(revised) Spong on Jesus’ historicity: John the Baptist and the Crucifixion

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by Neil Godfrey

Spong in his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human (2007), lists four reasons that he claims leave no doubt about the historicity of Jesus:

  1. No “person setting out to create a mythical character would [ever] suggest that he hailed from the village of Nazareth . . . in Galilee”
  2. Jesus “clearly began his life as a disciple of John the Baptist”
  3. He was executed
  4. “Paul was in touch with those who knew the Jesus of history”

An earlier post looked at #1, “the Nazareth Connection”. This post looks, much more briefly, at #2 and #3 together, because they both make the same fundamental error of logic.

The simple fact is that Spong can only impute the embarrassment criterion to #2 and #3 on the assumption that there was an historical baptism and crucifixion of Jesus to begin with. That is, his argument rests on circular reasoning. Both events, the baptism and crucifixion, can be equally well understood as theological narrative creations.

The Baptism

Spong reasons that the memory of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist is what governs the way the gospelers narrate the baptism of Jesus by John. He sees embarrassed attempts to deal with this event in the that way the author of the gospel of John does not even breathe a mention of Jesus’ baptism by John, that the author of Luke’s gospel only indirectly refers to Jesus’ baptism after the imprisonment of John, and that Matthew’s gospel has Jesus apologize to John by saying his baptism is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness”.

I have no doubt that each of the gospels subsequent to Mark’s were embarrassed by Mark’s account of god-man Jesus’ baptism by the mere mortal John, and that each found its own way to cope with this detail:

  • Matthew: John says he is not worthy to baptize Jesus but Jesus tells him it is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness”.
  • Luke: John is thrown in prison. Then it is said that Jesus had been baptized, but no mention of who performed this.
  • John: John proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, but there is no mention of his baptism.

And what of Mark? The only evidence we have of John the Baptist and Jesus in the same field is in those four gospels. The differing accounts of Matthew, Luke and John make perfect sense if they were each in their own way attempting to renounce what they saw as the embarrassing narrative of the gospel of Mark. So the critical historical question is this: Is there any evidence that the authors of Matthew, Luke and John knew of any story of the baptism of Jesus prior to the gospel of Mark?

The gospel of Mark is currently regarded as the earliest of those four gospels. And I see no indication of any embarrassment expressed in the Gospel of Mark over the baptism of Jesus by John. And that would mean that Matthew, Luke and John are embarrassed not by any historical memory, but solely by the narrative of the baptism in Mark’s gospel.

But Spong differs. Spong interprets Mark’s narrative of John the Baptist’s proclamation that a greater than he is to come after him as Mark’s apologetic. He sees in John the Baptist’s announcement that Jesus is greater than he Mark’s attempt to deal with the “embarrassment” that John (the lesser) baptizing Jesus (his superior). All that would make sense — IF there really were an historical baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist that Mark was attempting to “apologize” for.

Unfortunately for Spong’s case there is no other evidence he can call on for support. The Gospel of Mark is the earliest “evidence” we have of Jesus’ baptism. This is the bedrock. The other gospels, which arguably know the Gospel of Mark, are apologetics to explain away Mark’s UNembarrassed matter-of-factness about the baptism of Jesus by John. (I’ve already addressed this in another post.)

The only way one can interpret as an apologetic Mark’s statements that John called Jesus “greater than” he, is to assume that there was an historical baptism about which the gospelers are writing. That is, they must make an assumption about the sources of the gospelers for which there is no supporting evidence.

But it is just as plausible to explain Mark’s narrative without any assumption of historicity. Jesus/Joshua is, after all, to be the focus of a new covenant that will replace that of Moses. What better way to introduce his main character than by an Elijah-like figure calling all to repentance yet announcing that his successor would, as per the prophets (Mal.4:5-6), be the greatest of all? There is no compulsion to doubt that Mark is creating a theological narrative as opposed to attempting to explain away historical events.

Mark, not history, was the embarrassment

And Mark’s Jesus represented a theology that was embarrassing to the later gospel authors in other ways too. Mark presents an adoptionist Jesus. So there is no embarrassment for Mark over Jesus’ baptism. The spirit seizes control of him at the moment of baptism and “drives” him into the wilderness. On one occasion he needs two attempts to heal someone. Mark also treats the twelve disciples mercilessly. Their blindness increases as the gospel progresses. The later gospel indicated embarrassment over all these issues in Mark. They all made it clear in their narratives that Jesus existed as the Son of God from the beginning and not only from the time of his baptism. The spirit rested gently upon Jesus instead of seizing control of him in Matthew. All the gospels treat the twelve more favourably. Peter is called the Rock and a foundation stone of the church in Matthew; Jesus increases their understanding after the resurrection. There is no reason to assume that their embarrassment over Jesus’ baptism was anything other than another embarrassment over the way Mark told the tale.

The Crucifixion

Ditto for the crucifixion. But with a twist. The attempt to “explain away” the baptism of Jesus was based on the diminishing space given to the actual baptism scenario. Each of the gospel authors attempted to push the baptism further into the background until, by the time of John, Jesus’ baptism was not mentioned at all. Yet in the case of the crucifixion, there is no similar attempt to evade or eventually hide the “embarrassing” event.

And the crucifixion of Jesus is such a pivotal theological fact, well known to Paul and noncanonical literature, without any need of narrative embellishment. None of the gospel authors treats the crucifixion with any embarrassment. Indeed, as with Paul, the crucifixion of Jesus is their glory and boast. It entitles believers to see themselves as victors over the world. And this was the understanding well before the gospels were written, if we take Pauls’ letter to the Galatians as one of the earliest Christian documents.

The only problem the gospel authors had was with coming up with a plausible scenario to explain the crucifixion in historical terms.

Mark displays no embarrassment in the way he portrays Pilate as much at fault as the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. Mark’s Pilate is motivated by a mere desire to “please the crowd” — one thinks of Roman emperors staging gladiatorial contests to curry favour with the mob. The other gospels scramble to re-write Mark’s Pilate. Again I have written at some length on this already, comparing the treatment of Pilate across the different gospels, in an earlier post.

Matthew attempted to explain the crucifixion as a sin of the Jews for all generations (Matt.27:25) and John tried to justify it by having Jesus die as the literal Passover by being crucified at the same time as the Passover lamb.

Such excuses are not embarrassments over an historical fact. They are rival theologies. The crucifixion was a theological creation that needed to find an historical setting — and the gospels were created for that need.

In sum

The only way one can assume that the gospel accounts of the baptism and crucifixion of Jesus are apologetic explanations of historical events is to assume that there were historical events with which they were engaging. The hypothesis that theological constructs explain the different treatments of the baptism and crucifixion works. It also explains why we have no hints that Paul knew any details of these events. If we attribute the differences to embarrassment over historical memories, then we have to explain the lack of embarrassment in Mark and the absence of awareness of any details in Paul.

The simplest explanation is to work with the evidence we have: 4 texts, the first one being Mark, and subsequent dialogues by other gospel authors with that first embarrassing one. And this explanation raises the fewest problems as far as I can see. It certainly accounts for the absence of corroborating nonbiblical contemporary evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

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Neil Godfrey

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