Recently, on an almost unreasonably beautiful November day, I baptized my daughter in the Chicago River. Certain elements of my extended family had been nagging me throughout my daughter’s first year on planet Earth to do so, despite my lack of a formal denomination, “In case anything happens.”
What they meant could not be clearer. They were afraid that if some terrible accident befell my daughter and she passed away, she would be consigned to hell or purgatory because of her lack of baptism.
Growing up and into my teens I had thought of baptism as a sort of insurance policy; babies are too young to accept Jesus as their savior, so baptism is a way to do it for them – just in case.
I no longer think of baptism this way, mostly because I refuse to accept the notion of a God who would damn babies to hell (or purgatory) because they never had the chance for an old man to sprinkle water over their head. Consequently I did not plan at first to even bother with baptizing my daughter.
But still, something about it nagged at me. One of the things we can be most sure of about Jesus is that he was baptized by John before the beginning of his own ministry. If it was good enough for Jesus, who am I to argue?
Of course, all the doctrine about hell and purgatory is post-Biblical, post-Jesus. What did baptism actually mean to Jesus, to John?
Mark (the earliest gospel) says, almost at the very beginning of his story, “John appeared baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) Josephus, a 1st-century Roman-Jewish historian, also mentions John in his Antiquities, remarking that, “Herod slew [John], who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism.”
The gospels agree that Herod executed John, although they differ on the reason. Josephus claims: “When others too joined the crowds about [John]…Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition…Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him [John] before his work led to an uprising…”
The gospels include a fanciful story about Herod granting a request (either to Herodias or Salome, depending on the translation and gospel) for John’s head, a story which is an obvious allusion to the story of Lucius Quinctius Flaminius’s expulsion from the Roman senate for beheading a condemned man to impress a mistress at dinner in the 2nd century BCE. The gospels do note, however, that John was critical of Antipas’s marriage to his brother’s wife, which resulted in Antipas wanting John dead in the first place. In the gospels, however, Antipas is afraid to act for fear of John’s followers, while in Josephus, it is precisely the fear of John’s followers that motivates Antipas to act.
So from these details we know that John 1.) had a multitude of followers, 2.) said and did things that challenged the native aristocracy and Roman collaborators, including or especially Antipas, and 3.) was executed much like Jesus.
It is clear from a historical reading of the gospels that Jesus began as John’s disciple. From Mark through Matthew and Luke and finally to the Fourth Gospel, the Evangelists increasingly infuse their stories of Jesus’s baptism with anti-Baptist polemics thinly veiled as pro-Christ apologetics. In Mark John foretells Jesus; in Matthew John protests Jesus’s request for baptism; in Luke the baptism is rushed and diminished in favor of God’s exaltation of Jesus; and finally in the Fourth Gospel the baptism is ignored altogether.
What we can discern from this is that the Evangelists were uncomfortable with the superior status of John over Jesus in the beginning and did their best to mask it. We have to assume that at first Jesus was a full-on disciple of John. Hold on to this conclusion.
John’s baptism was for “the remission of sins,” and at first this seems like what baptism is still used for today. Martin Luther specifically said the purpose was: “to be delivered from sin.”
But this had a much different meaning in the 1st century that is sometimes obscured. John’s baptism was set up in opposition to and criticism of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was the only place where Jews could become ritually pure (usually involving rites performed by the Temple priests, often involving water), and like Antipas in Galilee, was the symbol of native collaboration with the Roman Empire.
This jives perfectly with what we know about Jesus; namely, that he too clashed with the authority of the Temple as the only access to God’s grace.
Jesus drew the ire of many when he “cleaned” people of their sins or “forgave” their sins apart from the Temple. In Mark 1:40-44, Jesus heals a leper (who suffered not from the modern disease called leprosy, but a skin condition that at the time was blamed on impurity or sinfulness) and charges the man to present himself, as clean, to the Temple authorities, as if he were going to them to be cleansed. Jesus’s intention is clear: he sent the man as a prophetic action, a sort of sarcastic demonstration, against the Temple.
In Mark 2:5-7, “scribes” criticize Jesus for forgiving the sins of a paralytic. Their objection is stated as “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” God, who dwells in the Temple and communicates through the High Priest. In the story, Jesus rebukes them and proceeds to heal the paralysis to prove his authority.
So Jesus’s forgiveness of sins and John’s baptism for the remission of sins are to be understood as assertions of the non-exclusivity of God’s forgiveness; in other words, of the universal accessibility of God. Understanding this, I had no problem baptizing my daughter.
Her godfather held her and I poured the water over her head, and I baptized her in the name of the Kingdom of God, not in Heaven, not in a Temple or church, but among the followers of Christ who walk the narrow path. I did it not for her, not for the sake of avoiding a hell that does not exist, but simply as an assertion that no man-made institution has a monopoly on access to God, and that whatever spiritual path my daughter chooses to follow will be her own decision.