John Beverley Butcher
In the introduction to [[An Uncommon Lectionary], Butcher comments on the pivotal significance of this event in the life of Jesus:
The liturgical year in this lectionary begins with the primary spiritual event in the life of Jesus: his Baptism by John in the Jordan River. Mark, the earliest narrative Gospel, opens with the ministry of John the Baptizer who is "calling for baptism and a change of heart that lead to forgiveness of sins." (Mark 1:4, SV)
According to Luke 3:23, Jesus was about thirty when he went to hear John preach. What might there have been in John's message that prompted Jesus to ask for baptism? And what might have he experienced during his baptism and the forty days in the wilderness that reportedly followed? Might the baptism in the Jordan and the time in the desert comprise a story illustrating his enlightenment?
The evidence is clear that something profound happened within Jesus which provided direction and energy for a ministry of teaching and healing. Without Jesus' baptism, there might have been no ministry, no getting into trouble with the authorities, no crucifixion, no resurrection experiences, no church, no Christian religion, and no church history! The course of human civilization would have gone quite differently.
John Dominic Crossan
Crossan [Historical Jesus] (232) introduces his brief discussion of this cluster as follows:
It belongs to the primary stratum, has three independent witnesses, and involves nine separate texts. But it is also evidences a very large amount of what I term, without any cynicism, theological damage control. The tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John baptizing Jesus because that seems to make John superior and Jesus sinful.
Crossan suggests that the development of the tradition can be traced across the texts in the following sequence:
- GHeb 2
- Mark 1:9-11
- Luke 3:21-22
- Matt 3:13-17
- GEbi 4
- GNaz 2
- John 1:(29-)32-34
He cites Ron Cameron [he Other Gospels: Non-canonical Gospel Texts] (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982) who proposed that the Gospel of the Hebrews represents a stage of the tradition which understood Jesus as the embodiment of divine Wisdom who had descended to earth and had been awaiting the appearance of Jesus.
In the end, Crossan concludes:
Jesus' baptism by John is one of the surest things we know about them both. (p. 234)
Flusser devotes chapter 3 [Jesus b] (37-55) to the baptism of Jesus. He stresses the links between the Essene beliefs and practices at Qumran, where "baptism linked repentance with forgiveness of sins, and the latter with the Holy Spirit."
On the probability of ecstatic phenomena, Flusser observes:
We can well imagine the holy excitement of that crowd who had listened to the words of the Baptist. Having confessed their sins and awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit to cleanse their souls from all the filth of sin, they plunged their bodies into the cleansing water of the river. Can it be that none of them would have had a special pneumatic-ecstatic experience in that hour when the Spirit of God touched them? (p. 40)
... many scholars are right in thinking that in the original account, the heavenly voice announced to Jesus, "Behold, 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" (Isaiah 42:1). This form is probably the original, for the reason that the prophetic word fits the situation.(p. 41)
The gift of the Holy Spirit assumed a significance for Jesus that was different than for others who were baptized by John. Heavenly voices were not an uncommon phenomenon among the Jews of those days, and frequently those voices were heard to utter verses from scripture. Endowment with the Holy Spirit, accompanied by an ecstatic experience, was apparently something that happened to others who were baptized in John's presence in the Jordan. (p. 42)
If, however, the heavenly voice intoned the words of Isaiah, Jesus must have understood that he was being set apart as the servant of God, the Chosen One. For him, the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was part of John's baptism, held another special significance that was to become decisive for his future. None of the designations Son, Servant or Chosen One were exclusively messianic titles--the last two could also denote the special status of the prophetic office. By these titles, Jesus learned that he was now called, chosen, set apart. Nothing we have learned casts any doubt upon the historicity of Jesus' experience at his baptism in the Jordan. (p. 42)
The opinion of the Jesus Seminar Fellows about the baptism of Jesus by John was tested across a number of statements, with the average result for each statement:
- JBap baptized Jesus
- Jesus saw the heavens open and the spirit descend on him like a dove.
- Jesus heard a voice from heaven at his baptism saying, "You are my favored son."
- Jesus had visionary experiences.
- Jesus had a visionary experience at the time of his baptism.
- Jesus had a vision at his baptism.
- Jesus had a powerful religious experience at his baptism.
- Jesus was a disciple of JBap.
Luedemann [Jesus] (9) affirms the historicity of Jesus being baptized by John, but does not trace the theological interpretations back beyond the post-Easter community:
... Jesus did not regard his baptism as appointment to be the son of God. The underlying concept derives from the community, which believed in Jesus as the son of God (cf. Gal. 2.16; 4.4) and located his appointment within his lifetime. In the earliest period, for example, the appointment of Jesus as son of God came only after his resurrection from the dead (cf. Rom. 1.4).
John P. Meier
The second volume of [A Marginal Jew] devotes considerable space to a study of John as "mentor" to Jesus. The historicity of the baptism is addressed on pages 100-105, before considering the meaning of Jesus' baptism on pages 106-116. On the basis of the criterion of embarrassment, supported by a limited proposal for multiple attestation (relying on possible echoes of a Q version in John's Gospel and in 1 John 5:6), Meier concludes:
We may thus take the baptism of Jesus by John as the firm historical starting point for any treatment of Jesus' public ministry. (II,105)
Having established the historicity of the baptism event, Meier is adamant that the narrative must be seen as a Christian midrash, drawing on various OT themes to assert the primacy of Jesus over John. In particular, Meier insists that the theophany must be excluded from all attempts to understand the event, since it is a later Christian invention rather than a surviving memory of some actual spiritual experience of Jesus.
Meier's discussion of the meaning of the baptism puts great weight on the fact that accepting baptism implied Jesus' agreement with John's apocalyptic message, and also engages at length with the question of Jesus' sinlessness.