Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries

By Everett Ferguson | Go to book overview

6. Baptism of Jesus — I

New Testament Texts

The baptism of Jesus could, strictly speaking, be treated as an antecedent to Christian baptism. It is presented in the Gospels in many respects as a unique event. It may also be seen as the transition between the John’s baptism and Christian baptism. Since the baptism of Jesus was later considered the foundation of Christian baptism, we treat it here in the unit on the beginning of Christian baptism, although it was properly sui generis.

The earliest accounts of the baptism of Jesus are found in the canonical Gospels. As a practical matter, we cannot go behind these texts to “what really happened.” Moreover, these texts were what shaped later Christian thought, along with the practices that writers knew in their communities, practices that were themselves influenced by these texts when they came to be read as canonical authorities. So, our concern will be primarily with the texts as we have them and only secondarily with occasional matters of historicity. There is little indication that the texts were shaped by later Christian practice.

As recognized by nearly all scholars of the Gospels, the event of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptizer is itself certainly historical. Since the lesser figure would have received baptism from the greater, a baptism of Jesus by John could only have been an embarrassment to later Christian faith; hence, the emphasis in the Gospel accounts on John’s declaration that the one coming after him was greater than he and had a superior baptism to offer.1 In view of the problem that some later had with a sinless Jesus coming to receive from John a “baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins,” reflected perhaps already in Matthew’s account,2 the event would not have been

1. Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:7-8: Luke 3:16; John 1:26-34. See chap. 5.

2. Mark 1:4; Matt. 3:13-15; cf. noncanonical accounts below. For the “embarrassment” of Jesus’ baptism see M.-A. Chevallier, “L’apologie du baptême d’eau du premier siècle: Introduction

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