Christian Baptism

Did you know there is no mention of infant baptism (Christening) anywhere in the Bible? Yet the early church took it upon themselves to interpret their prophet Yeshua’s message as they saw fit.

The purpose of the christening service is, of course, to deliver another generation of youngsters into church membership as parents promise to bring them up faithful to its teachings. In decades past, most infants in the UK were christened as a matter of course; it was synonymous with naming a child, giving him or her an identity.

Nowadays most parents no longer consider it essential. Even the majority who have their infants christened are not particularly religious; they do it because it is expected of them and because it gets the family together to have a nice day.

There are exceptions of course. The last christening I attended was a very devout affair. The service followed the standard Anglican format, and the sermon was a lengthy diatribe on how Yeshua’s resurrection had saved the young infant from his sins. I wondered what possible sins he had committed? ‘Mewling and puking’ (to quote Shakespeare)?

I didn’t have my children christened. I felt that baptism was a commitment best made in adulthood, not for the gratification of others when they are too young to know what they are doing. Nor was I willing to make undertakings I had no intention of carrying out, such as schooling my children as Christians to the exclusion of all other faiths.

I was taken aback when a relative asked me in all seriousness wasn’t I worried that my children would go straight to hell if they died. This idea was promulgated by the theologian St Augustine[1], second perhaps only to Paul of Tarsus as the main shaper of Roman Christianity. He insisted that those who died without being baptised would suffer in hell for eternity, although he could not have pointed to any passage in the Bible to back this up because there isn’t one.

There’s a simple reason why there is no reference to infant baptism in the Bible. As now, Jews did not practise it. Infant boys were (and are) circumcised soon after birth and their transition into adulthood marked by the Bar Mitzvah ceremony on entering adolescence.

However, the baptism of adults plays an important part in the New Testament. They say that Yeshua himself was baptised by an ascetic mystic named John who baptised people by total submersion in the River Jordan. Water symbolised cleansing of one’s sins and preparation for the life to come.

The earliest written biblical mention of baptism – of adults only, remember – is in the letters of Paul of Tarsus written in the sixth decade of the First Century. Paul was in the habit of baptising converts, probably aware of Yeshua’s reported baptism by John the Baptist.

There is no record of Yeshua ever baptising anyone or insisting that they be baptised. Nowhere in the gospels does Yeshua call for baptism as an initiation rite for joining his band of followers or as preparation for entering the promised kingdom of G_d.

There is a passage at the end of the Second Gospel in which the resurrected Master urged the eleven surviving disciples (the twelfth, Judas Iscariot, having committed suicide) to ‘go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’[2] but the evidence suggests that this was added to the text much later by an unknown author.

In the fourth century, the leaders of the Roman church assumed the authority to expand on Biblical teachings where ‘gaps’ existed. Infant baptism was one such ‘gap’ (along with purgatory, confession, the Trinity, the infallibility of popes, women priests and so on).

By the 11th and 12th centuries, the Roman church had succeeded in regulating all aspects of life from the cradle to the grave. All the main stages of life were to be ruled by sacraments and marked by a church ceremony. Baptism as an infant was the first, naturally, and so it has remained ever since.

Baptism is crucial to Yeshua’s story. It marked the start of his public ministry, but its significance was much greater than that, because Yeshua’s core philosophy was inspired by John the Baptist. John made a huge impression on Galilean society with his warnings that the Day of Judgement was near and Jews must repent for their sins. Nowadays most people would think him mad, but at that time he was a popular and revered figure. Historical sources indicate that John the Baptist was better known and more popular than Yeshua and feared by the ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas.

Incredibly, some Christians (including, apparently, the last pope) believe that John’s head was placed in a sack, buried in a dung heap and discovered four hundred years later. It has since apparently been lost and rediscovered a number of times and is considered a sacred relic by the Catholic Church!

John’s teachings undoubtedly shaped Yeshua’s. If events had turned out differently, perhaps Yeshua would have gone down in history as the Baptists’ best known disciple, but a disciple nonetheless. Of course, the gospel writers were not about to let that happen. Stuck for an explanation for why their ‘Lord’ had succumbed to baptism by a mere mortal, they created far-fetched narratives that emphasised Yeshua’s superiority. But if one reads between the lines, the real truth is clear.

©David Lawrence Preston, 22.8.2016

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[1] Bishop of Hippo in the 5th century, not the one who took Roman Christianity to Britain.

[2] Matthew 28:19

John the Baptist and the Carpenter from Nazareth

It seems to me that John the Baptist plays a much bigger part in the gospels than he is given credit for.

The gospels tell us that John was a reclusive holy man well-known for preaching that a new world order was about to be established and people had better repent and confess their sins. This would happen very soon. There would be a Day of Judgement after which the righteous would be rewarded and the unrepentant punished for eternity in an unquenchable fire. The gospels say he baptised people by submerging them in the River Jordan to symbolise cleansing, rebirth and delivery from their sins.

He caused quite a stir in the region. According to the Jewish historian Josephus (who, like the gospel writers, wrote in the second half of the 1st Century), John the Baptist was better known, more popular and more troublesome to the authorities than Yeshua Bar Yehosef. Herod Antipas, the puppet king who ruled Galilee on behalf of the Romans, thought that John’s preaching would lead to an uprising, so he had him arrested and executed. But he left Yeshua alone.

The gospels say that the reason for John’s arrest was that Antipas had recently replaced his wife with a younger woman, Herodius. John had angered Antipas by criticising his behaviour, so Herodius persuaded her new husband to have him beheaded. The truth is probably a combination of Josephus’s view and the gospel writers: perhaps John’s reaction to the marriage was not the only reason for his arrest, just the last straw.

The gospels say that John never claimed to be the Messiah, but spoke of one who would follow who would be much greater than he. And when Yeshua sought him out for baptism, John thought he had found him.

Yeshua’s relationship with John the Baptist

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins and John, like Yeshua, was the product of a divine conception. The other gospels make no mention of this. If they were cousins, why do the gospels suggest that John the Baptist didn’t know Jesus?  We must draw our own conclusions.

We know nothing of how the carpenter from Nazareth came to be radicalised but we do know that he decided to take on John’s mantle after John’s arrest.

Jesus

The theological dilemma

If you consider Yeshua to be a Great Teacher from whose words we can learn and whose example of love and wisdom we can follow, his seeking of baptism from John doesn’t present you with any particular problems. But the early Christians, intent on convincing themselves and others that Yeshua was G_d incarnate, were unable to satisfactorily explain why he would seek baptism from a man who they considered to be his spiritual inferior. Hence they went to extraordinary lengths to portray Yeshua as superior to John.

All four gospels state that John recognised Yeshua as the Messiah when he presented himself for baptism. Then, to strengthen their case, the first three – the Synoptics – tell us that a miraculous event occurred: as Yeshua emerged from the water the Holy Spirit descended from heaven like a dove and a heavenly voice – the voice of G_d – was heard.

(In the 21st Century anyone who claimed to have heard such a voice would of course be admitted to a psychiatric establishment! But in 1st Century Palestine, it seems people were quite prepared to believe in a voice from the clouds.)

  1. In the first and third gospels, the voice addresses Yeshua himself – ‘You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.’
  2. In the second gospel, it addresses the onlookers. ‘This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
  3. The fourth gospel did not report a voice from heaven, but instead had the Baptist saying, ‘I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of G_d.’
  4. Interestingly, Paul of Tarsus – the earliest of the New Testament writers and the only one we can identify with certainty – makes no mention of the Baptist at all in his letters.

But here’s a curious thing. The second and third gospels say that after his arrest the Baptist sent a message to Yeshua from his prison cell asking if he really was the Messiah or whether they should expect another [1]. This presupposes that John was kept in a visitor-friendly prison, which seems most unlikely. Yeshua’s response was effectively ‘Yes I am.’ Referencing a passage in Isaiah[2], he replied: ‘The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ This was their way of claiming that Yeshua was indeed fulfilling the ancient prophecy – the new world order was already on its way, and he was indeed the Messiah.

Don’t you think this is odd? These two gospels say despite a voice from heaven, the Baptist was not convinced that Yeshua was the Messiah. If this had indeed occurred, how could John have doubted it?

Yeshua’s baptism marked the start of his public ministry. The gospels clearly state that he was convinced that G_d had called him to carry on the work of the Baptist. And he never abandoned his faith in his mentor. Towards the end of his life he told an audience of Chief Priests and Elders: ‘John (the Baptist) came to you… and you did not believe him.’

Yeshua echoed John’s teachings so much so that Herod Antipas thought he was the Baptist reincarnated, but he did not try to emulate John’s austere lifestyle. John lived as a hermit, but Yeshua lived among people, enjoyed a good meal and a cup or two of wine. John stayed in one place and people sought him out, while Yeshua went to them. Yeshua did not preach withdrawal from the world, but active participation in it. And while John spoke of hellfire and repentance, Yeshua emphasised forgiveness and love.

Yeshua was above all, like John, an eschatologist

Yeshua’s most passionate teachings were undoubtedly about the imminent coming of the Kingdom of G_d and what people needed to do to prepare for it. This was not some far-distant event; Mark’s Gospel tells us that he told his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of G_d has come with power.’[4]

Paul of Tarsus said the same, and the early Christians certainly took him literally (and were mocked for it). Now, two thousand years later, it is clear that they were all wrong. We’re still waiting.

Most modern biblical scholars believe that Yeshua was primarily an apocalyptic prophet who was put to death by the Romans for sedition when he claimed he would be king of the Jews in a future kingdom. But this view has not reached the people in the pews because the clergy – who study this in seminary – do not share it with their parishioners.

We should have no problem studying Yeshua from a historical perspective. The fact that the early Christian scriptures are inconsistent and contradictory should not worry us if we realise we cannot take the words literally and instead seek the meaning behind the words. Those Christian denominations who argue for the historical truth of the gospels are skating on very thin ice.

Is it possible that if John the Baptist had not been arrested by Herod Antipas, Yeshua would not have taken on his mantel, and we would never have heard of him? I think it is!

©David Lawrence Preston, 22.8.2016

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[1] Matthew 11: 2-6 and Luke 7:18-23.

[2] Isaiah 35:5-9

[3] Mark 11:27-33

[4] Mark 9:1