Why early Christians would create the story of Jesus’ baptism – and more evidence the gospels were very late

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by Neil Godfrey

John the Baptist baptizing Christ
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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:

  1. that John was up till that point superior to Jesus,
  2. 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:

Chapter 49

“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.”

[2] 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.

[3] “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]. [4] 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. [5] 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].”

[6] “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]?”

[7] “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. [8] 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!

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31 thoughts on “Why early Christians would create the story of Jesus’ baptism – and more evidence the gospels were very late”

  1. I don’t know if I have missed something here, but isn’t the problem is that John baptized Jesus, a practice he undertook to remove sin, not that he was pictured as a Elijah type character?

    As I see it you have accounted for why John was portrayed as Elijah [indeed the Bible notes this link], but haven’t touched upon the baptism and why it was included as a historical event. John could have, an in fact did, acknowledge and proclaim Jesus’ mission as a separate act to the baptism.

    1. I don’t know that we can say that Mark wrote of the baptism as “a historical event”. He did write of it as a central event in his narrative, but why presume ‘history’ — especially when the gospel elsewhere suggests it is a parable and crafted from OT references, and also is structured more like an epic work of fiction than history?

      But I thought the point about reiteration of tropes — in this case the emerging from waters being the act of a new creative work of God — was an explanation for the baptism. No?

      It was only in hindsight after I drafted my initial post that it hit me how Justin Martyr fails to address the “sin implication” that we associate with baptism. John was baptizing the people of Jerusalem and Judea for their sins, but his baptism of Jesus is overwhelmed in the narrative by pronouncements of Jesus’ greatness and divine mission and sonship. At the narrative level there is no sin problem associated with Jesus, nor is this an evident problem as late as the 130’s or 140’s for Justin. He knows nothing of the sin-implications that seem to have concerned Matthew, Luke and John.

      (I’m not sure Justin knew the story from Mark, either. He says John sat beside the Jordan, and that a fire or great light engulfed the river at Jesus’ baptism, and that God declared that he had “begotten” his son that day.)

  2. And since Luke wrote a Gospel, and he was very close with Paul

    Nonsense. Based entirely on the unfounded attributions of the gospels by 2nd century and later patristic writers promoting their versions of orthodoxy and under the rubric of establishing “apostolic authority” for their preferred texts.

    The author of Luke/Acts was almost certainly writing under the influence of Josephus (Antiquities not finished until 94 CE), and so could not, on that and much other evidence, have been a contemporary of Paul. The heroes of the apostolic age were figures of legend for the author of Luke/Acts.

    No the burden is with you guys

    More nonsense, and based on a complete abdication of the responsibilities of historiography. You want to claim that a tradition of anonymously authored ancient literary narratives was based on a real person, the burden is squarely on you to establish the historical existence of that person. In no other realm of historical inquiry is the weight of tradition given such deference as to make such a ludicrous claim about the burden of proof sound anything other than risible.

    1. C.J.

      You have shallowed the whole “liberal” presuppositional. See again the dating of the N.T. Texts by Robinson! What if he is right? Then “you” have big problems! Got to run..back later mate!

  3. I dont think, largely, that those who argue for the use of Josephus in the Acts of the Apostles, argue that the Gospel was depedent upon, or written by the same author. They would, I image go with the consensus that the Gospel was an early creation. So I think you have been unfair in your remarks.

    Also there are perfectly good reasons for linking Luke and Paul. See Rick Strelan’s work of 2008 for example.

      1. This is for you Neil, you might find it of great interest?

        //thirdmill.org/resources-2/pauline-studies/epistles/titus-as-apologia [Link no longer active — Neil, 24th Sept 2015]

    1. Note in this of Doherty’s Mythical Christ, it is built on a whole series of suppositions that date the whole of the NT very late. Here however, I would point the reader to the dating of the N.T. to the late John A.T. Robinson (died 1985). Who dates the N.T. very early, see his last book: ‘The Priority of John’. And Robinson was certainly no “conservative”!

      Also, to say that the Apostle Paul did not believe in the earthly and incarnational Christ? Is simply ignorant at best! See Phil. 2:5-11.

      1. As if Doherty doesn’t discuss Phil. 2:5-11 and many other supposed proof-texts for Paul’s alleged belief in Jesus the Galilean, crucified c.30 CE.

        Regarding the text you cite itself: Is a healer, teacher and wonder-worker “the form of a slave”? And “in the likeness of men… the appearance of a man”: was Paul a docetist, or did he have a primarily mythical conception of a risen savior who had lived an insignificant and unremarked earthly existence some time in the past, about which Paul claimed to know nothing?

        In short, even if it was incontrovertable, based on that passage, that Paul believed in “the earthly and incarnational Christ,” that doesn’t show that he believed in a near-contemporary Galiilean preacher and miracle worker with a career answering to the account given in the Synoptic narrative, which is really what is at issue in the argument from the silence of Paul.

        One may accuse Doherty of many things, but ignorance of the NT is not a charge you will be able to substantiate.

      2. Doherty accepts the mainstream dating range for the Gospels, except that he places Mark around 90 instead of 70, and does so in order to make sense of more than one theme in the gospel with the times that must have produced it.

        The post is mine, expressing my ideas, except where I reference another’s.

        As for N.T. Robinson, I have read his book on dating the NT, and another book that discusses in depth his view of John in the context of the history of scholarship on the dating of John, and have been intending to discuss the former some time on this blog.

        Just because there is a book written that has good arguments for one’s preferred beliefs is not a reason to accept or reject it. Arguments are best evaluated by considering all the points of view. I believe there is a stronger methodological case for accepting the very late dates, one that places more emphasis on external witness without sacrificing the internal evidence.

        But do not confuse my posts with an expression of Doherty’s views, unless I directly say I am repeating his view. Doherty is, with one relatively mild exception, very conservative in his datings of the NT texts by mainstream standards.

      3. John A.T. sorry. But why do you say I have “just brought Doherty”? I do not go along with Doherty’s dating, and thought I made that clear in my earlier comment.

        My question about the date of Mark in my original post has nothing to do with anything suggested anywhere by Doherty.

        As for my discussing Robinson’s redating the NT on this blog, you will have to wait till I get around to it, sorry. I have already said I plan to discuss his work, and will probably do so in conjunction with Crossley’s discussion of using the Caligula crisis since Crossley makes frequent reference to Robinson. But given the circularity of Crossley’s arguments elsewhere, and his tendency to point to passages in ancient sources that on closer inspection do not say what he indicates, that should be a warning.

        What I have been thinking of doing is setting out the arguments for around 40s, around 70s, around 90’s and the second century for the composition of Mark, so readers can compare them all in the one space. But that will take time.

        As for me pontificating a date, wow. I usually couch them in terms of possibilities and questions, if I recall.

      4. I see. Well Steph has said and implied many things about me and what I argue that are off the planet and I only reply to a few of them. Many of her responses are non sequiturs or straw men. If you form your views about what I argue from what Steph says you will be seriously misled.

      5. Robinson’s arguments are that if something does not mention the destruction of the Temple, it must have been written before 70 AD.

        His arguments are not good, which is why Irish Anglican never says what Robinson’s arguments actually were.

        Nor does a pre 70 AD date for the Gospels make any of them authentic.

        It just puts them in pretty much the same time after the alleged events as the Hitler Diaries.

      6. Niel,

        That is John A.T. Robinson. And you have not given him (as Steph notes) a fair hearing. Please engage HIS N.T. dating? There is no dialogue here! I started off trying this, but you just brought Doherty. I have given everyone the whole litany of the Historical Jesus (with the site I sent, Doherty, plus). If you want to be thought “scholarly”, you must act so. I too can pontificate my or the conservative position, but I am seeking to listen and learn something. As I have from Steph, but next to nothing from you. Sorry mate, but that’s the straight of it!

      7. Neil,

        I was speaking of your argument with Steph mostly (Doherty, etc.), and you kinda lumped us together, which is interesting? She knows this stuff way better than I do! I am an Anglican Churchman, and biblical theolog. And I was an Anglican ax bishop.

      8. Sadly there are many non sequitur’s going on around here! Many conclusions do not fit or follow the arguments. Way too much ad hominem, and also just poor ad ignorantiam.

    2. The reality of 70 AD is often overlooked by many so-called biblical interpreter’s. As we see with Mr. Carr, and I would be very careful sir calling people in the antiquity “liars”! You only make yourself look ignorant and perhaps stupid?

      Indeed as I have stated over and over, the Biblical Text stands on its own presupposition! And John A.T. Robinson’s work stands too on its own merit. Mr. Carr you have hardly engaged the “Text” itself. That means exegesis! We simply must deal with the “internal” message and evidence itself. At least Neil has sought something of this, though I do not agree with his conclusions, and lack in the exegetical depth.

      Myself as a scripture theologian (Th.D.), I have not seen any real exegesis here. But only those that accept both pesudonymity and thus themselves verisimilitude. But I am, as I have stated presuppositional in the approach and belief in Scripture.

  4. C.J. O’Brien,

    Your arguing from your own supposition, rather than the reality of the whole NT Text! And Doherty’s supposition of the late dating of Acts is certainly very weak. See my post on the NT dating by Robinson.

    And since Luke wrote a Gospel, and he was very close with Paul, your argument here also falls down. No, one must bury their head in the ground, to miss the reality and fulness of the NT Text and history itself! It is not a question of quoting it, but knowing what it teaches (exegesis) in its own context. And I have not seen one “mysticist” that cares for that! Just suppositions, with no facts, etc.

    Note Acts 20:35, ..”and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

    No the burden is with you guys, and you have only supposed against the evidence.

    1. The whole issue is you “mythicists” don’t believe the Text. And your unbelief is your presupposition against the whole reality of the historical. In the end, the history of the Biblical Text will always be circular. It is its own presupposition! God has spoken! If one can believe and accept Gen. 1:1..”In the beginning GOD created the heaven and the earth.” And the Biblical God is no deist, then one should have no problem with the whole of Scripture!

    2. IA
      And since Luke wrote a Gospel, and he was very close with Paul, your argument here also falls down.

      More claims which don’t stand up.

      Of course, the anonymous author of Luke/Acts plagiarised from ‘Mark’, which suggests he did not have access to his own sources for much of his basic plot of his Novel.

      And Luke is highly dependent upon Josephus.

      The anonymous author of Luke does use ‘we’ passages – in passages which depend heavily upon Homer.

      Luke was basically a liar and a plagiarist. See http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/mirc1.htm for evidence which Irish Anglican will never accept.

      Christians will not accept the evidence of their own eyes, no matter how much photographic documented evidence you produce that the Gospels are plagiaried lies and frauds.

  5. I have seen it stated that the baptism of JC was true because it ’embarassingly’ suggested that JC was inferior to John the Baptist and therefore the story must be true cos the author of “Mark” would not have written such because it was embarassing.

    For example, see here:

    “The point of the criterion is that the early church would hardly have gone out of its way to create material that only embarrassed its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents ….”

    The problem is that the creator of the story, the author of “Mark”, did not find it embarassing.
    There is no sign of such in his story.
    Here it is, check it out, where is the ’embarrassment’?

    “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
    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
    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;
    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.
    I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
    And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
    And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
    And there came a voice from heaven, [saying], Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

    The author shows no embarrassment at all. others later did, but not the original author.

    It was only later that the full implications of his story sank in that the spinners felt that had to change the story to remove the embarassment that was implicit but not acknowledged in the original [“Mark” didn’t really think it through thoroughly did he?].

    It it significant that they had no problems changing the story.

    Surely if they believed that this was a true historical event lovingly and accurately recorded by an alleged eye witness they would have been extremely reluctant to meddle with the god given reality?

    Apparently not.

    Cos they changed it, that is they changed the ‘received truth”!

    Now that is embarassing.

  6. In John JB doesn’t know Jesus until he sees the spirit descend on him.

    In Luke JB and Jesus are cousins and JB knows him from the very womb (while in it even!).

    In Matthew JB tries to deter Jesus from being baptized because he knows he’s the Messiah.

    How can anyone claim this is revealed truth from God when it contradicts like this? You could try and argue that Jesus baptism is historical and that some of this other stuff like JB trying to deter Jesus from being baptized and JB being his cousin was made up later. But you cannot proclaim that every bit of it is true. Not even the brainwashing of your malevolent god can make falshood true, irishanglican you troll.

    1. rey,

      I will not say much to you, as you do not deserve much. However, the true doctrine of St. Paul, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Zwingi, etc. on the mystery of God’s sovereignty/freedom-resposiblity of man is very profound! Perhaps if you can humble yourself, you might try reading, in our time, the great Austin Farrer on the subject, i.e. his ‘double agency’, etc. Also you might need first some basic theology however.

      1. “The true doctrine of [determinism] is very profound, so why don’t you excerise your free will that it says you don’t have and humble yourself.”

        Oh thanks, irish, for your wonderfully convincing logic. How exactly am I supposed to do something that is supposedly impossible? Hmmmm?

      2. Rey,

        Check out the Irish Articles 1615, they seek to state in a creedal manner about what I believe for the most part about these biblical mysteries, note God’s use of secondary sources. And yeah, you can tone down the ad hom, your own statements sort of speak for themselves. And I never said, “determinism”, that is your word not mine. I have said “responsible” will. And as I wrote Neil, even the modern psychological ideas are seeing “man’s” lack in mental freedom. Man is a spiritual being, but the soul is bound within psychological realities. Again check out Austin Farrer here. “Thought” and “reason” are part of man’s responsiblity, but never without God’s secondary sources also. In theology it is called “common grace”. I thought you wanted me to leave this site? lol

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