Were early Christians embarrassed by John’s baptism of Jesus?

The Criterion of Embarrassment has come in for a lot of hard knocks lately, and with good reason. John Meier describes it as follows: “The point of the criterion is that the early Church would hardly have gone out of its way to create material that only embarrassed its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents.” (Meier, J. P. (1991). A marginal Jew, rethinking the historical Jesus: Volume one, The Roots of the Problem and the Person (p. 168). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.) The chief criticism is that we, in our modern times and modern perspectives, don’t know that early Christians were embarrassed by what we think is a troubling passage.

In applying the criterion, Meier adds in a footnote, “While the criteria are usually aimed at the sayings of Jesus in particular, it must be remembered that they can also be applied to the actions of Jesus.” Meier then explains how the criterion is applied. “Rather, embarrassing material coming from Jesus” he argues “would naturally be either suppressed or softened in later stages of the Gospel tradition, and often such progressive suppression or softening can be traced through the Four Gospels.” (Meier, J. P. (1991). A marginal Jew, rethinking the historical Jesus: Volume one, The Roots of the Problem and the Person (p. 168). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.) By tracing how the gospels handle the incident, he suggests, one can identify some legitimate facts about Jesus as an historical figure.

Meier then gives as a “prime example, the baptism of the supposedly superior and sinless Jesus by his supposed inferior, John the Baptist, who proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Meier, J. P. (1991). A marginal Jew, rethinking the historical Jesus: Volume one, The Roots of the Problem and the Person (p. 168). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.) He traces out the story through the four gospels.

I would like to challenge the premise that the baptism of Jesus by John was an embarrassing situation. I don’t believe a sinless Jesus was being baptized for the forgiveness of sins. I believe he was being baptized to show that process of baptism has henceforth been transformed from a baptism by water to a baptism by the Holy Spirit.

I want to start with some evidence from Josephus, the Jewish historian from the first century. He writes of John the Baptist that he was a much-admired teacher and that many Jews believe that God had punished Herod for having the Baptist executed by causing Herod to lose a war against his non-Jewish neighbor, King Aretas. “Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist.” (Josephus, Antiquities 5.2.116.) More importantly, Josephus, who would have been directly familiar with many eye-witnesses to and followers of John, gives a very different description of the purpose of John’s baptism than does the gospels. John, he says,

was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness (emphasis added).” (Josephus, Antiquities, 5.2.117.)

What Josephus says here is that the gospels are wrong about the nature of John’s baptism. His discussion of John’s baptism may even have been intended as a direct rebuke of Christians who considered John a witness on behalf of Jesus. Purification of the soul, he noted, came from righteous behavior. If Josephus is right about what Jews believed, then opponents of the Jesus movement would not have been critical of a sinless Jesus being baptized by an inferior John the Baptist. From the Jewish perspective of John the Baptist, baptism was not about being sinful. Something else is going on with the baptism of Jesus. For that, we need to go back to the basic gospel stories.

The gospel baptism stories share a basic template. John baptizes Jesus; the baptism leads to a revelation of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus; a voice declares that Jesus is the son of God, and baptism is no longer about the water but about the Holy Spirit.

“I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1:8.)

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11.)

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16.)

“He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” (John 1:33.)

There are differences in how the gospels depict the event. For example, in the synoptic gospels it appears that only Jesus sees the dove descend and hear the voice. (Mark 1:10; Matthew 3:16; Luke 3:21.) In John’s gospel and in Luke, the baptism isn’t depicted but it is referenced as having occurred. Matthew depicts John being concerned that it should be Jesus that baptizes him, rather than the other way around. In John, it is John who witnesses the Holy Spirit descend and it is he, not a voice from heaven, that declares Jesus being the son of God.

John also says that the baptism by water was for the purpose of revealing the one to come, who he previously did not recognize. All four gospels say that “the one to come,” i.e., Jesus, would baptize with the Holy Spirit.

I suggest, therefore, that the baptism of Jesus by John was a symbolic act that triggered a new understanding of what baptism was and who Jesus was. The troubles reflected in the gospel are not about embarrassment but about not understanding why Jesus wanted to go through a baptism in the first place. But, as the gospels all explain, the baptism triggered the recognition of who Jesus was and what baptism was to become. Whatever conflicts Christians may have had with Jews over the nature of John’s baptism was rendered moot by this new understanding of who Jesus was and what baptism meant to his followers.

If embarrassment isn’t the issue, what can we say if anything, about the historical Jesus. I’m not sure we can say anything. What seems to have occurred is a polemic debate between Jews and Christians as to the claim that John testified to Jesus being the Messiah. Jews appear to have argued that Christians didn’t even understand what John’s baptism meant and Christians decided to jettison the original baptism story for a new story that depicted a new form of baptism that distinguished Christians for Jews.

Whether John ever baptized Jesus is still an open question and what that baptism would have meant is hard to say. Intriguingly, the Q source seems to acknowledge that the early story about John declaring Jesus to be the one to come prior to baptizing him may not be true. After the fact, John, while imprisoned, sends messengers to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3; Luke 7:20.) While this statement could certainly be an act of despair as John faces his death, it is certainly fodder that can be used to question Christian claims about an endorsement by John the Baptist. This seems a far more embarrassing admission about the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus than the matter of baptism.

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