Early Image of Baptism from Sarcophagus, Santa Maria Antigua, Rome, 270 C.E.

Much of the evidence for the development of early Christianity, especially before 200 C.E., is scattered, contradictory, complex, open to multiple interpretations and generally unclear. The idea that there is an easily known or traceable historical development is false. Given the tattered and missing state of the evidence, we can prove very little. However, we can present good hypotheses and models which can be considered roughly probable or possible if they take into account new theories of textual construction and all the known evidence.

The Criterion of Embarrassment (COE) can help us to understand why changes are made to literary works. For example, in the novel Pamela (1740) by Samuel Richardson, originally the wealthy landowner, Mr. B, marries his penniless servant Pamela because of her fierce defense of her virginity. Critics found this absurd, primarily because Mr. B. could have purchased the virginity of a dozen girls without marrying them. Mr. B., instead of being a paragon of Christian virtue and charity, as intended by Richardson, appeared as somebody both obsessed with virginity and stupid for overpaying for the commodity. The criticisms appear to have embarrassed him, so Richardson subsequently changed the novel over the next ten years to emphasize the beauty and brilliance of Pamela. This and not her death-defying defense of her virginity becomes the motivating factor behind the socially incorrect marriage.

Similarly, in the comic book Superman (1938), he originally had the power to leap about 1/8 of a mile into the air. This became an embarrassment to the animators of a cartoon version of Superman

Superman Leaping

(Fletcher Studios, 1941) who found they had to waste time having him land after each leap. They got the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, to change his ability from leaping to flying making him more “super.”

Biblical scholars often misuse the Criterion of Embarrassment when they attempt to use it to prove the historical existence of Jesus. They tend to do this with the story of Jesus’ baptism by John. The correct idea that producers some times change narratives due to embarrassment gets replaced with the idea that the original element is more likely to be true or more likely to be historical. This may have some truth if we know that we are working from a verified historical work to begin with. If we are working from a fictional work then any changes due to embarrassment are as likely to have replaced fictional elements as historical ones.

In order to use the COE to understand changes to text, we must first assess the likelihood of the story being historical or fictional based on other criteria. We may apply the COE only after determining the historical or fictional nature of a work, but it cannot be used to determine the historical or fictional nature of a work.  In order to apply the COE to John’s baptism of Jesus we must first examine the pericope and see what genre it resembles. Only afterwards does it make sense to apply it.

Here is the story in its simplest form in the Gospel According to Mark

1.4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 1.5And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 1.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey.

1.7And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 1.8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

1.9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 1.10And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; 1.11and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.” 1.12The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 1.13And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.

This is what happens in the story:

1. John baptizes Jesus

2. The heavens open and a spirit descends

3. God’s voice from heaven announces the adoption of Jesus as God’s son

4. The spirit enters Jesus and drives him into the desert

5. Satan tempts Jesus

6. Angels protect Jesus from wild beasts.

Obviously this is not a classical history describing rulers, armies and shifts in territory and power. For example compare it to Tacitus Annals and his description of Julius Caesar entering like Jesus into a river (http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.2.ii.html):

By this time the fleet had arrived, and Caesar, having sent on his supplies and assigned vessels for the legions and the allied troops, entered “Drusus’s fosse,” as it was called. He prayed Drusus his father to lend him, now that he was venturing on the same enterprise, the willing and favourable aid of the example and with memory of his counsels and achievements, and he arrived after a prosperous voyage through the lakes and the ocean as far as the river Amisia. His fleet remained there on the left bank of the stream, and it was a blunder that he did not have it brought up the river. He disembarked the troops, which were to be marched to the country on the right, and thus several days were wasted in the construction of bridges. The cavalry and the legions fearlessly crossed the first estuaries in which the tide had not yet risen. The rear of the auxiliaries, and the Batavi among the number, plunging recklessly into the water and displaying their skill in swimming, fell into disorder, and some were drowned.

The gospel tale has little in common with the style or substance of the history. Also, the gospel is not simply giving news of unusual and extraordinary events as when Cicero describes the strange baptism of a Dolphin in letter CVII To Caninius (http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=541&layout=html):

I have met with a story, which, although authenticated by undoubted evidence, looks very like fable, and would afford a worthy field for the exercise of so exuberant, lofty, and truly poetical a genius as your own. It was related to me the other day over the dinner table, where the conversation happened to run upon various kinds of marvels. The person who told the story was a man of unsuspected veracity:—but what has a poet to do with truth? However, you might venture to rely upon his testimony, even though you had the character of a faithful historian to support. There is in Africa a town called Hippo, situated not far from the sea-coast: it stands upon a navigable lake, communicating with an estuary in the form of a river, which alternately flows into the lake, or into the ocean, according to the ebb and flow of the tide. People of all ages amuse themselves here with fishing, sailing, or swimming; especially boys, whom love of play brings to the spot. With these it is a fine and manly achievement to be able to swim the farthest; and he that leaves the shore and his companions at the greatest distance gains the victory. It happened, in one of these trials of skill, that a certain boy, bolder than the rest, launched out towards the opposite shore. He was met by a dolphin, who sometimes swam before him, and sometimes behind him, then played round him, and at last took him upon his back, and set him down, and afterwards took him up again; and thus he carried the poor frightened fellow out into the deepest part; when immediately he turns back again to the shore, and lands him among his companions. The fame of this remarkable accident spread through the town, and crowds of people flocked round the boy (whom they viewed as a kind of prodigy) to ask him questions and hear him relate the story. The next day the shore was thronged with spectators, all attentively watching the ocean, and (what indeed is almost itself an ocean) the lake. Meanwhile the boys swam as usual, and among the rest, the boy I am speaking of went into the lake, but with more caution than before. The dolphin appeared again and came to the boy, who, together with his companions, swam away with the utmost precipitation. The dolphin, as though to invite and call them back, leaped and dived up and down, in a series of circular movements. This he practised the next day, the day after, and for several days together, till the people (accustomed from their infancy to the sea) began to be ashamed of their timidity. They ventured, therefore, to advance nearer, playing with him and calling him to them, while he, in return, suffered himself to be touched and stroked. Use rendered them courageous. The boy, in particular, who first made the experiment, swam by the side of him, and, leaping upon his back, was carried backwards and forwards in that manner, and thought the dolphin knew him and was fond of him, while he too had grown fond of the dolphin. There seemed, now, indeed, to be no fear on either side, the confidence of the one and tameness of the other mutually increasing; the rest of the boys, in the meanwhile, surrounding and encouraging their companion. It is very remarkable that this dolphin was followed by a second, which seemed only as a spectator and attendant on the former; for he did not at all submit to the same familiarities as the first, but only escorted him backwards and forwards, as the boys did their comrade. But what is further surprising, and no less true than what I have already related, is that this dolphin, who thus played with the boys and carried them upon his back, would come upon the shore, dry himself in the sand, and, as soon as he grew warm, roll back into the sea. It is a fact that Octavius Avitus, deputy governor of the province, actuated by an absurd piece of superstition, poured some ointment1 over him as he lay on the shore: the novelty and smell of which made him retire into the ocean, and it was not till several days after that he was seen again, when he appeared dull and languid; however, he recovered his strength and continued his usual playful tricks. All the magistrates round flocked hither to view this sight, whose arrival, and prolonged stay, was an additional expense, which the slender finances of this little community would ill afford; besides, the quiet and retirement of the place was utterly destroyed. It was thought proper, therefore, to remove the occasion of this concourse, by privately killing the poor dolphin. And now, with what a flow of tenderness will you describe this affecting catastrophe!2 and how will your genius adorn and heighten this moving story! Though, indeed, the subject does not require any fictitious embellishments; it will be sufficient to describe the actual facts of the case without suppression or diminution. Farewell.

Clearly, the story of John’s baptism of Jesus is neither history nor a personal epistolary description of an unusual event.What is it? We can discover that by asking what it is about?

It is about sins (a metaphysical concept) being washed away by water, it is about heaven (a mythological place) opening up, it is about the voice of a God (a mythological being) being heard by no one in particular, it is about a spirit (another mythological being) descending and apparently going into a man. The spirit drives the man into the wilderness where he meets Satan (another mythological being) and wild animals defend him against demons (more mythological beings).

We can compare this mythological story to another Greek mythological story, one involving King Midas. Here is the last part of the King Midas story as related by Ovid, where he goes to a river to clean his sins (http://www.mythology.us/ovid_metamorphoses_book_11.htm):

Lifting his shining hands and arms to heaven, he cries out: ‘Father, Bacchus, forgive me! I have sinned. But have pity on me, I beg you, and save me from this costly evil!’ The will of the gods is kindly. Bacchus, when he confessed his fault restored him, and took back what he had given in fulfilment of his promise. ‘So you do not remain coated with the gold you wished for so foolishly,’ he said, ‘go to the river by great Sardis, make your way up the bright ridge against the falling waters, till you come to the source of the stream, and plunge your head and body at the same moment into the foaming fountain, where it gushes out, and at the same time wash away your sin.’ The king went to the river as he was ordered: the golden virtue colored the waters, and passed from his human body into the stream.

Besides the baptism in the Midas story, we can also find the disembodied voice of a God in Roman Mythology. From Roman Myth Index (http://www.mythindex.com/roman-mythology/A/Aius-Locutius.html):

Aius or Ajus Locutius, or Loquens, a Roman divinity. In the year B. C. 389, a short time before the invasion of the Gauls, a voice was heard at Rome in the Via nova, during the silence of night, announcing that the Gauls were approaching. (Liv. v. 32.) No attention was at the time paid to the warning, but after the Gauls had withdrawn from the city, the Romans remembered the prophetic voice, and atoned for their neglect by erecting on the spot in the Via nova, where the voice had been heard, a templum, that is, an altar with a sacred enclosure around it, to Aius Locutius, or the ” Announcing Speaker.” (Liv. v. 50; Varro, ap. Gell. xvi. 17; Cic. de Divinai. i. 45, ii. 32.)

We also find a God’s disembodied voice giving orders in Plutarch’s story of the announcement of the death of Pan in his Moralia. (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/De_defectu_oraculorum*.html):

“As for death among such beings, I have heard the words of a man who was not a fool nor an impostor. The father of Aemilianus the orator, to whom some of you have listened, was Epitherses, who lived in our town and was my teacher in grammar. He said that once upon a time in making a voyage to Italy he embarked on a ship carrying freight and many passengers. It was already evening when, near the Echinades Islands, the wind dropped, and the ship drifted near Paxi. Almost everybody was awake, and a good many had not finished their after-dinner wine. Suddenly from the island of Paxi was heard the voice of someone loudly calling Thamus, so that all were amazed. Thamus was an Egyptian pilot, cnot known by name even to many on board. Twice he was called and made no reply, but the third time he answered; and the caller, raising his voice, said, ‘When you come opposite to Palodes, announce that Great Pan is dead.’ On hearing this, all, said Epitherses, were astounded and reasoned among themselves whether it were better to carry out the order or to refuse to meddle and let the matter go. Under the circumstances Thamus made up his mind that if there should be a breeze, he would sail past and keep quiet, but with no wind and a smooth sea about the place he would announce what he had heard. So, when he came opposite Palodes, and there was neither wind nor wave, Thamus from the stern, looking toward the land, said the words as he had heard them: ‘Great Pan is dead.’ Even before he had finished there was a great cry of lamentation, not of one person, but of many, mingled with exclamations of amazement. As many persons were on the vessel, the story was soon spread abroad in Rome, and Thamus was sent for by Tiberius Caesar. Tiberius became so convinced of the truth of the story that he caused an inquiry and investigation to be made about Pan; and the scholars, who were numerous at his court, conjectured that he was the son born of Hermes and Penelopê.

Once we see how the story contains elements like washing away sins by going into water and voices of disembodied Gods, we can put it into the category of myth. We can further readily see that this is a particular type of Myth — an Origin story. Wikipedia defines it this way:

Amazing Fantasy #15, August, 1962

In order to keep their characters current, comic book companies frequently rewrite the origins of their oldest characters. This goes from adding details that do not contradict earlier facts to a totally new origin which make it seem an altogether different character.

“Origin story” or pourquoi story is also a term used in the study of myths. It can refer to narratives of how the world began, how creatures and plants came into existence, and why certain things in the cosmos have certain qualities.

It appears that God pronounces Jesus his son and sends a Holy Spirit in the form of a dove into him. The spirit drives him into the Wilderness and protects him. Later in the story, he develops healing powers and the power to perform miracles, which we may attribute to this spirit. The Baptism story is the Origin tale of how Jesus got his supernatural powers.

This is his Origin Story, in the same way that we find other Origin Stories for modern super-heroes. Batman uses his inherited fortune to turn himself into a super criminologist and crime-fighter after the murder of his parents. Superman is sent to Earth as a baby in an experimental rocket when his home planet of Krypton explodes. Spiderman is bitten by a radioactive spider on a school trip to a science exhibit. Jesus is possessed by a Holy Spirit when he undergoes baptism when we first encounter him in the Gospel of Mark.

We also find these same stories in ancient mythology. For example Atalanta was left in the wilderness by her father to die because he wanted a boy. She was raised by a she-bear and thus became a strong and fierce warrior like a bear. The Origin story of Moses and the Burning Bush is an example from Hebrew Mythology. He learns magic tricks from the god called “I am that I am”

Vladimir Propp’s work on Russian Folk Tales showed the limited elements that were used over and over again to create Folk Tales. Roles such as the Hero and Helper appear over and over again, and act as functions within the tale. Claude Levi Strauss talks of “mythemes” and the relationships between subject and actions. He notes that it is through binary oppositions that elements of Folk stories develop and change in a way that reflect the cultures they come from. For example, tribes in Brazil that cooked their food would present the cooking of food in a positive light, while tribes that ate raw food would tell the same tale with the eating of raw food being the action that brought salvation. In this way, through the positive and negative values in the mythemes we could understand the cultures that created them. Jacques Derrida with his notion of Deconstruction suggested that this structuralist approach could be applied to all text.

The Origin of Jesus’ Origin Story

When we look closer at the Baptism story, especially the simplest version portrayed in the gospel of Mark, we notice some interesting problems.

1.      We are actually dealing with two characters, John and Jesus, but John appears without an Origin Story.

2.      We get a description of John, (John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey), .but no description of Jesus.

3.      Jesus is just a face in the crowd of people who have come from all over Judea to be baptized.

4.      John comes from the Wilderness and Jesus is ordered into the Wilderness by his possessing spirit.

5.      John announces that he baptizes with water but someone will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Immediately, John baptizes Jesus with water and God then baptizes Jesus with a Holy Spirit. God announces that he is well pleased with Jesus, but Jesus has not done anything. Thus God’s actions appear random and inexplicable.

All of these problems are solved with the elimination of Jesus from the story or rather, if we assume that the baptism was actually a baptism of John rather than Jesus.

1. There is now one Origin Story and one character. We are not left wandering how John got his powers.

2. The character who is described is baptized. There is no reason to describe Jesus because he is not in the original story.

3. The story explains how John got the power to take away sins through baptism, if we assume the original story was exclusively about him.

4. John comes from the wilderness and the Holy Spirit sends him back into the Wilderness to be tested. We find a certain harmonious structure that we find in most Myths and Folk Tales.

5. The God is well pleased with John because John has first gone into the wilderness to get rid of his sins and then gone into the water to get rid of his sins. It is now obvious why God is well pleased with him.

This idea that John the Baptist was originally the Christ is supported by Mandian texts. This religion still believes that John the Baptist was the real Christ. The Second century Christian novel “Recognitions” (chapter 60: “And, behold, one of the disciples of John asserted that John was the Christ, and not Jesus) also suggests some people recognized John as Christ. The sister novel “Clementine Homilies,” two followers of John the Baptist fight over the Christ title after he dies. This idea is suggested by he Gospels themselves (John 1:19. When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who art thou?’, he confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’) There was no reason to ask if he was the Christ unless some people believed him to be. In Acts 19, we also get oblique references to John the Baptist being the Christ.

1 It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. 2 He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.”

For Apollos and the baptized people of Ephesus, John, who showed a simple method for taking away sins would have been considered the Christ. The attempt here is to distinguish the Holy Ghost as being a feature of Paul’s Christianity missing from John’s Christianity. This can be considered just another attempt to diminish John’s importance.

We can now ask why this Origin story if it originally belonged to John was changed to a Jesus Origin story. At this point we may bring in the Criterion of Embarrassment. John went into the wilderness to find forgiveness for sins, It did not work. He then went into the water to find forgiveness for sins. We can speculate that John had committed some sins that caused him to want to get rid of these three particular sins which we see referred to in the wilderness temptation scene that follows the Baptism scene.

The three quotes that are used in the temptation in the wilderness scene are: 1) ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'” 2) ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.'” And 3) ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.'” The quotes are from Deuteronomy 8:3, 6.13, and 6.16.

Deuteronomy 8:3: 3And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live

Deuteronomy 6.10-14 10And it shall be, when the LORD thy God shall have brought thee into the land which he sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give thee great and goodly cities, which thou buildedst not,  11And houses full of all good things, which thou filledst not, and wells digged, which thou diggedst not, vineyards and olive trees, which thou plantedst not; when thou shalt have eaten and be full;  12Then beware lest thou forget the LORD, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.  13Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name.  14Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you;

Deuteronomy 6:16 16Ye shall not tempt the LORD your God, as ye tempted him in Massah.

This refers to Massah where the Hebrews were preparing to stone Moses because they were thirsty (Exodus  7:1-5).

Thus we have a story about the temptation of hunger, the temptation of wealth, and the temptation of thirst. Luke inverts the order of the second and third temptations/commandments. This makes more sense, so we are warned against the temptations of 1) hunger, 2) thirst and 3) wealth in causing people to abandon their God.

We can reconstruct the original story using this material. John went into the Desert to find God, but Satan made him feel hunger, so he left. He went in again, but left because of his thirst. He went in a third time and Satan tempted him with wealth. He left and obtained wealth and worshipped other Gods.

He realized that he had sinned and went to the river to cleanse himself and seek forgiveness for his sins. God was pleased that he was asking forgiven for his sins. God sent a Holy Spirit into him. The Holy Spirit led him back into the wilderness where Satan tempted him again with food, drink and offers of wealth. This time John passed with flying colors and stayed in the wilderness for forty days, just like the Israelites stayed in the desert for forty years before entering the promised land.

The story is quite harmonious and makes a good morality tale. It is better than the story as presented in the Gospels because we do not know with the current story if the hero would have passed the temptation tests without the Holy Spirit. In fact, without being tested and failing before being triumphant, the story as presented today makes little sense.

There is one problem that I see that might have led followers to be dissatisfied with it in its fuller original form. John is actually quite a weak person who loses out to Satan each time. It is only after God sends the Holy Spirit into him that he succeeds. Would it not be better for God to select someone who hadn’t failed the tests on his own? Would it not be better for God to just select any random person rather than the weak failure John. Thus Jesus gets the Holy Spirit simply because he has not failed the tests before. He is just an average guy in opposition to John with his inability to resist temptation.

This reconstruction solves many of the problems we now see in the story and explains why it might have been changed. We have to assume that some version like this existed in some fashion and has been lost. Here the Criterion of Embarrassment is used not to promote the absurd notion that we are dealing with real events in these Folk Tale/Myths, but to suggest how they might have developed into the specific forms they appear in  today.