Recently on Facebook, I was asked a couple of questions by a Facebook friend. I could have answered both questions in a single sentence, but such a reply would not substantiate why I believe as I do, and would make it appear that there was nothing more to my statements than mere opinion. So rather than accept the limitations of Facebook communication, I’ve decided to write articles answering these questions, and post them here on my website. So here then are those two questions, just as they were put to me.

“[W]here was He [Jesus] from the time He was thirteen to thirty three?”

“Why didn’t his cousin John The Baptist, not recognize him?”

I’m not sure how the second question relates to the first in the mind of the questioner. Perhaps there is no connection intended. But since the answer to the second question is a relatively (pun intended) simple matter of examining the Biblical evidence, I’ll deal with that one first. A subsequent post will deal with the so-called “missing” years of Jesus’ life.

So, why didn’t John recognize his cousin Jesus? This question is no doubt based on John 1:31. According to this verse, on the same day that John immersed Jesus in the waters of the Jordan, he said, “I did not know Him…” Or as some translations render this, “I did not recognize Him…”[1]

But the dilemma, the seeming contradiction, if you will, comes when you realize that John and Jesus were in fact related. In Luke 1:36, it is recorded that Mary was told that her “relative” Elizabeth was pregnant. So the mother of John and the mother of Jesus were related.

I have used the word “cousin” in the title, because the question posed to me was worded that way. And “cousin” is commonly how the relationship is interpreted, and even a few English paraphrases render it this way in the reference in Luke about Elizabeth and Mary. But the Greek word used here is not the Greek word for cousin, but a more generic term.[2] Up until the mid-twentieth century, English Bible translations uniformly rendered this into English as “kinswoman.” In the last sixty years or so, “relative” is the rendering of choice.

In addition to the verse identifying them as being related, there is other evidence that John definitely knew Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus came to John to be immersed by him, John tried to deter Him, and said, “I have need to be immersed by You, and You come to me?” (Matthew 3:13-14) In some way and to some degree, John knew Jesus.

So what is the answer here? If it is so certain that John knew Jesus, why would he say that he did not know (or recognize) Him?

It will help if we consider this misunderstood statement in context. So let’s take a moment now to read the verses before and after John 1:31.

First of all, there is an introductory statement about John’s testimony in John 1:15. Now this verse occurs in a context of the opening of John’s Gospel narrative. Many refer to the first 18 verses of the apostle John’s Gospel as the Prologue. So verse 15 is a part of the introduction to the Gospel, and we will see this same statement again a little later, in verse 30. For now, here is my translation of John 1:15.

John testified of Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘The One coming after me was ranked before me, because He existed before me.’”

Next, we should look at the verse in question (John 1:31) in its more immediate context, that is, the verses immediately preceding and following. So here is my translation of John 1:29-34.

1:29 The next day [John] sees Jesus coming toward him, and he says, “Look, the lamb of God, the One taking away the sin of the world. 1:30 This is He concerning whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who was ranked before me, because He existed before me.’ 1:31 And I myself did not know Him, but in order that He should be manifested to Israel, on account of this I myself came immersing in water.”

1:32 And John testified, saying, “I have seen the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and remain upon Him. 1:33 And I myself did not know Him, but the One sending me to immerse in water, He said to me, ‘Upon whom you should see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the One immersing in the Holy Spirit.’ 1:34 And I myself have seen, and I have testified that this is the Son of God.”

All right, with all of the Biblical information we now have at hand, let’s break this down. Mary and Elizabeth were relatives, so John the Immerser and Jesus were related. When Jesus came to John to be immersed by him, John tried to deter Him, and said, “I have need to be immersed by You, and You come to me?” So John knew the person called Jesus of Nazareth, and knew something of the character of His way of life on this earth, even if it had not yet been revealed to him that He was indeed the “lamb of God.”

One thing that had been revealed to John was that, whoever the One to come was, he was “ranked before” him. John the Immerser said this multiple times, in different ways. In John’s Gospel, it was expressed this way, “ranked before,” as in “ahead of me in rank.” In the language of Matthew, it was worded as “mightier than I” (Matthew 3:11). And the reason stated for this greater might, this being higher in rank, is “because He existed before me.”

This is significant, because John the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth was six months older than Jesus of Nazareth (see Luke 1:36, 56). And it is a reasonable assumption to believe that John knew that he was older than Jesus, his relative. So when it was revealed to John that the coming Messiah for whom he was the forerunner had existed before him, it was pointing to the fact of the pre-existing, pre-incarnate Son of God.

And immediately after speaking to the pre-existence of the Messiah, John says “I myself did not know Him…” The word for “know” found in this verse is ēdein [ᾔδειν], the pluperfect indicative active first person singular form of the verb oida [οἶδα], the perfect tense of the obsolete eidō [εἴδω], to see. (Yeah, I know…it’s complicated. Or perhaps the cliché is actually appropriate here: “It’s all Greek to me.”)

Oida strictly meant “to have seen, or perceived, hence to know, have knowledge of.”[3] Used “with the accusative of the person, know someone, know about someone.”[4] “(1) as having come to a perception or realization of something: know, understand, comprehend… (2) as having come to knowledge through experience know (about), recognize, understand.”[5]

So the semantic range of the word translated into English as “know” is fairly wide, which can include knowing or knowing about someone, recognition, perception, comprehension and understanding. In the verse in question, then, it is possible to interpret John’s statement “I myself did not know Him…” as meaning he did not know who Jesus was, that he did not recognize Him. But the context helps clarify what John meant.

Immediately after saying “I myself did not know Him…” John follows up by saying that he saw “the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and remain upon Him.” And then he adds that the One who called him to be the forerunner of the Messiah told him that when he witnessed this phenomenon, that person so anointed by the Spirit would be the One immersing in the Holy Spirit. In other words, as John put it in verse 34, that person would be the Son of God.

Clearly, then, John was not saying that he didn’t know (as in “never met”) this relative, that he knew nothing of the character of Jesus’ walk of life. The context here makes it clear that John was saying that he had not previously “recognized” or “understood” that Jesus was the Messiah, the pre-existent Son of God.


[1] See the New American Standard Bible, NET Bible.

[2] The term used to describe the familial relationship between Mary and Elizabeth in Luke 1:36 is suggenēs [συγγενής], meaning “of common origin, the same kin, related, substantively, a relative; kinsman or kinswoman, fellow countryman.” The word for “cousin” in Greek is a different word, anepsios [ἀνεψιός], “a child of one’s uncle or aunt, (first) cousin.”

[3] Abbott-Smith, G. A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1921, 1950. p. 311.

[4] Bauer, Walter, Arndt, William F., Gingrich, F. Wilbur, Danker, Frederick W. [BAGD], A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1957, 1979. p. 555f.

[5] Friberg, Timothy & Barbara, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, electronic edition. #19378: οἶδα. See also Liddell, Henry George & Scott, Robert, A Greek-English Lexicon. Seventh Edition. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1883. εἴδω, pgs. 414f. Thayer, Joseph Henry, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Corrected edition. New York • Cincinnati • Chicago: American book Company, n.d. Harper & Brothers, 1886, 1889. pgs. 172-74.