a traditional site for John's baptisms - on the border between Israel and Jordan

In yesterday’s post, I explored two approaches we can use to explore the history behind the gospels. Stories about John the Baptist and Jesus are found in multiple differing sources, and later versions of the story show a degree of discomfort with the story of John baptising Jesus. Today and tomorrow I want to explore those bare assertions in more detail.

Mark tells a relatively straightforward story.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:9-11

Matthew adds some dialogue that suggests he sees a problem in the idea of Jesus being baptised – an anxiety about whether this seems to subordinate Jesus to John, or perhaps suggest that Jesus is in need of forgiveness. The relevant words are in bold. The dialogue seeks to close down both of these possible understandings – for Matthew, misunderstandings – before they arise.

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.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

Matthew 3:13-17

When we come to Luke, we find that he moves the baptism off-stage (as it were) and in keeping with his interest in prayer, Jesus has his revelation from God not in the moment of baptism, but afterwards in his post-baptismal time of prayer. Luke even has John in prison (in verse 20) before he narrates this story. John’s role is minimised, almost to the point of the baptism disappearing.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Luke 3:21-22

Then we come to John, and the baptism of Jesus does, to all intents and purposes, disappear. It is implied rather than narrated.

John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”

John 1: 32-33

The important event is the descent of the Spirit. By implication, and at least for a reader who knows one of the synoptic gospels, this happens when Jesus is baptised. However, this fourth gospel nowhere states that John baptises Jesus. Instead, it focuses upon his testimony about the descent of the Spirit. In Mark and Matthew, it is Jesus who sees this vision. Luke is ambiguous as to whether this vision is seen by Jesus alone, or is an event visible to others. There is ambiguity in all three about whether the voice is heard by others. But the fourth evangelist says clearly that John sees this vision (Does Jesus? We don’t know from John’s story.) It is the proof for him that Jesus is the one he has come to announce.

This story is immediately followed by John pointing Jesus out to two of his disciples, Andrew and an unnamed follower. Andrew at least is convinced by his conversation with Jesus, and fetched his brother Peter. (We’re not told anything more about the unnamed disciple). We’ll come back to John’s version of John the baptizer in a bit, but this is a good point to turn to the theme of John’s disciples.

In the traditional harmonisation of the story, John’s disciples are pointed to Jesus, and what is narrated of Andrew and Peter is taken to be the norm: John’s disciples become Jesus’s disciples. But despite this, John’s ongoing disciples continue to hide in plain sight in the gospels.

They get a mention in the story of John’s beheading.

On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Mark 6:29 (and compare Matt 14:12)

And there is a story that clearly questions the mainstream tradition in the material commonly ascribed to Q (a hypothetical source shared by Matthew and Luke).

John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’”

Luke 7: 18-20 (compare Matt 11:2-3)

Not only does John keep his own disciples, but he even expresses doubt about whether Jesus is the one whose way he felt he was preparing. It seems that Jesus’s ministry is not fitting very well with John’s prior expectations. The welcome shown to sinners, among other things, doesn’t seem to comport well with the idea that the Messiah should be bringing a baptism of fiery judgement. Jesus (never one to give a straightforward answer to a question) simply points John to different scriptures, and leaves him to make up his own mind.

Moving beyond the gospels, there is a short vignette in Acts, where Paul encounters some people who had had a standalone encounter with the Baptist, but still associated with the early Jesus movement (Acts 19:1-7). It suggests both that they had some understanding of John as having prepared the way for Jesus, but a very partial understanding of who Jesus was, and absolutely no idea of the post-resurrection experience of the Holy Spirit.

This is incidental enough to the main narrative of Acts to give me reasonable confidence that Luke is working with a source of some kind. While it’s hard to generalise from such a small vignette, it does seem that at least some who encountered the Baptist’s preaching, perhaps on a Passover visit to Jerusalem, went away with enough sense of John as a messianic forerunner, and some connection with stories of Jesus, for this tradition about Paul to characterise them as “believers” and call them “disciples”. It suggests that for some people there was at least some confusion, or easy slippage, between early Jesus-believers, and people who had experienced John’s baptism without associating strongly with the early Christ-followers.

As we shall see, John (the evangelist) appears more anxious than the other gospels about the relationship between Jesus and John, and about the disciples of John the Baptist in relation to the disciples of Jesus. It may not be coincidence that the city where Paul has this encounter with disciples who had only received John’s baptism is Ephesus, for in some early Christian traditions that city is where John the evangelist wrote his gospel. But more about that gospel and its concerns tomorrow.

By Doug

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