Baptism of Jesus is not bedrock fact. It is entirely creative literature.

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by Neil Godfrey

The baptism of Jesus by John the baptist, as i...
This is how Mark did NOT portray Jesus' baptism. Image via Wikipedia

The baptism of Jesus by John in the Gospel of Mark

  • is stitched together with images from Old Testament passages, and
  • serves the particular theological agenda of Mark that was challenged by later evangelists


  1. if a passage in the Gospels can be shown to serve a theological agenda of an evangelist, then according to widely accepted standards of biblical historiography, we have reason to question its historical authenticity; and
  2. if a passage can be shown to be a pastiche of other texts certainly known to the author and his audience, and if once we strip away those textual borrowings and are left with nothing that stands alone, or in other words, if once we remove the sheepskin and find nothing left underneath, then we have further support in our doubts as to the historical originality of the event; and
  3. if the only external testimony to John the Baptist contradicts or fails to support our narrative at significant points, then we will need more than three bag’s full of special pleading to justify holding to any shred of historicity in our little narrative.

To repeat what I won’t repeat here

I have discussed the evidence for the John the Baptist of Mark’s gospel being cut from OT passages, and how this cut-out shape stands opposed to the apparently historical account in Josephus’ Antiquities, and how the episode of the baptism of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is disqualified from being historical even on the grounds of one of mainstream biblical scholarly criteria for historicity. (The criterion of embarrassment only applies to those later evangelists, Matthew, Luke and John, who demonstrate embarrassment with Mark’s story, not with any historical event per se.) These demonstrations are in Engaging Sanders point by point: JB, and JB, strangest of prophets, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. Nor will I address the possibility that the baptism reflects an adoptionist or separationist Christology. Nor even the arguments advanced to suggest John the Baptist himself was a mythical creation.

But why would anyone make it up?

This is one of the favourite arguments of so many historical Jesus scholars.

It’s not an argument. It’s a rhetorical question, and anyone who encounters a biblical scholar using it ought to pull out a passage from Dennett and ask if what applies to philosophy students can also apply to students of religion:

I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 178)

The resort to the rhetorical question is necessary because there is no evidence available to support the argument, only narrative claims. But in order to justify their status as historians they need to have some real evidence. So since real evidence is lacking they take a cue from the biblical narratives themselves, and by the power of the word and with faith to move mountains they simply declare that a claim in a narrative really is evidence after all, and lo, that is what it becomes. I’d like to have the wit to say something like this little miracle of turning a few claims into a few pieces of real evidence is enough to feed thousands of scholars.

And this particular “historical methodology” is justified by a rhetorical question: Why would anyone make up this or that claim? The rhetoric is meant to push the presumption of historicity onto any would-be sceptic.

But all it does in reality is demonstrate the lack of understanding, knowledge or imagination of the one “asking” the question.

Some go further and even preach to sceptics the need for a hermeneutic of Christian charity, at least if they want to be good Christian scholars. This means that they should treat the claims in the same way you yourself would like your claims to be treated — with an initial assumption of trust. Only the ungodly approach what others say with “suspicion”! I doubt they would apply the same hermeneutic to pagan literature, or even to their courtroom scenarios.

Answering the rhetorical question

Rhetorical questions aren’t meant to be answered. That’s why they are asked: they are meant to shut down questions.

But the question has been answered well in the mainstream scholarly literature. I guess an answer from within the ranks is quite acceptable. It means the answer is under control and it won’t be used to alert the institution of the fundamental flaws on which their whole enterprise is founded.


Let’s start with a 1977 publication, The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy, by Gilbert G. Bilezikian. He begins by discussing the first line of the Gospel:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” – Mark 1:1

The opening sentence of the Gospel is charged with momentous suspense. It evokes the unfolding of awesome and compelling supernatural happenings.

The opening words, speaking of the “beginning” (ὰρχή) , have much more import than indicating the first line of a book or the start of the story. We have here an allusion to the Genesis beginning, the dawn of a new creation, a new order of universal significance, the proclamation of a new world about to be inaugurated. The “gospel” or “good news” also had messianic and eschatological connotations among Jews, and panegyrical significance within Roman imperial traditions. The titles “Christ” and “Son of God” in both Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds exalt Jesus as a figure of superhuman stature.

On the one hand, the sentence has the ring of a proclamation and a universal summons. It is an invitation to witness a drama of cosmic significance. On the other, the sentence is a secret revelation. From the outset of the story, the reader is taken into the author’s confidence. He receives privileged knowledge for which the contemporaries of Jesus are described in the Gospel as groping in vain, until the last page when the resurrection illuminates all things.

The first fourteen verses are a prologue. The real plot does not begin till Jesus comes preaching in Galilee. The baptism scene is part of the prologue that “sets the tone for the whole Gospel with a few masterful strokes.”

By alternating elements of supernatural and theophanic manifestation accompanying the appearance of Jesus with antithetical signs of His humanity and contingency, Mark created tension from which there is no relief until the very end of the Gospel.

So the first sentence announces the supernatural identity of Jesus.

This identity is reinforced then by John the Baptist’s introduction. And John, himself, is a major voice here. For Mark, John himself was predicted by the ancient prophets. (Many have thought Mark to be a bit of a dunce for combining prophetic sayings from both Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 and attributing them both to Isaiah. But Mark is “using Isaiah antonomastically as a synecdoche since Isaiah was regarded, even outside Judaism, as the archetypal Jewish prophet. Both Old Testament texts pertain to the practice of sending heralds to prepare the king’s highway prior to a royal voyage.”)

So John was predicted by the ancient prophets, and he in turn predicts the ultimate one.

Thus Mark showed that a prophetic chain of prediction and preparation, therefore of supernatural activity, links the ministry of Jesus to the Old Testament through John the Baptist.

John is demonstrated to be a genuine prophet by his wilderness setting, and his dress and meagre rations in imitation of the greatest prophet of all, Elijah. His ministry is so overwhelmingly successful that “all the people of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem” come to him confessing their sins.

Then Mark has John “almost abjectly” declare himself “inferior and subservient to the one who will fulill the καιρός by releasing the fullness of the Holy Spirit (through baptism), thus signifying the end-time and presence of God.

Thus the mood of dramatic expectancy is established.

The reader is expecting the greatest moment in history to break forth with all the majesty and grandeur befitting the advent of the very Son of God himself.

So what does Mark do?

But thus having created a mood of dramatic expectancy, Mark described the entrance of Jesus in the most shockingly anticlimactic fashion conceivable: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” The unadorned abruptness of the sentence, the vagueness of the chronological indication, the absence of any title for Jesus, the full disclosure of His rural background [“Nazareth of Galilee” of 1:9 stands in sharp contrast with the fashionable Judea and Jerusalem of 1:5], and His baffling and unexplained subjection to the baptism for confession of sins, cannot be fortuitous.

Mark is intentionally stripping away all those dramatic expectations he had built up and that would be held by everyone for the arrival of the Messiah.

[These lowly five points] are intended to rob the entrance of the Son of God upon the scene of history, of the majesty and grandeur befitting the inauguration of the Jewish Messiah, or of the Θειος ανηρ, the “divine man” of Hellenistic religions. Mark’s obvious intention is to warn against false expectations regarding spectacular manifestations of Jesus’ messianic identity.

The disappointment caused by the casual and unprepossessing appearance of Jesus, and especially the scandal of His baptism, are partly relieved by a positive reversal in the form of a theophany; the baptism becomes the occasion for transcendence to break upon Jesus and confirm His supernatural uniqueness.

Out of baptism Jesus (and Jesus alone) sees the heavens tear apart, hears the voice of God, sees the spirit descend into him. He is then thrust out to the wilderness where he takes on Satan himself, but is rescued by other angels. When he enters Capernaum we learn that the demons all recognize exactly who he is. Yet the human audience remain mystified to the end.

Thus Mark is creating a Jesus who takes on all the lowly appearances of anyone else, so that he is indistinguishable from anyone else, at least as far as his real identity is concerned. The only ones who know the significance of his coming, and who he really is, are those in the spirit world, and the readers.

The baptism of Jesus was as necessary as his appearing in flesh in the first place. The plot of Mark turns on the tension of Jesus’ identity not being recognized, even being hidden, until the resurrection.

Mark is not the least “embarrassed” by Jesus’ baptism. Mark wants the baptism in there to underscore in the most dramatic way possible that the Messiah does not come in the dramatic manner that people had expected. Later, his own townsfolk will remind themselves that this Jesus is just one of themselves and no-one special at all.


Moving on to a 1992 publication, this one by Jerry Camery-Hoggatt, Irony in Mark’s Gospel: Text and Subtext.

Camery-Hoggatt also exposits the Mark’s buildup to enhance reader expectations of a dramatic entrance of Jesus.

Were this a drama, we might say that Jesus is an actor standing in the wings, patiently awaiting his cue. But standing there, a silent figure, his shadow looms already across the stage. The implied presence of the Messiah is critical. Everything that has appeared thus far has pointed to it. The reader expects a messianic figure of gigantic proportions, what Thomas Howard has called “a towering and furious figure who will not be managed.”

It is only a shadow, to be sure, but that looming shadow, and the Baptist’s self-effacement, such critical factors . . . , set up the reader and the story’s characters for a terrific disappointment. We are hardly prepared for the understated way Jesus finally makes his appearance in verse 9: he simply appears, without fanfare, like everybody else who has come to be baptized by John in the Jordan. The verbal similarities with verse 5 have often been noted. We may diagram them briefly:

[5] And there went out to him
and all the people of Jerusalem;
and they were baptized
by him
in the river Jordan
confessing their sins.

[9] In those days Jesus came
from Nazareth of Galilee
and he was baptized
by John
in the Jordan.

. . . . The point here is . . . Jesus appears incognito. No one inside the story has any reason to suspect that this particular figure is any different from the others. . . . The crowds have no way of guessing Jesus’ motivation for baptism. On the surface of it, Jesus is so unlike John’s “Coming One” that he is able to conceal his identity from the crowds entirely, and it remains hidden from the disciples until well into the narrative.

The explanation for the baptism scene is entirely literary and theological

Again, far from their being any embarrassment in the mind of the author over the baptism of Jesus, the author uses the baptism as the most significant foil to the popular expectation of the Messianic figure. It serves his dramatic purpose perfectly. It serves to hide the identity of Jesus from all others in this world of flesh.

And out of that abasement comes the theophany — the communication with God in heaven as he tears the sky apart, and subsequently departs to confront Satan himself with the assistance of angels. One is reminded, of course, of the crucifixion being answered by his resurrection.

What Mark is doing here with scenes of baptism (and crucifixion) is creating a dramatic set of theologically charged images for a spiritual tale.

If dramatic irony serves Mark’s theological and literary agendas, then the baptism might be described as the masterstroke of dramatic and literary irony that advances that theological agenda.

If that is the case, if we thus have a motivation for the author to begin his prologue with such a baptism of Jesus, then we have an explanation for the baptism. The explanation is entirely literary and theological.

But might it not be historical as well as literary?

Of course some will plead, But might the baptism also have been historical? The question reminds me of the joke about a technician explaining how a television set works to a technically-challenged enquirer who thought there must be a little man inside who makes it all work. The enquirer listened attentively as the technician explained carefully and slowly the nature of radio waves, the cathode ray tube, the antenna socket, electronic circuits and electromagnets. When he had finished, this thoughtful enquirer paused for a moment to take it all in, and finally said, Yes, but just the same, isn’t there still a little man in there to make it all work?


Postscript: Significance of waters?

Thomas L. Thompson in Our Mythic Past argues for certain images being reiterated throughout the Jewish scriptures to convey traditional symbolic meanings well-known to the authors. One of these images is the dividing of waters as a sign of a new creation. We first read of this in Genesis 1. The world emerges through the division of waters above and those below, and then the parting of waters to reveal the dry land and fruitfulness. The image recurs at the Flood as the old world makes way for the new with its new rules and ways. Then there is the Exodus, and the crossing of the Jordan, and then the dividing of the streams by both Elijah and Elisha. The meaning of the image is the same in every case. Paul taught baptism within this tradition. It was the way to the death of the old and rebirth into a life. And Mark is writing, at least in significant part, within this literary tradition. Several scholars have remarked on the baptismal associations within the gospel, such as the white robe finally worn by the young man after fleeing naked (the white robe being customary for those being baptised in the early Church). If we read the baptism of Jesus within this tradition, we see a new meaning hidden from the human characters in the gospel, but indicating to us the new world about to be ushered in. And this meaning for Jesus’ baptism is immediately underscored by the transvaluation of the emergence from parting waters by means of the parting of the heaven itself.

Early 1950s Television Set
Image by gbaku via Flickr
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  • Steven Carr
    2010-08-10 13:43:45 GMT+0000 - 13:43 | Permalink

    Surely the baptism scene in Mark is as crafted as the scene in Macbeth where the witches announce the succession of kings that stem from Duncan.

  • 2010-08-10 23:30:01 GMT+0000 - 23:30 | Permalink


    Let’s start with a 1977 publication, The Liberated Gospel: A Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy, by Gilbert G. Bilezikian. He begins by discussing the first line of the Gospel:

    “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” – Mark 1:1

    The opening sentence of the Gospel is charged with momentous suspense. It evokes the unfolding of awesome and compelling supernatural happenings.

    The opening words, speaking of the “beginning” (ὰρχή) , have much more import than indicating the first line of a book or the start of the story. We have here an allusion to the Genesis beginning, the dawn of a new creation, a new order of universal significance, the proclamation of a new world about to be inaugurated. The “gospel” or “good news” also had messianic and eschatological connotations among Jews, and panegyrical significance within Roman imperial traditions. The titles “Christ” and “Son of God” in both Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds exalt Jesus as a figure of superhuman stature.”

    Well even the Great Library of Alexandria would now be jealous of the books that you possess (as well as the Demons in “Mark”). Yes,Bilezikian does demon-straight that “Mark” is Greek Tragedy and not Bio, but he is still a Conservative Christian, so book buyer, beware.

    “son of god” in Mark 1 is a well known forgery:


    Note that in “Mark” the claim that Jesus is “son of god” is otherwise never given as an editorial comment. It is always presented via narrative. While this is an observation missed by Ehrman/Metzger El-all, I have faith that it is actually the best evidence that “son of god” is forged in 1:1.

    In the bigger picture, in the context of historical methodology for MJ/HJ the criteria for detecting fiction, in order of potential weight are:

    1) Impossible claims

    2) Contradictions

    3) Parallels to non-historical sources

    4) Thematic motivation

    5) Contrivance/Implausibility

    6) Necessity of tying to other stories

    To the extent individual stories contain these, they are probably not history. Go through
    “Mark” with these criteria and see what survives besides Jesus. Reminds me too much of the
    classic Adam Family episode where they decide to give Cousin It a haircut and when they
    finish there is nothing left.

    By all means we should also consider positive criteria such as Professor McGrath proposes.
    But when you only use criteria one way you are an Advocate and not a Judge and your
    “methodology” is proof-texting. This is the fault with Christian Bible scholarship here.
    You have to use ALL criteria, not just the ones which support the conclusion you want.
    Than it’s not scholarship, it’s theology.

    • 2010-08-12 00:02:31 GMT+0000 - 00:02 | Permalink

      You’re right, of course, about the “son of God” addition in the opener. Writing in haste and under pressure. Not good. And this is supposed to be my escapist hobby.

      There are so many ways of looking at Mark and they all point to fiction through and through. The scenes and sayings so often pointed to as “the real historical Jesus” etc strike me as some of the most contrived. Few NT scholars seem to have much or any awareness of ancient literature outside their coursework for Bible studies. Those that do know the classical literature are often brilliant.

      The criteria used by HJ scholars have a built in presumption of historicity — the point of the criteria is only to rationalize which bits they will find to stick to that assumption and make it look pretty. Sure, look at them, but so far I haven’t found any that support historicity unless circular reasoning is the way to the kingdom.

      Literary criticism is the way to go. It tells us exactly what sort of text we are dealing with. And that is the first thing real historians know they need to understand before they figure out how to use it.

      Thanks for the library acquisition tip.

  • Steven Carr
    2010-08-11 09:55:42 GMT+0000 - 09:55 | Permalink

    Larry Hurtado has another excellent post on the Gospels.


    ‘Indeed, it is striking that many of the most notable Markan ‘omissions’ involve matters which are not susceptible of imitation, including the virginal conception and the pre-eschatological resurrection. Mark’s whole story of Jesus can be read as a blueprint for the Christian life: It begins with baptism, proceeds with the vigorous pursuit of ministry in the face of temptation and opposition, and culminates in suffering and death oriented towards an as-yet unseen vindication.” ‘

    The baptism was a ‘blueprint’ for Christians to follow.

    Hardly an embarrassment.

    And who else could have baptised Jesus except the most famous baptiser? Could Mark have allowed his Jesus to be baptised by a nobody?

    • 2010-08-11 10:07:15 GMT+0000 - 10:07 | Permalink

      What, what?? You mean Mark was not interested in telling us all he could about the person and life of the one he believed was the greatest man who had ever appeared on earth?

    • 2010-08-11 11:15:49 GMT+0000 - 11:15 | Permalink

      Tough blueprint to follow. Are we all supposed to raise little girls from the dead with an Aramaic incantation? Do we need to find a high place nearby and . . . transfigure?

  • mikelioso
    2010-08-11 13:15:49 GMT+0000 - 13:15 | Permalink

    “The opening words, speaking of the “beginning” (ὰρχή) , have much more import than indicating the first line of a book or the start of the story. We have here an allusion to the Genesis beginning, …”

    The beginning is also a popular place to start stories of all kinds.

    Tour Joke about the little man in the T.V. falls flat here unless it is preposterous than John the Baptist was in the baptizing people business. I get the impression he did it a lot, so it’s hard to rule out someone being baptized by him just because there baptism by him was written up in a religious inspirational novel. The popularity of baptism in the early church does fit in nicely with some of its members being a part of John’s group. it could have been an independent creation, but the early Christians do seem to have a thing for John. I don’t think it would have been picked up from him since he was dead long before Paul, but if you think Jesus was a myth then Peter and some of the other so called pillars may have been preaching long before Paul, just no one cared to remember it.

    “You mean Mark was not interested in telling us all he could about the person and life of the one he believed was the greatest man who had ever appeared on earth?”

    He certainly doesn’t. One of the striking things about Mark is it is short, shorter than the Life of Appolonius of Tyana, The Acts of Paul, or Acts of John. All the Gospels are pip squeaks next to some of the biographies and pseudo biographies of the time. Why does John tease with that “Jesus did many other things” crap? Let it loose man, we’ll haul this book around in an ox cart!

    • 2010-08-11 20:01:19 GMT+0000 - 20:01 | Permalink

      “. . . so it’s hard to rule out someone being baptized by him just because there baptism by him was written up in a religious inspirational novel.”

      I do not question the baptism “just because it was written up in a religious inspirational novel”. If a story can be most simply explained by noting how all its bits and pieces have a clear and direct literary explanation, then that is surely the most economical accounting for it.

  • Steven Carr
    2010-08-11 17:29:03 GMT+0000 - 17:29 | Permalink

    Larry Hurtado writes ‘It appears that Mark uses the ancient literary device of disciples’ misunderstanding as a foil for the teacher/master to give and model the true teaching. The failure of the disciples is widely acknowledged by scholars as intended by the author to serve as warnings to readers.’

    Mark is creative literature.

  • C.J. O'Brien
    2010-08-12 01:17:52 GMT+0000 - 01:17 | Permalink

    Your Joke about the little man in the T.V. falls flat here unless it is preposterous than John the Baptist was in the baptizing people business.

    Mike, you keep trying out this line of argument, which assumes its conclusion and conflates plausibility with historical probability. Those are two of the main critiques Neil levels at the whole HJ enterprise.

    In short, nobody’s saying it’s preposterous that there was a John the Baptizer or that he made a practice of baptizing penitents in the Jordan. By the same token, nobody is saying that it’s preposterous that some such prophet or messianic claimant went up to Jerusalem one Spring, made a ruckus, and got himself executed by the Romans. “Not preposterous,” however, is not the place you want to start making judgements about history. Lots of hypothetical scenarios are prima facie plausible, and the more one knows about the history of a period, the more non-preposterous scenarios one could spin. But they would still be unconstrained by any historical evidence; nobody would try to make any strong claims based on them except in the field of Biblical studies. The claim “John baptized” is very different from “John baptized [a specific individual, otherwise unknown to history]”

    So you’re missing the thrust of the “man in the TV” joke. It’s not that little men controlling electronic devices are silly, so by analogy the proffered historical explanation is equally silly. It’s that, faced with an alternative (purely literary) explanation for why we find certain features in certain texts, the NT studies guild will continue to prefer a “black box” description that puts all the explanatory weight on the unknowable: the influence of or memories about the activities and events surrounding an otherwise unheard-of historical figure. The contrast isn’t between reasonable and preposterous in terms of the explanation. The joke is that, even given all the working parts, there are some who will continue to insist that “there must be something else.”

  • mikelioso
    2010-08-12 17:35:46 GMT+0000 - 17:35 | Permalink

    C.J. the question the joke answers is “But might the baptism also have been historical?” asked by supporters of a historical Jesus. The answer is that there is no need for a historical event if a literary one can be made, that it is a foolish question to ask. It does not matter that there is a popular tradition of this occurring, a possible literary creation of the episode eliminates the possibility of the episode being based on an actual event in a persons life, even though the event was relatively common. I don’t think that the skepticism of the event is probable enough to allow us to dismiss it historical value as superfluous. The commonness of the event combined with the tradition of its occurrence give it enough support been seen beyond use as plot device or derivative elements. more would have to be known to conclude John did not baptize Jesus.


    “I do not question the baptism “just because it was written up in a religious inspirational novel”. If a story can be most simply explained by noting how all its bits and pieces have a clear and direct literary explanation, then that is surely the most economical accounting for it”

    As mentioned above I don’t think the event can be rendered unlikely to have happened solely on the grounds that it suits the motivation of an author to include it, or has a conceivable literary parallel. More is needed.

    For instance in the Markan account of Jesus before Pilate, there are a number of elements similar to Philo’s Flaccus,chapter 6:36-43. In both a man, a kind of gentle madman, is mocked as a king, Jesus is also condemned for claiming to be king. a diadem of plants is fastened to there head, a cloak of some kind is placed on them, the madman is accompanied by mock soldiers, Jesus by real ones, they pretend to make homage to the “king”. In Mark Jesus is offered against Barabbas, a rebel with a rather symbolic, but otherwise nonsensical name name, in Philo the Madman is named Carabbas. The similarities are strikingly specific, and unusual. This passage from an author who’s own ideas shared so much in common with Christianity’s, so it is very possible mark was familiar with his work. It would provide him with the inspiration for the name of the villain, and give the details of Jesus’ humiliation.

    Now it is likely that people who were crucified were also beaten and mocked. It is not impossible that some condemned prisoners met Pilate. But there is no evidence that Pilate gave people a twisted prisoner pardon on holy days. And this is something we could be reasonably expected to know about. It is also rather out of character and illogical. But in mark it forms a terrific dramatic scene where the citizens of Jerusalem reject Jesus implicitly. It makes it unequivocal what might other wise only be speculated on, that the Jews rejected Jesus and that is why the city was destroyed. Anyone knowing the story of the madman hailed as king or the madman accused of being a king could not help but be reminded of one when listening to the other. It would be quite a coincidence for both Jesus and Carabbas to have been mocked as king in this way and be written into record by an author and one of there admirers.

    This is an example of a episode in Mark that can be demonstrated reasonably to be non occurring. Jesus was not publicly offered against a person named Barabbas and he did not wear the crown of thorns of purple robe. The event of the baptism does not have nearly as definitive a case of literary adaptation or a reason why the event would otherwise be unlikely. The only truly subjective thing is whether it is such a good plot device, the baptism is also fairy dramatic piece too and good story telling is in the eye of the beholder.

    Basically, I now need to see evidence that this (the presentation of Barabbas and mocking as king) did occur to accept the possibility of it happening. I have, on the other hand, no real reason to deny Jesus was Baptized by John if the two guys existed, I just don’t know that he was.

    • 2010-08-12 19:31:21 GMT+0000 - 19:31 | Permalink

      Mikelioso, on the one hand you need evidence that something DID occur, yet on the other you request evidence that another thing did NOT occur.

      I agree with your request in the first instance, but think you are inconsistent in also asking for the second.

      Why not require evidence that both something and another thing DID occur?

      Plausibility is not a factor, or at least must be understood as a necessary condition either way. Fiction authors, even ancient ones, strive for plausibility and verisimilitude.

    • Rick_H
      2010-08-13 15:06:28 GMT+0000 - 15:06 | Permalink

      “But there is no evidence Pilate gave people a twisted pardon on holy days”.

      In Fabricating Jesus, pgs. 174-175, Craig Evans gives plenty of evidence.
      1) The Mishnah, (Jewish oral law committed to writing ca. AD 200), says that “they may slaughter [the Passover lamb] for one…whom they have promised to bring out of prison”. Who “they” are,(Jewish authorities, Roman authorities?) is not made clear. But it refers to a traditional release of a prisoner at Passover.
      2)A papyrus,(PFlor. 61, ca. AD 85), quotes the words of the Roman governer of Egypt: “You were worthy of scourging…but I give you to the crowds”
      3) Pliny the Younger, Ephesus, Josephus and others are also quoted referring to the release of prisoners as a means of satisfying the demands of the crowds and currying favor.
      4) All four gospels mention the pardon and if there were no tradition of these pardons this would have caused an embarrassment for the early church.

      • 2010-08-14 00:50:29 GMT+0000 - 00:50 | Permalink

        Craig Evans wants to believe the gospels, so he does. He gets under my skin even more than William Lane Craig. At least with WLC, you know where you stand. He’s a full-on, in-your-face apologist who’ll twist any argument or shred of evidence to make orthodox Christianity appear correct. With Craig Evans, however, we’re dealing with a very learned professor who really has to know better, but can’t help himself. Even in his scholarly papers you can catch him smuggling in apologist dogma.

        I’ll leave aside the Mishnah and stories about other Roman governors releasing prisoners. What we need to focus on are Pilate, Jesus bar Abbas, and the volatile Jerusalem crowd. The Pilate described by Philo and Josephus is cruel, violent, and inflexible. He was not the sort of ruler who cared about what the rabble thought of him. If anything, he appeared to delight in provoking them, and took even further delight in putting the rebels to death. Is it likely he would release a murderer who had been arrested during a riot? Not very.

        The fourth argument above is exceptionally weak. This is similar to the kind of thing the Lee Strobel industry cranks out. By this measure, the resurrection must be true, because all four gospels recount the story. It’s the kind of circular argument that pleases only myopic apologists.

        Craig Evans’ list does not constitute evidence of a probable occurrence; it is a plea for plausibility. And as we’ve seen countless times already here, in the world of NT studies, plausibility equals probability equals fact.

      • Steven Carr
        2010-08-14 02:06:01 GMT+0000 - 02:06 | Permalink

        In other words, no Christian has found even a hint of releasing a prisoner on a Holy Day and they have had to resort to the worst kind of parallelomania, as they cannot produce a shred of evidence for the Gospel story.

      • Rick_H
        2010-08-15 14:09:58 GMT+0000 - 14:09 | Permalink

        “the fourth argument is exceptionally weak…By this measure the resurrection must be true because all four gospels recount the story. It’s the kind of circular argument that pleases only myopic apologists.”

        Not at all. The resurrection was witnessed by only a few people, (excluding Paul’s 500 claim).
        But a traditional Passover pardon, (if it existed), would have been widely known all over Palestine.
        The fact that the writers mentioned the pardon in the gospels can only mean one of two things. It’s true or the authors put something in all four gospels that the average person at the time would have known was false.
        I can’t see why they would have done the latter. So in historocity lingo that’s probable occurance.

      • 2010-08-15 15:37:57 GMT+0000 - 15:37 | Permalink

        This is a circular argument.

        1. It assumes that the narrative itself is historical or that it was attempting to falsely persuade people within the generation of the narrative of its historicity.

        2. Then from that assumption it is argued that those people would have put brakes on anyone attempting to write falsehoods — and therefore the narrative must be historical and written in the lifetimes of potential witnesses.

        To argue that scribes would not have made something up because you can’t see why they would make it up is possibly an indication of lack of information or imagination. What some apologists claim would have been an embarrassment can often be shown to be simply a matter of certain doctrinal teachings or lessons and not embarrassing at all. (e.g. http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/it-is-highly-unlikely/)

      • 2010-08-15 22:50:54 GMT+0000 - 22:50 | Permalink

        Rick_H: The fact that the writers mentioned the pardon in the gospels can only mean one of two things. It’s true or the authors put something in all four gospels that the average person at the time would have known was false. I can’t see why they would have done the latter.

        Are you saying that you can’t imagine why gospel writers would make things up? Or are you saying that the gospel writers wouldn’t invent something because eyewitnesses would call them out? And how would that work, given that most people were illiterate and there was no mass media?

        I have never understood the appeal of the second argument. Apologists fall back on it continually in their historical Jesus works. If I understand it correctly, the argument asks us to imagine the gospel writers sitting at their desks, actively constrained from writing fiction because, “If I commit that whopper to paper, people who were living in Jerusalem at the time will know I’m making it up.” Do we have any evidence for or against this presumed constraint?

        Here’s a short list of public events that almost certainly did not happen that appear in the gospels.

        1. Zombies roamed the streets of Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion.
        2. Herod had all infants and toddlers in Bethlehem murdered when Jesus was born.
        3. An eclipse lasting 3 full hours enshrouded Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion (Synoptics) or not (John).
        4. Jesus rode into Jerusalem, straddling the backs of two animals — or not.
        5. Jesus was crucified on the day of preparation for Passover (John) and/or on the day of Passover (Synoptics).
        6. The veil in the temple was ripped in two.

        The gospel writers demonstrate no restraint in their creativity. On the contrary, we have proof of their willingness to embellish their sources (see Matthew and Luke’s rewriting of Mark and Q). So what is going on here?

        I think the texts themselves strongly suggest that the primary audiences for the gospels lived in communities well removed temporally and geographically from first-century Jerusalem, and probably even Palestine. I think the gospels should be dated much later than the general consensus, and that nobody reading any of the four canonical gospels had any firsthand memory of the events, whether historical or not.

        If all you’re saying is you can’t imagine why a gospel writer would make things up, join the club. Why did Matthew make up a story about zombies wandering Jerusalem? Maybe for dramatic effect? Who knows? Our lack of imagination is not an argument against gospel fiction.

  • mikelioso
    2010-08-13 04:16:34 GMT+0000 - 04:16 | Permalink

    The nature of the evidence regarding Jesus’ baptism can’t give us anything close to certainty on the issue. It is something some early Christians believed about Jesus and one I think one can fairly refer to this tradition when discussing issues related to it. It isn’t necessary but not unlikely either. The converse is the same. The evidence against its occurrence isn’t strong enough to say it did not happen, only that it may not have. The account of the baptism is not a great hurdle to any theories that require that it not have taken place. It would be going to far to say logic requires us to say this likely did not happen.

    This is a different case from the mocking of Jesus as king and the crowd deciding for Barabbas. It would be irresponsible to use these incidents to as evidence to consider on Pilate’s administration of Judea. It isn’t impossible that he was mocked in the fashion described or even that Pilate had prisoner give aways on high holidays, but I think it would be a very low possibility, and we need not entertain it without some new evidence in favour.

    For the baptism, to be sure that it did or did not occur would also require additional evidence. but it is likely enough that one could use the recorded incident as evidence when discussing and a issue like whether Christianity began as a splinter group of John’s movement, or even speculate on whether Jesus had some epiphany while being baptized. On the other hand there is no grounds for discussing Jesus having accompanied Joseph of Arimithea on a tin buying expedition to Briton which is a much later legend, or that Jesus was briefly a pottery maker on Cyprus, which would be wild, baseless speculation. That he was baptized by John is not so wild, the tradition that he was is not so far from the incident that we would not expect Christians to remember this. The presentation of a reasonable case for this being an artificial incident does not logicaly preclude another explanation.

    • 2010-08-13 09:44:10 GMT+0000 - 09:44 | Permalink

      I don’t consider the fact that someone wrote a story and some people at some time believed it — I don’t consider this to be evidence for historicity. This is where I think our differences begin.

  • mikelioso
    2010-08-14 02:02:53 GMT+0000 - 02:02 | Permalink

    Rick H, thanks for the notes. Their is a kind of internal logic to the episode, that Pilate seems to offer Jesus who he A. thinks is harmless B. thinks is popular with the people against Barabbas, who he really wants dead. The idea is get rid Barabbas with the peoples consent and embarrass the priest. Still given the difficulties of the crowds choice pardon (the lack of an external mention of what is described as the custom for passover, the unnatural level of generosity for Pilate) I still rather skeptical.

    On the Misnah statement, for anyone who may know, did local authorities handle petty criminal cases? a pardoning of minor criminals might not make the historical accounts and given the other examples of pardons you give, it would make the Gospel account ring true to the initial readers. It could conceivably happen in their world view.

    • Steven Carr
      2010-08-14 02:10:48 GMT+0000 - 02:10 | Permalink

      So ‘Barabbas’ the ‘Son of the Father’ is released, although allegedly a proven killer in an insurrection that somehow escaped history.

      Meanwhile, Jesus, the ‘Son of the Father’ is about to be killed, although innocent, while a guilty ‘Son of the Father’ is about to be released.

      You may as well read Bunynan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and take ‘Worldy Wiseman’, ‘Timourous’ and ‘Piety’ as real people.

      Just why exactly would Pilate be ‘a friend of Caesar’ by releasing Barabbas, an allegedly proven insurrectionist killer?

  • Steven Carr
    2010-08-15 14:26:55 GMT+0000 - 14:26 | Permalink

    It’s true or the authors put something in all four gospels that the average person at the time would have known was false.


    The idea that something in the Gospels must be true , because otherwise it would be false, is a remarkable breakthough in logic.

    The ‘average person of the time’ knew very little. The readers of Mark’s Novel did not know the currency or the language of Palestine. They did not know what ‘Bartimaeus’ meant, and it had to be explained to them that some people washed their hands before meals.

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