Jesus’ Baptism: A Historical Fact?

For anyone who is interested in the historicity of Jesus, if you have even just glanced at a wikipedia page, you will have no doubt heard that: “only two events subject to “almost universal assent” are that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate.” While the latter portion of this requires a more complete analysis by itself, the purpose of this blog post is to go through some of the issues associated with claiming that the baptism of Jesus can be established as a “historical fact.” The reason why I am often left dumbfounded by Christian and non-Christian commentators talking about this episode, is I honestly find it staggering how bad some of the scholarship is regarding this, because one with even a rudimentary knowledge of Judaism and the Hebrew Bible can see how the claims of this being “embarrassing” and “unlikely to have been made up” are just simply completely wrong. But before I get into the issues associated with the historical criteria which are used, I will begin by reminding you all of something I’ve spoken about already on my blog.

As I have mentioned earlier on a blog post about the phrase “born of a woman” in Galatians 4:4, I pointed out that in order to answer the question of whether anything in the New Testament is recounting a historical fact, there is something which I have always found surprising. It seems that many scholars, even including sceptical and critical scholars of Christian origins, they often do not seem to consistently apply an important assumption which is applied to other instances relating to episodes relating to the historicity of Jesus or events during his apparent lifetime. Specifically, while it is certainly true many scholars are sceptical when events from Jesus’ life seem to have been inspired by events from events from the Jewish Bible which are claimed to have been fulfilled in the life of Jesus, yet this is curiously absent when this is applied to a number of instances in both Paul’s writings and even the Gospels themselves. So when I see people claiming that certain instances in Jesus’ life are “historical”, what this assumption is saying, is one must always consider an important principle relating to the historicity of events in Jesus life was set down by David Friedrich Strauss who points out:

“when we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of these prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical.”

Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (p. 89)

In other words, when we read the New Testament in light of this general rule, it becomes incredibly difficult to discern what actually happened and what was written by the authors purely to fulfil prophecies from the Jewish Bible. For instance, something I recently made a video about, is that the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is often seen by scholars to be a fiction created out of scriptures such as Psalm 118:25-26 and Zechariah 9:9. Yet when it comes to something like the baptism of Jesus, it seems that this heuristic is completely abandoned, despite the fact this can be perfectly explained as a theological Jewish rite of passage steeped in allusions to the Jewish Bible. Thus, in the words of Leif E. Vaage in Reimagining Christian Origins:

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)

So let’s go through this in detail to see whether one can affirm Jesus’ baptism as a historical fact.

Pinpointing The Embarrassment: A Jewish Baptism? 

Before I get into the various allusions to the Jewish Bible in this episode, the first thing to point out is that while the process of undergoing “baptism” is certainly viewed by many a Christian endeavour today, we are talking about John the Baptist and Jesus being two Jewish individuals. In case anyone who thinks Jesus was a Christian (shudder) I’ll just provide a few details to point out that Jesus of Nazareth is depicted in the Gospels as being Jewish. For instance:

Jesus was born to Jewish parents (Luke 1:26-27, 2:4, 39), his aunt and uncle were also Torah observant Jews (Luke 1:6). He was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1), and raised in Nazareth (Luke 2:39-40) which both were Jewish towns at the time. After Jesus’ birth he was circumcised (Luke 2:21; sign of the Abrahamic Covenant from Genesis 17:9-14) and engaged in “purification rites required by the Law of Moses” (Luke 2:22; Leviticus 12:1-4). His parents then “brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22) in accordance with what is written in Exodus (13:1-2; 11-13). In his early life, Jesus was also went with to parents on the 140 mile round trip to Jerusalem every Passover (Luke 2:41) in observance of Deuteronomy 16:16 which ends with a story of Jesus being viewed as an expert interpreter and teacher of the Torah, as all teachers were amazed (Luke 2:47). Then in his adult life, his disciples were Jews (John 1:47, Matt. 20:25-26) and they called Him ‘Rabbi’ (John 4:31 Mary called Him ‘Rabboni’ John 20:16). They sought Him because they believed the Torah and the Prophets (John 1:45). A Pharisee also addressed him as ‘Rabbi’ (John 3:2), as did a crowd of people (John 6:25) and a Samaritan woman easily recognised he was a Jew (John 4:9). He affirmed the authority of the Torah and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17; 19-20). He regularly attended synagogue (Luke 4:16) and was respected by the other congregants (Luke 4:15). He taught in the Jewish Temple (Luke 21:37) observed Passover (John 2:13). When faced with temptation, he answered from the Hebrew Scripture (Matt. 4:2-10, Deut. 8:3, 6:16, 6:13). Then, nearing the end of his life, he was taken prisoner by a Roman captain, his cohort, and some Jewish officials (John 18:12), He was delivered into the custody of the Jewish priests, elders, and scribes (Mark. 14:53) brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council (Luke 22:66). He was charged with an offense against Jewish Law (Matt. 26:65-66, Lev. 24:13-14, John 19:7) and was buried in a Jewish cemetery in buried according to Jewish custom of the time (John 19:40).

This therefore prompts us to ask the question, given that Jesus was not a Christian, what would Jesus have partaken in, if not a “baptism”?

To answer this, we first need to realise that ritual washing is a very important part of many Jewish rituals and rites of passage. For instance, ceremonial cleansing is described in the Bible a number of times for instance, women after childbirth or their monthly cycle and men after sexual discharge (Leviticus 15:19–30), after contact with a dead body (Leviticus 19:18–19), as well as clothing and utensils could also be cleansed by ritual immersion (Leviticus 11:32). Specifically, what Jesus’ baptism is most closely with is tevilah (טְבִילָה) which is a full body immersion in a mikvah/mikveh which is merely a body of water, although any natural body of water is considered a mikvah (e.g. Leviticus 11:36). So obviously, while it is often contended that Jesus’ baptism would have been embarrassing, one needs to remember that it would have only been embarrassing to Christians with their novel conception of sin (which I’ll explain below), rather than Jewish people, as ablution is a very common practice for Jewish people. Not only this, but as it recounts in the Jewish Encyclopedia

Baptism is not merely for the purpose of expiating a special transgression, as is the case chiefly in the violation of the so-called Levitical laws of purity; but it is to form a part of holy living and to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with God. This thought is expressed in the well-known passage in Josephus in which he speaks of John the Baptist (“Ant.” xviii. 5, § 2): “The washing would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.”

This therefore means, that while many scholars claim that being baptised by John would have been embarrassing, such a notion is scarcely consistent with everything we know about the practice of Judaism. The consequence of this, is that once one accepts that the act itself was not embarrassing to Jewish people engaging in baptism, it is important to question where exactly the embarrassing details can be found in the Gospels themselves.

The Concept of Sin in Judaism

One could argue that the reason for this being potentially embarrassing detail found in the Gospel of Mark is that John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins (e.g Mark 1:4). Of course, to the average Christian, this would seem to be the admission that Jesus was a sinner and that is frankly unacceptable to Christians. Yet this again does not seem viable given that once again, we must recall that the concept of “sin” in Judaism is incredibly different than in Christianity. So let us now consider the concept of “sin” in Judaism and how this does not paint a negative depiction and thus, qualify for being an embarrassing detail.

To explain this issue, if one were to ask the average Christian what the term “sin” refers to, you will no doubt hear something along the lines of “an immoral act” or “something considered to be a transgression against divine law.” For instance, one might turn to 1 John 3:4 which reports:

Whosoever breaks the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.

Or 1 John 5:17 which says:

All unrighteousness is sin

Therefore, when Christians claim that things like homosexuality are a sin, they are using this very differently to how Jewish people refer to “sins.” So what exactly is a sin in Judaism?

While I will do a full post about this in the future, it is important to remember that there there are a number of terms associated with the Jewish conception of “sin.” To begin, let us consider the Hebrew word חֵטְא. This refers to an unintentional sin through carelessness. For instance, this refers to one who makes a mistake by trying to do the right thing, but ending up missing the mark. Importantly, this means that this does not refer to someone who someone who wilfully or knowingly doing something wrong. This stands in contrast to עוון which is a knowing violation of the rule of law. Finally, we have פשע which means to wilfully go against God but in all cases, God allows man to repent and be forgiven (e.g. Ezekiel 18:21-32 speaks of sin, iniquity and wilful rebellion against God all being forgiven through repentance). Thus, the notion that Jesus was being baptised to atone for sins is problematic even before one considers that John’s baptism was not for sin remission, but for body purification, as Josephus reminds us. This becomes incredibly important when we consider the fact that Mark’s Gospel makes it clear that John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins (1:4). The consequence of this therefore, is an often neglected fact is that, as Vaage correctly points out:

… the likely historicity of Jesus’ baptism by John, is, however, [is] hardly an obvious conclusion, especially if and when the only independent source for the early Christian recollection of Jesus’ baptism by John (for the forgiveness of sins) should prove to be the Gospel of Mark. (p. 281)

What this means, is when we consider that, as Charles Guignebert notes in his book Jesus:

The only argument which can, in reality, be put forward in favour of the Baptism of Jesus by John, is that it would be hard to understand why the tradition should gratuitously have saddled itself with an incident so troublesome to Christology, and have substituted it for the actual facts of the entrance of Jesus upon his public career (which must have been known to the original disciples) if it had not been based upon a definite and incontestable recollection, which they could not discard… Surely, if the incident had not really taken place, the simplest way would have been not to invent it. (p. 157)

This means, that the case in favour of the historicity of Jesus’ baptism stands and falls upon the criteria of embarrassment, yet it seems difficult to see any embarrassment in this episode. Therefore, if one can object to this being embarrassing (which I’ll continue to analyse below) and does not fulfil the criteria of multiple attestation, there is actually no historical criteria to affirm this actually happened. Thus, one must ask the question: what was the purpose of this account, according to Mark’s own theological purpose and is there really no other reason to include this in his Gospel than recalling a historical episode?

Symbolism of Death

While I will deal with another major theme shortly, perhaps the main theme which the author may have been employing is a symbolism of Jesus’ own death. While I will do another post to explain the parallels between Mark’s Gospel and Paul’s letters elsewhere, it is important to recall that a key aim in the Gospel of Mark is to promote theology and values associated with the Epistles of Paul. As Jesper Svartvik puts it in Mark and Mission: Mk 7:1-23 in Its Narrative and Historical Context:

the gospel of Mark may be described as a narrative presentation of the Pauline Gospel (p. 34)

The importance of this, is that Jesus’ baptism is compared to Jesus’ death and resurrection in Paul’s writing in Romans 6:3-5 when it reports:

Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection

The significance of this can be seen, as Richard Carrier in On The Historicity of Jesus summarises:

The baptism narrative also matches the crucifixion narrative. This makes literary sense, because theologically baptism was understood as a symbolic death-and-resurrection-it was how Christians came to be crucified with Christ (p. 422)

This too can be seen when we compare how the Gospel of Mark begins and ends. For instance: Mark 1:3 relates to Mark 15:34 when Jesus cried with a loud voice in the latter, while John speaks in the wilderness in the former. An allusion is made to Elijah (which I’ll explain in more detail below) in Mark 1:6 and also in Mark 15:34-36. The heavens are torn in Mark 1:10, while the symbol of the barrier between earth and heaven, the Temple curtain is torn in Mark 15:38. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in Mark 1:10 and the Holy Spirit departs from Jesus in Mark 15:37. God calls Jesus his son (Mark 1:11) and a centurion calls Jesus God’s son in Mark 15:39. What this means, is it seems scarcely due to embarrassment that this detail was included in Mark’s account, but given that each of these appear in the same order at the start of Mark’s Gospel as at the end, it seems to be another example of Mark’s literary creativity and mirroring technique which is symptomatic of Mark’s Gospel. The consequence of this, as Carrier concludes:

Mark constructed this myth at his beginning to echo and reverse his ending, with such literary precision as to demonstrate he was deliberately constructing it (because real history never works out so perfectly.)

The final thing I want to talk about is the fact that, not only is there nothing embarrassing about the account and one cannot affirm Jesus’ baptism because of the criteria of multiple attestation, there are a number of details which are actually theologically loaded such that one can question the historicity of this event for another reason; it is theologically necessary for the Christian account of Jesus’ claim of being the Messiah.

The Least Embarrassing “Embarrassing” Detail in Jesus’ Life

While the above has shown that the apparently “embarrassing” nature of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Mark can be perfectly explained and understood in the context of Jewish practices, the main reason why I question the historicity of this event is it (like virtually every detail in the Gospels) literally saturated with theologically loaded themes. But before I explain these details, I first need to provide a little bit of context.

It should probably go without saying, but Christian apologists have long since looked towards the Jewish Bible to support the claim that the entire Bible was written with Jesus in mind. Not only this, but it seems that the writers of the New Testament themselves wanted to paint Jesus into the Jewish Bible with various allusions and claimed instances of the apparent “fulfilment of prophecies.” While I will explain the specific prophecies and Scriptures in mind in this specific episode of John’s baptism of Jesus in another post, I first want to explain something which occurs in that Bible which is arguably even more blatant and dishonest. To explain this, I want to explain something incredibly important as it relates to the structure of the Bible.

 

If you have been following my blog, you might have noticed that I do not use the phrase “Old Testament”, but instead, to refer to the Jewish Holy writings, I refer to them as “the Jewish Bible.” The reason for this is for a very good reason; the Jewish Bible is not the same thing as a Christian Old Testament. This often shocks and confuses a lot of people, so let me explain something incredibly important. A Jewish Bible is often called a “Tanach.” The reason being, this is because it is by the first letter of the names of the three sections of the Jewish Scriptures: Torah (The Five Books), Neviim (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). Yet a Christian Old Testament is not referred to as a Tanach because, as the picture below will illustrate, the books are in a completely different order. See for yourself:

Tanach

While there is a lot that could be said about this, the importance of this can be seen when we compare how both end. As you can see from the above, a Jewish Bible ends with the book, II Chronicles which finishes on a positive note for Jesus people: King Cyrus of Persia gives the Jews permission to return from exile to rebuild their land and their Temple. As it says:

Thus said Cyrus king of Persia, “All the kingdoms of the earth has the Lord G-d of heaven given me; and He has charged me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all His people, the Lord his G-d be with him, and let him go up!” (II Chronicles 36:23)

In contrast, a Christian Old Testament ends with Malachi rather than II Chronicles. This is incredibly important when we consider how the book of Malachi itself ends. So the end of a Christian Old Testament it says:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. He will turn back (to God) the hearts of the fathers with their sons, and the hearts of the sons with their fathers, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 3:23-24)

In other words, it is commonly assumed by Christians, that the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi saying that Elijah the prophet will arrive to usher in the Messianic Age. The importance of this, is that ending with Malachi allowed for a smoother transition into the New Testament’s Book of Matthew, given that immediately after Jesus’ genealogy and nativity scene in Matthew 1 and 2, in Matthew 3 this reports that Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist. Not only this though, given that scholars virtually unanimously agree that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest account written, we now need to consider the fact that the earliest account in the Gospel of Mark was specifically writing the account to fulfil a number of prophecies relating to the Messiah and the Messianic Age by having John the Baptist playing the role of Elijah.

The Baptism of Jesus as The Fulfilment of Prophecy

Even if one is not familiar with the Jewish religion or the theme of events from the life of Jesus fulfilling prophecy, one can hardly miss the fact that the Gospel of Mark begins by saying that he is writing his account in order to prove that Jesus is the promised Jewish Messiah. As the author opens his account with:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’” (Mark 1:1-3)

The trouble with this, Mark gets this quotation wrong because only one of these quotations come from the prophet Isaiah. The first quote is actually from Malachi 3:1, so we can already tell from the first 3 verses, that the author is intent on proving that Jesus is the Messiah by citing Jewish Scriptures in a less than 100% honest (or accurate) way. But this becomes more interesting when we consider how the author introduces the character of John the Baptist. So let’s see how Mark describes John:

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ (Mark 1:4-8)

While this may not sound significant, let us compare how Mark 1:6 describes John to 2 Kings 1:8, which provides a description of Elijah. As it reports:

They replied, “He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.” The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.”

Thus, it is clear that the author of the Gospel of Mark uses not only explicit, but also implicit references to the Hebrew scriptures in his narrative. In the case here, the obvious point is that John the Baptist represents Elijah and that the prophecy that Elijah will return to usher in the Messianic Age has been fulfilled. When you add this to the fact there is nothing embarrassing about a Jewish person engaging in a process of baptism, it seems the claim that this is recounting a historical event seems to be on an incredibly weak foundation.

Conclusion

While it is often contended by Christian and non-Christian scholars alike that the baptism of Jesus is a historically certain fact, it soon becomes clear that such an argument is based little more than ignorance of Jewish customs and not consistently applying a historical axiom which is commonly used by critical scholars for other events in Jesus’ life. Therefore, as Vaage concludes:

the event of Jesus baptism by John lacks “multiple attestation” in the canonical Gospels or in any other text of the New Testament… The abiding scholarly conviction that the historical Jesus was baptized by the historical John depends wholly and solely on the assumption that what we now read in Mark 1:9-11 (and parallels) and, specifically, v. 9 is necessarily “historical” in some sense, even though, again, the reasons for this assumption have been primarily “theological” and not conventionally “historical” in nature. (Reimagining Christian Origins p. 282)

This means, if we can have such little confidence that Jesus was baptised, despite this often being depicted as part of the apparent “historical bedrock” of the life of Jesus, how much confidence can we have about any detail of the life of Jesus?

2 thoughts on “Jesus’ Baptism: A Historical Fact?

  1. Interesting post.

    Biblical “scholarship” is so deeply flawed its always hard to even know where to begin with this stuff.

    As you point out, there are huge problem with the so-called criterion of embarrassment. The criterion of embarrassment is based on assumptions about the motives of the authors of the Gospels, but there are many reasons to conclude that the assumptions of biblical scholars about the motives of the authors are entirely wrong.

    Biblical scholars tends to proceed from the assumption that the perspectives of the Gospel writers matched the perspectives of 2nd-4th century Christians but there are many reasons not to think so.

    In my book Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed I make the case that the Gospel of Mark is an allegorical post-war narrative. The writer was using the letters of Paul and making the case that the First Jewish-Roman War was a product of not following Paul’s teachings of unity between Jews and Gentiles. This is why the “disciples” are all portrayed so poorly in the story. (Paul was in conflict with them) But the whole story is entirely fabricated and much of the symbolism has been entirely lost on Christians. The founders of Christianity completely failed to understand the real meaning of the Gospel of Mark, which was always allegorical but which they interpreted literally.

    Christian biblical scholars have been forced into this box where they have to assume that the intent of the Gospel writers was to create what Christianity became. For them, the Gospel writers are the founders. “They recorded these accounts in order to record the life and deeds of Jesus, and thus to found the Christian religion.”

    Acknowledging that that may not have been the purpose behind the writing of at least the first Gospel is essentially impossible for them.

    http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/

    Like

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