Scholars frequently pronounce the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist as one of the firmest historical facts about Jesus’ life. See, e.g., James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, Vol. I, pages 350 (“This is one of the most securely grounded facts in all the history of Jesus.”); Robert H. Stein, Mark, page 55 (“Jesus’s baptism by John is one of the most certain historical facts we possess concerning the life of Jesus.”). This post will focus on the account of Jesus’ baptism in Mark and a challenge to its historicity from Neil G. at Vridar. Here is the relevant passage.
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and his diet was locusts and wild honey.Mark 1:4-12.
And he was preaching, and saying, "After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: "You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased."
Perhaps the most important reason scholars accept the historicity of Jesus’ baptism by John is the so-called criteria of embarrassment, which I recently posted regarding, here. (The criteria of multiple attestation also supports the baptism of Jesus' historicity, as explained here, but is beyond the scope of this post). As explained by one of its most recent proponents, “The criterion of ‘embarrassment’ ... or ‘contradiction’ ... focuses on actions or sayings of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulty for the early Church. The point of the criterion is that the early Church would hardly have gone out of its way to create material that only embarrassed its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents. Rather, embarrassing material coming from Jesus would naturally be either suppressed or softened in later stages of the Gospel tradition, and often such progressive suppression or softening can be traced through the Four Gospels.” John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol. I, page 168.
The embarrassment, or divergent pattern as it is also called, is that by portraying Jesus as being baptized by John the early Christians are depicting Jesus as if he were a sinner in need of repentance and forgiveness. But the early Christians preached Jesus as the Messiah, a righteous man of divine character and the perfect unblemished offering for the sins of others. There is no dispute that Mark depicts Jesus in this light or that he depicts John’s baptism as entailing “a turning away from sin.” James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Page 31. “In the only reference to John’s baptism outside the NT, Josephus underscores the intention of reform inherent in John’s call to repentance. ‘[John] exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practise justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism.' (Ant. 18.116-18). Baptism is such a state of moral reform accomplished, in Mark’s words, ‘the forgiveness of sins.’” Robert H. Gundry, Mark, page 31.
Here is how Meier explains the application of this criteria to Jesus’ baptism:
A prime example is the baptism of the supposedly superior and sinless Jesus by his supposed inferior, John the Baptist, who proclaimed ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ Mysterious, laconic, stark Mark recounts the event with no theological explanations as to why the superior sinless one submits to a baptism meant for sinners (Mark 1:4-11). Matthew introduces a dialogue between the Baptist and Jesus prior to the baptism; the Baptist openly confesses his unworthiness to baptise his superior and gives way only to when Jesus commands him to do so in order that God’s saving plan may be fulfilled (Matt 3.13-17, a passage marked by language typical of the evangelist). Luke finds a striking solution to the problem by narrating the Baptist’s imprisonment by Herod before relating the baptism of Jesus; Luke’s version never tells us who baptized Jesus (Luke 3:19-22). The radical Fourth Evangelist, John, locked as he is in a struggle with latter-day disciples of the Baptist who refuse to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, takes the radical expedient of suppressing the baptism of Jesus by the Baptist altogether; the event simply never occurs in John’s Gospel. We still hear of the Father’s witness to Jesus and the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus, but we are never told when this theophany occurs (John 1:29-34). Quite plainly, the early Church was ‘stuck with’ an event in Jesus’ life that it found increasingly embarrassing, that it tried to explain away by various means, and that John the Evangelist finally erased from his Gospel. It is highly unlikely that the Church went out of its way to create the cause of its own embarrassment.
Meier, op. cit., page 169.
Lest there be an accusation that this analysis is the peculiar product of apologetically inclined Biblical scholars, renowned classicist Michael Grant reaches the same conclusion about Jesus’ baptism:
But the forgiveness of Jesus' own sins, when he was baptized by John, has set the theologians of subsequent centuries a conundrum. For how could Jesus have been baptized for the forgiveness of his own sins when, according to the Christology which developed after his death, he was divine and therefore sinless?
The embarrassment caused by this dilemma is enough to refute modern denials that the Baptist ever baptized Jesus at all. For, once again, the evangelists would have been only too glad to omit this perplexing event; but they could not.
Grant, An Historian's Review of the Gospels, page 49.
Skeptic Neil G. has objected that the criteria of embarrassment adds no weight to the authenticity of Jesus’ baptism by John. His argument appears to be twofold. First, although Matthew, Luke and John show embarrassment, Mark does not. Indeed, Matthew, Luke and John are not embarrassed by Jesus’ baptism per se, but by its portrayal in the Gospel of Mark. Second, the reason Mark is not embarrassed by the baptism is because he has a gnostic christology, such as adoptionism or separationism, and therefore holds that Jesus was just an “ordinary man” until the Spirit of God possessed Him at the baptism. I will address his arguments in order.
Divergent Patterns in Mark’s Narrative
According to Neil:
It is clear that there is not a whiff of embarrassment in Mark’s gospel over the baptism of Jesus by John. It was the absence of embarrassment in Mark’s story that embarrassed the others.
Although I agree with Neil G. that we must examine Mark in his own right, I do not think a complete dismissal of the reactions of Matthew, Luke, and John, as well as later apocryphal gospels and writers, is warranted. It is going too far to assume that Mark’s theological distinctiveness from all other Christian writers is complete. In any event, Neil is incorrect about Mark’s “embarrassment.” Perhaps he is being too literal minded. As I wrote in my earlier post on this criteria, the use of the term “embarrassment” is misleading if taken to mean the writer has to show some form of red-faced emotional embarrassment. That is not the case. The criteria rests on a broader meaning of the term embarrassment, such as is captured by the description “divergent patterns.” Mark, no different than Matthew, Mark, and John, portrays Jesus in a very positive light. To have Jesus then seek out and request a baptism for the remission of his sins is divergent from that purpose and therefore is best explained as an important part of preexisting tradition that the author of Mark was unable to ignore.
Further, Neil is wrong about the absence of “whiffs” in Mark showing some internal tension about the baptism. Just preceding Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ baptism he records John as clearly affirming Jesus’ superiority, stating that God’s chosen one is coming and that the Baptist will not be worthy to “untie the thong of His sandals.” and that the coming one will have a superior baptism: "I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Here, Mark alleviates the suggestion that John is superior to Jesus because he is the one doing the baptism. Not only does John state that he is not even worthy to untie Jesus’ shoe, but Jesus’ ministry will be superior to his own. As Robert Grundy states, “Mark’s own text clearly sets up Jesus as superior to John and in no need of repentance and, hence, no need of baptism. The reference to John baptizing in water but 'he will' baptize 'with the Holy Spirit' is an extraordinary declaration, for in the OT the bestowal of the Spirit belongs exclusively to God. John’s declaration, according to Mark, transfers the bestowal of the Spirit to Jesus, once again indicating that, as the Greater One, Jesus will come in the power and at the prerogative of God.” Gundry, Mark, page 33.
Next, Mark also mitigates the baptism of Jesus by John just after the baptism itself by narrating the theophany, describing God’s power and Spirit affirming Jesus by stating "You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased." I can think of no more powerful attestation of Jesus’ character that would mitigate any suggestion that Jesus was a morally flawed sinner in need of John’s baptism to repent of his sins. Accordingly, there is much more than mere “whiffs” of embarrassment. Mark mitigates Jesus’ baptism by John both just before and just after the event.
A Gnostic Christology in Mark?
Neil’s second argument is, apparently, that Mark’s christology is such that he would not be embarrassed by Jesus’ need for a baptism of repentance administered by John. These gnostic christologies, adoptionism and separationism, are related in that they -- according to Neil -- believe that Jesus was just an “ordinary man” prior to his baptism. In his own words:
Mark’s gospel has either an adoptionist or separationist view of Jesus. Adoptionists believed that Jesus was an ordinary man who was “adopted” by God as his Son when he was baptized by John. Separationists believed that the divine person of the Son of God possessed or inhabited the body of the ordinary man Jesus, so that there were two bodies in Jesus, his physical body/person and the spirit person within him. The Spirit person left the human person at the crucifixion. The evidence for this is well known in the scholarly literature and is a separate discussion.
Although Neil alludes to the “scholarly literature” he gives no references. The idea that Mark’s baptism narrative is adoptionist is unlikely. As Gundry explains,
It is sometimes assumed that the baptism teaches adoptionism, that is, that Jesus first becomes God’s Son at the Jordan. Although this view is possible, it is not very compelling. Assuming the originality of ‘Son of God’ in 1:1, Mark has already announced Jesus’ divine Sonship. The wording of the divine declaration, ‘You are my Son, whom I love,’ does not establish a relationship so much as presuppose a relationship. At the baptism the heavenly voice declares and confirms first of all who Jesus is: God’s Son, who as such is anointed and equipped with God’s Spirit to express his filial status in terms of servanthood -- indeed, suffering servanthood. The baptism signals the confirmation of Jesus’ Sonship and the commencement of his servanthood.
Grundy, Mark, pages 38-39. In any event, although it is unlikely that Mark adopts full throated adoptionism or separationism here, in the end it is irrelevant to our point. As it turns out, Jesus’ baptism by John for the repentance of sins is just as, if not more, embarrassing for adoptionists and separationists as it is for the orthodox.
Gnostic Christologies Do Not Alleviate the Embarrassment
Even if we grant Neil his unlikely understanding of Markan Christology, he has not solved the problem. In the first instance, the embarrassment is not limited just to Jesus' needing a baptism of repentance, but that it is John baptizing Jesus when Mark -- whether adoptionist, separationist, or orthodox -- affirms Jesus as John's superior. Neil's solution does not solve this problem.
Further, Neil states that the gnostic heresies of adoptionism and separationism believe that Jesus was just an “ordinary” man until the Spirit of God descended onto and into Him. Not true. According to these Gnostics, Jesus was human but not an ordinary one. Rather, Jesus was a righteous man who earned God’s choice as a vessel for His Spirit. These gnostic heresies do not believe that God simply picked a common sinner to be the vessel for the Spirit, but selected a righteous man who would cooperate with the Spirit and live a spotless life.
Some claim that the Shepherd for Hermas, displays adoptionist tendencies in its Fifth Parable:
The preexistence Holy Spirit, which created the whole creation, God caused to life in the flesh that he wished. This flesh, therefore, in which the Holy Spirit lived, served the Spirit well, living in holiness and purity, without defiling the Spirit in any way. So, because it had lived honorably and chastely, and had worked with the Spirit and had cooperated with it in everything, conducting itself with strength and bravery, he chose it was a partner with the Holy Spirit, for the conduct of this flesh pleased the Lord, because while possessing the Holy Spirit it was not defiled upon the earth.
If this passage betrays an adoptionist perspective, it counts heavily against Neil’s argument. A major emphasis of the passage is living righteously so as to be worthy of the Spirit. If the passage suggests that Jesus was a man who later became infused with the Spirit, he earned that right by living in holiness and purity. I doubt that the passage is adoptionist, however, and believe it makes a broader point about Christians living in partnership with the Holy Spirit. This is the conclusion of Larry Hurtado:
The discussion of the "flesh" indwelt by the Spirit is not really intended to make a christological point of any kind. Instead, as the angel's generalizing statement that all flesh that lives obedient to the Spirit will receive a reward indicates, the passage is really concerned with giving believers an incentive to live virtuous lives. They are to see themselves in the "flesh" indwelt by the Spirit here. This is confirmed in the angel's exhortation to Hermas in the following paragraph to keep his own flesh clean and undefiled so that the Spirit that indwells him may testify to his virtue and Hermas's flesh may be "justified" . So this passage is almost certainly not espousing an "adoptionist" Christology.
Larry H. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, page 604
One of the earliest unambiguous adoptionist teachers was Theodotus, a Christian in the Roman Church who helped found a schismatic adoptionist sect near the end of the second century. Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus, page 344. Theodotus is therefore a perfect test case for our question because he was an adoptionist who wrote about Jesus’ baptism by John. He wrote, “And for this reason the Saviour was baptized, though not Himself needing to be so, in order that He might consecrate the whole water for those who were being regenerated.” Theodotus made explicit what Mark did not -- Jesus had no need to be baptized -- and went on to add a new explanation for why Jesus was baptized -- to “consecrate” the waters for others. Very creative, but also clearly statements demonstrating “embarrassment” about Jesus’ baptism by John.
Finally, another sect of adoptionists may have been the Ebionites. Just as with Theodotus and his followers, however, the baptism of Jesus for the repentance of sins by John poses the same theological challenges for them as they did for the orthodox. As Bart Ehrman describes when discussing the Ebionites, “This kind of Christology is, accordingly, sometimes called ‘adoptionist.’ ... What set Jesus apart from all other people was that he kept God’s law perfectly and so was the most righteous man on earth. As such, God chose him to be his son and assigned to him a special mission, to sacrifice himself for the sake of others.” Ehrman, Lost Christianities, page 101. Obviously, affirming that Jesus was the most righteous living man who kept the law perfectly is in tension with Jesus being baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Thus, whether gnostic or orthodox, the baptism of Jesus would have posed theological challenges to the author of Mark. It remains an embarrassment or divergent pattern that is most likely authentic.
All told, Mark's gospel displays sufficient tendencies to invoke the criteria of embarrassment for Jesus' baptism by John, his Christology is unlikely to have been adoptionist or sperationist, but even if it were then the criteria remains a potent argument for the authenticity of the event.