The Baptism of Jesus


Background from the Jewish Bible (Isaiah 40: 1-5)

The authors of the Gospels evidently knew little or no Hebrew, for they consistently quote from Greek versions of the Hebrew Bible which sometimes differ from it in significant ways. However, they lay great stress on the idea that the major events in Jesus' life can be seen as predicted by the Jewish prophets, especially Isaiah. In the following passage, Isaiah announces the coming of the Messianic age, in which the earth will be radically transformed. Probably the original context was the impending return from the Babylonian Captivity, which the poetic vision of the writer imagines as involving the creation of a highway through the wilderness back to Jerusalem. These words were memorably set to music in George Frederick Handel's Messiah.


Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, (1)
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
double for all her sins. (2)

A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."


(Matthew 3)

The following passage illustrates the early church's use of the Hebrew Bible. Lacking anything like modern quotation marks they felt free to read the text from Isaiah above as if it were the voice that was crying in the wilderness rather than the highway that was to be built in the wilderness. Such differences go a long way toward explaining why most Jews did not accept Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Matthew's reading is not wilfully distorted; it merely comes from a tradition which views the texts in a quite different way than did the orthodox Jews of his time. The scene is the very beginning of Jesus' career, where he is ritually baptized by the fiery preacher John in a ritual which involved pouring water over him. In Christian thought this was comparable to the Jewish tradition of anointing the head of a king, which gave rise to the term "Messiah" and its Greek translation, "Christ," both of which mean "he whose head has been anointed with oil." The scene has been frequently depicted in art.

What is John's attitude toward the Jewish Sadducees and Pharisees who have come to be baptized? What is the meaning of the imagery of the grain and the chaff?


In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ' Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"

Now John wore clothing of camel' s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (3) Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing t heir sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees(4) coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (5)

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, " Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.(6) And a voice from heaven said, " This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." (7)

New Revised Standard Version


(1) That is, the people of Jerusalem, the Jews.

(2) Various prophets had earlier seen the Jewish defeat by Babylon as punishment for various sins, especially insufficient faithfulness to monotheism.

(3) The Baptist is usually recognizable in his traditional portraits by this clothing, even when he is depicted as a small child.

(4) Although Matthew groups them together, the Pharisees were innovative scholars (rabbis) whose beliefs came closer to those Jesus is depicted as preaching than the traditionalist Sadducees, who rejected the belief in the coming Messiah, the notion of a last judgment and of a heaven and hell. That said, it should be noted that the Pharisees viewed themselves as purists, and the Sadducees as compromisers.

(5) The early church considered that all converts, Jewish or not, could be considered a sort of adopted "chosen people," covered by many of the statements about them in the Hebrew Bible. The fire referred to is traditionally interpreted as being the eternal fire of Hell in which all unbelievers are to burn.

(6) In art the Holy Spirit is usually literally depicted as a dove. After much debate the majority of the early Church decided to consider the term "Holy Spirit "not as simply as a manifestation of God but as a distinct "person." The formula " three persons in one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit," led to endless arguments about the relationships of these persons to each other (collectively called "the Trinity") and to the view by many Muslims and Jews that Christianity is not a strictly monotheistic religion.

(7) The relationship of Jesus to God the Father has been the most hotly debated issue concerning the Trinity. Traditional Christians have taken the phrase literally and maintained that Jesus was divinely begotten. Some argue for "adoptionalism," that Jesus was singled out in maturity by God as his instrument, pointing out that the idea of a God producing a child through a human mate was a commonplace in Greco-Roman mythology, and alien to the beliefs of Judaism. At any rate, all interpretations agree that this story is meant to portray Jesus as a divinely-chosen figure destined to accomplish great things.



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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

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