Early Image of Jesus Baptism From Roman Catacombs

We are so used to certain behaviors that we assume that we assume they were always there. For example, we are use to present day Christian preachers always quoting Jesus. It is therefore surprising to find that there is almost no quoting of Jesus  in the New Testament outside of the gospels. This makes sense if the gospels were written last or separately from the gospels. It also allows us to conjecture further that the New Testament was developed by different groups with different agendas in different stages. I will first talk about the problem of the apostles not quoting Jesus, then discuss how seeing several different stages including a Baptism stage, a Holy Ghost stage and a Messianic stage in the development of early Christianity helps to explain this.

This fresco of Christ Among the Apostles is in an arcosolium of the Crypt of Ampliatus in the Catacombs of St. Domitilla in Rome.

According to the Synoptics, Jesus was with Peter and the Apostles for a year and according to the gospel of John for three years. Acts tells us further that he was with them for 40 days after he died. One would expect him to teach a lot in this time, but according to the Book of Acts of the Apostles, the apostles did not teach anything that Jesus taught. We find no gospel teaching of Jesus in any of the 28 chapters about the apostles.

Not only do we not find any teaching of Jesus after Jesus leaves the Apostles and flys up to Heaven, but we don’t find any teaching from the resurrected Jesus.  The resurrected Jesus simply commands them to wait in Jerusalem and makes these predictions: 1) the apostles would be baptized with the holy spirit and receive magical powers and 2) that they would be witnesses for Jesus “to the ends of the Earth.” This is the beginning of Acts 1:

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with[a] water, but in a few days you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.”

6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

That’s it. Acts doesn’t reveal anything else that Jesus said besides this single command to wait in Jerusalem for a few days, and these predictions of magical powers from the Holy Spirit and the Apostles will act as witnesses.

As far as waiting in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, this contradicts the gospel of John:

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Here Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit and it involves just the power to forgive sins or not. In Acts, the father God, not Jesus, gives them the Holy Spirit and it involves the power to speak in tongues, and to heal the sick and dead.

In either case, there are no teachings revealed. Presumably the father could have given the apostles the holy spirit without the appearance of Jesus on Earth.

Here is the description of the Holy Spirit coming to the Apostles:

Acts 2:3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues

Since almost everybody in Jerusalem spoke Greek or Aramaic, it is hard to see why this power to speak other languages should be necessary and apparently it didn’t impress everyone as the author notes, “Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

The apostles, or at least Peter, then witnesses for Jesus:

2:22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men,[d] put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

Note that there is nothing about Jesus being a son of God here and nothing about him teaching anything. According to this story, Jesus was a man who did miracles with the power of God. God deliberately had the Israelites crucify him and then raised him from the dead. End of story. According to the writer of Acts, using Peter as his narrator, God did miracles through a man named Jesus, The Jews and wicked people crucified him, and God raised him from the dead.

There is nothing about Jesus teaching anything here. He is a character in the little story, along with God, the Jews and some “wicked people”. It is the writer of the text who teaches by telling the tale through the voice of Peter. He records no teachings of Jesus and acknowledges only that Jesus was a man used by God.

Being with them for a year or three years and 40 days, one would have suspected that Jesus might have told the Apostles some basic things like it was okay for Jews to eat with gentiles or it was okay for gentiles to be baptized. But even here, Peter has to rely on a revelation from God for the first and some deductive reasoning to figure out the second. Here is the revelation.

1 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

4 Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6 I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’

8 “I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’

9 “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.

It is God who teaches Peter that it is okay to kill and eat meat, not Jesus. (We may assume that Peter was from the vegetarian Essene cult)

Here is the deduction that Peter makes directly after this, that it is okay to baptize gentiles:

11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’

15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with[a] water, but you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

When the Holy Spirit first came to Peter, he was able to speak somehow in a foreign language. Apparently these men were speaking in a foreign language and therefore Peter deduced that they had the Holy Spirit. Since God had given both gentiles and Jews the Holy Spirit, Peter deduces that he should baptize them.

The important thing is that neither the writer of the text or Peter his lead character indicates that Jesus said that Baptism of gentiles was okay or not okay. The author does not rely on the teachings of Jesus, but only on revelation from God to propose and/or explain the custom of non-Jews beings baptized.

In the entire 28 chapters of Acts, there is only one quote from something Jesus said in the gospels. In Acts 20, Paul finishes his goodbye to the Elders of the Church of Ephesus this way:

20:32 “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. 35 In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”

Unfortunately, these words are not in any of the gospels. Thus “Acts,” in all its 28 chapters, does not show the apostles ever quoting any teaching of Jesus that we find in the gospels. Apparently the apostles were able to convert people from Jerusalem to Rome without using any of the sayings or teachings from Jesus that we find in the gospels.

One has to wonder why all the sayings and gospel teachings are ignored by the apostles. It is possible that the writer of Acts just had the bare bones story of a crucified miracle worker to work from when it was written. Since that was the only thing known, that is the only thing really about Jesus of Nazareth in the main text. It can be supposed that Chapter 1 of Acts was written last, after the rest of Acts, by someone trying to make a bridge between Acts and the Gospels although it originally had nothing to do with the gospels.

In this scenario, we have the genre of apostle stories and Jesus begins as just another story in that genre. When a number of Jesus stories become popular, an editor tries linking together some old Peter and Paul apostle stories and then adds chapter one to Acts to link it to the popular new Jesus stories.

We might also consider for a moment that the author, traditionally called Luke, has already written about the teachings of Jesus in his version of the Gospel and therefore doesn’t want to be redundant and repeat any of them. If we see the introduction as part of an actual letter to the “most excellent Theophilus” then this makes sense.

However, this only makes sense if we assume these works to be actual letters to Theophilus. We may dismiss this because these works are not in the form of actual ancient letters. According to “Ancient Letters & The New Testament” by Hans-Josef Klauck (Baylor University Press, 2006, an English translation of the 1998 Die antike Briefliteratur und das Neue Testament: Ein Lehr- und Arbeitsbuch.) all genuine ancient letters from this time period contain a:

  • 1) prescript (consisting of three parts 1) superscriptio or superscription, sender’s name in the nominative, 2) adscriptio or adscription, addressee’s name in the dative, and 3) salutatio or salutation, greeting in the infinitive
  • 2) proem such si vales, bene est, ego valeo (If you are well, it is well. I also am well).
  • 3) main body of the letter, which is usually several pages, but may much longer (although, I am not sure if any are as long as Acts).
  • 4) letter closing, usually consisting of a closing greeting or wish which may be of three forms: (a) Direct greeting of the sender to the addressee, using a first person indicative: “I greet you” (b) Request from the sender to the addressee to greet a third person, using a second-person imperative: “Greet X for me” (c) Forwarded greetings from a third person (or group) to the addressee, using a third-person indicative: “X also greets you”

Since the Gospel of Luke and Acts do not follow this standard form, (which all the epistles in the New Testament pretty much do) we may take it that the opening of both works with only a note and not a letter to Theophilus are meant to indicate a literary device rather than an actual letter. In the same way, the title “based on a true story” at the beginning of a movie is a cinematic device. It does not indicate that the movie is a documentary recording actual historical events. Rather, it indicates only that some events in the movies are recreations of some historical events.

If, indeed, the writer is not writing for the unknown Theophilus, but is writing for a general audience, it seems unlikely that fear of redundancy is the actual motive for the writer not repeating any of Jesus’ teachings in the work.

In the case of true disciples, we seem to always find the work of the masters/teachers. For example, in Plato we find the sayings of Socrates, in Aristotle, we find the ideas and sayings of Plato, if only to refute them. In Lenin, we find the writings of Marx quoted extensively, and in Mao, we find the sayings of Lenin quoted extensively. It is the rare writing of the Muslim scholar when writing a history of Islam that doesn’t quote from the Koran (Muhammad) and the rare Buddhist when writing the history of his movement who does not quote the Buddha. So I do not think it is unnatural to expect some teachings of Jesus to be included in a work on the history of the Christian movement after Jesus died.

What is surprising is that the apostles are not portrayed as students of Jesus who go around quoting him and debating over the meaning of his many parables. Instead they are portrayed as Jesus Clones. They have the Holy Ghost in them like Jesus, they travel around performing miracles like Jesus, they attack the Jewish laws like Jesus, and are persecuted like Jesus. They do this with virtually no reference to Jesus outside of chapter one and no reference to his teachings. The Paul and the Peter sections could stand on there own and be stories even if the gospel stories had never been written.

This suggests to me that we are wrong for looking at the gospels as the archetype for the apostle stories, but the gospels themselves may be copies of an Apostle archetype. In other words, Peter and Paul may not be clones of Jesus, but the Jesus character is a clone of Peter and Paul and John “Persecuted Apostle” stories.

Think of it as gangster movies and “the Godfather” (Coppola, 1972). There were many great gangster movies before “the Godfather,” “Public Enemy,” “Scarface” and “White Heat” for example. However “The Godfather” synthesized different elements from different earlier gangster movies into something spectacularly different. After the success of “the Godfather,” there were a multitude of gangster movies over the next 35 years that based themselves on “the Godfather”. To those without a knowledge of cinema history, one could very well imagine that “the Godfather” was the first gangster movie. When one sees a film like Johnny Depp’s “Public Enemies” (Mann, 2008) which goes back to earlier gangster films such as “Bonnie and Clyde” for its style and ignors the influence of “the Godfather,” seems original and fresh.

I think separating out the gospel itinerant Galilean preacher tales from the Jesus name of God group is important. In a way, Acts itself indicates this original separation:

1 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when[a] you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”

“John’s baptism,” they replied.

4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues[b] and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.

The text tells us that some people received the baptism of John in the name of Lord Jesus, but did not receive the Holy Spirit. It is difficult to believe that John was the first to baptize in the name of Jesus after meeting him casually and accidentally during a mass baptism session. Rather, we can imagine that when John baptized, he was simply giving the name Jesus as the secret name of the Lord. In other words, there is no son of lord here, just the secret of name of the Lord which makes prayers/magic effective. It is an old principle of magic that if you know and say the name of a God/demon, you can control him/her. In this case knowing the name allows you to get your sins wiped out.

I would suggest that John is an origin myth story. Various members of a group started using the name Jesus as the name of the Lord and doing ceremonial washing, baptizing, as an initiation ritual. A prophet character, John, was created to legitimize the practice. One can imagine a child asking a set of questions before initiation. Why do I have to go in the cold water and get baptized? The answer the cult leaders came up with was that it washes away sins. “How do you know this?” There was a prophet named John and he came out of the wilderness and he was baptized and he baptized others. This explains the washing.
Since the gospel stories do not include a Jesus as name of God story, we may take it that in phase two. A separate group that came up with the idea of Jesus as name of God adopted the John origin myth to their own purposes.

One may take the idea of placing of hands and the idea of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues as an entirely separate activity done by an entirely separate sect. It is associated with the idea of prophesy and having the power of God speaking through a person. Paul is the origin myth of the Holy Ghost.

Thus we have:

Group 1: The Baptists
Idea – Repentance for sins (following Roman ways)
Ceremony – Baptism
Origin Myth – John the Baptist
Development – Name of Lord is Jesus or Jesus Christ

Group 2: the Holy Ghosts
Idea – Holy Ghost/God speaking through a man
Ceremony – Laying of hands causing speaking in tongues
Origin Myth – Peter rejecting Jewish laws. The Lord speaking directly to him.
Development – Peter defeats his arch nemesis Paul/Saul and converts him. The Paul adventure tales are just renamed later Peter tales.

Group 3: the Messiahs.
Idea – Forgive other Jews, but not the Roman-supporting Jewish leadership who are traitors.
Ceremony – Supper meal/open banquet – bread and wine
Origin Myth – Earthly Jesus Christ, based on rewriting John and Peter material.
Development – Four Gospels.

The early Orthodox Church brings together these divergent cores from these three diverse groups.