Jesus’ Baptism in the Context of the Myth of Water, Flight and Wilderness

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by Neil Godfrey

An important consequence follows. If a myth is made up of all its variants, structural analysis should take all of them into account. — Claude Lévi-Strauss (435)
The structural analysis developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss invites one to compare the variants of a myth so as to define the rules that led to their transformation. . . . [A] myth is comprised of all of its variants — meaning that one version alone of a myth is not held to be unique and authentic . . . . However, Lévi-Strauss shows that the nature of any myth is to reinvent itself through each new speaker who appropriates it.  — Philippe Wajdenbaum (1)


Our canonical gospels all begin the career of Jesus with John the Baptist. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all follow the baptism of Jesus with a wilderness testing of Jesus. Why don’t we see more variation in starting points and details if each author had his own set of historical or biographical traditions to draw upon?

I am aware that the terms “gnostic” and “gnosticism” have become problematic among a number of scholars in more recent years but I use the terms here as they were used by Robinson in his 1970 essay. For the sake of convenience I also use Mark to refer to the author of the Gospel of Mark.

One more point: Certainly the baptism and wilderness episodes in the gospels derive largely from the Exodus account of Israel leaving through the Red Sea and spending 40 years in the wilderness. I do not deny that association. But it also appears that there are other accounts that may derive from reinterpretations of the Exodus event, or that the Exodus narrative was in some way remoulded several times to produce the different narratives discussed here: Apocalypse of Adam, Revelation, Gospel of Hebrews, synoptic gospels.

The reading that led me to produce this post was prompted by James M. Robinson On the Gattung of Mark (and John) (1970). Robinson suggests a common source lies behind the Gospel of Mark’s beginning with the baptism and wilderness experience of Jesus, our canonical Book of Revelation’s reference to the birth of a child and the fleeing of its mother to the wilderness, a section of the “gnostic” “Apocalypse (or Revelation) of Adam and a passage in the now mostly lost Gospel of Hebrews.

Robinson does not think that our Gospel of Mark was an attempt to historicize spiritual gnostic teachings but that Mark adapted genuinely historical traditions to conform to a pattern of gnostic thought. We may wonder if it is necessary to bring any assumption of historical traditions to the question but that’s for each of us to decide.

The section of the Apocalypse of Adam is a list of proclamations from thirteen kingdoms. This part of the apocalypse is generally understood to have originated separately from the rest of the text because of various inconsistencies in the way it fits into the surrounding narrative. As for dating it, I have seen arguments for it being dated to very late second or third century (a reference to Solomon matches a late trajectory of evolving myths related to Solomon’s power over demons) and other arguments for it being dated as early as the first century CE or even BCE (it lacks the sophisticated philosophical elements of later gnostic myths with their various emanations from a single remote deity and eclectic inclusions of other gospel references).

Here is the thirteen kingdoms passage taken from Barnstone’s The Other Bible:

“Now the first kingdom says of him. …
He was nourished in the heavens.
He received the glory of that one and the power.
He came to the bosom of his mother.
And thus he came to the water.

And the second kingdom says about him that he came from a great prophet.
And a bird came, took the child who was born and brought him onto a high mountain.
And he was nourished by the bird of Heaven.
An angel came forth there.
He said to him, ‘Arise! God has given glory to you.’
He received glory and strength.
And thus he came to the water.

“The third kingdom says of him that he came from a virgin womb.
He was cast out of his city, he and his mother; he was brought to a desert place.
He was nourished there.
He came and received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“The fourth kingdom says of him that he came from a virgin. .. .
Solomon sought her, he and Phersalo and Sauel and his armies, which had been sent out.
Solomon himself sent his army of demons to seek out the virgin.
And they did not find the one whom they sought, but the virgin who was given to them.
It was she whom they fetched. Solomon took her.
The virgin became pregnant and gave birth to the child there.
She nourished him on a border of the desert.
When he had been nourished, he received glory and power from the seed from which he had been begotten.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the fifth kingdom says of him that he came from a drop from Heaven.
He was thrown into the sea.
The abyss received him, gave birth to him, and brought him to Heaven.
He received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the sixth kingdom says that a [ . . . ] down to the Aeon which is below, in order, to gather flowers.
She became pregnant from the desire of the flowers.
She gave birth to him in that place.
The angels of the flower garden nourished him.
He received glory there and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the seventh kingdom says of him that he is a drop.
It came from Heaven to earth.
Dragons brought him down to caves.
He became a child.
A spirit came upon him and brought him on high to the place where the drop had come forth.
He received glory and power there.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the eighth kingdom says of him that a cloud came upon the earth and enveloped a rock.
He came from it.
The angels who were above the cloud nourished him.
He received glory and power there.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the ninth kingdom says of him that from the nine Muses one separated away.
She came to a high mountain and spent some time seated there, so that she desired herself alone in order to become androgynous.
She fulfilled her desire and became pregnant from her desire.
He was born.
The angels who were over the desire nourished him.
And he received glory there and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“The tenth kingdom says of him that his god loved a cloud of desire.
He begot him in his hand and cast upon the cloud above him some of the drop, and he was born.
He received glory and power there.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the eleventh kingdom says of him that the father desired his own daughter.
She herself became pregnant from her father.
She cast [ . . . ] tomb out in the desert.
The angel nourished him there.
And thus he came to the water.

“The twelfth kingdom says of him that he came from two illuminators.
He was nourished there.
He received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the thirteenth kingdom says of him that every birth of their ruler is a word.
And this word received a mandate there.
He received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water, in order that the desire of those powers might be satisfied.

This passage is followed by “a generation without a king” that sees the true Illuminator who is attacked by godless men.

It appears that we are meant to envision thirteen different accounts of how a false Illuminator came into the world.

Interpretations of the thirteen kingdoms and the Illuminator(s) they proclaim vary. In the Apocalypse they appear to be false Illuminators in contrast to the generation without a king, but what interests Robinson are the common elements in each kingdom. We find the following key threads:

The illuminator is “coming from” a certain point to make his entrance to the world. He variously comes from a great prophet, a virgin womb, a drop from heaven, a cloud around a rock, one of the nine Muses, from two illuminators (and the generation without a king sees the true Illuminator come from “foreign air”.

The other common feature is that after his coming the Illuminator is given power and glory.

Each of them came to the water. Another possible translation of this phrase is “And thus he came upon the water” and may relate to the idea of subservience to persons who controlled the flow of water from the Nile to distant agricultural plots (Parrott, 78). Others connect the passage with baptism, but if so, it appears that the baptism comes after the Illuminator is given power and glory. So the original meanings of the text are not clear. However, we do see significant elements repeated in other myths. Compare Revelation 12

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon . . . .  She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.  The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of . . . .

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:

“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
. . . . .

When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of . . . . Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring . . . .

We have here once more the elements of the birth of a saviour, the fleeing to the wilderness, the coming of a flood of water, the announcement of power and glory. One might further think that an eagle and a dove are inverted images of each other.

So the sequence of the elements is in some instances reversed. We also see the bifurcation of the woman from the child so that the child or saviour is no longer on earth to “come to the water” but the water does chase the woman in the wilderness, but in the wilderness she is cared for.

In the Gospel of Hebrews we encounter the same sorts of images according to Origen:

Those who give credence to the Gospel of Hebrews, in which the Savior says,

“Just now my mother, the holy spirit, took me by one of my hairs and brought me to Tabor, the great mountain.”

As Robinson points out, we are reminded of flight once though without a bird, eagle or dove, this time. The great mountain further reminds us of Jesus in the wilderness and having the devil take him to a high mountain.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. (Matthew 4:8)

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. (Luke 4:5)

Of course we have the repeat of the kingdoms that we first saw in the Apocalypse of Adam. “All the kingdoms” may point us to the possible fact that in Egypt some believed that humanity was “divided into thirteen geographical groupings” (Parrott, 82). (We may also note that the temptation involved an attempt to stimulate a strong desire; compare the lusts that are said to have given rise to the Illuminator(s) in the thirteen kingdoms.)

None of the above sources, the Apocalypse’s Thirteen Kingdoms passage, the Gospel of Hebrews, the Book of Revelation, and the Gospel of Mark, appear to be directly related; there is no indication that the authors of any of those texts knew of the others. There is no indication that the Gospel of Mark’s author knew of the Thirteen Kingdoms narrative or the Book of Revelation. Yet they all employ the same types of motifs to explain a beginning of a Saviour figure (true or false) to the world.

We have a “great prophet” as one of the entry points of this saviour figure; we have flight of an eagle and a dove (and in the Gospel of Mark Jesus is “driven” or “cast out” into the wilderness, not unlike the Gospel of Hebrews savior being pulled by his hair to the mountain); we have power and glory being bestowed or announced for the saviour figure; and we have “coming to” or “coming upon” water and water rushing to a mother of the saved child; we have a caring for the Saviour or his mother in the wilderness and think of angels caring for Jesus in the wilderness where Jesus had confronted Satan. We have a spirit of power in the narratives, too: the Gospel of Hebrews speaks of the angel Michael becoming the virgin mother of the Saviour, and the feminine Spirit or woman empowering or giving birth to the Saviour.

Even the story in the Gospel of Mark of Jesus walking on water is tied to his prior experience in the wilderness and praying upon a mountain. In that narrative, a theophany, we have same sequence of elements as in the Apocalypse of Adam.

There is a kaleidoscope of common imagery in the various narratives. In other words, although we cannot say that Mark knew the Apocalypse of Adam or the Book of Revelation, it certainly does appear that all of these variant narratives are related somehow and that they do arise from a common matrix.

I have not yet attempted to set out in a diagram the variants of the narratives but may attempt that soon.

Barnstone, Willis, ed. 2005. The Other Bible: Jewish Pseudepigrapha, Christian Apocrypha, Gnostic Scriptures, Kabbalah, Dead Sea Scrolls. Rev. San Francisco: Harper.

Carroll, Scott T. 1990. “The ‘Apocalypse of Adam’ and Pre-Christian Gnosticism.” Vigiliae Christianae 44 (3): 263–79.

MacRae, George W. 1965. “The Coptic Gnostic Apocalypse of Adam.” The Heythrop Journal 6 (1): 27–35.

Miller, Robert J. 1995. The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholar’s Version. 3rd Rev edition. Sonoma, Calif: Polebridge Press.

Parrott, Douglas M. 1989. “The 13 Kingdoms of the Apocalypse of Adam: Origin, Meaning and Significance.” Novum Testamentum 31 (1): 67–87.

Perkins, Pheme. 1977. “Apocalypse of Adam: The Genre and Function of a Gnostic Apocalypse.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 39 (3): 382–95.

Robinson, James M. 1982. “On the Gattung of Mark (and John).” In The Problem of History in Mark: And Other Marcan Studies. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Robinson, Stephen E. 1977. “The Apocalypse of Adam.” Brigham Young University Studies 17 (2): 131–53.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1955. “The Structural Study of Myth.” The Journal of American Folklore 68 (270): 428–44.

Wajdenbaum, Philippe. 2011. Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. London ; Oakville: Equinox.

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17 thoughts on “Jesus’ Baptism in the Context of the Myth of Water, Flight and Wilderness”

  1. The difficulty with this time of assessment is that we know for sure that all of these communities were steeped in the Jewish scriptures, so commonality can simply arise from the common scriptural mythology that they all draw from.

    This is why its difficult to show dependence or a “common source” without direct textual parallels. Because if all there is is just similar themes, those similar themes could be a product of referencing a single common tradition that was created by the Jesus cult, or it could simply be a product of independently developed similar themes based on the common root of the Jewish scriptures.

    I guess I’m saying it is possible that multiple independent Christian writers could come up with similar themes because they are all working from the same common Jewish source material within a common culture.

    It’s just like right now there are many independently written works of youth fiction with similar dystopian themes coming from American authors. It doesn’t mean that they all are copying from a single story, just that they are all part of a common culture with similar cultural background, having likely heard many similar stories growing up and watched some of the same movies, etc.

    So its the difference between American culture being the common source and once specific story being the common source.

  2. I would have thought that the idea of the story of a saviour figure beginning with wilderness, water, bird, demons, would most likely arise from a communal set of stories or story rather than be invented independently from the book of Exodus each time.

  3. I’ve always thought the Apocalypse of Adam was written after the Gospels and influenced by them. As for the rest, maybe. I’d have to look into it further. I’m not saying its not possible, just that it’s hard to tell since so many Jewish stories have so many similar themes and motifs. It’s certainly interesting, and one more puzzle to ponder 🙂

    1. I’ve just been looking at the issue of the possible relationship of the Apocalypse of Adam to the NT texts –

      ”George W. MacRae [wrote]: ‘The most notable feature of [the Apocalypse of Adam] is the absence of any explicit or clear borrowings from the Christian tradition. This has led several interpreters to see in it a witness to a non-Christian Gnosticism which contains an already well developed redeemer myth. On the other hand, its close dependence on Jewish apocalyptic tradition suggests that it may represent a transitional stage in an evolution from Jewish to gnostic apocalyptic. In this case the document may be a very early on …’.” (The Coptic Gnostic Library, vol. 11, pp. 152-153)

      James Charleworth: “… there is considerable debate over A. Böhlig’s suggestion that the original is a pre-Christian product of a Syrian-Palestinian baptist sect (no. 528). This attractive hypothesis, which has been supported with modifications by J. Robinson (no. 542, p. 234), K. Rudolph (TLZ 90 [1965]), G. W. MacRae (no. 539), and R. Kasser (no. 534), opens the way for the inclusion of the Apocalypse of Adam within the Pseudepigrapha.”

      both via http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/apocadam.html


      Madeleine Scopello: “…There is no agreement among scholars about the background of this apocalypse. Is it a Jewish text that offers a polemic against mainstream Judaism? Is it a pre-Christian Gnostic text that has been influenced by Jewish apocalypticism and has adapted traditional apocalyptic themes to Gnostic thought? Is it possible to distinguish in it any Christian references, especially in the description of the third illuminator? The date of the text can be ascribed to the end of the first century or the beginning of the second; interpolations, particularly the hymnic section of stories of the origin of the illuminator, can be dated somewhat later.” (The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, p. 345)

      Bentley Layton: “…No distinctive elements of non-gnostic Christianity occur in the work, leading some scholars to regard [the Revelation of Adam] as textbook evidence for the existence of non-Christian, i.e. Jewish, gnostic religion; such scholars are obliged to minimize its connection with other, more obviously Christian, versions of the gnostic myth.” (The Gnostic Scriptures, p. 52)


      1. Yes, I’m intrigued by the doubts whether it is Christian influenced or entirely Jewish. Of course if it turns out that the 13 Kingdoms are not derived from an early source then I think the questions I have posted about may have to be shelved.

        1. This early can we distinguish Christianity from Judaism? Paul didn’t; Daniel Boyarin doesn’t; I was listening yesterday to Ben Shapiro argue that you could say the same of Christianity today. Jesus is just a personification of the Jewish mythos when all is said and done.

  4. The Apocalypse of Adam as we have it is not the item under discussion; what is being looked at is the section of the 13 Kingdoms announcing their illuminator. The different myths that we see there are thought to be very early or derived from a very early source.

    I don’t see any allusion to any canonical gospels in this section. Nag Hammadi texts that are dated late are those that contain the more sophisticated gnostic/philosophical myths as well as making apparent references to some of our gospels.

    But the 13 Kingdoms is certainly “raw myth” without any philosophical (as in neo-Platonic — various divisions from a supreme deity until one reaches a being capable of meeting the physical world) reinterpretations.

    What stands out to me is that the same elements are pulled from the Exodus narrative and the same elements are added to that extraction. That does not seem so likely if there was no relationship of some sort to common sources.

  5. Here I find another ”coincidence”:

    Theudas (/ˈθjuːdəs/; died c. 46 AD) was a Jewish rebel of the 1st century AD. Scholars attribute to his name a Greek etymology[1] possibly meant as “flowing with water”,[2] although with a Hellenist-styled ending.

    Note that Lena Einhorn had found other similarities between John the Baptist and Theudas. The shared link with the ‘water’ may be another.

  6. Price suggests the Baptism pericope may have its origin in Zoroastrianism. He comments that:

    The scene in broad outline may derive from Zoroastrian traditions of the inauguration of Zoroaster’s ministry. Son of a Vedic priest, Zoroaster immerses himself in the river for purification, and as he comes up from the water, the archangel Vohu Mana appears to him, proffering a cup and commissions him to bear the tidings of the one God Ahura Mazda, whereupon the evil one Ahriman tempts him to abandon this call.

    Here is a video of Price talking about how Zoroastrianism influenced other religions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAJVKbVRPZU&t=665s

    1. The “gnostic” myth of the 13 kingdoms has man recognised antecedents, too, including “Zoroastrianism” or at least elements from Mithras myth, in addition to other Jewish and Iranian legends, and Manichaean and Hermetic and even good old Isianic influences have all been detected.

      What I would like to know is the source of the Zorastrian myth Price uses. Zoroastrianism goes back to the pre-Christian era but much of our evidence for its myths is post-Christian, so that’s something that needs sorting out.

      There are relationships among the respective myths from the same general geographic area and Zoroastrian similarities are worth investigating, too. It would be interesting to compare the Zoroastrian myths, too, the same way.

  7. https://vridar.org/2018/12/06/jesus-baptism-in-the-context-of-the-myth-of-water-dove-and-wilderness/
    Let us apply Occam’s Sword to the baptism interpretation problem:
    Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities 18.117* “For in John’s opinion, the baptism he administered would only be acceptable to God, if it was used not to obtain pardon for their various sins, but rather was used for the purification of their bodies, since it was already taken for granted that their souls had been purified by righteous behavior.” (My translation, modernizing the faux KJV vocabulary and syntax prior generations of devout translators inflected on the innocent reader. The Greek text is available via the Perseus Project.)
    John the Baptist was therefor not whitewashing Jesus’s prior sins, John was purifying his body.
    Why did Jesus body require ritual purification at Johns’s mikvah?
    Because, at least according to one branch of rabbinic literature, Jesus was ritually impure, barred from participating in community religious life because he was a mamzer, a product of adultery or rape.
    John’s ritual immersion was supposed to wash away Jesus’ ritual impurity, the stigma of being a bastard.
    The debate Jesus had with Temple priests over efficacy of John’s baptism (MK 11:29 et seq, LK 20:3-8, MT 21:24 et seq) then takes on a greater importance, since if John’s baptism was not from Heaven, i.e. it was not ritually efficacious, then Jesus was still ritually impure, and was defiling the Temple with his presence, and could be legitimately hauled away and stoned by the Temple guardians.
    Reference to a near contemporary text eliminates the need for a lot of exegesis, and unveils one major source of conflict between the Temple establishment and the people who congregated around John and Jesus and their ilk: who was the legitimate interpreter of the meaning and purpose of traditional texts and rituals.
    The Baptism of John was what it was, a ceremonial washing away of ritual impurity.
    The Synoptic Gospels syntactically difficult statements that John’s baptism was to remit sins (Mark 1:4-9,Lk 3:3-3:18,Matthew 3:1-12) ) is at odds with Josephus’ report, and the Gospel texts are most likely disinformation, to conceal the revolutionary subtext of John’s actions* and the reason why Jesus had to be ritually washed.
    *Slavonic Jewish War Passage about John’s Baptism: “6. And he did nothing else to them save that he plunged them into the stream of the Jordan and dismissed them, instructing them that they should cease from evil works, and [promising] that there would [then] be given them a ruler who would set them free and subject to them all that is not in submission … “)

  8. Already Jean Magne was able to derive John B in small logical steps from a text of the kind which is today known as the fourth tractate of the Corpus Hermeticum, by the way of Judaization and euhemerization. It was a long way from the Hermetic herald of the baptise for the acquisition of the mind (nous) to the Christian baptise for the remission of sin, duplicated as the sacrament of anointment or imposition of hands as the means to acquire the charismatic spirit (pneuma); but the little steps are all covered by difficult passages of the New Testament and the fathers.

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