I want to begin this post by plugging the fantastic series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus by John Meier. In unexpected ways, it has been a wonderful companion to my study of early LDS Church history. The series, written by a believing Catholic scholar, sets out to present all that is knowable about the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth from purely a scholastic perspective, a set of data that could be agreed upon by a theoretical ‘unpapal conclave’ made up of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Atheists, and others. It deeply analyzes the culture of the time, and asks many provocative questions I had not even considered asking.
The second volume in the series ( Volume 2: Mentor, Message, and Miracles) opens with an exploration of John the Baptist, and what we can understand concerning Jesus’ relationship to him. In the course of this, the question was raised as to why Jesus actually went to John to be baptized.
LDS generally have a quick answer to that question, an interpretation coming from the Book of Mormon’s meditative take on the subject in 2 Nephi 31:6–8:
6 And now, I would ask of you, my beloved brethren, wherein the Lamb of God did fulfil all righteousness in being baptized by water?
7 Know ye not that he was holy? But notwithstanding he being holy, he showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments.
This is generally simplified and summed up to express, “Jesus was baptized because baptism was a commandment, and he did it to set an example.”
The assumption generally comes that when Christ was baptized, and the sign of the dove appeared with the concurrent voice declaring his Sonship, that this was nothing new to Jesus, but was rather meant for the benefit of others.
While I had earlier been turned to think of this experience as being a first apocalyptic-esque vision experience for Jesus ( inspired by a reading of Margaret Barker’s The Revelation of Jesus Christ), Meir’s book substantially added to the power of this concept for me.
Meier asks about Jesus’ motivations for receiving John’s baptism, a baptism that was presented as a unique means of declaring one’s allegiance to God, and as a sign of protection and one’s freedom of sin, against the coming fiery Eschaton.
The question is first raised, “Was Jesus baptized by John because he was a sinner?” – it is immediately pointed out that, from a historical and scholastic perspective, this is an impossible question. Since Sin is by definition that which is unpleasing to God and separates one from him, one cannot historically and scholastically determine if anyone has done anything that is ‘unpleasing to God and separates one from him’.
The relevant question, however, is, “”Was Jesus baptized because he thought he could have been a sinner?”