I have just finished reading Paul Tobin’s excellent book The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager (who of us godless Sodomites isn’t sick and tired of all its different flavors by now?). I have a fairly substantial library on biblical criticism, including books by Ehrman, Helms and Callaghan. But I especially like this one as it gets into how scholars have come to the conclusions more than most, and in a manner not as dry as a turkey cooked two hours too long (like say Burton L. Mack’s Who Wrote the New Testament?).
When I read on the methods of biblical criticism, I am astounded at the tenuousness of conclusions. Rare it is for there to be anything factual to be found in the discipline it seems. Scholars have a number of goodies in their toolbox to help them sort things out:
- Multiple attestation. Events or sayings attested to by multiple independent sources increase confidence in their Ihistoricity over singular citations.
- Dissimilarity. If Jesus says or does something at odds with what was believed of him or would be offensive to them but was written down anyway, this increases the likelihood of historicity.
- Verissimilitude. I love this word, and rank it right up there with “Brobdignagian” (don’t ask – look it up yourself). Anything attributed to Jesus that is very different from the history, culture or language of the region in which he lived is likely unauthentic.
- Oral form. Contrary to the snake oil fundagelicals will attempt to sell you, the gospels were written later than 70 CE. So what was going on between the death of Jesus and this time? The earlies traditions about Jesus were passed around by word-of-mouth. We know from examples from other cultures that rely on this means of passing along information that the shorter and more provocative the saying, the more memorable it is. Thus, the short parables contained in the first three gospels are far more likely to be authentic than the long drawn out ones in John.
- Coherence. This is rather an amorphous term meaning that if something reported of Jesus is consistent with other reports the greater the likelihood of authenticity.
In other words, this ain’t rocket science, and with these rather seat-of-the-pants methods there is a lot of arguing which goes on amongst NT scholars.
While I was reading the assessment of the historicity of the account of Jesus’ baptisim in Tobin’s book, the application of the criterion of dissimilitude (embarrassment) did not sit well with me. In fact, I have a serious problem with it.
“… Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist (Mark 1:9-11) was something that caused difficulties and embarrassment for the early Christians. Since by the time the gospels were written, the early Christians believed Jesus to be more than a mere man. His submitting to baptism by John would mean that he required cleansing for his sins – something that they would not have accepted.”
Let’s look at the account as given by Mark:
“It happened in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Immediately coming up from the water, he saw the heavens parting, and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. A voice came out of the sky, “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Of note is that there isno indication that John recognized Jesus as the messiah or that Jesus is greater than John. There is also no indication that anyone there saw the heavens open up or any descending avian, indicating that these are just so much poetic license. As Tobin notes, this is a plausible story (sans the bird and the sky opening up).
But with the gospels that come after Mark, we see an evolution of the story. Remember, Mark was one of the sources for both the gospels of Matthew and Luke. As recounted in Matthew 3:13-17,
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. But John would have hindered him, saying “I need to be baptized by you, anpd you come to me?” but Jesus, answering, said to him, “Allow it now, for this is the fitting way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” then he allowed him. Jesus, when he was baptized, went up directly from the water: and behold, the heavens were opened to him. He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, anpd coming on him. Behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Note the significant alterations from Mark’s account here. First, John is fully cognizant of who Jesus is, and that Jesus is the superior of the two. Second, the Spirit of God is now addressing the people in attendance of the baptism directly. Luke similarly makes John’s inferior status explicit.
With the gospel of John, historically the last of the gospels to be written, the whole of the baptism disappears!
“The next day, he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who is preferred before me, for he was before me.’ I didn’t know him, but for this reason I came baptizing in water: that he would be revealed to Israel.” John testified, saying, “I have seen the Spirit descending on him like a dove out of heaven, and it remained on him. I didn’t recognize him, but he who sent me to baptize in water, he said to me, ‘On whomever you will see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he who baptized in the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.” Again, the next day, John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”
And people wonder why I describe the Bible as the most boring read ever written. John is as bad as the Book of Mormon with its “And it came to pass…” repeated ad nauseum, or even L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth.
Anyway, where’d the bath go in John? And suddenly John the Baptist is gushing over Jesus! This is only one of the thousand reasons why I consider Bible inerrantists demonstrably-deluded nut jobs. (I don’t sugar coat that for which I have no respect.)
So, what we have is an evolution of the baptism over time from a simple baptism all the way to no baptism. There is no doubt that there is embarrassment here. I am not arguing that there is not. What I dispute is what exactly it is is the source of that embarrassment: is it because it is historical, or is it something else?
Remember, both the authors of Luke and Matthew used Mark as a primary source. Any parallel reading demonstrates this beyond doubt. The changes these two gospel authors make to Mark’s account occur when their theologis diverge. Christianity in its first few centuries was incredibly diverse, far and away more so than now. Today’s Christian sects argue over minutiae in comparison. Even the disagreements between consubstantiation and transubstantiation are minor in comparison. We’re talking about differences like whether Jesus was a god, adopted by God, or a spirit justing using the physical body of Jesus; one god, two gods or 365 gods! Far more distance between theological positions than today I think. For an iexcellent overview on the diversity of early Christianities, get a copy of Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities.
Now, where was I? Oh, yes. There is no doubt that both Matthew and Luke are displaying embarrassment over the account of Jesus’ meeting with John the Baptist. In their eyes, it was anathema to have John placed in a position over Jesus. Thus, they altered Mark’s account to lessen the damage to their own theologies. They couldn’t just delete the story. They firmly believed (incorrectly) that the author of Mark was an eyewitness to this event. Luke is very explicit in this belief, and fully admits to altering the testimony (see the first four verses of Luke). So for these two authors, they were dealing with what they thought was a historical event.
Now if we did not have the Markan account, the application of the criterion of embarrassment might be convincing. It is clear that Matthew and Luke don’t like the idea of Jesus having sins that need cleansing. And John- well, he’s so embarrassed that he’s in full-out denial.
The fly in the ointment is this- Mark is not embarrassed at all. For the criterion of embarrassment to be applicable in assessing the historicity of the event, I would fully expect that Mark would also make an attempt at an apology for why Jesus seems to think he needs a baptism. This goes doubly so if indeed Jesus was already by the time Mark was written that Jesus was “more than a mere man.” Yet Mark makes no such attempt.
So what exactly are Matthew and Luke embarrassed about? They are embarrassed about Mark’s theology! The criterion of embarrassment, far from indicating the historicity of Jesus’ baptism, simply indicates that the Markan account exists. That’s it. Quite banal, really.
This analysis can only go so far as to reduce the likelihood of the historicity of this event, not conclude that it was unhistorical. But that’s not my point. Whether or not the baptism of Jesus occurred is of no importance to me. My point is that the sole evidence for the historicity of the event does not actually support the conclusion. I’ve run this by a couple of people to check my logic. I’m no biblical critic, after all. So I contacted Richard Carrier about this and he agrees. Indeed, he feels that there are reasons that Mark may well have invented the story altogether. As to why, he didn’t elaborate, but I suspect that what Dr. Jim had to say on the matter may well have been one of the possible reasons. Jim informs me that baptism was a common practice in Judaism and that Mark may have invented the story in order to justify the practice within Christianity.
This is an attractive possibility since it explains how Mark may have overlooked the embarrassing aspects of a Jesus that need his sins washed away in order in favor of creating a basis for baptism within the fledgeling religion. But later authors that may have taken baptism for granted began to focus on the implications of the story and deemohasize the role of John the Baptist.
One of the problems with John’s version of the story is that if his was true, we would expect that Jesus would be a prominent figure within the sect he founded. But there is not one hint of Jesus within the Mandaean tradition. This could not be the case if John the Baptist’s raison d’être was to prepare the way for Jesus.
I’ve recently been arguing with bible inerrantists. Why I don’t know. It’s like banging my head against a wall of spikes. That there is some agreement between the the synoptic gospels comes as no surprise since they are not independent. Even here there are significant and irreconcilable differences. Inerrancy becomes completely untennable (as if it wasn’t already) when comparing John with the synoptic gospel accounts. All three of the synoptic gospels have Jesus getting dunked in the Jordan. In John, the baptist leaves Jesus high-and-dry. In the Mark, John has no idea who Jesus is. By the time John is written, Jesus is immediately recognized and labelled as the Son of God. This is one of only many examples where the gospels trip over each other and make Bible inerrancy a ridiculous proposition.
I mean, seriously. I had one person making the bald assertion that the Holy Spirit was at work to preserve the accuracy of scripture! First, we have absolutely no extant sources, so how do we know how accurate it is? The commenter was claiming somewhat less than 100% accuracy, but better than say the Illiad. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that an omnipotent god preserve the text at a rate of 100%? Then there is the small problem that slightly less than half of the epistles attributed to Paul are known or suspected to be forgeries. Is the Holy Spirit at work there too? And just how does one establish such an untestable claim in the first place? Give me a break…
Anyway, that’s enough for now.