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The Baptism of Jesus as an Apocalyptic Event

Over the years scholars have adduced lots of reasons for thinking that Jesus – like many others in his day – was a Jewish apocalypticist, one who thought that the world was controlled by forces of evil but that God was very soon going to intervene to overthrow everything and everyone opposed to him in order to set up a good kingdom here on earth.  As I pointed out in my previous post, this is the view found in Jesus’ teachings in Mark (e.g., ch. 13), in Q (the source used by Matthew and Luke for many of their sayings), in M (Matthew’s special source[s]), and in L (Luke’s special source[s]).

There is another very good argument for thinking that Jesus must have subscribed to some kind of apocalyptic view (I’ll lay out what his exact views apparently were in a future post).  In fact, this argument is so good that I wish I had thought of it myself!  But alas, credit goes to others.  The argument, as I usually phrase it, is that “the beginning and the end are the keys to the middle.”

Here’s the argument.   We know with relative certainty…

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The Beginning and End as Keys to the Middle
Albert Schweitzer and the Apocalyptic Jesus



  1. gmatthews
    gmatthews  November 18, 2015

    As Christianity became more controlled by Gentiles do you think the apocalyptic overtones (undertones?) of the Gospels and of Paul became marginalized due to the fact that Gentiles simply didn’t know about or understand Jewish apocalypticism? Or, did the the early church fathers (the ones who wrote commentary at any rate I guess) just find it inconvenient and ignore the implications? I read on wiki that there were Jewish apocalyptic preachers as late as the 5th c. CE. I’m just curious how all of this knowledge of apocalyticism became “lost” until Schweitzer.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2015

      It appears that the gentile Christians — at least initially — bought into the apocalyptic message. When the apocalypse didn’t come, in many circles the expectation faded.

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    godspell  November 18, 2015

    There is nothing more fascinating to me in Jesus’ life than his association with John. It would seem self-evident John was an enormous influence, a mentor, a role model. We all know in our own lives how powerful such relationships can be–how when you have that kind of teacher in your life, you both strive to emulate and at the same time to distinguish yourself from that person.

    Is it possible Jesus at first believed John was Messiah? There seems little doubt that many of John’s followers continued to think this after John’s presumed execution by Herod, and the gospel writers were responding to this (in their opinion) incorrect belief when writing about him. They could not attack him, attempt to discredit him in any way, because Jesus had been so clearly associated with him, held him in such high regard, sought baptism from him, and reportedly said that no man born of woman had ever been greater than John (and nobody ever disputed Jesus was born of a woman).

    How could Jesus believe he was Messiah, if he believed no one had ever been greater than John? Surely the Messiah would be greater. Perhaps he believed he had inherited John’s role upon John’s death–perhaps he was already questioning John’s supremacy beforehand, the student rebelling against the master, while still revering him–and John’s death merely confirmed his growing belief in his mission. Probably he believed God could choose anyone to be Messiah, and that if he in turn were to fall (as he must have known could happen), God would merely appoint another. He could have had conflicting beliefs on this subject. He wouldn’t have believed the same exact thing at all times, because the situation he was in kept shifting, and his understanding of his role would have changed as circumstances changed.

    He was clearly more fortunate in his followers than John. He picked better men (and women) to carry on his teachings. That’s how his cult outlasted John’s. But Jesus, I fully agree, was not thinking about that. Because he believed all cults (and indeed all man-made institutions) would soon become irrelevant, when God came to transform the world.

    When I resist the notion that Jesus thought of himself as Messiah, I only reject the notion that he was a megalomaniac. What we know of his death indicates a personality that differs radically from that of other cult leaders. Which is why he has outlasted all of them.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2015

      Good question about Jesus’ understanding of John. I’d say it’s hard to know, except that there is nothing in the tradition to suggest that Jesus thought he may have been the messiah — as opposed, say, to a great prophet of God.

      • Avatar
        godspell  November 19, 2015

        But there wouldn’t have been, of course. No matter what Jesus thought. And I’m not saying he told his disciples John was Messiah–by the time he had disciples, he probably wouldn’t have thought that anymore. And maybe he never did, or maybe he just entertained the notion for a while. But really, wouldn’t any charismatic Jewish preacher in this era have generated that kind of speculation?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 20, 2015

          No, charismatic preaching did not lead anyone to think that a person was the messiah, any more than charismatic preaching today would lead someone to be called the President.

          • Avatar
            godspell  November 20, 2015

            That would tend to imply John told people he was the Messiah. Possible that he did, but we have no record of that–and yet even after his death, it seems that his followers went on for some time, saying he was Messiah, thus forcing early Christians to keep rewriting the story of Jesus and John, to counter that belief.

            People who are hoping for (or dreading) the emergence of a certain type of prophetic figure–Messiah, AntiChrist–will often look around, trying to find somebody who fits the profile. That person may accept the role being foisted upon him/her, or may refuse it, or may be ambiguous about it–not entirely affirming or denying.

            The Jesus I see in the gospels is being ambiguous, for the most part, oblique. Mark in particular, as you’re showing us by degrees, is telling a story where Jesus never really comes out and says who he is (except, bizarrely, to Pilate, where none of his followers can possibly hear him saying it). It’s a mystery story, that gospel. We’re supposed to solve the mystery, by saying “He was the Messiah.” But that implies a real-life Jesus who may have thought of himself that way, but didn’t want to come out and say it, wanted to make his followers work for it (and there’d be sound practical reasons for that, given the likely fate of anyone who claimed to be King of the Jews).

            Maybe the idea of his being Messiah didn’t start with him. Maybe others told him he was, and he started to believe them. It would have been an interactive process–leaders can’t help but be influenced by their followers.

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  November 21, 2015

            Um, how can you possibly *know* charismatic preaching didn’t lead anyone to think the preacher was the messiah? Whatever the messiah’s ultimate goal was thought to be, he’d have to start *somehow* – in all likelihood, by preaching. There could have been dozens of them, unknown to history, whose little groups of disciples thought for a time that they were the messiah.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 22, 2015

            Because no one thought charismatic preachers were the messiah.

          • Avatar
            Wilusa  November 23, 2015

            You insist that “charismatic preaching” wouldn’t lead anyone to think the preacher was the messiah. But wouldn’t that depend on the *content* of his preaching? If it was what most Catholics believed was Jesus’s core message when I was young – that people should love God, and love one another – I agree, surely not. But if he was predicting the imminent replacement of Roman rule by “God’s Kingdom on Earth”?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 24, 2015

            Yes, if he preached that he was the coming messiah, that would matter. But simply preaching that the kingdom of God was coming would not make anyone suspect that the preacher was the messiah. We know of numerous apocalyptic preachers; but they fact they preached the apocalypse did not make anyone think they were the messiah.

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    Wilusa  November 18, 2015

    About apocalypticism… I read a while back that the different types of theism include “kathenotheism,” which differs from “henotheism” in that different gods are assumed to be more or less powerful at different times. Could apocalypticists – who believed they were living in an age where Satan was in power – properly be called that? Even if they themselves wouldn’t have admitted they saw Satan as a “god”? (I can’t think of any other situation the modern coiners of the term may have meant.)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2015

      I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that term or its category!

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    Lance  November 18, 2015

    Professor Ehrman: Doesn’t Josephus chronologically have John the Baptist dying after Jesus? Second, do you think John may have been an Essene who left the group but obviously continued to teach his apocalyptic message?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2015

      He *mentions* John after Jesus, but it is given as a flashback and so is not set up as a chronological datum.

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    Wilusa  November 18, 2015

    Just curious…is there anything in the Gospels to indicate that Jesus either performed baptisms himself, or encouraged others to be baptized by John (before John was arrested)? If not, can you suggest an explanation? And also, an explanation of why later Christians stressed its importance?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2015

      Yes, the Gospel of John indicates that Jesus baptized — and then it takes it back and says that it wasn’t actually him but his followers that were doing it. Maybe that suggests that he did? The other sources don’t say either way.

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    Tom  November 18, 2015

    How do the fundamentalists explain the need for Jesus to be baptized?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2015

      They generally say that he was setting an example for his followers.

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        RG959  September 16, 2018

        If he was setting an example for his followers, than wouldn’t Jesus be doing the baptism himself? Not John the Baptist, since Jesus was without “sin”?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 17, 2018

          At some point historical reality affects the traditions that are told; and the hisotircal reality is that Jesus probably really was baptized by John.

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            RG959  September 17, 2018

            So if he was baptized by John the Baptist, from a historical analysis, Jesus did not think he was divine, nor without sin, and was merely repenting for his own sins, or showing himself lesser to god?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 19, 2018

            I think that must be right. Jesus did not think he was sinless or divine, and he was baptized by John looking forwward to the future apocalypse.

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    Kirktrumb59  November 18, 2015

    All posts very interesting/informative/terrific as usual. Thanks.
    However, per your 10-30-15 post, are you yet “setting the stage” with “substantial background” in service of enhancing your argument(s) regarding changes/forgeries/alterations in surviving manuscripts “that were made in order to make the text more amenable to the theological agenda of orthodox scribes and to help prevent their use by Christians who had alternative understandings of who Christ was,” or have you derailed, or have I missed a conclusion (certainly possible)? Thanks again.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2015

      Yeah, I’m going to get back to that. I’ve gone on a tangent on a tangent on a tangent. But at least it’s an interesting one!

  8. Avatar
    stevepurtell  November 18, 2015

    I would be interested to know more about the material from Josephus concerning John the Baptist as an apocalyptic figure. In short, we have information from outside the Bible to show John was a historical figure and a preacher of doom. As well as how John may relate to the so-called, “Testimonium Flavianum” Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2015

      Josephus doesn’t say *much*, but what he says is at least consistent with the idea that he was preaching the need for holiness and a return to God — consistent with the idea that he was an apocalpyticist.

  9. talmoore
    talmoore  November 18, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,
    If you can, can you please elaborate on the connection between Jesus’ baptism and his receiving of the Ruach haQodesh, seeing as how all the synoptic accounts see some significance in Jesus receiving the Ruach haQodesh during John’s baptism? Does that mean that Jesus’ early followers believed that John’s baptism was part of fulfulling the prophecies concerning the Ruach haQodesh, particularly within the context of Joel 3:1-2 MT (Joel 2:28-29 non-MT); Zech. 7:12; Haggai 2:5; Ezek. 2:2, 3:24, 11:5 & 9, 18:31, 36:26-27, 37:5-14, 39:29; Isaiah 11:2-4, 28:5-6, 32:15, 42:1, 44:3, 48:16, 57:15-16, 59:21, esp. 63:10-11; and Micah 3:8.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2015

      My sense is that the earliest Christians understood that the baptism was the moment when the Spirit of God came upon Jesus and empowered him. Teachings of such things as his Virgin Birth or inherent divinity came later.

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    Stephen  November 18, 2015

    Prof Ehrman

    Can Josephus help us at all with what we know about John”s views?


    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2015

      Yes, Josephus summarizes John’s teaching on righteousness and the need to turn to God; this portrayal is consistent with, though not the same as, what we find in the Xn sources.

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    Jana  November 18, 2015

    Thank you Dr. Ehrman. Jesus then must have chosen John the Baptist because he knew in advance that John echoed his own mission.

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    Jana  November 18, 2015

    And a question …. then were these words attributed to John the Baptist inserted into the Gospel in order to once again continue the propaganda about Jesus? (wikipedia) “Jesus comes to John, and is baptized by him in the river Jordan. The account describes how; as he emerges from the water, the heavens are ‘torn apart’ and the Holy Spirit descends on him ‘like a dove’. A voice from heaven then says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:1-8)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2015

      Quite possibly!

      • Avatar
        RGM-ills  November 23, 2015

        So do you maintain that since the baptism most certainly occurred, that the Voice also came a swooping like a dove?

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    Jim  November 18, 2015

    Is there any evidence from Josephus that John the Baptist was really an apocalyptic preacher, or is the evidence mainly inferred from the NT gospels?

    Also as a totally weird aside, does Josephus indicate that John the Baptist died in 36 CE, or is that just an internet rumor?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2015

      Josephus’s account is at least *consistent* with that of the Gospels. No, Josephus does not give a date for Jesus’ death.

  14. Avatar
    living42day  November 19, 2015

    First of all, let me say that I’m NOT one of those people “who on principle dispute everything because they prefer conspiracy theory to historical argument.” I’ve read enough of that material to see its obvious flaws, and I think you’ve made the argument for historicity quite convincingly in DJE? I do, however, read as widely as I can on the subject of the historical Jesus, and take seriously ideas that seem to me to be worthy of consideration.

    One such idea was put forward by Rafael Rodriguez in his 2012 discussion of the criterion of embarrassment. He argues, “The association of the lesser-known Jesus with the prestigious figure, John, ENHANCED [his emphasis]the former’s reputation, at least until it didn’t anymore” (“The Embarrassing Truth about Jesus,” in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, ed. Keith & Le Donne 143). Rodriguez’s argument has not, of course, been widely accepted, but doesn’t it deserve further consideration? Doesn’t his argument account for the available evidence?

    I don’t think that Rodriguez is a mythicist, and maybe he’s just trying to find a case to undermine the criterion of embarrassment….

    But the early Christian traditions do, in fact, cast John in a role (i.e., forerunner of Jesus/coming Elijah) that most historians find dubious, so why shouldn’t we question the gospel’s characterization of John as an apocalypticist? It seems to me that we can accept the historical fact of Jesus’ baptism without necessarily accepting the church’s description of John as an apocalyptic prophet of doom, especially since Josephus gives no indication of that. To put the question in terms you’ve discussed at length in your books: If the gospels have misrepresented John as the forerunner of Jesus, can we say that it’s PROBABLE that they’re historically accurate when they represent John as prophet of doom? [BTW, I’m not trying to argue that Jesus wasn’t an apocalypticist. I think the evidence for that is clear enough without involving John the Baptist.]

    Finally, is the story of Jesus’ being baptized specifically told in the Fourth Gospel? According to the evangelist, the Baptist claims to have seen the Spirit’s descent and heard God’s voice, but there is no clear mention of Jesus’ baptism per se. I seem to recall having learned it this way: Mark apparently has no problem with Jesus’ baptism, Matthew and Luke seek to mitigate its awkwardness, and John omits it.

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    Omar6741  November 19, 2015

    Can you recommend any book-length studies or articles on who exactly John the Baptist was?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 19, 2015

      There is one soon to appear by my friend Joel Marcus. I’m not sure hwen it is due out though.

  16. Bart
    Bart  November 19, 2015

    John was not in prison when he baptized Jesus, even in Luke.

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    Steefen  November 24, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman: Jesus’ connection with John is attested, independently, all over the place (at the *least* in Mark, Q, and John).

    Steefen: You do not respect the gospel of John, but now you want to say its attestation has merit.

    Second, did John the Baptist’s Apocalypse include the destruction of the gigantic Temple that was being finished? It is more likely that if John was asking people to get ready, it was for entry into a new kingdom where Temple Judaism was still standing. There were more Jews getting baptized by John the Baptist than Romans getting baptized by John the Baptist. So all the cutting down would not be the baptized. The apocalypticism of John the Baptist definitely was not that of Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 24, 2015

      I think you misunderstand my view of John. I do not think it is on the whole historically reliable. But it is one of the sources we have for the oral traditions of Jesus in circulation in the first century and in *that* sense has to be considered in determining which traditions go back to teh historical Jesus. It is to be treated like every other historical source..

  18. cheriegate
    cheriegate  November 27, 2015

    The most impressive and helpful book by now Stanford University professor Thomas Sheehan (The First Coming, 1986):

    ” If a sensitive and deeply religious Jewish man felt called to be a reformer of Israel, a prophet who would galvanize his people with hope that God was coming soon to save his chosen faithful, and if per impossible he could have picked the place and time of his birth so as to facilitate his mission, he could hardly have chosen a better place than Palestine around the year 3755 of the Jewish calendar. ”

    Chapter 2:

    This has been extremely!! helpful …

  19. Avatar
    rburos  June 28, 2016

    Reading Shaye Cohen’s ‘From the Maccabees to the Mishnah’ and am wondering about his discussion of baptism.

    He writes that during 2nd Temple Judaism, a gentile could convert to Judaism by getting circumcised, then by getting baptized, then by offering a sacrifice in the Temple.

    Crossan explains Jesus’ baptism by JBap as an ’embarrassment in the text”, for the reasons you describe above. But as a Jew, what law would Jesus keep by being baptized? Was JBap baptizing him into his sect?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 28, 2016

      There wasn’t a law about it. And yes, I think being baptized by John meant you became an adherent of his views and teachings.

      • Avatar
        rburos  June 28, 2016

        You, sir, are not paid enough. Thanks beyond words for your work (and help).

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    Luke9733  February 27, 2018

    I noticed that the New Testament and Josephus do seem at odds with each other on some aspects of John the Baptist, such as whether his baptism was for the remission of sins or for purification and also on the reason why John was executed. Is it thought that Josephus’ description is probably more reliable in the case of those differences, or what would the process be for evaluating those particular differences?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2018

      It’s debated. Some people try to find a basic consistency between them.

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