Jesus’ First Vision

jesus-baptismI 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.

8 Wherefore, after he was baptized with water the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove.

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.

9 thoughts on “Jesus’ First Vision

  1. I enjoyed this post. I think as Latter-Day Saints we forget to place Jesus in a completely Jewish setting. Without that backdrop, we look at it as a Christian based baptism instead of an immersion in a Mikveh. I am interested in this series now, as if I don’t have enough books to get through…

  2. I am sympathetic to John Dominic Crosson’s view of John’s baptism as a ritualistic one-by-one crossing of the Jordan to enter and liberate Jerusalem. According to him, it was fairly common for zealots and other revolutionary Jews to violently march into Jerusalem through the symbolic crossing of Jordan (which symbolized the various water-crossings in the Hebrew Bible)–and then get slaughtered by the Roman’s on the other side. John’s baptism was based on the same symbolic principles, but instead sought to incrementally establish an opposing community/movement within Jerusalem–by crossing the river through baptism, one commited himself to the ideals of zion and the liberation of the Jews.

  3. dallske: The series is fantastic, and currently stands unparalleled for what it attempts to accomplish.

    Matt W:

    While there are definitely some ‘general’ connections and similarities with the Mikveh experience, it seems that there are even more significant differences with other contemporaneously recorded immersion rituals (retrofitting going on in the Talmud notwithstanding).

    John’s baptism is something unique, outside the regular ‘hierarchy’, has apocalyptic overtones, is localized (you travel out in the wilderness to John), and partially has significance by having been done by John himself, and is also a once-for-all experience.

    Meir’s book examines the existing accounts of Jewish immersion ritual from different sects and purposes going on at that specific time, and finds that, while some are closer than others, none have a specific match.

    I think we should be cautious in trying to categorize John’s baptism as just another anything.

    Meier gives good evidence that John was probably an apocalyptic prophet in his own right, and that Jesus was coming to him be taught as a disciple, and then later came into his own, with post Markan Christian writers/apologists now finding the story of Jesus’ baptism, or submission to John, being somewhat embarrassing, and needed to be ‘explained’ (the later Matthean references to John deferring to Jesus, the Lukan infancy familial connection, the complete absence of the actual act of Jesus’ baptism in John while retaining the theophany, etc).

    While we’re accustomed to saying that Jesus went to John “because he had the authority”, I think it’s a major anachronism to say that the authority Jesus knew John had was “The Aaronic Priesthood authority to Baptize”. – It makes far more sense if we see Jesus as seeing John as a true counter-cultural prophet of Yahweh, whose message fo warning and re-dedication resonated with his own developing convictions and identity.

    I can definitely see the humbling participation in the ritual being a catalyst to further enlightenment as to his own role and identity – a revelation in its own right.

  4. It strikes me that whatever visionary experience the Savior had when being baptized must have been so overwhelming and other than what He expected that he needed to get away and figure it all out. The Gospels (particularly Matthew and Luke) suggest that Jesus always knew who he was, and perhaps he did. But I think it more likely that his understanding of his mission grew incrementally, with the watershed moment of his baptism changing everything.

  5. re- none have a specific match

    None of them need to have a specific match for them to be related in purpose or function. I simply do not think that John the Baptist spun baptism out of whole cloth. I am comfortable with saying it took upon it additional new meaning under John, but that doesn’t make it non-derivative. I just find most of the differences to be minimal.

  6. Matt:
    ” I simply do not think that John the Baptist spun baptism out of whole cloth.”

    I don’t think that either. I think, however, we’re looking at different views of the potential ‘source’. The mikveh as expressed in your blog post is mainly explained in terms of later traditions of Rabbinic Judaism. John’s baptism seems to be significantly more divided from that traditional strain than some of the other contemporary options. I do feel that there is some good indications that John either spent time with the Essenes, or was inspired by some other self-exiled wilderness sect with similar views (or even something like what the narrator presented above). The ritual immersions of the apocalyptic-minded Essenes, just as an example, were significantly different in purpose and form than those that most likely would have been ‘the norm’ as recognized by the Pharisees and Sadducees – and while John’s immersion was also significantly different in form and purpose than the Essenes’, the apocalyptic worldview connected with it seems to be closer to how John was approaching the ritual. What we do know, is that John’s baptism was distinct enough from the standard Jerusalem immersion practices that many specifically left Jerusalem behind and went into the wilderness to submit to a once-for-all lustration by a specific Prophet.

    In other words, I think we agree that John’s immersing ritual was inspired by and derivative of a previous Israelite ritual, but I think we may see differently concerning the essential meanings given to that ritual at the specific branch and tradition John had most been immersed in when he went beyond and altered it further –

    To go even further, it’s kind of like how in the theory of evolution, Homo Sapiens don’t descend from Chimps, but they did have a common ancestor. In this case, you could say the Rabbinic mikveh immersions would be the chimp. Not a direct line antecedent of John’s Baptism, but a branch off of a common ancestor.

  7. I agree with your admiration for Meir’s work. I wish some of the insights in his and Raymond Browns work could be incorporated into our Gospel Doctrine mannual and Insititue manuals.

    in trying to understand jesus’s experience at his babtism and compare it to joseph Smith’s expereience in the grove i think it is useful to compare it to experiences of other prophets and holy men when the have first been called to their work.

    The throne vision in chapter 6 of Isiah and the call of jeremiah in Jeremiah 1 are examples of this. Both express feelings of inadequacy to carry out their mission but the lord assures them that they are able to do it.

    Other examples besides the first visions of joseph Smith would be Martin Luther’s Tower experience in which he received the great insight that works alone could not save him but only the grace of christ.

    George Fox the founder of Quakerism who like joseph Smith wondered what Church he should join and heard a voice saying that “there was only one, jesus Christ who could speak to his condition”

    Martin Luther King during the montgomery bus Boycott faced with threats on his and his famiy’s life prayed over a cup of coffee and heard the voice of jesus saying that he would never leave him alone.

    I believe that Gos spoke to his son at his babtism to assure him he could do the work before him, to joseph Smith in the grove with a similar message and to the other prophets and holy men(and women) i have mentioned.

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