THINKING ANGLICANS

Was Jesus faking it?

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’s baptism is almost the start of the whole story. Brief, to the point, Jesus is baptised and he is the (only) one who sees the heavens open; he’s the one who hears the voice, ‘You are my son, the beloved’. Matthew, having done Theology 101, isn’t all that crazy about Jesus being baptised, and he depicts Jesus as virtually going through the motions ‘to fulfil all righteousness’. In Luke, again it is Jesus who hears the words addressed to him — though this time it is after his baptism, while he was praying: a sort of prayer experience. In John, it is the Baptist who attests to Jesus’s baptism.

All those differences aside, I’ve long wondered why Jesus queued up that day to be baptised. If Matthew is correct, how did he feel being the only one not repenting of anything? Or do we take the other accounts at face value? He got baptised: live with it.

Thirty years ago I wrote a brief article suggesting that Jesus could well have felt guilt for social sin, as anachronistic as it was to use that term in that context. But if he is as incarnate as we believe him to be, he would have been the product of a particular culture with all its insights and biases, some of which hurt people (Mark 7.27). He would have had to participate in an unjust socio-economic system – what other option did he have? And, without wishing to psychoanalyse him, he might naturally have felt, as a good Jew, a collective responsibility for the sin of his people. There were reasons to be in that queue.

Since then I’ve wondered if more could be said. In Mark 10.18 and in the parallel Luke 18.19, in a remarkable exchange with the rich young ruler, Jesus would not allow himself to be called good, insisting that ‘No one,’ himself included, ‘is good but God alone’. Matthew, as in his account of the baptism, is sharp enough to realise the same danger here, so he changes the story a bit: instead of calling Jesus ‘Good Teacher’, Matthew has the man ask about ‘good deeds’ instead — with Jesus responding a little less precisely, ‘There is only one who is good’.

The Greek word for good, agathos, is concerned with the moral good and perhaps could be thought of as ‘morally perfect’. Though one can understand why Jesus might instinctively have wanted to deflect praise away from him towards his Father (he was pretty consistent), and though we might appreciate how Jesus eschewed flattery to focus on good actions instead, what if Jesus had meant what he purportedly said? What if this wasn’t only humble hyperbole? Perhaps Matthew was quite right to sense the danger again. No matter how we try to wiggle out of it, Jesus was not claiming moral perfection. Quite the opposite. And though this doesn’t often feature in formal christology, as a divine person with a created finite human nature, Jesus is also morally finite like the rest of us, and would have experienced himself as such (granted, this needs some careful teasing-out).

For the sake of argument, though, let us suppose that Jesus was in that queue. He had honestly come to be baptised just like everyone else: he had wanted to be dunked in that water and he had hoped to emerge different. In response, something new did occur: he was caught up in the Spirit and discovered (whether during the event or in prayer afterwards) that God was truly delighted with him, that his Father loved him to bits. As wonderful as that was, this experience turned his life upside-down, so much so that he had felt driven by that same Spirit into the wilderness, where he struggled to figure out what it had all meant. There he faced his various demons, demons that might have duped him and undermined what had just happened, and Jesus gradually came to understand his vocation: he was called to share what he had received, realising in Isaian terms that he had been anointed by the Spirit to proclaim good news to the poor (taking Luke’s particular ordering of events).

Though others have balked at this idea, Jesus’ baptism seems to have had all the hallmarks of a powerful conversion experience, a real turning-point. Like the evangelist Matthew, some are reluctant to use such language, thinking that it implies a conversion from sin. But if we suspend our Matthean-inspired theological need to make excuses for Jesus, the basic story of Jesus’ baptism is all the more compelling and paradigmatic for Christians: if Jesus needed to experience God’s love so powerfully, do I dare ask for anything less? Should I even dream of following Jesus unless that same Spirit palpably courses through my veins? And, perhaps, should we really associate conversion with sin, with what we do, as opposed to what God is doing?

Joe Cassidy
Principal, St Chad’s College, Durham

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JCF
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JCF

While reading this, I was caught betwixt enjoyment at the speculation, and the frustration of “You’re overthinking it: it’s a Mystery!”

Still, an interesting read. Thank you.

Father Ron Smith
Guest

One hesitates to dialogue with the Head of a theological institute, especially one with St.Chad’s provenance, but my theory of Jesus’ Baptism by John in the Jordan is slightly different. I know that the explanation given by Joe Cassidy is certainly affirming of the humanity of Jesus – perhaps needing conversion in order to undertake his divine mission. However, my personal understanding is that Jesus was already aware of his need to go along with John’s Baptism ritual – in order to attest to his authenticity, as being Jewish. Otherwise, John, amongst others, might not have fully recognised Jesus as… Read more »

Rosemary Hannah
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Rosemary Hannah

I rather like this explanation – it does explain that why although we are TOLD Jesus starts preaching repentance, what we mainly overhear Jesus saying is that God’s love is all-encompassing and extends to even those most unlikely recipients of it. Correspondingly, it is making the Kingdom inaccessible to others, and failing to forgive them, which is the sin he actually does call to repentance.

Skilbo
Guest
Skilbo

This post is totally tangential. It is interesting to note that there is not a word from this blog over the killing of scores of Christians in Nigeria over the past few weeks. Yet when a little noise is made over the persecution of homosexuals in Nigeria, this blog tends to go ballistic. Get me right, I don’t support the persecution of homosexuals, but the silence from this blog is deafening. Not a word, not a prayer. Innocent men, women and children were murdered by extremists on Christmas day, after service – not a word. A church was attacked in… Read more »

Ed Tomlinson
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Ed Tomlinson

Surely Christ enters the waters of baptism not to confess sin but to bless those waters by his grace for all eternity. This sermon, like so much theology of the last half century, falls IMHO because it’s gaze is fixed too much on man and not enough on God, miracle and mystery

Feria
Guest
Feria

In a similar vein, St. Jerome’s Dialogue Against the Pelagians quotes a passage from an early Syrian edition of Matthew’s gospel, in which Jesus briefly talks us through the reasoning behind his decision to be baptised:

‘The mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, “John the Baptist baptises for the forgiveness of sins; let us go and be baptised by him.” But he said to them, “In what way have I sinned that I should go and be baptised by him? Unless, perhaps, what I have just said is a sin of ignorance.”‘

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

If we take seriously the creedal statement that Jesus was fully human, then he was not God walking on earth in human disguise.
Would he have known that he would later be seen as having been without sin?

Maida
Guest
Maida

This is wonderful. Thank you.

Daniel Berry, NYC
Guest
Daniel Berry, NYC

In the American Prayerbook, the NT lesson at MP today is the account of the Baptism of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Interestingly, he claims to have seen the heavens opened and the Spirit descending. However, he says twice in the passage used at MP that he “did now know” Jesus prior to this episode. Which means–what? That he did not know who Jesus was (vocationally); or that he’d never met the dude (contrasting with Luke’s making them approximately second cousins) or what? As to being baptized as a sign of repentance, was that the Essene usage? I confess abysmal… Read more »

John
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John

Good to see that Father Ed still finds time to keep up with the finest brains of contemporary Christianity. He is always welcome. He should know, however, that Jesus’ baptism was earnestly discussed by early Christian Church Fathers, who did not find it unproblematic. Personally, I think the simplest and most useful explanation is that it’s a gesture of solidarity with us.

Pluralist
Guest

Well, there is an argument against the trinity, and at the very least Jesus unaware. Myth chews itself over.

But there’s a simpler explanation. He gets baptised because he joins John the Baptist’s group. John the Baptist is then lost to them, and Jesus takes up the ministry leadership. Both John and Jesus were expecting a God-created messianic end, and not of themselves as such (though later Jesus may have thought he would himself be transformed – this often happens with religious leaders, that they increasingly equate themselves with the mission undertaken with some urgency).

Mark Wharton
Guest
Mark Wharton

Erika Baker- that’s quite a comment really. So Jesus sinned did he? fascinating!

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

Mark,
Whether he did nor not – I didn’t actually say that.

I said he might not have known that he was without sin.
As a human being – how could he? How could he have known that he never sinned as a child or young adult, that he would never sin for the rest of his life? That he would not need the grace of Baptism?

All I’m asking is if we’re taking Jesus’ 100% humanity seriously enough.

Martin Reynolds
Guest
Martin Reynolds

Quite, John, this is an interesting re-visit of a perennial question.

We must remember that for many “orthodox” and “traditional” believers this baptism shouldn’t have worked yet alone had any spiritual significance – as it was administered by someone who failed all the tests set for them by scripture and tradition.

I found that these few paragraphs (for me) introduces a new level of miracle and mystery – it’s just not where you might expect it! That’s God for you!

peterpi - Peter Gross
Guest
peterpi - Peter Gross

What does it really mean to be fully human and fully divine at the same time? Jesus is, according to orthodox Christian teaching, completely and fully human. Period. Full stop. No exclusions. At the same time that he is fully divine. If he is fully human, he must have been subject to the frailties, insecurities, doubts, etc. that every other human suffers. Now, as some Christians put it, “Jesus was tempted in every way, but did not sin.” Now, they and most Christians like to emphasize the “did not sin” part, but, nonetheless, … he was tempted in every way.… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest

Surely., in taking upon himself our human frailty, Jesus took upon himself our sins. This makes sense of his final dereliction statement: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Could that not have been his supreme moment of actually experiencing, for himself, the ‘absence of God’ – which is the fruit of sin?

This makes sense of his final cry: “Into They hands I commit my Spirit” – out of the darkness of sin.

Daniel Berry, NYC
Guest
Daniel Berry, NYC

I don’t quite understand why anyone would be stuck on a “sinless” Jesus.

Whether you want to call it sinful or not, Jesus’ calling that woman a “dog” when she wanted him to heal her kid was pretty unattractive. The good news was she bested him. Like everyone else, Jesus needed to learn.

Erika Baker
Guest
Erika Baker

“Surely., in taking upon himself our human frailty, Jesus took upon himself our sins”

Well, actually, only God or the divine part of Jesus could do that. The whole point of the Incarnation is that humans couldn’t do it on their own.

But while Jesus is fully human during his life on earth, if he is taking upon himself our sins, he cannot be aware of it. Any awareness of his divinity would immediately render him less than 100% human.

Grandmère Mimi
Guest

“Would he have known that he would later be seen as having been without sin?”

Erika I like your question quite a lot. I’d guess that Jesus did not know, since he was fully human and came to knowledge gradually, like the rest of us.

As Fr Ron Smith reminds us, Jesus thought God abandoned him, so he seemed to have felt the weight sin, which, in his case, may have been our sins.

Mark Clavier
Guest
Mark Clavier

What I love about the baptism of Christ is precisely that its meaning isn’t explained to us in Scripture. We are simply told that Jesus is baptised, that there is the voice from heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit, followed by the strange compulsion by the Holy Spirit of Jesus into the wilderness. I think we can add to this the probable symbolism of Jesus doing in reverse what the Hebrews did at the end of the Exodus: he crosses through the waters of the Jordan into the Wilderness to be tempted rather than escaping from the temptation… Read more »

Rob
Guest
Rob

Fundamentally it seems the author makes the mistake of conflating Jesus’ humanity with the state of humanity’s spiritual death apart from Christ. Jesus was never wandering aimlessly around, experiencing false guilt nor denying his perfect union with the father — things we who are now alive in Christ continue to do because we remain such broken clay vessels this side of glory. I’m afraid the author’s whole premise imposes a bit too much of his own spiritual condition upon Jesus, as if this is what is meant to be human! This leaves his speculations as rather less than helpful. Though… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest

“Well, actually, only God or the divine part of Jesus could do that. The whole point of the Incarnation is that humans couldn’t do it on their own.” – Erika Baker –

Your point is taken, Erika, but we need to be careful not to bifurcate Jesus’ divinity and his humanity – they come of-a-piece. As Mimi infers: Jesus felt the weight of our sin both as Son of God and Son of Man. His separation was from His Father. All very mysterious, I know, but needing some unwrapping – as far as is possible to us mere mortals.

Feria
Guest
Feria

Daniel Berry: ‘I don’t quite understand why anyone would be stuck on a “sinless” Jesus.’ I think, inter alia, there’s an important procedural reason for it. Part of Jesus’ mission was to abolish large chunks of the Law of Moses: the “ceremonies” and “civil precepts”, as they’re retrospectively called in the Articles of Religion of the Church of England. However, if the Pharisees had been able to put together a convincing case that Jesus had committed any violation of the Law of Moses, then they could have made a strong argument that He had a self-interest, which would have undermined… Read more »

David Shepherd
Guest

Are the powers of each nature expressed in distinct and separate ways, or is Christ a unique individuality expressing both deity and humanity in a manner that cannot be segregated? When did He speak as man, but not as God? Our faith declares the incarnation to be foretold, (God is with us) and fulfilled. To be the second Adam of an eternal promise, Christ must have a nature that is distinct from mere mortals. While we should not shy away from examining what it means to be fully human (as several have done here), who among us can presume to… Read more »

Uriel
Guest
Uriel

I have felt for some time that “Christ” represents not “Jesus’ last name” (as someone has phrased it) but rather the potential of the ultimate consciousness of all humans. That “Christ” exists, not only in this one individual, but in all of us – and that the awareness it represents was, theoretically, more realized in this person than in anyone else. My informal slogan has become (from the baptismal service) “to seek and serve Christ in all persons” – and I do believe Christ exists in us all. At what point the man Jesus became fully aware of the complete… Read more »

David Wilson
Guest
David Wilson

Perhaps the failure to undergo baptism would in itself have been the sin, so for the sake of maintaining His sinlessness He submitted Him self. I would suggest that He confessed no sin, as He had lead a sinless life under the law, and Our heavenly Father endorsed His son by speaking from the heavens and sending the Holy Spirit to anoint Jesus Christ.

Father Ron Smith
Guest

David Shepherd, thank you. I feel, at last, a sense of convergence with what you have stated above. Despite our differences on matters of gender and sexuality, I think we have reached agreement on the essence of what God was ‘up to’ in the mysterious reality of Jesus’ incarnation: as both Son of God and Son of Man – uniquely, in our world. Agape!
Kalo Epiphania

David Shepherd
Guest
David Shepherd

Father Ron: Gracious words. Christ might say to both of us as we acknowledge His ineffable mystery: ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God’.

We both hunger and thirst to know more.

Laurence Roberts
Guest
Laurence Roberts

If you can ~

DO go to visit The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca at the National Gallery (London). It is so worth attending to and meditating on.

It is in a discrete chapel-like room of its own, along with his Nativity.

The mind and its discussions becomes silenced in the presence of something beyond language and dualities.

david wilson
Guest
david wilson

Pluralist

Of course then again – it could very well be because it is true and that is how many of us have experienced and encountered God: as described in the New Testament. We witness His transforming power in the prisons, The healing and transforming power of His love with the broken. Which other God can we say has loved us? It actually makes sense of what we encounter on a global scale, that Jesus did indeed turn out to be the light to the gentiles as described in Isaiah and in the book of John.

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

The Joe Cassidy article explores the baptism of Jesus along the lines of the “messianic consciousness” theory. Cassidy’s take is intriguing. There is a terrific book by Donald Juel titled “A Master of surprise Mark interpreted.” ( Fortress Press, Minneapolis. 1994.) Juel looks at the Markan Baptism account in his chapter “Transgressing Boundaries: Jesus Baptism in Mark”. Among other insights, Juel notes ” The terse account of Jesus’ baptism introduces us to the truth that will generate a whole story: Jesus is confirmed as Messiah by a heavenly act and declaration–but outside the Holy city and sanctuary, among the impure… Read more »

MarkBrunson
Guest

People starve.

Humans continue to buy one another and grind them under the heel of the marketplace.

Murder, war, abuse.

But, please, let’s continue the pointless navel gazing. Look at Tomlinson – nonsense.

God came *for* humans. He came to redeem humans. He made humans in His image and placed a bit of Himself within them. How can you separate the two? Too much humanity? There’s been none in Christianity, for most of its history.

All these “theological” points are merely a way of ignoring real problems and pretending your engaging.

Pluralist
Guest

He’s a Jewish rabbi, doing what he was doing according to time and place. No doubt as a child he thumped other kids or got thumped because he partly to blame, and grew up as a teenager as teenagers do. Was he an honest builder? No information. All this sinless stuff is nothing but doctrine after the absence of facts. The interest in him is the reversal ethics, but that is what they are. He is an evolved human like the rest of us, and, as they say, nothing special in that.

Rod Gillis
Guest
Rod Gillis

Pluralist, one may take the stance that under all the New Testament witness Jesus was just a Jewish Rabbi ( itinerant outlander/ preacher more like it), and someone like the rest of us. One may also take the position that Bible stories are mere artifacts, with all this God talk being outdated. It is worth remembering that the discussion is about the view of Jesus the Christ as presented by the Gospel of Mark– a document with a slender eye witness account, disinterested in historical analysis as we understand it, but one which attempts to offer religious insight into the… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest

Pluralist, your words here sound remarkably like what a Muslim might have said about Jesus – that He was a Prophet, and not the Son of God. In the Quran, Jesus does not rate a chapter to Himself, whereas ‘Maryama al-Adra’ (Mary), the mother of Jesus gets a whole chapter! Perhaps you really are a closet Muslim.

No offence intended here – either to you, or to my Muslim friends. Just an observation.

MarkBrunson
Guest

I’m not sure what is particularly Muslim in Pluralist’s assertion that Jesus was “an evolved human, like the rest of us . . .” – is that not central to Christian soteriology? He became Man. If He became Man, then He had the drives, desires, failings and faults of a man. I find it far more compelling to think of “without sin” as being an overcoming of sin, perhaps even atonement for sin, given the notable lack of information before His public ministry. It always seems to me to be a way to *avoid* our calling to ministry, to put… Read more »

Joe Cassidy
Guest

Was overseas when this was published and was unable to comment on the comments. Key response is that Jesus’ divinity is revealed through his humanity, not underneath it, beside it, or in spite of it.

For a detailed (sometimes rather technical) respsonse to many of the comments, see the following webpage on my college website:

http://www.dur.ac.uk/chads/christology-comment.html