Historical Jesus 5: The Baptism of Jesus

Parts 3 and 4 of this series on the Historical Jesus were a summary of John Meier’s ten criteria for establishing a sense of the historicity of an event. In this segment, we turn our attention to an example of Meier’s criteria in action: the case for the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

There are three reasons for suggesting that this baptism may not have had its roots in an historical event:

1) The baptism may have only one source. In the Gospels, Mark’s narrative is pretty much followed by Matthew and Luke. Josephus talks about both Jesus and the Baptist, but he does not connect the two.

2) In Mark, which is the earliest Gospel, the fact of Jesus baptism is conveyed with just one word, while the theophany is covered in detail. Was the fact “invented” for the theology?

3) The whole story “fits” so nicely as a transition from Jesus’ private life to his public ministry that it may be the retrojection of the later Christian experience back onto Jesus.

    Criterion of Embarrassment

Since the criterion of multiple attestation will require more attention, how about that of embarrassment? This one’s a winner. Here we have the founder of Christianity, widely affirmed to be without sin and the source of forgiveness of sins, undergoing a baptism which is supposed to be for the forgiveness of sins at the hands of a spiritual inferior. But was this an embarrassment for the earliest Christians?

Consider the reactions of the evangelists. In Mark, the baptism is over-shadowed by the theophany, leaving no doubt about God’s take on Jesus’ status vis-à-vis others. Matthew inserts a dialogue between Jesus and John before the event, making it clear that the Baptist acknowledges Jesus, and that Jesus does not actually need the baptism. Matthew finally allows the baptism to proceed only at the insistence of Jesus (Mt 3:14-15).

Luke and John take even stronger measures – neither actually reports that Jesus was baptized by the Baptist. In Luke, the arrest of the Baptist is reported before the baptism is narrated (Lk 3:20-21). In John, there is no report of a baptism at all, and John [the Baptist] never actually receives the title “Baptist” (Jn 1:26-34).

All in all, that’s a very strong case for widespread embarrassment among those knew the earliest traditions, making a decent case for historicity.

    Criterion of Discontinuity

Use of the criterion of discontinuity is a little unusual here. Clearly, there were Jewish baptisms before Jesus, and Christian baptisms afterwards. What is so interesting is how the NT approaches Christian baptism. Jesus’ baptism is never mentioned as an example for the baptism of all Christians. Instead, the NT regularly connects it to sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection (e.g. Rom 6:13).

After the NT, however, Christian authors do make this connection. Ignatius of Antioch not only promotes the baptism of Jesus as an example, but attributes to Jesus the efficacy of baptism, writing “…[Jesus] was baptized in order that he might cleanse the water [of baptism] by his passion” (Ephesians, 18:2).

I suppose that we could conclude that the baptism of Jesus was invented by Christians to explain their own baptism, that they then neglected to mention this point, and that it was rediscovered after the close of the NT. It’s simpler, however, to conclude that this one-sided discontinuity scores a point for the historicity of Jesus’ baptism.

    Criterion of Multiple Attestation

This one is even trickier…can an argument for multiple attestation be framed? Meier does so, noting that while Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark for their basic narrative, they do seem to share information about this baptism that did not come from Mark and so should probably be attributed to Q.

First, there’s the matter of diction. Matthew and Luke are together distinguished from Mark by a number of important word choices:

* a different verb is used to describe the opening of the heavens (anoigō(open) in Matthew and Luke; schizō (torn) in Mark)

* an aorist participle is used by Matthew and Luke to describe the baptism itself, while Mark uses a finite verb of the same stem.

* an addition of a modifier to Mark’s use of the simple word “Spirit” (Mt = of God; Lk = holy)

* a contrast between the Spirit’s descending on him (ep’ auton) in Matthew and Luke, and “into him” in Mark (eis auton).

This suggests that Matthew and Luke had a Q narrative of the baptism of Jesus, but were inclined to follow Mark’s version most of the time.

Second, we might argue that the Q narrative itself implies the presence of a baptism story. To do this, we note that the Q narrative clearly has a story of John’s preaching and baptism, and that it clearly has a story of the temptation of Jesus in which the Spirit acts on Jesus and the devil uses the title “Son of God.”

These motifs are not present in the Q narrative of John’s preaching. Did they just appear out of thin air? Most likely, there was a story between John’s preaching and the temptation in Q, and the best candidate is a baptism story.

Beyond these points, it would seem that the author of the Fourth Gospel may also have known the Q version. In this Gospel, John says that he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus (ep auton), as found in the proposed Q. This Gospel also uses words very similar to Matthew’s “ this is my son” (Mt 3:17) to report “this [Jesus] is the Son of God” (Jn 1:33-34). So there may well have been a Q narrative of the baptism to make a second source for Mark’s story.

Meier goes on to argue for 1 John 5:6, “this is the one who came in water and blood” as a supporting attestation from the Johannine corpus. His argument is based upon an identification of the reference to water in this passage as a reference to the baptism of Jesus. I think, however, that the dual reference is far more likely to refer to the water and blood that were reported to flow from the side of Jesus after his crucifixion (Jn 19:24).

In any case, what we have here is a short and simple example of the use of Meier’s applicable criteria to evaluate the historicity of the baptism of Jesus. Our conclusion is that our knowledge of the baptism of Jesus probably reaches the level of historicity. Does this sound shaky to you? Ha! Wait til we get to a hard case!

N.B. It looks like a gentleman by the name of Ed Snow over at BCC is going to blog on historical Jesus. It also looks like he’s headed in the direction of a “John Meier Historical Jesus,” that is, an eschatological prophet whose proclamation of the kingdom of God has both realized and future eschatological content.

That being the case, we may put this series on hold until we see where that one goes, or we may shift to Luke Timothy Johnson’s criticism of John Meier, or we may work into Ben Witherington’s picture of Jesus as a sage – suggested by David J’s excellent recommendation of the book by the same title.


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