Jesus as the Son of God: The Baptism
In the previous two notes we examined how the earliest Christian understanding of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, and his “birth”, was based on the Gospel proclamation of his resurrection (and his exaltation to God’s right hand in heaven). This is confirmed by the evidence of the earliest Gospel preaching, both in the sermon-speeches of Acts (such as the use of Psalm 2:7 in Acts 13:32-33), and in the earliest strands of the Pauline letters (cf. 1 Thess 1:10 and Rom 1:3-4). This would generally cover the period c. 30-45 A.D., including the traditions (and traditional language) inherited by Paul c. 50 A.D.
However, if this is where the Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God began, it certainly did not end there. Reflecting upon Jesus’ earlier life and ministry, it soon became clear, to most believers, that he must have been truly the Son of God even prior to his resurrection, meaning all during the time of his earthly ministry. The historical Gospel traditions, preserved and passed down during the period c. 30-45 A.D., confirmed this at many points, including the accounts of miracles, the power of his teaching, the witness of the disciples, and so forth. However, his identity as the Son of God in this respect was not clearly expressed until the traditions began to be brought together in a more systematic fashion, and the first Gospel narratives were written.
The Gospel of Mark is generally regarded as the earliest of the four canonical Gospels, having been written around 60 A.D. Almost certainly, however, it was already the product of the development of tradition, with narrative clusters, collections of sayings, joining of episodes and traditions based on “catchword bonding”, etc; this would have occurred during the period c. 45-60 B.C., which happens to correspond with the time of Paul’s letters (cf. the previous note). In all likelihood, the Passion narrative was the first part of the Gospel to take coherent shape, to which was added stories, episodes, and teachings from the ministry period. The Markan Gospel, it would seem, best represents the core Synoptic Tradition—the common material and narrative structure shared by all three Synoptic Gospels. I discuss all of this, in considerable detail, in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.
On the assumption that Mark is the earliest of the Gospels, and the one which is closest to the core Synoptic Tradition, it is no surprise that there are fewer references to Jesus as God’s Son in Mark (7 distinct references or traditions), than in Matthew or Luke. Jesus never refers to himself directly as the Son of God, the closest being the affirmation in Mk 14:62 (cf. also 13:32), but others declare this about him; interestingly, the title comes from the mouth of hostile or neutral witnesses (3:11; 5:7; 15:39; also 14:61). Even so, these early traditions confirm that Jesus’ is to be identified as the Son of God, during the time of his ministry. The Gospel writer himself affirms this belief, by the way that he introduces/titles his narrative: “The beginning of the good message of Yeshua (the) Anointed, (the) Son of God.” Some manuscripts omit the words “Son of God” (ui(ou= qeou=), but they are probably original.
If Jesus was the Son of God during his ministry, then it is to be expected that this would be attested at the time of his baptism, which, according to the early/core Gospel narrative, marks the beginning of his ministry. This is precisely what we find in all four Gospels, but especially in the three Synoptics which share a common narrative tradition. Mark, typically, has the briefest and simplest version:
“And it came to be in those days (that) Yeshua came from Nazaret of the Galîl, and was dunked [i.e. baptized] into the Yarden (river) under [i.e. by] Yohanan. And straightway, stepping up out of the water, he saw the heavens being split (open) and the Spirit as a dove stepping down onto him, and a voice came to be (from) out of the heavens: ‘You are my Son, the (one) loved (by me)—in you I (have) thought good [i.e. have good regard]’.” (vv. 9-11)
In Old Testament tradition, the voice sounding from out of heaven is typically understood to be God’s voice, which, when heard by the people at large, sounds like thunder (cf. Exod 19:19; John 12:29; Heb. loq means both “voice” and “thunder”). It is not entirely clear if others hear the voice from heaven in Mk 1:11, or if only Jesus hears it; probably the latter is intended, though the Matthean version (3:17) presents it as an objective event (“This is my Son…”) discernable, it would seem, to everyone present.
There is a clear parallel to the Baptism scene in the Transfiguration episode (Mark 9:2-8 par). If the Baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the Transfiguration marks the end of it (the Galilean period, at least), and with it, the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem. In the Transfiguration scene, again there is a heavenly appearance upon/around Jesus, and a voice out of heaven that speaks almost the same words as at the Baptism (in Matthew they are identical); now, however, it is an event heard by all present (the select disciples): “This is my Son, the (one) loved (by me)—you must hear him!” (Mk 9:7).
The fact that all four Gospel accounts of the Baptism include a voice from heaven, declaring Jesus’ identity as Son of God, indicates that the tradition is extremely old. The Synoptic version must pre-date c. 60 A.D., but the fact that the Synoptic and Johannine versions are so different (cf. Jn 1:29-34), suggests that the underlying historical tradition is older still, allowing enough time for two such distinct lines of tradition to develop. The seminal narrative account, probably still in oral form, may reach back into the earliest period c. 30-45 A.D., closer in time to the actual events.
[It must be pointed out that there is some textual uncertainty regarding John 1:34. The majority text reads “this is the Son of God”; however, some manuscripts instead have “this is the (one) gathered out [i.e. chosen one] of God”, reading o( e)klekto/$ instead of o( ui(o/$. I discuss the matter in earlier notes and studies.]
In the earlier note, we saw how the Sonship of Jesus was originally understood in terms of an application of Psalm 2:7 to his resurrection (and exaltation); in all likelihood, the same Scripture is being alluded to in the heavenly voice at the Baptism and Transfiguration, especially in the form of the personal address “You are my Son…” (su\ ei@ o( ui(o/$ mou, as in Psalm 2:7 LXX [ui(o/$ mou ei@ su/]). However, in some manuscripts of the Lukan version (3:22), this is made explicit, and the heavenly voice cites Psalm 2:7 verbatim; most notably, this is the reading of Codex Bezae (D):
“…and a voice coming to be out of heaven (saying): ‘You are my Son; today I have caused you to be (born) [ui(o/$ mou ei@ su/ e)gw\ sh/meron gege/nnhka/ se]’.”
This reading appears to have been widespread in the second and third centuries, to judge from the evidence from Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Methodius, and others, while there is correspondingly little evidence for the majority reading during the same time. This has led some textual critics to accept the text of Bezae et al as original. Internal considerations point in both directions: the D text could be a harmonization with the LXX; on the other hand, the majority text could represent a harmonization with the Synoptic parallels in Mark/Matthew.
Whatever else one wishes to say about it, the version citing Psalm 2:7 would be the more problematic for later Christians, as it suggests that Jesus only became the Son of God at his baptism, a view that could be seen as contradicting the orthodox belief in Jesus’ pre-existent deity (as the eternal Son). In fact, there were Christians in the second and third centuries who held an “adoptionist” Christology, i.e. that God essentially adopted Jesus as His Son, and that this took place at the Baptism. Admittedly, our evidence for this is rather slight, and largely limited to the testimony preserved in Eusebius’ Church History (V.28), but it seems to represent a genuine Christological tendency. Other Christians, taking the descent of the Spirit in Mark 1:10 more literally (“the Spirit…came down unto/into [ei)$] him”), seem to have held a Christology whereby the divine Christ was joined with the man Jesus, this again occurring at the Baptism (cf. the traditions and testimony regarding Certinthus, and some of the “Gnostics”, in Irenaeus, Epiphanius, etc). This could explain why, if original, the version of Luke 3:22 citing Psalm 2:7 disappeared in the third/fourth century, to be ‘replaced’ by the majority text.
The later Christological controversies obscure the significance of the idea that Jesus was “born” as the Son of God at the point of his baptism. What this demonstrates, in terms of the development of Christian belief, is an awareness that Jesus was not simply to be regarded as God’s Son as a result of the resurrection, but that he must have been so all throughout the period of his ministry on earth. Since his baptism marks the beginning of this ministry period, it is only proper that it is designated as the moment when Jesus is born, figurative speaking, as the Son of God. Soon, however, Christians would take this a step further, with an awareness that his identity as God’s Son must, as a logical necessity, extend back to the time of his physical birth as a human being—i.e. the period spanning his entire earthly life.
Again, the Gospel tradition provided evidence for this, to be expressed, primarily, through the Infancy narratives that would be added to the core Gospel. This was a secondary development, as can be seen by the fact that there is scarcely any reference to Jesus’ human birth in the New Testament (outside of the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke), and none at all in the earliest Gospel preaching (insofar as it has come down to us). There is no mention of it in the Gospels of Mark and John (which do not contain Infancy narratives or traditions), though Paul does allude to it, however obliquely, at several points in his letters. Before proceeding to consider what the Infancy narratives say about Jesus’ “birth” as the Son of God, let us first examine (in the next daily note) the Pauline references in Galatians 4:4ff and Romans 8:3.