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Jesus' Baptismal Vision

  • Joel Marcus (a1)


What really happened at Jesus' baptism? We can be quite sure that Jesus was baptized by John, if only because his baptism caused such problems for the later church, the foremost among them being the clash between the developing idea of Jesus' sinlessness and the historical memory of his participation in John's ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1.4). The subordination to John implicit in the baptism, moreover, conflicts with a general tendency in the Gospels to subordinate John to Jesus. The fact of the baptism itself, therefore, is a bedrock historical datum.



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1 See Crossan, J. D. (The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant [San Francisco: Harper, 1991] 232–4) for first- and second-century Christian texts reflecting this problem. Early attempts to resolve it include Matt 3.14–15, where John protests that he needs to be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around, and Luke 3.21, which implicitly justifies Jesus' baptism as an identification with Israel (cf. F. W. Beare, The Earliest Records of Jesus [New York/Nashville: Abingdon, 1962] 40–1). The Matthean passage raises the interesting question of whether John himself was baptized for the forgiveness of his sins. If not, why not? Was he not conscious of any? If he was baptized, who baptized him, and why has the tradition preserved no record of the event?

2 See Wink, W., John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1968) passim.

3 See Greeven, H., ‘Περιστερά’, TDNT 6 (1968; orig. 1959) 68 n. 57.

4 Vögtle, A., Die sogennante Taufperikope Mk 1,9–11. Zur Problematik der Herkunft und des ursprünglichen Sinns (EKKNT/Vorarbeiten 4; Zürich: Benziger/Neukirchen: Neukirchener, 1972) 123–4. Vögtle also thinks that a description of the baptismal events to the disciples would lead to a report in the form of an I-saying (‘I saw’), rather than in the form of third-person narration (‘he saw’).

5 See Gnilka, J., Das Evangelium nach Markus 2: Mk 8,27–16,20 (EKKNT 2/2; Zürich: Benziger/Neukirchen: Neukirchener, 1979) 36–7.

6 Contra Bultmann, R. (History of the Synoptic Tradition [New York: Harper & Row, 1963; orig. 1931] 252), who denies that the story of Jesus' baptism is a ‘cult legend’.

7 See Vögtle (‘Taufperikope’, 119), citing J. Weiss among others.

8 Εθεώρουν is in the imperfect tense, which some interpret as speaking of a repeated action (e.g. M. Zerwick, Biblical Greek Illustrated by Examples [Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici 114; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1963] §269). As D. Crump points out, however, this verb is almost entirely confined to the present or the imperfect (‘Jesus, the Victorious Scribal-Intercessor in Luke's Gospel’, NTS 38 [1992] 56 n. 15), and in this particular case, I would add, the imperfect is appropriate for the description of a vision with some linearity to it. Recently J. V. Hills has suggested that έθεώρουν be translated as ‘they, i.e. the demons, saw’ (JSNT 46 [1992] 257–40). This, of course, is a possible translation of έθεώρουν, since the first singular and the third plural of the imperfect active are identical in form. As Hills himself acknowledges, however (pp. 29–30), ‘if 10.18 lacked any supportive context it would be both natural and necessary to look to the leading verb, επεν, for the subject of έθεώρουν’, i.e. Jesus would be the subject from the beginning of v. 18 until the end of v. 19; and Hills' arguments do not provide convincing evidence of having overcome this grammatical momentum. Verse 19 ascribes the disciples' successful exorcisms to Jesus' empowerment of them, which is more easily related to his own vision of Satan fallen than it is to the demons' vision. It is highly likely, moreover, that, if Luke had understood the demons as the subject, he would have used an aorist verb, which would be unambiguous, or he would have specified the subject in some other way—especially if, as Hills thinks, he is the composer of the verse (p. 32). Taking the verse as Lukan rather than a fragment of tradition runs into the additional problem of contradicting later Lukan passages that speak of Satan's continued activity (22.3, 31; cf. 22.53).

9 Πεσόντα is in the aorist tense, but the main verb έθεώρουν is in the imperfect (see the previous note), which imparts the same notion of linearity to the participle as well (cf., with some differences of interpretation, Zerwick, Biblical Greek, §269). For another Lukan example of an aorist participle used in a durative sense, see Acts 1.21 (cf. C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek [Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1953] 99 n. 1).

10 Bultmann, , History, 108,161.

11 Kümmel, W. G., Promise and Fulfillment: The Eschatological Message of Jesus (London: SCM, 1957) 113; U. Müller, ‘Vision und Botschaft. Erwägungen zur prophetischen Struktur der Verkündigung Jesus’, ZTK 74 (1977) 418.

12 Crump, D. (‘Scribal Intercessor’, 5165) has suggested a coherent reading of Luke 10.17–20 in its Lukan context, but does not challenge the original independence of the verses (see p. 59 n. 23; for another attempt to read 10.17–20 in its Lukan context, see S. R. Garrett, The Demise of the Devil: Magic and the Demonic in Luke's Writings [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989] 46–57). S. Vollenweider (‘“Ich sah den Satan wie einen Blitz vom Himmel fallen” [Lk 10 18]’, ZNW 79 [1988] 196) argues for an original unity between v. 18 and v. 19 on the basis that Testament of Solomon 20.12–17, which is strikingly similar to v. 18, is a revelation by a demon to Solomon, the exorcist. (Crump [‘Scribal Intercessor’, 55] also discusses this parallel, though he does not reach the same conclusion that Vollenweider does.) No one can deny the logic of linking Satan's fall with exorcism (see below), but Vollenweider does not deal with the form-critical difference, and consequent literary roughness, in vv. 18–19; the Testament of Solomon passage has no such sudden shift in focus.

13 Kummel, , Promise and Fulfillment, 114; Müller, ‘Vision und Botschaft’, 423.

14 Muller, , ‘Vision und Botschaft’, 419.

15 On heaven or the air as the dwelling place of Satan and the demons, see Job 1.6; Ascension of Isaiah 7.9; Philo On the Giants 6; Eph 2.2. On their expulsion from heaven see 1 Enoch 16.2–3; 54.4–5; 90.21, 24; Rev 12.7–12 (citations from J. A. Robinson, St Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians [London: Macmillan, 1909] 154; A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians [WBC 42; Dallas: Word, 1990] 95–6; C. F. Evans, Saint Luke [TPI New Testament Commentaries; London: SCM/Philadelphia: TPI, 1990] 454–5).

16 Muller, ‘Vision und Botschaft’, 425–7. Müller (ibid., 422) argues against the view of J. Jeremias (New Testament Theology [London: SCM, 1971] 95) and others that Luke 10.18 is a vision of a future event: while it could be such in the larger framework of an apocalypse, as an isolated logion it can only refer to an occurrence of the past. Jeremias's position, however, is a bit more nuanced, or perhaps confused, than Müller allows; while he does claim that ‘Jesus’ visionary cry of joy [Luke 10.18] leaps over the interval of time before the final crisis', he also writes that ‘the dawn of the annihilation of Satan… has already been reached’, with reference to the same verse. Garrett (Demise, 49–50) gives a rather unconvincing interpretation of the verse as a future reference in its Lukan context; see her nn. 49–50 for bibliography on this question.

17 Cf. Kümmel, , Promise and Fulfillment, 114.

18 The eschatological judgment was a future event for John (Matt 3.7–10//Luke 3.7–9; Matt 3.11–12//Luke 3.16–17), and, since this judgment would be the occasion at which the condemnation of the wicked would take place, it would also probably be the occasion for the forgiveness of the righteous (cf. J. Ernst, Johannes der Täufer. Interpretation—Geschichte—Wirkungsgeschichte [BZNW 53; Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1989] 334–6). John, moreover, distinguished his baptism in water from the Stronger One's baptism in the Spirit (Mark 1.7'8 pars.), and the latter baptism was the one with which forgiveness would probably have been associated because of the link between the Spirit and forgiveness in OT and Jewish apocalyptic texts (Ezek 36.25–6; Zech 12.10–13.1; 1QS 4.20–1). Contra R. L. Webb (John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Socio-Historical Study) (JSNTSup 62; Sheffield: JSOT, 1991] 193), who thinks that the confession of sins and accompanying baptism (Mark 1.5 pars.) shows that forgiveness was conceived to take place at the baptism itself. There is certainly some connection between this confession and the symbolic washing away of sin in baptism, but the connection may be proleptic in nature; the real washing would take place in the Spiritbaptism, of which the water-baptism was only a foreshadowing.

19 For the prophets, see Eichrodt, W., Theology of the Old Testament (2 vols.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 19611967) 2.457–60; for later Jewish apocalypticism, see e.g. 1QS 10.19–11.17.

20 See Merklein, H. (Jesu Botschaft von der Gottesherrschaft. Eine Skizze [SBS 111; Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1983] 60–1) and Crump (‘Scribal-Intercessor’, 59–63), both of whom bring the idea of Satan as accuser into connection with Luke 10.18.

21 Müller situates the vision of Luke 10.18 early in Jesus' ministry, but does not consider the possibility that it occurred at the baptism. He does argue, however, that a baptismal vision of Jesus cannot account for his initiation of a ministry independent of John the Baptist. This is because the baptism belongs to the period in which Jesus was associated with the Baptist and therefore agreed with his notion of an imminent but not-yet-realized eschaton; Jesus broke with the Baptist only later, after becoming convinced that the eschaton had arrived (‘Vision und Botschaft’, 427 n.29). Muller does not appear to consider, however, that Jesus might have gone into the water with one sort of eschatology and come up from it with the rudiments of another because of a visionary experience.

22 On the presence of the kingdom of God in Jesus' teaching, see Kümmel, , Promise and Fulfillment, 105–40.

23 Jesus did not immediately abandon the practice of baptizing, as John 3.22–6 shows (cf. Vögtle, ‘Taufperikope’, 121). This may have been because his own baptism had been so significant for him, and he thought that he could reinterpret John's rite in line with his new eschatology. In any event, this baptismal ministry apparently did not last very long, as it has left no imprint on the tradition apart from this one passage.

24 Cf. Weiss, J. (Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God [Lives of Jesus Series; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971; orig. 1892] 80–1), who relates Luke 10.18 to Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom; cf. Müller, ‘Vision und Botschaft’, 425–9.

25 Cf. Merklein, (Gottesherrschaft, 62), who links the temptation narrative with Luke 10.18.

26 See e.g. Eph 2.2 and the near-equivalency in 1QS 3.13–4.26 between the ‘angel of darkness’ and ‘the spirit of falsehood’ (cf. Lincoln, Ephesians, 96–7).

27 On these exegetical possibilities—and fourteen others!— see Davies, W. D. and Allison, D. C., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew 1: Introduction and Commentary on Matthew I–VII (ICC; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988) 331–4.

28 See Kümmel, (Promise and Fulfillment, 114): Satan's fall is being compared to the descent of lightning in its swiftness and conspicuousness.

29 See Davies, and Allison, , Matthew, 1.333.

30 See Jeremias, , New Testament Theology, 1420.

31 Note especially the similar sounds of the two opposed verbs, ℵ and ℵ.

32 This interpretation of the dove symbolism in Mark 1.10 pars, has recently been supported by the publication of a Qumran fragment in which God's eschatological Spirit is described in terms borrowed from Gen 1.2 (4Q521 2.6); see D. C. Allison, ‘The Baptism of Jesus and a New Dead Sea Scroll’, BAR (1992) 5860.

33 It is impossible to say whether the report now found in Luke 10.18 came to Luke as part of an alternate version of Jesus' baptismal vision and he is responsible for de-linking it from its baptismal context, or whether he knew it only as an isolated saying already de-linked from that context. The latter seems slightly more likely, since Luke preserves other eschatological sayings that give an impression of being foreign bodies and perhaps isolated logia (see e.g. 12.32, 4950; 17.20–1,18.8).

34 Luke, admittedly, seems to be blissfully unaware of this problem, since he inserts the vision into a context in the life of the earthly Jesus. In general, Luke's various statements and inferences about Satan's power or impotence are difficult to harmonize. On the one hand, Jesus wins an initial victory over Satan in the temptation narrative, so that Satan departs from him ἂχρι καιρο (‘until an opportune time’, 4.13), returning to the personal attack upon Jesus only in the passion narrative, which is an eschatological turning point (see 22.3, 53, and cf. the use of εύκαιρία in 22.6). On the other hand, Satan and his minions continue to be a force to be reckoned with during Jesus' public ministry (see e.g. 4.31–7; 8.26–39; 9.37–43;13.10–17) and even after the resurrection (see Acts 13.10; 19.11–16). Cf. D. Senior, The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (Passion Series 3; Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1989) 33–5; J. A. Fitzmyer, Luke the Theologian: Aspects of His Teaching (New York/Mahwah: Paulist, 1989) 158–64; and Garrett, Demise, passim.

35 I do not wish to deny that Jesus' baptismal experience may have included his own reception of the Spirit. He would not have interpreted this experience, however, in purely personal terms, but as part of the general apocalyptic event of the Spirit's universal outpouring, as in passages such as Joel 3.28–9.


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