The clear consensus of contemporary scholarship is that the baptism of Jesus by John is historically certain! The Jesus Seminar printed Mark 1:9 in dramatic red in The Acts of Jesus, with the comment that few Fellows of the Jesus Seminar doubted that John baptized Jesus. Here are some comments by a few scholars expressing the confidence they feel in the baptism of Jesus by John as historical event: "historically certain" (Lars Hartman); "one should not doubt the baptism" (Dale Allison); "a fact that commands almost universal assent" (James Dunn); "one of the firmest elements of the Jesus story" (Craig Evans); "as historically certain as anything in the gospels" (Bart Ehrman); "almost beyond dispute" (E. P. Sanders); "a basic historical fact" (Gerd Theissen). If you are interested in seeing the literature, I can send you the bibliographical data.
Of course, not everyone agrees. The baptism of Jesus by John is described as myth by Burton Mack and Martin Dibelius ("myth": stories about Gods in a time and place not recognizable as our own time; hence it is not critical history). Rudolf Bultmann, probably the most influential New Testament scholar in the twentieth century, describes it as a Christian legend about Jesus that emerged in the later Hellenistic church ("a story about holy people and religious heroes intended to be read for inspiration, instruction, and spiritual edification"; hence it is not critical history). One can understand their reluctance to regard the story as a historical event. Mark 1:9-11 clearly has the trappings of myth and/or legend: Jesus saw the heavens split asunder, he saw the Spirit descending; and a voice came out of heaven addressing him, "you are my beloved son." Was it a vision and only available to Jesus? (Compare Matt 3:17 where the voice addresses the bystanders.) Did such events actually occur? In truth, these kinds of happenings are not part of our common everyday world.
What is the evidence for John baptizing Jesus? Those who regard the baptism as historically certain are most persuaded by the criterion of embarrassment, that is to say, since it would cause the church a great deal of embarrassment to admit that Jesus was once the disciple of John the Baptist, it is hardly something that the church would have invented. Those who doubt that it is historically certain raise a number of objections to its historicity. The obvious mythical/legendary character of Mark 1:9-11 for one. For another, the Baptism of Jesus appears indisputably in only one late source (i.e., after 70CE): Mark 1:9-11. In Matthew John has discomfort with baptizing Jesus, and Matthew never in so many words describes John as baptizing Jesus (Matt 3:13-17); In Luke John is put in prison before Jesus is baptized (Luke 3:18-22), and the baptism is not described as a baptism by John; in the Gospel of John, the Baptist only observes a spirit baptism of Jesus (that is, it is not a water baptism, John 1:29-34). The reluctance of Matthew, Luke and John to depict Jesus as being baptized by John upon the confession of his sins is seen as evidence for the criterion of embarrassment (Mark 1:4-5). But that criterion works as easily for the church in the latter first century as it has been claimed for the early first century.
There is no evidence, however, that Paul knew of the baptism of Jesus by John, and early Christian baptism is not linked to the baptism of Jesus. The baptism of Jesus, according to Q scholars, is not found in Q (a sayings collection thought to have been used by Matthew and Mark as a source for their gospels), and Josephus does not know a tradition of John baptizing Jesus. There is only one source in the latter half of the first century that attests to the event—Mark 1:9-11.
Whence then comes the supreme confidence that contemporary scholars have that John's baptism of Jesus is historically certain? Likely they must be assuming that an incipient oral pre-Pauline Palestinian tradition of Mark 1:9-11 must have existed in some form prior to 70CE. That might possibly have been true, but there is no evidence of such a tradition, and hence such a "hail Mary" argument is not probable.
Bultmann did not address whether or not a kernel of history lies behind the legend of Mark 1:9-11. But in describing it as a Christian legend that arose in the Hellenistic church and ruling out any chance that the legend was already circulating in the Palestinian church Bultmann seems to have made a de facto decision, which is that the baptism of Jesus by John as Mark 1:9-11 presents it is clearly not historically certain—perhaps it never even happened.
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University