The octave of Epiphany (Jan 13) in the West has traditionally commemorated the baptism of Jesus. It is in the context of Jesus’ baptism, as recorded in the Gospels, that we find some of the most intriguing and provocative references to the “birth of the Son of God” (the theme of these Christmas season notes).
Mark 1:9-11 par
The core narrative, in its clearest form, is that of Mark 1:9-11:
- In verse 9 it is simply stated that Jesus was dunked/dipped (i.e. baptized) in the Jordan river by John
- In verse 10, a three-fold sequence of ascent/descent is narrated:
- Jesus stepping up [a)nabai/nwn] out of the water
—he saw the heavens splitting open
- The Spirit as a dove stepping down [katabai/nwn] (out of heaven) into/unto him
- Jesus stepping up [a)nabai/nwn] out of the water
- In verse 11—”there came to be a voice out of the heavens: “You are my Son the (be)loved, I think/consider good in you [i.e. I think well of you, I have delight in you]”
Both Matthew and Luke include tradition(s) regarding John’s ministry (Matt 3:7-12; Lk 3:7-20), which expands the narrative. Luke’s account of the baptism itself (Lk 3:21-22) is rather brief, shorter even than that in Mark, with several extra details:
- It is mentioned that, while being baptized, Jesus was praying (lit. “speaking out toward [God]”)
- Instead of Jesus seeing the heavens split open, it is simply stated that “the heaven opened up”
- It is said that the Spirit descends in bodily appearance as a dove
- (For the textual variants involving the words of the heavenly voice, cf. below)
Matthew includes a brief exchange between John and Jesus (Matt 3:13-15), but otherwise his account of the baptism is essentially a blend of the wording in Mark and Luke. The heavenly voice differs slightly—”This is my Son the (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good“—as a declaration rather than a personal address to Jesus.
The Gospel of John does not given an account of the baptism as such—it is narrated indirectly as part of John the Baptist’s testimony in Jn 1:29-34. The concluding declaration essentially takes the place of the heavenly voice in identifying Jesus as God’s Son:
“and I have seen and have given witness that this is the Son of God” (v. 34)
The Johannine account (Jn 1:29-34) is discussed in more detail in an upcoming note.
Textual variants in Luke 3:22 and John 1:34
There are two key variant readings which are worth noting:
- In John 1:34 (cf. above), instead of “the Son of God” (o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=), several manuscripts and versions (Ë5vid a* b e ff2* syrs,c) read “the (one) gathered out [i.e. Chosen one] of God” (o( e)klekto\$ tou= qeou=) or the conflation “the Chosen Son of God” (a ff2c syrpal sah). The conflate reading is certainly secondary, but some scholars have argued that “the Elect/Chosen (One) of God” is original (cf. Ehrman, pp. 69-70). However, the external manuscript evidence, as well as Johannine usage, would seem to favor “the Son of God”.
- In Luke 3:22, a number of (Western) witnesses (D a b c d ff2 l r1) record the heavenly voice quoting Psalm 2:7—”You are my Son, today I have caused you to be (born)”—instead of the declaration “You are my (be)loved Son…” It is also attested by quite a few Church Fathers in the 2d-4th centuries, and a minority of textual critics accept it as original (cf. Ehrman, pp. 62-67). I have discussed the question in some detail in a previous note.
Psalm 2:7, of course, was one of the principal “Messianic” passages interpreted as referring to Jesus in the early Church, as I have noted on a number of occasions. The oldest application seems to have been to Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to heaven—i.e., the moment when he is “born” as God’s Son—as indicated by its use in Acts 13:32-33ff [note the similar use of Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:24-36]; cf. also Rom 1:4 and Rom 8:22-23, 29; Col 1:18; Rev 1:5. Orthodox Christology would come to understand Psalm 2:7 (along with Ps 110:1) in terms of Jesus’ eternal, pre-existent Sonship, as association which is already reflected in Heb 1:5ff. Actually, Hebrews seems to combine both views—Jesus as pre-existent Son and “Son” as a result of the resurrection/exaltation—based on a careful study of chapter 1 and the way Ps 2:7 and 110:1 are cited in chapter 5 (cf. also Heb 2:8-13, etc). We find a similar combination in Paul’s writings (cf. Rom 1:3-4; Phil 2:6-11).
The Transfiguration Scene (Mark 9:7; Matt 17:5; Lk 9:35)
There is a clear parallel with the Baptism of Jesus in the Transfiguration scene narrated in the Synoptics (Mark 9:2-8 / Matt 17:1-8 / Lk 9:28-36) and referenced in 2 Peter 1:17-18. In Mark 9:7, a voice from Heaven declares:
“This is my Son the (be)loved, hear [i.e. listen to] him!”
The italicized portion is closest to the form of the divine voice in Matthew’s account of the Baptism (cf. above), also reflected in the Matthean Transfiguration scene (Matt 17:5):
“This is my Son the (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good—hear him!”
The words in italics are identical to that of the voice in Matt 3:17, which strongly suggests that an original 2nd person address there was modified to match the form in the Transfiguration scene (and vice versa!). The Lukan version (Lk 9:35) matches the shorter form in Mark, with one major difference (noted by italics):
“This is my Son the (One) gathered out [i.e. Elect/Chosen One], hear him!”
Instead of the adjective a)gaphto/$ (“[be]loved”), Luke has the participle e)klelegme/no$ (“having been gathered out”). While many manuscripts of Lk 9:35, naturally enough, read a)gaphto/$ (harmonizing with Matt/Mark), e)klelegme/no$ is most likely original (cf. TCGNT, p. 124, and Ehrman, pp. 67-68). The verb e)kle/gomai (“gather out”, i.e. “select, choose”) is relatively common in Luke-Acts (11 of the 22 NT occurrences), but is used elsewhere in the Synoptics only once (Mark 13:20).
Finally, we should mention the reference to the heavenly voice at the Transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:17, which, interestingly enough, matches the version in Matthew (specifically Matthew’s account of the Baptism):
“This is my Son, my (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good”
Differs from Matt 3:17 only in word order and inclusion of a second mou (“my”)
The Symbolism of Baptism
A number of key passages in the New Testament which refer either to believers as “sons/children” of God, or specifically as being “born”, are in a context relating in some way to baptism. Most of these have already been discussed in the previous Christmas season notes; I point out here again the most relevant passages:
- John 3:3-8—especially significant is the expression “come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] out of water and (the) Spirit” (v. 5), parallel to “come to be (born) from above” in v. 3. Nearly all of the instances in the New Testament where water and Spirit are juxtaposed refer to baptism—either of Jesus or of believers (Mark 1:8-10 par; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 8:39; 10:47; 11:16; the reference in 1 John 5:6-8 is more complicated).
- Galatians 3:26-27ff—the idea of believers as the “sons of God” (v. 26, cf. also v. 29) is connected specifically with baptism in verse 27.
- Romans 6:3-4ff; 8:12-23, 29—In Paul’s thought, baptism is symbolic of the believer’s identification with, and participation in, the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:3-4ff; cf. also Col 2:12). As pointed out above, it is through his resurrection (and exaltation) that Jesus was understood as God’s “Son” in early Christian preaching (Acts 13:32-33; Rom 1:4, etc), and it is also the means by which believers are “born” as “sons/children” of God, at least in one strand of Christian tradition (cf. Rom 8:12-23, 29; 1 Pet 1:3; Heb 2:10, also 1 Cor 15:20, 23, 36-37, 42ff). On the specific expression “firstborn of the dead” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5), cf. the prior article.
This concludes the series of Christmas season notes, devoted to the theme of “the Birth of the Son of God”. During this season, it is right and proper that we should celebrate both Jesus own birth—whether from Mary, in the Baptism, by his Resurrection, or eternally from God—as well as our own birth as sons and daughters, children of God, in union with Christ. It is to be hoped that this survey and study of all the New Testament passages related to this theme has been informative and enriching, in at least some small way, for those who have followed it.
References above marked “TCGNT” are to the Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition, 1994/2002); those marked “Ehrman” are to Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford: 1993).