Daily Archives: 2011-10-12 18:00:29 UTC

The “Legend” of the Baptism of Jesus (Bultmann flashback)

Posted 6pm. Updated 8:30 pm with note on Thompson’s argument that baptism is a reiteration of OT narratives

Rudolf_Bultmann

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Every so often scholars stumble over evidence that what they are reading in the Gospels is based not on historical events but on theological creativity but they never seem to mind. They nearly always pick themselves up, dust themselves off and look around declaring, “Didn’t hurt a bit” before continuing on their way as if nothing had ever happened.

Not so long ago I wrote a few posts on Bishop John Shelby’s Spong’s arguments that most of what we read in the Gospels is fictional midrash. (Even Dale C. Allison uses that “m” word to describe some of the same narratives in his Constructing Jesus — pp. 448, 451 –  so I guess scholars who object to mythicists using the word ‘midrash’ should have a quiet word with their mainstream counterparts who carelessly encourage them.) The point is that even though Spong argued Gospel stories were not historical memories, he nonetheless insisted that there was a historical foundation to them all. He’s not alone. Dennis MacDonald has argued that many scenarios in the Gospel of Mark are adaptations of scenes in the Homeric epics but he, too, makes a point of explicitly stating that he does not believe Jesus himself is a fiction.

So one feels immersed in familiar waters when reading a 1963 translation of the third edition (1958) of Rudolf Bultmann’s  The History of the Synoptic Tradition (originally published 1921) and finds Bultmann likewise being quick to declare that, despite all the legendary or mythical features of Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus, he nonetheless is not so sceptical  as to deny that John really and truly did baptize Jesus.

Without disputing the historicity of Jesus’ baptism by John,2 the story as we have it must be classified as legend. (p. 247)

If our earliest record of an event is legend then on what grounds do we decide not to question its historicity?

But even more intriguing is an attached footnote that reads:

2 I cannot share the scepticism of E. Meyer, Ursprung u. Anfaenge d. Christent., I, 1921, pp. 83f.  Indeed Acts 1037f, 1324f. prove that the historical fact of Jesus’ baptism is not necessary for linking the ministry of Jesus to John’s; yet not that this linking must be made by the story of a baptism, or that it could only be made if the baptism of Jesus were not an actual historical fact.

So my recent post about three modern scholars who are sceptical about the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John — Bill Arnal, Leif E. Vaage and Burton Mack — are nothing novel. So the scholarly doubt is at least as old as 1921.

So what was Bultmann’s finding that led him to decide the account of Jesus’ baptism was not historical (even though he still believed the event was historical anyway)? read more »