The historicity of Jesus’ baptism is asserted on grounds that the event would not have been told unless it were true, because it implies views of Jesus that no Christian would invent:
- that John was up till that point superior to Jesus,
- and/or that Jesus had sins to be buried in the Jordan River.
This is hardly a solid method to determine whether or not an event is historical or not, especially when reasons do exist that could indeed explain why Christians might invent the story.
I have usually given just one of these possible reasons in other posts, and that is that the author of the Gospel of Mark viewed Jesus as an ordinary man until the moment of his baptism when he was possessed by the Spirit of God and declared at that moment, God’s Beloved Son. Such a view is supported by this Gospel’s depiction of Jesus as far more human than the way he is shown in later Gospels, and also by Mark’s description of the Spirit possessing and driving Jesus into the wilderness. It was this lowly view of Jesus that the later evangelists attempted to re-write: Matthew declaring that John protested that he should not baptize Jesus; Luke only indirectly implying that John baptized Jesus; and John not mentioning the baptism at all.
But there is another evident reason that this scenario might have been invented. This was to fulfill prophetic expectations held among the Jews. One criterion that some scholars (e.g. Robert Funk in “Honest to Jesus”) use to cast doubt on the historicity of any passage in the Gospels is that of intended prophetic fulfillment. If a passage appears to have been written in order to fulfill some “prophecy” of Christ, then the historian must at the very least accept the possibility that it was invented for that purpose.
G. A. Wells in The Jesus Myth alerts us to the evidence that the Jews were expecting the Messiah to be anointed by Elijah. And Mark’s Gospel specifically identifies John the Baptist with Elijah, and that at least one early Christian did point to Jesus’ baptism as another proof that Jesus was the Christ.
Justin Martyr betrays that, according to a Jewish notion, the Messiah would be unknown as such to himself and others until Elijah, as his forerunner, should anoint him; and Mark implies that the Baptist is Elijah. Numerous commentators have conceded that Mark may well have been influenced by the tradition mentioned by Justin. . . (p.194-5)
I don’t know who the “numerous commentators” who do concede this are, although Wells cites Morna Hooker in “Who Was Jesus?” (p.98) as one such.
Here is Justin Martyr’s passage, from Dialogue with Trypho:
“It appears to me,” said Trypho, “that they who assert that He was of human origin, and was anointed as the Christ only by choice, propose a doctrine much more credible than yours. We Jews all expect that Christ will be a man of merely human origin, and that Elias will come to anoint Him. If this man appears to be the Christ, He must be considered to be a man of solely human birth, yet, from the fact that Elias has not yet come, I must declare that this man is not the Christ.”
 Then I asked him, “Does not the holy book of Zacharias [actually Malachi, 4.5] state that Elias will come before the great and terrible day of the Lord?”
“Most assuredly,” he replied.
“If, therefore, Scripture forces you to admit that it was predicted that there would be two Advents of Christ — one in which He will appear in suffering and without honor or beauty, and the second in which He will return in glory to judge all men, as has been proved by the many previously quoted passages from Scripture — must we not conclude that the word of God has foretold that Elias will be the forerunner of the great and terrible day, namely, of His second Advent?”
“Certainly,” was his answer.
 “We have been taught,” I continued, “by our Lord Himself that this would be so, namely, that Elias also would come; and we know that this will take place when our Lord Jesus Christ will be about to come from Heaven in glory, just as the spirit of God that was in Elias, in the person of John, who was a prophet of your race, after whom no other prophet has appeared among you, came forth as the precursor of His first Advent. For John cried out as he sat by the River Jordan: ‘I indeed baptize you with water, for repentance; but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and His sandals I am not worthy to bear. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and will gather His wheat into the barn; but the chaff He will burn up with unquenchable fire’ [Mt 3.11-12; Lk 3.16-17].  Your King Herod imprisoned this Prophet John, and, during Herod’s birthday party, his niece’s dancing pleased him so much that he promised to give her whatever she desired. At her mother’s instigation, the young girl asked for the head of the imprisoned John. Thereupon, Herod ordered the head of John to be brought in on a platter.  Wherefore did our Christ, who was on earth at this time, reply to those who were saying that Elias must come before the appearance of Christ: ‘Elijah will indeed come and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has already come, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they wished’ [Mt 17.11-12]. And it is added: ‘Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them of John the Baptist’ [Mt 17.13].”
 “You seem to me,” replied Trypho, “to be talking paradoxically again when you say that God’s Prophetic Spirit which was in Elias was also in John.
“Must you not admit,” I retorted, “that the same thing happened in the case of Jesus, son of Nave, who succeeded Moses as leader of your people, when Moses was ordered to lay his hands on him, while God Himself said: ‘I will transfer some of the spirit that is in you to him’ [Num 11.17; cf. Num 27.18 and Dt 34.9]?”
 “That I admit,” he replied.
“Therefore,” I concluded, “as God took the spirit that was in Moses, while he was on earth, and communicated it to Jesus, so was He able to transfer the spirit from Elias to John, in order that, as Christ appeared without glory at His first Advent, so likewise the first Advent of the spirit, which ever remained in the same state of purity in Elias, might be perceived to be without glory, as was Christ’s first Advent.  The Lord is said to fight against Amalek with hidden hand, and you will have to admit that Amalek has fallen. But, if it is affirmed that war will be waged against Amalek only at the glorious Advent of Christ, how would that fulfill the Scriptural quotation, ‘God will fight Amalek with hidden hand’ [Ex 17.16]? You can see, therefore, that the hidden power of God was in the crucified Christ, before whom the demons and shortly all the powers and authorities of the earth tremble.”
The prophecy cited here as Matthew’s is also in Mark.
It is quite possible that the original author gave not a moment’s thought to the possibility that some might interpret the scene as an indication that Jesus had a sinful nature (as Wells also remarks in his “Who Was Jesus?”). The baptism itself is overshadowed by the prophetic pronouncements preceding it, and the miraculous events immediately afterwards.
I think Thompson’s explanation for the use of water or baptism as the tool of this “anointing” carry more weight than Wells’ suggestion that John’s job description as a Baptist would inevitably mean that Jesus would be baptized by him when the two came into contact. This strikes me as a bit circular, and may be one of the reasons Doherty himself does not discuss this possibility at all.
Thompson (The Mythic Past) discusses how certain tropes are reiterated throughout the biblical literature. One of these is the dividing of waters in the process of a new creation or commencement of a divine work. We have the creation story, then the Flood, then the Exodus, the crossing of the Jordan by Joshua, and then later the same parting of the river by Elijah and then again by Elisha. Mark, it would appear, is writing within the same tradition, and transvaluing some of the past uses of this trope by having Jesus himself baptized with the heavens themselves parting in consequence.
But the simple fact remains that even Mark himself has Jesus declare that his baptism was a fulfillment of prophecy, as Justin Martyr also reminds his readers.
So far from the baptism initially being an embarrassment, there is every reason to suspect that it was originally seen as a necessary “proof” of the Messiahship of Jesus.
And another brick in the wall of the late second century dating for the gospels?
Other theological difficulties arose late. Not even Justin Martyr writing not long after the second Jewish war in 135 c.e. was aware of any embarrassment over possible suggestions of Jesus’ inferiority to John or sinfulness.
And this, I might conjecture, is yet one more little detail in support of some of the Gospels which appear to have dealt with questions unknown to Justin, were indeed written no earlier than the mid second century!
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!