Jesus’ Baptism

Published by DonDavidson on

The synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—agree that before Jesus began his ministry he came to John the Baptist to be baptized.[1] But they differ a little bit on a few details.

For example, they all agree that the Spirit of God descended from Heaven after Jesus’ baptism. But whereas Matthew and Mark say the Spirit descended “like a dove” or “as a dove,” depending on your translation, Luke adds that the Spirit “descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove.” Luke, it seems, wanted to clarify that the dove was no metaphorical imagery but the Spirit of God in the form of an actual dove.

The timing of the Spirit’s descent is also a matter of slight difference. Matthew and Mark say that Heaven was opened and the dove descended “immediately” upon Jesus rising from the water after his baptism. Luke implies that the dove appeared a few moments later, for he says that it happened “while he [Jesus] was praying.”

These are details which could easily be explained away as mere semantics. The final difference is a little harder to explain away like that. Mark and Luke agree that when the dove descended a voice from heaven said, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well pleased.” Thus, the voice is clearly addressing Jesus. But in Matthew’s gospel, the voice is obviously speaking to onlookers when it says, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Small discrepancies like this[2] are one of the things that make me skeptical of those who insist that God wrote the Bible word-for-word, and that its authors were merely taking dictation. I prefer to see the Bible’s authors like witnesses describing what they saw and heard, but in their own words. And as any judge or lawyer will tell you, people often perceive and remember events differently. Perhaps we should be less surprised at these minor differences and more surprised that they so frequently agree.

Now let us be clear—none of the gospel writers were likely present at Jesus’ baptism, and certainly none of them witnessed Satan’s temptation of Jesus. Luke became a Christian long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the same was probably true of Mark. If Matthew the tax collector wrote the gospel that bears his name, Jesus did not ask him to “follow me”[3] until more than a month after Jesus’ baptism (since Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days before even beginning his ministry). It seems highly unlikely that Matthew the tax collector would have been interested in either John or Jesus much before that.

So the gospel accounts are almost certainly not eyewitness accounts as to all of the events they describe, although I believe they are probably based on the eyewitness accounts of others—including, in some cases, Jesus himself.

This should in no way undermine our faith in the truth of what the gospel writers describe. In Christianity, as in court, we can find the truth by comparing the testimony of multiple witnesses to see where they agree and where they differ—and unlike what often happens in court, the New Testament authors agree to a remarkable degree.

In the stories of Jesus’ baptism, the three gospel writers agree that Jesus was baptized by John, that the Spirit of God appeared on the scene, and that the Father’s voice from heaven expressed approval of his son, Jesus. That is what’s important.

[1]. The accounts are at Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-22. The quotes are from the New American Standard Bible translation.

[2]. The accounts of Satan’s temptation of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are another example of minor discrepancies. (See Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13.) In Matthew, the order of the three temptations is bread, temple, kingdoms, whereas in Luke the order is bread, kingdoms, temple.

[3]. See Matthew 9:9


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