Wednesday, January 09, 2008

An Ancient Mystery: Could Jesus Baptize Himself?

This is the first in a series of articles on the pressing theological issues of our era.

James Choate-Munitz, Staff Writer

This Sunday, many churches will be remembering one of the key moments in Jesus’ life: his baptism. In the Gospel according to Matthew, John the Baptist protests, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14, NRSV) Jesus, however, is undeterred, and tells John that the act is necessary to fulfill “righteousness.”

Some scholars have maintained that this incident was embarrassing to the early Christian Church, but that the faithful saw it as a necessary part of Jesus’ story. The question that has caused the most bitter disputes throughout the centuries, however, is whether it was absolutely necessary that John baptize the Messiah, or whether Jesus might have been able to baptize himself. This issue opened up a bitter feud in the first generation of Christians, and has only become more acrid in the years since.

The earliest evidence of the rift between those who claimed that Jesus really baptized himself and those who say the scriptures are correct comes from the Gnostic Gospel of Marcus Hissyfit. In that text, disciples Peter and Bartholomew got into a slap fight over the issue. Bartholomew said he would only admit John baptized Jesus “‘over my dead body.’ Peter said, ‘Fine by me,’ and the slapping did commence.” (Gospel of Marcus Hissyfit 21:17, Phillips translation)

A mosaic found in a late 1st Century Roman bath at a private home illustrates how popular the idea of Jesus’ self-baptism had become. The colorful tile renders an image of Jesus pouring water over his own head while a dove hovers above. A figure in the distance, presumably John the Baptist, looks on in amazement. In the lower right corner are the words, in Latin, that read, “Paul said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

Most historians acknowledge that this question directly led to the split between the Roman and Orthodox branches of the faith. The Roman Church argued that Jesus was not ordained and thus not able to baptize anyone. John was a baptizer only by special dispensation from God. The Orthodox theologians countered with the assertion that the Holy Spirit himself ordained Jesus in a quiet ceremony in Galilee before Jesus sought out the waters of the Jordan River. Eventually, the argument sparked violence in the streets and historic division in the Church.

For many centuries, Jesus’ baptism took a back seat to questions about whether or not priests should be allowed to play cards or if it were acceptable for lay people to say the word “Nebuchadnezzar.” Then, a priest named Martin Luther came along to shake the very foundations of his Church.

In 1517, Luther hammered his “One Great Truth Along with 95 Theses” onto a Laundromat door in Wittenburg, Germany. He wrote that “Jesus the Christ, Our Savior, did baptize himself, forever breaking the Devil’s hold on mankind.” The remaining theses, Luther told his mailman, were “really rather unimportant compared to that One Great Truth.” The Protestant Reformation had begun.

Today, most scholars believe that John baptized Jesus, though Jesus could have baptized himself if he wanted to. A few, however, still hold firmly to the idea that Jesus did perform self-baptism. The most notable in the latter group are theologians of the Church of Jesus Christ of Self-baptized Saints. Their argument is that close textual analysis shows that the hidden message in the Gospels is that Jesus baptized himself in the Jordan River.

Not surprisingly, members of the SBS, as the church is frequently known, are persecuted for their faith. It is illegal in 16 states for SBS members to marry one another, and in 9 states, church members cannot purchase root beer.

From the earliest days of the Christian faith, Jesus’ baptism has sparked debate. Could Jesus really have had the authority to baptize himself, as some suggest? Or did John the Baptist do the deed, as the Roman Catholic Church and the Gospels attest? Whatever your opinion, remember one thing: self-baptism is punishable by death in the electric chair in the state of Texas.

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