Response 3: that Jesus’ baptism implies historicity

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by Neil Godfrey

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 have 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 rewrite 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.


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

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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “Response 3: that Jesus’ baptism implies historicity”

  1. Interesting points. If embarrassment was in the earliest gospel (Mark), would you consider that to be a valid argument from embarassment? And, going beyond the ‘criterion of embarrassment,’ do you think that Mark’s account on its own should be seen as evidence for the historicity of the baptism by John (with or without embarrassment)?

    1. do you think that Mark’s account on its own should be seen as evidence for the historicity of the baptism by John (with or without embarrassment)?

      Without embarrassment I don’t see how you can separate the baptism as a historical event from the baptism as a narrative device or the baptism as a piece of theological rhetoric.

      If embarrassment was in the earliest gospel (Mark), would you consider that to be a valid argument from embarassment?

      I would, if I were convinced that it was actually something embarrassing that Mark was trying to excuse (I don’t know of any such things in the Gospel of Mark). I still don’t know if that would be evidence of the chronicled events being historical or not (I think it might depend on the embarrassment), but it certainly would be evidence that Mark was working from some earlier source and wasn’t the originator of the Gospel narrative.

  2. The historicist argument is that the baptism is an awkward or embarrassing or self-damaging event that no Christian would have told unless true.

    There are three fallacies in this claim. One is the one I discussed. The embarrassment is not with an event, but with Mark’s telling of it.

    The other is that the argument is a form of the “fallacy of the argument from incredulity” (or “false dilemma”). Bizarrely, it is usually used to prove hocus pocus, or god — e.g. How ELSE can you explain this “fact” apart from God or ESP or aliens or the tooth fairy . . . ?!” But proponents of the historicity of Jesus use it to supposedly prove an historical fact! If it is fallacious to use it for the former, . . . . !!!!

    As for the question if Mark also had some indications of embarrassment in his narrative, all it would do would be (as per Jer) remove the question one step further back. Like ‘but who then created god?’ It could indicate that Mark used another source. But without having any idea of who wrote Mark or in what the context, and without any external controls, we would have no idea if he referred to a recent event, a mythical tale, another document, or whatever.

    Thirdly, the self-testimony of an unprovenanced document that lacks any external controls to relate to its contents cannot be used to establish its own factuality. That fact alone is sufficient to dismiss any of argument for historicity of any of the gospels. But in this post I’ve attempted to go a step further and point to some specifics to demonstrate this point in this case.

  3. ‘But this story clearly caused problems for early Christians, as it implies that Jesus was a sinner and that he was subordinate to John….’

    So it is historically certain that Jesus was a sinner, and Mark put in stories of Jesus being a sinner because they were true?

    No Christian of today accepts that Jesus was a sinner.

    But why? When they also claim that their stories are true , because that is exactly what the stories imply?

  4. Paul, in Romans, uses a dichotomy of ‘according to the spirit’ to contrast to ‘according to the flesh” where the former is all sorts of good things and the latter is not.
    To be ‘in the flesh’ is for Paul, to be separate from god, sinful, lustful, liable to death, cannot please god [eg Romans 8.6ff] and so on.

    Therefore Paul has JC appear not in the flesh but in the ‘likeness of sinful flesh’ [Romans 8.3].

    If “Mark” was aware of this concept and these words, directly from reading Paul, or indirectly, then he would be able to envisage JC as being in a dual state of purity [‘spirit’] and sin [‘flesh’].

    So his baptism could have been used as a way of removing all doubt of the ‘appearance’ of ‘sinful flesh’ and rendering him ‘spiritually’ pure by the adoption of god at that baptism.

    No embarrassment required, just an outgrowth of Paul’s dichotomous concept.

  5. I think Mark’s baptism story has far more to do with associating Jesus with John the Baptist and his followers than it has with theology. As the gospels progress, JoB becomes more and more central as a OT precursor and witness, but the baptism gets less and less important, and finally vanishes. Matt/Luke/John seem to have felt, progressively, that it was very important to continue and build on the tradition of Jesus/JoB association but the baptism itself (a hallmark of John’s followers) raised issues that didn’t exist for Mark. So it is explained away, alluded to, or simply omitted – notwithstanding the unlikelihood that it actually occurred outside Mark’s imagination.

  6. I think the fact that so many sermons, homilys, dialectics, and TV televangelists completely eliminate verse 12 from the story when they tell it, speaks volumes (hah!) as to how badly the Christians want to whitewash their holy books, and the myth-hero featured therein.

    “[12] And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.”

    Mental illness in the Bible? It’s more likely than you think!

  7. Thanks for the variety of thoughts to consider.

    Other views of this John the Baptist scene:

    One from Michael Turton’s Commentary regarding the introduction to Mark’s gospel and the rhetorical function of John:

    Scholars generally see this section as a creation of the writer. Responding to arguments that this pericope existed in a pre-Markan form, Gundry (1993, p40) asks “What function could it have had apart from Mark’s book?” Tolbert (1989, p307), argues that the Gospel of Mark is the result of creative effort on the part of its author, and not the end product of development in an oral tradition. Standaert (1978) and Smith (1999) apparently concur, arguing that the prologue follows the conventions of Greco-Roman tragedy, in which an actor comes out on stage at the beginning to familiarize the audience with the story. The actor plays the role of a messenger, often from the gods. After the introduction he disappears. Typically, while the audience is aware of what is going on, the characters remain in the dark until the recognition scene at the end.

    I recall reading John Shelby Spong in Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (probably passing on what he learned from Michael Goulder) tracing the evolution of John the Baptist through the gospels. His Elijah associations were stripped away by Luke; Luke portrayed Jesus as the Elijah (e.g. ascending up to heaven at the end; the episode of disciples wanting fire called down from heaven on their enemies . . .). John the Baptist is a literary device open to revision to support whatever the particular author wants to use him for. There’s no interest in “history” in our sense of the word in the way he is treated.

  8. The time line seems to run as follows.

    For 30 years, Christians pass on the oral tradition of Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist.

    Nobody thinks to tell Mark that this was embarrassing and that he ought not to include it or find ways of getting round it.

    Mark sticks it in his Gospel.

    Once they see it in cold print, Christians slap themselves on the forehead, and say ‘Gosh! That is so embarrassing. We had better find ways of getting round it. We’ve been telling the world for 30 years that Jesus was baptised by John, so it is high time we started limiting the damage.’

    And so they diminish the story, as we find in later Gospels.

    I wonder why it took Christians over 30 years before they realised that this story was embarrassing and that they ought to start work on inventing a ‘theologically correct’ version of it.

  9. ‘whereas the Gospel of John removes the baptism altogether ‘

    Removes it from what?

    Doesn’t this criterion of embarrassment beg the question of whether ‘John’ had even heard of a baptism?

    If ‘John’ had read Mark’s Gospel and removed the baptism when writing his Gospel, then we have just one source for this alleged baptism.

    If ‘John’ had not read Mark’s Gospel, then historicists are begging the question by claiming the author knew of a baptism and didn’t let anybody realise that any baptism had occurred.

    First, historicists have to prove that John even knew of a baptism before they can claim he was embarrassed by his knowledge of this baptism.

  10. A baptism by John may have been useful in the early days of the movement since their is good reason to believe that John was a more popular figure than Jesus. They are indications that Christianity was poaching members off John’s following both during and after his life, and so “Approved by John” might have been valuable enough to make up. On the other hand, John does seem to have a popular movement so I don’t think it’s impossible that a number of founding members passed though that scene. What I can be certain of is that if John ever thought it was Jesus’ sandals that he was unfit to untie, he never said it publicly, otherwise Jesus would have just taken over the Baptist movement and I see no evidence of that.

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