January 8: Baptism (John 3:22-23; 4:1-3; Matt 28:19)

Baptism by Jesus and his Disciples

Having considered the ministry of John the Baptist as the principal source of the early Christian practice of baptism (cf. the previous note), we must now look at how this developed in the Gospel Tradition. This could be examined in terms of the specific tradition regarding Jesus’ own baptism, or the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus; I have discussed those aspects at length in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” (Division 1), and here will simply note the evidence for the continuation of the practice of ritual dunking/washing (i.e. baptism) as performed by Jesus and his disciples. The evidence for this is slight, but important.

John 3:22-23; 4:1-3

The Gospel of John contains the tradition that Jesus and his digsciples performed dunkings/washings (baptisms), apparently continuing the practice from John’s ministry:

“With [i.e. after] these (thing)s, Yeshua and his learners [i.e. disciples] came into the Yehudean {Judean} land, and there he wore through (a path) with them and performed dunkings [e)ba/tpizen]. And Yohanan also was (there) dunking [bapti/zwn] (people) in Aynon near Salim, (in) that [i.e. because] many waters were there, and (people) came to be alongside and were dunked [e)bapti/zonto]” (3:22-23)

“So when Yeshua knew that the Perushis {Pharisees} heard that ‘Yeshua makes and dunks [bapti/zei] more learners [i.e. disciples] than Yohanan’ —yet, indeed, Yeshua did not perform dunkings [e)ba/tpizen], but (only) his learners—he left Yehudah and went (away) from (there) again into the Galîl.” (4:1-3)

These are the only references in the Gospels which state that Jesus’ disciples performed baptisms during the period of his ministry. The use of the imperfect tense in 3:22 and 4:2 indicates that this was regular activity, done repeatedly. One may only guess as to why there is no other mention of this (and none in the Synoptic Gospels); it may be part of a general tendency among early Christians to separate themselves from followers of John the Baptist. Something of this rivalry is indicated in these very passages (cf. also Acts 18:25; 19:1-7), and is almost certainly related to the strong emphasis in chapters 1-3 on the contrast between John and Jesus, making clear the superiority of Jesus and his identity as the Messiah (1:6-9, 15, 19-27, 29-34, 35-37). This is very much the focus here in 3:22-36, where the historical notice in vv. 22-23 leads into the testimony of John (on his place in relation to Jesus, vv. 25-30), and the Christological exposition that follows (vv. 31-36).

Given this concern over subordinating John (and his ministry) to Jesus—something also seen, to a lesser extent, in the Synoptic Tradition—the detail that Jesus’ disciples continued to perform similar baptisms may be trusted as authentic (on entirely objective grounds). It is not the sort of thing that early Christians would be inclined to invent. That Jesus’ disciples would continue dunking people in the manner of John is not surprising, considering that, according to Jn 1:35ff, at least two of Jesus’ first disciples (Andrew being one) had previously been followers of John. Many critical commentators would go further that this, claiming that Jesus himself had begun as John’s disciple. In point of fact, from a theological standpoint, there is nothing at all unacceptable about this theory, though doubtless the idea will make many Christians uncomfortable. If Jesus had been a disciple of John, it was preparatory to the beginning of his own ministry, which also marks the start of the core Gospel narrative, in which we see John ‘passing the mantle’ over to Jesus.

Apart from the aforementioned critical theory, there are certain key similarities between the ministry of Jesus (especially in its beginnings) and that of John:

    • An emphasis on the need for repentance in light of the coming kingdom of God (and the Judgment)—Mark 1:4, 15 par, etc; Matt 3:7-8ff par; indeed, Matthew has John and Jesus declaring the same message (3:2; 4:17)
    • Both tended to frequent desert/wilderness locations
    • They both quickly gained popularity, drawing crowds around them
    • They each were similarly identified as Messianic figures, especially the Anointed Prophet according to the pattern of Elijah (cf. Parts 23 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”)

Given these basic similarities, there is every reason to think that the baptisms performed by Jesus and his disciples had the same religious and symbolic significance as those performed by John—that is, they symbolized the washing/cleansing from sin, when accompanied by confession and repentance.

Matthew 28:19

The only other Gospel reference to the disciples baptizing is in the “Great Commission” that closes the Gospel of Matthew (28:18-20). While this passage is unique to Matthew, it corresponds roughly to similar post-resurrection commission scenes in Luke (24:44-49) and John (20:21-23), as well as in the Markan ‘Long Ending’ ([16:14-18]). The central statement in the Matthean commission is verse 19 (cp. [Mk 16:16]):

“So (then), traveling (out) you must make all the nations (to be) learners [i.e. disciples], dunking [bapti/zonte$] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”

Many critical commentators are inclined to doubt or question the authenticity of the trinitarian formula here, regarding it instead as a reflection of early Christian belief (rather than Jesus’ own words at the time). I discuss this, along with other critical issues, in an earlier set of notes on Matt 28:18-20 and Lk 24:44-49 (Notes 1, 2, 3, 4). To repeat here several arguments in favor of authenticity (on objective grounds):

    • The instruction regarding baptism itself, as well as most of Matt 28:18-20 in context, is fully compatible with the sayings and teaching of the historical Jesus, based on an entirely objective analysis of the Gospel Tradition. For a number of examples and references illustrating this, cf. the aforementioned notes.
    • The common elements and parallels between the various post-resurrection Commission passages in the Gospels, which surely represent separate strands of tradition (given their differences), strongly suggest an underlying historical core.
    • Luke 24:47-49 provides independent attestation for the inclusion of a baptismal ‘formula’ as part of the Commission, which is also associated with the Holy Spirit (Lk 24:49; Acts 2:38) and the Father. The other points of similarity between Lk 24:47-49 and Matt 28:18-20 were noted earlier.

On the contrary, one must, I think, be willing to admit that:

    • Many of the parallels and similarities cited (in the earlier note) are relatively loose, and could be said to be outweighed by the significant differences in detail. On the basis of traditional-conservative desire to harmonize, it would actually prove quite difficult to piece together all of these details (and separate Commission passages) into a genuinely convincing whole (judged honestly and objectively).
    • Assuming that Matt 28:19 is authentic, it is most strange that there really is no evidence for it (or its influence) anywhere else in the New Testament. By all accounts, based on the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, early believers were only ever baptized “in the name of Jesus” (to be discussed in the next daily note). If the apostles and early Christians were following Jesus’ example and instruction (as presumably they would be), then it is likely that Jesus’ original saying would have been something along the lines of: “baptizing them in my name…” (cf. Lk 24:47 / Acts 2:38)
    • The earliest attestation for the saying/instruction of Matt 28:19 is found in Didache 7:1, 3, which is typically dated from the early 2nd (or late 1st) century A.D. A fair date for the traditions in the Didache might be c. 70-80 A.D., which likely coincides with the completed form of the Gospel of Matthew. The trinitarian form (and formula) of baptism is attested in the second and third centuries, but, as far as we know, not earlier than c. 70 A.D.

In the next note, I will explore this idea of being baptized in the name of Jesus, which represents a distinctive early Christian development of baptism itself.