More reasons for an early Christian to invent the story of Jesus’ baptism

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by Neil Godfrey

Bill Arnal and Leif E. Vaage are not the only scholars who have published doubts about the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. I mentioned them back in January this year. Another was Burton Mack in Myth of Innocence. (The evidence against historicity is in my view overwhelming. I have shown the weakness of the arguments by E. P. Sanders for its historicity and posted before on how the scenes can be explained entirely in terms of literary function and artifice without any need to resort to assumptions of extraneous events outside the text.) But for sake of completeness here is Burton Mack’s argument for treating it as entirely mythical. I highlight in bold type the reasons he sees evident for the need or wish of early Christians to invent the episode. Far from the scene being an embarrassment to the first Christians to have heard the story, it was surely welcomed. Only later evangelists reading Mark’s gospel felt embarrassment over Mark’s account because they had quite different views of Jesus.

The framework stories of the gospels are the most highly mythologized type of material. They include the narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, transfiguration, crucifixion, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances. The transfiguration story is purely mythological, as are the birth narratives, the story of the empty tomb, and the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples. Critical scholars would not say that any of these derive from reminiscences.

The baptism story is also mythic, but in this case may derive from lore about Jesus and John the Baptist. Lore about John and Jesus is present in the sayings tradition, in a pronouncement story, and other legends both in Q and in Mark. John the Baptist was a public figure whose social role was similar to that of Jesus and whose followers were regarded by some followers of Jesus as competitors.

Except for the baptism story, however, there is no indication that Jesus and John crossed paths.

Now that last line is remarkably refreshing stuff! It almost seems obligatory now for historical Jesus scholars to wax at length how Jesus “must have known John” before the baptism, “was a disciple of John”, and even argue that Jesus’ teachings were influenced by John. Surely the simplest explanation is that the author who crafted John as the precursor of the Christ would naturally craft some overlap in their preaching. It is simply a farce that anyone can call him or herself a historian and seriously write such fanciful nonsense without a shred of evidence. It is entirely an assumption. Fortunately one can find scholars like Mack to offer some balance.

Reasons for its invention:

As the story stands it serves to link Jesus up with a mythic view of Israel’s history and point up the contrast between Jesus and John: Jesus will not baptize with water as John does, but with the spirit. So the lore is mostly legend to confirm Jesus’ importance as a figure of epic proportions.

It belongs to the later layers of Q, composed not much before the time of Mark, and thus represents a stage of reflection where interest in the founder of the Jesus movements gave rise to biographical depiction.

The biographical narratives do not make a set, do not constitute a memory tradition, and cannot be used to reconstruct the life of Jesus. (pp. 54-5, my paragraph formatting and emphasis)

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “More reasons for an early Christian to invent the story of Jesus’ baptism”

  1. “Except for the baptism story, however, there is no indication that Jesus and John crossed paths.”

    But they were cousins and introduced in utero… 😉


  2. There were several decades when Christianity existed but there still was no idea about a Jesus Christ walking around on the Earth and doing deeds and teaching wisdom. This was the situation when Paul, Peter, James and John wrote the epistles that are included now in our New Testament. So, of course, the story about Jesus Christ being baptized in the Jordan River was a later invention.

    Later when some Christians were inventing stories about Jesus Christ on Earth, the first such stories generally took place within the Christians’ own circumstances. If the Christians went through a baptism ritual, then likewise Jesus Christ on Earth went through one.

    I think that the invention of happy-ending gospel stories was motivated initially by the termination of mystical visions for new converts after James joined the Christians’ leadership. Since the new converts could no longer climb to the top of Mount Hermon to experienced authorized visions of Jesus Christ on the Firmament, they invented stories about Jesus Christ descending to Earth and interacting with the new converts, the older leaders and other human beings.

    In the first such stories, Jesus Christ cleverly confounded the older leaders’ termination of mystical experiences for new converts. For example, the story of the feeding of the multitude is about a group of new converts following Jesus and his disciples (the older leaders) to a foot of the mountain and then being told they could not follow along to the mountain top. The disciples tell the young converts to go away, but Jesus says they can stay and wait at the mountain’s foot. When Jesus and the disicples come back down, they find the multitude of young converts, and the disciples again tell them to go away. Jesus says they can stay, but the disciples object that they do not have enough food to feed this multitude, but then Jesus feeds them miraculously. Thus this gospel story has its happy ending — Jesus consoles the multitude of young believers who no longer are allowed to climb Mount Hermon to experience the mystical vision.

    The gospel story about the baptism of Jesus Christ has a similar idea of Jesus Christ confounding the leadership’s prohibition against new converts climbing Mount Hermon to experience the vision. Apparently (I think), the first Christians had performed a pilgrimage (the religion’s earlier name was “The Way”) that passed through Peter’s hometown Bethsaida and proceeded north along the Jordan River to Philippi Caesarea and then to the top of Mount Hermon. It is likely that these pilgrims bathed themselves ritually in the Jordan River at the foot of Mount Hermon before they climbed up.

    After the Christian leadership terminated the mystical experiences at the top of Mount Hermon, the initiation rite for new converts ended with the baptism in the Jordan River, and the river location could be far south of Mount Hermon, even in Judah.

    The story of Jesus Christ’s baptism comprises two parts — 1) the baptism itself and 2) the 40-day fast in the wilderness. The first part is prosaic and conventional, and the second part is sensational and subversive. The second part is the story’s punch, which confounds the leadership’s decision to remove from the initiation rite the climb to the top of Mount Hermon.

    After Jesus is baptized, his initiation ritual ends, but then he spends the next 40 days inventing his own continuation of the initiation ritual. The key element in this continuation is that he walks alone far into a wilderness and finds his own mountain and climbs to its top. There, Jesus Christ experiences his own mystical vision, in which he is confronted by Satan and prevails in this mystical confrontation.

    Jesus does not disobey the Christian leadership’s prohibition, but he does cleverly confound it. He finds a different mountain and has a different mystical experience.

    When young, recently converted Christians told such gospel stories, everyone knew they were fictions. Their purpose was not to tell a story that really did happen but rather to invent a story about what might happen if Jesus Christ descended to Earth and about he would confound unpopular decisions of the church’s elderly leadership.

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