- To: Synoptic
From: Off-list Correspondent
On: Vision at Jesus' Baptism
There was an interesting off-list response to my suggestion that the Descent
of the Spirit at Jesus's Baptism (Mk 1) is not presented by Mark in the
manner of the clearly identified visions in, say, Zechariah 1-6, but simply
reported as a fact.
RESPONSE: I must disagree with your first point about the Marcan account's
NOT being a "vision" as it reports it as just something Jesus saw, much as
he could have looked at John or anything else in the immediate physical
environment. While I must admit that there is nothing definitive in the
text itself [e.g. "he saw" is not any technical term for "seeing a vision"
which is to be found in other texts and passages, such as (say) I Cor. 15]
nevertheless the verb indicates that Jesus saw ... but no one else did!
BRUCE: This feature has been noticed. I think it is manifest that Mark is
not presenting this scene to the reader as a vision seen by himself, namely
Mark. Is he, however, reporting in this way what can only have been a vision
seen by Jesus? I would say, Yes, Jesus is probably the exclusive perceiver
of these events, but that does not qualify them as a vision in the usual
sense. On the way to that conclusion, I would argue as follows:
My first thought is lateral: to compare this passage with other places where
Mark describes scenes for which the only possible informant is either Jesus
or someone not plausibly available to Mark. Instances inviting comparison
would include the treatment of Jesus at his interrogation and trial (it is
explicitly stated that all Jesus's companions had fled, and it seems that
Jesus remained in custody until his death, which was witnessed by no
disciple. Yet Mark's account is very fine-grained and detailed. Where did he
get this? And if you say Peter, from whom did Peter get it? The maid who was
trying to finger him as a Galilean?
There is also the beheading of John the Baptist (Mk 6:17-29). This is one of
the longest consecutive narratives in Mk, and like the Trial of Jesus, which
is also longer than the Markan average, it has an abundance of detail, not
only physical but personal. Take for instance the bit between Herodias and
her daughter, about what favor to ask of the King. Which of them later
provided an eyewitness account to the Markan authorities, of what they had
not only said, but felt?
For that matter, the feelings and emotions of Jesus (toward which, as has
often been noticed, the other Synoptists display a certain systematic
reserve) are often reported in Mk. For instance: "He felt power go out of
him." The disciples accompanying him on this journey to Jairus' house
display their familiar Markan stupidity (reminding us of their question,
What do you mean, are we supposed to go out and buy a ton of bread to feed
this mob??). They don't get it. They say, in effect, "What do you mean, who
touched you? Everybody is bumping into everybody here."
At all these points, and not all of them involve the emotions or interior
perceptions of Jesus (some involve the interior world of Herod, not to
mention any Romans), a modern reader might well ask, Wait a minute, how did
the writer of this book ever find THAT out? I think the only answer is
literary: Mark is functioning throughout as what is called an "omniscient
narrator." He knows everything, and he tells you what he finds cogent from
within that everything. You are not supposed to ask the "how" question, and
if you do, the "how" is subsumed within the literary convention of the
Later (as it seems to me), people DID ask that question, whence:
RESPONSE: Here the comparison with the Matthean account is usually taken to
be instructive for in Matthew it is John's vision of Jesus rather than
Jesus' vision; on the basis of the "Marcan priority hypothesis" the author
of Matthew has switched a "vision to Jesus" into a "vision about Jesus," a
most significant change.
BRUCE: I think that this mixes two examples (Matthew and John), and I will
try to analyze the examples separately. But first and in general, I don't
think that the other problems of narrator information in Mk, such as those
mentioned above, will yield to the same sort of solution. Mark in general
doesn't give scenarios for information transfer, and evidently doesn't
expect his credentials to be challenged in this way. At least, I can recall
no point in Mark at which the persona of the writer exposes himself as
concerned to state his sources or his qualifications (again, compare John).
But I agree that it is useful to compare treatments in all the Gospels. This
has been done before, but I will embark on it again anyway. My comments
follow the Gospel quotes:
Mk 1:10 "immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending
upon him like a dove,  and a voice came from heaven, Thou art my beloved
Son; with thee I am well pleased."
[The dove is something only Jesus is specifically said to have seen. The
narrative is continuous, and though we might think that the voice could have
been heard by an onlooker, its words are directed only to Jesus, and the
most natural reading will be to assume that the previous situation
continues, and thus to take the voice too as something only Jesus heard.
That reading poses the "how does the Evangelist know this" question in its
Mt 3:16 "and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove and alighting on him;  and lo, a voice from
heaven saying, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
[The dove is again seemingly confined to Jesus, but now there is a second
introductory word, "lo," preceding the voice part, and the voice itself is
here making a statement in general (note the third person), as though to
identify Jesus to the crowd. Here, the more natural reading will be that at
least the voice part of the incident was generally audible to those present.
That is, the problem of "how does the Evangelist know this" is partly
answered: anybody present could have told the voice part to anyone else. A
possible ambiguity as to what "Sprit" it was, in Mk, is also here cleared
up: it was the Spirit of God].
Lk 3:21 "the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in
bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, Thou are my beloved
Son; with thee I am well pleased."
[The phrase in Mk and Mt which indicates that only Jesus saw the dove is
here omitted, leaving the whole sequence, as it were, in the public domain
of things visible, just as Jesus being baptized was visible to any
bystander; there is no narrative distinction. This solves the visibility
problem by making everything visible. This obviates the need for a public
versus a private, second-person version of the voice from heaven, and as in
Mk, that voice is directed grammatically to Jesus alone. The identification
of the Spirit is continued, but in a slightly different way than in
I think we have here different ways of dealing with a possible "how do we
know this" problem. The problem exists in Mk. It is solved, or anyway worked
on, in both Mt and Lk. Lk, I would say typically, improves on the Matthean
solution and at the same time goes back to a detail in Mk (the second-person
statement of the voice) that Mt had changed. There is quite a lot of this in
Lk. It seems to me much easier to describe the logic of these variants in
the way I just did, rather than on the basis of Markan introduction of
problems into a previously unproblematic, or less problematic, narrative
available to him.
That thought is susceptible of testing. If we see in other early Gospels a
tendency to solve the Markan information problem, then that is probably a
good way of understanding the situation. Thus
Jn 1:32 "and John bore witness, I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from
heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent
me to baptize with water said to me, He on whom you see the Spirit descend
and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit."
[Jesus is here eliminated as a witness. John the Baptist is the only
witness, and only he can be the informant. In fact, John himself is shown AS
the informant, since here he is explaining to his hearers how he knew that
Jesus was the "mightier one" who would come after him. This entirely solves
the "how do we know this" question. As for the "vision" question: The dove
is not a vision in what I take to be the technical or Zecharian sense, but
rather a Sign from God, identifying Jesus to his precursor John the one
whose appearance John has been instructed to predict].
Gospel of the Ebionites [from Epiphanius]: "And as [Jesus] came up from the
water, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Holy Spirit descend in the
form of a dove and enter into him. And a voice from heaven said, Thou are my
beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased. And again, Today I have begotten
thee. And immediately a great light shone around the place, and John, seeing
it, said to him, Who are you, Lord? And again a voice from heaven said to
him, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Then John, falling
down before him, said, I beseech you, Lord, baptize me. . ."
[This takes the Synoptic account, seemingly in its Markan version,
sequentially with the John account, incurring the narrative foible that the
voice has to repeat itself, this time in the third person. It is an
economical solution in that it preserves ALL major canonical Gospel
variants, but it is also an extravagant solution in that it creates
difficulties of combination. Anyway, it seems fair to take it as a solution,
which is the point of the present investigation].
A quote from Justin (Dialogue 88:3) seems to answer the "how do we know
this" question directly: ". . . and when he came up from the water, the Holy
Spirit came upon him. The apostles of our Christ wrote this." They probably
have in mind (as the Gospel of the Ebionites seems also to do] the canonical
Gospels which we know, and simply asserts their apostolic status as reason
to accept them as informants. This would perhaps have been enough, in an age
sufficiently distant from the events that the Apostles figured as privileged
eyewitnesses of Jesus's whole career. No one Gospel provides for Jesus to
have followers, let alone Apostles, at the time of his Baptism, but that is
a detail which it seems possible to overlook. John the Baptist figures in
the Gospel of John, and, well, they are both called John, aren't they?
It seems that the Descent of the Spirit was thought of by Mark as visible
only to Jesus, that Matthew transformed at least the subsequent Voice into a
part of the public record, and that Luke by a different modification went
the whole way, and made both the Spirit and the Voice public. The Lukan
step, as it seems to me, eliminates the private nature of one or both of the
events, and offers them both as originally intended for the whole world to
see. It entirely solves the "how do we know this" problem, insofar as any
bystander might have been the informant, or the first of a series leading to
the informant, of the Evangelist.
As to the nature of these events, I would still feel that even the Markan
version, the most restrictive of the three, offers these events at most as a
Sign, a direct acclamation, a word of approval and certification that is
directly intelligible as perceived, and not as a Vision that has to be
interpreted to the one beholding it. In John, the "certification" element
becomes emphasized, but the "identification" function remains.
I see nothing here that is not well explained by (a) the existence of a
possible objection to the Markan account as not credibly reportable to the
person writing it, and a consequent fiddling with the account so as to
reduce or eliminate that problem, and (b) the compositional sequence Mk > Mt
> Lk > Jn.Bruce
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst