Why would anyone even ask such a question? Didn’t Jesus’s baptism become the prototype for Christian baptism, a practice that was carried out by his followers as evidenced in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul? How could that have embarrassed anyone who claimed to follow Jesus?
To the analytical mind of the historian and textual investigator, however, there seems to have been something about Jesus’s baptism that was not universally heralded by first-century followers of Jesus. The evidence for this comes from the gospels themselves. Let’s investigate it further.
Ritual washing was a widespread practice in the first-century Roman world for both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). It was a religious rite that symbolically cleansed the person from contamination with the world of the mundane and prepared them for an encounter with the sacred, normally in a temple. The Jews of Jesus’s day were required to make themselves ritually pure before they could enter their temple in Jerusalem and make sacrifices to God.
Keep in mind that ritual impurity was not the same thing as moral impurity. The Torah lays out for Jews what constitutes ritual impurity (Lev. 12-15, Num. 19, etc.). Basically, this sort of impurity is the result of contact with bodily fluids and corpses. Bodily fluids are those genital discharges like semen and menstrual blood. Leprosy rendered one ritually impure. Childbirth temporarily rendered a mother ritually impure. All of this impurity was removed by a procedure that generally involved a lapse of time and a ritual wash. Archaeologists have found numerous mikva’ot, ritual bathing pools, throughout Israel that were in use in the first century.
In Jesus’s time, a prophet named John appeared announcing a ritual washing “for the forgiveness of sins.” Sins were not normally atoned for by washing. There were other means including prayer, restitution, sacrifice, and so forth (see Lev. 4-6, etc.). This connection between washing and sin was not entirely unique to John, however. A group of Jews who had separated themselves from the larger society in order to live beside the Dead Sea in a location we today call Qumran also connected washing with the removal or forgiveness of sin. Many scholars associate this group with the Essenes mentioned by Josephus and others.
According to the gospels, John came from the wilderness announcing a ritual washing, or in Greek baptisma, for the forgiveness of sin. It seems that many people responded; John had followers long after his death. But it is important here to dissociate our modern ideas of individual sinfulness and repentance from how John’s baptism would have been understood in Jesus’s day.
People did not think in individualistic terms in the way we do today. They thought of themselves as members of a group or groups. Their identity was entirely tied up with the group they belonged to. At birth people were provided with their identity. This included their culture, their gods, their customs and practices, their morals, their gender roles, and so forth. All this said, when Jews responded to John’s offer of repentance, they were of course acknowledging any personal sinfulness but were also fully conscious of the impact of their act on corporate Israel.
Israel was a nation called specifically by God. God’s covenants with Israel required that they be an obedient people, if not they would be punished. On the other hand, righteousness, meaning Torah obedience, would be rewarded with God’s protection and comfort. In Jesus’s day, many Jews longed for national liberation. For too long they had been under the heel of foreign oppressors, obviously not what God intended. Since the 8th century BC, some or all of Israel had been subject to the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. When was God going to restore Israel’s freedom and perhaps even reinstate the Davidic dynasty and self-rule?
Some held that the reason God was delaying was due to Israel’s sinfulness. This does not mean that the general populace was so wicked that God continued to punish them. Israel’s sin could be attributed to the behavior of its leaders, its chief priests and Roman vassal kings. If corporate Israel could make itself righteous enough, they thought, God would reward them and send help. That was the thinking behind the work of John. Only a redemption of the nation as a whole could “make the way straight for the Lord” so that God’s “coming one” would judge the wicked, reward the righteous, and establish God’s reign or kingdom.
Jesus, according to all four gospels, responded to John’s effort. Biblical scholarship accepts that the Gospel of Mark was the earliest of the four New Testament gospels to be written. It was followed by Matthew and Luke each of whom used Mark as the foundation for their own gospels. The Gospel of John came later. If we follow this trajectory with regard to the story of Jesus’s baptism, we begin to see why scholars suggest that early followers of Jesus were embarrassed by Jesus’s seeming acknowledgement of John the Baptist’s superiority and apparent admission that he needed a washing for the removal of his sins.
The Gospel of Mark is quite clear as to what happened: “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan River” (1:9). Afterward, the voice of God, known as the bat kol, spoke to him alone (1:10). The Gospel of Matthew features the same story but makes both John and Jesus hesitant to go through with Jesus’s baptism: “John tried to prevent him” (3:14) and even asked for baptism by Jesus! Jesus’s response was to say that his baptism would “fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). And as in Mark, Jesus had the singular vision of the Spirit of God descending on him and the heavenly voice speaking to him.
Why did Matthew change Mark’s story? Why were the two protagonists reluctant to go through with the ritual washing of Jesus? One answer may be that Matthew was responding to an uneasiness that Israel’s messiah was undergoing a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Wasn’t Jesus later going about announcing the forgiveness of other peoples’ sins? What is the “righteousness” that Matthew says Jesus and John fulfilled?
Does this comparison constitute enough evidence to suggest that early followers of Jesus were embarrassed about his baptism by John? The Gospel of Luke breezes through the event proclaiming that “when all the people were baptized, Jesus also was baptized” (3:21). Although we suppose his baptism was by John, Luke does not bring out that fact. The author removes the indication that only Jesus heard the voice of God and saw the Spirit descend making it appear as though everyone around witnessed this. In other words, Luke has turned the vision of Jesus into a public acknowledgement of Jesus’s importance overshadowing any concern over any presumed inferiority of Jesus to John and Jesus’s possible sinfulness.
The Gospel of John is even more reluctant to demean Jesus in this way. In this account, the Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29). Jesus is not even said to be baptized in this gospel! And it is the Baptist who has the vision: “Then John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending like a dove from heaven” and “the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining-this is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (1:32-33). Here it is Jesus who does the baptizing and does it better than John!
Finally, we can appeal to an apocryphal gospel, one that was not included in the New Testament but circulated among Jesus’s Jewish followers under the name of the Gospel of the Hebrews or as the “Hebrew Gospel of Matthew.” In this account, the discomfort with Jesus being baptized is redirected to Jesus himself. Although the entirety of the gospel is lost, fragments remain in quotations found in the writings of the early church fathers. The first fragment is telling:
“The Lord’s mother and brothers said to him, ‘John the Baptist is baptizing for the forgiveness of sins. Let’s go and get baptized by him.’ ‘What sin have I committed,’ Jesus asked them, ‘to have to go and be baptized by him? That is, unless perhaps what I have just said was an unintentional sin!'”
We can see here the growing belief in Jesus’s perfect sinlessness and the embarrassing contradiction of Jesus being baptized for his sins. This discomfort can be traced from the Gospel of Mark to the 2nd century Gospel of the Hebrews. Mark had no problem with Jesus’s baptism. His gospel was composed around the year 70. Over time, however, Jesus began to take on much more significance and glory among his followers. How could he require a baptism for his sins? Hebrews even tries to suggest that Jesus, though sinless, may have unintentionally committed the sin of hubris thus, perhaps, requiring baptism.
When historians try to access the historical Jesus, as opposed to the Christ of faith, they often employ certain criteria to help sift through the gospel evidence to determine which stories and sayings are more likely authentic. One of those criteria is the criterion of embarrassment, also known as the criterion of dissimilarity. It suggests that things included in the gospels which Jesus’s followers would rather not have acknowledged are more likely to be historically accurate. The best example of this is Jesus’s crucifixion. His followers would rather have said anything than that the messiah was nailed to a Roman cross like the worst kind of criminal. They did develop theological explanations for why this had to happen but the explanations were required due to the dissociative shock of a crucified messiah. Scholars suggest that Jesus’s baptism was another historically likely occurrence that later had to be explained or even eliminated.