© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.
To his great baptism flocked
With awe the regions round, and with them came
From Nazareth the son of Joseph deemed
To the flood Jordan – came as then obscure,
– John Milton, Paradise Regained
The One Who Goes Before
The public life of Jesus began with his baptism in the Jordan River. He came, as it were, out of nowhere, a young man from Nazareth: “obscure, / Unmarked, unknown,” as Milton says in the above epigraph. But his obscurity would soon disappear.
The moment of his baptism is called the Epiphany, an English translation of epiphanaia, which means “astonishing appearance.” Jesus as the Christ, or Messiah, was revealed for the first time as he stepped from the river: “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up immediately out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him.” Soon a voice came from heaven: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17). From this moment on, he’s out walking in the world, healing and teaching, gathering disciples, preaching that God’s kingdom was at hand – like ripe fruit on the tree of life.
An actual dove did not descend upon Jesus in any of the gospel accounts. Instead, the spirit fell upon him “like a dove,” and the imagery of this graceful bird has grown familiar because of iconic paintings of this scene, such as Andrea del Verrocchio’s depiction of 1475, which shows a brilliantly lit white dove appearing directly over the head of Jesus, with hands (of God?) setting it afloat while two small angels watch the baptism (at least one of these angels may have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci, a young apprentice of Verrocchio). Dove or no dove, Jesus was filled with the God’s spirit, experiencing a sense of rebirth, renewal, and mission.
The notion that God should speak – becoming a Voice – is rooted in the Jewish tradition, as “it was a firmly held rabbinic conviction that saints and teachers were commended in public by a heavenly Voice,” says Vermes. “Furthermore, when such a commendation is directly accredited to God, the person in whose favor it is made is alluded to as ‘my son.’” (1) The next time we hear God speak from heaven about his son in these terms will be toward the end of Jesus’s public ministry, on the mountain when he undergoes the change from earthly body into spiritual body known as the Transfiguration. Again, the voice proclaims a revelation.
A crucial figure in the life of Jesus is John the Baptist, his cousin, “the one who goes before him in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). Scholars widely accept him as a historical person, as Josephus mentions him. A wild ascetic in the gospels, the Baptist embodies “a voice crying in the wilderness” (Mark 1:3). His appearance startled people, as he wore a crude garment made from camel’s hair and refused to shave or cut his hair or make polite conversation. He was a solitary (probably an Essene at one point) who fasted and prayed for long periods (Matthew 1:18). Many thought he harbored a devil. Some theologians have argued that “John the Baptist may have been an angelic pre-existent spirit,” therefore not obliged to descend into the flesh, as Rowan Williams observes. (2) Interestingly, a cult centered in Alexandria grew up around him – a movement that actually rivaled the religion of Jesus, even though he was quite explicit about his being a forerunner of the Messiah, not the Messiah himself. “He must increase, but I must decrease,”
said John, rather modestly, of himself in relation to Jesus. (Then again, Christian evangelists wrote the gospels.)
In Acts 18:24-25, one sees how highly John the Baptist stood in particular circles. On his travels, the apostle Paul met a man called Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He’s described as “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures.” In a telling comment, Paul explains that Apollos had been “instructed in the Way of the Lord,” and yet he knew only of John the Baptist, not Jesus. This suggests that the idea of the Way of the Lord was less tied to the person of Jesus than is often assumed. Paul notes with considerable unease in writing to the Corinthian church that people were being baptized in many names, not only in the name of Jesus. This struck him as a dangerous precedent, given that any number of wandering preachers claimed spiritual authority.
This was, as I’ve noted, an era rich in prophets and fiery rebels, magicians and freaks, some of them holy men in the tradition of charismatic Judaism (and with emotional ties to older prophets, such as Elijah). The practice of baptism, however, was not something original or strange among these types. In fact, ritual immersion had been a common practice among Jews throughout the Second Temple period, as scholars have observed. It was often preceded by “a time of careful teaching in the Torah and the Prophets and in the proper way to observe the traditions of Judaism.”(3)
Ritual bathing remains a common practice throughout the world: everyone has seen pictures of Hindus plunging into the Ganges. This ritual takes on symbolic overtones when it becomes baptism, a rite of transformation. In the Christian tradition, baptism is a crucial sacrament, a sign of God’s willingness to accept a soul into the fold, and – in adult baptism – it signals a renewal and commitment to the Way of Jesus, a life dedicated to others, a life of worship and adherence to specific ideals. The practice acquired a fresh intensity with John the Baptist. He used the ritual of full immersion as a sign of spiritual awakening, as in metanoia, which (as explained earlier) in addition to signaling a change of heart means to open one’s mind to God and thus be filled with new life. The person being baptized has made a commitment to reordering priorities and seeking what Jesus called “the kingdom of heaven.” For John, in particular, the act of baptism suggested death and rebirth through spiritual cleansing.
In this time of intense political instability, the secular powers feared John’s popularity. Herod Antipas (a son of Herod) ruled in Perea and Galilee, where he rivaled his father in his penchant for sheer – almost gleeful- brutality. According to Mark (6:7-8), John disapproved of this ruler’s marriage to the wife of his half brother, Philip I; he denounced him bluntly, saying: “It is not lawful for yon to possess your brother’s wife.” This was too sharply critical, especially coming from one who had attracted a following of his own, and John soon found himself imprisoned in the frontier fortress of Machaerus, where he was beheaded at the request of Salome, the king’s stepdaughter. (She seems to have bewitched Antipas with her belly dancing- a detail that Mark could not pass over.) John’s head arrived at the palace on a silver platter, a vision that Titian painted memorably in the early sixteenth century, with the innocent face of Salome hovering near the ghastly severed head as if to say, “You mean I did that?”
The Temptation in the Desert
John the Baptist fades from history, but Jesus emerges. Empowered by his baptism, with the vocal approval of God, he did as many ascetics had done before him: took himself into the desert for forty days. This was a symbolic number, paralleling both the years spent in the desert by ancient Israel on their journey to the land of Canaan and the fasting time of Moses before he received the Ten Commandments: “And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water” (Exodus 34:28). Fasting often marks the prelude to a period of spiritual testing, which followed in the desert, when Satan appeared before Jesus with a series of tests.
In Mark, the temptation of Christ gets short shrift – almost everything gets short shrift in Mark – while in Luke and Matthew the authors expand on it vividly. How could they resist? Their accounts conform in so many ways that scholars attribute the nearly identical conversations between Jesus and the Devil to Q, a lost source that the writers of these gospels drew on for details. (Q refers to Quelle, a German word for “source.”) The temptation scene is absent from John altogether, which (with other evidence) leads us to believe the author of the Fourth Gospel had probably not read the three so-called Synoptic Gospels (from a Greek word that means “seeing together,” suggesting that Mark, Matthew, and Luke drew on the same sources, with the latter two evangelists copying from Mark, often word for word).
The larger mythic question is this: Why does the story of the ministry of Jesus begin in the desert, with temptations by Satan? Was it because this would make Jesus seem more like us? It’s a fact that everyone is tempted by one thing or another. Error is sin, a stepping off the “right” or “straight” path; the word “right” in Anglo-Saxon means the direct or straight route from one point to another. The “wrong” path is the “crooked” one. As the Lord’s Prayer says: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Evil, again, is error, a misstep, a move in the wrong direction – hamartia in Greek, meaning “off the mark.” We all get off the path now and then, sometimes wildly off course. I don’t want to downplay here the meaning of sin, however. As William Law, an Anglican devotional writer of the eighteenth century, put it very sharply: “The whole nature of the Christian religion stands on these two great pillars, namely the greatness of our fall and the greatness of our redemption.”(4)
Try to imagine Jesus, led by the Spirit, wandering in the desert, fasting and praying, feeling his own sweat and stench, the gritty sand in the folds of his skin, in his hair. Dryness would have parched his skin, a mirror of the spiritual aridity he sought to relieve through prayer and fasting. John the Baptist had lived in this manner for years, and this wasn’t as odd as it sounds. Holy men often went into the desert for long spells of solitude, but Jesus did so at the age of thirty, having been perhaps a carpenter for more than a decade. Within hours, Jesus would surely have grown hungry, so it makes sense that the first temptation involved turning stones into bread. Jesus replied to Satan with consummate poise: “One does not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4). Here he simply quoted (indirectly) Deuteronomy 8:3: “And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of
the mouth of the Lord doth man live.” That is, we live not by ingesting mere food; in fact, the material world fails to satisfy our full spiritual needs.
In the second temptation (or third one, depending on whether you follow Luke or Matthew, who reverse the order and differ on whether the temptations occurred during or after the forty days), Satan led Jesus to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, telling him to jump off to prove that he is God’s son, as God would surely supply enough angels to break his fall if he were truly divine. Jesus rightly mocked this suggestion, saying tersely: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” The third temptation found Jesus and Satan with a commanding view from the highest mountain in the desert, from which it was possible to see “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (Matthew 4:8). Satan offered this geographical expanse to Jesus if he would only worship him, not God – Satan’s version of what is now often called “the prosperity gospel” by shady televangelists, who regularly manipulate their flocks by offering a path to earthly riches, as if the kingdom of God had any monetary basis. Jesus merely scoffed at Satan here, as well he should: “Get away from me!”
Matthew and Luke tell the same story in the same words, although their reversal of the order of the second and third temptation remains a point of curiosity for scholars, suggesting that authorial discretion played a role. That is, the writers of these gospels worked from oral and perhaps written traditions, picking and choosing, ordering their material in a fictive way (fiction derives from a Latin word – fictio – meaning to shape material, highlighting some things, suppressing others.) In each of the temptations set before him, Jesus replied to Satan in his inimical style, saying: Don’t tempt me, and don’t try to put God in a position to rescue me. In his behavior with the Adversary, he showed us exactly how to act when tempted: You sidestep the tempter, and walk away.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell has described what he calls a “monomyth,” the classic journey of the hero, a story that underlies most narratives that feature a spiritual transformation. The hero – Moses, the Buddha, Jesus, Odysseus, or virtually any heroic figure – follows a familiar path: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”(5) Soon after the hero’s “call to adventure,” his summons to follow a unique path occurs, and he must go into the wilderness (literally and figuratively); he must be tempted. As Campbell observes, the tests that a hero confronts often come in threes, and the story of Jesus follows the pattern. He meets three “tests” or “temptations” – the Greek word is ekpeiraseis, which means “a putting on trial.” The point of these temptations seems clear: the humanity of Jesus requires that he, like everyone, face trials in his life, and the way forward means dealing successfully with these tests. In Hebrews 4:15, the writer – writing in the tradition of Paul’s letters – suggests that in Jesus his followers possess a “high priest” who is “in every respect tested as we are.”(6)
The Ministry Begins
For Jesus, this time in the desert clarified his intentions, and he resolved to take his mission into the world. But how would he do this? Where to begin? He had no formal education, no wealthy or influential family behind him. In fact, his family appears to have regarded him as somewhat volatile, even mad. One sees this in the Gospel of Mark, where the evangelist tells us that when he was preaching to a large crowd one of his family members said: “He’s out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). They tried, without luck, to “take custody of him” at one point, hoping his radical energies might be restrained. It’s obvious that Jesus did not have an easy time in Nazareth, among family members and neighbors who had watched him grow and wondered why he had come back from the desert full of strange ideas.
As Luke tells it, he had a rocky debut as a preacher in his home town.(7) On a fateful day, he went to the local synagogue where he must have worshiped for decades on the Sabbath. Surrounded by familiar faces, he stepped forward to read from the sacred scrolls, choosing a passage from Isaiah, a familiar text: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). So far, so good. Everyone would have nodded wisely. But then Jesus said: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Hearing this, the crowd grew restive, even angry. Did Jesus somehow imagine he could fulfill this prophecy in his own person? Wasn’t this the carpenter’s son? Perhaps he really was crazy, as some had already suggested.
That Jesus would speak at all in the synagogue suggests he must already have established himself as someone with spiritual authority and rabbinical skills, and some that day were “amazed by his gracious words.” In his reading from Isaiah, it’s clear that Jesus did some editing of the text, mixing passages from chapters sixty-one and fifty-eight. Kenneth E. Bailey, a biblical scholar who has spent much of his life in Israel, suggests that this community would have known this particular passage well, as it lay “at the heart of their history and self-understanding.”(8) Bailey notes that in the Targumim – a first-century translation of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic – there was an emphasis in this passage on the triumph of Jewish settlers over their gentile neighbors, who had pushed into this region of Galilee in ways that threatened Jewish settlements. In this charged atmosphere, there would have been strong resistance to the political message that Jesus seemed to repress in favor of a more spiritual one. They would have asked why he chose to turn a passage about the triumph of the Jews into one about paying attention to the poor and afflicted.
As Bailey observes, fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls suggest that Jesus was preaching on a theme very much in the air in the early decades of the first century, especially among the Essenes, who strongly identified with the poor (being forerunners of later monastic orders, who took vows of poverty). In fact, many scholars have wondered if Jesus might actually have belonged to this sect at one point, or at least have been deeply influenced by their teachings.(9)
That Jesus identified himself as one anointed for this work of “proclamation” certainly agitated the Nazarenes. To their ears, his interpretation of a beloved passage smacked of heresy and self-delusion, and the appropriate punishment for heretics was stoning. “And they were offended by him,” Luke writes. “But Jesus said to them, A prophet is not without honor except in his own country or in his own house” (Luke 13:61). At this point, Jesus had riled the crowd to such a point that they actually drove him from the synagogue to a cliff at the outskirts of the village. They intended to push him over the edge, a fall that might have resulted in death or severe injury. But for mysterious reasons they didn’t.
Did Jesus say something to defuse the tension? (He was clever on his feet, capable of withering remarks, and there was also the local-boy factor. Would they really push the son of Mary and Joseph over the edge of a cliff?) One regrets that none of the gospel writers gives us more details, as the scene cries out for elaboration. All we know is that Jesus escaped the hostile intentions of his neighbors, that he walked away unharmed. Perhaps he spoke to them in his usual frank way, engaging their sympathy, reminding them of something he had said or done before. Did he call them out by name, fixing them with a familiar gaze? All of this is left, like so much in the gospels, to the imagination of readers. Positioned, as in Luke, at the outset of the ministry, this incident in the synagogue sets the scene for all the trouble that would follow, as Jesus continued to press against the boundaries of taste and received wisdom, angering many who heard him, setting the stage for his eventual arrest and execution.
The incident in the synagogue – and the reaction of the local community – frightened the family of Jesus, and their fears only intensified when he began to move from village to village, exorcizing demons and healing the sick, attracting large crowds and gossip, too. That he brazenly sought out whores and slaves, lepers and tax collectors – people on the bottom of the pecking order – didn’t reassure them. Even though an angel of the Lord had prepared Mary for something unusual, her son’s behavior probably confused and upset her. (Joseph may have been dead by this time, as no further mention of him will be found in the gospels or any further book of the New Testament.) Eventually, however, the family accepted Jesus as a gifted rabbi, if not the Messiah. Indeed, his brother James would actually play a large role in the early Christian communities, directing its operations from Jerusalem, rivaled only by Paul as a shaping force in the decades after their leader’s departure.
And yet there is the discomforting fact that Jesus had reservations about family life, especially as it relates to discipleship. He asked his followers to reject their loved ones if they really wished to join his mission. His directives could be vehement, as in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” However you examine this and other passages, it’s obvious that Jesus made uncompromising demands on those who would follow him: not unlike the Therapeutae – one of several monastic sects of the ‘era who favored living apart from family in the pursuit of spiritual goals.
His own relations with his mother often seem puzzling, as in the wedding at Cana, where he performed his first miracle. The story appears only in John 2:1-11, which presents this magical tale with a compressed grace:
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you or to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing nearby were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He then said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and is disciples believed in him.
A few things stand out in this passage. For a start, Jesus and his disciples chose to attend this wedding with Mary, who obviously played a large role in the life of her son, or he would not have come. For all his comments about putting aside one’s family to follow him, Jesus didn’t disapprove of weddings. His public ministry begins, in earnest, at such an occasion. And a wedding, then as now, was worthy of celebration, so the lack of wine threatened to dampen the spirits of those in attendance. But why did Mary complain about the wine to Jesus? What did she really expect of him?
The response to Mary sounds rude to modern ears: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” What hour did he mean? Did this ominous-sounding phrase anticipate his death on the cross? Or did this allude to his ministry at large, which was only just beginning? There is no doubt, to me, that Jesus implicitly affirmed the ritual of marriage by staging his first miracle or “sign” at such an event. This point takes on some importance in the context of Paul- a major theological force – who would later say that it was “better to marry than to burn” (1Corinthians 7:9). That’s not a ringing endorsement of holy matrimony. Yet it seems important that the ministry of Jesus began where it did – at a wedding feast, with his mother in attendance.
Family life mattered to him, even though we get only brief glimpses of him in that context, creating a narrative vacuum where rumors flood in, many of them unfounded. The notion that Jesus was married seems to have traveled widely – from the Mormon preacher Orson Hyde, who argued that Jesus was a polygamist who married Mary Magdalene and Martha and perhaps another Mary, to The Da Vinci Code, a popular novel by Dan Brown that claimed Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus. No canonical details give credence to such notions, though in two of the Gnostic Gospels – The Gospel of Mary and The Gospel of Philip – one finds references to Mary Magdalene that could lead one to assume that Jesus felt especially close to her. In Philip, for instance, Jesus kissed Mary Magdalene on the lips. It’s worth noting this, if only to remind us that the Jesus story cannot easily be confined to the handful of documents selected as canonical by bishops in later centuries. The life itself forms a wide-ranging and complex mythos with countless stray elements that challenge orthodox views at every turn. (The recent discovery of an ancient Coptic fragment that alludes to the wife of Jesus has created further interest in the notion that Jesus could have been married, although most scholars dismiss the idea as unlikely, given that the gospels – even those outside the canon – make no reference to any wife of Jesus, and they would probably have noted this, as they mention that others in his circle, such as Peter, had a wife. It would have been odd to leave out such a key piece of biographical information.)(10)
From Cana, Jesus set forth in earnest, speaking to large or small crowds in his unique fashion, gathering disciples, baptizing those who wished to change their lives, preaching in ways that challenged and startled those who heard him, casting out demons, healing the blind and deaf, the palsied, the leprous. He raised several people from the dead (not just Lazarus), and that wasn’t the half of it. As John remarks at the end of his gospel, “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if everyone of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). No wonder his legend spread, a stone tossed into a pond with ever-widening circles. The larger significance of the gospel story is put simply by Thomas a Kempis: “God can do more than man can understand.” (11)
Notes for Chapter 3
1 Vermes, 206.
2. Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, znd ed. (Cambridge: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2.002), 146.
3. Stephan J. Pfann, “The Essene Yearly Renewal Ceremony and the Baptism of Repentance,” in The Provo International Conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls: Technological Innovations, New Texts, and Reformulated Issues, eds. D. Patry and E. Ulrich (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 336.
4. Quoted in Stephen Hobhouse, William Law and Eighteenth Century Quakerism (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1927), 240.
5. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949), 23.
6. Biblical scholars generally agree that the language of Hebrews is not Pauline.
7. See Mark 3:21, for example.
8. Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 154
9. There is a minor cottage industry of books claiming to “prove” that Jesus was an Essene or closely allied with this devoutly ascetic group, which had a major outpost in the caves of Qumran. And the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect ideas similar to those we associate with Jesus.
10. See “A Faced Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife,” by Laurie Goodstein in The New York Times (September 18, 2012). This fragment of papyrus was brought before the scholarly community by Professor Karen L. King of the Harvard Divinity School at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome in September, 2012. Professor King herself has noted that this fragment proves nothing about the marital status of Jesus. It’s nevertheless an intriguing bit of information from the ancient world, which suggests that questions about Jesus and his marital state could have been widespread in antiquity.
11. Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans. Aloysius Croft and Harold Bolton (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2003), 139.