By James Bishop| Scholarly consensus holds that John the Baptist performed a baptism on Jesus in the Jordan River. Jesus’ baptism and his crucifixion, according to British New Testament Scholar James Dunn, “command almost universal assent” (1). Dunn goes on to say that these two facts:
“rank so high on the ‘almost impossible to doubt or deny’ scale of historical facts” (2).
What we find are various independent sources corroborating the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. For instance, Josephus Flavius, a 1st century historian in his work the Antiquities of the Jews writes about John the Baptist, his popularity among the crowds, and his death in Perea by Herod Antipas which is further independently attested in the gospel accounts.
“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God as a just punishment of what Herod had done against John, who was called the Baptist.” – Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, [18.116]
Josephus’ corroboration of John the Baptist gives us further confidence in our New Testament accounts. Let’s take a look at some Biblical sources for the baptism of Jesus by John.
How many sources do we have for his baptism?
Within the four gospel accounts Jesus’ baptism is attested (Mark 1:10, Matthew 3:16, Luke 3:22, John 1:32), as well as in Acts 10:37-38.
It is important to note that Matthew and Luke probably used Mark’s earlier gospel as a source narrative, so we have at least two independent sources (Mark, John) plus Acts. From the New Testament canon we have at least three independent sources attesting to the baptism of Jesus.
Additionally, Jesus’ baptism is reported in the hypothetical source Q, as scholar Robert Webb points out:
“…the weight of the evidence leads me to a conclusion of probability: the text of Q most likely contained an account of Jesus’ baptism and the theophany” (3).
This satisfies the criteria for historical reliability
And according to standard historical criterion Jesus’ baptism passes the criterion of embarrassment. This is a criteria scholars apply to the New Testament literature to separate what is deemed historical from what isn’t historical. If a statement would be embarrassing to the people reporting the fact, there is a greater chance it would have happened.
Baptism was seen by the early Christians as the washing away of sins, yet the early Christians also saw Jesus as sinless. Therefore, Jesus’ baptism is not something the early Christians would invent out of thin air.
So in essence, Jesus’ baptism is multiply attested in seven historical sources: Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, Q, and Josephus. Of those seven sources at least four, if not five, are independent. Coupled with the criterion of embarrassment I think we can be confident that we’re dealing a historical fact.
Scholar Dominic Crossan, of the radical Jesus Seminar argues that it is historically certain that Jesus was baptised by John in the Jordan River (4). Webb concludes:
“…within the realms of historical probability, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. As such, the baptism was for Jesus a significant turning point in his life, from his former life as a peasant artisan in Nazareth to a life of ministry” (5).
Dunn, J. 2003. Jesus Remembered. p. 339.
Dunn, J. 2003. Ibid.
Webb, J. 2005. Jesus’ Baptism: Its Historicity and Implications. Available.
Crossan, J. 1999. Who Is Jesus? p. 31-32.
Webb, J. 2005. Ibid.