New Testament

Baptism of Jesus, Redeux


The Arian Baptistery, Vicolo degli Ariani, Ravenna, Italy

Read more about the Arian Baptistry

John came, who baptized in the wilderness and preached the baptism of repentance unto remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the country of Judaea, and all they of Jerusalem; And they were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Mark 1:4-5

John the Baptist was certainly not a Baptist in the modern sense of the word.  John was a Jewish prophet of YHWH during the Roman era.  According to the Gospels, he “preached the baptism of repentance unto remission of sins.” The Greek word translated here as “remission” is “aphesis” which means, “freedom, pardon, liberty, forgiveness”.  John preached that through confession, repentance and baptism, people could be forgiven or pardoned of, have freedom or liberty from, their sins.  According to the above verse, people came from all over Judea, including the city of Jerusalem, and sought baptism, “confessing their sins”, their “hamartia” in Greek, meaning “offenses”.

And he preached, saying, There cometh after me he that is mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I baptized you in water; But he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit.
Mark 1:7-8

According to The Gospel of Mark (GoMark), John baptized them in water, but foretold of one that would come after him who would baptize them “in the Holy Spirit.” In Mark’s version of this story, John never identifies who this person would be or acknowledged that Jesus was this one.

And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in the Jordan.
Mark 1:9

John the Baptist preached that forgiveness of sins could be obtained through confession, repentance and baptism.  Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.  Therefore Jesus sought forgiveness of his sins through repentance and baptism, according to the author of GoMark.

And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens rent asunder, and the Spirit as a dove descending upon him: and a voice came out of the heavens, Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased.
Mark 1:10-11

That is the end of GoMark’s story of the baptism of Jesus.  After being submerged, Jesus came “up out of the water”, saw the heavens open and “the Spirit as a dove” descended upon him.  A voice from heaven spoke to Jesus and said, “Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased.”

For a Christian, it might be difficult to imagine that Jesus could have ever committed any type of “hamartia” or sin that would require repentance or forgiveness.  For a human being, it is not difficult at all to realize that following the confession, repentance and forgiveness for a life led astray, a moment of clarity or enlightenment is often exactly what happens when the heavens open up and the light shines in.  It is not difficult to imagine that from this ethereal experience, one can find new purpose in life.

Just as it might be difficult for a Christian to envision, it was also apparently troubling to the later gospel authors as well, who borrowed from GoMark and modified their source to meet their own theological motives.  The author of GoMatthew obviously saw a problem with it because he made it a point to change the message, in a few ways.  The first thing that he did was create a sense of urgency.

Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Matthew 3:2

The author of GoMatthew then adds a brief apocalyptic speech by John the Baptist that is also not included in the Markan version.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said unto them, Ye offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of repentance: and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And even now the axe lieth at the root of the trees: every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
Matthew 3:7-10

In this speech, John addresses the Pharisees and Sadducees that were coming to be baptized.  He called them “offspring of vipers” who are fleeing from the wrath to come.  He warns that their Abrahamic roots will not save them.  He says that “even now the axe lieth at the root of the trees”, using an agricultural metaphor to describe that these events were soon to happen, imminence.  He then tells them that all the bad trees will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  This apocalyptic tirade is not included in the Markan version.  The author of GoMatthew then modifies what his Markan source provided, continuing the apocalyptic motif, again adding the theme of fire and another agricultural metaphor.

I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire: whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing-floor; and he will gather his wheat into the garner, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.
Matthew 3:11-12

The wheat is gathered and saved; the chaff is gathered and burned.  Jesus is now introduced and we see another example of GoMatthew modifying his source.

Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John would have hindered him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? But Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffereth him.
Matthew 3:13-15

Unable to reproduce the idea that Jesus might have committed some “sin” needing repentance, the author has John immediately recognize the significance of Jesus and take the subservient role saying, “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?”

In GoMatthew’s version, John the Baptist immediately recognizes Jesus as his superior.  However, the author seemed to forget this later in his gospel, when he added another story that would have made sense in the Markan perspective, but absolutely none from the Matthean perspective.  From prison, John the Baptist sends messengers to inquire of Jesus:

Art thou he that cometh, or look we for another?
Matthew 11:3

The dilemma with this inquiry is that it is not found in GoMark.  It is however paralleled in GoLuke, but it doesn’t make sense from the Lukan perspective either.  The author makes John the Baptist the cousin of Jesus and recognizes the significance of Jesus in the womb, before either were born. (Luke 1:44)

And Jesus when he was baptized, went up straightway from the water: and lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him; and lo, a voice out of the heavens, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
Matthew 3:16-17

Just as in GoMark, Jesus comes out of the water, the heavens were opened “unto him” and “he” saw the spirit, now “of God” descending down and upon him.   The voice of heavens now says “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”, not “Thou art my beloved Son”, as reported by GoMark.  The voice is no longer talking to Jesus, but to someone else, perhaps John, perhaps the crowd.

If one wants to have a good time in the Christian Bible, one can look at the two other Gospel authors and see how they dealt with the dilemma.  They can be found in GoLuke 3 and GoJohn 1.  What one will notice is that neither actually relays the baptism of Jesus.  GoLuke includes, almost verbatim, the apocalyptic speech of John the Baptist.  GoJohn has changed the story into a “testimony” by John the Baptist, saying “I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (GoJohn 1:34), a statement never made by John the Baptist in GoMark.

*Quotations taken from the American Standard Version

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Discussion

5 thoughts on “Baptism of Jesus, Redeux

  1. This topic brings up some excellent points, X. Why would Jesus need to be baptized to be accepted by God as his literal son if he never ‘sinned?’ If he were born the savior, then he would’ve never needed to go through the ritual other regular joe’s did. If God only accepted him as his son after baptism, then this clearly indicates there was no divine birth, thus no divine pregnancy. Of course, we already knew this part, but what you’ve presented here is great food for thought. I’d love to see some good, solid remarks from believers on this one.

    Posted by some1elseinla | September 1, 2010, 12:07 am
    • The traditions of Jesus are like ogres.

      It appears that what gets taught to most Sunday School Christians is the onion, the harmonization of the gospel accounts. I’m not that fond of onions, myself. But each of those is a layer, built upon an earlier layer, built upon even earlier layers.

      When we look only at the Markan layer we see a time in history before GoMatthew and GoLuke. It is a layer with Pauline influence, where Jesus’ death and resurrection were key, but a layer around the time of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem c. 70 CE. Our earliest Gospel. By reading GoMark without the subsequent layers we find a number of very interesting details.

      One of those is the humanity of Jesus. This would continue to be, and continues to be, downplayed by later authors and commentators but it is very visible in the Markan layer, from the beginning to the end (The end is best, IMO). The story of GoMark begins with this dude Jesus walking up the road to the Jordon River, coming from Nazareth, to be baptized by John, the Southern Baptist apocalyptic Jewish prophet. As you alluded to, in GoMark, there ain’t no stories of the miraculous birth of Jesus or of his childhood, as relayed in the later gospels of GoMatthew and GoLuke. Jesus is simply a man, no different than any other man, who showed up on the scene to be baptized by John the Baptist for forgiveness of sins. It was at this baptism that God first acknowledged Jesus, perhaps according to the author’s understanding of Jewish tradition saying, “Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased”.

      One of the things that I find interesting is that this phrase is partially taken from Psalms 2:7 which is worded a bit differently, but the introduction is basically the same, ”Thou art my son; This day have I begotten thee.” My understanding is that this may have been part of coronation ritual for any of Judah’s messiahs (anointed ones), or kings. Is it not possible that this could have been the original wording and hopes of GoMark, only to be changed later by scribes struggling with the need to harmonize the later gospels with the Markan perspective?

      This shore ’nuff ain’t the view pushed by the proto-orthodox, but it was a perspective that could have been shared by the earliest of the Jesus people. Paul never mentions a virgin birth. The Ebionites reportedly believed that Jesus was the son of a man and women, adopted at his baptism and filled with the spirit of God.

      I guess we’ve got a Jesus before he turned into a Greco-Roman demi-god.

      Posted by xcntrik | September 1, 2010, 4:24 pm
  2. I think the actual purpose is not to discredit Christianity as a whole, but to get Christians to really examine their reasons for believing the texts to literally be the word of God rather than men, as well as their beliefs in supernatural occurrences that these otherwise rational people would dismiss if they were presented outside of the confines of the exceptions they’ve chosen to make already, i.e. the virgin birth, talking snakes, etc.

    Does one really need believe God held the hand of the people writing the bible to still have faith there is a God, or to follow the good morals allegedly taught by Jesus? Does one need to believe in the supernatural assertions found in the dogma of the religion to still have faith in a God?

    Is nature itself not awesome enough that some must add more to it, thus making it supernatural, or think it must be tweaked by something outside of it to produce what we perceive as beauty, creation, or destruction rather than seeing it as it is, without irrationally accepting the idea of anything outside of it with no proof at all?

    Posted by some1elseinla | September 1, 2010, 12:00 am
  3. Please keep your comments on topic.

    Thanks

    Posted by xcntrik | August 29, 2010, 4:21 am
  4. Again. Why do you spend so much time on what you consider a myth? What are you afraid will happen if you fail in your attempt to discredit Christianity? That’s the REAL point, isn’t it?

    Posted by hellbilly | August 29, 2010, 1:36 am

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