Academic consensus holds that John the Baptist performed a baptism on Jesus Christ in the Jordan River. Christ’s baptism and his crucifixion, according James Dunn, “command almost universal assent” (1). Dunn goes on to say that these two facts “rank so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical facts” (2).
The reasons underpinning the historical acceptance of Christ’s baptism is that the narrative is found within several independent New Testament sources. Extra-biblical sources too shed light on the historical John the Baptist. Josephus Flavius, a first century historian in his work the Antiquities of the Jews (93 AD), writes concerning John the Baptist, his popularity among the crowds, and his death in Perea by Herod Antipas which is also independently attested in the gospel accounts. This corroboration by an important Jewish-Roman historian of the first century provides historians confidence that the gospels are referring to historical figures and events associated with those figures.
The gospel sources widely attest to Christ’s baptism. It is attested in Mark 1:10, Matthew 3:16, Luke 3:22, and John 1:32, as well as in Acts 10:37-38. It is important, however, to note that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s earlier gospel as a source narrative, so we have at least two independent sources (Mark and John) plus Acts. From the New Testament canon we have three independent sources attesting to the baptism.
Jesus’ baptism is further reported in the hypothetical Q, as scholar Robert Webb points out, “[T]he weight of the evidence leads me to a conclusion of probability: the text of Q most likely contained an account of Jesus’ baptism and the theophany” (3).
This is important since hypothetical Q is believed to predate the gospels sources and is commonly dated to the 40s or 50s CE (6). This shows the baptism of Jesus to have been an early belief, rather than an event later attributed to Christ by some author.
Further, according to the standard historical criterion, Christ’s baptism passes the criterion of embarrassment. This is a criterion of which scholars apply to the New Testament accounts to separate what is likely historical from what isn’t. The idea here is that it is very unlikely that the authors, who we know were followers of Christ with an investment in the early Christian movement, would have made up an event that was embarrassing to themselves, their revered figure, and to their early movement. That an embarrassing detail is mentioned suggests the detail is likely historical rather than fabricated. How does this apply to Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist? Baptism was seen by the early Christians as the washing away of sins, yet it is clear that the early Christians viewed Christ as their sinless saviour. According to them, Christ is the only individual capable of saving them from their sins. It is therefore very unlikely that Christ’s baptism would be an obscure historical event that the New Testament writers would invent given this early belief. It is more likely that the baptism actually took place.
In conclusion, Christ’s baptism is multiply and independently attested in six historical sources: Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, and Q. Of those sources at least three are independent. Of those six, at least two are considered early: Q and Mark. These, coupled with the criterion of embarrassment, provides a fairly high probability that Christ’s baptism is an actual event of history. It is further a fact accepted by some of the more skeptical and radical scholars. For example, Dominic Crossan, of the former Jesus Seminar, believes that it is historically certain that Christ was baptized by John in the Jordan River (4). Webb concludes that,
“within the realms of historical probability, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. As such, the baptism was for Jesus a significant turning point in his life, from his former life as a peasant artisan in Nazareth to a life of ministry” (5).
1. Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus Remembered. p. 339.
2. Dunn, J. 2003. Ibid.
3. Webb, J. 2005. Jesus’ Baptism: Its Historicity and Implications. Available.
4. Crossan, J. 1999. Who Is Jesus? p. 31-32.
5. Webb, J. 2005. Ibid.
6. Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making Volume.