The Baptism of Jesus:
A Ritual-Critical Approach
Richard E. DeMaris
Most New Testament scholars engaged in Gospel and historical Jesus research conclude that Jesus of Nazareth underwent baptism at the hand of John the Baptizer, but they find nothing historically reliable in the events immediately following that baptism (Mark 1:9–11; cf. Matt 3:13–17; Luke 3:21–22). Many place what is reported after Jesus’ baptism, explicitly or implicitly, in the category of legend (Bultmann 1963:247) or myth (Dibelius 1934:271), and they detect christological affirmations dating from a time after Jesus. However the events following Jesus’ baptism are characterized, historical-critical scholarship has in effect drawn a line between the earthly action of baptism and the heavenly manifestations that result.
In contrast to historical-critical analysis of Jesus’ baptism and the consensus it has reached, an assessment of historicity informed by social-scientific research takes a very different approach to the baptism and its consequences, and it reaches entirely different conclusions. Anthropological studies of possession, trance, shamanism, ecstasy, and related phenomena, all of which fall under the rubric of altered states of consciousness, document human access to such states across the globe, including the Mediterranean world, both present and past. Such ubiquity makes it plausible, even very likely, that people in ancient Palestine had visual and auditory experiences of the sort reported in conjunction with Jesus’ baptism.
These same studies note that communities and individuals regularly depend on ritual activity to induce altered states of consciousness or to trigger entry into the state of possession, although spontaneous entry into such states does occur. The account of Jesus’ baptism and subsequent vision belongs to this cultural pattern. From a social-scientific viewpoint, therefore, the widely attested and