058 Crossan

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This page is part of the Jesus Database and relates especially to 058 John Baptizes Jesus

John Dominic Crossan The Historical Jesus. The life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant. (HarperCollins, 1991) Pages 232-38

John Baptizes Jesus

The first and most important complex is, necessarily, 058 John Baptizes Jesus [1/3]. It belongs to the primary stratum, has three independent witnesses, and involves nine separate texts. But it also evinces a very large amount of what I term, without any cynicism, theological damage control. The tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John baptizing Jesus because that seems to make John superior and Jesus sinful.

The earliest text is in the Gospel of the Hebrews, where "the accounts of Jesus' pre-existence, coming, baptism, and temptation, are," in Ron Cameron's summation, "abbreviated mythological narratives. They presuppose a myth of the descent of divine Wisdom, embodying herself definitively in a representative of the human race for the revelation and redemption of humankind. Such a myth was widespread in the Greco-Roman world and underlies many of the earliest christological formulations of believers in Jesus" (1982:84).

And it came to pass when the Lord was come up out of the water, the whole fount of the Holy Spirit descended upon him and rested on him and said to him: My son, in all the prophets was I waiting for thee that thou shouldest come and I might rest in thee. For thou art my rest; thou art my first begotten Son that reignest for ever. (Gospel of the Hebrews 2; NTA 1.163 164; Cameron 1982:85)

I presume that, to make sense of "coming up out of the water;' some account of John's baptism must have preceded that section, but the power of its mythological presentation would have negated any problems about superiority or inferiority.

Similarly, at the start of the second set of texts, Mark 1:9-11 was quite content to tell of the baptism in 1:9 and then conclude with the epiphany in 1:10-11. But those twin elements furnished problem and solution for texts dependent on Mark: one could negate or deny the baptism; one could emphasize or underline the epiphany. Watch the apologetic process across these texts.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying... (Luke 3:21a)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, 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 for now; for thus it is fitting to fulfil all righteousness." Then he consented. (Matthew 3:13 15)

John fell down before him and said: "I beseech thee, Lord, baptize thou me." But he prevented him and said: "Suffer it; for thus it is fitting that everything should be fulfilled." (Gospel of the Ebionites 4; NTA 1.157 158; Cameron 1982:105)

Behold, the mother of the Lord and his brethren said to him: John the Baptist baptizes unto the remission of sins, let us go and be baptized by him. But he said to them: Wherein have I sinned that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless what I have said is ignorance (a sin of ignorance). (Gospel of the Nazoreans 2; NTA 1.146-147; Cameron 1982:99)

And John bore witness, "I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven and remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God." (John 1:32-34)

Notice, to begin with, that the Sayings Gospel Q, which is much more interested in John's preaching than John's baptizing, has apparently no mention at all of Jesus' baptism (Kloppenborg 1988:16). Luke barely mentions Jesus' baptism in a syntactical rush toward prayer and the epiphany.

Matthew and the Gospel of the Ebionites face the problem and declare its divine necessity. The Gospel of the Nazoreans denies it ever happened. But John, probably dependent on the synoptics for his Baptist traditions, never mentions a word about Jesus' baptism in all of 1:19-34 and emphasizes instead John's witness concerning Jesus. With John, then, the baptism of Jesus is gone forever, and only the revelation about Jesus remains.

Finally, there are the two units in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, both of a semi-credal character, giving, as William Schoedel put it, "lists of the events of salvation in the ministry of Jesus" (8).

Our Lord... is truly of the family of David according to the flesh, Son of God according to the will and power of God, truly born of a virgin, baptized by John that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him... (Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans 1:1)

For our God, Jesus the Christ, was carried in the womb by Mary according to God's plan -- of the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit -- who was born and baptized that by his suffering he might purify the water. (Ignatius, To the Ephesians 18:2)

Those texts give two divergent explanations for Jesus' acceptance of John's baptism. The one in the first text has to be dependent on Matthew since it uses "righteousness," a redactional emphasis concerning John in both Matthew 3:14-15 and 21:32. But since, as Helmut Koester has argued, there are no other equally clear indications that Ignatius had read Matthew, it is best to consider this an indirect dependency in which the creed used by Ignatius was already influenced by Matthew's apologetic gloss (1957:59). The explanation in the second text is, in William Schoedel's words, "closer to Ignatius' own theological world" (222). It links Jesus' baptism and passion together mythologically in that Jesus purifies the depths of the water by his baptism and the depths of the earth by his burial.

One conclusion emerges from the texts in that first unit. Jesus' baptism by John is one of the surest things we know about them both. But to see what that baptism meant, we have to look at another unit.

John's Message

This second unit is 115 Johns Message [1/2]. As you look across the five texts of this traditional unit, you can see how, with growing emphasis, john's message about the advent of God has been deftly and smoothly changed into a witness about the advent of Jesus. The earliest text is from the Sayings Gospel Q but without the Lukan frames in 3:15 16a and 18.

I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Sayings Gospel Q: Luke 3:16b-17 = Matthew 3:11-12)

That description of the Coming One points to God as apocalyptic avenger, and it is only later, after reading 143 Reply to John [1/1], that one thinks of Jesus as the Coming One. Thus the dependent version in Acts 13:23-25, in a sermon placed by Luke on the lips of Paul, can take it for granted that John was talking about Jesus. Next, the independent version in Mark 1:7-8 has no parallel to that image of the apocalyptic threshing floor, and, with that absent and Jesus arriving in the immediately subsequent 1:9-11, one is implicitly guided to read John's message as pointing to Jesus as the Coming One. Finally, in John .1:24-31, all is emphatically clear.

I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie .... The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him, and said, "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!" This is he of whom I said, "After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me." I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel. (John l:26b-27, 29-31)

That is the process superbly consummated. Far from needing a baptism for remission of his own sins, Jesus takes away the sins of the world. And the message of John about the Coming One is now explicitly interpreted by John himself as applying to Jesus. But what appears from a careful reading of those texts, somewhat against themselves, is that John's message was an announcement of imminent apocalyptic intervention by God and not at all about Jesus. Baptism and message went together as the only way to obtain forgiveness of one's sins before the fire storm came. I presume that the religiopolitical overtones of that situation are quite clear. For baptism you only need water, not necessarily Jordan water, but any such baptism anywhere would have cast negative aspersions, be they explicit or implicit, on the Temple cult. But a Transjordanian desert location and a baptism in the Jordan, precisely the Jordan, had overtones, explicit or implicit, of political subversion. No matter what John's intentions may have been, Antipas had more than enough materials on which to act. Desert and Jordan, prophet and crowds, were always a volatile mix calling for immediate preventive strikes.

Into the Desert

The third unit, 051 Into the Desert [1/3], is much more difficult to analyze both externally and internally. The version in the Sayings Gospel Q includes the twin questions and answer in Luke 7:24-26 = Matthew 11:7-9 and the application of Malachi 3:1 to John in Luke 7:27 = Matthew 11:10. But, on the one hand, that in Gospel of Thomas 78 has the twin questions, a different answer, but no prophetic application, and, on the other, that in Mark 1:2-3 has the prophetic application without any twin questions or answer. Furthermore, the Thomas version does not mention John's name. I consider that two originally independent units have become merged in the Sayings Gospel Q complex and that those two are still visible in that original separation at Gospel of Thomas 78 and Mark 1:2-3, respectively:

(a) Questions and Answer About John:

(1) Gos. Thom. 78
(2) 2Q: Luke 7:24-26 = Matt. 11:7-9

(b) Application of Mal. 3:1 to John:
(1) 2Q: Luke 7:27 = Matt. 11:10

(2) Mark 1:2-3

I am now concerned only with that former unit of tradition. I judge that the better version is in Sayings Gospel Q at Luke 7:24-26 Matthew 11:7 9, where it concluded positively with, "Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet." In the parallel version, Gospel of Thomas 78, the name of John has been dropped so that the answer can be generalized, and it now concludes negatively with "and they are unable to discern the truth"; that is, the rich have wealth but not truth. But, even granted all that, what does Luke 7:24-26 = Matthew 11:7 9 say about John, why is it said that way, and could Jesus ever have said any such thing?

In terms of form, the saying is set up as an implicit dialogue, it is addressed to those presumably sympathetic to John. In terms of content, the saying sets up a contrast between desert and palace and between their appropriate and expected inhabitants. But, while a prophet is clearly named as the one you expect to find in the desert, the palace dweller is not defined as king or courtier, ruler or minister. He is simply described, metaphorically, as one who bends to the prevailing wind and, literally, is dressed in soft, gorgeous, and luxurious garments. But, even if that is a correct reading, why is the saying set up that way? Why compare and contrast the desert-dwelling prophet with, precisely, the palace-dwelling "man"? The only answer I can imagine is that the saying intends a comparison between John and Antipas and that it arose, directly and immediately, from the crisis engendered among his followers by John's incarceration and execution. It reads like an attempt to maintain faith in John's apocalyptic vision despite John's own execution. He is�he still is�not just another prophet but the last of the prophets, the Prophet of the Coming One. I accept the aphorism, so understood and so engendered, as stemming from Jesus. It confirms what we already know, namely, that Jesus, in submitting himself to John's baptism, must also have accepted John's apocalyptic expectation, must have accepted John as the Prophet of the Coming One. But that conclusion must be taken in conjunction with the next unit.

Greater Than John

The fourth unit, 085 Greater than John [1/2], is a very important one because, while a conjunction or even comparison of John and Jesus is not at all unexpected in the Sayings Gospel Q, it is very unexpected in the Gospel of Thomas.

Jesus said, "Among those born of women, from Adam until John the Baptist, there is no one so superior to John the Baptist that his eyes should not be lowered (before him). Yet I have said, whichever one of you comes to be a child will be acquainted with the Kingdom and will become superior to John. (Gospel of Thomas 46)

I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. (Sayings Gospel Q: Luke 7:28 = Matthew 11:11)

If that saying were only in the Sayings Gospel Q, it might easily be dismissed as its own creation, born of a need to balance the sapiential traditions about Jesus in 1Q with the apocalyptic traditions about John in 2Q. But it is also in the Gospel of Thomas, which has no particular interest in John, less, according to Gospel of Thomas 52, in the prophets of Israel, and even less, as we have seen, in apocalyptic hopes and expectations. It is, therefore, as old as anything we can ever get. And its formulation, despite a definite polemical edge, displays little concern with community boundaries but rather with a startlingly paradoxical juxtaposition of greatest and least. Not John in the desert but the child in the Kingdom is the beginning of the future.

I consider that both those statements about John, the first half of 051 Into the Desert [1/3] and all of 085 Greater than John [1/2], derive from the historical Jesus, and that leaves only one conclusion, namely, that between those twin assertions Jesus changed his view of John's mission and message. John's vision of awaiting the apocalyptic God, the Coming One, as a repentant sinner, which Jesus had originally accepted and even defended in the crisis of John's death, was no longer deemed adequate. It was now a question of being in the Kingdom. "Jesus started his public life," as Paul Hollenbach put it, "with a serious commitment to John, his message and his movement, and... Jesus developed very soon his own distinctive message and movement which was very different from John's" (1982:203).