Why early Christians would create the story of Jesus’ baptism – and more evidence the gospels were very late

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by Neil Godfrey

John the Baptist baptizing Christ
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The historicity of Jesus’ baptism is asserted on grounds that the event would not have been told unless it were true, because it implies views of Jesus that no Christian would invent:

  1. that John was up till that point superior to Jesus,
  2. and/or that Jesus had sins to be buried in the Jordan River.

This is hardly a solid method to determine whether or not an event is historical or not, especially when reasons do exist that could indeed explain why Christians might invent the story.

I have usually given just one of these possible reasons in other posts, and that is that the author of the Gospel of Mark viewed Jesus as an ordinary man until the moment of his baptism when he was possessed by the Spirit of God and declared at that moment, God’s Beloved Son. Such a view is supported by this Gospel’s depiction of Jesus as far more human than the way he is shown in later Gospels, and also by Mark’s description of the Spirit possessing and driving Jesus into the wilderness. It was this lowly view of Jesus that the later evangelists attempted to re-write: Matthew declaring that John protested that he should not baptize Jesus; Luke only indirectly implying that John baptized Jesus; and John not mentioning the baptism at all.

But there is another evident reason that this scenario might have been invented. This was to fulfill prophetic expectations held among the Jews. One criterion that some scholars (e.g. Robert Funk in “Honest to Jesus”) use to cast doubt on the historicity of any passage in the Gospels is that of intended prophetic fulfillment. If a passage appears to have been written in order to fulfill some “prophecy” of Christ, then the historian must at the very least accept the possibility that it was invented for that purpose.

G. A. Wells in The Jesus Myth alerts us to the evidence that the Jews were expecting the Messiah to be anointed by Elijah. And Mark’s Gospel specifically identifies John the Baptist with Elijah, and that at least one early Christian did point to Jesus’ baptism as another proof that Jesus was the Christ. Continue reading “Why early Christians would create the story of Jesus’ baptism – and more evidence the gospels were very late”


The Gospel of Mark’s unrecognized “birth” narrative of Jesus Christ

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Brian who was unwillingly made the Christ in Monty Python’s Life of Brian

I wish I could recall where I read it now, but someone somewhere has written that Mark’s baptism scene is indeed his “birth” narrative of the Christ. Matthew and Luke might be seen as supplementing Mark’s gospel with a more “natural” birth, or at least one that had a flesh and blood Jesus come through the waters of the womb rather than the Jordan.

I found the idea interesting because it sits with the other Christological suggestions in this gospel — that Jesus was either adopted by God at baptism (adoptionism), or that the Son of God entered Jesus at baptism and from that moment there were two beings in one (separationism).

The Amplified Bible’s Mark 1:9-13

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

10And when He came up out of the water, at once he [John] saw the heavens torn open and the [Holy] Spirit like a dove coming down [to enter] into Him.

11And there came a voice out from within heaven, You are My Beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.

12Immediately the [Holy] Spirit [from within] drove Him out into the wilderness (desert),

13And He stayed in the wilderness (desert) forty days, being tempted [all the while] by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to Him [continually].

Jesus has no background. He is just a name. One might almost picture a Brian coming along one day to get baptized like everyone else was doing, and on emerging from the water he looked up to see the Ptolemaic sky being torn apart and a single spirit like dove (not two, as Aeneas was granted from heaven) swooping down and whooshing right into his very body. Thus possessed, Jesus next hears God speaking and pronouncing him to be his Son. Before Brian knows what’s happened he is driven off (like Azazel?) into the wilderness. The focus is on heaven as the active agency and the man baptized is a passive recipient of voice, vision and possession.

Could this be something of a metaphorical “new birth” story? The waters of baptism are a variation on a trope that can be found as far back as the Exodus and Red Sea event, or even (as Thompson suggests) with the parting of the waters by Elijah and Elisha in preparation for a new phase of ministry, the new world order that was ushered in by Noah’s Flood, and the very beginnings of life with the parting of the waters in the Genesis creation.

Was it to displace Mark’s image that suggested such a “birth” that was occasioned only at the moment of baptism that Matthew and Luke added their nativity scenes? (Or was Mark reacting against the nativity scenes and depicting something more to the liking of his own Christology? — just in case one day Markan priority is found not to be so cut and dried as it seems today.)

John does not need a nativity scene either, of course. His Word of God “became” flesh, but really had no birth, since he had been sitting or floating with God from the very beginning of everything.

Just thoughts, here. Sometimes nativity scenes are treated as evidence of the evolution of a Jesus biography. But it’s just as possible, I think, that their exclusion from Mark and John (as much as their inclusion in Matthew and Luke) has more to do with theology than with a simple adding of details to a tale over time.



(revised) Spong on Jesus’ historicity: John the Baptist and the Crucifixion

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Spong in his new book, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human (2007), lists four reasons that he claims leave no doubt about the historicity of Jesus:

  1. No “person setting out to create a mythical character would [ever] suggest that he hailed from the village of Nazareth . . . in Galilee”
  2. Jesus “clearly began his life as a disciple of John the Baptist”
  3. He was executed
  4. “Paul was in touch with those who knew the Jesus of history”

An earlier post looked at #1, “the Nazareth Connection”. This post looks, much more briefly, at #2 and #3 together, because they both make the same fundamental error of logic. Continue reading “(revised) Spong on Jesus’ historicity: John the Baptist and the Crucifixion”

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