Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Historical Jesus Missing Pieces IV: Placing the Baptsm

David Zelenka, Baptism of Christ, at WikimediaI have been reflecting here for a while about the problem of the Missing Pieces in the Historical Jesus puzzle. One of my concerns is that we might be putting the right pieces in the wrong places, or arranging them into the wrong pose. I wanted to concentrate on the phenomenon in those posts, and to dwell for a little on the dinosaur analogy, but now I would like to try to illustrate what I am talking about in the first of a couple of examples.

Let's take the example of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist. This is generally regarded as one of the most secure pieces of data we have about the Historical Jesus, and many use it as a key piece in their reconstructions. I am inclined to think that they may be right and that this is a reasonably secure piece of data. Now, for the sake of argument, let's assume that it is indeed a good piece of data, the equivalent of finding a dinosaur fossil, and ask about how we integrate it into the picture as a whole.

Most reconstructions of the Historical Jesus place this event at the beginning of what they call his "public ministry". Here is one example among many:
"Jesus went out into the wilderness to be baptized by John. The fact that we know almost nothing of Jesus' life prior to his baptism by John suggests that John's baptismal ministry inaugurated Jesus' own public work."

Paul J. Achtemeier, Joel B. Green, Marianne Meye Thompson (eds.), Introducing the New Testament: its literature and theology (2nd edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 211.
The placing of the baptism at the beginning of Jesus' ministry is, however, just a guess based on its positioning in the Synoptic Gospels. To assume that the baptism takes place at the beginning of Jesus' public life is simply to accept the narrative of Mark's Gospel at face value. The form-critics may have made a few mistakes, but the basis of their work, scepticism about the (accurate, chronological) biographical framework of the Gospels has not been successfully challenged.

There are, after all, obvious narrative and theological factors influencing Mark's placement of the baptism at the beginning of the Gospel. In his construction, John the Baptist is the Elijah figure who prepares the way for the Messiah to whom he is subordinated. In this construction, Mark is hardly going to position the baptism story half-way through his narrative, even if it actually occurred much later in Jesus' life, if, for that matter, Mark had any idea when it happened. The narrative structure is designed to subordinate John to Jesus, to make him the forerunner, who is arrested before Jesus begins public ministry in Galilee (Mark 1.14) , separating the two men both geographically and temporally.

In other words, the quotation above, which is fairly typical of Historical Jesus research, simply presupposes that the baptism is the first major event in Jesus' life that we know about. It is rarely argued that the baptism marked the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. The fact that we haven't heard anything about Jesus' life before Mark 1 does not make Mark 1 chronologically earlier any more than it makes Mark 8 chronologically the mid-point of Jesus actual, historical career.

Indeed a careful reading of the texts suggests that the Marcan construct is just that, a Marcan construct. There are indications that the two men were active at the same time. John 3.22-26 depicts Jesus baptizing alongside John, with the clear acknowledgement that the two men had parallel careers, at least for some time. Other traditions like Mark 2.18 (mentioning the disciples of John) may also witness to overlapping careers. My guess would be that John the Baptist did die before Jesus, as the Gospels suggest, and that it could have caused some reflection by Jesus on his own death, but that is a guess.

So let us imagine this kind of scenario. Jesus is engaged in some kind of public ministry in Galilee for a year or so before he has met John the Baptist. He hears about John and like several others he makes pilgrimage to the Jordan river to see him. Jesus has an epiphany; it's a confirmation that he has been doing the right thing by leaving family and home and preaching and healing. Perhaps things happened like this; perhaps they didn't. My point is not to argue for a different reconstruction but rather to draw attention to our ignorance about where to place the data and how to do our reconstruction.


Philip said...

Hello Mark,

Your suggestion here would have significant implications for those who argue for a non-apocalyptic Jesus. For example, Crossan, too, assumes that the baptism by John the Baptist took place early, early enough to suggest that Jesus changed his mind and no longer shared John's apocalyptic perspective. The non-apocalyptic Jesus may fall apart for other reasons, but it would certainly fall apart if John is apocalyptic and if Jesus was baptized part way through his own teaching and healing activity.

Just a thought.


Jayman said...

What do you make of Acts 1:22; 10:37; and 13:24-25?

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Phil. Good thought.

Jayman: I think that Luke is there assuming the Marcan narrative frame which he in any case enhances in the Gospel.

Anonymous said...

I have been wondering of late whether the connection between John and Jesus was manufactured.
Given John the Baptist's mention by Josephus in the Antiquities and his bare (if authentic) reference to the Christian movement, one would have to conclude that John was an influential and popular figure while the early Christians were obscure. The evangelists (or oral tradition as a whole, if you prefer) could hardly ignore John's importance. What was needed was some way of connecting Jesus to John's movement while at the same time distinguishing him from the former. Hence a baptism and exchange was imagined in order to legitimize Jesus ministry and, to put it crudely, ride John the Baptists coattails. This would retain your conjecture that Mark felt it necessary to cast John's (apocryphal) role as the Elijah figure.

How's that for dilettantism?

Mark Goodacre said...

Scott: interesting thoughts. I wouldn't be inclined to go so far but I think you are right about the prominence of John the Baptist as a famous figure. You see it not only in Josephus but also in the apologetic interests of the evangelists, e.g. in Luke's account of those who only knew the baptism of John in Acts. My guess is that Jesus was himself influenced by John and went to him for baptism, and this event is brilliantly spun by Mark to create an exchange and succession. Cf. my earlier thoughts about the question of "influence" in the first post in this series.

Anonymous said...

On a tangential note:

Your mention of Jesus' post-baptism testing in the wilderness makes me wonder if this is an adoptionist passage. An incarnate yet preexistent Son of God would hardly need to prove himself while a newly adopted, yet thoroughly human, Messiah might need to strut his stuff or even experience a cathartic ritual in preparation for his role.

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Jayman said...

Mr. Goodacre, what about the chronological statements in Luke 3:1 that are not mentioned in Mark? Luke could hardly be following Mark on that count. At the very least, scholars who posit Jesus' baptism at the beginning of his public ministry are not merely following the order of Mark's narrative.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Jayman. Good point, though I think that Luke was dependent on Mark and based his structure of Jesus' ministry on the one found in Mark.