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The Criterion of Dissimilarity

Over the past couple of class periods I have been introducing my undergraduate students to the problems that confront critical scholars who try to reconstruct what Jesus really said and did.  These problems are created by the nature of our materials – especially the New Testament Gospels – which is why I begin my course — which focuses on the historical approach to the New Testament — in something other than the chronological order of events or writings.  Irony!

But an irony with pretty compelling logic.  If we began with a chronological order of writings, of course, we would begin the course with the writings of Paul, since these are the first surviving writings from any early Christian – earlier by 15-30 years than the Gospels.  But it doesn’t make sense to start with Paul (in my opinion) if you don’t know something about Jesus.  And you can’t begin with Jesus unless you know something about our sources for Jesus, our Gospels.  And so for a historical approach to the New Testament, we go out of chronological order.  Go figure.

We spend the first number of weeks in the course studying the Gospels to see what the distinctive features of each one are, to see what their overarching emphases are, to see how they are each presenting Jesus.  While doing that, we find numerous problems with the Gospels: they are written decades after the events they describe by authors who were not eyewitnesses, who were living in different countries and speaking a different language from Jesus, who were basing their accounts on oral traditions they had heard (or written sources that were themselves based on oral traditions).   And even without serious scholarship we know what happens to stories circulating by word of mouth!

As a result, the Gospels are filled with historical problems, discrepancies, legendary accretions, and so on.   That does not undermine, at all, their literary value.  But if we move from considering them as literary texts that tell amazing stories of Jesus to historical sources that can help us know what Jesus said and did, how do we proceed?

What I argue in the class is that we need to proceed by applying rigorous historical criteria to each and every tradition in the Gospels to see if it can claim to be historically accurate.  Among the various criteria that I introduce my students to, none is as controversial (among my students and among hard-core scholars both!) as one known as the Criterion of Dissimilarity.  Its logic and sense are rooted in the nature of our sources.   Here is how I describe it in my textbook on the New Testament.


The most controversial criterion that historians use, and often misuse, to establish authentic tradition from the life of Jesus is commonly called the “criterion of dissimilarity.” It can be explained by analogy to a legal trial. Any witness in a court of law will naturally …

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How Do We Know What Jesus Said or Did? The Criterion of Dissimilarity in Practice
Were the Disciples Martyred for Believing the Resurrection? A Blast From the Past



  1. Avatar
    sashko123  October 16, 2017

    Speaking of law, this criterion seems similar to the hearsay exception known as “Statement against interest.” A statement by an unavailable declarant is admissible in many jurisdictions if the statement is against the declarant’s pecuniary or propriety interest or could subject him to criminal prosecution. The rationale is that it is unlikely that the declarant would have made a statement which would be harmful to him unless he believed the statement were true. This also relates to a previous post. Note that the statement is evidence for the declarant’s belief in the truth of the statement, not for the truth of the statement.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 16, 2017

    Separating the legendary from the historical is, for me, the key problem with the Gospels. Thanks for your help with this daunting task.

  3. Avatar
    doug  October 16, 2017

    When teaching students, it must be rough at times for critical thinking to go up against a student’s “But I want to believe!” standpoint.

  4. Avatar
    modelthry  October 16, 2017

    Has anyone ever tried to put the criteria of dissimilarity to the test, empirically? I’m envisioning an experiment where you have a number of individuals separately describe something they’ve just witnessed. Then some historians can try to reconstruct the actual event using the dissimilarity criterion and whatever other rigorous criteria they want. Just to see how close they can come!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 17, 2017

      I don’t know if anyone has tried it like this, but the very *principle* is of course used in legal contexts all the time (if a witness testifies to something against his/her best self-interest, then it’s more likely trustworthy)

  5. Avatar
    seahawk41  October 16, 2017

    I finished reading Jenkins’ book, Crucible of Faith today. As I mentioned earlier, it is broader than your proposed book on how belief in the afterlife developed. His goal is to show how the “crucible years” (roughly 400 BCE to 100 CE) changed Judaism and all the faiths that are related to it, and hence formed many of the foundational beliefs of the modern world! Obviously, belief in the afterlife, resurrection, etc. is a big part of that, but also involved are belief in supernatural beings other than God (angels, devils), various apocolyptic beliefs, and more. It is a very fascinating read, and I suspect you will want to include it in the preparation for your book. FWIW. Chuck

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  October 16, 2017

    I’ve used this criterion to create what I think is the most historically plausible plot for my Jesus novel. I asked myself this one question: if I were a first generation Christian writing a completely fabricated account of Jesus’ life and death, what are those events that I would choose to leave out.

    1. That Jesus was from Galilee. Not only does it not serve the Christian mission to have Jesus come from, of all places, Galilee, it, in fact, harms the message so much that it forced later Christians to fabricate stories of how Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem and only later came to reside in Galilee for ostensibly “logical” reasons.

    2. That Jesus was baptized by John. If Jesus’ followers really believed that he was the Messiah, then why would they make up an event where John baptizes Jesus? Why would the Messiah need absolution? The only explanation is that the first Christians already knew that Jesus had been baptized by John, so they invented details to rationalize it, such as suggesting that Jesus had to be baptized in order for the Holy Spirit to descend onto him, in which the bath qol informs Jesus that he is, in fact, the Messiah, and, also, so John is informed of Jesus’ exaltation, and so on and so forth. Essentially, the event was repurposed to explain away the tradition that Jesus was baptized.

    3. That Jesus was accused of being a false prophet by the Galileans. If you’re a Christian missionary, why in the heck would you tell those who you are trying to convert that he was considered to be a false prophet by his own people? If you had the choice of making up that detail or not, surely, you would not. But, alas, the first Christians did not have that luxury. Why? Because Jesus was actually known for being run out of plenty of Galilean towns under the accusation of being a false prophet! That was a detail that was simply too well-known to bury. So instead the first Christians created extraneous details that rationalized such treatment. (The Galileans were wicked. The Galileans weren’t worthy of signs. The Galileans were hard-hearted. A prophet is welcomed everywhere except his own country.) The first Christians turned a liability into an asset.

    4. That Jesus was arrested and executed. If you were a Christian inventing the climax of your founder’s story, would you have him ignominiously arrested and crucified publicly? No. If you had the choice to make up his death from scratch, you’d make it much more glorious. In your ending, Jesus arrives at the Mount of Olives, where he is surrounded by an unearthly light, and the spirits of Moses and Elijah come down from heaven and take Jesus up in a fiery chariot. And before he departs to heaven, Jesus says he will be returning soon, to judge the living and the dead. And so on and so forth. Instead, Jesus is betrayed by one of his own followers, pathetically arrested by the ruling powers that be, and shamefully executed in front of all Israel. The history of Christianity is basically an attempt to rationalize and justify such an anti-climactic ending to Jesus’ life.

    Hence, I believe all of those events are absolutely historical. Jesus came from Galilee. He was baptized by John (and probably spent some time with John by the Jordan). He was ignored and dismissed by pretty much everyone except his loyal few. He was arrested and crucified by the Romans.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 17, 2017

      Yup, I completely agree.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  October 18, 2017

        I’m not sure about point 3. One purpose of the gospel stories is to establish that the Jews rejected Jesus, and thus they didn’t deserve their messiah.This accounts for all the instances in which the Jews pursue Jesus, intending to kill him, which I find nonsensical. Further, I don’t believe the disciples fled when Jesus was arrested. The purpose of this fiction is similar: To discredit the “Jerusalem church,” especially Peter. The principle of dissimilarity (sp?) is useful, but doesn’t explain or confirm everything.

        • Avatar
          godspell  October 24, 2017

          I agree Point 3 has some problems (pretty much any point you make in this area–or in historical study in general–will have some problems). However, you must remember, the Galileans were not in any sense in the mainstream of Judaism. That was one of the reasons we’re given all these different stories to make Jesus a Judean. Not just to fulfill expectations of where the Messiah would be born, but to distance him from a province with a bad reputation throughout the rest of Palestine. And furthermore, a reputation for unorthodoxy.

          I do believe Jesus had a hard time reaching people who’d known him and his family. That makes sense. He may have done better elsewhere in Galilee. But if some kid you’d known growing up came back from a long absence and said he was a messenger from God, and that you should forget everything you ever knew and listen to him, what would your reaction be? He wouldn’t have been able to do faith healings if nobody had faith in him.

          They would have been curious, but they would also have been wary–and perhaps resentful–who does he think he is? The seed and breed of him, no better than they should be. Begrudgery. A factor in peasant life, all over the world. Though I flatter myself that the Irish were always best at it. 😉

          Doesn’t mean it happened just the way the gospels say, but it happened. And most Jews elsewhere would have rejected Jesus, for reasons Bart and others have explained well.

          But that being said, it’s a debatable use of the criterion, because by the time the gospels were written, Christianity was well-established, if still far from a majority faith. They might have been proud to talk about how rejected they and their founder were, how much they had overcome to survive and grow. That is consistent with the rise of most religions. So as with many parts of the gospel story, I believe it, and still suspect it may have exaggerated, embellished.

          Riots, mobs, can spring up out of nowhere, and never more where religion is involved. Jesus probably did get threatened with stoning or other forms of physical violence. Nothing improbable about that–but if you’re telling a story about a rejected Messiah, you punch it up a bit.

          Now as for the thing about internecine factions within early Christianity–that’s an interesting claim. I’d like to know what Bart thinks about that. It’s a fact the disciples didn’t fight back much or at all when Jesus was taken–we know this because the disciples lived long enough to spread Jesus’s teachings, create the beginnings of a new faith. If they’d risen up for him, they’d have died with him.

          I’ll always believe Jesus wanted them to live, had no desire for them to violently resist his persecutors. But the guilt of that memory would have lingered–would have served as an inspiration for all that followed. Guilt is always, to some extent, irrational–and a great motivator, because it lingers so long inside of us.

          But you could be right–some of the gospel writers (not Mark, I don’t believe) may have been playing it up, because they were fighting the dominance of Jerusalem. Peter’s influence was never broken, though–there’s a reason every subsequent Christian leader for centuries was seen as following in his footsteps.

          I don’t believe anybody was saying the criterion explains everything. And you can absolutely lean too heavily upon it. A guideline, not an absolute rule.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  October 17, 2017

      Very nice summary of Jesus’ life

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  October 17, 2017

      I also agree, but I think that when I was an unquestioning believer – a very long time ago – I imagined that very *public* death as having been necessary for belief in the resurrection. Jesus’s being seen alive at a later date would only be hailed as a miracle if there was absolutely no doubt that he’d been dead!

    • Rick
      Rick  October 17, 2017

      Talmoore, have you read “Judas My Brother” by Frank Yerby? A novel along the lines you are pursuing. I read it years (and years) ago as a teen…. Sometimes I wonder if it was a seed of my skepticism.

    • Avatar
      Tony  October 17, 2017

      Hence, I believe all of those events are absolutely historical. Jesus came from Galilee.
      Ok, you realize of course the Galilee origin is just another prophesy fulfillment. Isaiah 9:2.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 18, 2017

        A) I’m assuming you meant to say Isaiah 9:1 (MT 8:23), not 9:2.

        B) I don’t know what translation you’re reading, but this passage is notoriously difficult to translate. The received MT has:
        כָּעֵת הָרִאשׁוֹן הֵקַל אַרְצָה זְבֻלוּן וְאַרְצָה נַפְתָּלִי
        וְהָאַחֲרוֹן הִכְבִּיד דֶּרֶךְ הַיָּם עֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן, גְּלִיל הַגּוֹיִם

        This is what it says, literally, in Hebrew:
        “For the first season, lightly, land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali. And the next [season], heavily, the seaway across the Jordan, גְּלִיל of the nations.”

        Now, I’ve left that word untranslated because it seems if you ask 5 philologists what it translates to you’ll get 5 different answers. For instance, in the NRSV, it’s translated as “Galilee,” which is what I’m assuming you’re basing your theory on. Indeed, much of the NRSV deviates from the literal translation.

        “In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” — Isaiah 9:1, NRSV

        Honestly, I don’t know where the translators have gotten that translation. The Septuagint, maybe? I don’t know. But here’s the thing. The word that they’ve translated as “Galilee” makes far more sense if translated as “province” — which is what Galilee originally meant — rather than specifically Galilee. And as you can see, if you translate it as “province” rather than “Galilee” the passage makes (a little) more sense. Though it doesn’t make a lot of sense to begin with.

        “For the first season, lightly, land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali. And the next [season], heavily, the seaway across the Jordan, province of the nations.”

        What does this mean? If were to take a stab, I would say it probably means that Zebulun and Naphtali got off easy the first around when God punished them, but the next time will be much more severe for those now living in exile along the Euphrates (seaway across the Jordan) in the land of the Assyrians and Babylonians (province of the nations). That’s just an educated guess.

        C) Even if it *does* mean to specify the Galilee, there’s no indication within the context that it has anything what-so-ever to do with the birth of the Messiah or some kind of prophecy of Jesus’ birth or whatnot. True, the translators of the NRSV have chosen to translate הִכְבִּיד as “glorious” rather than the much more likely translation of “heavily,” and that’s because those translators are probably trying to connect it with Jesus. I don’t know. I’m not an expert on the NSRV. But Dr. Ehrman IS an expert on the NSRV, so maybe he can shed some light on the matter.

        • Avatar
          Tony  October 20, 2017

          You’re absolutely right, Isaiah 9:1 it is.

          You made a very thorough and interesting observation! I checked various translations including the NIV, KJV, Young’s Literal Translation and the German Luther bibel 1545. They all translate the word as Galilee, (der Heiden Galiläa).

          I think there is scholarly consensus that the Gospel writers used the Septuagint as their scripture source. The anonymous gospel authors did not care much for context in determining prophecy fulfillment. Matthew 1:22-23 is a good example. I would not be surprised if the devout Christian NRSV (and other versions) translators, given a translation choice, may have gravitated toward a possible Jesus link.

    • Avatar
      meohanlon  October 18, 2017

      Hi Talmoore, very good points.

      I’m working on a Jesus story myself, and have been for some time. By the sound of it, it’s similar to yours insofar as it’s more “gritty realism” and history-based, than tradition or faith-based. In my case, it’ll probably be a play or screenplay that I’d like to direct at some point.

      BTW, have you read Paul Verhoeven’s book about Jesus? It’s actually a pretty good read IMO and surprisingly well researched. He does throw in more speculation than Ehrman (he is a film-maker rather than historian) but the scenarios he imagines are well within the realm of plausibility.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 18, 2017

        Can’t say I have. I’ll look for it.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 18, 2017

      This has all been known for some time, but its good to see it all in one place. As to how much of a following Jesus had, I would agree his core group, those who were truly devoted to him, was very small. But because he developed a reputation as a faith healer, and a talented preacher and storyteller (and because it’s not as if poor people in that era had much in the way of diversions), I would think at times he drew fairly large crowds (which wouldn’t necessarily mean many thousands, most ancient and medieval chroniclers tend to inflate numbers).

      I would say he was simply ignored by most in Palestine–there were other itinerant rabbis, other purported wonder workers, and he wouldn’t stand out that much, at least until he became too much of an irritant to the establishment (and if he hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been any crucifixion, and he might well have been forgotten).

      Though I agree they wouldn’t make up his being rejected in his home province, they could have exaggerated it, because it highlights the whole ‘many are called’ thing. Remember, they were also being rejected by most at the time the gospels were being written, so they can relate.

      Jesus must have had exceptional charisma, and there would have been many drawn to him, including Samaritans and pagans. Which would have begun to change his conception of the Kingdom–no longer just for devout Jews, but for anyone who has faith and good will.

      That’s another thing–why would they have created stories about Jesus reaching out to non-Jews in the early stages of Christianity, when it was still largely just a Jewish subculture? Many if not most of those stories must go back well before the gospels. Samaritans in particular were despised by nearly everyone. Tax collectors are hated to this very day.

      They could shape the narrative, justify things that would raise eyebrows, and greatly magnify his miraculous powers–but the underlying story would remain largely unchanged. They couldn’t get rid of Jesus the man, and a part of them didn’t want to, even after he became God.

      Also, the notion of prophets not being accepted or revered hardly originates with Christianity. Remember Cassandra? There are precedents in the Old Testament as well.

  7. Avatar
    dragonfly  October 17, 2017

    Can you give some examples where it has been misused?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 17, 2017

      Ah, that would take a couple of posts probably. I’ll think about it!

  8. Avatar
    godspell  October 17, 2017

    One of the reasons the gospels are so compelling, I think, is that Jesus has contradictions. As all humans do. He’s not some plaster hero. His head may be in the clouds, his feet are solidly planted on earth. He has moments of anger, confusion–sometimes he’s surprised, sometimes he’s downcast, depressed. Some of this is good writing, and some of it is the man himself, peeking out at us from behind the myth.

    Mark’s gospel is the best, I think, because it is, as you’ve said, a mystery story–who is this man? What is the purpose of his strange and remarkable behavior? The answer to the mystery may be a bit contrived–as is usually the case in even the best mystery stories–but for the most part, Mark doesn’t cheat the reader. And Mark is closer to the source material. But far enough away from it to have some perspective. To pick and choose his material–but to do so in such a way as to bring out the humanity of Jesus, more than his purported divinity.

  9. Avatar
    jmmarine1  October 17, 2017

    Of all the passages I have read in the gospels, Matthew 25: 31-46 (the sheep and the goats) certainly passes the criteria you list in your post. However, over the years I have heard this passage called ‘the parable of the sheep and the goats.’ Is this passage truly a parable, or is too much made of ‘and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’ as parabolic sounding language?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 17, 2017

      Ah, that’s the passage I’m heading for in this sub-thread!

  10. Avatar
    nbraith1975  October 17, 2017

    Bart – What if the ‘witnesses’ weren’t actually the ones who wrote the accounts?

    If it is provable, or even highly likely, that the gospels were not written by the ‘assigned’ authors, wouldn’t that be a pretty big deal to the whole Christian movement? In which case, the credibility lies with the ‘true’ author, not the assigned one.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2017

      Yes, that’s right. The legal example is analogous, not identical. It would be people who heard stories that were teh same, without collaboration. That means none of those people could be the ones who made it up.

  11. Avatar
    Tony  October 17, 2017

    “But it doesn’t make sense to start with Paul (in my opinion) if you don’t know something about Jesus. And you can’t begin with Jesus unless you know something about our sources for Jesus, our Gospels. And so for a historical approach to the New Testament, we go out of chronological order. Go figure.”
    This the source of the historical Jesus misconception. The accepted history rule is that the earliest testimonies, evidence or documentations are usually the best. Skipping Paul, and primary going to the later anonymous gospel sources creates enormous problems since it makes undeserved assumptions about the nature of the Gospels. The results are predictable and evidenced throughout scholarship. Frustration with Paul for not writing what he should have known, and worse, reading the Gospels back into Paul’s letters

    Paul says plenty about his Jesus in his undisputed letters. But his message is mostly lost as a result of the erroneous process described above.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2017

      I know hundreds of scholars who write and teach about the historical Jesus. I don’t know any who overlook the evidence of Paul. (As you probably know, there are also hundreds of scholars who are devoted almost exclusively to Paul — some of my closest friends among them. They too have views about the historical Jesus. Among these, there is not a single one that I know of who doubts Jesus’ existence. You don’t think that matters, I know. But it’s worth thinking about. In any event, it simply isn’t true that the evidence of Paul is ignored. If you’ve heard someone say so, they’re just makin’ in up….)

      • Avatar
        Tony  October 18, 2017

        What you describe is a bad case of “Groupthink”. Irving Janis identified eight symptoms and you might be interested in its applicability.


        I’m astounded to read that it has never occurred to any of these unquestionably fine minds that Paul is not quoting Jesus, but that Jesus is quoting Paul. Perhaps that reverse concept is too simple (and obvious) to be taken seriously.

        • Avatar
          godspell  October 22, 2017

          I would once have been astounded that anyone could think Jesus was quoting Paul, but the internet has innured me to wacky ideas with no basis in fact.

          • Avatar
            Tony  October 23, 2017

            And I’m astounded that you did not grasp that the gospel Jesus I refer to never existed – since he is a fabricated gospel character. Therefore, it is the gospel creator(s) who put Pauline notions on the lips of their creation.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  October 24, 2017

          Tony, I don’t mean this to be dismissive, but you should really look up the signs that you’ve subscribed to a conspiracy theory. You might find it illuminating.

          • Avatar
            Tony  October 24, 2017

            No worries, talmoore. I sort of expected a link to my alleged condition. In the absence, I guess the first requirement is that I think there is a conspiracy. I cannot speak for others, but I do not see a conspiracy at all. I think that NT scholars genuinely, and apparently absolutely, belief in an historical Jesus. Because NT scholars are inevitable motivated Christians brought up in Christian environments they have, from a very early age, a permanent meme implanted. As a result they suffer from confirmation bias.

            Just to clarify, I think an historical Jesus is possible, just not probable. I put the mythical Jesus at about 80/20. Ultimately I don’t care because I was brought up without religion and I’m an atheist. But the subject fascinates me. But you do care and that surprises me. I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that you’re from a Judean and not a Christian environment. If true, you should not carry the Jesus meme to the same degree – if at all. Yet you care and expresses that strongly. Can you clarify?

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 24, 2017

      Paul is the earliest source, and nobody ignores him–he’s in the New Testament, how could they? Christians read his epistles aloud in church, all over the world. The most influential letters in all of history, and you say they’re ignored?

      Paul is invaluable, and he writes about Jesus as a living person, whose brother he met. (Christians get bothered by this, if they want to believe Mary was a virgin all her life, but that’s a different subject.) However, because he wanted to focus on his personal vision of Jesus–and perhaps because he didn’t want to involve himself in the arguments among Christians as to what had really happened, and how to interpret it–he told us very little about the events of Jesus’ life. The gospels are early testimonies, by the standards of ancient history. Most of what we have about Alexander the Great comes from well after his death, from people who never met him. You’re applying standards that don’t work in the field of ancient history.

      You can never properly study history if you start off with an unshakable conviction that you refuse to let go of. Some refuse to accept Jesus was anything other than the begotten Son of God, and God in his own right. You refuse to believe he was anything other than a fiction. Either it’s all true, or it’s all made up. Two sides of the same willfully blind coin. Religious fanaticism takes on many forms.

      • Avatar
        Tony  October 24, 2017

        I have issues with your comments:

        1. Paul never writes about Jesus as a living person. In fact, Paul’s Jesus was never on earth. Jesus is only to come. Go find me any reference to Jesus retuning or coming again in Paul’s letters.

        2. James is not a biological, or fraternal, brother of Jesus. Paul believed that, on resurrection, God would adopt them as Son’s; and they would all be “brothers of the Lord”. Read Rom 8:15-17 and 8:29-30.

        3. Your ad-hoc interpretation as to why Paul does not talk about an historical Jesus is completely off the wall. Clearly you never read Paul’s letters.

        4. By any historical standards, the Gospels are myths and has been identified as such by many scholars.

        5. Yes, scholars ignore Paul, because they read Paul through gospel lenses.

        6. I resent your implication that I’m a religious fanatic. That comment says a lot more about you than me.

  12. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  October 18, 2017

    Supposing John and Jesus never met, could the relationship not have been invented to show followers of John, who qas known to baptize, that Jesus, who did not baptize his followers, was nonetheless the greater prophet? They admit Jesus’ baptism by John to draw John’s followers into the conversation, then turn the tables by having John proclaim Jesus as tje one he was sent to herald. It’s a little more complicated, but it explains why Luke was still dealing with Baptist disciples in Acts. John’s followers did not know of a supposedly greater prophet.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 18, 2017

      Sure, it’s theoretically possible. But most scholars prefer the simpler solution: it was known that Jesus was baptized by John and Xns found a kind of “difficulty” in this historical reality, so they came up with the idea that John himself proclaimed that Jesus was greater than he — solving the problem.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 20, 2017

      Well, the problem with that is that Mark simply says Jesus went to John for baptism. John doesn’t say anything at all, and the vision Jesus has of the Holy Spirit seems to be something only he experienced, internally. There is no mention of whether there was a crowd present. It might have been just the two of them, for all we know.

      This is probably pretty close to the story Jesus told his disciples–and it’s definitely the oldest (and simplest) version of the story we have, therefore the most likely to be accurate. Mark doesn’t get into the details (he may not have had them). He knows it’s a problem, but he also knows it’s a very important moment in Jesus’s life, and a great way to begin the story he’s telling. He just doesn’t address the question of how the Messiah could be baptized by another man–but why wouldn’t he be?

      Mark doesn’t think Jesus is God, or the Son of God, or some divine pre-existent being born without sin. So of course he needs to be baptized. And to Mark that wouldn’t mean Jesus was inferior to John. It meant he was devout, and seeking enlightenment, and this was the moment God chose to enlighten him as to his mission on earth. We all have to start somewhere.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  October 22, 2017

        I can think of no reason why the story originated that John baptized Jesus other than Jesus himself told it to his disciples.
        Further, I can think of no reason why Jesus would have told his disciples this story and they would have subsequently repeated and spread it, other than the story included his vision and words he heard “you are my beloved son”.
        Now Jesus clearly felt he was God’s son – Mark does portray this.
        Whatever Jesus heard, as described by Mark, does not imply in the slightest that all other men are NOT ALSO God’s sons, nor that Jesus didn’t understand that reality.

        • Avatar
          godspell  October 24, 2017

          It is my understanding that the term “Son of God” was used by Jews to designate someone especially devout and upright in his personal behavior. I agree Jesus would not have believed he’d been divinely conceived, and neither did Mark, or he’d have told that story.

          But it should go without saying that once Christianity began to spread among Non-Jews, that term could be easily confused. Stories take on a life of their own–no less than when they begin with events that really happened. Perhaps more.

          • tompicard
            tompicard  October 24, 2017

            This may be unorthodox, but I am not sure that Jesus interpreted the voice he heard at his baptism to imply his
            “designat[ion as] someone especially devout and upright in his personal behavior”
            maybe he considered himself a sinner when he received this revelation.

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