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the baptism of jesus in the synoptics November 2, 2006

Posted by Brad Richert in religion.

Every Gospel, that is, biography or recording of Jesus the one called Christ, portrays its subject in a unique perspective. Each perspective may have a different bias and purpose, but there is still a common narrative being told. Examples of this can be seen in the individual narratives that consummates the different Gospel accounts of Jesus. One such individual narrative presented in the beginning of each Gospel is that of the teachings of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus by John. By investigating the separate perspectives of this story among the synoptic Gospels, one can interpret the different impressions, roles, beliefs, and implications that each writer is hoping to present. Implicit in this investigation is the assumption of the two-source theory of the synoptic Gospels that places the hypothetical “Q” document in combination with the Gospel of Mark as the two early sources for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

The Gospel that is attributed to Mark is agreed upon as an early source for later Gospels and thus has a certain accreditation of primacy among the works that we currently have regardless of the question of authorship. Mark’s account of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus is the shortest of the synoptic Gospels, with expectedly less rhetoric. Mark’s Gospel actually begins with the preparation of John the Baptist (Mk. 1:2-6), which suggests that John is a prominent, if not controversial, figure among the contemporary religious discourse. Mark skips right from the introduction of the characteristics of John to the messianic preaching which will set the stage for the baptism of Jesus. There is an implicit reference to John as an important figure as well in the “humbleness” of John’s pronouncement of a coming person of significance. Mark would not compare person of remote significance in order to elevate the importance of this mysterious newcomer.

Mark, interestingly enough, does not explain the purpose of John’s situation. He does not explain the theological or religious importance of John’s water baptism. This suggests that Mark is not interested in the theological significance of baptism itself, but in the situation of one prominent figure exalting a more powerful and importance one. Not only will this new “baptizer” be more important, but will baptize in a whole new way, one that strongly links to God (Mk. 1:8). Mark then immediately introduces Jesus as a traveler from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan [river] (Mk. 1:9). This baptism itself is not given any specific significance other than stating the limitations of John’s role as a teacher and Baptist. The importance of the baptism narrative is found in the majestic account in Mark 1:10-11. As Jesus came out of the water after the baptism, the heavens opened and the Spirit descended on him “like a dove” (Mk. 1:10). Mark is signaling the direct connection that Jesus has as a unique messenger from heaven. Mark 1:11 is used to support the earlier verse by explicitly bonding Jesus with the heavenly God and introducing Jesus as the Son of God. Since the baptism is the only event thus far that Jesus is recorded to have done has been used to explain implications for his followers. The voice from heaven states that he is well pleased with his son immediately after this act and thus it can be assumed that the act of baptism is pleasing to God in general. This interpretation is highly doubtful to myself since the theological reasoning for baptism is not emphasized in Mark as the baptism appears to be used solely as a way of signifying the elevation of Jesus and his connection to the heavenly God. This connection is emphasized in the following passages as the Spirit that had previously descended upon him immediately “drove” him to the wilderness to be tempted by Satan (Mk. 1:12-13), almost as if this divine Spirit is in control of the actions of Jesus.

The Gospel attributed to Matthew, like Mark, antecedes an introduction of John the Baptist as prominent figure among the religious, and possibly political (if that can be distinguished) atmosphere of the time. Matthew’s introduction of John’s teachings, however, gives more explanation of the meaning of baptism (Mt. 3:8). For whatever reason, Matthew seems obliged to need to explain the importance of John’s message of repentance rather than solely concentrate on the elevation of Jesus over John. John goes on to overtly state that his form of baptism is, in fact, for repentance (Mt. 3:11). This is exclusive to Matthew and may insinuate that there might be an important difference between the teachings of John and the teachings of Jesus, albeit compatible. Matthew proceeds to use his Markian source to elevate the coming “baptizer” with the example of sandals, although switches the action of stooping down and untying with carrying (Mt. 1:11). This difference seems to be only a literally difference preferred by Matthew as the principle of lowliness is in tact. Matthew also adds a rhetorically significant aspect to the difference of the coming baptizer’s version as not only with the Holy Spirit, but also with fire. Matthew qualifies this addition with a relatively large addition to his Markian source that pronounces the authority for judgment that this new baptizer will possess. This baptizer, Matthew states, will have the authority to divide the “wheat” from the “chaff” and put each in its space, whether that is in the protectiveness of the “granary” or the burning with unquenchable fire. It is unclear to myself whether the original reference to fire is to be applied as either a purifier or a judgment. If the original reference is meant to be separate from the later reference it would be used in conjunction with the Holy Spirit as a purifier of souls or something to that effect. If, however, it is meant as a juxtaposition to the Holy Spirit, it would suggest that the fire is solely a reference to judgment.

Matthew follows his Markian source as he introduces the adult Jesus as coming from Galilee after John’s messianic prophesying. It should be noted that this is not the first time that Jesus is spoken of in Matthew as that gospel includes a genealogy and birth narrative about Jesus. Matthew leaves out the specificity of Jesus’ origin of Nazareth because it was earlier explained he would be raised there because of an Old Testament prophecy (which in itself has serious interpretative errors and is a whole other subject) (Mt. 2:23). Matthew goes on to add an interesting edit to the Markian source that is exclusive to Matthew’s Gospel. This edit has John attempting to prevent Jesus’ baptism by recognizing the inverted situation (Mt. 3:14). Since Matthew had previously clarified the theological role of baptism as a symbol of repentance he needed to address the seemingly paradoxical problem of the exalted and obvious needlessness for Jesus’ repentance (especially by a man not fit to carry his sandals). According to Matthew, John only consents when Jesus states that this is necessary in order to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15). The interpretations of this text are no doubt plentiful. I would merely contend that this statement is doing several things. The statement alludes to the paradoxical nature of Jesus as a powerful figure as well as humble one. It also gives added authority to Jesus in a way that may be counter-intuitive which states that there no matter how absurd something may seen, he still must be obeyed. Furthermore, the understanding that it is to “fulfill righteousness” alludes to an Old Testament understanding of the fulfillment of prophecies.

Matthew continues with the baptism of Jesus with small additions to the Markian source. Some of these changes are merely rhetorical as well as such changes to what appears to be grammatical (Mt. 3:16). Matthew 3:17, however, offers quick solution to problem that Matthew thinks might come out of the wording used by Mark. Matthew appears to view what seems to be a private matter between God and Jesus (“Thou art my beloved Son…” Mk. 1:11b) as detrimental to the divine or imminent connection Jesus is supposed to have with God. Matthew fixes this by making it a definite pronouncement to John and his follower’s by stating “This is my beloved Son…”. This turns the focus away from a somewhat awkward identity affirmation to a public decree.

The Gospel attributed to Luke offers an intriguingly unique perspective of John and the baptism of Jesus which begs to question whether the authors of Matthew or Luke had any knowledge of the other’s book (and consequently which one came first). Luke’s introduction of John is not only much more complete than Matthew’s account but also shows that John’s teachings were a precursor to Jesus thus giving more weight or explanation to the connection between the Old Testament and Jesus (Lk 3:1-6, 10-14). Luke’s introduction of John may also insinuate a much different audience than Mark or Matthew who are not entirely acquainted with the Hebrew Scripture (Gentiles?).

Luke’s account of John’s preaching begins with an exclusive stress on the anticipatory atmosphere that Luke wants to stage for the messiah. He does this by pointing out that people were questioning (if only in their hearts) whether John the Baptist was the expected Christ (Lk. 3:15). This points out that not only was John the Baptist an important figure, but was also a respected figure at the time. The importance, however, is the emphasis that the people of the time were, according to Luke, were awaiting anxiously for the coming messiah. John seems to miraculously answer them with the familiar humble statement that he is only baptizes by water (Lk. 3:16a). Luke is asserting John more as a prophet than the other synoptic gospels as it is apparent that not only does John foretell a coming “baptizer” of fire, but he can also read the hearts of men, which is similar to language used in the prophets of the Old Testament. Luke continues on to correct some redundancy in Mark’s speech in Lk. 3:16b by deleting “stoop down” since one naturally has to stoop in order to untie sandals.

There are two instances in this first section of John’s preaching where the hypothetical “Q” source comes into play. The first seems to be the addition of “fire” to the rhetoric seen in both Matthew and Luke that complements the coming baptizing of the Holy Spirit. “Q” most likely overlaps Mark in this area by pointing out that the coming baptizer will do so by use of the Holy Spirit since it does not make much sense without it. The second instance directly follows that with the apocalyptic reference of judgment of the separation of wheat and chaff, as found in Matthew (Lk. 3:17). Luke, however, makes in a minor edit to the “Q” source by clarifying that the winnowing fork is the tool used for the clearing of the threshing floor. This may suggest that Luke was aware of the Matthew text and was using improving it in his version. More probable, however, is that Luke simply saw a way to clarify the “Q” source. This, however, could more strongly state that Matthew did not know of Luke’s writing. Luke concludes this section by stating that John continued to exhort and preach “the good news” (Lk. 3:18). This seems to give more a temporal element to the narrative of John and Jesus, which fleshes out John’s character. John is not used here simply to proclaim and baptize Jesus, but to preach for some time before the ministry of Jesus was to start.

The temporal element of Luke is supported by an insertion of John’s imprisonment between the narrative of John’s preaching and Jesus’ baptism. Matthew and Mark both include this narrative in other parts (Mt. 14:3-4 & Mk. 6:17-18) but Luke purposely changes the order of the imprisonment from the Markian source. The reasoning, however, cannot be understood without the understanding of the changes made in the baptism account of Luke.

Luke does not explicitly state that Jesus was baptized by John, but instead begins with an exclamation of the exaggerated universal baptism of “all people” (Lk. 3:21a). It does not proclaim that John was necessarily the baptizer, which might imply that John was not the only baptizer in the area. Although this may be true, Luke is more likely emphasizing the completed nature of John’s ministry as Jesus is meant to start his ministry. Luke’s account merely states that Jesus had been baptized, although it does not state whom this was by. Luke, aware of Mark’s Gospel and the possible complicated implications made by the humbleness of Jesus, pays no attention to the details of the baptism, such as the identity of the baptizer, but also the action of rising out of the water itself. Furthermore, Luke inserts a comment that Jesus was praying almost as a way of downplaying the importance of the passive action of being baptized with the proactive action of praying (Lk. 3:21b).

We can now suggest an understanding of the imprisonment of John in light of the lack of detail of the baptism narrative. Luke, who obviously does not want to diminish the importance of John, needs to rectify the apparent reduction of the role of John. By inserting the imprisonment of John between the teaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus, Luke is suggesting to the reader that John most likely did actually baptize Jesus but the baptism itself should actually be more of an understanding of a passing of ministry. Luke ends John’s ministry in the midst of his popularity only to begin Jesus’ ministry.

In conclusion, it is readily apparent to a synoptic reader that Mark gives the prime narrative of the proclamation of Jesus by John the Baptist in such a way to seems to emphasize a reference to messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. Matthew and Luke continue on to deal with some theologically troubling verses that might have insinuated a dependence of Jesus on John. Matthew, however, attempts an explanation of the situation whereas Luke merely skips around the issue. Matthew and Luke both make use of the additional “Q” source that adds an apocalyptic concept to John’s speech that highlights a reason for repentance. In the end, each synoptic Gospel makes it very clear that Jesus is not only the anticipated messiah, but also the Son of God.



1. khalidmir - November 4, 2006

Brad, have you read Hans jonas’ book on gnosticism? If you read nothing else you must take a look at his essay Gnosticism, nihilism, and existentilaism in his book, ‘The Phenomenon of Life’.

Just out of curiosity, did you study Islam also in this period?

2. brad richert - November 4, 2006

No, I have been meaning to get to Jonas, but figured I would wait until Grad Studies to tackle the academic and philosophic side of Gnosticism. Any academic, or etic, studies of Gnosticism have been in light of early Christian studies and my own personal studied in occultism. The majority of my studies in Gnosticism have been from ‘dueling’ emic factions: gnosticism as known by ’emergent’ Christians and gnosticism as known by sophianic gnostics.

As I have previously stated, I have very little understanding of Islam (relative to my knowledge in other major religions). My only studies in Islam is the attempt to read the Koran – the problem I had was that I kept reading it in the eyes of someone who had previously studied Judaism through the eyes of a Christian. Most of what I know about Islam is through my Muslim friends.

This essay was written over the summer while studying early christian writings and pseudo-archaeology.

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