Mark 1:9-11 par
Along with the saying of the Baptist (cf. the previous note), there is a related early Gospel tradition involving the Spirit of God (and/or the “holy Spirit”)—the famous narrative of the Baptism of Jesus. I have discussed the entire episode of Jesus’ Baptism at great length in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”; here, in this note, the discussion will be limited to how this narrative tradition reflects a development of the earlier lines of Old Testament and Jewish tradition, regarding the Spirit of God.
The core Synoptic narrative is best represented by the Markan version (1:9-11), with the descent of the Spirit described in verse 10:
“And straightaway, stepping up out of the water, he saw the heavens being split (open) and the Spirit as a dove stepping down unto him”
The Matthean version (3:16) is expanded, offering more precise (if blander) detail:
“And (hav)ing been dunked, Yeshua straightaway stepped up from the water, and see!—the heavens were opened (up), and he saw [the] Spirit of God stepping down, as if a dove, [and] coming upon him”
The Lukan version (3:21-22), by contrast, is briefer, but embedded within a complex syntactical structure that is difficult to translate; the relevant portion reads:
“…(an) opening (up) of the heaven and (the) stepping down of the holy Spirit, in bodily appearance as a dove, upon him”
The main details are consistent across the Synoptic tradition, and are also shared by the Johannine version (1:32ff), presented as an indirect narration by the Baptist:
“I have looked at the Spirit stepping down as a dove out of heaven, and it remained upon him”
The three key details, found in all versions, are: (1) the Spirit “stepping down” out of heaven, (2) the form/appearance as a dove, and (3) its coming “upon” Jesus. Let us briefly consider each of these.
1. “stepping down” (vb katabai/nw) out of heaven
This signifies the heavenly origin of the Spirit, implying that it comes from God in heaven. The Markan and Johannine versions specifically state that it came “out of” (e)k) heaven, while Matthew has “from” (a)po/) heaven. The dramatic opening up of the heavens (i.e. the skies) in Mark/Matthew makes clear the idea that the Spirit comes down onto the earth. The use of the verb katabai/nw (lit. “step down”, i.e. come down) has special significance in the Gospel of John, which uses both katabai/nw and the related a)nabai/nw (“step up”) in a uniquely theological (and Christological) sense. The “descent” of the Spirit marks the beginning of this descent/ascent motif—that is, the incarnation and exaltation of Jesus, respectively—in the Gospel (cf. 1:51, etc).
2. The Dove
Commentators continue to debate the significance of the dove appearance of the Spirit in this episode. Many ideas and associations have been suggested, but three seem particularly relevant:
- The Creation account, which depicts the spirit (or breath) of God “hovering/fluttering” like a bird (Gen 1:2, cf. the earlier note); other Old Testament passages similarly describe God’s presence in creation (that is, among His people) using bird-imagery (e.g., Deut 32:11-13).
- The fundamental meaning of both pneu=ma in Greek and j^Wr in Hebrew is that of wind, i.e. something blowing; this makes for a natural association with the image of a bird in flight. Similarly, the image of a bird in the expanse of the skies (or heavens) connotes freedom, exaltation, purity, and so forth. Many religious traditions worldwide depict the life-breath (i.e. soul, spirit) of a person as a bird.
- The whiteness that characterizes many doves, and is traditional of the dove, serves as a natural symbol for the holiness (i.e. purity) of God’s Spirit.
Only the last of these relates specifically to a dove, and is particularly important to the baptism setting, with its emphasis on cleansing. It is worth remembering that the literal expression in Hebrew is, most commonly, “spirit of [God’s] holiness” (vd#q) j^Wr), rather than “holy spirit”; that is, the emphasis is squarely on holiness and purity as a divine characteristic.
3. Coming “upon” Jesus
The Markan version uses the preposition ei)$, which is somewhat ambiguous; literally, it could mean “into”, but most commentators would render it here as “unto”. In Old Testament tradition, this could be comparable to the idea of God’s Spirit coming (or “rushing”) to a person, using the preposition la#. By contrast, Matthew and Luke (along with the Johannine version) use the preposition e)pi/ (“upon”), corresponding to the Hebrew lu*. There are even more Old Testament passages which express the idea of God’s Spirit being (or coming) upon a person—cf. Num 11:17ff; Judg 3:10; 14:6; 1 Sam 10:6, 10; 11:6, etc (discussed in recent notes). Moreover, this was the basic idiom that was developed in later Prophetic tradition, involving the image of the Spirit being “poured out” upon a person (cf. the discussion below).
The Significance of the Baptism Scene
This needs to be considered from several vantage points:
- The Baptism scene in the context of the early Gospel narrative
- The language and imagery in the scene itself, especially the detail of the “voice” from heaven
- How the scene was understood, in context, by the Gospel writers
The Context of the early Gospel narrative
This involves: (a) the baptism rite in the setting of John’s ministry, and (b) the saying of the Baptist regarding “the one coming”. Both of these aspects were discussed in the previous note, where I pointed out the significant parallels with the water-ritual performed for entrants into the Qumran Community. The ritual symbolized the person’s “spirit” being cleansed (and made holy) by God’s own Spirit; moreover, this cleansing was preparatory for the purification that would take place at the end-time. The Gospel narrative clearly indicates that the baptism rite, as performed by John, was for the cleansing of sin, and that it similarly anticipated the end-time Judgment of God—when the righteous/faithful ones would be purified, while the wicked would be consumed.
What is distinctive about the Baptist’s message in this regard, is the localization of this end-time cleansing with the Messianic figure of “the one coming”. On the derivation of this expression from the tradition in Malachi 3:1, as interpreted in a Messianic sense, cf. the previous note, along with my supplemental note in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. Implicit in the early Gospel narrative is that Jesus, with his initial appearance at his baptism, is being identified with this Messianic figure. The point is not made explicit at all in the simpler Synoptic narrative of Mark, but the connection is evinced, in different ways, by the other Gospel writers. For example, the inclusion of the Infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke establishes the Messianic identity of Jesus even prior to the Baptism, a point reinforced by Matthew’s citation of Isa 9:1-2 in 4:12-16. Luke sets the Baptism episode in the context of questions regarding whether John the Baptist might be the Anointed One (3:15ff); this is presented even more prominently in the Johannine Gospel (1:19-27).
The pouring of water in the baptism-rite also suggests the idea of anointing—indeed, both motifs were associated with the Spirit of God in Old Testament Tradition, as discussed in prior notes. In the ancient kingship traditions—going back to the earlier leadership of Moses, Joshua, and the Judges—the Spirit of God came upon the ruler, in a manner similar to prophetic inspiration (cf. 1 Sam 10:6, 11; 11:6, etc). In the case of Saul and David, there is a close connection between the coming of God’s Spirit and the anointing ritual (1 Sam 16:13f); even after the principle of Spirit-inspired charismatic leadership waned, the presence of the Spirit was still tied to the king’s anointing in the (Judean) royal theology. There is less evidence for the anointing of prophets; however, the expression “anointed one” (j^yv!m*, i.e. messiah) could be applied to prophets, as well as kings and priests. As mentioned in the prior note, the early Gospel tradition, during the period of his ministry, seems to have identified Jesus as a Messianic prophet rather than the Davidic ruler figure-type. Cf. Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
The Voice from Heaven
The heavenly voice in the Baptism narrative primarily represents a theophany—that is, the manifestation of God among human beings (His people, or their chosen representative[s]). The main Old Testament example, of course, is the Sinai theophany, when the people heard the voice of God speaking (Exod 19:19ff; 20:18-21; Deut 4:10-12). In the Gospels, this theophanic voice relates specifically to key moments during Jesus’ ministry, demonstrating God’s relationship to him specifically. In addition to the Baptism and Transfiguration episodes (Mk 9:7 par; Lk 9:35 [v.l.]), there is a comparable occurrence in the Gospel of John (12:27-32). The heavenly voice at the Transfiguration essentially repeats the voice at the Baptism (in Matthew’s version they are virtually identical), and the parallel episodes serve to divide the structure of the Synoptic narrative:
- The Baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ (Galilean) ministry
- The Transfiguration marks the end of that ministry, and the beginning of the events leading up to his Passion
The declaration made by the heavenly voice, and its precise significance, continue to be debated. There does seem to be an allusion to Psalm 2:7, which would strongly indicate an identification of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) of the Davidic ruler type—i.e., future/end-time king from the line of David. In some manuscripts of Luke 3:22, the voice actually quotes Psalm 2:7, an indication, at the very least, that early Christians had made the connection. However, it seems more likely that the primary allusion is to Isaiah 42:1, which clearly references the Spirit coming upon God’s chosen one (cf. my earlier note on the passage). The Greek word translating db#u# (“servant”) is pai=$, which literally means “child”, and so could easily be interpreted in the specific sense of “son” (ui(o/$). The Servant of the deutero-Isaian poems is best understood as an Anointed leader patterned after Moses, who will lead Israel in their return from exile (a ‘new Exodus’). He thus serves as a Messianic prophet-figure, parallel to the end-time Prophet patterned after Elijah (Mal 3:1; 4:5-6, cf. the previous note). In the Transfiguration scene, Jesus is associated with both Moses and Elijah.
The Meaning of the Scene in the Gospels
Given the explicit notice that the purpose of John’s baptizing was for repentance and forgiveness of sin, it is interesting that the Gospel writers do not give any evidence of the theological implications of this in relation to Jesus. At the level of the historical tradition, the idea of Jesus’ sinlessness was not yet an issue, and, by the time the Gospels were written, the Baptism-tradition was so well-fixed that the writers were no longer free to comment on the matter. Only at Matt 3:14-15 is there any indication of an apologetic concern, expressed more in terms of Jesus’ apparent submission to John, than on his need for repentance.
Whatever the specific reasons or circumstances for Jesus being baptized, at the historical level, the Gospels quite clearly demonstrate that the scene is not about cleansing and purification, but of consecration and empowerment. The best parallel from Old Testament tradition is that of prophetic inspiration—that is, the Spirit of God coming upon the chosen/gifted spokesperson (ayb!n`) who will serve as God’s representative. The idea of Jesus as a Davidic (royal) Messiah is largely foreign to the first half of the Synoptic narrative (the Galilean ministry period); only with the journey to Jerusalem, and the events leading to his Passion, does the Davidic association come more clearly into view. Two aspects of Jesus’ ministry are most directly relevant to the ayb!n` (prophet) role:
- Preaching and teaching—i.e. Spirit-inspired utterance, and
- Healing miracles, demonstrating his power and authority over spirits of disease, etc.
Of the Old Testament Prophets, the working of miracles is associated most commonly with Elijah (and his successor Elisha), and also, to a lesser extent, with Moses. Inspired preaching is common to many of the prophets, though the specific idea of teaching, with its connection to the Torah, would be most closely related to Moses. Thus Jesus could well be viewed as an Anointed (Messianic) prophet patterned after both Moses and Elijah (cf. the Transfiguration scene). However, direct allusions in the Gospels are slight, and it is only in the Gospel of Luke that we find a clearer portrait of the kind of Anointed figure Jesus understood himself to be. This will be discussed in the next daily note.