Reasonably doubting that John baptized Jesus — Or how HJ scholars worked before they had Tools

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by Neil Godfrey

Does it really advance historiography to rename weak arguments “tools”?

There’s something very reassuring knowing you have a tool at hand if you are an archaeologist and hope to dig through layers of earth to find new historical evidence. And if you are a scholar of the historical Jesus you can always feel more secure in what you find digging beneath the texts if you can boast that you are deploying the latest tools in your efforts. Saying you are using a historians’ tools almost sounds as if you are on a level with a doctor using blood tests and blood pressure monitors in order to reach some level of objective assurance in a diagnosis.

One of these tools historical Jesus scholars use is embarrassment. That may sound like a flakey concept for a tool to the uninformed, but it historical Jesus scholars are widely known for explaining the tools they use to reach certain conclusions, and one of their tools is the criterion of embarrassment.

By using this tool these scholars, most of them anyway, can say with quite some confidence that it is a historical fact that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The reasoning is that early Christians would have been embarrassed by their master Jesus being baptized by John as if a common penitent or inferior to the prophet, so it is not a story they would have invented. So the fact that they told the story shows they must not have been able to conceal the fact and were forced to live with, or explain away, their embarrassment. The baptism must thus be an historical event according to the criterion of embarrassment.

But of course the argument about embarrassment existed before historical Jesus scholars agreed not so very long ago to think about certain of their standard arguments as “tools”.

A secular rationalist argument in the pre-tool era

Contrast how this same matter of embarrassment could be handled in an argument before the days it was elevated to its modern technological status.

This is from a (secular rationalist) French historical Jesus scholar, Charles Guignebert:

The only argument which can, in reality, be put forward in favour of the Baptism of Jesus by John, is that it would be hard to understand why the tradition should gratuitously have saddled itself with an incident so troublesome to Christology, and have substituted it for the actual facts of the entrance of Jesus upon his public career (which must have been known to the original disciples) if it had not been based upon a definite and incontestable recollection, which they could not discard. . . . Surely, if the incident had not really taken place, the simplest way would have been not to invent it. (p. 157 of Jesus by Charles Guignebert, 1956, first published in French 1933)

This sounds like the argument that appeals to embarrassment, indeed relies on it entirely, is considered a desperate scraping of the apologetic barrel. “The only” recourse left to those who would argue for the historicity of Jesus’ baptism is that “it would be hard to understand” why anyone would “invent it”. One suspects Guignebert would have considered any suggestion that such an argument be formalized as a tool to be applied according to consistent principles as a rather lame attempt at humour.

Further, Guignebert is too level-headed in matters such as this to let such a leftover plea establish the anything more than an appearance of probability of the matter and with one strand of evidence casting it entirely in the shadow of a doubt:

However, since the simplest way is not always the one chosen by the gospel editors, and their deeper motives are not always visible to us, it would be rash to deduce from this any positive conclusion, and we can only say that it appears probable that Jesus came to the baptism of John.

We must, moreover, observe, on the other hand, that Q, though including the Baptist and his preaching of repentance, does not appear to have mentioned the baptism of Jesus, and that, consequently, it is not unreasonable to hold that the whole legend, in substance as well as in form, came from the Hellenistic community, which might have composed it under the influence of its own liturgy, to represent the ceremonial investiture of Jesus with the Messiahship. (pp. 157-8)

Now I am not trying to suggest that before historical Jesus scholars started speaking of some of their arguments as criteriological “tools” of historical research that they were all in doubt over the baptism of Jesus. Guignebert himself cites his contemporary Goguel as one who claimed that it was impossible to entertain any real doubt about the historicity of this event. But Guignebert responds that he believes such confidence is misplaced — for the reasons I have quoted.

But I have cut to the conclusions of Guignebert’s discussion on the baptism of Jesus. Aspects of his main argument are also interesting as an illustration of how a secular rationalist (with no apparent sectarian sympathies) approached the question. The contrast with a few modern “independent scholars” who likewise profess to be without religious bias is as distinct as night and day. (In all quotes following the emphasis and sometimes the paragraphing are my own.)

Ask WHY it is in the documents before accepting it as historical

No hypothesis has a better documentary foundation, since both the gospel traditions, the Synoptic and the Johannine, make the Baptism of Jesus the threshold of his public career. This does not, however, place the point beyond doubt, because we have only to read our Gospels to see that their accounts of the Baptism are deliberately designed to settle the question of the relations between the two prophets in a manner favourable to the Messianic status of Jesus. (p. 147)

Consider the contrary evidence

We know that the Gospel of Marcion omitted the incident . . . . and it has even been suggested that neither the original version of John nor Urmarcus contained any reference to the Baptist at the beginning of their accounts. (p. 147)

Credal formula + myth = not unreasonable to doubt historicity

The baptism of Jesus by John may be a fact, but since it is very difficult today not to admit that the accounts of it are purely mythical, the creation of credal requirements rather than authentic biography, it is hardly unreasonable to believe that the event itself might easily be legendary, and represent an artificial preface to the Gospel. (p. 147)

A motive for the alleged invention of the tale

Our Synoptics are known to have been edited under the influence of catechetical and cultural interests. It seems natural that they, or rather the tradition on which they depended, should deliberately have placed at the beginning of the tendentious composition which they designedly represented as the life of Jesus according to the Spirit, a story intended to explain and confirm what was, in the practice of their time, the initiatory rite of the Christian life. (p. 147)

Even a defender of the historicity of the baptism acknowledges a motive for invention

It is no small cause for suspicion to see Goguel himself, although a strong supporter fo the authenticity of the incident, accepting this obvious relation between the inauguration of the mission of Jesus and that of the Christian life of his followers, and subsequently admitting that the gospel writers are open to the suspicion of having made the baptism of Jesus take on the appearance of the prototype of Christian baptism. (p. 148)

Guignebert discusses the Baptist more extensively and I will not cover the details here apart from a few points I found of particular interest.

Part of his discussion addresses arguments of mythicists Jensen and Drews who disputed the historicity of JB as strongly as they did that of JC — Jensen comparing JB to Eabani in the Gilgamesh epic and Drews to Oannes or Ea, the water god and originally a solar deity.

Another interesting detail was his pointing out the symbolic character of the Gospel of John’s identification of the locality of the Baptist’s activity: “at Aenon near Salim” (John 3:23). Aenon means “springs” and “Salim” means peace — the “springs of peace”.

Finally, Guignebert sensibly points out the implausibility of Pharisees and lawyers flocking to John for baptism. Such people were not so well disposed to such “enthusiasts” or “fanatics”.

Guignebert then returns to the question of historicity and remarks on the difficulty of evaluating this given the clear theological purposes of the various accounts and their being mixed with clearly mythological elements. 

What we should like to know is whether Jesus actually came to the baptism of John, and felt there the stirring of his vocation, and whether he became . . . the disciple of the Baptist. On all these points, interpretations, hypotheses, and assertions naturally abound; but on none of them have we any positive knowledge. (p. 155)

On the question of whether John and Jesus knew each other prior to the baptism G writes:

But documentary evidence is lacking. There is not a passage to support the theory of any connexion between John and Jesus prior to the meeting of which the Baptism was the occasion. (p. 156)

G discounts the Lukan narrative of John and Jesus being cousins “because it contradicts all the rest of the Synoptic tradition.” Contrast Luke’s account of angelic announcements about John and Jesus with those other stories that speak of Jesus’ family trying to take him away because they believe he is out of his mind; compare the accounts of contacts or messages between John and Jesus both at and subsequent to the baptism — none is reconcilable with any notion that accepts Luke’s narrative of their familial ties and revealed destinies.

What’s my point?

The reason I like sharing some of these excerpts from a long-dead scholar is that I like the simple and elegant rationality they exhibit in tackling questions that today seem no longer to be questions at all but long-settled “facts”. The pity is that such “facts” should still be acknowledged as very open questions. There seems to me to be a certain dogmatism, even in cases bordering on anti-intellectualism, that has accompanied a depressing turning of backs on the Enlightenment and exploitation of post-modernism in the ironical service of  old dogmas.

And besides, historians don’t use “tools of criteriology” to decide if an otherwise clearly ideological stand-alone narrative has historical roots or not. That’s akin to smoke and mirrors, mumbo-jumbo, Latin-only masses, using mathematical equations in discussions of personality and mood swings. They are all designed to impress and lend to what is quite often little more than subjective opinion floating in a sea of unknowns and speculations some degree of objectivity an appearance of some measure of objectivity and science.

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “Reasonably doubting that John baptized Jesus — Or how HJ scholars worked before they had Tools”

  1. It seems pretty obvious that any sort of “criterion of embarrassment” is an anachronism. What might have been embarrassing to a Catholic or proto-orthodox late 2nd century Christian – the tradition that seeds all modern Christianity – would not necessarily be embarrassing to whoever wrote the gospel of Mark, whenever he wrote it. It’s anachronistic because it is looking through all of Christian history through the lens of orthodoxy:

    “Mark was an orthodox Christian because he is held as canonical by the orthodoxy. Therefore, since orthodoxy was embarrassed by Jesus’ baptism it must follow that Mark was embarrassed by it as well. Since he didn’t remove this embarrassing detail from his gospel, it must have been too well known to take out.”

    When looked at like this, the fallacy becomes pretty self-evident.

  2. “What might have been embarrassing to a Catholic or proto-orthodox late 2nd century Christian […] would not necessarily be embarrassing to whoever wrote the gospel of Mark”:

    Well said.

  3. Is it, do you think, possible to imagine an event supposedly from the life of Jesus that could not be understood to be an invention? The imagination of the pious is pretty powerful and capable to taking the most mundane events “He spoke to a woman! Oh the wonder of his egalitarianism!” to be uniquely special if done by Jesus. But if everything Jesus did can be understood to have theological and soteriological and mythmaking implications (and I do suspect that literally everything can be) then the argument that such and so was attributed to him for myth-making purposes begins to fall apart. If it explains everything, then it begins to look rather suspicious when it explains away any particular thing that can’t otherwise be dismissed.

    One can dismiss the supernatural easily enough (as there’s no such thing) but explanations of events in terms of the supernatural (i.e. the Spirit came into Jesus) that can be explained otherwise (Jesus had a dissociative experience locally understood to be a Spirit coming into him) do not mean the events cannot have been historical. In other words, the events are not the same thing as the explanations thereof and if the explanations are theologically inspired, the events may or may not have been.

    1. The question as I see it is one of literature interpretation: We can explain all of Pilgrim’s Progress and Gulliver’s Travels as forms of “mythmaking” without doing any damage along the way. I don’t think every little detail in such literature necessarily come with its myth-making purpose. Literature requires plot, verisimilitude and other things, too.

      When it comes to political inscriptions or speeches we might likewise see “mythmaking” at work. But in these cases we usually have some form of contemporary external testimony (I have usually run with Schweitzer’s use of the word “controls”) to support some historical core. In ancient history there may be times when that only control is the medium on which the “myth” is inscribed and the artwork and style in which it is presented: such details inform us that the inscription can be provenanced to a political potentate etc.

      A hagiographer by definition writes myth of sorts. Whether the central character itself originated as a fabrication can only be determined through an assessment of evidence external to the narrative itself. In the absence of that “control” we have no way of knowing if there is a historical basis or not.

      But given the absence of controls, if we also see evidence that the mythical tale is a series of adaptations and mutations from other literature, and/or that the same or another detail serves a literary function, then we begin to smell literary artifice from the get-go. We are seeing motives for content and presentation and still no controls to give us a hint there is anything more than artifice.

      1. Neil wrote: “Whether the central character itself originated as a fabrication can only be determined through an assessment of evidence external to the narrative itself. In the absence of that “control” we have no way of knowing if there is a historical basis or not.”

        One problem with this field of inquiry is that by and large the evidence external to the narrative is asserted nevertheless to be part of the narrative. We have evidence outside the narrative (i.e.Mark) from John’s Gospel and from Paul. But if the “narrative” is defined as the myth of a particular movement, then anything that purports to be external to the narrative will be brought back into the narrative and thereby dismissed. Josephus, for example, insofar as anything he wrote about Jesus is original to him, presumably got his information from Christians and so he is not really an independent source. He is just repeating what some people got from the narrative So, just as it is almost impossible for me to imagine any story whatsoever about Jesus that cannot be dismissed as mythical on the grounds that it would have some sort of application to the Christian cult and its beliefs,I also suspect that anything outside of Mark that used to validate Mark will be assumed to be a fabrication as well.

        And I do think it is incumbent upon those who will say that all the supposed evidence is really the ancient constructing of mythic narratives about Jesus to say why this is happening. Why are they making up stories about some obscure Galilean who never actually lived? To say “we can imagine ways to show that every bit of the supposed evidence for Jesus is just made-up” seems to me to require an explanation of why they are making it up.

        1. We seem to be drifting away from the main point, which is the fact that HJ scholars are using a tool that they say helps them separate the authentic stories from the invented stories. Only the most ardent apologist would say that every account in the gospels is literally true, so we’re dealing with a set of scholars who readily admit some stories have been invented, while insisting that others contain at least a kernel of historical truth.

          Are there any indicators that would tell us what’s true and what isn’t? The scholars say, yes. Because they “can’t imagine why anybody would make it up,” they conclude it must be part of the earliest tradition, which could not be ignored, but had to be dealt with in interesting ways. Later authors, they say, show clear signs of embarrassment about the baptism — “St.” John doesn’t even describe the actual event; Matthew has John the Baptist protest that Jesus should be baptizing him.

          I think Neil’s point is that many people have offered clear narrative and theological reasons for combining the Baptist tradition with the Jesus tradition. If these reasons are sufficient to explain why the story is there, then why insist that they’re based on bedrock historical fact?

          Stevan: “Why are they making up stories about some obscure Galilean who never actually lived?”

          Conversely, why would they make up stories about some obscure Galilean who really did live and really was crucified within living memory?

        2. ‘Why are they making up stories about some obscure Galilean who never actually lived?’

          Why is Benjamin Creme making up stories about an obscure person in the East End of London who never actually lived?

          I am not a psychologist, so cannot say.

          Similarly, I cannot say why Mark made up stories about an obscure Galilean feeding 5000 people and raising people from the dead.

          But that is no reason to accept their historicity.

  4. In American politics, every Republican wants to be seen as the heir to Ronald Reagan. When Ronald Reagan first ran, however, he was sold as the heir to earlier conservative luminaries whose reputations he has long since eclipsed. It is not hard for me to imagine that John’s endorsement of Jesus was well worth inventing at the time Mark wrote.

  5. John had just begun to baptize Jesus, when God the Father Himself interrupted John by sending down the Holy Spirit to complete the baptism in a miraculous manner. Therefore, there was no embarrassment for Jesus in this event.

  6. I think the baptism by John is very embarrassing. Think about it: Jesus is striking out on a public stage for perhaps the first time in his life. He’s nervous, but he goes forward to receive John’s baptism. All has gone well, but then the heavens open and… IT’S HIS OLD MAN! Like a parent watching his kid in a school play, he’s obviously keen to see how his favourite boy is doing and how dead grown up he’s become. But just imagine poor Jesus’ embarrassment. ‘Aw Dad, not now! I’m trying to do things on me own. Flipping hell…’

  7. Stevan Davies wrote: “And I do think it is incumbent upon those who will say that all the supposed evidence is really the ancient constructing of mythic narratives about Jesus to say why this is happening. Why are they making up stories about some obscure Galilean who never actually lived? To say “we can imagine ways to show that every bit of the supposed evidence for Jesus is just made-up” seems to me to require an explanation of why they are making it up.”

    Asking “why” may be the wrong approach, because it implies conscious intention and planning from the outset. Asking “how did it happen that the making-up occurred” might be better.

    Earliest Christ-belief seems to have been a cult which believed in a heavenly Son of God who had undergone death and rising in the spiritual/mythical realm, prompted by scripture and contemporary salvation concepts influenced by Platonic cosmology. Nothing seems to have been operating within that milieu itself which would have led to historicizing such a figure, or at least to creating anything like the narrative we find in the Gospels. (The Galilean tradition, I maintain, did *not* develop out of the Christ cult.)

    Contemporary with that cult and independent from it was the (“Galilean”) kingdom of God preaching movement (as witnessed in Q), which seems to have formulated during its evolution the idea of a founder figure. Even if that figure were based on an actual individual, he had no dimension of death and resurrection and no apparent soteriological role.

    The Gospel of Mark began as an allegorical rendition of the kingdom preaching movement itself, with the latter’s eventual Jesus figure symbolizing the activities and ethical preaching of the movement. For reasons that remain obscure, whoever or whichever community within that movement produced the Gospel of Mark amalgamated the two, either because that community had syncretized the two independent traditions or because to the author it seemed like a good idea at the time.

    Once let loose, this amalgamation appealed to a lot of people. Some Christ cultists (such as whoever wrote the original epistles of Ignatius early in the 2nd century) imagined that what they ‘heard’ about the Markan story was an historical account and seized on the idea of a Christ who had suffered and died on earth, regarding that as a necessity and changing the earlier concept of a paradigmatic parallel between the saving god acting in the heavenly world and his devotees absorbing benefits in the earthly world, to one in which the Savior had to have functioned on earth, in actual human flesh.

    From that point, the Jesus of Nazareth narrative would evolve, gain detail and essentially run riot because of the perceived advantages of regarding it as history. (No ‘conspiracy’ involved, just self-serving promotion.) They believed that this “obscure Galilean” had actually lived and was the Son of God, and that he was to be identified with the earlier Christ cult’s object of worship.

    As time went on, and it was discovered that sources contemporary with him perplexingly failed to mention him, elements of the narrative were inserted into those sources. Josephus and Tacitus cannot stand as reliable independent corroboration, the Talmudic alleged references are laughable, and something like Suetonius’ Chrestus, or two obscure lost historians and Mara bar Serapion are forcibly interpreted as ‘possible’ references to the HJ. It is significant that the so-called corroborative evidence does not appear until after the point at which the influence of the Gospels could have led certain circles to adopt an historical founder, making this the source of the ‘corroboration’ in Josephus and Tacitus (though there are other grounds on which to reject both as authentic or reliable).

    Neil’s principle stands. There is no legitimate corroborative evidence for the Jesus story.

  8. Let us assume there was an historical ‘Jesus’ and that Celsus’ contention that Jesus was the illegitimate bastard son of Mary ((Origen, Against Celsus, 1.28, and Origen, Against Celsus, 1.32)) represents actual fact.
    John’s baptism of Jesus,was a baptism of purification intended to cleanse Jesus of being an impure mamzer (illigitimate Jewish bastard).
    Josephus stated that John’s baptism was for the purpose of purification (Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119) , serving the same purpose as a dip in a miqvah today. Immersion was an act that removes ritual impurity.
    If the Temple priests did not accept the efficacy of John’s baptism, they would have felt justified in condemning Jesus to death since he was a ritually impure mamzer who had defiled the Temple precincts.
    (“No outsider shall enter. the protective enclosure around the sanctuary. And whoever is caught will have only himself to blame for the ensuring death.” Temple warning inscription at the border of the chel.)
    The baptism caused the earliest Jesus sectarians no embarrassment since they knew Jesus was a bastard and that the baptism legitimized him.
    It was the later christers who were embarrassed by Jesus being a bastard requiring baptism. They went out of their way to invent angelic legitimization stories, and rewrote the baptism story to conceal the reason why Jesus needed ritual purification.

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