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?”
This question blew me away. I had never even considered it before.
But then I looked at the accounts of Jesus’ ministry which followed, in which he is constantly accused of being a lawbreaker. During his ministry, Jesus was always very clear to point out the difference between the artificial ‘hedge’ or traditional laws, and that which was truly ordained of by God.
Just as a young Joseph Smith was being bombarded by sectarian definitions of sin, salvation, and religious experience – could not Jesus of Nazareth have found himself in the same position? Wondering who, if any of all the sects, were right? If his inclinations to have harsh disagreements with the establishment’s practice of what was professed as God’s Word and God’s Temple were Good, or Evil?
In Joseph Smith’s earliest account of his theophany (1832), he prayed not to learn which Church was true (an auxiliary question), but to learn about his standing with God (see my post Joseph Smith’s First Vision As More Than An Origin Story ). In connection with this, the first words of comfort Joseph receives in this vision are that his sins are forgiven. He is assured that God has seen his seeking , desires and questioning, and had approved of them – and further validated them through this visionary experience and expression of his pleasure.
Why not the same with Jesus? Could Jesus not have approached the prophet John, in humility, seeking assurance through this symbolic act of cleansing he was offering, that he was reconciled and right with God? That he was dedicating himself to be obedient to God in ways according to his understanding, even if opposed by others?
Could the resulting Visionary Experience have served the same purpose for Jesus as the corresponding vision did for Joseph Smith - to comfort him, to build his confidence, to enlighten him with new intelligence, and to serve as a formal ‘start’ to what would become his ministry?
I find this reading highly satisfying – not that Jesus was baptized because baptism in itself was a known specific commandment (there is a lot of historical issues on hand that make this a difficult subject), but rather because a prophet was presenting an opportunity to declare and commit to one’s general obedience to the revealed will of God – and that is what Jesus submitted to, and as a result, was given a marvelous personal revelatory vision – one which was not expected, and resulted in his needing to get away in meditative prayer and fasting in the wilderness in order to work out what it meant to and for him.