Daily Archives: 2010-02-01 20:42:24 UTC

Response 3: that Jesus’ baptism implies historicity

Continued from Response (2): the Bethlehem-Nazareth fallacies

Baptism of Jesus (Bogojavlenie, ortodox icon)
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(iii) he was baptised by John

This is another of those awkward elements. Mark and Luke tell a story about Jesus going with other people to be cleansed of their sins by being baptised by John. But this story clearly caused problems for early Christians, as it implies that Jesus was a sinner and that he was subordinate to John (who had his own followers long after his death). So Matthew inserts an element in the story where John tries to object to the idea of baptising the Messiah (Matthew 3:13-15), whereas the Gospel of John removes the baptism altogether and simply has John the Baptist see Jesus and hail him as the Messiah.

If this element was awkward enough for Matthew to try to explain it away and John to whitewash it completely, why is it in the story? If Jesus existed, this element makes sense – it’s in the story because it happened. If he didn’t exist, however, why did the people who made him up (whoever they were) insert something so contrary to the expectations of the Messiah? That makes no sense.

This argument fails to address any grounds for the historicity of Jesus, despite its rhetorical questions and appeal to incredulity at the end. (Previous post discussed the fallacies of rhetorical questions and appeal to incredulity.)

As is conceded in the argument itself, not all evangelists demonstrate embarrassment. The argument as written above appears to suggest that Luke is not embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus any more than was Mark. But that Luke was also embarrassed is indicated by his avoidance of any direct claim that Jesus was baptized by John.

But the key question here is, What is it that embarrasses Matthew, Luke and (assuming he knew Mark) John?

What embarrasses them is the story in the Gospel of Mark itself.

The argument concedes this.

Three of the canonical gospels indicate embarrassment over Mark’s story of the baptism.

There is no evidence that Matthew or Luke (or John) were embarrassed by anything other than the narrative they read in the Gospel of Mark. They are responding to Mark’s baptism narrative.

Mark 1

[4] John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
[5] And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
[6] And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;
[7] And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
[8] I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
[9] And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
[10] And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
[11] And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
[12] And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.

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.

To make this clear:

  1. Mark was not embarrassed to narrate the baptism of Jesus by John
  2. Other evangelists demonstrate apparent embarrassment over Mark’s story by their variations to it

Matthew, for example, adds to Mark’s narrative an excuse to explain why Jesus would undergo a ritual meant for sinners:

Matthew 3:

[13] Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.
[14] But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?
[
15] And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.

Luke manages to avoid saying that John baptized Jesus altogether:

Luke 3:

[2] Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
[3] And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins;

. . . . . . .

[19] But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done,
[20] Added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison.
[21] Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened,
[22] And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.

John does not even admit that Jesus was baptized at all.

John 1:

[32] And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.
[33] And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.

So what biblical scholars sometimes refer to as “the criterion of embarrassment” does not support historicity at all. It only supports their knowledge of Mark’s gospel and their different theological views about what the baptism meant or implied about Jesus.

If Mark was not embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus, and if Mark’s story is the source of the other gospel narratives, then the so-called “awkwardness” of this narrative does not support the historicity of Jesus.

So why was Mark not embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus?

He obviously had a different view of the nature of Jesus. A different christology from what we seen in the other gospels.

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.

So it is quite possible that Mark had absolutely no reason to be embarrassed by the baptism story. He may even have actually needed it to add weight to his adoptionist or separationist belief about the nature of Jesus.

That is, the first account of the baptism narrative that we know of could well have been written to explain a particular theological or christological interpretation of the nature of the Son of God and Jesus.

Other evangelists demonstrate a different theological understanding of Jesus that conflicted with Mark’s.

But the only gospel they had was Mark’s. So they set to work to re-write it to suit their own doctrines about Jesus.

This explains:

1. Why the first gospel indicates no embarrassment over the baptism of Jesus
2. Why the later gospels do indicate embarrassment over that first gospel’s lack of embarrassment, and why they attempted to re-write Mark’s version in the ways they did.

They are not evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

The baptism narratives are evidence of theological differences among early Christians.

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(The original context of the summary cited here, by Tim O’Neill, can be found here.)

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