In the first blog post I showed how the earliest Christians were forced to make sense of the death of Jesus in light of belief in his resurrection. Why had the one they “had hoped” would redeem Israel died at the hands of the Romans by means of crucifixion? To answer this question the early believers turned both to their Jewish scriptures and to their ritual life associated with the Jerusalem Temple and its sacrificial cult. In scripture they found echoes that resonated with their experience, especially such passages as Isaiah 53 in relation to the death of Jesus, and Psalm 110 in relation to their conviction that Jesus had been raised to the right hand of God. Appeals to specific proof-texts also led to generic assertions that the death and resurrection of Jesus was to be found in scripture.
So Luke could have the risen Jesus simply assert (24:45-47): “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.’” The problem is, of course, that nowhere is this written in the Jewish scriptures. Nevertheless, their conviction that God had raised Jesus from the dead became the central key to unlocking the true meaning of both Jewish scripture and Jewish ritual as harbingers of a crucified messiah whose death atoned for sin. (Perhaps ironically, Luke does not make the connection between the death of Jesus and atonement for sin. Rather Luke casts Jesus as the first martyr whose triumphant resurrection vindicates his tragic death.)
The retrospective theologizing of the earliest Christians that resulted in a perfectly sinless Jesus led inexorably to a process of retrojection, whereby the Gospel writers told and retold the story of Jesus in the firm belief that he had lived a perfectly sinless life, a divine life, the life of a divine man, the selfless son of God who gave himself for others. The process of retrojecting a sinless Jesus can be seen in a variety of places within the Gospel traditions, but nowhere more clearly than in the baptism and birth stories.
The story of Jesus’ baptism is recounted in all four of the canonical Gospels. But the differences between the accounts reflect a significant reworking of the base tradition about Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. The account presented in the Gospel of Mark is rightly viewed as representing the earliest version of the tradition. The account is very straightforward. John the Baptist has been preaching a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus comes and is baptized by John, after which the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus as a dove and a heavenly voice declares that Jesus is God’s Son, echoing Psalm 2:7. Most scholars recognize Mark’s baptism scene as the anointing and adoption of Jesus as God’s Son.
That Jesus might have been perceived as submitting to a baptism of repentance from sin does not concern Mark at all. But it bothers Matthew in the extreme. Matthew famously adds material to address two problems with the tradition he received from Mark. First, Matthew must deal with the problem of having Jesus submit to John the Baptist at all, making Jesus appear subordinate and inferior to John. Matthew accomplishes this by having John the Baptist object to baptizing Jesus, and by having the Baptist clearly subordinate himself to Jesus (Mt 3:14): “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But, secondly, Matthew must also deal with the larger problem of why Jesus is getting baptized by John at all. Jesus cannot be perceived as seeking baptism for forgiveness of sins.
And so Matthew introduces a rather curious rationale to explain why Jesus is getting baptized by John (Mt 3:!5): “But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he [John] consented.” As is well known, the motif of righteousness is prominent throughout Matthew’s Gospel, and Matthew invokes it here in the baptism scene to explain why Jesus is getting baptized. It is not for anything to do with forgiveness of sin. In this way Matthew sanitizes Mark’s potentially troubling story by retrojecting a sinless Jesus back into the baptism story. The baptism story apparently was such a strong tradition that there was no way to avoid it, but that didn’t mean the evangelists could reshape it. And reshape it they did.
The Gospel of Luke reshapes John the Baptist right out of the story! This is yet another way to put distance between Jesus and John the Baptist’s preaching a baptism for forgiveness of sins. Luke famously takes the story of John’s arrest that is narrated later in Mark 6 and moves it to immediately before the baptism of Jesus in Luke 3. The baptism story is told in the passive voice, and John the Baptist is conspicuously absent. This was Luke’s creative solution to dealing with the dual problems of inferior submission and sin inherent in Mark’s telling of the baptism story.
The Gospel of John goes one better than even Luke by simply not having a baptism of Jesus at all. Of course there is great doubt that John knew any of the Synoptic Gospels in their written form, but John seems to know enough about the traditions to reduce John the Baptist to a mere witness to the Spirit coming upon Jesus, quite apart from any baptism.
The birth narratives about Jesus presented in Matthew and Luke also demonstrate a process of retrojecting a perfectly sinless Jesus coming into the world in divine fashion. In Matthew’s account, much modeled on the birth story of Moses and his escape from Pharaoh, Joseph is portrayed as a righteous man who plans to divorce Mary since she is found to be pregnant before they consummate their marriage. This can only mean, of course, that Mary has sinned and is guilty of adultery. But Joseph receives a vision that the child is from God, and that Joseph is to name the child Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins.” Already in the birth narrative, then, the purpose and destiny of Jesus finds articulation.
The implication is clear. How will he save his people from sin? By dying as a ransom for many on the cross. Thus the significance of the death of Jesus in light of the resurrection is retrojected all the way back to the birth.To safeguard Mary as well as Jesus, Matthew also goes out of his way in the genealogy to enlist the help of four women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah) to invoke stories that show how the appearance of sexual scandal can in reality be God’s righteousness at work. Just as Matthew sanitized the baptism story of Jesus, so he retrojects a sinless birth story for both mother and son in light of early Christian belief in the resurrection of the crucified messiah.
Luke’s approach to the birth of Jesus differs significantly from Matthew’s, but still gets rid of any scandal associated with the pregnancy of Mary or the birth of Jesus. Unlike Matthew, Luke makes no reference to Mary’s pregnancy being a problem. Rather, the birth of Jesus occurs amidst the inhumanity of having to travel and give birth in an animal stall. Songs of praise are offered to God throughout Luke’s birth narrative. Jesus’ lowly birth will set the stage for the motif of reversal that dominates the rest of the Gospel. Just as Jesus will identify with sinners and prostitutes in Luke, so he will offer salvation to a thief on the cross next to him. Luke shares the vindication of resurrection faith in the reversal stories that characterize his Gospel as a whole (e.g., Jesus’ sermon in Luke 4, the woman of the city in Luke 7, tax collectors in Luke 18 & 19).
The retrojection of perfection onto Jesus carries over into the Gospel of John’s pre-history of Jesus as the Word who was in the beginning with God, and through whom all things were made. Similar motifs can be found in hymns to Christ in Colossians 1 and in the book of Revelation’s heavenly choirs who give praise to the victorious lamb, who conquered through his blood. Elsewhere, Christian tradition continued to grow after the Gospels were written, for example, in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas with its perfect divine child. Somewhat later the apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews (as quoted by Jerome) has Jesus respond to the suggestion that he should get baptized by John the Baptist by asking, “what sin have I committed that I should go and be baptized by him?”
In the next post I will explore how the Christian tradition utterly subordinated any vestige of human weakness in Jesus to such a degree that not only didn’t Jesus sin, but that as the Son of God he did not have the capacity to sin.
–Jeff Siker, New Testament scholar