I have translated an article by Anne-Françoise Jaccottet that I referenced in the previous post.
The Baptism of Jesus.
1. The Time.
“In those days,” says Mark (C. 1,6.), namely in those days when the Baptist was working in the manner described, Jesus of Nazareth came and was baptized. However, the context has not left the time when Jesus came to the Jordan so indefinite. As we noticed in the speech attributed by Mark to the Baptist, it reveals the later view that the effectiveness of John’s work was compressed into the shortest possible time. So here too, the evangelist sees the matter in the same way, even though he has not yet brought reflective seriousness into the account, that Jesus in any case, when he came to be baptized, arrived at the moment when the time of the Baptist was already measured. The baptism of the Messiah, which was considered the turning point and the final determination of the Baptist’s effectiveness, needed only just to have passed so that John could step down from the scene.
To this end of the Baptist’s effectiveness, Luke rushes so impatiently that he immediately adds the remark to his report of John’s preaching that Herod had imprisoned him. The baptism of Jesus, which is now mentioned retrospectively (Luk. 3, 21. 22.), is thus pushed even more to the end of John’s public activity, for the arrangement of the report can only appear so indifferent if both the imprisonment of the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus were not separated by a longer period. But this arrangement of the report would bring with it an inconvenience: the evangelist had to take up the earlier material again to indicate the situation and time in which Jesus underwent baptism; he does so, but thereby introduces into his account a feature that Mark does not know and which was excluded by the original plan of the report. The account of the original evangelist has only Jesus in view: he comes and is baptized and, as he comes out of the water, sees the wonderful appearance of the descending Spirit upon him. Here, Jesus is not only the central point, or rather the only point, to which the wonderful event refers, but he and the Baptist alone are on the stage when this miracle occurs. But Luke must go back to the past to tell the miracle, he must say when it happened – when Jesus was baptized and praying *) – but when was Jesus baptized? Now, “when all the people were baptized.” Suddenly, the people are on the stage as a chorus, drawn into the mystery of the miracle, as the heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon Jesus – the consequence of the clumsy arrangement of the report.
*) Ἰησοῦ βαπτισθέντος καὶ προσευχομένου — Only he also has the stereotyped note that Jesus was praying at this moment.
Matthew returns to the original type, as far as he had left it in its originality. He had already brought in that indefinite definiteness that is generally characteristic of his pragmatism, when he portrays the preaching of the Baptist – this general message – as an expression that was incidentally brought about by a single occasion. “Then,” he says (rare), when the Baptist appeared, the people flocked to him, along with a multitude of Pharisees and Sadducees. “Then,” he continues (Matt. 3:13), Jesus came to be baptized – that is, at the time when the people flocked to the Baptist immediately after his appearance. However, we would do the evangelist a disservice if we were to simply hold onto his words in their specificity and not reflect on that secret power that also makes them indefinite. The evangelist certainly traces that statement, which describes the entire historical position of the Baptist, back to a single, incidental cause, but we cannot simply deny that he involuntarily felt how comprehensive, far-reaching, and universal that statement was; its content must involuntarily expand for him and also take up a greater space in relation to time. Therefore, if he adds Jesus’ arrival at the Jordan to the occasion that prompted this statement with the formula “then,” for his feeling, at least enough time has elapsed that he cannot believe that the two events happened one after the other. On the other hand, the formula should be specific again, and the author could not even use it if he did not have the view that the Baptist’s career was only a short one and events followed one another quickly. So, if we see the pragmatism of the Synoptics so clearly emerging, if the same formula is so specific and so indefinite at the same time – will we still hesitate to confess that the evangelists do not inform us about the time when Jesus was baptized?
2. The Refusal of the Baptist.
Among the Synoptics, it is only Matthew – the latest one – who reports that the Baptist recognized Jesus as the Messiah at the moment he came to be baptized. John did not want to baptize the Lord; rather, he needed to be baptized by Him (Matt. 3:14). The fact that Mark and Luke know nothing about such a refusal of the Baptist – which is the actual difficulty – does not concern the apologist, as at least Mark – the supposed epitomizer – cannot raise any scruples against him, and Luke even seems to come to his aid when he reports that the families of Jesus and the Baptist were related to each other. Doesn’t this mean that John at least knew “the earlier life of Jesus” *) and therefore found it strange that the lesser one should baptize the Messiah? The fourth evangelist, on the other hand, puts the theologian in a difficult position, since according to his account, the Baptist explicitly testifies that he had not known Jesus before the baptism. The apologist is also forced to argue that both men must have been familiar with each other.
*) Neander, p. 67
Where should we start unwinding a tangle that is as complicated as hardly any other? Which of the threads, which are intertwined in a colorful mess, should we grasp first? If we try with one, immediately the other, which is wound over it, hinders us. And we certainly cannot tear any of them? Patience and caution will help us.
First Luke! Let’s go to the second and fourth evangelists! These three threads seem to be wound up in the same order at first. When Luke tells the story of Jesus’ baptism, he knows nothing about the fact that the Baptist knew Jesus and refused to baptize him. And yet, the same Luke is called upon by the apologist to testify for Matthew? Yes, his backstory! says the apologist. The Baptist already knew the Messiah in the womb, the mothers of both knew each other and visited each other, they spoke to each other about the extraordinary destiny of their children – so should they have forgotten that they belonged together according to divine providence? Shouldn’t they have had fellowship as young men, or at least should John have heard of the “earlier life of Jesus” – Neander probably means the childhood story? We will see! – namely, although we have an absolute right to do so, we will not yet remind ourselves that this childhood story belongs only to the ideal view; we will meet the apologist on his own ground, that of the letter, as far as we still share it with him, that is, have not yet investigated it.
We can still leave out innocent, unpretentious Mark, who is hardly there for the apologist, but who will appear to his horror – to the downfall of the apologetic building. But the theologian will surely acknowledge the fourth evangelist. How can we think that! Everything, everything must be sacrificed to theological fear. “I did not know him,” this word of the Baptist is no longer so firm that it should not mean the opposite.
We ask for patience once again, as the theologian will lead us far from the goal, and we must travel a long way back to reach the truth, but the path that has such a goal in sight will not be boring, will it? Boring only for theology, which with one exercise of power turns no into yes and is only diligent and verbose in repeating the same phrase in a thousand books!
“I did not know him” now means: in comparison with my later consciousness of Jesus, “everything earlier appeared to me as ignorance.” *) About the negligent fourth evangelist, that he did not even hint that the Baptist only meant his earlier ignorance as relative! About the clumsiness of making the Baptist speak as if he wanted to be understood as an absolute ignorance! Did the fourth evangelist then wait for another scripture to be written or possibly written, from which his readers could conclude how the Baptist meant that ignorance? No, says Neander, the appeal to the different perspectives of the presentation comes again – “it was particularly important for the evangelist John to assert the weight of the divine testimony” by which the Baptist had learned to recognize the Lord as the Messiah. As is well known, the Baptist says in the fourth gospel that the sign at the baptism of Jesus was given to him and had already been promised to him by God earlier so that he would recognize the Messiah in the individual over whom it would be seen at the baptism. But if the Baptist had really “heard about those wonderful circumstances at the birth of Jesus” and “expected” him to be the Messiah, he would not have needed the vision. He was already faithful in the womb and had paid homage to the Messiah, and now, after being given the opportunity to see the Messiah himself for years and hear about the wonder of his birth, should he have changed his nature so much and needed a new sign? He would have deserved punishment, not a new miracle.
*) Neander, p. 68
Or if for any reason he had recognized the messianic nature of Jesus, the vision was just as unnecessary, as his recognition had to be confirmed by the subsequent historical events.
Yes, answers Hoffmann, *) as the Baptist had already known Jesus as the Messiah before the baptism, but “he was no more informed about the true nature of the Messiah and about the deeper meaning of the messianic name ‘Son of God’ than his contemporaries before that event (at the baptism).” We are astonished – not only that a miracle should suddenly transform theoretical insight and enrich it with an entirely new meaning, but even more so by the erudition of the apologist, which surpasses our understanding of the matter. He must have used sources that we have not yet been able to discover. The fourth Evangelist, at least, knows nothing about the fact that the “event” at the baptism of Jesus expanded the theoretical understanding of the Baptist in this way.
*) loc. cit. p. 287.
On the contrary! According to his account, the Baptist already possessed the deepest theory before Jesus came to him, which was already firm and certain to him; only the specific person who was the Messiah was unknown to him, and he was only shown this through the sign promised by God. After the baptism, he says: “I saw and testified that ‘this’ is the Son of God,” meaning that this sign made me aware that in this person, I had to see the reality of the idea that was already firm to me.
It will have to remain forever that, according to the fourth Gospel, the Baptist did not even have a suspicion that Jesus was the Messiah before the miracle of the baptism, but rather he absolutely did not know.
Let’s go back to Luke! He also knows nothing of the Baptist even suspecting, let alone recognizing, Jesus as the Messiah when he came to be baptized. But his backstory – wouldn’t it necessarily presuppose that the Baptist recognized the man whom he had already worshiped in the womb? Would it not have been punishable if he had denied the homage to the man that he had already offered as an embryo? He had to know him, he had to have known him since his youth, he had to have attached himself to him and served him from childhood on, or woe to him if he had only “suspected” that he might be the Messiah! The tremendous miracles of his childhood would have been wasted for him and his family. Earlier, his ignorance, of which we hear in the fourth Gospel, was excused by the fact that the long journey to the mountains prevented the acquaintance of the two boys and youths. Although, critics replied, for Mary this journey was not an obstacle when she went to visit her relative Elizabeth. We answer: Luke has completely forgotten this journey and everything that led to it when he came to the Gospel of Mark, which led him in completely different directions. The backstory, this new creation, lies forgotten behind him when he reads the account of the baptism of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel and takes it up unchanged in his work, namely that no prior acquaintance between the Baptist and Jesus is assumed.
So far, the matter would be set straight. With regard to the claim that the Baptist did not know Jesus was the Messiah before the baptism, three witnesses testify in favor of Matthew. But before we examine or even accept their testimony, we must separate one of the three witnesses – we ask for patience once again. The fourth Gospel cannot testify in the same way as Mark and Luke because it deviates from them in a circumstance in which they agree with Matthew.
Mark (C. 1, 10) states it as clearly as only humans can speak, that Jesus, as he emerged from the water, saw the wonderful apparition; Matthew expressly agrees with him *) and as for Luke, we have already seen that he only allows the wonderful apparition to happen at the moment of Jesus’ baptism, in an indefinite representation. However, at the end of the account, he still makes it clear that, in his view, the apparition refers to Jesus, since like Mark, he has the heavenly voice speak in the form of a direct address: “you are my beloved Son”.
*) “Strauss (I, 436.) also suggests that in Matthew it is most natural to refer ειδε and ανεωχθησαν αυτω to Jesus, who had just been the subject; but since it immediately states that he saw the divine Spirit coming upon him, not upon himself (in Mark, the επ’ αυτον, which does not fit into his construction, is explained as dependent on Matthew), it appears that the one who saw was not the same as the one upon whom he saw the Spirit descending, and one is led to refer ειδε and ανεωχθησαν αυτω to the more remote subject, the Baptist, who is also the most natural witness to the appearance since the heavenly voice speaks of Jesus in the third person.”
- We do not see why the ‘επ αυτον should not fit into Mark’s construction. He saw the spirit “come upon him,” and the historian can just as well say “upon him” as “upon himself.” “Upon himself” (‘εφ’ αυτων) he will say when, as a reporter, he at the same time reproduces the active relationship, the perception of Jesus as such, thus including in his account the reflection with which Jesus himself perceived the direction of the appearance on his person. “Upon him,” says the historian when he looks at the matter from a distance, i.e. does not consider the matter from Jesus’ standpoint, but expresses the relationship of the appearance to Jesus himself. “Upon himself” reflects the internal reflection between Jesus and the appearance; “upon him” is the reflection of the writer who brings both together.
- Matthew borrowed the formula ‘αυτον’ from Mark, and even if we were to forget this relationship for a moment, it remains the case that according to his account, Jesus is the one who saw the appearance.
- The reason why the heavenly voice in Matthew’s account speaks in the third person (ουτος εστιν ο υιος μου) is that in Mark, although Matthew knows the direct address “ου ει ο μου,” he recalls the key phrases “ο αγαπητος, εν ω εθδοκησα” and sees that they come from a prophecy in Isaiah 42:1 or elsewhere in the Second Book of Isaiah where the words already indicate the Messiah. In short, he sees that they have already been spoken in Isaiah 42:1 about the Messiah in the third person. Mark weaves the Old Testament citations into the plastic depiction of the story, but Matthew lets them appear as quotes even where Mark has incorporated them into the internal structure of the narrative. So he does here too. He reads that Isaiah 42:1 speaks of the Messiah in the third person and only to restore this form of speech and thus make it clear to himself and others that the voice that had already pointed to the Messiah in the Second Book of Isaiah was now heard, he transforms the direct address into a call that points to the Messiah. In all other respects, however, he must keep the words, so he cannot give a full translation like in Chapter 11, 18, because here he is bound to the type of the narrative in Mark’s text. Nothing but this prosaic reflection on the text of the Old Testament has led Matthew to make his modification, and he has not thought in the slightest that the voice, because it speaks of Jesus in the third person, should be heard or perceived by anyone other than Jesus himself. By the way, Matthew does not notice that the heavenly voice, i.e. Mark, also took words from Ps. 2, 7, since his attention was focused on the words αγαπητος and ευδοκησα, because they seemed to him the most characteristic ones, and he remained with them after he had once found the locus classicus of the Ο.Τ..
- When Hoffmann (p. 305) says that it cannot succeed in making “the heavenly voice arise from Isa. 42:1, even though the words are similar there,” he can now see, not that Matthew has lent these words to the heavenly voice – for this merit belongs to Mark – but that Matthew himself knew very well where these words originally came from. “It is precisely because Matthew considers the Isaianic utterance fulfilled in Jesus at another place, 12:18, that this origin cannot be accepted,” Hoffmann further believes. So, because Matthew considers this saying once (12:19-20) as a prophecy about Jesus’ modesty, could he not relate it to the Messiah from another perspective? This reasoning would be invalid in itself if we were not talking about a gospel where we encounter so many duplicates. This time, however, the duality is explained to us just as we will usually find it later: namely, from Matthew’s dependence on the scripture of another. Mark has given him the words of the heavenly voice, and after he had once brought the prophecy that underlies them in the sense prescribed by his predecessor, he could very easily apply them as a pointer to another aspect of the messianic work that he later also found reflected in it. He did so in 12:17.
The fourth Gospel, on the other hand, emphasizes very clearly that the miraculous appearance at the baptism of Jesus was already predetermined and only intended for the Baptist. In our criticism of his account, we have shown how his view of the baptism of John became fundamentally different from that of the Synoptics, but at the same time, we also discovered how he had to come to this reversal of the matter. We can now say outright why he gave the Baptist this relationship to the baptism miracle. Only in his Gospel does Jesus appeal to the testimony of the Baptist and continues to use it against his opponents. Mark knows nothing of such an appeal by Jesus to the testimony of his forerunner, and Luke and Matthew know no more than he does. Even when they, more often than their predecessor, have the Lord referring to the Baptist, their view is always only that Jesus referred to the appearance and work of his forerunner as the prophecy and precondition of his own work. This view, which had become dominant in the community, was only pushed by the apologetic direction of the fourth evangelist to that painful precision, where it has become the belief that Jesus had appealed to a specific testimony concerning himself and could really do so. Therefore, the Baptist had to become the consummate theorist and Christologist, and finally his testimony had to be divinely authenticated, so that it would not appear merely as a subjective theory, and it receives this highest confirmation when God himself shows the Baptist the person of whom he must bear witness. This is how it came about that the miraculous appearance was intended for the Baptist.
Τhe Synoptics are now left alone to resolve their disagreement with each other without any outside interference. Now we can properly appreciate the impartiality of Mark and Luke – whose background we can almost forget as much as they themselves do – they do not have the interested testimony of the Baptist, that he did not know Jesus as the Messiah before his baptism, because they also know nothing afterwards that he testified so definitively about Jesus. Their focus is only on Jesus: the Lord comes to the baptism, receives it, and according to the express remark of Mark, sees the wonderful appearance of the Spirit descending upon him; therefore, their account has the same interest, the same content, as that of Matthew, and the only difference is that he attributes to the Baptist the knowledge of Jesus’ messiahship and lets him act accordingly.
So how did the Baptist come to this insight? Or do we need to clarify again that he had this insight? It is almost necessary when we see how de Wette still wriggles apologetically and says that in the words of the Baptist, “there is no indication that he recognized Jesus directly as the Messiah *).” But he could not have greeted Jesus more specifically as the Messiah than when he says that he himself needs to be baptized by him; for who alone has a stronger baptism, who else but the one who comes with the baptism of the Spirit? Jesus also completely accepts this recognition: “Let it be so now,” he says, meaning that later the Baptist can do everything that he believes he owes to him as the Messiah.
*) 1, 1, 33
The Baptist therefore recognized Jesus as the Messiah when he came to him for baptism, but how he came to this insight is impossible to say. Neander calls out to us: “Let us recall the appearance of Christ, who with the expression of holy devotion and heavenly calm was praying before John” – but it is unnecessary to write down the rest, that is, that in the soul of the Baptist all memories of Jesus’ previous life were awakened. Neander does not want to tell us how the Baptist recognized Jesus as the Messiah, he assumes that both men were already acquainted with each other, and that the Baptist even expected Jesus to appear as the Messiah. We want to know how the Baptist could greet a man he had never known before as the Messiah. Perhaps we could still use a part of Neander’s reasoning: was it perhaps the “expression of holy devotion and heavenly calm” with which Jesus was praying before him that so touched the Baptist that he recognized the Messiah in this man? How would that be possible, since the Baptist greeted Jesus as the Messiah at the same moment he approached him, already before Jesus could stop and prepare himself devoutly for the baptism?
Ah! Welcome, apologist of a better time, which has not yet so much tangled up the holy text and still occasionally gave honor to the letter! Your words are balm for the wounds that modern faith has inflicted on us in the text. Ah! How we breathe freely again and are glad to be out of these windings and turnings of the newer apologetic hollow path, where we had to press and duck and get wounded everywhere. “John did not yet know,” says Bengel, *) “that this was Christ. However, in the first moment he sees Jesus, he is seized by the sympathy that already attracted him in the womb and concludes from his gracious appearance that this must be the Messiah.” Well done, at least that is the right distance at which both men stood when John recognized who the approaching baptizer was; but how the Baptist came to this realization remains a mystery to us, as we cannot understand how he could see, at first sight, that this person, unknown to him until then, no matter how gracious his appearance may have been, was the Expected One.
*) Nondum scierat Johannes, hunc esse Christum. Interea, ut primum Jesnu videt, ex sympathia illa, qua in utero commotus fuerat et ex aspectu gratiosissimo judicat, hunc baptismi candidatum esse Christum.
The mystery may be solved for us when we hear how Jesus removes John’s doubts and his refusal to baptize him, the Messiah.
3. The abstract necessity of Jesus’ baptism.
“Allow it now,” Jesus answered, “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness, namely for me to fulfill it, and for you not to hinder me.”
The earlier dogmatic view was already embarrassed by the fact that Jesus underwent a baptism that was connected with the recognition of sinfulness, with a confession of sin, and that demanded faith in the future from the baptized. Although Jesus had answered all objections in advance when he explained why he had to undergo baptism, the apologist still cannot be satisfied with the answer, as it simply repeats the question and conceals the difficulty in a general category without solving it. The question still remains the same: why did Jesus have to fulfill all righteousness to such an extent that he underwent a baptism that could not have been intended for him, since he had no sins to confess and could not confess faith in the future without giving the appearance that he was not sure whether he himself was the Messiah.
Also come forth, you apologetic armies! Bengel has exhausted everything you could bring forth as reasons, brought it to a general expression, and drawn the consequence with commendable naivety. The necessity and appropriateness, he says, have an extraordinary wide range in the divine decrees and works *); i.e., nothing specific can be thought of under this necessity, it extends so far that it cannot be encompassed and traced back to rational laws – in short, it is in itself pure arbitrariness. As such, it can overturn all laws and turn the highest into the lowest. – Bengel himself says: “according to the definite conception of righteousness, it would necessarily seem that John should be baptized by Jesus, according to the general scope of righteousness, the matter is reversed” **). But if there was no specific reason why Jesus had to be baptized, if there was no internal, rational connection between his personality and John’s baptism, then his baptism was an empty formality that had neither sense nor reason for him. Bengel has also drawn this consequence ***).
*) Decentia in divinis consiliis et operibus admiranda latissime patet.
**) Pro particulari justitiae intuitu Johannes videretur baptizandus a Jesu: pro universo justitiae ambitu conversa res est.
***) Non sibi baptizatus est Christus.
All apologetic explanations of this point come back to the formula “not for his sake” that Jesus had himself baptized for. Even Strauss has been drawn into the web of apologetics when he welcomes the information from Justinus, “according to which it was the Jewish expectation that the Messiah would be anointed by Elijah, who preceded him, and thus be inaugurated among his people,” and then claims, “Jesus could regard John’s baptism as this anointing and thus submit to it as the Messiah himself” *). In this case, if it had really been Jesus’ way to take Jewish expectations so seriously and to allow himself to be bound by them, he would have had to at least state that he was being baptized in a completely different sense than the believers who saw in this baptism an indication of the coming one and an act of repentance. He would have had to say categorically that the baptism, in the infinite significance that it had for others, had nothing to do with him. However, we have shown in the criticism of the fourth gospel what an unfortunate circumstance it is for that Jewish expectation, which Justinus speaks of, that it was not known to any Jew at the time of Jesus **). And then we have resolved the contradiction that would have existed if Jesus, with the full consciousness of his messianic destiny, had undergone a baptism that pointed to the coming one, in such a way that we have shown that John’s baptism was not placed in this narrow relationship with messianic expectation in any way.
*) L. J. I , 434, 435.
**) p. 13, 17.
It would remain only the stumbling block that Jesus, the sinless one, went to a baptism that called for repentance, thus intended for sinners. Will the apologist perhaps eliminate this stumbling block? Oh, he can do anything!
“To repent,” says Hoffmann, ***) the Johannine baptism called all those who had abandoned the law, to a mere ceremonial declaration that he would keep the law, the only one who had done no evil.” But even this declaration of intention would be only an empty formality if it did not have as its presupposition the most serious possibility of evil, a possibility which the apologist denies in this serious sense. And to whom did Jesus declare his intention to keep the law? God? Who sees into the heart? Himself? Did he not know his sinlessness? To humans? Never! From one whom no one can accuse of sin, no one should demand that he declare his mere intention to keep the law, especially on an occasion that was as inappropriate as possible. For either the appearance would then fall on Jesus that he also needed repentance, or a significant act would have had to be reduced to an empty formality for the sake of such an audacious and untimely demand.
***) L. J. p. 301.
“As Hoffmann continues, ‘the concept of divine law (δικαιοσυνη) also includes the fulfillment of what God demanded.’ As if that were not precisely the difficulty, how an action could be demanded of Jesus that was not appropriate for him.
If the apologist – Hoffmann does not do so – really attempts to incorporate this demand into the concept of divine law, he arrives at that thoughtless expansion of divine law at which nothing more can be thought and which we have already sufficiently seen in Bengel.
Furthermore, ‘when the feeling of messiahship had developed into a clear consciousness, the demand to do nothing other than the will of his Father, and not to emerge from the stillness before being called, had to touch his holy heart. He received this call at his baptism. In this respect, it is Jesus’ consecration to his office.’ Well then! Jesus would have forgotten this demand soon enough. If he went to the baptism, not knowing yet that it would become his consecration to his office, then he had emerged before the divine call. He would have acted very prematurely, because according to the consistent report of the Synoptics, the miracle that makes his baptism his consecration to his office and allows him to hear the divine call, ‘happened in an unforeseen way for Jesus.'” *)
*) Weisse, ev. Gesch. I, 275.
“It required, the apologist continues his a priori construction *), a confirmation of his internal awareness of being the Messiah through a fact.” So the baptism is still not the purpose for which Jesus came to John, but it is only a mechanical opportunity for the miracle that should make Jesus certain of his cause, and he himself was mechanically drawn to it without an internal purpose or drive, without an internal relationship to it.
The apologist constructs even more boldly: “The view (of the baptism miracle) could rightly become Jesus’ alone, it needed a witness whose testimony served to strengthen Jesus himself.” So Jesus belonged to those weak characters who are not sure of themselves and their true destiny until someone else confirms their conviction, and on the other hand, the Baptist was drawn into the matter as a means, resembling those “confidants” who are only there in some plays to help the hero in weak moments.
Now let us hear the apologist say **) : “the spirit present and active in Jesus from birth could not guarantee the completion of the work of redemption on its own,” so the blasphemy is complete and we still do not know any better than before how Jesus could go to the baptism without the feeling of sinfulness, since he did not know beforehand that it would become important and significant for him in a completely different way than for the sinners.
In its final purity, the apologetic category under which the baptism of Jesus should be secured against all dangerous consequences is that of “consecration” ***). But how would it be possible for the apologist to carry out even a single category purely in the midst of the contradictions in the Gospel accounts! We must first free his presentation from its confusion and bring it back to simple expression. “The certain thing, despite all the differences in the accounts, is the underlying fact that John was moved by a revelation he received during the baptism to inaugurate Jesus as the Messiah.” *) It may – happening for the last time in this matter – we want to be thrown back to the fourth evangelist: but if, according to his account, the baptism itself was only the occasion and the reason for that sign that taught the Baptist to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, how can the same sign already or – with such contradictions, all words are equal – only move him to baptize Jesus and inaugurate him as the Messiah? Baptism itself is the inauguration, and how can it be conditioned by a miracle that only happened during its course or – as the Synoptics specify, who alone give more precise information about it – after the baptism?
*) Hoffmann, op. cit., p. 305.
**) Ibid., p. 303.
***) Neander, op. cit., p. 63.
*) Neander, op. cit., P. 69.
Let us now give the category of consecration its pure simplicity, and the difficulty that apologetics seeks to avoid stands before us in all its horror. For what is consecrated has previously been involved with the profane and is only lifted out of its context, thus was previously tainted with impurity.
And did Jesus know when he went to the Baptist that his baptism would be his “consecration” for messianic work? According to the gospel account, he did not know. So, if he did not go to the baptism with the same need as everyone else, we also do not know what necessity drove him to do it.
At least the apologists did not tell us. But let us look again at all their reasoning, their “it had to be, it was necessary, it was fitting,” etc.: did they really solve the riddle for us? Isn’t their embarrassment lesson enough? What more do we want? The same stumbling block that the modern apologist finds in the fact that Jesus is said to have gone to the baptism in the same way as everyone else, was felt very soon by the community when their view of the Lord took on a form that had to collide with the news that Jesus had undergone baptism, and with the same categories: “it was fitting, it was necessary,” which we still read in apologetic writings today, they tried to eliminate the offense. The latest of the synoptic writers was given the opportunity to give voice to this puzzlement, and he put it in the mouth of the only person who was given in the narrative. Now John must feel puzzled that Jesus should come to him for baptism, and in order for him to find an offense in it, he must suddenly recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Nevertheless – as Matthew reads in Mark’s scripture – it must come to baptism, so Jesus must necessarily remove that offense, and he now gives the divine decree as the reason why he must submit himself to this messianic glory, that is, a reason that is completely vague and gives the appearance that Jesus underwent baptism only formally because it was appropriate for him to fulfill all righteousness. Of course, we must add that Matthew gave this reason the best tone because he kept it in an indeterminacy that still sounds most determined: it was left to the pragmatism of the later apologists to formulate those more specific reflections that we have come to know in their adventurous and partly frightening character.
4. The inner purpose of the baptism of Jesus.
Now that the reflective standpoint of the fourth evangelist and Matthew no longer hinders us, we can dare to re-establish the baptism in that inner relationship to the person of Jesus, which the original evangelist placed it in when he allowed the Lord to go to the Baptist like all others. “There is no historical reason that could lead us to assume in Jesus a different motive for the desire for baptism than in all other baptized persons.” The sinlessness of Jesus cannot cause us any concern either, since it is in no way to be thought that he was completely alien to any personal feeling and awareness of sin. It must be unequivocally asserted that the Lord never allowed the possibility of sin in him to actually become sin. However, in order to truly be a savior, and even if he were only capable of pitying the misery of the human spirit, he had to experience the burden of sinfulness as his personal affliction. In general, the greater a spirit is, the deeper he experiences in himself the general contradiction that moves humanity: thus, whoever stands the highest and carries the greatest power of purity within himself must also experience that contradiction and sense of sinfulness in the deepest recesses of his being. And it was precisely this feeling of contradiction and sinfulness that drove Jesus to the baptism of John.
In this development was also included the messianic self-consciousness of Jesus and was carried forward to that critical point where gradual development achieves its result in a single stroke. If Christ goes to the baptism of John with the feeling of sinfulness, this is a sign that his messianic self-consciousness was still in gradual development, but at the same time, it is proof that his self-consciousness was in greater movement, struggling fiercely and pushing towards the result, the final completion – the baptism was the blow that would bring maturity. If the same motive led Jesus to it as all others, yet “the ceremony, in the moment of its actual occurrence and after that moment, became something different for him than for those neophytes.” Spirits of various kinds can subject themselves to religious ceremonies, and all may be touched by the same idea of the action; but the way, the intensity with which they are affected by the idea, will be different in each of them. The higher-standing spirit will be seized more powerfully, and the higher it stands, the deeper the idea will exclude itself in it. Thus it was in the moment of the baptism that the inner opposition, which is the deepest in the world, and which, after a thousand years of struggle, was first summarized in a symbolic form in the baptism of John, decided and dissolved into the consciousness of absolute victory in the self-consciousness of Jesus. This certainty of victory completed Jesus’ consciousness of his messianic destiny.
The wondrous appearance of the descending Spirit – that is certain – referred only to Jesus and could only refer to him, since it was only the objectification of what was happening in his soul, for the inner spiritual perception. *)
Very nice! if not for new doubts that arise and which must also be drawn into the contradiction with reason and the biblical account.
*) Essentially the view of Weisse, ev. Gesch. l, 278.
5. Doubts about the historical credibility of the biblical account.
Another interpretation, other than the one that sees the motive that drove Jesus to baptism in his personal sense of sinfulness, cannot stand before the court of reason and morality. Any other interpretation that reduces Jesus’ baptism to a mere formality would lead to the accusation that Jesus played an unethical game with an act as serious as John’s baptism. This is the harm that the consequences of apologetics have prevented the last-mentioned interpretation from advancing any further, even though it is still apologetic in the sense that, for the sake of a particular interest, it suddenly stops its progress in both the substance itself and the account.
It does not want to allow “under any condition a concept of Jesus’ sinlessness that would exclude an inner struggle of the soul of such a kind in which the evil is present as a living spiritual potency” **), but if it asserts that this potency does not even need to “become an actuality of the will that does not enter into external action and conduct” – then what is Jesus other than still the ghost of apologetics! A possibility that cannot even experience the irresistible dialectic that leads it to reality, even as the reality that is in itself, is not worth being called a possibility. A struggle “in which victory is decided from the outset” is no longer a struggle for the one who is already so much a victor in the beginning that the contrast “cannot find a place in his soul,” but a game that does not touch him internally.
**) Weisse, I, 280.
This interpretation must still, like apologetics, find a stumbling block in the fact that Jesus went to be baptized – for how could he have done so if the feeling of sinfulness in him was not the most serious and real? – and seeks to remove this stumbling block by giving the baptism of John as wide an indeterminacy as possible. “The moment of sin-consciousness and the need for liberation from the consciousness of sin does not need to be thought of as a dogmatically established formula of the John baptism,” says Weisse. What do we need to know about whether or what formula John used or had his followers recite at his baptism, if it is so certain that his baptism was seen as an act of repentance! The action may not have been completely silent, but even if, as is very likely, it did not require a confession of individual sins, was it therefore less a confession of sinfulness in general? Let us not torture ourselves with words that cannot be thought of anything: Jesus, at least, when he went to the baptism of repentance, will not have encapsulated the acknowledgment of the motive that prompted him to do so with these apologist’s excuses.
Even the report of the wonderful appearance of the Spirit cannot yet fully acknowledge this view. Weisse must assert that what Mark “reports, he wants to be regarded at first (!) as nothing other than a subjective process in the soul of the divine baptizer.” But if he goes so far as to say that “this narrative, in its original form – with Mark – may be a literal account of an expression that Jesus himself may have made about what was going on in him at the moment of his baptism by John,” *) we hold him to his word. Can Mark clearly indicate that he wants the process to be considered an external appearance when he says, “Jesus saw” or even when he says, “a voice came from heaven” – φωνη εγενετο εκ του ουρανων -? It came from heaven, which Jesus saw open. What torture! The same torture of human language, reason, and biblical account that must finally emerge when one takes the words of the account more seriously and now, as Hoffmann says **), “the process is to be understood as a spiritual seeing, as an inner perception of a really happening event.” If it was a real event, how can it be limited to inner perception alone, since its elements – the opening of heaven, the descent of the Spirit in an external symbol, and the heavenly voice – all belong to externality, and thus it must have presented itself to the external means of perception. Luke has correctly explained the report of his predecessor when he says (Luke 3:22) that the Holy Spirit descended “in bodily form” like a dove upon Jesus – well, if the substrate of this symbolic appearance was a tangible one, then we do not know what stronger expression the theologian demands to be moved to confess that the evangelists want to speak of an outwardly perceivable appearance.
*) Weisse, l, 473. 474.
**) Ibid., p. 304.
The apologist himself is responsible if we now take doubt seriously. Why did he show us the dangerous point at which the report possesses the seed of its dissolution? Why did he already dissolve the report so far that we can no longer see an external perception in it? Are we to blame that the dissolution is now complete and the worm of doubt continues to eat away? Once it is established that the evangelists transformed an inner vision into the perception of an external appearance, the same power that supposedly caused this transformation could have also produced the whole thing from the beginning. But the fact that the Holy Spirit could appear in the form of a dove is so impossible that the entire report of the miraculous appearance falls apart if this main component no longer exists. Or would one assume that for Jesus, the “inner spiritual perception” was what was happening in his soul, which objectified into a vision, and that the Holy Spirit appeared to him in the form of a dove? Then the apologist would have to claim that Jesus had seen the Holy Spirit in a symbol which only the rabbis knew, and which they inherited from the Oriental symbolism that considered the dove as the image of the living natural power. We don’t even know if the dove had already been elevated to the symbol of the Holy Spirit during the time of Jesus, because the Jewish writings in which we find this comparison are of later origin. So Jesus would have had to make this combination of pagan symbolism with Jewish language, which attributed to the Spirit of God a brooding hovering over the life-giving seeds of the earthly (Genesis 1:2), himself. But at the moment of baptism, where he had to think about completely different things, how could such an extensive combination have been possible for him? No, such things can only become possible for a community and a writer later on when it is necessary to shape a general view that gradually becomes established, and to bring about certainty through this shaping. For in a religious community, it only becomes certainty when a general assumption is developed into the form of a particular fact.
No one in the community knew when or how the Lord had come to the conviction of his calling, or how he had even come to this certainty of his destiny. But as gradually, alongside the belief in the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Redeemer, interest in his life story emerged, the rounding out of the historical view demanded that the beginning of salvation be demonstrated, i.e. the moment when the Lord emerged from obscurity and embarked on his mission. But where was this starting point? No one knew, or rather everyone: was it not, according to the law clearly read in the Old Testament, the moment when Jesus, like the prophets, was called by the divine voice and became certain of his destiny, the moment when, like the prophets, the Spirit of God came upon him *) ? Did he not have to be called, initiated and strengthened for his task in the same way as the divine messengers in the time of the Old Testament through a vision? It was understood that in this vision Jesus had to hear the voice that in the prophecies of the Old Testament (Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 42:1) had already proclaimed him as the Son of God and the object of divine favor. Finally, if the Holy Spirit was to descend on Jesus in a vision, if it was to become visible to him or rather to the perception of the community that the Spirit had descended on him, then he had to assume a visible form, so that all doubts were quelled in advance. If the form and shape could not have been more fitting for the Spirit, as long as it only came down from heaven to earth, than that of a bird, then which bird was uncertain and left to the writer who first developed this view in detail. The writer, whose combination passed into the scriptures of Luke and Matthew and, as we see from the fourth gospel, finally into the belief of the community, could start from a Jewish comparison, or he could start from the pagan view that the dove was a sacred bird. We do not dare to determine which one, as so much randomness plays a role in such combinations; we also lose nothing if we do not come to a decisive certainty in this question: enough, the dove became a symbol for the appearance of the Holy Spirit.
*) There was no need to reflect on a single messianic passage in the Old Testament (e.g. Isaiah 11:2, where the Spirit of the Lord rests upon the Messiah), as this particular view is formed in the Old Testament itself according to the general view that the Spirit of the Lord comes upon the prophets and divine messengers at their calling.
We have no interest in doubting the account of Jesus’ baptism, as we cannot find any offense in it if Jesus, who as the Son of Man belonged to humanity and did not remain indifferent to its struggles and difficulties, went to be baptized. The apologist would feel relieved of a burdensome weight if he could get rid of that report, as according to his assumptions, it must be inexplicable how Jesus could undergo such a ceremony. We honor truth, humanity, and Jesus himself by giving him back the sense of sinfulness, which apologetics have taken away from him, and not as an lifeless semblance: a stone, a ghost can be without this feeling, which is precisely the deepest in the highest spirits, but a person who has given a new form to world history through the power of his inner being – not.
So we certainly do not have a dogmatic interest when we doubt a note that should actually be welcome to us because it shows us Jesus as a human among humans. It is something stronger than dogmatic interest that moves us to push the doubt so far that we finally ask seriously whether it is really true that Jesus was baptized by John.
“The fact of this baptism,” says Weisse *), “is one of the least space-giving facts of evangelical history to historical skepticism.” Why? “The same thing is reported unanimously in all the Gospels.” But this argument, which belongs to the old apologetics, has now lost all its power, since this unanimity has lost its halo. Luke and Matthew copied the report from the work of Mark, and if the late fourth evangelist did not have any of his predecessors in view, the fact was so universally recognized at his time, the form in which the Holy Spirit appeared had become so well known, that the main thing could be given to him from the general belief of the community. This fact, Weisse continues, “was universally regarded in apostolic history – (which is that?) – as the moment from which the evangelical proclamation of the deeds of the Lord had to begin.” We openly admit our ignorance: we do not know a single one of these testimonies. Not a single one! Perhaps Weisse means the testimonies of the Acts of the Apostles, in which case we say again: we do not know a single one, because a writer who has excluded the report and the associated view from the scripture of Mark, who is thus already accustomed to this type, will not deny it in his later work. So if Peter, for example, says in Acts 1:22 that the Lord began his activity from John’s baptism, he must speak like this because the author of the third Gospel lets him speak. We do not know a single one.
*) “evangelische Geschichte” by Heinrich August Eduard Weisse, volume 1, page 273.
“A dogmatic interest that might have tempted to invent this event cannot easily be found,” Weisse continues, “rather, the dogmatic concepts that soon found their place in the Christian Church may seem to pose a difficulty in explaining this event.” This is well said and cautious! It is right of Weisse not to say that those dogmatic concepts could have made it difficult to “invent” that event. For at the time when Mark wrote, these concepts had not yet been developed to the extent, or at least not yet so widely accepted and integrated into the general understanding, that one would have taken offense if Jesus appeared as one who was subjected to the law. Later, however – that is something else – one could no longer reconcile with this view, as Matthew and the fourth evangelist demonstrate sufficiently: but their offense, as well as the fact that they still report on the baptism of Jesus, proves nothing for or against the historical foundation of a view that they found and could no longer avoid.
But we may certainly consider it as evidence against the historical character of the Gospel account, as well as the most significant proof of its late origin, that Paul in his letters never alludes to Jesus being baptized by John. We attach less importance to the fact that Jesus himself never mentioned this event, which marked the beginning of his public ministry. We can simply acknowledge this as an immediate tact of the evangelists, who were prevented from using this as a means of confirming the Lord’s calling. At least, this tact guided the Synoptics, and the fourth Evangelist did not need this proof, as he had given the Lord much stronger ones.
The contemptuous treatment that is usually given to the argument from silence does not deserve it, at least not in the present case, since we do not find any evidence where we should necessarily find it – in the Pauline letters. But let us leave aside the despised conclusion – although it is not as contemptible as Weisse suggests when he speaks of “repeated testimonies” – we can trace the matter back to its origin. John was regarded as the forerunner of the Lord, his work as a precondition of the gospel, and the general view of history of the community had arranged the relationship between the herald and the Messiah in such a way that the latter appeared when the former left the scene. Now, at the moment when the Lord is called, the forerunner is still in his place, so both must meet on the scene at this moment. If Jesus is to be called, what could be a more appropriate occasion than to undergo John’s baptism? “How external!” one will cry. So be it! The gospel has been mediated through John’s baptism; to reveal this inner connection in history itself, but hidden from the eyes, the religious view must bring both personally together. Therefore, if the Baptist testified of Jesus, then the latter must go to him and submit to his baptism. But it is anything but a historical law that the greater or later one must go through the previous historical mediations; rather, we may describe it as the irony of history and acknowledge in it precisely the proof of its extraordinary speed and productivity that it usually brings its greatest heroes from the very edge of the scene and suddenly lets them emerge here without having to lead them through the earlier interests that were at work there. Later on, from the power of their self-awareness, the later ones can and will recognize and appreciate as their forerunners the powers that prevailed on the scene of their activity. Thus, Jesus recognized in John his Elias and in the baptism of repentance the divine appointment (Mark 11:29); but they do not need to have personally attended the school that the time before them had to go through. The ideal coincidence of the earlier and the later in the memory and recognition of the latter is not enough for the religious consciousness of the community, and it must finally view the inner connection between the appearance of the Baptist and Jesus and the idea that the work of salvation is prepared by John’s baptism in the image that we first find in the Gospel of Mark. We still find this category of external connection in apologetic books today *) ; it belongs to religious reflection in general, but since it is not a law of history, we can never be sure whether it was this that happened by chance this time, and the founder of the community himself personally went through the historical transition point that would lead to his work. If we look at how this category is essentially intertwined with religious consciousness, and if we have to decide whether it is more likely that it happened by chance or whether the pragmatism of religious historical perspective arranged it so that Jesus was consecrated and prepared for his work through John’s baptism, then we unhesitatingly decide in favor of the infinitely overwhelming probability that this arrangement in history belongs to later religious reflection **).
*) Neander, for example, is limited to this category when he wants to make it understandable why Jesus had to be baptized by John. He says (p. 63), Jesus had to “await the external (!) consecration” for his public activity from the one “who was to emerge as the final appearance of Old Testament prophecy in order to form the preparatory transition point for the immediate entry of the Messianic time itself.”
**) Neander (p. 62) is still fighting against the assumption of earlier criticism “that Jesus himself was first one of John’s disciples” – a fight that has now become unnecessary. But even in this fight, the apologist could not prevail, for if he cannot adduce a better historical testimony against the criticism than the statement of Peter (Acts 1:22) that the Lord had worked from the baptism of John onwards, his case would be lost. The third evangelist speaks in the person of Peter, or Peter must speak according to the view that had become dominant in the community. According to this later view, the course of John had only achieved its highest significance and its final purpose when Jesus was baptized, so that the Baptist no longer needed to remain on the historical stage when the Messiah was consecrated by him. It is only this later view that has reduced the historical intervals so much that the Baptist only needed to appear, bear witness to the future and baptize him, who had come at that moment, in order to be able to leave the stage immediately afterwards. (How Acts 13:23 is to be understood will be explained later.)
This also settles the previous dispute between criticism and apologetics as to whether a personality who is already the Son of God by birth needed such an enormous miracle to stimulate their self-awareness. When Mark wrote and had the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus at his baptism, there was no theory yet that could make this explanation of how Jesus was initiated and equipped with heavenly powers unnecessary or offensive. At that time, baptism seemed to be the most appropriate occasion on which the messianic self-awareness in the Lord was awakened by the call from heaven and the power of the Holy Spirit was imparted to him. However, afterwards, when Jesus had become the God-revealed, one had to feel the contradiction that would arise from the fact that the Holy Spirit had descended on the Lord only at his baptism. Luke – according to his habit – still leaves both sides of the contradiction side by side, but Matthew, the reflective pragmatist, brings them together and tries to eliminate the offense as far as possible. Finally, the fourth evangelist, for whom Jesus is the incarnate Logos, had to make the greatest effort to eliminate the contradiction, and he actually did his utmost. He does not even say outright that Jesus was baptized, but only hints at the fact after a long detour, after he has made John’s water baptism a mere means by which he was able to find the Messiah, and the wonderful appearance at Jesus’ baptism had to be intended for John alone, so that he would be sure that “he” (John) was the one in whom the Holy Spirit dwelled (John 1:33).
The baptism of Jesus is easily associated with Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea before trekking forty years in the wilderness, even further with the subsequent crossing of the Jordan River into the “promised land” by Israel, then again by Elijah, nor forgetting Noah emerging from the Flood. The subsequent vision of the heavens being opened can be interpreted as a transvaluation of the Exodus story — the waters parted for Israel, but the heavens themselves parted for Jesus. All of these literary sources have been proposed by various scholars and we have set out their arguments on this blog.
Now it is time for one more likely source. The following is taken from a chapter by William R. Stegner in Abraham & Family: New Insights into the Patriarchal Narratives.
Before I start I should refer to another work that I consider to be critical background information. Jon D. Levenson argued what I think is a cogent case for the stories of Abraham’s offering of Isaac having a heavy influence on the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus. One of the most significant differences between the canonical narrative and the later rabbinic interpretation is that in the latter Isaac is said to be a mature man in his thirties and willingly giving himself to his father to be sacrificed. See my series of ten posts setting out the details of his argument. It appears that some Jewish interpreters of the Second Temple era even interpreted the Genesis account as a literal sacrifice of Isaac: Abraham was thought to have slain and shed the blood of Isaac before the angel had time to call out for him to stop the second time. Isaac was restored to life but his shed blood was believed to have had atoning power for the sins of all his descendants.
Stegner also finds interesting details in the extra-canonical interpretations of the “binding of Isaac” (or akedah).
Now we know that the Targums of the rabbis were written long after the first century. Sometimes, however, scholars do posit reasons for believing that some of these works originated in the Second Temple period. So we are basing our arguments on inference when we suggest that certain Targum narratives about Genesis were extant among scribes before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Hence my question mark in the title of this post. Continue reading “Jesus’ Baptism Based on Abraham’s Binding of Isaac?”
This post presents a snippet from The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context by Michael Peppard. There is much more in this book that deserves closer attention and that will probably be given in the coming year. Till then, I think some of us may be interested in the following.
At one point Peppard “tries to imagine how a listener attuned to Roman culture might understand the dove”, the bird associated* with the Spirit as it descended from heaven at the baptism of Jesus. (Peppard’s approach stands in contrast to most interpretations in that they have sought to explain the dove in terms of Palestinian and Babylonian Jewish traditions.) After discussing bird omens in Roman culture generally, he comes to a survey of the dove in particular. In Roman literature the dove was often regarded as standing in opposition to the eagle, that bird of prey well known as the symbol of Roman imperial power.
Romans Read Omens Like Jews Read Scriptures
One could say that Romans used omens to interpret and explain their experience of the world in analogous ways to how Jews used Scriptures to interpret and explain their experience of the world. (The Son of God in the Roman World, p. 116)
There were the official readings of the flights of birds in the quadrants of the sky by colleges of augurs. There were also interpretations of individual flights of birds that were sanctioned by common opinion.
As for the meaning of the dove descending at the baptism of Jesus, Peppard suggests the widely varying views found in the literature are possibly the consequence of scholars failing to study this image within the full range of the cultural milieu of the earliest evangelist and his readers.
Peppard brings forward “the Roman historian and collector of tales” Suetonius. In his several “lives of the emperors” Suetonius speaks of many bird omens, and according to Peppard, they are all related to two themes, “and two only”:
the rise of imperial power and the fall from it. (p. 116) Continue reading “Jesus and the Dove — how a Roman audience may have read the Gospel of Mark”
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. Continue reading “Why many historical Jesus Scholars NEED John to Baptize Jesus”
Contrary to the understanding of a few theologians oral historian Jan Vansina does NOT use the “criterion of embarrassment” in the same way as a number of historical Jesus scholars do. His discussion of embarrassment in fact supports the arguments of those scholars who argue the criterion is invalid!
I asked Dr McGrath for a page reference in Vansina that supported his claims that historical Jesus scholars draw from oral history their justification for their use of the “criterion of embarrassment”. He replied with Oral History, pp. 83, 84. (I can tell immediately he has read this book because he did not put its title in quotation marks — a sure giveaway.) This in fact is not the same book I read or quoted from but another, more recent, one (2009), much of which is available online. So I replied with this:
Thank you for the reference. This is not from the book or edition I was quoting or the one I have at hand (1985) but your reference refers to the title available online. . . . [I leave interested readers to consult the relevant pages I discuss below for themselves.]
You would have been more informative in your post had you pointed out that what Vansina is saying on page 83 of the work you cite is that an oral tradition is unlikely to have been falsified if it runs counter to the purpose for which the tradition is told. Yet on the other hand, in the same paragraph, Vansina goes on to explain that it is possible to argue that the tales do not run so very counter to the purpose for which they are told, and cites their supernatural or narrative coherence. And on page 82 Vansina explains how important it is to know thoroughly the details of the cultural interests of the people and their institutions where the oral tradition is found. So how does one know the purposes for which the oral tradition is told? Answer: By knowing the provenance of the oral tradition. That is, knowing (Vansina would say knowing intimately) the values and interests of those who are performing the tradition.
This is exactly the argument against the validity of the criterion of embarrassment. Scholars who critique the validity of this criterion point out that we do not know the details — the provenance — of the original composition of, say, the baptism of Jesus. What was clearly embarrassing for later authors and institutions may not have been embarrassing for the original composers of a tale.
But thank you for a stimulating exchange.
But reading Vansina’s reference to logical inferences from embarrassment in the larger context of his entire argument — not just cherry-picking convenient references from a page or two, but understanding those pages in the context of the argument of the entire book — makes it as clear as day that Vansina is assessing historical probability with the aid of standard historical “tools” commonly applied by historians generally. Vansina is relying on the very same “tools” as used by historians dealing with written sources. Embarrassment is not one of these tools but is an inference drawn from the application of the basic tools. I quoted his plain statement to this effect in my previous post and repeat it here: Continue reading “Oral History does NOT support “criterion of embarrassment””
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. Continue reading “Reasonably doubting that John baptized Jesus — Or how HJ scholars worked before they had Tools”
Posted 6pm. Updated 8:30 pm with note on Thompson’s argument that baptism is a reiteration of OT narratives
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)? Continue reading “The “Legend” of the Baptism of Jesus (Bultmann flashback)”
I often find myself wishing some knowledgable scholars who write about “the historical Jesus” would take their Gospel sources more seriously.
To take just one illustration, I don’t know if I have read any scholarly work addressing the baptism of Jesus that fails to make some reference to the “influence of John the Baptist on Jesus”, or to the “calling of Jesus”, or such. The presumption is always that Jesus was some sort of spiritual “seeker” who was profoundly moved in some way by John the Baptist and as a direct consequence was catapulted on his own solo career.
Here is one example of this:
What we do know past doubting is that John had a crucially important impact on Jesus. According to the synoptic tradition, Jesus in some sense received his calling during or just after his baptism. (p. 191 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, by Paula Fredriksen)
And another that is within easy reach on my desk:
We can now see what attracted Jesus to John. John exercised a large-scale and highly successful prophetic ministry of repentance to Israel. . . . He offered salvation and predicted judgement in terms which recreated the Judaism of the prophetic tradition. This explains why Jesus underwent John’s baptism. . . . Jesus thereby joined this vigorous movement of prophetic Judaism. . . . On the occasion of his baptism, Jesus had a visionary experience. . . . (p. 176 of Jesus of Nazareth by Maurice Casey.) Continue reading “Taking the Gospels seriously, part 2 (What John Baptist supposedly meant to Jesus)”
Mark’s gospel makes little sense if read as literal history, but it packs a powerful punch when read with a mind swept clean of all the other gospel accounts.
The punch the Gospel of Mark hit me with recently was its sentence noting John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus. It’s bizarre if we try to read it as biography or history. But it makes for a great symbolic message about the identity and function of Jesus.
The Gospel begins with John declaring that one far greater than he is to come from God and cover his followers not with water but with the holy spirit. The preamble has informed readers that this coming one is to be the one of whom the Prophets said is the Lord himself. Everyone came out repenting and being baptized.
Then Jesus came along and John baptized him too.
And that’s it. Mark gives not the slightest hint that John baulked and said, Hey, you’re the one! Nope. It’s as if Jesus was the last in line and John routinely baptized him like all the rest.
Then up from the water came Jesus and “he” (only) saw the spirit descending to him like a dove. No one else saw this or the heavens splitting apart, and no-one but Jesus heard the voice from heaven declaring him to be God’s son.
This is strange. It is especially strange if, as many modern interpreters like to think, Jesus was originally a follower of John the Baptist.
No, what Mark is doing here is entirely at a literary level. Continue reading “Did not even John the Baptist recognize Jesus at the Jordan River?”
I was struck by a sentence by Dale C. Allison in his Constructing Jesus that began as follows:
Indeed, Jesus seems to have submitted to John’s baptism. . . . (p. 53)
Only “seems”? I did not know that any theologian and biblical scholar who accepted the historical reality of Jesus doubted it. So catch that footnote number and make a quick check. Here is the explanatory footnote:
This is rarely doubted, although see William Arnal, “Major Episodes in the Biography of Jesus: An Assessment of the Historicity of the Narrative Tradition,” TJT 13 (1997): 201-26; Leif E. Vaage, “Bird-Watching at the Baptism of Jesus: Early Christian Mythmaking in Mark 1:9-11,” in Reimagining Christian Origins (ed.. Castelli and Taussig), 280-94. Arnal and Vaage do not persuade, in part because, as Mark’s account of the crucifixion and Luke’s theological use of Jerusalem show, remembered facts may not only serve literary ends but may also be fully clothed in legendary and mythological dress. The snag here is that almost every bit of tradition is integrated into the surrounding Synoptic narratives and serves clear editorial ends, so unless we are to find only fiction in the Synoptics, observation of such integration and such ends cannot suffice to determine derivation.
This is why I like Dale Allison so much. He is equal to the most honest biblical scholar that I have encountered who also believes in the historicity of Jesus. He essentially admits his belief is a belief and does not kid himself (or his readers) that his reasoning is not circular. There are a number of other theologians who cannot face this fact about their own writings.
Theologian James McGrath challenged me to address a scholar like E.P. Sanders “point by point” and still deny the historicity of Jesus, and when I did so, including a discussion of what Sanders argues about the baptism of Jesus, McGrath belatedly responded with a weak and meek “I do not agree”. I had hoped for some serious response that included a statement of reasons for his disagreement. I would much rather engage with Dale Allison who does demonstrate an ability to give a reasoned response. Continue reading “Scholars who question the historicity of Jesus’ baptism and why they “do not persuade””
So I hear from commenters that a new foray into demolishing mythicism has been launched by James McGrath with yet one more account of the “criterion of embarrassment”. The curious — yet tedious — thing about this is that while McGrath in particular has faulted mythicists for (supposedly) failing to engage with the scholarship on the historical Jesus, he himself, and some of the other more strident critics of mythicism, have notably failed to engage with the mythicist responses to those scholarly arguments.
James McGrath once wrote:
I have not yet seen . . . . a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion.
So when I proceeded to engage E. P. Sanders himself “point by point’ — and one of those points was Sanders’ argument for the historicity of the baptism of Jesus — I was disappointed that there was no response from McGrath. But he can no longer say that he has not yet seen a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion. I still await an opponent of mythicism to engage with the argument for the non-historicity of the narrative of the baptism of Jesus that I made in the following posts:
There are many possible reasons why McGrath did not respond to these. But what is not clear is why he would still use the criterion of embarrassment, with the baptism of Jesus as a principle case-study, as if no mythicist argument had ever been mounted against it. Why simply repeat the same argument that mythicists have long since responded to and found wanting? Continue reading “Embarrassing failure of the criterion of embarrassment”
Descending Spirit and Descending Gods: A “Greek” Interpretation of the Spirit’s “Descent as a Dove” in Mark 1:10 by Edward P. Dixon was published last year (2009) in the Journal of Biblical Literature (128, no. 4). It is a welcome breeze of fresh sanity into the so many contorted attempts to explain Gospel themes and images exclusively in terms of very non-Christian and even sometimes anti-Christian Jewish motifs. Of course the Gospel narratives draw much from the Old Testament. But there is no need to insist upon an either-or scenario. The evidence is surely overwhelming that they also drew on Hellenistic motifs. There is surely nothing controversial about this. Intertestamental Jewish literature, fictional, philosophical and historical, did the same. It would surely be an anomaly if the Gospels indeed were composed entirely from a heritage that was alien to non-Jews and yet came to be embraced by non-Jews.
In the following I add a little to Dixon’s citations by quoting certain passages in full with links to their online contexts. (I also omit quite a few details of Dixon’s discussion.)
The baptism of Jesus by John in the Gospel of Mark
- is stitched together with images from Old Testament passages, and
- serves the particular theological agenda of Mark that was challenged by later evangelists
- if a passage in the Gospels can be shown to serve a theological agenda of an evangelist, then according to widely accepted standards of biblical historiography, we have reason to question its historical authenticity; and
- if a passage can be shown to be a pastiche of other texts certainly known to the author and his audience, and if once we strip away those textual borrowings and are left with nothing that stands alone, or in other words, if once we remove the sheepskin and find nothing left underneath, then we have further support in our doubts as to the historical originality of the event; and
- if the only external testimony to John the Baptist contradicts or fails to support our narrative at significant points, then we will need more than three bags full of special pleading to justify holding to any shred of historicity in our little narrative.
To repeat what I won’t repeat here
I have discussed the evidence for the John the Baptist of Mark’s gospel being cut from OT passages, and how this cut-out shape stands opposed to the apparently historical account in Josephus’ Antiquities, and how the episode of the baptism of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is disqualified from being historical even on the grounds of one of mainstream biblical scholarly criteria for historicity. (The criterion of embarrassment only applies to those later evangelists, Matthew, Luke and John, who demonstrate embarrassment with Mark’s story, not with any historical event per se.) These demonstrations are in Engaging Sanders point by point: JB, and JB, strangest of prophets, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. Nor will I address the possibility that the baptism reflects an adoptionist or separationist Christology. Nor even the arguments advanced to suggest John the Baptist himself was a mythical creation.