The baptism of Jesus by John in the Gospel of Mark
- is stitched together with images from Old Testament passages, and
- serves the particular theological agenda of Mark that was challenged by later evangelists
- if a passage in the Gospels can be shown to serve a theological agenda of an evangelist, then according to widely accepted standards of biblical historiography, we have reason to question its historical authenticity; and
- if a passage can be shown to be a pastiche of other texts certainly known to the author and his audience, and if once we strip away those textual borrowings and are left with nothing that stands alone, or in other words, if once we remove the sheepskin and find nothing left underneath, then we have further support in our doubts as to the historical originality of the event; and
- if the only external testimony to John the Baptist contradicts or fails to support our narrative at significant points, then we will need more than three bag’s full of special pleading to justify holding to any shred of historicity in our little narrative.
To repeat what I won’t repeat here
I have discussed the evidence for the John the Baptist of Mark’s gospel being cut from OT passages, and how this cut-out shape stands opposed to the apparently historical account in Josephus’ Antiquities, and how the episode of the baptism of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is disqualified from being historical even on the grounds of one of mainstream biblical scholarly criteria for historicity. (The criterion of embarrassment only applies to those later evangelists, Matthew, Luke and John, who demonstrate embarrassment with Mark’s story, not with any historical event per se.) These demonstrations are in Engaging Sanders point by point: JB, and JB, strangest of prophets, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. Nor will I address the possibility that the baptism reflects an adoptionist or separationist Christology. Nor even the arguments advanced to suggest John the Baptist himself was a mythical creation.
But why would anyone make it up?
This is one of the favourite arguments of so many historical Jesus scholars.
It’s not an argument. It’s a rhetorical question, and anyone who encounters a biblical scholar using it ought to pull out a passage from Dennett and ask if what applies to philosophy students can also apply to students of religion:
I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 178)
The resort to the rhetorical question is necessary because there is no evidence available to support the argument, only narrative claims. But in order to justify their status as historians they need to have some real evidence. So since real evidence is lacking they take a cue from the biblical narratives themselves, and by the power of the word and with faith to move mountains they simply declare that a claim in a narrative really is evidence after all, and lo, that is what it becomes. I’d like to have the wit to say something like this little miracle of turning a few claims into a few pieces of real evidence is enough to feed thousands of scholars.
And this particular “historical methodology” is justified by a rhetorical question: Why would anyone make up this or that claim? The rhetoric is meant to push the presumption of historicity onto any would-be sceptic.
But all it does in reality is demonstrate the lack of understanding, knowledge or imagination of the one “asking” the question.
Some go further and even preach to sceptics the need for a hermeneutic of Christian charity, at least if they want to be good Christian scholars. This means that they should treat the claims in the same way you yourself would like your claims to be treated — with an initial assumption of trust. Only the ungodly approach what others say with “suspicion”! I doubt they would apply the same hermeneutic to pagan literature, or even to their courtroom scenarios.
Answering the rhetorical question
Rhetorical questions aren’t meant to be answered. That’s why they are asked: they are meant to shut down questions.
But the question has been answered well in the mainstream scholarly literature. I guess an answer from within the ranks is quite acceptable. It means the answer is under control and it won’t be used to alert the institution of the fundamental flaws on which their whole enterprise is founded.
Let’s start with a 1977 publication, The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy, by Gilbert G. Bilezikian. He begins by discussing the first line of the Gospel:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” – Mark 1:1
The opening sentence of the Gospel is charged with momentous suspense. It evokes the unfolding of awesome and compelling supernatural happenings.
The opening words, speaking of the “beginning” (ὰρχή) , have much more import than indicating the first line of a book or the start of the story. We have here an allusion to the Genesis beginning, the dawn of a new creation, a new order of universal significance, the proclamation of a new world about to be inaugurated. The “gospel” or “good news” also had messianic and eschatological connotations among Jews, and panegyrical significance within Roman imperial traditions. The titles “Christ” and “Son of God” in both Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds exalt Jesus as a figure of superhuman stature.
On the one hand, the sentence has the ring of a proclamation and a universal summons. It is an invitation to witness a drama of cosmic significance. On the other, the sentence is a secret revelation. From the outset of the story, the reader is taken into the author’s confidence. He receives privileged knowledge for which the contemporaries of Jesus are described in the Gospel as groping in vain, until the last page when the resurrection illuminates all things.
The first fourteen verses are a prologue. The real plot does not begin till Jesus comes preaching in Galilee. The baptism scene is part of the prologue that “sets the tone for the whole Gospel with a few masterful strokes.”
By alternating elements of supernatural and theophanic manifestation accompanying the appearance of Jesus with antithetical signs of His humanity and contingency, Mark created tension from which there is no relief until the very end of the Gospel.
So the first sentence announces the supernatural identity of Jesus.
This identity is reinforced then by John the Baptist’s introduction. And John, himself, is a major voice here. For Mark, John himself was predicted by the ancient prophets. (Many have thought Mark to be a bit of a dunce for combining prophetic sayings from both Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 and attributing them both to Isaiah. But Mark is “using Isaiah antonomastically as a synecdoche since Isaiah was regarded, even outside Judaism, as the archetypal Jewish prophet. Both Old Testament texts pertain to the practice of sending heralds to prepare the king’s highway prior to a royal voyage.”)
So John was predicted by the ancient prophets, and he in turn predicts the ultimate one.
Thus Mark showed that a prophetic chain of prediction and preparation, therefore of supernatural activity, links the ministry of Jesus to the Old Testament through John the Baptist.
John is demonstrated to be a genuine prophet by his wilderness setting, and his dress and meagre rations in imitation of the greatest prophet of all, Elijah. His ministry is so overwhelmingly successful that “all the people of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem” come to him confessing their sins.
Then Mark has John “almost abjectly” declare himself “inferior and subservient to the one who will fulill the καιρός by releasing the fullness of the Holy Spirit (through baptism), thus signifying the end-time and presence of God.
Thus the mood of dramatic expectancy is established.
The reader is expecting the greatest moment in history to break forth with all the majesty and grandeur befitting the advent of the very Son of God himself.
So what does Mark do?
But thus having created a mood of dramatic expectancy, Mark described the entrance of Jesus in the most shockingly anticlimactic fashion conceivable: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” The unadorned abruptness of the sentence, the vagueness of the chronological indication, the absence of any title for Jesus, the full disclosure of His rural background [“Nazareth of Galilee” of 1:9 stands in sharp contrast with the fashionable Judea and Jerusalem of 1:5], and His baffling and unexplained subjection to the baptism for confession of sins, cannot be fortuitous.
Mark is intentionally stripping away all those dramatic expectations he had built up and that would be held by everyone for the arrival of the Messiah.
[These lowly five points] are intended to rob the entrance of the Son of God upon the scene of history, of the majesty and grandeur befitting the inauguration of the Jewish Messiah, or of the Θειος ανηρ, the “divine man” of Hellenistic religions. Mark’s obvious intention is to warn against false expectations regarding spectacular manifestations of Jesus’ messianic identity.
The disappointment caused by the casual and unprepossessing appearance of Jesus, and especially the scandal of His baptism, are partly relieved by a positive reversal in the form of a theophany; the baptism becomes the occasion for transcendence to break upon Jesus and confirm His supernatural uniqueness.
Out of baptism Jesus (and Jesus alone) sees the heavens tear apart, hears the voice of God, sees the spirit descend into him. He is then thrust out to the wilderness where he takes on Satan himself, but is rescued by other angels. When he enters Capernaum we learn that the demons all recognize exactly who he is. Yet the human audience remain mystified to the end.
Thus Mark is creating a Jesus who takes on all the lowly appearances of anyone else, so that he is indistinguishable from anyone else, at least as far as his real identity is concerned. The only ones who know the significance of his coming, and who he really is, are those in the spirit world, and the readers.
The baptism of Jesus was as necessary as his appearing in flesh in the first place. The plot of Mark turns on the tension of Jesus’ identity not being recognized, even being hidden, until the resurrection.
Mark is not the least “embarrassed” by Jesus’ baptism. Mark wants the baptism in there to underscore in the most dramatic way possible that the Messiah does not come in the dramatic manner that people had expected. Later, his own townsfolk will remind themselves that this Jesus is just one of themselves and no-one special at all.
Moving on to a 1992 publication, this one by Jerry Camery-Hoggatt, Irony in Mark’s Gospel: Text and Subtext.
Camery-Hoggatt also exposits the Mark’s buildup to enhance reader expectations of a dramatic entrance of Jesus.
Were this a drama, we might say that Jesus is an actor standing in the wings, patiently awaiting his cue. But standing there, a silent figure, his shadow looms already across the stage. The implied presence of the Messiah is critical. Everything that has appeared thus far has pointed to it. The reader expects a messianic figure of gigantic proportions, what Thomas Howard has called “a towering and furious figure who will not be managed.”
It is only a shadow, to be sure, but that looming shadow, and the Baptist’s self-effacement, such critical factors . . . , set up the reader and the story’s characters for a terrific disappointment. We are hardly prepared for the understated way Jesus finally makes his appearance in verse 9: he simply appears, without fanfare, like everybody else who has come to be baptized by John in the Jordan. The verbal similarities with verse 5 have often been noted. We may diagram them briefly:
 And there went out to him
and all the people of Jerusalem;
and they were baptized
in the river Jordan
confessing their sins.
 In those days Jesus came
from Nazareth of Galilee
and he was baptized
in the Jordan.
. . . . The point here is . . . Jesus appears incognito. No one inside the story has any reason to suspect that this particular figure is any different from the others. . . . The crowds have no way of guessing Jesus’ motivation for baptism. On the surface of it, Jesus is so unlike John’s “Coming One” that he is able to conceal his identity from the crowds entirely, and it remains hidden from the disciples until well into the narrative.
The explanation for the baptism scene is entirely literary and theological
Again, far from their being any embarrassment in the mind of the author over the baptism of Jesus, the author uses the baptism as the most significant foil to the popular expectation of the Messianic figure. It serves his dramatic purpose perfectly. It serves to hide the identity of Jesus from all others in this world of flesh.
And out of that abasement comes the theophany — the communication with God in heaven as he tears the sky apart, and subsequently departs to confront Satan himself with the assistance of angels. One is reminded, of course, of the crucifixion being answered by his resurrection.
What Mark is doing here with scenes of baptism (and crucifixion) is creating a dramatic set of theologically charged images for a spiritual tale.
If dramatic irony serves Mark’s theological and literary agendas, then the baptism might be described as the masterstroke of dramatic and literary irony that advances that theological agenda.
If that is the case, if we thus have a motivation for the author to begin his prologue with such a baptism of Jesus, then we have an explanation for the baptism. The explanation is entirely literary and theological.
But might it not be historical as well as literary?
Of course some will plead, But might the baptism also have been historical? The question reminds me of the joke about a technician explaining how a television set works to a technically-challenged enquirer who thought there must be a little man inside who makes it all work. The enquirer listened attentively as the technician explained carefully and slowly the nature of radio waves, the cathode ray tube, the antenna socket, electronic circuits and electromagnets. When he had finished, this thoughtful enquirer paused for a moment to take it all in, and finally said, Yes, but just the same, isn’t there still a little man in there to make it all work?
Postscript: Significance of waters?
Thomas L. Thompson in Our Mythic Past argues for certain images being reiterated throughout the Jewish scriptures to convey traditional symbolic meanings well-known to the authors. One of these images is the dividing of waters as a sign of a new creation. We first read of this in Genesis 1. The world emerges through the division of waters above and those below, and then the parting of waters to reveal the dry land and fruitfulness. The image recurs at the Flood as the old world makes way for the new with its new rules and ways. Then there is the Exodus, and the crossing of the Jordan, and then the dividing of the streams by both Elijah and Elisha. The meaning of the image is the same in every case. Paul taught baptism within this tradition. It was the way to the death of the old and rebirth into a life. And Mark is writing, at least in significant part, within this literary tradition. Several scholars have remarked on the baptismal associations within the gospel, such as the white robe finally worn by the young man after fleeing naked (the white robe being customary for those being baptised in the early Church). If we read the baptism of Jesus within this tradition, we see a new meaning hidden from the human characters in the gospel, but indicating to us the new world about to be ushered in. And this meaning for Jesus’ baptism is immediately underscored by the transvaluation of the emergence from parting waters by means of the parting of the heaven itself.