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Narratives: The Baptism

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The reader’s patience is requested in the fact that these Jesus pages are in effect a kind of sub-Web, “piggy-backing” on the principal Web,, and thus that the As Paul Tells It . . . designation at the top of each page is not quite accurate. The Jesus Traditions Home Page is readily accessible by clicking on Contents, to be found at the top and bottom of each page.

Material in red = Mark .. in blue =   Q   .. in green = Special Matthew .. in fuchsia = Special Luke


  Contents of Jesus Traditions


Given the limitations in our knowledge of what Jesus did and said, and especially in the absence of an over-all sequence of events in his life, we can at least characterize in a general way what the narrative material has to offer, and, in due course, what the sayings material offers. In the process, a kind of profile of Jesus may emerge, even if it does not provide all the information we would like to have.


Narrative Material

As earlier noted, the transmission of the gospel material in isolated units or pericopes did not provide for the survival in the tradition of a connected sequence of events during the public activity of Jesus. We have only episodes, which have been arranged by the gospel writers and their sources as best they could, often in logical rather than chronological order—the exceptions being the baptism and temptation narratives at the beginning, and the passion narratives at the end of his career. (Click on continuity.) 

Contrary to impressions based upon the Fourth Gospel, where some readers have discerned a three year ministry, the synoptic gospels provide no information about the length of Jesus’ public activity.


The Baptism of Jesus

Mark, our earliest gospel, presents the baptism in a straightforward, even naïve, fashion. Jesus joins a national movement of repentance preached by John (Mark 1:4), and submits to baptism by him (Mark 1:9-11 || Matthew 3:13-17 || Luke 3:21-22). The author of Mark does not seem to be at pains to defend a theology of the sinlessness of Jesus; i.e. he is not perplexed by the problem of why Jesus, if he was sinless, should submit to John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

Matthew 3:13-17

Mark 1:9-11

Luke 3:21-22

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.       
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.       
21Now when all the people were baptized, 

and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,       

14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came  up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.      

10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 



the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.

  17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”               11And a voice came 
from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
       And a voice came 
from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark’s version of the voice from heaven represents Jesus as God's son, the beloved one, in whom he is well pleased (Mark 1:11). Mark and his readers might have understood these words, reminiscent of two passages in the Jewish Bible (Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1), as designating Jesus both Messiah and Servant of the Lord, but at this stage of his story the author does not resort to titles—taking into account, of course, the fact that the author opens his gospel with the statement, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ [or Messiah], the Son of God.” The temptation in Mark hardly ranks as narrative; it is merely described as happening in the wilderness, with Satan as tempter, Jesus’ only companions the wild beasts, and angels waiting on him (Mark 1:12-13).

While baptism and temptation open Mark’s gospel, baptism and temptation in Matthew and Luke are preceded by Birth Narratives (Matthew 1–2; Luke 1–2), and in the case of Luke by the account of Jesus’ visit to the Temple at the age of twelve (Luke 2:41-52). Matthew and Luke follow substantially Mark’s description of the baptism, with these exceptions: Matthew makes some effort to defuse the problem of how a sinless Jesus might submit to baptism, by offering the justification that it was proper in this way “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15); and Luke materializes the descent of the dove, which comes upon Jesus “in bodily form” (Luke 3:22). Matthew and Luke also contain somewhat extended accounts of the preaching of John the Baptist. Luke, somewhat awkwardly, describes the imprisonment of John (3:19-20) before he proceeds to the actual baptism.

As for the temptation, both Matthew and Luke provide detailed, three-fold versions of the temptation, with vivid dialogue. There is such close agreement in their accounts that we may conclude that they used the source Q; the accounts differ mainly in that the second and third temptations in Matthew are reversed in Luke (unless Matthew has been responsible for reversing the order).

With these texts before us, why not proceed directly with interpretation?

Layers of Interpretation

Our difficulty is that interpretation has already been going on at a number of levels. As in removing layers of wax, or paint, or varnish, or stain in order to restore a piece of furniture, we need to be aware of the various levels of interpretation which have appeared during the first decades and centuries after Jesus lived.

  5. Non-Canonical Texts

Interpretation of the baptism was going on in the non-canonical texts of the second century (citations from Throckmorton, B. H., Jr., Gospel Parallels [New York: Nelson, 1979], pp. 10-11). 

The Gospel according to the Hebrews (quoted in Jerome, Against Pelagius III.2)  The mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, “John the Baptist baptizes for the forgiveness of sins; let us go and be baptized by him.” But he said to them, “In what way have I sinned that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless, perhaps, what I have just said is a sin of ignorance.”

Justin Martyr, Dialogue 88:3  When Jesus went down in the water, fire was kindled in the Jordan; and when he came up from the water, the Holy Spirit came upon him. The apostles of our Christ wrote this.

In the one case, from an apocryphal gospel, there is significant speculation about the sinlessness of Jesus; it is recognized that baptism and sinlessness do not go well together. In the other case, from one of the apostolic fathers, we have a commentary on the words of John the Baptist, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16).

  4. A Johannine Layer

Another layer of interpretation was imposed in the Gospel of John (about A.D. 100), where the event of the baptism of Jesus by John (the Baptist) has virtually disappeared (John 1:19-34). John preaches no baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He is baptizing at Bethany beyond (!) the Jordan; he speaks highly of Jesus; the Spirit descends upon Jesus as a dove; disciples of John seek Jesus out; but there is no reference to a baptism. Jesus does not go down into the water to receive baptism at the hands of John. There is no baptism; and if no baptism, there is no longer a problem of how a sinless Jesus would submit to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; nor is there a problem of Jesus’ being perceived as subordinate to John.

  3. Synoptic Layers

Even earlier, Matthew and Luke were laying down layers of interpretation, as they re-worked Mark in the composition of their gospels (about A.D. 80-90). What was originally a personal, mystical experience becomes an external, public event: Luke omits “he saw,” and the dove descends in bodily form (sômatikôi eidei), observable by all; in Matthew “You are my son” (2nd person singular) becomes “This is my son” (3rd person singular), as a virtual announcement to those assembled. Matthew also includes a dialogue with John about who will be baptized by whom, a sign that the question of Jesus’ sinlessness is recognized and settled (at least, to Matthew’s satisfaction).

  2. The Earliest Synoptic Layer

We next come to a yet earlier synoptic layer (about A.D. 70), represented by Mark and/or the tradition upon which he drew. Here the focus is upon an inner, private experience at the baptism: “... He saw ... the Spirit descending;” and he hears, “You are my Son ....”

  1. The “Jesus Layer”

Finally, there is Jesus’ experience of the baptism, about which we know nothing directly. We may reasonably suppose that the baptism did happen, especially since it is difficult to imagine that anyone in the early church would have invented an event which might have brought the sinlessness of Jesus into question. But we can only guess (for there is no textual evidence to this effect) that he may have recounted this experience for his disciples; if he did so, he may also have provided some interpretation of it in terms which would be intelligible to them. 

Centuries of interpretation, and significant contemporary interpretations from parents, teachers, or clergy, add many additional layers of interpretation for readers today.


A Call to Vocation?

Given the layers of interpretation which we have identified, we come to the question of whether in going to Jordan Jesus was responding to a call to vocation; and if so, whether we can determine what that vocation was. We refer back to the words of the voice from heaven, at the baptism (Mark 1:11), 

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

For Mark and his readers (layer 2), these words may have been reminiscent of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1, as designating Jesus both Messiah and Servant of the Lord. 

Psalm 2:6-8  6“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” 7I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. 8Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.”
Isaiah 42:1  Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

The Jesus traditions have preserved all too little of Jesus’ thoughts about himself (layer 1). He did not keep a diary. Thus it is often difficult to distinguish between what the post-Easter Christian community thought about him, and how he viewed his vocation. 

We may suppose that it was not the style of Jesus to give out press releases to the media or handouts to his students; rather, he was more likely to challenge his listeners, but especially his disciples, to respond with insight to what he did (what might be called “acted parables”) as well as to what he said (the more familiar “verbal parables”). Thus he might have quoted meaning-full fragments of scripture, and have left it to the disciples to draw their own conclusions about his mission. This approach would have been no less effective, if insight should have come after the crucifixion rather than before.

What we can say is that early Christians were busy trying to understand the cruel death of Jesus in terms of their scriptures, the Jewish Bible. Consequently, it is difficult to tell whether scriptural allusions to a mission as Messiah and as Servant of the Lord belong to layer 2, or to layer 1

A riskier alternative is also available

Point of Departure

We will return to the question of Jesus’ vocation, when we have had a chance to survey other narratives, and especially the last fateful Jerusalem days. Presumably, there was some relationship between the baptism and his later work, devoted to teaching, healing, and other concerns. Once we fill out the profile, we may be able to discern more about his “game plan” at the time of his baptism.



Revised February 7, 2005

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