WATER IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

Our study of water to this point has presented introductory ideas concerning typological interpretation of Scripture, then has applied such interpretation to uncover the significance of water in Scripture in general and, more specifically in the main passages in the Old Testament that use water in typologically significant ways.

All of the general themes of this study have now been introduced.  Water can represent life (hydration, creation, deliverance from slavery, entry into the new); death (drowning, the end of previous life), and purification (cleansing, washing).  In the New Testament the ‘types and shadows’ of Old Testament typology are fulfilled, while the established meanings of water are retained.  For traditional Christian readers, the New Testament contains the goal towards which Old Testament types point.  Christ, his Church, and the Church’s sacramental system are the archetypes which complete Scripture and fulfil its symbols and types.

This section of the study and those that follow apply typological interpretation to the New Testament by showing how both explicitly and implicitly it assumes, alludes to, and uses Old Testament types concerning water.  Some of these applications have already been made in preceding sections, but now such application will be the main and direct point of study.

The Prologue of Saint John’s gospel and the infancy narratives in Saint Matthew and Saint Luke gospels do not directly refer to water, though all of them do make heavy use of the Old Testament and assume that Christ is its fulfilment.  In chronological terms the first major gospel event involving water are the accounts of John the Baptist’s ministry of baptism and of the baptism of Jesus.  John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus both appear in all four of the gospels, water is involved, and this set of stories will therefore be the starting point of this section of our Bible study.

 

The Baptism of Christ

The canonical and traditional order of the gospels’ composition is Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Most, though by no means all, modern scholars, however, believe that the actual order of the gospels is Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, with Mark, perhaps in a precursor version, available to and influencing the composition of Matthew and Luke and, probably, John.

In the case of the story of the baptism of Jesus, the modern theory of gospel order is plausible.  Readers note commonly that as the gospels proceed from earlier to later, from Mark to John, the role of the Baptist in relation to the baptism of Jesus diminishes, until in the case of St. John’s version, the baptism of Jesus by the Baptist is only indirectly referred to rather than directly recounted.

It seems likely that during the course of the 1st century the disciples of John the Baptist continued to have some communal life apart from the disciples of Jesus and the early Church (cf. Matthew 11:2-6; Acts 18:25 & 19:3-6).  In that case it is also likely that the followers of the Baptist and of Christ might even to some degree have been rivals – even if friendly (cousinly!) rivals.  If these likelihoods were in fact the case, it would make sense that followers of Christ during the 1st century, when recalling the baptism of Jesus, might have found the role of the Baptist somewhat embarrassing or, at least, increasingly in need of explanation.  If Mark’s gospel is the earliest of the four, then it makes sense that he also seems to give the highest role to the Baptist, with that role decreasing in the later gospels.  In any case, here we will consider the four accounts in the order suggested by modern scholars, beginning with Saint Mark.

Before considering Mark on Christ’s baptism, however, a brief comment is needed about the place of baptism in Judaism around the 1st century.  The Old Testament law, as we have seen, imposes ritual washings and purification rites, but does not establish any use of washing in a general rite of initiation for incorporation into the community.  Circumcision and the sacrificial system and obedience to the Mosaic law were the centers of Jewish life.  Ritual washings, while common, were peripheral to the essence of Judaism and either dealt with interruptions to ritual purity or served as a prelude to temple worship.  The passage of Israel as a whole through the Red Sea in the Exodus was a kind of fundamental initiation of the nation as a whole, and so in the Church that event will be interpreted as a type of baptism.  But the Red Sea crossing led to no Old Testament rite of the baptism of individual Israelites or Jews, despite the symbolic renewals of the crossing under Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha.

It seems fair, therefore, to say that Christian baptism, as the central and essential act of incorporation into the Church, is, if the Old Testament is considered alone, an innovation.  In fact, however, in the century or so immediately before and after Jesus, Judaism and some of its sects began to make use of baptism in ways that are somewhat unexpected in the light of the Old Testament alone and that, in fact, seem to anticipate Christian baptism.

In particular what would become mainstream Judaism developed the use of proselyte baptism:  that is, a ritual bath (miqveh) was established as part of the rite by which Gentile converts were incorporated into Judaism.  There is some dispute among scholars about when this practice became common.  In any case, Gentiles converts, male and female, at some point around the time of John the Baptist began to be baptized upon conversion to Judaism, with circumcision preceding baptism for men.  This proselyte baptism remains in practice amongst orthodox Jews today.  In addition, some of the many Jewish sects which appear to have flourished around the New Testament period also used ritual baths and baptism in ways not simply directed by the Torah.  Many scholars propose that John the Baptist and his followers may have had more than chronological connections with these sectarian movements, including with the Essenes and the Qumran community (which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls and from which much information about the period is derived).

The chief relevance of these parallel uses of baptism is that they always seem to signify either a kind of general religious conversion, or an initiation into a new communal loyalty, or both.  Baptism was not normative in Jewish practice for Israel’s existing members, but marked a new relationship for Gentile converts or marked an analogous change within some Jewish sects.  As such what we might call intertestamental baptism and Jewish sectarian baptism may be intermediate steps towards the Christian significance of baptism.  But miqveh and John’s baptism are different:  ‘in John’s ritual, the miqveh has become a sign of repentance not for outsiders but for Jews’.[1]  Paul’s reference to ‘baptized into Moses’ (I Cor. 10:2) does not refer to miqveh, but is a ‘purely Christian interpretation’ (Jerome Murphy-O’Connor; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary [1990], p. 807):  a typological interpretation.

 

The Baptism of Jesus:  Saint Mark 1:2-12

Apart from a brief, though very significant, introduction in 1:1, St. Mark’s gospel opens with the ministry of John the Baptist, including the baptism by John of Jesus himself.  This material falls into three sections:

  1. The Baptist is introduced with quotations from Malachi 3 and Isaiah 40 (1:2f.).  The quotation from Isaiah in turn introduces,
  2. John’s own preaching of repentance and his popular ministry in the wilderness (vv. 3f.), including baptism in the Jordan for the remission of sins (1:4-8).  John’s preaching includes a foretelling of one greater than himself (1:7f.).
  3. It is implied, though not directly said, that Jesus is the one greater than John, but in any case Jesus appears next and without any apparent embarrassment is directly said to be ‘baptized of John in Jordan’ (1:9).  The relationship between John and Jesus is not otherwise described here nor is it treated as needing explanation.  In the course of the baptism, however, God himself comments on the event, as it were, for immediately as Jesus comes out of the water ‘he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:  and there came a voice from heaven:  Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ (1:10f.)

In Mark’s version, then, the baptism of Jesus has several notable features.  An Old Testament context is given for the Baptist’s ministry by direct quotations from two of Israel’s great prophets.  This context is reinforced by the location of John and his baptism in or near a wilderness, and by other parallels between John, on the one hand, and Elijah and other Old Testament heroes, on the other, including periods of time involving the number forty.  The baptism involves entering into and coming forth from the waters of the Jordan,[2] which echoes several Old Testament events.  And the baptism involves direct divine activity:  the opening of heaven, the descent of the Spirit, and the voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus as God’s beloved Son.  In relation to the later gospels it is noteworthy that in Mark the baptism by John of Jesus is stated directly and simply.

The descent of the Spirit in the likeness of a dove suggests another Old Testament parallel involving water:  namely the hovering of the Spirit over the void at creation (Genesis 1:2) and of the dove over the flood the story of Noah (Genesis 7:7-12).  That flood will figure strongly in later Christian typological understanding of baptism, both in the New Testament epistles and in the liturgy.  Baptism is anticipated by the flood and the ark.  Dove appears both in Genesis 7 and in Christ’s baptism.

The parallels between Christ’s baptism and other Old Testament events involving water require some further explanation.  As we have seen, Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha all passed over the Jordan, and each of these cases is a kind of reenactment of the earlier passage of the Red Sea under Moses.  Readers should consider a possible allusion to these passages of water in any biblical story that involves entry into water.  In the case of Mark’s account of Christ’s baptism such allusion is reinforced by several details.  The preparation for and aftermath of the baptism are in a wilderness (1:3, 4, 12, and 13).  John the Baptist (1:4) and Jesus (1:12) both enter the wilderness, and both are led there by God (1:2; 1:12).  So too Israel was led into the wilderness of Sinai after passing the Red Sea, as later Elijah was led into Sinai (after a great deluge, I Kings 18:44f., and before his wonderful passage of the Jordan, II Kings 2:8).  Jesus is in the wilderness for forty days (1:13), as the Exodus lasted forty years and as both Moses and Elijah sojourn in the wilderness for forty days (Deuteronomy 9:18, 25; 10:10; I Kings 19:8).  In all cases the period of 40 involves divine testing and preparation for greatness.  In all of these cases the passage of water is related to a new period involving a new leader chosen as God’s instrument in his generation.  In all of these events there is direct, miraculous divine activity which helps to establish the leader’s authority.

The Baptism of Jesus:  Saint Matthew 3

The whole of Matthew 3 is devoted to the ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus.  At this point in his gospel although Matthew does retain Mark’s basic outline, he gives much more information than Mark about John’s ministry and preaching.  Both Mark and Matthew allude to Isaiah 40:3; both describe people resorting to John to be baptized; and both describe John’s ascetic appearance and diet in the wilderness.  Mark and Matthew also both speak of John’s preaching, but where Mark does so very briefly, Matthew provides detail.  In particular in Matthew the Baptist anticipates Jesus’s own later conflicts with the Pharisees and Sadducees.  In fact Matthew presents John very clearly as a precursor to Jesus:  both John and Jesus proclaim the coming of the kingdom of heaven, both have sharp conflicts with Jewish leaders, and both in the end are killed for their ministry.

As for the baptism of Jesus itself, it might be useful to give the whole of Mark and Matthew’s accounts for the purpose of direct comparison.  In Matthew’s text the clear additions are put in bold letters here:

St. Mark 1:9-11:

And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.  And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:  and there came a voice from heaven, saying, thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

St. Matthew 3:13-7:

Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.  But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?  And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now:  for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.  Then he suffered him.  And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway 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:  and lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

In both Mark and Matthew Jesus goes from Galilee to Jordan, in both he is baptized, in both he comes up from the water, and in both there then is testimony to him through the appearance of the Spirit and a voice from heaven saying that he is ‘my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’.

Into this account, however, Matthew inserts a dialogue between the Baptist and Jesus.  This dialogue could be interpreted as a response to potential puzzlement in the gospel’s audience:  Why does the lesser baptize the greater, and why indeed does Jesus need to be baptized at all?  Matthew seems to feel the need to answer questions here that Mark does not.  But the reply of Christ need not be seen as odd.  As Austin Farrer notes, here ‘Christ’s first discourse’ may be seen as ‘a continuation of the preaching of the Baptist’.[3] Repentance, the subject of John’s preaching, properly leads to the righteousness of which Christ here speaks.  Much of Matthew’s gospel will be devoted to showing Jewish converts to Christianity what Christian righteousness, the righteousness of the Kingdom that he and John both preached, looks like and how it relates to the righteousness pursued by the Pharisees and Sadducees of 3:7.  John calls for repentance, a turning from something.  Jesus proclaims the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven, towards which the penitent turns, and that righteousness of Christ contrasts with the righteousness of the old milieu which produced most of the Jewish converts in Matthew’s Christian audience.

While Mark directly says that Jesus was ‘baptized of John in Jordan’, it may be significant that Matthew is less direct.  Matthew does indeed say that Jesus came to be baptized by John, but the baptism itself is only noted indirectly in a subordinate clause:  ‘when he was baptized’.  In other words, while it still is clearly implied, Matthew does not directly say that Jesus was baptized by John.  As we will see, Luke and John both extend what in Matthew is a slight movement away from Mark’s direct assertion on this point.

There also is a slight contrast between Mark and Matthew in what follows the baptism itself.  Both gospels after the baptism say what Jesus saw – that is, the dove and the voice as experienced by Jesus.  But Matthew seems to make this agreed upon experience more impressive.  In Mark the voice says, ‘Thou art my beloved Son,’ but there is no clear indication that the voice was publicly heard.  In Matthew, however, the voice seems more a public testimony to Jesus given for the benefit of onlookers and the voice refers to Jesus in the third person:  ‘This is my beloved Son’.

Obviously at this point we are dealing mainly with differences of emphasis between Mark and Matthew.  On our main point in this study, however, there seems little or no difference between the accounts.  Matthew and Mark invoke or assume the same Old Testament types concerning water.  In both accounts the reader finds:  the wilderness with its background in the stories of the Exodus and Elijah (3:1, 3; 4:1); the Jordan with its parallels to Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha; going into water and rising from it (Noah’s flood; the Red Sea; and the Jordan examples); the dove (Genesis 1:2; Noah’s flood); and divine activity.  Both Matthew and Mark describe the baptism in a fashion that refers to the rich Old Testament background of texts involving water and its passage.

[1] Mary Ann Beavis.  Mark.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2011.  Page 34.

[2] ‘Mark’s notice that all Judea…went out to John is…a sort of running of Israel’s history backwards:  the people of Judea flock back to the river where they had crossed into the promised land in the time of Joshua.  For Mark, the baptism offered by John is a new turning point for Israel, an event as portentous as the crossing of the Jordan.’  Beavis, op. et loc. cit.

[3] St Matthew and St Mark.  The Edward Cadbury Lectures 1953-54.  Westminster:  Dacre Press, 1954.  Page 175.

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