:17: “When Samuel saw Saul, the Lord said to him, ‘Look! Here is the man … who shall rule over my people.’ ” However, its use in the NT is peculiarly Johannine, so that we know that whatever traditional material may be found in 1:29 has been recast in a Johannine mold.
Let us now turn to the symbol of “the Lamb [amnos] of God,” a symbol about whose meaning there is a great deal of discussion. A convenient summary of the literature between 1950–60 can be found in Virgulin, art. cit. Without pretending to be exhaustive, we shall discuss three principal suggestions.
(1) The Lamb as the apocalyptic lamb. Dodd, Interpretation, pp. 230–38, accepts this as the meaning intended by the evangelist. However, along with Barrett, art. cit., we believe that this interpretation of the Lamb can be better understood as the meaning intended by John the Baptist.
In the context of final judgment there appears in Jewish apocalyptic the figure of a conquering lamb who will destroy evil in the world. The Testament of Joseph xix 8 speaks of a lamb (amnos) who overcomes the evil beasts and crushes them underfoot. There are Christian interpolations in this passage from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, but Charles, APCh, II, p. 353, maintains that the principal figure is not an interpolation. (The value of this passage will depend to some extent on one’s theory of the composition of the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, i.e., whether it is basically a Jewish or Christian work.) In En xc 38, which is part of the great animal allegory of history, there comes at the end a horned bull who turns into a lamb with black horns. (Unfortunately, the Ethiopic reads “word” instead of “lamb,” so that our reading represents a conjecture, but probably a correct one.) In the context of the last judgment we are told that the Lord of the sheep rejoiced over the lamb. In the NT the figure of the conquering lamb appears in Revelation: in 7:17 the Lamb is the leader of peoples; in 17:14 the Lamb crushes the evil powers of the earth.
The picture of the apocalyptic, destroying lamb fits in very well with what we know of John the Baptist’s eschatological preaching. John the Baptist warned of the coming wrath (Luke 3:7), that the ax was already laid to the root of the tree, and that God was ready to cut down and throw into the fire every tree not bearing good fruit (Luke 3:9). Both Matt 3:12 and Luke 3:17 reflect the graphic ferocity of John the Baptist’s expectation of judgment by the one to come: “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clean out his threshing floor. He will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.” It is not at all implausible that John the Baptist could have described such a one to come as the apocalyptic lamb of God.
There are two objections to this interpretation of “the Lamb of God.” First, there is a vocabulary difference in these references to “lamb”: in John 1:29 the word is amnos, while in Revelation the apocalyptic lamb is arnion. However, while John and Revelation are works of the Johannine school, they frequently reflect differences of vocabulary—a sign that they were written by different hands. Moreover, the vocabulary of apocalyptic writing tends to be formalized, and Revelation may simply be using a standard apocalyptic term for “lamb.” Enoch, in what is preserved of it in Greek, seems to use arēn, of which arnion is a diminutive. Finally, the Testament of Joseph uses amnos for the conquering lamb. John’s own choice of amnos may be determined by the interesting theological possibilities of the word, as seen below.
A second objection is based on the clause that describes the Lamb of God: he takes away the world’s sin. Understood against the background of the salvific actions of Jesus, such a description scarcely seems to fit the Synoptic picture of John the Baptist’s preaching where the one to come is to destroy the evildoer. However, perhaps on the lips of John the Baptist the phrase can be interpreted as a reference to the destruction of the world’s sin. It is interesting to study the parallelism between airein (“take away”) and luein (“destroy”) in I John:
3:5: “The reason he revealed himself was to take away sins.”
3:8: “The Son of God revealed himself to destroy the devil’s works.”
Thus we suggest that John the Baptist hailed Jesus as the lamb of Jewish apocalyptic expectation who was to be raised up by God to destroy evil in the world, a picture not too far from that of Rev 17:14.
Dodd, Interpretation, p. 236, insists on the messianic aspect of this apocalyptic lamb. However, as we shall see below, it is not certain that John the Baptist expected a royal Davidic Messiah.
(2) The Lamb as the Suffering Servant. The Servant of Yahweh is the subject of four songs in Deutero-Isaiah: 42:1–4 (or 7, or 9), 49:1–6 (or 9, or 13), 50:4–9 (or 11), 52:13–53. There is a great deal of dispute whether this Servant is an individual (Jeremiah, Moses), or a collectivity (Israel), or a corporate personality. Of course, the NT authors would not have thought of these songs as an isolated body of literature as we do, but they may have seen that a common theme of the Servant of God is to be found in Isaiah. Indeed, it is quite probable that they connected the striking portrayal of the suffering of this Servant in Isa 53 with other pictures of suffering innocents in the OT, for example, Ps 22. Morna Hooker, Jesus and the Servant (London: SPCK, 1959), has criticized, too broadly perhaps, the abuse of the Servant theme by NT exegetes who seem to think that the evangelists anticipated Duhm’s isolation of the Servant songs in 1892. Be this as it may, we are simply asking here whether the use of “Lamb of God” in John 1:29 was colored by the use of lamb to refer to the Suffering Servant of Yahweh in Isa 53.
This really involves two questions: first, could John the Baptist have had such an understanding of the Lamb of God; second, could the evangelist? J. Jeremias, Cullmann, and Boismard answer in the affirmative to the first question; and the arguments for this view find a good exposition in De la Potterie, art. cit. We look in vain, however, in the Synoptics for any indication that John the Baptist thought that the one to come after him would suffer and die. Indeed, there is no clear evidence that before Christian times the Suffering Servant had been isolated and had entered the gallery of expected eschatological figures, or that the Messiah had been identified with the Suffering Servant. Despite the allegations of Dupont-Sommer and Allegro, there is simply no proof that the Qumran Essenes had a theology of a suffering Messiah; see J. Carmignac, Christ and the Teacher of Righteousness (Baltimore: Helicon, 1962), pp. 48–56. There are Qumran references to the Servant passages of Isaiah; but rather than applying these texts to a messianic or eschatological figure, the Essenes seem to have looked on their community as suffering righteously for others (so H. Ringgren, The Faith of Qumran [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963], pp. 196–98). Thus, while we cannot deny that it is possible that John the Baptist thought of Jesus as the Suffering Servant, there is no real proof he did.
That the evangelist interpreted the Lamb of God against the background of the description of the Servant in Isaiah can be supported by several arguments. (a) Isa 53:7 describes the Servant thus: “He opened not his mouth, like a sheep that is led to the slaughter and like a lamb [amnos] before its shearers.” This text is applied to Jesus in Acts 8:32, and so the comparison was known to Christians (also Matt 8:17=Isa 53:4; Heb 9:28=Isa 53:12). At the end of the 1st century, Clement of Rome (i 16) applied Isa 53 in full to Jesus. (b) All the songs that refer to the Servant are found in the second part of Isaiah (40–55). The NT associates this part of Isaiah with John the Baptist, for “the voice crying out in the desert” is from the opening lines (Isa 40:3). (c) There are two items in John the Baptist’s description of Jesus in 1:32–34 that can be related to the Servant theme. In vs. 32 John the Baptist says he saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus and remain on him; in 34 John the Baptist identifies Jesus as God’s chosen one. In Isa 42:1 (a passage which the Synoptics also connect with John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus) we hear: “Look! Here is my servant whom I uphold; my chosen one in whom my soul is pleased [see Mark 1:11]. I have put my spirit upon him.” See also Isa 61:1, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me.” This argument assumes that the evangelist made a connection between the Servant in Isa 42 and the Servant in Isa 53. (d) Jesus is described in terms of the Suffering Servant elsewhere in John (12:38=Isa 53:1). These arguments are but a summary of the evidence (see Stanks, op. cit.).
There are two special points that should be considered. The Lamb of God is said to take away (airein) the world’s sin. This is not the same imagery found in Isa 53:4, 12, where the Servant is said to take on or bear (pherein/anapherein) the sins of many. This difference, however, is not of major importance, for the early Christians would scarcely draw a sharp distinction as to whether in his death Jesus took away sin or took it on himself. LXX uses both airein and pherein to translate Heb. naśāʾ. Nevertheless, the reference to taking on sins in Isa 53:12 cannot be used to prove that the Lamb is the Suffering Servant, as is sometimes done. A second point is the suggestion that “lamb” in John is a mistranslation of the Aram. ṭalyâ which can mean both “servant” and “lamb”; and thus what John the Baptist actually said was, “Look! Here is the Servant of God” (so Ball, Burney, Jeremias, Cullmann, Boismard, De la Potterie). Dodd’s refutation of this in Interpretation, pp. 235–36, seems to us conclusive. The Servant of Isaiah is known in Hebrew as the ʿebed YHWH (Aram. ʿabdâ); there is absolutely no evidence of ṭalyâ (Heb. ṭāleh) being used for the Servant. Nor, it may be added, is ṭāleh ever rendered by amnos in LXX. Yet, even without these two dubious points, there seem to be enough indications in the Gospel to connect the Lamb of God and the Suffering Servant.
(3) The Lamb as the paschal lamb. Many of the Western Fathers favored this interpretation (while the Eastern Fathers favored the Suffering Servant), and it has found an eloquent spokesman in Barrett. There are several supporting arguments. (a) The paschal lamb is a real lamb, while in the Suffering Servant interpretation “lamb” is only an isolated and incidental element in the description of the Servant’s death. (b) Passover symbolism is popular in the Fourth Gospel, especially in relation to the death of Jesus; and this is important because in Christian thought the Lamb takes away the sin of the world by his death. John 19:14 says that Jesus was condemned to death at noon on the day before Passover, and this was the very time when the priests began to slay the paschal lambs in the Temple. While Jesus was on the cross, a sponge full of wine was raised up to him on hyssop (19:29); and it was hyssop that was smeared with the blood of the paschal lamb to be applied to the doorposts of the Israelites (Exod 12:22). John 19:36 sees a fulfillment of the Scripture in the fact that none of Jesus’ bones was broken, and this seems to refer to Exod 12:46 which states that no bone of the paschal lamb should be broken. (See also John 19:31.) (c) Jesus is described as the Lamb in another Johannine work, Revelation; and the Passover motif appears there. The Lamb of Rev 5:6 is a slain lamb. In Rev 15:3 the Song of Moses is the song of the Lamb. In Rev 7:17 and 22:1 the Lamb is seen as the source of living water, and this may be another connection with Moses who brought forth water from the rock. Rev 5:9 mentions the ransoming blood of the Lamb, a reference particularly appropriate in the paschal motif where the mark of the lamb’s blood spared the houses of the Israelites.
One objection brought against interpreting the Lamb of God as the paschal lamb is that in Jewish thought the paschal lamb was not a sacrifice. This is true, although by Jesus’ time the sacrificial aspect had begun to infiltrate the concept of the paschal lamb because the priests had arrogated to themselves the slaying of the lambs. In any case, the difference between the lamb’s blood smeared on the doorpost as a sign of deliverance and the lamb’s blood offered in sacrifice for deliverance is not very great. Once Christians began to compare Jesus to the paschal lamb, they did not hesitate to use sacrificial language: “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7). In such a Christian deepening of the concept of the paschal lamb, the function of taking away the world’s sin could easily be fitted.
A more important objection is that the Greek Pentateuch normally speaks of the paschal lamb as probaton, not as amnos. That the two words are not greatly different is seen, curiously enough, in Isa 53:7, the Suffering Servant passage, where probaton (“sheep”) and amnos are in parallelism. But there also may be evidence that amnos was used by Christians for the paschal lamb. 1 Pet 1:18–19 assures Christians that they have been emancipated with precious blood, as of an unblemished and spotless lamb (amnos), namely, the blood of Christ. Although we cannot give arguments here, we point to the possibility that I Peter should be interpreted against the background of a Christian paschal baptismal ceremony. The description of the amnos as unblemished recalls Exod 12:5 where a lamb without imperfection is specified for Passover. Thus, the vocabulary difference is not decisive.
With such good arguments for the views that the evangelist intended the Lamb of God to refer to the Suffering Servant and to the paschal lamb, we see no serious difficulty in maintaining that John intended both references. Both fit into John’s christology and are well attested in 1st-century Christianity. Indeed, a similar twofold reference can probably be found in I Peter where, although the paschal theme is prominent, the Suffering Servant theme also appears (2:22–25=Isa 53:5–12). The late 2nd-century paschal homily of Melito of Sardis weaves the two themes together; for while Melito says that Jesus came in place of the paschal lamb, he describes Jesus’ death in terms of Isa 53:7: “… led forth as a lamb, sacrificed as a sheep, buried as a man.” That besides these two themes John may also have brought over some echoes of John the Baptist’s original reference to the apocalyptic lamb is not impossible, but there is no other reference to the apocalyptic lamb in the Gospel (only in Revelation).
We have given the more important suggestions for the meaning of “the Lamb of God.” Other scholars call to mind Jer 11:19, “I was a gentle lamb [arnion] led away to be slaughtered.” Since Jeremiah may have been the pattern on which Deutero-Isaiah fashioned the image of the Suffering Servant, this suggestion can be incorporated into the interpretation of the Lamb as the Servant. Another theory is that the Lamb of God is a reference to the lamb (amnos: Exod 29:38–46) offered twice a day in the Temple, or to the lamb (probaton: Lev 4:32) offered as a sin offering. While the latter is attractive because it would explain the idea of the Lamb’s taking away the world’s sin, it must be noted that the bull and the goat were more common sin offerings. In any case there is no other evidence that such sacrifices formed the background for Johannine christology. Glasson, Moses, p. 96, reminds us that in the Jerusalem Targum on Exod 1:15 Moses is compared to a lamb, and that in the Isaac story (Gen 22:8) we hear the phrase, “God will provide the lamb [probaton].” Both the Jesus/Moses symbolism (passim) and the Jesus/Isaac symbolism (perhaps John 3:16=Gen 22:2; John 19:17=Gen 22:6) are known in the Fourth Gospel
APCh Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English by R. H. Charles (2 vols.; Oxford: Clarendon, 1913)
Brown, R. E., S.S. (2008). The Gospel according to John (I-XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (58). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
Brown, R. E., S.S. (2008). The Gospel according to John (I-XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (60). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
Brown, R. E., S.S. (2008). The Gospel according to John (I-XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (61). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.