reader’s patience is requested in the fact that these Jesus
pages are in effect a kind of sub-Web, “piggy-backing” on the
principal Web, http://www.paulonpaul.org,
and thus that the As Paul Tells It . .
. designation at the top of each page is not quite accurate.
Traditions Home Page is readily accessible by clicking on Contents,
to be found at the top and bottom of each page.
in red = Mark .. in blue
.. in green = Special Matthew ..
in fuchsia = Special Luke
Contents of Jesus
|Given the limitations in our knowledge of what Jesus did and
said, and especially in the absence of an over-all sequence of events in his
life, we can at least characterize in a general way what the narrative
material has to offer, and, in due course, what the sayings material offers. In the process,
a kind of profile of Jesus may emerge, even if it does not provide all the
information we would like to have.
As earlier noted, the transmission of the gospel material
in isolated units or pericopes did not provide for the survival in
the tradition of a connected sequence of events during the public activity
of Jesus. We have only episodes, which have been arranged by the gospel writers
and their sources as best they could, often in logical rather than
chronological order—the exceptions being the baptism and temptation
narratives at the beginning, and the passion narratives at the end of his
career. (Click on continuity.)
to impressions based upon the Fourth Gospel, where some readers have
discerned a three year ministry, the synoptic gospels provide no information
about the length of Jesus’ public activity.
The Baptism of Jesus
Mark, our earliest gospel, presents the baptism in a
straightforward, even naïve, fashion. Jesus joins a national
movement of repentance preached by John (Mark 1:4), and submits to baptism by him
(Mark 1:9-11 || Matthew 3:13-17 || Luke 3:21-22). The author of Mark does not seem to be at pains to
defend a theology of the sinlessness of Jesus; i.e. he is not
perplexed by the problem of why Jesus, if he was sinless, should submit to
John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan,
to be baptized by him.
9In those days Jesus
came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
|21Now when all the
people were baptized,
and when Jesus also had been baptized
would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and
do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it
be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all
righteousness.” Then he consented.
|16And 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.
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.
the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit
descended upon him
in bodily form like a dove.
a voice from heaven said, “This is
my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
|| 11And a
from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am
And a voice came
heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well
Mark’s version of the voice from heaven represents Jesus
as God's son, the beloved one, in whom he is well pleased (Mark 1:11). Mark
and his readers might have understood these words, reminiscent of two
passages in the Jewish Bible (Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1), as designating
Jesus both Messiah and Servant of the Lord, but at this stage of his story
the author does not resort to titles—taking into account, of course, the
fact that the author opens his gospel with the statement, “The beginning
of the good news of Jesus Christ [or Messiah], the Son of God.” The temptation in Mark hardly ranks as
narrative; it is merely described as happening in the wilderness, with Satan
as tempter, Jesus’ only companions the wild beasts, and angels waiting on
him (Mark 1:12-13).
While baptism and temptation open
Mark’s gospel, baptism and temptation in Matthew and Luke are preceded by Birth Narratives
(Matthew 1–2; Luke 1–2), and in the case of Luke by the
account of Jesus’ visit to the Temple at the age of twelve (Luke 2:41-52). Matthew and Luke follow
substantially Mark’s description of the baptism, with these exceptions: Matthew makes some effort to
defuse the problem of how a sinless Jesus might submit to baptism, by
offering the justification that it was proper in this way “to fulfill all
righteousness” (Matthew 3:15); and Luke materializes the descent of the
dove, which comes upon Jesus “in bodily form” (Luke 3:22).
Matthew and Luke also contain somewhat extended accounts of the preaching of John the
Baptist. Luke, somewhat awkwardly, describes the imprisonment of John (3:19-20)
before he proceeds to the actual baptism.
As for the temptation, both Matthew and Luke provide
detailed, three-fold versions of the temptation, with vivid dialogue. There
is such close agreement in their accounts that we may conclude that they
used the source Q; the accounts differ mainly in that the second
and third temptations in Matthew are reversed in Luke (unless Matthew has been
responsible for reversing the order).
With these texts before us, why not proceed directly with
Layers of Interpretation
Our difficulty is that interpretation has already been going
on at a number of levels. As in removing layers of wax, or paint, or
varnish, or stain in order to restore a piece of furniture, we need to be
aware of the various levels of interpretation which have appeared during the
first decades and centuries after Jesus lived.
Interpretation of the baptism was going on in the non-canonical
texts of the second century (citations from Throckmorton, B. H., Jr.,
Gospel Parallels [New York: Nelson, 1979], pp. 10-11).
The Gospel according to the Hebrews (quoted in Jerome, Against
Pelagius III.2) The mother of the Lord and his brothers
said to him, “John the Baptist baptizes for the forgiveness of sins;
let us go and be baptized by him.” But he said to them, “In what way
have I sinned that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless, perhaps,
what I have just said is a sin of ignorance.”
Justin Martyr, Dialogue 88:3 When Jesus went down in the
water, fire was kindled in the Jordan; and when he came up from
the water, the Holy Spirit came upon him. The apostles of our Christ
In the one case, from an apocryphal gospel, there is significant
speculation about the sinlessness of Jesus; it is recognized that
baptism and sinlessness do not go well together. In the other case, from
one of the apostolic fathers, we have a commentary on the words of John
the Baptist, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”
(Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16).
4. A Johannine Layer
layer of interpretation was imposed in the Gospel of John (about
A.D. 100), where the event of the baptism of Jesus by John (the Baptist) has virtually
disappeared (John 1:19-34).
John preaches no baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He is
baptizing at Bethany beyond (!) the Jordan; he speaks highly
of Jesus; the
Spirit descends upon Jesus as a dove; disciples of John seek Jesus out; but
there is no
reference to a baptism. Jesus does not go down into the water to receive baptism at the hands of John.
There is no baptism; and if no baptism, there is no longer a problem
of how a
sinless Jesus would submit to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness
of sins; nor is there a
problem of Jesus’ being perceived as subordinate to John.
3. Synoptic Layers
Even earlier, Matthew and Luke were laying down layers of
interpretation, as they re-worked Mark in the composition of their gospels (about A.D.
80-90). What was originally a personal, mystical experience
becomes an external, public event: Luke omits “he
saw,” and the dove descends in bodily form (sômatikôi eidei),
observable by all; in Matthew “You are my son” (2nd person
singular) becomes “This is my son” (3rd person singular), as a virtual
announcement to those assembled. Matthew also includes a dialogue with John about who will be
baptized by whom, a sign that the question of Jesus’ sinlessness is
recognized and settled (at least, to Matthew’s satisfaction).
The Earliest Synoptic Layer
We next come to a yet earlier synoptic layer (about A.D. 70), represented by Mark
and/or the tradition upon which he drew. Here the focus is upon an inner,
private experience at the baptism: “... He saw ... the
Spirit descending;” and he hears, “You are my Son ....”
The “Jesus Layer”
there is Jesus’ experience of the baptism, about which we know
nothing directly. We may reasonably suppose that the baptism did happen, especially since it is
difficult to imagine that anyone in the early church would have invented an event which might
have brought the sinlessness of Jesus into question. But we can only guess (for there is no textual evidence to this
effect) that he may have recounted this experience for his disciples;
if he did so, he may also have provided some interpretation of it in terms which
would be intelligible to them.
interpretation, and significant contemporary interpretations from
parents, teachers, or clergy, add many additional layers of
interpretation for readers today.
A Call to Vocation?
Given the layers of interpretation which we have identified, we come
to the question of whether in going to Jordan Jesus was
responding to a call to vocation; and if so, whether we can determine what that
vocation was. We refer back to the words of the voice from heaven, at the baptism
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am
and his readers (layer 2), these words may have been reminiscent of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1, as designating
Jesus both Messiah and Servant of the Lord.
Psalm 2:6-8 6“I have set my king on Zion, my
holy hill.” 7I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He
said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. 8Ask
of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the
earth your possession.”
Isaiah 42:1 Here is 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.
The Jesus traditions have preserved all too little of Jesus’ thoughts about himself (layer
1). He did not keep a diary. Thus it is often difficult to
distinguish between what the post-Easter Christian community thought about
him, and how he viewed his vocation.
We may suppose that it was not the style of Jesus to give out press releases to the media
or handouts to his students; rather, he was more likely to
challenge his listeners, but especially his disciples, to respond with
insight to what he did (what might be called “acted parables”) as well
as to what he said (the more familiar “verbal parables”). Thus he
might have quoted meaning-full fragments of scripture, and have left it to the
disciples to draw their own conclusions about his mission. This approach would
have been no less effective, if insight should have come after the
crucifixion rather than before.
What we can say is that early Christians were busy trying to understand
the cruel death of Jesus in terms of their scriptures, the Jewish Bible.
Consequently, it is difficult to tell whether scriptural allusions to a mission as
Messiah and as Servant of
the Lord belong to layer 2, or to layer 1.
riskier alternative is also
We will return to the question of Jesus’ vocation, when we
have had a chance to survey other narratives, and especially the last
fateful Jerusalem days. Presumably, there was some relationship between
the baptism and his later work, devoted to teaching, healing, and other
concerns. Once we fill out the profile, we may be able to discern more about his “game plan” at the time of his baptism.
February 7, 2005
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