jesus[As the Christmas Season comes to an end with the celebration of the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord this Sunday, I thought readers of might be interested in a brief theological summary of what Jesus’s baptism by John is really all about. What follows in this post is a little technical — aka: “boring” for many — but it offers a succinct overview of some of the important themes surrounding the meaning of the Baptism of Jesus. This short reflection is part of a response I wrote in 2009 in a graduate course on the Sacrament of Baptism to the question of the theological meaning of the Lord’s Baptism. Pardon the many footnotes, hopefully they are instructive and helpful. Enjoy!]

The existence of narratives depicting or implying Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist in all of the synoptic Gospels naturally raises questions concerning the purpose of such an act.[1]  In order to provide a sufficient answer to the question of “why” Jesus was baptized, it is necessary to explore the manner in which the baptismal practice of John compares to Jewish proselyte baptism.  Through the elucidation of John’s baptismal practice we are able to glean a clearer understanding of the potential sources of this action, thereby illuminating the significance of Jesus’s request for baptism from John.  Additionally, such an analysis provides an opportunity to examine the content and form of John’s baptism as it stands in relation to Jesus of Nazareth.  Finally, a very brief textual study of the New Testament will allow us to investigate the significance of this act for the New Testament authors, better enabling us to characterize the theological implications present in the baptismal narratives.

John’s Baptism in Contradistinction to Jewish Proselyte Baptism

Drawing on the reconstructed Q (Quelle) source, the four canonical Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the writing of Josephus,[2] Adela Yarbro Collins outlines an overview of John’s baptism that allows us to focus on the particular practice in question.[3]  The origin of John’s baptism is widely disputed, allowing for several theories to be posited over the years.  The first theory is that it was modeled after the ritual ablutions of the Essene community at Qumran.  While there are clear similarities between the two forms of water bath, these characteristics are not unique.[4]  Having set aside the possibility of the Qumran community as source, next we consider the Jewish proselyte baptism.  This seems a more likely possibility if the practice of proselyte baptism existed prior to John’s ritual.  Contingent on the antecedent quality of Jewish proselyte baptism, John’s baptism could be viewed as a “reinterpretation” of the prior practice.[5]  However, there exists little certainty or consensus with regard to the dating of the origins of Jewish proselyte baptism.  Therefore, it is also possible that the ritual developed after John’s form of baptism.[6]

The likelihood that John’s baptism finds its origin in Jewish proselyte baptism is minimal, if not completely unlikely.  There are shared features, not unlike (the non-unique) similarities found between John’s baptism and the Qumran practice.  For instance, both John’s baptism and Jewish proselyte baptism were viewed as once-in-a-lifetime events.  Additionally, both required water immersion.  However, the purposes of these two practices are markedly different.  By virtue of its title, Jewish proselyte baptism was understood as an incorporative practice, whereas John’s emphasis focuses “upon prophetic expectations of the divine cleansing to be consummated by the work of the promised Messiah in a time of greatly heightened eschatological hope.”[7]  Additionally, there were elements of the Jewish proselyte water bath that were in no way emblematic of John’s practice.  For example, its association with male circumcision and purificatory form of baptism in preparation for sacrifice were both distinct from John’s practice.  John was not interested in making Gentiles into Jewish converts.  Reginald Fuller notes that, “John’s baptism was riveted to his eschatology in a way that these other baptismal practices were not.  John’s baptism was a singular conversion event carrying with it the promise of eschatological salvation.”[8]  There was a prophetic symbolism inherent in the baptism of John that pointed toward “God’s approach as purifier before the promised judgment and transformation.”[9]  As to the precise relationship between Jewish proselyte baptism and John’s baptism, Maxwell Johnson offers a possible correlation noting that it is “likely the case that both Jewish proselyte baptism and the baptism of John are parallel developments stemming from a common source or context.”[10]  Instead of John’s version following in likeness and format, thereby modeling an alleged precedent Jewish practice, Johnson’s theory suggests a concurrent genesis that better reflects the widespread shifts in society and culture of the time.[11]

The Content and Form of John’s Baptism in Relation to Jesus

Having examined the ways that John’s baptism is related to similar practices of the day, we can move to specifically identify the relationship between Jesus and the particular content and form of John’s baptism.  Aidan Kavanagh highlights the particularity and distinctiveness of John’s baptism, noting that, in addition to standing apart from other parallel washing rituals of the day, John’s baptizing of Jesus transforms the Baptizer’s practice into the “prototype” of subsequent Christian practice.[12]  According to Kavanagh, Jesus submitted himself to both the content and the form of John’s baptism.  The content, as evidenced by the Baptizer’s preaching, demanded “conversion of life as precondition as well as its continuing outcome” in addition to remission of sins.[13]  Jesus clearly did not need remission of sins, but his submission to the content – concomitant with John’s preaching – demonstrated Jesus’s newly established solidarity with those who were in need for conversion and the remission of sins.  This was made manifest in Jesus’s concurrent submission to the ritual form of the water bath.[14]  The significance of Jesus’s baptism by John is also expressed in the apparent acceptance of the prophetic-eschatological meaning present in the act.[15]  In the act of acceptance of the prophetic-eschatological implications of John’s baptism, we can see the relationship between this submission and the subsequent preaching of Jesus announcing the reign of God is at hand.

New Testament Views of Jesus’s Baptism vis-á-vis Christian Baptism

There are divergent opinions about the meaning of Jesus’s baptism by John even within the New Testament canon.[16]  As Collins keenly notes, the eschatological interpretation operating in the early Christian community varied significantly from that “eschatological schema” embodied in the message and action of John the Baptist.[17]  It is necessary to note the clear distinction between Jesus’s baptism by John and Christian baptism.  The New Testament authors will, time and again, highlight the uniqueness of Jesus’s baptism by John.[18]  What is also important to recall while considering the New Testament views of the importance of Jesus’s baptism by John is the post-paschal hermeneutic operating throughout the composition of the nascent Christian texts.  Certain meaning was naturally ascribed to the baptism of Jesus in retrospect.  Additionally, this baptism became paradigmatic for the first followers of Jesus and the early communities, even if the subsequent Christian baptism remained different from the original.  While we are certainly confident in dismissing any initiatory dimensions potentially ascribed to Jesus’s baptism by John in se, the early Christian communities – very early on – developed an understanding of baptism as an initiation ritual.  This theological view is found in writings including the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline letters and the Shepherd of Hermas.[19]  One can also see intimations of this theological perspective in Matthew 28:18-20.

Given the post-paschal interpretation of baptism by the New Testament authors, we can see emerge from the canon a theology of “baptism as death and resurrection.”  Here we see an adjudicated shift in theological signification from John’s baptism, which symbolized cleansing that inaugurated a new life of purity and sanctity, to a “Christian baptism” that denoted death that leads to new life.[20]  This idea of “new beginnings” or “new life” might even be understood as latent in the chronological location of Jesus’s baptism by John in the scriptural narratives in proximity to his mission.[21]  Connecting the beginnings of Jesus’s public ministry closely to Christian baptism only emphasizes the view of “Christian initiation as new birth through water and the Holy Spirit.”[22]  Furthermore, the New Testament authors saw “Christian initiation as being united with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection.”[23]  It is these understandings of the meaning of Christian baptism that remain central to any elaborated or modified interpretations found elsewhere in the New Testament canon and the early Christian communities.[24]

Photo: Stock

            [1] The respective versions can be found at: Mark 1:9-11, Matthew 3:13-17 and Luke 3:21-22.  For more on these passages, see John Donahue and Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 59-70; Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 61-65; Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 68-72; and Joel Marcus, “Jesus’ Baptismal Vision,” New Testament Studies 41 (1995): 512-521.

It should be noted that the Gospel of John does not make any mention of Jesus being baptized by John.  Instead, the ministries of Jesus and John are depicted as concurrently taking place.  For more on the significance of this, see Maxwell Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation, rev. ed. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 17-23.  Adela Yarbro Collins, however, makes a generalized suggestion through the inclusion of John with the synoptics that the Fourth Gospel also includes a narration of Jesus’s baptism (see p. 35 of n.3 source below).  See John 3:22-23.

            [2] See Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews.  For a critical English translation, see Josephus: The Complete Works, trans. William Whiston (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003), 30-650.

            [3] Adela Yarbro Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism,” in Living Water, Sealing Spirit: Readings on Christian Initiation, ed. Maxwell Johnson (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995), esp. 35-39.

            [4] This is first explicated by Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 40-41; and elaborated by Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 7-9.

            [5] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 41.

            [6] See Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 41-46; and Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1978), 6-11.

            [7] Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 11; and Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 46-47.  Kavanagh further explains: “John’s baptism of repentance is preparatory for messianic work.  It is not a means for making gentiles Jews, as was proselyte baptism, nor is it wholly bound by the bathing ablutions of the Essene ascetics or Qumran” (10).

            [8] Reginald Fuller, “Christian Initiation in the New Testament,” in Made Not Born: New Perspectives on Christian Initiation and the Catechumenate, ed. Aidan Kavanagh (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 9.

            [9] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 47.

            [10] Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 10.  This is also explored in Fuller, “Christian Initiation in the New Testament,” 8-9.

            [11] This is perhaps best captured in the seeming reliance of both types of baptism on the ritual washings of Leviticus.  For more see Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 56-57.

            [12] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 10.

            [13] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 11.

            [14] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 11.

            [15] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 47.

            [16] It is clear that very early on there existed a set of teachings on baptism in the New Testament.  For more on the manifestations of this theology, see Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 11-12.

            [17] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 52.

            [18] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 13.

            [19] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 53.

            [20] Collins, “The Origin of Christian Baptism, 54.

            [21] Here I am drawing on the work of Johnson who notes, in Luke for example, that Jesus’s baptism by John is understood as a beginning.  This interpretation is further supported in the book of the Acts, where we read that Jesus’s mission of spreading the message of the reign of God and performing the healing works took place “beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced” (see Acts 10:36-38).  See Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 12-16.

            [22] John 3:5ff and Titus 3:5: see Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 38.

            [23] Romans 6:3-11: Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 38.

            [24] Some of the other interpretation of Christian initiation in the New Testament include: Forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), putting off the old self and putting on the new, i.e. being clothed in the righteousness of Christ (Gal 3:27, Col 3:9-10), enlightenment (Heb 6:4 & 10:32, 1 Pet 2:9), being anointed and or sealed by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 1:21-22, 1 John 2:20), being sealed or marked as belonging to God and God’s people (2 Cor 1:21-22, Eph 1:13-14, Rev 7:3) and so on.  See Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 37ff.


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