Baker Academic

Friday, August 22, 2014

Cross-checking Crossley: Did Jesus Baptize?

There are few voices in contemporary Jesus studies more interesting than that of James Crossley. James (or “Jimbo” as his friends call him) is also one of the genuinely pleasant blokes in the field. So it was only a matter of time before I exploited his good nature for my own personal gain.

Yesterday Dr. Crossley argued that John’s Gospel offers little help to the historian interested in reconstructing Jesus’ life. He takes on Paul Anderson and Richard Bauckham who have recently attempted to revive the use of John for historical reconstruction. He makes a couple compelling points, but I will take issue with this one:
Maybe there are some things we can see as part of earlier tradition (e.g. John the Baptist and Jesus working simultaneously, visiting Jerusalem more than once, archaeological details, date of the Passover, prediction of a rebuilt Temple etc.). Even so, some of these issues are again too general and sometimes just reflective of cultural practices, or could even be worked out from the Synoptics.
In a facebook conversation that followed his post I suggested that even if we consider the Fourth Gospel to be revisionist history (a category in which I’m mildly invested) it offers valuable information to the historian. I wrote, “I think that we can learn a great deal about a time and place by close analysis of the revisionist histories that emerge shortly after.” Crossley answered with a question, “what can we get from John? I can see some general points but do you think there is anything we can't already get from, for e.g., the Synoptics?”

Crossley is happy to affirm that the Fourth Gospel may offer us a few generalities, but he claims it doesn’t offer specific data that can’t already be learned from Matthew, Mark, or Luke. So “what can we get from John?” he asks. I can think of a few specifics that we could discuss, but it might be more useful to point to a single example:

Did Jesus baptize?

The Synoptics offer nothing specific. If we only had Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we might say that Jesus talked a bit about baptism but didn’t do any literal baptizing (whether it be for repentance, or ritual purity, or to upstage John the Baptist). But we get this tasty little morsel from the Fourth Gospel:
John 3:22: After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized.
Now I don’t take anything in the Gospels at face value. To me this is only an invitation to ask a few questions. But here is where things get interesting from a social memory perspective:
John 4:1-3: Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” (although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized) he left Judea and started back to Galilee.
Ah the sweet nectar of a Johannine parenthetical statement! I get a literary goose from a good Johannine parenthetical statement, my friends. Why is the Fourth Evangelist so concerned that we might think that Jesus was baptizing? Furthermore, why doesn’t the author correct or clarify to this effect a chapter earlier when the topic is introduced? And why is it a problem that the Pharisees think that Jesus was baptizing? Finally, we have a fascinating “he learned” that they “had heard” situation. Are we to imagine that the Judean rumor mill has run amok?

Okay, let’s back up and make two things clear. Almost every commentary on John tells us that (1) the Fourth Evangelist is keenly interested to elevate Jesus at the Baptist’s expense and (2) the Fourth Evangelist is out to make the Judean leadership look bad. I don’t doubt that both of these agendas have colored the story in John 4:1-3 (although it is a bit odd that we hear of “the Pharisees” rather than “the Jews” in this case). But embedded in this politicized counter-memory is a memory of a specific rumor about Jesus. Could it be that some Pharisees in the late first-century believed that Jesus baptized people en masse? Given the way the storyteller presents this datum, I would tend to think so.

It seems that the storyteller has inherited a claim that Jesus baptized. And it is possible that Jesus did baptist. Indeed we might think of Jesus' foot washing and Peter's request to be washed entire differently in this light. Given that Jesus had a high respect for John the Baptist, this claim is worth considering. Not only is it historically possible, it had enough traction to have created a minor controversy. The Fourth Evangelist seeks to create distinction between Jesus and John and thus interjects a counter-memory. Whether or not we conclude that Jesus was a baptizer is a thesis left for another day. My point here is much more limited: the Fourth Evangelist’s not so subtle attempts to revise the tradition betray information that we would not otherwise have. Without the Fourth Gospel, the question "did Jesus baptize?" is simply uninteresting.

Your serve, Jimbo.



  1. Anthony, I've spent a lot of time recently considering the Gospel accounts of Jesus' arrest. Here too, I think we can value John as an historical source. It's only John who gives us a name (Peter!) for the person who sliced off the ear of the slave of the high priest, and the name of the slave (Malchus). Yes, it is possible that John's naming of the ear-slicer is a part of an agenda to elevate the beloved disciple at Peter's expense, but it's equally as possible that Mark suppressed Peter's identity as the ear-slicer in order to protect Peter (if he was still alive when Mark first wrote) or Peter's legacy (if he was recently dead). (NOTE: this thought is not original to me.)

    John's Gospel gives us another critical detail about Jesus' arrest: he tells us that there were Roman soldiers in the arresting party. I won't go through the details, but the story makes much more sense if the arresting party was a mixed force of Romans and Jews.

    Yes, true enough, there are portions of John's arrest scene that are a bit over the top, historically speaking. I'm not trying to say that John writes like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. or Doris Kearns Goodwin. I'm just saying that in my limited experience, there's stuff there.

  2. I just completed my thesis in the Spring with Tom Thatcher on this very topic. Unfortunately I did not use enough social memory theory to back my claim that Jesus was a baptizer. However, I worked on the premise that Jesus was a follower of JB and eventually continued the practice, even after leaving the circle of JB's followers.

    I found FG's claim in 3:22 to be a more likely memory of actual events and 4:2 to be what most commentators call "an editorial gloss," i.e., a move to distance JB from Jesus.

    It was great reading your brief take on the topic. Would love to read more about it on the blog!