The “Legend” of the Baptism of Jesus (Bultmann flashback)

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by Neil Godfrey

Posted 6pm. Updated 8:30 pm with note on Thompson’s argument that baptism is a reiteration of OT narratives

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Every so often scholars stumble over evidence that what they are reading in the Gospels is based not on historical events but on theological creativity but they never seem to mind. They nearly always pick themselves up, dust themselves off and look around declaring, “Didn’t hurt a bit” before continuing on their way as if nothing had ever happened.

Not so long ago I wrote a few posts on Bishop John Shelby’s Spong’s arguments that most of what we read in the Gospels is fictional midrash. (Even Dale C. Allison uses that “m” word to describe some of the same narratives in his Constructing Jesus — pp. 448, 451 —  so I guess scholars who object to mythicists using the word ‘midrash’ should have a quiet word with their mainstream counterparts who carelessly encourage them.) The point is that even though Spong argued Gospel stories were not historical memories, he nonetheless insisted that there was a historical foundation to them all. He’s not alone. Dennis MacDonald has argued that many scenarios in the Gospel of Mark are adaptations of scenes in the Homeric epics but he, too, makes a point of explicitly stating that he does not believe Jesus himself is a fiction.

So one feels immersed in familiar waters when reading a 1963 translation of the third edition (1958) of Rudolf Bultmann’s  The History of the Synoptic Tradition (originally published 1921) and finds Bultmann likewise being quick to declare that, despite all the legendary or mythical features of Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus, he nonetheless is not so sceptical  as to deny that John really and truly did baptize Jesus.

Without disputing the historicity of Jesus’ baptism by John,2 the story as we have it must be classified as legend. (p. 247)

If our earliest record of an event is legend then on what grounds do we decide not to question its historicity?

But even more intriguing is an attached footnote that reads:

2 I cannot share the scepticism of E. Meyer, Ursprung u. Anfaenge d. Christent., I, 1921, pp. 83f.  Indeed Acts 1037f, 1324f. prove that the historical fact of Jesus’ baptism is not necessary for linking the ministry of Jesus to John’s; yet not that this linking must be made by the story of a baptism, or that it could only be made if the baptism of Jesus were not an actual historical fact.

So my recent post about three modern scholars who are sceptical about the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John — Bill Arnal, Leif E. Vaage and Burton Mack — are nothing novel. So the scholarly doubt is at least as old as 1921.

So what was Bultmann’s finding that led him to decide the account of Jesus’ baptism was not historical (even though he still believed the event was historical anyway)?

Classifying the baptism narrative as “legend”

The first arguments against historicity are that

  1. the account’s miraculous element is essential to it (compare Thompson and others remarking that removal of the miraculous does not save biblical stories but destroys them)
  2. there is a clear edifying purpose to the narrative (it is not a historical fact for “history’s” sake)

The miraculous moment is essential to it and its edifying purpose is clear. (p. 247)

(I can’t resist another comment. If there is any validity to this reasoning then the crucifixion of Jesus is equally arguably nonhistorical. For what is the crucifixion without the miracle of the resurrection? And what is the crucifixion without its message of atonement and salvation? And if the only stories we have about either the baptism or the crucifixion are theological then what evidence is left over to argue that they are historical?)

Sure one can opine that both unhistorical narratives were partly inspired by historical analogues. But one can equally suggest they were inspired by other beliefs and creative imagination. The task is then to prepare tests to evaluate how well each hypothesis accounts for the theological fiction we are reading.

Why it is not a biographical “call” story

(Note that the bible verses are hyperlinked. Right-click on them for quick reference.)

It is characteristically different from calling stories like Isa. 6:1-13; Jer. 1:5-19; Ez. 1 and 2; Acts 9:1-9; Lk. 5:1-11; Rev. 1:9-20; Jn. 21:15-17: not only is there not so much as a word about the inner experience of Jesus, but there is no word of commission to the person called, and no answer from him, things which we normally find in proper accounts of a call. Nor is the passage concerned with Jesus’ special calling to preach repentance and salvation, but the real subject is his being the messiah, or the Son of God, and that cannot be described as a ‘call’.

He continues:

If it is feasible to think of another word of the heavenly voice beside [“you are my beloved son”] it it could only be perhaps an [“hear him”] addressed to men or to the Church (cp. Mk. 9:7). The legend tells of Jesus’ consecration as messiah, and so is basically not a biographical, but a faith legend. (p. 248, my own bracketed words and bold font)

Why it is not a vision experience

This is quite a change from what I sometimes encounter in the scholarly literature today. Clearly some prominent scholars (e.g. Bruce Chilton) are not persuaded by Bultmann here.

So it is inadmissible to read εἶδεν [saw] in Mk. 1:10 as if a vision were being reported — if, that is, one has also to insist that the subject of εἶδεν is Jesus and not the Baptist. Matthew and Luke are quite right to take Mark’s story as the description of an objective happening and καὶ φωνὴ [ἐγένετο] [and a voice [came]] in Mk. 1:11 displays the same idea.

Why was Baptism chosen to represent the consecration of the Messiah?

More recent studies have offered new perspectives on this question — e.g. Thomas L. Thompson has argued that the Baptism of Jesus is a continuation of the literary tradition evident throughout the Jewish in which certain motifs are reiterated in new ways in order to bind and emulate theological meanings: thus as the waters were divided at creation to give life out of chaos, and as the flood waters destroyed an old and opened up a new world for Noah, and as the Red Sea crossing gave birth to a new people of God, as the Jordan crossing was the gateway from the wilderness into the promised land, as Elijah, and then Elisha, performed miraculous water crossings to demonstrate their relationship and relationship to Moses and Joshua and their inaugurating a new era for Israel, so Jesus emerges from the waters and even the heavens themselves part to show how much greater is the new age he is introducing and how thoroughly it replaces the old.

But back to Bultmann . . . .

Bultmann speaks throughout the discussion of Jesus as “Messiah”. He explains in a footnote on page 248 that for Mark the term Son (of God) was understood as a title of the messianic king, as can be seen from Mark 14:61, especially when this is compared with 15:26.

14:61  Again the high priest asked Him and said unto Him, “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”

15:26  And the superscription of His accusation was written above: THE KING OF THE JEWS.

Before the Gospels (Bultmann here cites Rom. 1:3f, and also refers to Acts 2:36; Herm., Sim. V.2.7, etc., and in particular the story of the Transfiguration if this was originally a post-resurrection event) Jesus was said to have become the Messiah after his death and resurrection. So if Mark had decided to shift the Messianic status forward to Jesus before his earthly ministry, why would he decide on the baptism to demonstrate this?

For the tradition as it stood, of Jesus being baptized by John, was naturally an inadequate basis. (p. 250)

Bultmann is here assuming that there was a historical tradition of John baptizing Jesus, of course. One might also ask if the fact that Christians practiced baptism and understood the rite as opening the way for the spirit was not sufficient as an inspiration for the scene. In my post on the article titled Baptism in Mark: Dying and Rising with Christ by Scroggs and Groff we saw how this cultic ritual was sufficient for Mark to create other characters and scenarios in his gospel.

But this post is about Bultmann’s ideas so let’s continue. Bultmann believes that Mark’s baptism of Jesus narrative emerged out of Greek or Hellenistic influences.

It seems to me that the reason is to be found on the one hand in the consecration of the Messiah being thought of as the work of the Spirit (cp. Acts 4:27, 10:38), and on the other hand in the conviction that Baptism bestows the Spirit (cp. 1 Cor. 6:11, 12:13; 2 Cor. 1:22; Acts 2:38, p. 247 n.1 ) But since this conviction could naturally not be derived from John’s baptism, but could only, in my view, grow up in a Christian, though first in a Hellenistic environment, it follows that the Baptismal legend is firstly Hellenistic in origin. (my own bolded font)

The Messiah brings the spirit

Let’s backtrack a moment and catch up with that page 247 footnote that appears in the above. Back there Bultmann had pointed out that “the outpouring of the spirit was expected in the messianic age (Isa. 44:3; Joel 3:1f (sic. Should be Joel 2:28f?); Test. Levi 18; . . . .). Mark freely applies the prophecy to Christian Baptism as the gift of the Spirit.” It is at this point that the following footnote enters:

That is evidently also the meaning of Acts . . . . [I]t has to be emphasized that Acts, like Paul, conceived of Baptism, as did Hellenistic Christianity, as the sacrament of the gift of the Spirit; 10:44ff, . . .

The spirit comes with baptism

We learn in Acts that if the spirit does not come at the time of baptism then the baptism must be completed by the bestowal of the spirit soon afterwards (the Samaritans in 8:14-17), or if the spirit comes without baptism, then baptism must follow (e.g. Cornelius’s household). So we can see here why a baptism narrative would come to mind if the author is looking for a way to dramatize the Messiah bringing the spirit into the world.

Jesus is the Messiah king who brings the spirit

This argument presupposes that Jesus is thought of as the one who brings the spirit into the world. For Bultmann, the fact that the Messiah brings the spirit is related to the identification of the Messiah as the king.

The anointed king has the Spirit of God; cp. e.g. 1 Sam 16:13; Isa. 11:3; for this reason he can give oracles, Prov. 16:10.

What’s left?

Each of us will have our own opinion on whether Bultmann’s argument leaves room in readers’ minds for the Baptism of Jesus being compelled into the Synoptic tradition because the church was too embarrassed to hide the embarrassing fact  (sic!) or whether Bultmann’s discussion leaves any detail untouched by a creative theological-literary author/s.

The contribution of the Palestinian church

If the baptism narrative is of Hellenistic origin then it is possible, reasons Bultmann, then the Hellenists conceivably learned of the idea that Jesus himself was the one who brought the spirit from the Palestinian Church. Although the Synoptic Gospels themselves offer little evidence for it, Bultmann thinks the Palestinian belief that Jesus brought the spirit could have arisen

under the influence of prophecy (Isa. 42:1, 61:1); it answers the expectations of Jewish apocalyptic (Ps. Sol. 17:42, 18:8; E. En. 49:3, 62:2; Test. Lev. 18; Test. Jud. 24:1)

Where does adoptionism fit in here?

The expression in Mark 1:11 “Thou art my son”, says Bultmann citing M. Dibelius, ‘still has an “adoptionist” ring, especially since [it] means in the language of oriental law acceptance as a son (“Thou shalt be my son”).’

For Bultmann this adoptionist idea — with its parallel in Mark 9:7 — must have arisen out of a resurrection idea or Easter story.

[I]t could not have had its place originally in the Baptismal scene. (p. 251)

The story is Greek, not Jewish: “The Spirit” is the Clincher

The use of τὸ πνεῦμα [the spirit] absolutely is a decisive pointer to the conclusion that Mk. 1:9-11 could not have come from the Palestinian Church.

Mark 1:9-11

9And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.

10And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit [τὸ πνεῦμα]  like a dove descending upon him:

11And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

What is it about “the spirit” that makes it such a decisive clue for Bultmann? He quotes Dalman, Sayings of Jesus, p. 203:

‘In Jewish literature it is so unheard of to speak of ‘the Spirit’ . . . . when the spirit of God is meant, that the single word ‘spirit’ would much rather be taken to mean a demon or the wind’.

Why is it “absolutely a decisive pointer”?

The giveaway is the way Matthew and Luke have changed Mark. They recognized Mark’s “unbiblical” use of “the spirit”:

It is very characteristic that Matthew says: πνεῦμα θεοῦ [spirit of God], Luke τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον [the holy spirit]; both sense that Mark’s style is unbiblical. (p. 251 n.3)

& the evidence of Q

But finally the Hellenistic origin of the Baptismal legend is vouched for by the fact that Q obviously did not tell the story of the Baptism even though it had a section on the Baptist, including his sermon on repentance and his messianic message. At most Q could have recorded the fact of the Baptism; but without any doubt Q did not know of it as the consecration of the Messiah.

John enters the Christian message (kerygma) not because he was the baptizer of Jesus but (as can be seen from Acts 13:24f and Matt. 11:7-13) “because of his place as the last of the prophets in the history of salvation.”

The story becomes a cult legend

If the story of Jesus’ baptism were shaped by the Christian practice of baptism — as explained above in covering Bultmann’s seeking an explanation for Mark’s choice of baptism as the act to declare Jesus as the Messiah or Son of God — then that story of Jesus’ baptism itself came to serve as the reason for the Christian practice of baptism . . . “and so become a cult legend in the strict sense.

As happens elsewhere in the history of religion, the cultic mystery rests upon a first experience of it by the cult deity, is founded in his story; and as that is true of the Synoptic presentation of the Lord’s Supper, so in the early Church the story of Jesus’ Baptism was soon conceived of in this sense as a cult legend. Jesus was the first who received the Baptism of water and the Spirit, and by that inaugurated it as an efficacious rite for believers. (p. 252)

Why do we regularly read from scholars that no Christian would have any reason to make up the story of Jesus’ baptism? They have all read Bultmann, surely. Even if they disagree they have surely read that there is a very good set of reasons for early Christians to make up the story.

(Bultmann observes that Luke, by the way, adds one more detail to the baptism of Jesus that was evidently taken from the practice of his own day — that Jesus prayed as he emerged from the water.)

The contradiction and embarrassment

So what are we to make of the “embarrassment” to the early Church that Jesus should be baptized at all (was he a sinner?) by a lesser (John)?

If, as is probable, Mark, as an Hellenistic Christian of the Pauline circle, already looked on Jesus as the pre-existent Son of God, his Baptismal story would be contradictory to his Christology. But of this he was no more aware than many believers after him as a conscious belief. With others it was admittedly conscious; thus Matthew by the other formulation given to the heavenly voice makes a proclamation of messiahship [i.e. This is my beloved Son, not You are my beloved Son”] out of the consecration of the messiah, and in John the Baptism serves as a recognition sign of the previously hidden Son of God. [There is] another problem: how can Jesus undergo a baptism for the remission of sins? and each has tried, in his own way, to offer a solution. The residual peculiarities of Matthew and Luke may well depend on this. (p. 253)

And still, it seems, a good number of scholars insist on arguing that the episode is historical because it was too embarrassing for a Christian to have fabricated. Nonsense. The only embarrassment in evidence is that of Matthew, Luke and John and they are not embarrassed by a historical fact they can’t ignore (though Paul and John ignore it and Luke almost does) but by Mark’s account. That’s why Matthew had John protest that Jesus should baptize him, why Luke alluded to Jesus’ baptism in a backhanded manner after John had been imprisoned and John never mentioned it at all.


Much research has been undertaken since Bultmann and I am not in a position to point out which of the above arguments have been consigned to the dustbin. But of the quite few scholarly works I have read over the last several years I have encountered no arguments that led me to think the core ideas above are nonsense. They still make a lot of sense to me.

Why the dove?

I have written another post on the possible origin of the appearance of the ‘dove’ in the baptism story and will write more again. Till then, this is how Bultmann explained the dove:

Actually I think the puzzle of the dove is easy to solve; without doubt it can signify nothing else than the πνεῦμα, the divine power that fills the (messianic) king. But the representation of the divine power, which fills kings in the form of a bird is found in Persia as well as Egypt, and indeed we find the dove itself in Persia. And nothing other than this conception and its corresponding figurative presentation, certainly not any fairy story or saga, is the presupposition of the form of the Baptismal story. In confirmation of this we may add that it would seem that the Holy Spirit is represented by the figure of a dove even in Judaism, and in particular the Targum on S.S. 212 interprets the ‘voice of the turtle dove’ as the ‘voice of the Holy Spirit’. (p. 250)

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5 thoughts on “The “Legend” of the Baptism of Jesus (Bultmann flashback)”

  1. Joel 3:1f (sic. Should be Joel 2:28f?)

    It’s Joel 3.1 in the LXX. The indexes are offset a bit in the LXX.

    ‘In Jewish literature it is so unheard of to speak of ‘the Spirit’ . . . . when the spirit of God is meant, that the single word ‘spirit’ would much rather be taken to mean a demon or the wind’.

    I always connected that with the adoptionist Christology in Mark. At the crucifixion, the spirit abandons Jesus; Mark might be using “breathed his last” at Mk 15.37 as a double meaning for the abandonment of “the spirit” that possessed him at baptism, since the phrase “breathed his last” is εξεπνευσεν (ex-e-pneusen) which might be more correct in the KJV of the phrase “gave up the spirit” or “the spirit exited [him]”.

    1. Thanks for the LXX note. Is the adoptionist idea of a normal human itself more Greek than Jewish?

      I’ve likewise seen the “breathed his last / exited his spirit” on the cross as a direct counterpart to the entering of the spirit at baptism. At baptism that spirit “possessed” him and “drove” him into the wilderness. I also recently read somewhere the idea that this driving into the wilderness brings to mind the act of exorcism — the spirit is driven out of a person. But of course this would be the inverse(?) of that.

  2. My comment addresses your question “Why the dove?”

    A book titled Christian Initiation: Confirmation Then and Now, written by J.D.C. Fischer
    suggests (page 18) that the baptism ritual might have been based on the treatment for purifying lepers that is detailed in Leviticus 13-14.

    Near the conclusion of that leprosy treatment, the priest uses two birds in a procedure, and then the treatment concludes with a washing of the body and clothing.


    If the priest finds that the sore of leprosy has healed in the leper, he shall order the man who is to be purified, to get two live, clean birds, as well as some cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and hyssop.

    The priest shall then order him to slay one of the birds over an earthen vessel with spring water in it. Taking the living bird with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, the priest shall dip them all in the blood of the bird that was slain over the spring water, and then sprinkle seven times the man to be purified from his leprosy. When he has thus purified him, he shall let the living bird fly away over the countryside.

    The man being purified shall then wash his garments and shave off all his hair and bathe in water … On the seventh day he shall again shave off all the hair of his head, his beard, his eyebrows, and any other hair he may have, and also wash his garments and bathe his body in water; and so he will be clean.


    Leviticus does not explain the rationale for the procedure involving the birds, but I suppose that splashing the blood from the killed bird onto the healing leper scared the leper demon into leaping out of the leper into the live bird, which then flew away with the leper demon.

    So, a purification ritual can use birds to cause a killing spiritual being (such as a leprosy demon) to be moved out of a person and to be moved a long distance away.

    In the case of the baptism of Jesus Christ, the dove apparently moved an animating spiritual being (which causes a new life) from the Heavens into Jesus Christ. Since this baptism began Jesus’ ministry, we can suppose that the dove transported an animating spirit, which ignited Jesus’ divine powers in his human body.

    In Luke’s story of Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:16-22), John the Baptist said:


    I baptize only with water, but someone is coming soon who has far higher authority than mine …. He will baptize you with fire — with the Holy Spirit. He will separate chaff from grain and burn up the chaff with eternal fire and store away the grain. …


    Thus John the Baptist contrasted his water-baptism that he performed on a divine-human Jesus with a fire-baptism that Jesus would be able to perform on other human beings.

    * In the water-baptism of a divine-human being, a bird flies down and transports a divine animating spirit into the divine-human’s head, which remains wet.

    * In the fire-baptism of a human being, a breeze blows down and transports a divine animating spirit into the human being’s head, which is ignited with a flame.

    John the Baptist compares this fire-baptism breeze to the breeze caused by a winnowing fan, which separates chaff from grain, so that then the chaff can be burned away. Apparently what happened on Pentecost was that a fire-baptism breeze blew down onto the disciples’ heads, which caused impure demons to exit from the disciples’ head tops, where the breeze set the demons on fire, and they burned (like burning chaff) for a while just above the head tops.

    Jesus described this fire-baptism breeze to Nicodemus(John 3:3-8):


    Unless one is born of water and the spirit [the breeze], he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. …. The Holy Spirit gives new life from heaven …. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it will go next, so it is with the spirit. We do not know on whom he will next best bestow this life [animating spirit] from Heaven.


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