All kinds of explanations have been proposed for the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The orthodox Christian explanation--that it was about John passing the apostolic torch to Jesus and about God announcing his own son to the world--is only one of many. Another explanation holds that it was an allusion to the Ark of the Covenant crossing the Jordan river. Another explanation is that John serves to be as an Elijah-like figure, where Jesus is Elisha (Earl Doherty, The Jesus Puzzle
, p. 59). Another explanation is that the baptism of Jesus borrowed from the Zoroastrian myth of Zoroaster wading into a river and being met by an archangel (Robert M. Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man
, p. 125). And another explanation holds that the baptism myth exists in the gospels because the gospels borrow from many other myths of other ancient figures who were also baptized (Acharya S, The Christ Conspiracy
, pp. 105-125).
The best explanation for the baptism accounts in the gospels deals heavily with the details
of the baptism accounts in the gospels. The best explanation explains those details with both strong explanatory power and plausibility, meaning that the details are strongly expected from the explanation, and the explanation is roughly what we may expect from the historical context. I believe that the standard critical scholarly explanation achieves this. The standard critical scholarly explanation for the baptism accounts in the gospels is that Jesus really was baptized by John the Baptist, being a follower of John, Christians became rivals with the followers of John the Baptist (Baptists), and they spun the accounts in their own favor.
Keep in mind that it is about explaining
the evidence (the early Christian beliefs reflected in the gospels). It is not
about trusting the evidence. In this case, we can actually make the best sense of the gospels if we conclude that they contain outright lies.
A critical reader of the Christian gospels should wonder: why was Jesus baptized? Baptism, according the gospels, was for repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3), presumably rooted in the Jewish association of bodily uncleanliness with sins (see Josephus on John the Baptist
). Jesus was supposedly sinless (2 Peter 2:21-22), so why would he be baptized?
The basic conclusion among critical historians has been that the synoptic gospels record that Jesus was baptized primarily because the historical Jesus really was baptized by John the Baptist (e.g. The Silence of Jesus: The Authentic Voice of the Historical Man
, by James Breech, pp. 22-24), and the doctrine that Jesus was sinless
was only a later development that didn't exactly jive with the well-known fact that Jesus was baptized.
It is not just a curious modern problem. It is a problem that very much shows up in the gospels themselves. The gospel of Matthew was written for Jewish Christians who would be best acquainted with the purpose of the ritual, and the apologetic problem would be greatest, so Matthew quotes Jesus for an explanation: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.’ (Matthew 3:13-14)
Seems like Jesus had a flimsy explanation, right? Does Jesus really need to be baptized to "fulfil all righteousness"? Is there even a logical connection? It was a flimsy explanation, but it was the best that Matthew could do.
The gospel authors seem to be haunted by the baptism of Jesus, and the problem of washing the sins from a sinless man
was not even their biggest concern. There was an even bigger problem: Christianity in the first century competed strongly with the cult of John the Baptist for adherents. The cult of John the Baptist in the first century was possibly more popular than Christianity, at least among the Jews. Josephus spent twice as much ink writing about John the Baptist than he did writing about Jesus, and he writes about a nuanced difference about the purpose of baptism that the Baptist sect would have had with the Christian sect, reflecting their ongoing divisions. And the gospels themselves acknowledge the popularity and doctrinal overlap with the Christian religion (Mark 8:28, Luke 9:19, Acts 18:25, Acts 19:3-4). Given that the two cults existed alongside each other and competed for the same adherents, then, plausibly, the followers of John the Baptist would remind Christians every day that "Jesus was baptized by John, so who is truly sinless?"
Christians, therefore, made the very best of this otherwise embarrassing reality in their own accounts, and they spun the baptism accounts in their own favor. Each of the four gospels were initially separate from the other gospels, and they each had their own way of dealing with it.
- In all of the Christian gospels John the Baptist is consistently presented as the most reverent and humble character with respect to Jesus, showering Jesus with praise at his own expense. He is quoted as saying, for example, "I am not worthy to carry his sandals" (Matthew 3:11).
- In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, after Jesus is baptized, the Spirit of God alights on Jesus (not John), and God himself speaks from the heavens, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," in the presence of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:17).
- In the gospel of Luke, John is sent to prison, and only after that is the baptism of Jesus mentioned (the baptizer being someone anonymous).
- In the gospel of John (the latest canonical gospel), John the Baptist has a prominent role, John the Baptist is quoted as attesting to the revelation from God, but the account of the baptism itself is completely omitted!
If the actual-human Jesus really was baptized by John the Baptist, that still leaves the question: Why? Well, the most plausible explanation is that Jesus started out as a follower of John the Baptist. Almost every talented religious sage had a talented mentor. Jesus adopted the doctrines and practices of John the Baptist, including at least the apocalypticism, the emphasis on the poor, and the practice of baptism for the cleansing of sin. And, that is what critical scholars tend to believe.
There are, as I said, many other possible alternative explanations for this same evidence. Some of the explanations presume ancient evidences that are seemingly no more than modern myths told among modern authors. So, if your explanation presumes ancient evidence, then please cite and quote a translation of the ancient evidence, not a modern book or website. After that, the next step is to show how your explanation wins in terms of explanatory power and plausibility. Thanks.