May 13: Mark 1:9-11 par; Jn 1:29-34

The Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:9-11; Matt 3:13-17; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34)

The next passage in the Gospel tradition referring to the Holy Spirit is the account of Jesus’ baptism. This is narrated in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 1:9-11; Matt 3:13-17; Luke 3:21-22), as well as indirectly in the Gospel of John (Jn 1:26-28, 29-34). Mark provides the simplest narrative of the common tradition:

“And it came to be in those days (that) Yeshua came from Nazaret of (the) Galîl and was dunked into the Yarden {Jordan} under [i.e. by] Yohanan. And, straight away, stepping up out of the water he saw the heavens split (open) and the Spirit as a dove stepping down [i.e. coming down] into/unto him; and there came to be a voice out of the heavens (saying), ‘You are my (be)loved Son, I think well of [lit. in] you’.”

There are three elements of the baptism scene:

    • The heavens splitting open (in Matt/Luke, the heavens are “opened [up]”)
    • The (holy) Spirit coming down to Jesus in the form/likeness of a dove
    • A voice from heaven which declares Jesus to be God’s Son

Each version has slight differences, but the basic sequence of events is the same. The account in John is different still (the baptism itself described by the Baptist only in vv. 32-34), though it certainly derives from the same historical tradition. Interestingly, in John’s version it is the Baptist, not a voice from heaven, who declares that Jesus is God’s Son (“I have seen and witnessed that this is the Son of God”). Let us specifically compare the descent of the Spirit in all four versions:

    • Mark 1:10: “…he [i.e. Jesus] saw the heavens being split (open) and the Spirit as a dove stepping down unto/into [ei)$] him”
    • Matt 3:16: “…and, see! the heavens were opened [for him] and he saw [the] Spirit of God stepping down as if [i.e. like] a dove [and] coming upon [e)pi/] him”
    • Luke 3:21-22: “There came to be…(the) opening up of the heaven(s) and (the) stepping down of the holy Spirit in bodily [swmatiko/$] appearance as a dove upon [e)pi/] him”
    • John 1:33: (God’s words to John) “(the one) upon whom you should see the Spirit stepping down and remaining upon him…”, confirmed by the earlier verse 32: “I looked (and saw) the Spirit stepping down as a dove out of heaven and remaining upon him”.

All four use the verb katabai/nw (lit. “step down”, i.e. “come down, descend”)—this is a basic narrative verb, but it is given special theological significance in the Gospel of John (cf. below). The descent of the Spirit is also described as something which is seen, though with some variation in the four accounts:

    • In Mark, it is Jesus who sees the heavens open and the Spirit descend as a dove; there is no indication that this is visible to anyone else.
    • In Matthew, it is simply stated that the heavens were opened, but again it is Jesus who sees the Spirit descending.
    • In Luke’s account, it would seem that the entire event was visible to all; this is reinforced by his specific reference to the Spirit coming “in a bodily appearance” as a dove.
    • In John, the Baptist sees the Spirit descending upon Jesus, with the important detail that the Spirit remains on him.

We can also see how the Gospels variously identify the Spirit here: (1) “the Spirit” (Mk, Jn), (2) “the Spirit of God” (Matt), (3) “the Holy Spirit” (Lk), indicating that, by the period of 60-70 A.D. (at the latest), all three could be used interchangeably. This is confirmed by Paul’s terminology in his letters, and indeed through the rest of the New Testament, though the expression “the Spirit of God” increasingly becomes less common (cf. 1 Jn 4:2).

It is hard to say just how this event (the descent of the Spirit) was understood in the earliest layers of Gospel tradition. The idea and imagery are not developed much in Mark’s Gospel, nor, we may assume, in the core Synoptic tradition; by contrast, the declaration of Jesus as God’s Son is much more prominent (Mk 1:1; 3:11; 5:7; 9:7; 14:61; 15:39 pars; Matt 4:3, 6 par; 14:33; 16:16; 27:43; Lk 1:32, 35). The presence of God’s Spirit in relation to Jesus takes on greater importance in the Gospel of Luke, in light of the increased emphasis on the Holy Spirit throughout Luke-Acts (as we shall see), and even more so in the Gospel of John. Here, I point out just two examples of a wider theological/Christological interpretation of the symbolism in these two Gospels:

1. Jesus as one who is anointed with the Spirit. This is an important theme in Luke, for which there is some parallel in Matthew (cf. Matt 4:1; 12:18, 28), doubtless indicating a level of Christological development by the time these Gospels were written (c. 70 A.D.). However, I would also maintain that Luke, in emphasizing Jesus as one anointed by the Spirit of God, is simply drawing upon early Gospel tradition, which identified Jesus first as an Anointed Prophet. I have discussed this in considerable detail in my recent series “Yeshua the Anointed” (cf. Parts 23). In particular, Luke brings out the association of Jesus with the Anointed herald of Isaiah 61:1ff, both in the key passage of the episode at the Synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4:18ff), and again in Lk 7:18-23 (par Matt 11:2-6). Jesus is specifically said to have been anointed by God with the Spirit in Acts 10:38 (cf. also Acts 4:27-28). There is further Lukan support for understanding the baptism in terms of anointing by God in the variant (Western) reading at Lk 3:22—there, instead of declaring “You are my beloved Son, I think well of [lit. in] you”, Psalm 2:7 is cited: “You are my Son, today I have caused you to be (born)”. In Psalm 2, the ruler is said to be God’s “anointed” (j^yv!m^), and the psalm as a whole was often given a Messianic interpretation, both in Judaism and early Christianity.

2. katabai/nw and a)nabainw. In the Gospel of John, these two related verbs (“step down”, “step up”), used frequently in narration (“go/come up/down”), take on a unique theological (and Christological) meaning. The verb katabai/nw encapsulates the idea of Jesus’ coming to earth in human form (incarnation), having been sent by God from heaven—cf. Jn 3:13; 6:33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58. Correspondingly, the verb a)nabai/nw can refer to Jesus’ exaltation and return to the Father—Jn 3:13; 6:62; 20:17; there may be a play on words implicit in Jn 2:13; 5:1; 7:8, etc. John 1:51 combines both verbs in an image of Jesus (the Son of Man) which clearly is meant to parallel the baptism account; I have discussed this enigmatic saying of Jesus in an earlier note.

Finally, it is interesting to consider the specific symbol of the Spirit as a dove, since there is no certain precedent for this association in the Old Testament or Israelite/Jewish tradition at the time of Jesus. Commentators have pointed out passages such as Genesis 1:2; 8:8, and Song of Songs 2:12 as possibly having relevance. Luke describes this aspect of the baptism scene as a concrete (“bodily”) manifestation of God’s Spirit, similar in certain respects to the theophany in Acts 2.

For more on the Baptism of Jesus, see the articles in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

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