Associate Professor of New Testament Leif E. Vaage argues that New Testament scholars have no valid reasons for believing that John the Baptist really did baptize Jesus. (Vaage, let the reader understand, is by no means denying the historicity of Jesus himself.)
Vaage argues that the author of the Gospel of Mark invented the entire scene of Jesus’ baptism. I am keen to post his reasons for this conclusion. Some of them overlap with suggestions I have advanced in earlier posts on this blog. This post, however, will outline only what Vaage sees as the flaws in the widely held belief that John historically baptized Jesus.
In his chapter “Bird-watching at the Baptism of Jesus: Early Christian Mythmaking in Mark 1:9-11” in Reimagining Christian Origins Vaage writes:
That the historical Jesus was baptized by the historical John is still taken by many scholars to be simply a historical fact: as sure an assumption as any can be on the basis of the canonical Gospel narratives. The reasons for this assumption, however, and furthermore its presumed importance (primarily for characterization of the historical Jesus) are essentially theological . . . . (p. 281, my emphasis)
. . . . as the historical Jesus would thereby evidently no longer be “just” the momentary embodiment of the orthodox second person of the Trinity.
The baptism scene is the anchor that holds Jesus down in history. Without it, we have only tales about one who is all too easily understood as nothing other than a nonhistorical man-divinity.
There’s more. Through the baptism scene Jesus is being woven into the web of other presumably historical persons:
Jesus would also be revealed as having been first the disciple of another contemporary Jewish religious teacher, namely, John.
Moreover, far from being self-consciously the spotless Lamb of God alone sufficient through his lack of sin to atone for humanity’s deep-seated and manifold troubles, Jesus through his baptism by John would have begun his short-lived public career by confessing his own sinfulness.
Mark’s Gospel makes it clear that John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins (1:4).
So the original baptism scene in Mark’s gospel brings Jesus down into association with presumably historical persons and introduces him as a normal man.
But doesn’t the criterion of embarrassment — why would the church make up a Jesus who was baptized by a lesser prophet and for the forgiveness of sins? — assure us that the baptism of Jesus was historical? Vaage doesn’t see it that way:
That such theological difficulties attest therefore the likely historicity of Jesus’ baptism by John, is, however, hardly an obvious conclusion, especially if and when the only independent source for the early Christian recollection of Jesus’ baptism by John (for the forgiveness of sins) should prove to be the Gospel of Mark. (p. 281, my emphasis)
That is, if the embarrassment of such an event compelled the early Christian communities to openly confess that it did indeed happen then why was the author of this gospel the only to record it? (The other gospels clearly revised Mark’s version and the Gospel of John does not mention the baptism of Jesus at all. And “many scholars find no reason to believe that there was ever an account of Jesus’ baptism by John in Q.”)
Vaage understands that the baptism scene in the Gospel of Mark was one of only a long chain of details that later readers found discomforting. Compare the negative treatment of the disciples, Jesus being possessed and driven by the spirit, Jesus losing his temper with the leper, Jesus sometimes failing to heal instantly or with a mere word, the lack of a resurrection appearance scene, the problematic ending.
In other words, if we were to conclude that Mark alone is responsible for the initial “recollection” of Jesus’ baptism by John, but narrates this event in such a way that later readers would find certain aspects of Mark’s account theologically disturbing, we have noticed nothing peculiar regarding the incident of Jesus’ baptism by John that was not otherwise true for Mark’s Gospel as a whole with its less than enthusiastic readership until roughly the beginning of the nineteenth century — at which time, with the rise of the scholarly theory of Markan priority in the composition of the synoptic Gospels, the unrefined “primitiveness” of Mark became an index of its greater claim to “historicity.” (p. 281, my emphasis)
The Gospel of Mark has not been popular for many reasons — all theological. New Testament scholars appear to have assumed that its problematic theology is an index of its historicity. If it depicts a Jesus who is not theologically correct then the default assumption is that it is relying on genuine historical memory.
Thus, the event of Jesus baptism by John lacks “multiple attestation” in the canonical Gospels or in any other text of the New Testament.
The abiding scholarly conviction that the historical Jesus was baptized by the historical John depends wholly and solely on the assumption that what we now read in Mark 1:9-11 (and parallels) and, specifically, v. 9 is necessarily “historical” in some sense, even though, again, the reasons for this assumption have been primarily “theological” and not conventionally “historical” in nature. (p. 282, my formatting and emphasis)
No independent attestation.
A thoroughly ongoing disturbing theological portrayal of Jesus.
Presumption of historicity.
Vaage’s chapter offers an alternative, and I think more justifiable, understanding of the reason we read of the baptism of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.
He argues the author of this gospel most likely invented the scene for the specific purpose of furthering advancing his unique theological agenda. This means examining how the baptism scene fits “into the narrative design of the Gospel as a whole”.
That will be the subject of my next post on Vaage’s chapter.
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