The awkward fact of the baptism of Jesus
In my other thread, I made a case for the historical Jesus based on evidence contained in the Christian gospels. I will do so again, focusing this time on the accounts surrounding the baptism of Jesus. Keep in mind that it is about explaining the evidence (early Christian beliefs reflected in the gospels). It is not about trusting the evidence. In this case, we can actually make the best sense of the gospels if we conclude that they contain outright lies.
A critical reader of the Christian gospels should wonder: why was Jesus baptized? Baptism, according the gospels, was for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Jesus was supposedly sinless (2 Peter 2:21-22), so why would he be baptized?
The basic conclusion among critical historians has been that the synoptic gospels record that Jesus was baptized primarily because the historical Jesus really was baptized by John the Baptist (e.g. The Silence of Jesus: The Authentic Voice of the Historical Man, by James Breech, pp. 22-24), and the doctrine that Jesus was sinless was only a later development that didn't exactly jive with the well-known fact that Jesus was baptized.
The gospel authors themselves apparently realized the problem. The gospel of Matthew offers this explanation:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ (Matthew 3:13-14)
Seems like Jesus had a flimsy explanation, right? Does Jesus really need to be baptized to "fulfil all righteousness"? Is there even a logical connection?
The gospel authors seem to be haunted by the problem of baptism, and the washing of sin problem was not their biggest concern. There was an even bigger problem: Christianity in the first century competed strongly with the cult of John the Baptist for adherents. The cult of John the Baptist in the first century was possibly more popular than Christianity, at least among the Jews. The historian Josephus spent twice as much ink writing about John the Baptist than he did writing about Jesus (Wikipedia on John the Baptist and Josephus). And the gospels themselves acknowledge the popularity and doctrinal overlap with the Christian religion (Mark 8:28, Luke 9:19, Acts 18:25, Acts 19:3-4). Given that the two cults existed alongside each other and competed for the same adherents, the followers of John the Baptist would remind Christians every day that "Jesus was baptized by John, so who is truly sinless?"
Christians, therefore, made the very best of this otherwise embarrassing reality in their own accounts. In all of the Christian gospels,
- John the Baptist is consistently presented as the most reverent and humble character with respect to Jesus, showering Jesus with praise at his own expense. He is quoted as saying, for example, "I am not worthy to carry his sandals." (Matthew 3:11)
- In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, after Jesus is baptized, the Spirit of God alights on Jesus (not John), and God himself speaks from the heavens, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," in the presence of John the Baptist. (Matthew 3:17)
- In the gospel of Luke, John is sent to prison, and only after that is the baptism of Jesus mentioned (the baptizer being someone anonymous).
- In the gospel of John (the latest canonical gospel), John the Baptist has a prominent role, but the account of the baptism of Jesus is completely omitted!