There’s something very reassuring knowing you have a tool at hand if you are an archaeologist and hope to dig through layers of earth to find new historical evidence. And if you are a scholar of the historical Jesus you can always feel more secure in what you find digging beneath the texts if you can boast that you are deploying the latest tools in your efforts. Saying you are using a historians’ tools almost sounds as if you are on a level with a doctor using blood tests and blood pressure monitors in order to reach some level of objective assurance in a diagnosis.
One of these tools historical Jesus scholars use is embarrassment. That may sound like a flakey concept for a tool to the uninformed, but it historical Jesus scholars are widely known for explaining the tools they use to reach certain conclusions, and one of their tools is the criterion of embarrassment.
By using this tool these scholars, most of them anyway, can say with quite some confidence that it is a historical fact that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The reasoning is that early Christians would have been embarrassed by their master Jesus being baptized by John as if a common penitent or inferior to the prophet, so it is not a story they would have invented. So the fact that they told the story shows they must not have been able to conceal the fact and were forced to live with, or explain away, their embarrassment. The baptism must thus be an historical event according to the criterion of embarrassment.
But of course the argument about embarrassment existed before historical Jesus scholars agreed not so very long ago to think about certain of their standard arguments as “tools”.
A secular rationalist argument in the pre-tool era
Contrast how this same matter of embarrassment could be handled in an argument before the days it was elevated to its modern technological status.
This is from a (secular rationalist) French historical Jesus scholar, Charles Guignebert:
The only argument which can, in reality, be put forward in favour of the Baptism of Jesus by John, is that it would be hard to understand why the tradition should gratuitously have saddled itself with an incident so troublesome to Christology, and have substituted it for the actual facts of the entrance of Jesus upon his public career (which must have been known to the original disciples) if it had not been based upon a definite and incontestable recollection, which they could not discard. . . . Surely, if the incident had not really taken place, the simplest way would have been not to invent it. (p. 157 of Jesus by Charles Guignebert, 1956, first published in French 1933)
This sounds like the argument that appeals to embarrassment, indeed relies on it entirely, is considered a desperate scraping of the apologetic barrel. “The only” recourse left to those who would argue for the historicity of Jesus’ baptism is that “it would be hard to understand” why anyone would “invent it”. One suspects Guignebert would have considered any suggestion that such an argument be formalized as a tool to be applied according to consistent principles as a rather lame attempt at humour.
Further, Guignebert is too level-headed in matters such as this to let such a leftover plea establish the anything more than an appearance of probability of the matter and with one strand of evidence casting it entirely in the shadow of a doubt:
However, since the simplest way is not always the one chosen by the gospel editors, and their deeper motives are not always visible to us, it would be rash to deduce from this any positive conclusion, and we can only say that it appears probable that Jesus came to the baptism of John.
We must, moreover, observe, on the other hand, that Q, though including the Baptist and his preaching of repentance, does not appear to have mentioned the baptism of Jesus, and that, consequently, it is not unreasonable to hold that the whole legend, in substance as well as in form, came from the Hellenistic community, which might have composed it under the influence of its own liturgy, to represent the ceremonial investiture of Jesus with the Messiahship. (pp. 157-8)
Now I am not trying to suggest that before historical Jesus scholars started speaking of some of their arguments as criteriological “tools” of historical research that they were all in doubt over the baptism of Jesus. Guignebert himself cites his contemporary Goguel as one who claimed that it was impossible to entertain any real doubt about the historicity of this event. But Guignebert responds that he believes such confidence is misplaced — for the reasons I have quoted.
But I have cut to the conclusions of Guignebert’s discussion on the baptism of Jesus. Aspects of his main argument are also interesting as an illustration of how a secular rationalist (with no apparent sectarian sympathies) approached the question. The contrast with a few modern “independent scholars” who likewise profess to be without religious bias is as distinct as night and day. (In all quotes following the emphasis and sometimes the paragraphing are my own.)
Ask WHY it is in the documents before accepting it as historical
No hypothesis has a better documentary foundation, since both the gospel traditions, the Synoptic and the Johannine, make the Baptism of Jesus the threshold of his public career. This does not, however, place the point beyond doubt, because we have only to read our Gospels to see that their accounts of the Baptism are deliberately designed to settle the question of the relations between the two prophets in a manner favourable to the Messianic status of Jesus. (p. 147)
Consider the contrary evidence
We know that the Gospel of Marcion omitted the incident . . . . and it has even been suggested that neither the original version of John nor Urmarcus contained any reference to the Baptist at the beginning of their accounts. (p. 147)
Credal formula + myth = not unreasonable to doubt historicity
The baptism of Jesus by John may be a fact, but since it is very difficult today not to admit that the accounts of it are purely mythical, the creation of credal requirements rather than authentic biography, it is hardly unreasonable to believe that the event itself might easily be legendary, and represent an artificial preface to the Gospel. (p. 147)
A motive for the alleged invention of the tale
Our Synoptics are known to have been edited under the influence of catechetical and cultural interests. It seems natural that they, or rather the tradition on which they depended, should deliberately have placed at the beginning of the tendentious composition which they designedly represented as the life of Jesus according to the Spirit, a story intended to explain and confirm what was, in the practice of their time, the initiatory rite of the Christian life. (p. 147)
Even a defender of the historicity of the baptism acknowledges a motive for invention
It is no small cause for suspicion to see Goguel himself, although a strong supporter fo the authenticity of the incident, accepting this obvious relation between the inauguration of the mission of Jesus and that of the Christian life of his followers, and subsequently admitting that the gospel writers are open to the suspicion of having made the baptism of Jesus take on the appearance of the prototype of Christian baptism. (p. 148)
Guignebert discusses the Baptist more extensively and I will not cover the details here apart from a few points I found of particular interest.
Part of his discussion addresses arguments of mythicists Jensen and Drews who disputed the historicity of JB as strongly as they did that of JC — Jensen comparing JB to Eabani in the Gilgamesh epic and Drews to Oannes or Ea, the water god and originally a solar deity.
Another interesting detail was his pointing out the symbolic character of the Gospel of John’s identification of the locality of the Baptist’s activity: “at Aenon near Salim” (John 3:23). Aenon means “springs” and “Salim” means peace — the “springs of peace”.
Finally, Guignebert sensibly points out the implausibility of Pharisees and lawyers flocking to John for baptism. Such people were not so well disposed to such “enthusiasts” or “fanatics”.
Guignebert then returns to the question of historicity and remarks on the difficulty of evaluating this given the clear theological purposes of the various accounts and their being mixed with clearly mythological elements.
What we should like to know is whether Jesus actually came to the baptism of John, and felt there the stirring of his vocation, and whether he became . . . the disciple of the Baptist. On all these points, interpretations, hypotheses, and assertions naturally abound; but on none of them have we any positive knowledge. (p. 155)
On the question of whether John and Jesus knew each other prior to the baptism G writes:
But documentary evidence is lacking. There is not a passage to support the theory of any connexion between John and Jesus prior to the meeting of which the Baptism was the occasion. (p. 156)
G discounts the Lukan narrative of John and Jesus being cousins “because it contradicts all the rest of the Synoptic tradition.” Contrast Luke’s account of angelic announcements about John and Jesus with those other stories that speak of Jesus’ family trying to take him away because they believe he is out of his mind; compare the accounts of contacts or messages between John and Jesus both at and subsequent to the baptism — none is reconcilable with any notion that accepts Luke’s narrative of their familial ties and revealed destinies.
What’s my point?
The reason I like sharing some of these excerpts from a long dead scholar is that I like the simple and elegant rationality they exhibit in tackling questions that today seem no longer to be questions at all but long-settled “facts”. The pity is that such “facts” should still be acknowledged as very open questions. There seems to me to be a certain dogmatism, even in cases bordering on anti-intellectualism, that has accompanied a depressing turning of backs on the Enlightenment and exploitation of post-modernism in the ironical service of old dogmas.
And besides, historians don’t use “tools of criteriology” to decide if an otherwise clearly ideological stand-alone narrative has historical roots or not. That’s akin to smoke and mirrors, mumbo-jumbo, Latin-only masses, using mathematical equations in discussions of personality and mood swings. They are all designed to impress and lend to what is quite often little more than subjective opinion floating in a sea of unknowns and speculations some degree of objectivity an appearance of some measure of objectivity and science.