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January 13 — The Baptism of Jesus

The Octave of Epiphany (that is, seven days after Epiphany), January 13, is the traditional date (in the West) for celebrating the Baptism of Jesus by John; although more recently, it has been commemorated on the Sunday after Epiphany. All four Gospels contain accounts of the Baptism (Mark 1:9-11; Matthew 3:13-17; Luke 3:21-22; and, in a roundabout way, John 1:29-34), and it was a keystone reference in early preaching (Acts 1:1-15; 10:37; 13:24-25), primarily as a way of marking the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. However, very quickly it became a fundamental Christological text—the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Divine Voice declaring Jesus to be the Son of God; and it is perhaps not surprising that major textual variants are associated with both of these elements.

Nearly all Christians, then and now, have believed that Jesus Christ is the “Son of God”; however, the problem has always been exactly how, or in what way, this is to be understood—that is, what does the title and attribution actually entail?

To begin with, in the early Church there would seem to be four principal ideas associated with the “birth” of Jesus as God’s “Son” (I cite them roughly in chronological order of development—at least, in so far as they appear in the New Testament):

  1. By the resurrection, God glorified Jesus, declaring/appointing him as His Son: Rom 1:3-4; Acts 10:33f; also (later) Hebrews 1:5. The last two references specifically cite Psalm 2:7.
  2. At his baptism, God declared Jesus to be His Son: Mark 1:11; Matthew 3:17; Luke 3:22; also John 1:34; and cf. Acts 10:37-38. The language used by the Divine Voice seems to echo Psalm 2:7 (see on the key variant at Luke 3:22 below); see also the parallel occurrence in the Transfiguration scene (Mark 9:7; Matthew 17:5; Luke 9:35; and 2 Peter 1:17).
  3. The incarnation proper: Jesus was “born” in human flesh as God’s Son: Matthew 1:20, 23; see especially in the Lukan Infancy Narrative—1:31-32, 35, 43; 2:11, 40; see also Gal. 4:4; Rom. 8:3; and (perhaps) the variant reading of John 1:13.
  4. Begotten in eternity as pre-existent Son of God: John 1:1-18 (esp. vv. 14, 18); 3:16-18; and elsewhere in the gospel and epistles of John. For other possible references to pre-existence, see Rom 8:3; Gal 4:4; Heb 1:2-12; for the pre-existence of Christ, without specific reference to sonship, see esp. Phil. 2:6-11; Col. 1:15-20.
    (For the moment, I am excluding other references in the Gospels: confessions of disciples, statements by hostile witness, the devil and demons, etc.)

Today, certainly, we tend to think of Jesus as Son of God, in terms of #3 and 4 above; whereas it is clear that, for many in the early Church, #1 and 2 were at least as important. In fact, according to theologians and apologists of the second and third centuries, there were a number of “Gnostics” and Jewish Christians who held rather a different view of the person of Christ on this basis:

(1) Some apparently held that Jesus was an “ordinary” human being (yilo$ a&nqrwpo$) who was raised by God to the status of Divine Son, either at the resurrection/ascension, or at his baptism. This Christological view is generally referred to, somewhat inaccurately, as Adoptionism (i.e, Jesus was ‘adopted’ as God’s Son). It was claimed that Jewish-Christians such as the so-called Ebionites, and several prominent arch-heretics (Theodotus, Artemon, Paul of Samosata, etc.), along with their followers, held Adoptionist views. See Irenaeus Against Heresies I.26.2; III.21.1; V.1.3; Origen, Against Celsus V.61; Hippolytus, Refutation of Heresies VII.22-23 [35f]; X.18-19 [23f]; Eusebius, Church History III.27; V.28; VII. 27-30; Epiphanius, Panarion 54.

(2) Other “Gnostic” believers seem to have thought in terms of a two-person union: the unique human being Jesus (possessing a kind of divine, purified flesh) joined together with the Divine Christ (to make the combined being “Jesus Christ”). This conjunction took place at the baptism, and ended (was separated) at his death on the cross. According to the essential Gnostic/dualistic worldview, the Divine could have no real contact with the evil, corrupt material order; this particular Christology (Separatism) allowed for only marginal connection with human nature—just enough for the Christ to bring the necessary knowledge of salvation to humankind. The arch-heretic Cerinthus, as well as the Valentinians, are generally described as espousing a Separatist Christology. See Irenaeus Against Heresies I.7.2, 21.2, 26.1, 30.12-15; III.16; Tertullian, Against the Valentinians 27; Hippolytus, Refutation of Heresies VI.26-30, 46; VII.15, 21-24; X. 17; Eusebius, Church History III.28; Epiphanius, Panarion 28.

Many of the scripture passages cited above could be interpreted along the lines of these Christological (Adoptionist and Separatist) ‘heresies’. It was perhaps the passages describing Jesus’ Baptism which were most problematic, as a number of the patristic citations will attest. In this regard, I point out two major variant readings, one from Mark’s account, the other from Luke:

Mark 1:10:

Here it states that the Holy Spirit w($ peristeran katabai=non ei)$ au)to/n (“coming down as a dove into/unto him”), which is the reading of many of the best manuscripts (B D f13 2427 pc), and is probably original. However, the majority of witnesses (a A L W Q f1 33 Byz lat syr) read instead w($ peristeran katabai=non e)p’ au)to/n (“coming down as a dove upon him”). The preposition ei)$ can mean “in(to)”, or more generally “unto”, often with a sense of direction implied (“to/toward”). However, in the more concrete sense, the phrase could be taken to mean that the Spirit came down “into” Jesus, i.e., to empower/join with him—an idea perhaps susceptible to a Gnostic interpretation. I am not aware of any Church Father who cites this variant, though Irenaeus does suggest that those who “separate Jesus from Christ” prefer the Gospel of Mark (Against Heresies III.11.7), and could well make use of the verse. Matthew and Luke, if they make use of Mark’s Gospel, have changed the preposition; in any event, they both read e)pi instead of ei)$ (a few MSS of Matthew actually read pro$ [“toward”], which softens the image even further).

Luke 3:22:

In the majority of Manuscripts, the Heavenly Voice states: su ei@ o( ui(o/$ mou o( a)gaph/to$, e)n soi eu)do/khsa (“You are my beloved Son, in you I have [good] pleasure”), which is identical with the Majority text of Mark (1:11), and similar to that of Matthew (3:17, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I have [good] pleasure”). However, in Codex D [Bezae] and a number of Old Latin MSS (a b c d ff2, l, r1) and quite a few Church Fathers, the reading is: ui(o/$ mou ei@ su/, e)gw/ sh/meron geg/nnhka/ se (“You are my Son, today I have caused you to be [born] [i.e. begotten you]”)—a quotation from Psalm 2:7. The primary patristic citations for this reading are as follows: Justin Martyr [Dialogue with Trypho 88, 103], Clement of Alexandria [Paedagogus I.25], Origen [Commentary on John I.29 {32}], Methodius [Symposium VIII.9], the Didascalia [93], Lactantius [Institutes IV.15], Hilary of Poitiers [On the Trinity VIII.25], Augustine [Harmony II.14, Enchiridion 49, Against Faustus 23], and so forth; it was also, apparently, the text found in the so-called Gospel According to the Hebrews [cf. Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah 11, 12] and Gospel of the Ebionites [cf. Epiphanius, Panarion 30.13], which may be derived from Luke’s reading, and in the Apocryphal Acts [e.g., Acts of Peter and Paul sect. 29]. It is sometimes difficult to know when a Church Father is citing a specific Gospel, but most of these references would seem to be from Luke.

Normally, when a reading is found in just a single Greek manuscript (and in only one language among Versions), that would be enough to mark it clearly as secondary; however, when the reading is also attested by such a wide range of early Church Fathers and writings, it should give one pause. In terms of transcriptional probabilities, it does seem more likely that scribes would harmonize according to a parallel passage in another Gospel, than to a quotation from the Greek OT. Yet, there can be no doubt that early Christians would have read and understood the Heavenly voice in the Markan (and Matthean) account largely in terms of Psalm 2:7—clearly it was a popular Messianic (and Christological) passage, for it is cited on at least three other occasions (Acts 13:33; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5) in the New Testament. So, the textual evidence remains divided, and a number of scholars do accept the minority reading as original (for a good summary and defense of this position, see Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture pp. 62-67, and notes).

However, even if the minority reading does not represent the original text, most of the Church Fathers who cite it (see above) certainly thought that it did, and realize how it could be misconstrued or misunderstood. They take pains to clarify that Jesus did not “become” God’s Son at his baptism—that he was already Son of God at his birth (and before). In so doing, the text had to be explained to avoid the metaphysical implications of the passage. Today, most commentators do not labor under the heavy weight of Psalm 2:7 as a Christological passage—rather, the second Psalm is recognized, in its historical context, as primarily referring to the ordination/inauguration of the (Davidic) king, utilizing common Near Eastern symbolism of king as “son of God”. As such, it still retains all of its Messianic force applied to Jesus, but it is not meant to bear the full burden of Orthodox Christology. A thoughtful, balanced understanding of Jesus Christ as Son of God, takes into account the entire witness of the New Testament (and Early Church)—including the Baptism narratives; and I would suggest that both readings of Luke 3:22 are worthy of consideration.

  DidYouKnow_icon2  The Greek word ba/ptw properly means to “dip” (prim. into a liquid, such as cloth into dye); the intensive verb bapti/zw by extension means to “sink, submerge, immerse” or, metaphorically, “overwhelm”. So, instead of “John the Baptist”, one would translate more literally as “John/Yoµanan the Dipper [or Immerser]” and the Baptism of Jesus would be referred to as “the Dipping [or Immersing] of Jesus/Yeshua“. However, this does not necessarily mean that the first ‘Baptisms’ (either by John or early Christians) were properly full-immersions. The commonly received image is of a person standing (or kneeling) partly submerged, with water lifted out and poured over the head; and this may well be what was done, at the historical level, for Jesus. And, while it is hardly worth fighting over, I would suggest that there is value to the ancient symbolism of “entering the waters” (meaning at least a partial immersion), which ought to be preserved (or restored) in congregations today.  JesusBaptism_1

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