Baptism, Redemption, and the Historical Jesus

This started as part of the Summary to Chapter 1; however, the topic sort of took on a life of its own and grew into something that stretched beyond just a Summary. As such, I decided it needed to be a stand-alone post.

The touchpoint with Chapter 1 is the issue of the quarrels that Paul mentions; what were these dissensions that divided the Jesus Assembly of Corinth? This is a truly significant piece of historical information. It’s one of those instances in which the argument that “this is so embarrassing that it has to be legitimate” really holds, IMO. The fact of the cross is another, but it’s not germane to this particular discussion. A third instance of this is Paul’s attitude towards baptism.

That Paul took the time to write such a well-composed letter to the community of Corinth is, I think, evidence that the community was important to Paul; in fact, that’s almost a tautology. Why was it important? I think part of the reason is that it was fairly large; large enough to have differing factions who had different beliefs, and that these differences were sufficient that Paul felt it necessary to address their existence. One or two dissenters out of twenty are oddballs; twenty or thirty dissenters out of 200 are schismatics. A group of that size can, theoretically, split off and start their own group. When they do that, they may become heretics, and this happened with increasing frequency as time passed. I believe that the dissensions mentioned here and in Galatians indicate that this was a problem that cropped up within the first decade, or at least the first generation after Jesus’ death. This was not something that was the result of an essentially Jewish message being translated into Hellenistic philosophical thought.

So what were the causes of these differences?

I think it is safe to say that the role of baptism was very likely one of the differences in messages put out by some combination of Cephas/Peter, Apollos, and Paul. This explains, IMO, Paul’s dismissive attitude. He cannot remember who he baptized; a handful, a household, but maybe there were others. Or maybe not. This does not sound like an attitude I would expect if baptism were seen as the entrée point into the Jesus community, as it became later. Rather, it seems like something that Paul perhaps did, but against his better judgement, and that he wasn’t exactly thrilled to be doing it. If Paul was not keen on baptism, the implication is that either Cephas or Apollos, or both, were proponents of baptism. I have to leave Apollos out of the equation; he is a name and nothing more, and this is where so many historical theories jump the rails. One starts with a distinction, adds an inference, and then leaps to a set of connections for which there is no actual evidence. As such, I won’t speculate on what Apollos taught, as opposed to what Paul or Peter taught.

The thing is, baptism was part of the Jewish tradition. There’s a good chance it was adopted after the practice of John the Baptist made the ritual popular. Now, we don’t know exactly what John taught, but there is, IMO, absolutely no reason to believe that he deviated from what a mainstream Jew (if such a person existed) accepted as, well, acceptable. This is, I believe, a valid inference given what both the gospels and Josephus tell us about John’s popularity; the latter, frankly, gives the impression that John was the more popular of the two. At least during their respective lifetimes. Assuming that we can trust these sources, it seems unlikely that John taught anything too radical; people with radical agendas don’t become popular in their lifetime. Baptism, of course, shows up in Mark, even if it does not play a very prominent role outside the baptism of Jesus. When Jesus sends out the Twelve, he does not instruct them to baptize. We have no story of Jesus baptizing anyone. This was not, in all probability, a core practice of Jesus and the Twelve during Jesus’ lifetime.

This cluster of facts, I think, supports my idea that, over time, the evangelists played up the connection to John, rather than trying to sweep it under the rug.

Then why did proto-Christian communities begin performing this ritual? When did they begin performing this ritual? Someone was perpetuating this tradition, and it wasn’t Paul.
And which “tradition” is this? I posited the existence of a “Christ” tradition and a “Wonder-worker” tradition. Paul is obviously of the Christ-tradition. For Paul, and for the people who created the message contained in the second half of Mark’s gospel, Jesus was The Christ, The Messiah. The adherents of this tradition did not have many (any) doubts. The same cannot be said of Jesus in the first half of the work. There, Mark is, at best, ambivalent. Now, I have dubbed this the “Wonder-worker” half; that’s not inaccurate, I believe, because the miracles that Jesus performs in this half of the gospel have a very prominent place. In fact, I think it can be argued that they are the central theme of this part of Mark, which is why I gave it the name I did. However, the name is also slightly facetious, and perhaps slightly too narrow. For our purposes, the salient feature may not be the miracles, but Jesus as a man who was (probably) not the Messiah. This would keep Jesus inside the bounds of Hebraic monotheism. As such, it’s not hard to take the step to positing that this was the tradition of James, brother of Jesus.

Something occurred to me. Jesus was the leader of the Jesus sect for, perhaps, three years. That’s the traditional number. But let’s say it was five, or even ten, that Jesus had been preaching for ten years before his death. That’s a long time. But James was the leader of the group for about 30 years if we accept the traditional date of Jesus’ death as around 33, and James’ death as around 62. That’s 29 years, three times as long as Jesus. I think it would be naïve, or foolish to think that James did not impose a lot of his beliefs, or attitudes, or emphases onto the good news that was being preached. In fact, it would be impossible; no human can run a show that long without leaving big chunks of herself behind. So the tradition of Mark 1-7 was three times more likely to reflect James’ beliefs than Jesus’ teachings. OK, that’s a bit overstated, but I think we need to consider this in some fairly extreme terms in order to get past the mental rut we’re all in concerning Jesus.

So a Jesus who was still human and (probably) not the Messiah could be perfectly Jewish. James set a great store on Jewish customs and the Law; at least, that’s what Paul said. Baptism also fits perfectly into a Jewish context and milieu. Ergo, it’s probably not too much of a stretch to believe that it was James and his followers who were the proponents of baptism. And, given the history between Paul and James, this would be another reason why Paul was rather contemptuous of the practice. In the same vein, the idea of Jesus as Redeemer does not fit nicely into a Jewish context; rather, it’s something that pretty obviously (IMO) belongs to the Christ tradition.

From here, it’s a pretty short step to what feels like very solid ground to support my hypothesis that Mark had these two different traditions that had to be welded together. And “welded” is probably a better metaphor than “woven”, since the two traditions don’t have much overlap, except for the Chapters 8-10. These three feel like the weld, the transition section, the stuff Mark made up, or inferred, or thought necessary to make the two separate traditions fit together at all. We absolutely know that Jews foundered on the idea of Jesus being the Messiah, and certainly on the idea of him being divine. This ambivalence is present in Mark; Paul, who is the earlier source, OTOH, is dead certain that Jesus was the Christ.

That seems to be retrograde motion, downgrading Jesus from Messiah to person. This can be explained in one of two ways. The first is that Paul taught Jesus as the Messiah, and as time went on, followers became less certain of this, resulting in Mark’s notable ambivalence. The second possible explanation is that there were parallel tracks to the Jesus tradition, one of them teaching Jesus as the Messiah, the other telling stories of him being a wonder worker who talked about the kingdom of God, but who was very much still a Jew. Mark encountered both these traditions, which were parallel in the technical sense of the term: they did not intersect. Mark’s task was to make these two traditions intersect.

The second possibility seems much more likely on its own merits. It seems very unlikely that Jesus became less divine over time, especially given Matthew. Because, when another fifteen or twenty years have passed after Mark, Matthew wrote his gospel. In this portrayal, Jesus is not only the Messiah, but also divine, the literal ‘son of God’, defined or put in terms that any pagan would have understood completely.

IOW. the arc of the tradition is bending towards making Jesus a greater figure as time passed. Jesus becomes more like Paul’s Christ; in fact, he becomes Paul’s Christ and more. The tradition does not pull back from Jesus being the Christ, as would be required in the first explanation for Mark’s ambivalence. The ambivalence still existed when Mark wrote; it was gone by the time Matthew wrote, at least in the texts that came to be considered canonical and ended up in the NT.

This, in turn, has enormous implications for the Historical Jesus. It means that looking for the real, historical Jesus in Matthew, Luke, or John is probably a fool’s errand. The story of Jesus was growing. That means that new stuff was being made up to justify the more elevated status of Jesus. This means the stories were drifting further from their historical anchors. This means the stories become less historical as time passes. This means Matthew and Luke are seriously compromised as potential historical sources. This means that the closest we are going to get to Jesus is in Mark. Yes, Mark, not Paul.

Why not Paul? Because Paul has already decided that Jesus was The Christ, a figure of divine and metaphysical significance, one who changed everything. As such, Paul has no interest in Jesus the man. Mark, OTOH, encountered the tradition of Paul as well as another tradition, in which Jesus was not the Christ. This tradition, being more firmly anchored in, and attached to Judaism, declined to make Jesus the Christ, and certainly declined to see Jesus as divine. This was, most likely, the tradition expounded by James, the brother of the Lord. Of all Jesus’ followers, surely James is the one least likely to see Jesus as anything beyond a very special man. After all, he had known Jesus as a kid. In addition, James was still a stalwart Jew, who believed that Jesus was a Jew, and that all who followed Jesus should be Jews. This tradition would be the one that saw Jesus as a man, and would have been reluctant to elevate Jesus to the status of Messiah.

This is why Mark was ambivalent. This is why Paul disparaged baptism. This is why Paul and James had trouble seeing eye-to-eye. Yes, it was about Jewish practice, but that was because James insisted on a much stricter Jewish interpretation of who Jesus was. Jesus was not the Messiah, whereas Paul believed that he was. The disagreement went beyond circumcision and dietary practices: it went to the root of who—or what—Jesus was. No, we have no evidence for this. Why not? Because it would be clearly in Paul’s best interest to suppress this part of the disagreement. Just think of the PR angle: the brother of Jesus did not think Jesus was The Christ, but Paul did. No wonder Paul’s defensive about the pillars of the community in Jerusalem! The very people who had known Jesus did not agree with Paul. Damn straight Paul is going to suppress this. And no wonder he got so scared when James’ followers visited the Galatians.

OK, well. This obviously went well beyond a summary of the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, so I had to make this a stand-alone post. Because I believe this idea–and that’s all it is: an idea, an hypothesis, a piece of (possibly wild) speculation. But I do believe this is what the text—as we have it—is telling us. This is why I thought it would be very interesting, very beneficial, and very telling to jump back to Paul after reading Mark. They are, after all, our earliest sources. They are as close as we’re going to get to the historical Jesus. The Jesus portrayed in Matthew, Luke, and John is something very different from the Jesus that walked the earth.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on November 23, 2013, in 1 Corinthians, epistles, gospels, Historical Jesus, mark's gospel, Paul's Letters, Special topic, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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