Why many historical Jesus Scholars NEED John to Baptize Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Baptism of Jesus, Bordone, Giotto 1276-1336
Baptism of Jesus, Bordone, Giotto 1276-1336 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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)

Why theological?

. . . . 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.

And again,

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.

Vaage’s conclusion?

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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14 thoughts on “Why many historical Jesus Scholars NEED John to Baptize Jesus”

    1. In Mark the spirit at baptism does not light upon Jesus as it does in Matthew but “enters into” him and then “drives” him into the wilderness. Compare Mark’s εἰς — see http://interlinearbible.org/mark/1-10.htm and http://concordances.org/greek/eis_1519.htm — and Matthew’s ἐπ’ — see http://interlinearbible.org/matthew/3-16.htm and http://concordances.org/greek/ep_1909.htm

      Then in Mark 1:12 the spirt “casts him out into the wilderness” — same word (ἐκβάλλει) as is used for Jesus casting out demons: see http://interlinearbible.org/mark/1-12.htm and http://concordances.org/greek/ekballei_1544.htm

      1. Thanks – failed to consider a non-demonic possession. This just got by me. Easy for the mind to be so focused on a certain way of thinking that an alternative way of looking at things eludes you (or even is unwelcome, as in the historical/mythical dust up going on).

  1. “we have only tales about one who is all too easily understood as nothing other than a nonhistorical man-divinity.”
    I felt like a spell of dizziness at the end of this sentence. Are there no more direct ways to express this thought? For instance “we have only tales of nothing else than a non-historical godman”?

  2. Jesus’s baptism created a major conundrum for the orthodox Catholic Church that could be understood only in the historical creation of the character of Christ.

    Once the Emperors had decided. first with Constantine to endorse, and then with Theodosius to annex, the new religion, Christian scholars and bishops were forced to reach a semblance of concord. This was secured by inventing an artificial “orthodox” doctrine that was slowly and progressively constructed without any clear blueprint and submitted to a vote of the bishops assembled by the Emperors.

    The new invented doctrine about Jesus as “Son of God” and his relation to his “Father” and their joint ally the “Holy Spirit” consisted of disparate and far-out beliefs forced to fit together by accident, and so irrational that only the persuasive power of the Roman Emperors and the threat of exile, brought some unity among hostile Christian sects.
    Instead of Christianity bringing unity to the Empire, it is the Roman Emperors who imposed unity on divided and warring factions of Christianity by forcing to adopt a unified doctrine.

    Primarily first with Constantine, who confirmed Galerius’s Edict of Toleration (Nicomedia, 311), which had put a stop to the persecution launched by Diocletian. Constantine, with his Edict of Milan (313), abolished the status of “superstitio” that had branded Christian worship and granted the status of legal “religion” to all Christians.
    A powerful Emperor who liked military discipline and order, Constantine, at the famous Council of Nicaea (325), forced the quarreling bishops, under threat of exile, to reach a consensus. By vote, the bishops established “orthodoxy” by ruling that yes, Jesus was a god, and of the same “substance” as the Father. Jesus was thus made to share the identical “godliness” of the Father. He was elevated to the same rank as God the Father, made a god of equal rank and importance.

    Then it was the turn of the Spanish-born Emperor Theodosius, to bring more intolerance in the picture. He first, in his epoch-making Edict of Thessalonica (380), obliged all Christians to adopt the Catholic form of faith or become outlawed as “heretics”.
    Then, in the Council of Constantinople (381), he obliged the convened bishops to tighten up some loose ends in the doctrine, by making room for the Holy Spirit in the divinity circle, and granting it the same rank as the Father, and the Son.
    It also clarified, for the last entrenched followers of Arianism, that yes, Jesus was “co-eternal” with the Father figure. Jesus had been around well before all ages. This strange “son” was co-existent with his own “father” and their new ally, the “Holy Spirit”. Three is a crowd, but not in the heavenly sphere.
    Skeptical scholars could later quip about James, called “the Lord’s brother” in Paul’s epistles, “I am James, my brother created the universe.”

    What happened in fact was a kind of palace revolution: the old Hebrew God was pushed to the background, and became secondary. He was replaced on front stage by the newcomer, the Son Jesus Christ. Jesus had in fact absorbed all the substance of God and had become an equal God in his own right. The “Lord” was no longer primarily Yahweh, now practically dispensable, but Jesus, the front God. And this new God was able to act with his new magical tool, the “Holy Spirit”. It was the “Holy Spirit” that allowed him the control of the church through the bishops and the conversion to faith in all human souls. “Come to Jesus,” “Be with Jesus,” “Accept Jesus in your heart,” “Let Jesus become your guide,” etc…became commonplace preaching in Christianity.
    Embodied in the famous “Nicene creed”, finalized in 381, were these mind-boggling dogmas, whose recitation by heart was declared by vote to be the “symbol of faith” of “one holy Catholic and apostolic Church”.

    Why then the baptism by John the Baptist, with the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, as Mark recites in 1:10-11?
    ” Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
    It took another Council of Chalcedon (451) to solve the conundrum. Jesus was declared made up of “two natures”, one godly, another one human, distinct but inseparable in one “person” and one “subsistence” (hypostasis).
    One must read the extraordinary Confession of Chalcedon to comprehend the astonishing creature concocted by the bishops. Some of them were pretty illiterate, not knowing much Greek, and they voted with minds spinning between fantasy and reality. And better educated minds, centuries later, are still spinning.

    Suddenly, from the stories of one small-time Jewish country preacher in Galilee concocted by the anonymous story-teller Mark about 400 years earlier, appeared a formidable triumvirate of Gods, the famous Trinity, all three distinct persons, and still in one entity, all of the same “substance”. With our young hero suddenly partaking of two distinct universes.

    It took more than 400 years for the Christian bishops to finally solve the problem posed by Mark’s innocent invention of Jesus’s baptism. Mark could have never imagined what was going to happen to the simple creature of his tale.

    1. This is well understood as another indicator that the later evangelists were embarrassed by Mark’s account: Matthew modifies Mark’s account by having Jesus explain that the baptism is something of a formality and not really for forgiveness of his sins; Luke has the mention of Jesus’ baptism as an afterthought after he has already explained that John was imprisoned; and John does not mention the baptism at all. These are all indicators of embarrassment with Mark’s story — Mark’s story was re-written by each to accord with different views of Jesus. Mark’s account had narrative functions of no interest to the other evangelists and that I will address in another post.

  3. I’m inclined to think Origen was doing exactly this – trying to link Jesus to historical characters like James the Just and John the Baptist whose existence weren’t doubted to buoy up the presence of his Jesus in history.

    Pity Origen missed any version of the Testimonium in his quote-mining expedition into Josephus…

  4. Why not go beyond the canonical gospels and look at some of the non canonical materials that state Jesus was Mary’s mamzer, the result of her having been raped by a Roman soldier (See Jane Schaberg’s “The Illegitimacy of Jesus”, ContraCelsus, etc.)?
    In this case John’s Baptism was required in order to cleanse Jesus of ritual impurity.
    According to Josephus, John’s baptism was not for sin remission, but for body purification:
    “for that the washing would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body; (AJ 18:5). ”
    This fits with Jesus going to J.the B. to have the stain of being an outcast mamzer washed away.
    The outcome of the debate over the efficacy of John’s baptism would determine whether or not Jesus would be considered a full member of Judean society and could be admitted to the Inner court yards of the Temple.
    If one sect accepted that John’s baptism had efficacy but others did not, factional and sectarian disputes would result.
    In the view of the Temple priests, the entry of the mamzer Jesus into the Temple was blasphemy deserving of death, whether or not he was washed by some upstart in the desert.

    1. Why not? Two reasons: 1. Because the dates of those sources make them far too late to make them valid material for understanding the context in which the gospels were written; and 2. Because the gospel texts give us no reason to think that there is any association with these later ideas. In other words, these later sources provide us material for speculation but nothing concrete or useful.

  5. JW:
    Great stuff Neil. Here’s my own related Thread at FRDB:


    Was The Baptism of Jesus by John Likely Historical?

    A proper analysis needs to include criteria to measure fiction as well as history. To date C-BS (Christian Bible Scholarship) has largely proof-texted this Type of question, only using criteria to look for history and ignoring/denying criteria to look for fiction. Perhaps Ehrman’s biggest fault in DiJE (Department of inJustice) is having a Mantra that any criteria for Fiction is “irrelevant”. This is a symptom of his failure to have a formal methodology.

    As you have rightly divided, historical criteria for the The Baptism of Jesus by John test rather low. There is not a single credible source for it. C-BS is reduced to slumming through Literary Criticism to try and conjure up support (without mentioning the Epic Fail of Source Criticism to help).

    On the other hand, fictional criteria for the The Baptism of Jesus by John test rather high. Some of these criteria are as follows:

    1) Impossible claims

    2) Contradictions

    3) Parallels to non-historical sources

    4) Thematic motivation

    5) Contrivance/Implausibility

    6) Necessity of tying to other stories

    In the big picture, due to the Source problem, one can not conclude that the offending question is either likely or unlikely. All one can say is that the criteria here for fiction test higher than the criteria for history. If someone neutral has an irresistible urge to make fun of one of the disputants here, than go ahead and make fun of HJ for posturing that the baptism of Jesus by John is a historical fact. There is no MJ saying it is instead fictional fact which proves MJ.


  6. Once again, our leading NT scholars understand the Gospel of Mark, as well as Matthew, Luke, John, and the later writings of the NT to be unreliable sources for knowledge of the HJ. “The
    sufficient evidence for this point, they all depend on sources earlier than themselves, hence are not the original and originating apostolic witness to Jesus as the early church mistook them to be in judging them to be apostolic.” (Schubert M. Ogden)

    The resort to “Christian tradition” is a lazy way to invent a story without having to provide sources. Who? Which source? When ? Where? The Christian theologian is at liberty to fabricate facts at will.
    Deception and falsification have become the implicit rules of writing “Christian” history with the help of alleged “traditions”. As soon as a self-claimed “Christian historian” (a disguised apologist) conjures the ghosts of “previous traditions”, this raises any serious non-Christian historians’ antennas, and puts them on alert that the story is unlikely to be true.

    How come Paul never mentions even once John the Baptist, and Jesus’s baptism?
    Mark’s inventiveness was to transfer to Jesus, the new preacher on the block, the actions and historicity of John the Baptist. How often is Jesus described as baptizing in the 4 Gospels? No, Jesus preferred his magical weapon, the “Holy Spirit” to converts souls.

    Edward Gibbon (‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’), discussing the problems in sorting fact from legend, warned, “The scanty and suspicious materials of ecclesiastical history seldom enable us to dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the church.” The 1st and 2d centuries of Christian origins have become a goldmine for scholars and bloggers.

    After Jesus, baptism became the favorite mystical initiation to the Christian “mystery”, bringing the new convert “in the body of Christ”. A newly initiated convert was called in Rome “Renatus” (reborn). The name became
    – in Italian: Renato and Renata (Renata Scotto, Renata Tebaldi, two sopranos at the Met),
    – in German: Renate (female),
    – in French and English: René (René Descartes, René Lacoste, René Magritte, René Russo, an actress, whose parents were confused), and Renée (Renée Fleming, a soprano at the Met, Renée Richard, a transgendered tennis player, and Renée Zellweger, an actress who redeemed the connotation of the name)

  8. I think the parallel Mandaean story about John’s baptism of Manda d’Hayye (“Knowledge of Life”, personified as a 3-year-old child – not a Jesus or Christ figure, but identifiable as a manifestation of the Logos) from the Ginza Rabba argues against a purely Markan invention. After 42 years of ministry, John is approached by a mysterious child who demands to be baptized. John hesitates, but finally relents, and begins the ritual. When Manda enters the waters, they swell and clash violently; but when he gazes upon them, they calm and recede, and John is shocked to find the riverbed dry beneath his feet. Birds and fish proclaim blessings on Manda d’Hayyye, and John realises who he is dealing with. “Now, place your hand of truth upon me,” he begs; but the other, now identified as Mana (“Spirit”), warns him that that would mean death. John is not deterred, and Mana bestows upon him his own purified body, and leads him on a tour of the celestial realms.

    There’s no way to date the Ginza or its possible sources beyond their being pre-Islamic. Christian scholars have only ever been able to express bewilderment over “the utter confusion of their historical reminiscences”, but allow that “though their ‘theology’ is Indian-Babylonian they were once historically connected with Jewish Christians.” [Catholic Encyclopedia, 1917; “scare quotes” in the original.] I find it much easier to understand the Markan version as historicizing the Mandaean one than the Mandaean as mythologizing Mark. In any case, it rather points up the absurdity of applying arguments from embarrassment to mythological stories.

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