Consensus holds that John the Baptist performed a baptism on Jesus in the Jordan River. Jesus’ baptism and his crucifixion, according to 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). What we find are various independent sources corroborating the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.
For instance, Josephus Flavius, a 1st century historian in his work the Antiquities of the Jews writes about John the Baptist, his popularity among the crowds, and his death in Perea by Herod Antipas which is further independently attested in the gospel accounts. Josephus’ corroboration of John the Baptist as a historical person gives us further confidence in our New Testament accounts.
Within the four gospels Jesus’ baptism 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 to note that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s earlier gospel as a source narrative, so we have at least two independent sources (Mark, 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: “…the 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 out New Testament gospels, and is commonly dated to the 40s or 50s AD (6). This demonstrates that the baptism of Jesus is an early belief.
Furthermore, according to standard historical criterion Jesus’ baptism passes the criterion of embarrassment. This is a criteria of which scholars apply to the New Testament literature to separate what is deemed historical from what isn’t historical. In other words, it is highly unlikely that the authors would have simply made up an event that was embarrassing to their early movement. Baptism was seen by the early Christians as the washing away of sins, yet the early Christians also saw Jesus as sinless. Therefore, Jesus’ baptism is not something the early Christians would invent out of whole cloth. Jesus’ baptism passes the criterion of embarrassment.
So in essence, Jesus’ baptism is multiply attested in seven historical sources: Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, Q, and Josephus. Of those seven sources at least four, if not five, are independent. Coupled with the criterion of embarrassment I think we can be confident that we’re dealing with historical fact. Scholar Dominic Crossan, of the radical Jesus Seminar argues that it is historically certain that Jesus was baptised 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.