Secular VBS: On the Virgin Birth and Baptism of Jesus

Secular VBS: On the Virgin Birth and Baptism of Jesus September 1, 2018

Editor’s Note: The virgin birth has always been hard for some people to accept (unless, you’re Catholic, like I was, and you learn it as a rote part of Catechism).But who knew that the Jesus being baptized was also an issue?  /Linda LaScola, Editor


By David Madison

With all the Christian hype about the Virgin Mary, it commonly goes unnoticed that the virgin birth of Jesus is a minority opinion in the New Testament.

The apostle Paul wrote long before the gospels were created, and makes no mention of it. He might have disdained the idea; for him, the only Jesus-credential that mattered was the resurrection.

The author of John’s gospel had put Jesus at the creation of the world, so he might have considered virgin birth frivolous; in any case, it doesn’t appear in his narrative. Only Matthew and Luke saw fit to graft the common pagan virgin birth superstition onto their Jesus stories.

The author of Mark’s gospel introduces Jesus to his readers as an adult, showing up to be cleansed of his sins in the river Jordan by John the Baptist.

Yes, the text says that John was “…proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” When Jesus stepped out of the water, a voice from heaven announced, “You are my beloved son, with whom I am pleased.” This is the first hint of who Jesus was. Mark got along fine without the virgin birth.

But he seems to have made a theological blunder. Some early Christian commentators cringed at the idea that Jesus neededto be baptized. How could that make sense? Jesus had sinned? Matthew stepped in to make a correction. He created new script (3:14-15):

“John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” Jesus seems to be saying, “Let’s do it for appearances.”

Luke mentions the baptism only in passing, 3:21-22,

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”

The author of John’s gospel, however, deftly skips the baptism altogether. Jesus doesn’t set foot in the water, but the dove gets worked in (John 1:32-34):

And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’”

It’s a pretty good bet that the author of John’s gospel made up these two verses; they’re not found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Hard facts about Jesus are hard to come by, for a variety of reasons, to the great vexation of New Testament scholars. It’s clear that Jesus stories—if unknown to begin with—were altered to fit the theological agendas of the gospel writers.


David Madison, a Clergy Project member, was raised in a conservative Christian home in northern Indiana. He served as a pastor in the Methodist church during his work on two graduate degrees in theology. By the time he finished his PhD in Biblical Studies (Boston University) he had become an atheist, a story he shares in the Prologue of his book, published in 2016: 10 Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith.

>>>>>Photo Credits: By Fra Angelico – Based on same source tiles as File:La Anunciación, by Fra Angelico, from Prado in Google Earth.jpg but cropped. JPEG compression quality Photoshop 9., Public Domain,; by Andrea Reese

By Piero della Francesca – National Gallery, London, online collection, Public Domain,

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • That’s interesting – I never thought of the idea of Jesus’ baptism being controversial, nor did I realize there were different versions. I guess my church taught the version its doctrine supported. (Funny how that happens)

  • Jennny

    My superstitious religious mother dined out for years on the fact that I was christened in water from the river Jordan. Another baby sprinkled at the same time, had a g/father who brought a bottle of it over for the purpose. My mum thought I was destined for great things.having been honoured in this way. I was a big disappointment to her, and my children just said ‘how unhygienic, how long was the water in transit for? Sounded dangerous to them.

  • Jesus’ virgin birth makes sense (kind of) if we put it in the broader context of ancient mythology – with supernatural births of some kind being a pretty common trope (Horus, Dionysus, Buddha…): special beings cannot come to this World in the same way we mere mortals do!

    His baptism, on the other hand, is probably an awkward trace of either Jesus’ earlier experience as a follower of John or his followers’ attempt to link their leader (and their young sect) to John and his (possibly larger) group.

  • DingoJack

    Perhaps the authors of the Gospels were aiming for a demi-god in the Greek mode.
    Theseus, for example, had two fathers one mortal (Aegeus), and one immortal (Poseidon). But since Jewish culture was matrilineal (it seems) the focus was on the mortal mother and the immortal god.
    A modification to fit the culture, whilst grafting on an older mythos?

  • Jim Jones

    When Osiris is said to bring his believers eternal life in Egyptian Heaven, contemplating the unutterable, indescribable glory of God, we understand that as a myth.
    When the sacred rites of Demeter at Eleusis are described as bringing believers happiness in their eternal life, we understand that as a myth.
    In fact, when ancient writers tell us that in general ancient people believed in eternal life, with the good going to the Elysian Fields and the not so good going to Hades, we understand that as a myth.
    When Vespatian’s spittle healed a blind man, we understand that as a myth.
    When Apollonius of Tyana raised a girl from death, we understand that as a myth.
    When the Pythia, the priestess at the Oracle at Delphi, in Greece, prophesied, and over and over again for a thousand years, the prophecies came true, we understand that as a myth.
    When Dionysus turned water into wine, we understand that as a myth.
    When Dionysus believers are filled with atay, the Spirit of God, we understand that as a myth.
    When Romulus is described as the Son of God, born of a virgin, we understand that as a myth.
    When Alexander the Great is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal woman, we understand that as a myth.
    When Augustus is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal woman, we understand that as a myth.
    When Dionysus is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal woman, we understand that as a myth.
    When Scipio Africanus (Scipio Africanus, for Christ’s sake) is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal woman, we understand that as a myth.
    So how come when Jesus is described as the Son of God, born of a mortal woman, according to prophecy, turning water into wine, raising girls from the dead, and healing blind men with his spittle, and setting it up so His believers got eternal life in Heaven contemplating the unutterable, indescribable glory of God, and off to Hades—er, I mean Hell—for the bad folks … how come that’s not a myth?
    And how come, in a culture with all those Sons of God, where miracles were science, where Heaven and Hell and God and eternal life and salvation were in the temples, in the philosophies, in the books, were dancing and howling in street festivals, how come we imagine Jesus and the stories about him developed all on their own, all by themselves, without picking up any of their stuff from the culture they sprang from, the culture full of the same sort of stuff?

  • Mark Rutledge

    I’ve always believed in the virgin birth. I believe that everyone’s born a virgin.

  • mason

    kinda like the atheist birth 🙂

  • mason
  • Wouldn’t it be great if Christians actually read the Bible? Compared the gospels? Spotted the contradictions? Noticed the conflicting theologies?

  • Funny….but crucial mistake here, common among Catholics as well as Protestants: the immaculate conception is a Catholic dogma about the conception of MARY, in her mother’s womb. That is, Mary was ‘clean’ of original sin, so could not pass it on to Jesus. Kudos, I suppose, to Catholic theologians for making stuff up. 🙂

  • JedRothwell

    Roughly 0.5 to 1% of women giving birth in the U.S. claim they are virgins. Some of them sincerely believe it. Others do not want to admit they have had sex. This is also the case in other societies where studies have been done. Claims of virgins giving birth have been common throughout history.


  • Jay Has


  • JedRothwell

    “Amen” . . . in a manner of speaking.

  • Phil

    Worse if you consider that in every glass of water contains dinosaur pee.