This blog entry discusses what exactly happened at the baptism of Jesus by John, as reported in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. This is a revision of a section of my commentaries to The Gospel of John, appended to my restoration of its original text. The gospel as generally known today, suffered a hatchet job by early Christian leaders to conform it to their dogma that turned Jesus into a Roman-style godling. The book is available in hardcover and paperback; you will find ordering information here.
The word περιστερα (peristera, “dove”) that we find in the text is very close in pronunciation to another word, πρηστηρ (prēstēr, “whirlwind”), and I believe there was considerable deliberation on the part of the amanuensis, probably in consultation with the eyewitness, as to which should be written. It is possible that this is a scribal error on the part of the amanuensis or else extremely early in the subsequent history of the gospel text, since the words for “dove” and “whirlwind” are quite unlike in Hebrew and Aramaic, but I reject this possibility, and also the possibility that this was a “correction” by the much later redactor to make this gospel conform to the three Synoptic gospels, since as is argued below both words would be very appropriate here.
The word πνευμα can mean “wind”, “breath”, or “spirit” depending on context, and the context here, that it came down from the sky, suggests the meaning is “wind”. (Still, to remind readers of these other meanings, the translation retains all three.) We know from experience that a wind out of the sky often does take the form of a whirlwind; the text clearly makes sense with that reading, since there is no more reason to expect a wind to take the form of a dove than for it to take the form of a barn or a banana or the Beatles. Besides being unlike a mighty wind, a fragile dove would not be able to withstand a mighty wind out of the sky, let alone safely alight on Jesus and manage to stay on his shoulder, without getting blown away. In any case, the very next verse seals the matter by expressly saying the πνευμα, the wind (and not a dove), descended onto Jesus.
This provisional reconstruction of the Beloved Disciple’s original intent also makes considerable contextual sense. Immediately before this episode is the Prologue, which contains significant references to the Breath/Wind/Spirit of God that moved across the surface of the waters in Creation (Genesis 1:2) and that was breathed into Adam’s nostrils (Genesis 2:7). The conversation with Nicodemus, which emphasizes the same theme, comes soon hereafter. And this passage forms an inclusio (that is to say, it is in A-B-A symmetry) with 19:30, in which Jesus breathes out the wind/breath/spirit within him for the last time as he dies, and 20:22, in which Jesus exhales on the disciples and says “Receive the πνευμα άγιον” (the sacred breath/spirit/wind – equivalent in Greek to רוּחַ [Ruach], the Breath/Soul of Life); by exhaling he proves he is alive, but also with that breath he heals them, he blesses them, and he fills them with the Name and Spirit of God.
The baptism of Jesus took place at the Jordan River (1:28), and a whirlwind at that location would immediately call to the mind of any first-century Jew reading this account the story of Elijah, also at the Jordan, transferring his prophetic power to Elisha (II Kings 2): Elijah strikes the river with his rolled-up mantle and the waters part (echoing the story of the Exodus). Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Then a chariot and horses of fire appear, and Elijah is taken into Heaven in a whirlwind. Except for the mantle and the chariot and horses of fire, everything matches up. We have an older prophet (Elijah/John) at the close of his ministry ordaining the beginning of the ministry of a younger prophet (Elisha/Jesus) who has a double portion of the older one’s spirit; the River Jordan is passed through or entered into; and a whirlwind comes from Heaven. One pertinent difference is that the whirlwind takes one waning prophet, Elijah, to Heaven, but not John, since he is to die at Herod’s hand; rather, the whirlwind comes down to anoint Jesus, evidently conferring on him something of the nature and spirit of Elijah as it did Elisha. This whirlwind is the presence of God, the voice of God, the breath of God which Moses only saw after it had passed by and it was safe to leave the cave where he was hidden. This whirlwind is אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה (“I Am/Will Be What I Am/Will Be”), it is God’s Name (see the Introduction). The text is drawing a strong comparison between Jesus and both Elijah and Moses; this clearly tells us the gospel is directed at least at a Jewish audience.
As presaged above, there are two most obvious conclusions. One is that the amanuensis meant to write the Greek word for “whirlwind” as he was taking down the Beloved Disciple’s spoken reminiscences, but accidentally wrote the very similar Greek word for “dove”. The other is that this was a deliberate change effected later by the redactor of this gospel, to bring it into conformity with the by-then-published Synoptic gospels. Those three gospels all feature (rightly or wrongly) a dove; since Matthew and Luke based their tellings on the version in Mark, we can conclude – if in reality it was a whirlwind that visited itself upon Jesus at his baptism – that the scribal error occurred in the early stages of composition of Mark’s text, and Matthew and Luke simply repeated the mistake, and then John was edited to conform to the other three.
There is a third, less obvious conclusion, which is that since the text in effect says both “dove” and “wind” (in the received text of 1:32 John says, literally translated, “‘I have beheld the wind descending in the form of a dove from the sky, and it remained upon him.’”), both were intended. In other words, this may be an intended double entendre, and both πρηστηρ (wind) and περιστερα (dove) are suggested, rather like υσσωπος (javelin) and υσσως (hyssop) appear to have both been intended in 19:34.
First, this double entendre would be well-rooted in the Tanakh. Psalm 55:6-8 refers to a dove flying away from the dangerous whirlwind. This and other passages (e.g., Genesis 8, where the dove is associated with the subsiding of waters and wind, as here at the baptism, and Jeremiah 48:28) portray the dove in connection with a sanctuary in the wilderness from one’s enemies, a theme common to John, Jesus, and this gospel. And significantly, the Shulammite, the beautiful woman in the Song of Songs, which this gospel associates with Mary by way of frequent paraphrases from that work, is often compared to a dove. In Song 2:14 the man asks the woman, whom he calls his dove, to show herself in the concealed place along the steep way – the landscape described in that verse is one that the eyewitness and amanuensis would have agreed describes accurately this rock-strewn, craggy countryside where John was baptizing, which Gul. Tyrius described as also abounding in dragons, defined as “hidden passages and windings underground”. Visitors to the region today will find it continues to be full of concealed places along steep ways.
This verse in the Song of Songs suggests the possibility that the whirlwind and the dove could both have been present at the baptism – that would be the case if the dove, the beloved, “showed herself in the concealed place” in the form of Mary, called the Magdalene in the Synoptics. In this gospel, every time she appears there are strong references to the beloved woman, the “dove” of the Song of Songs. The whirlwind could literally have come down from Heaven and remained on Jesus, and the “dove”, Mary, could also have come down to the shore and helped Jesus out of the water, and “remained” with him for life, as his wife.
Strengthening this possibility is the clear inclusio between John, the first to declare publicly Jesus as Messiah after his symbolic death-and-resurrection in the Jordan (1:43), and Mary, the first to declare publicly Jesus as Messiah during his ministry (4:29; John only discusses Jesus as Messiah with certain religious officials, and the disciples only privately, in chapter 1); she was also the first to declare him such after his literal crucifixion-and-resurrection (20:18). Moreover, Mary watched as Jesus died on the cross (19:25) and was first witness to his resurrection, which would form an inclusio if she watched his symbolic death-and-resurrection here. Another inclusio is formed by Jesus being reunited with Mary in a garden right after his resurrection in chapter 20 just as he will be reunited with the woman he glimpsed during the baptism at a gardenlike well, in chapter 4, very soon after this symbolic resurrection of baptism. With so many clear correspondences being drawn between John and Mary, the possibility that Mary was present for the baptism of Jesus must be considered.
We know that Lazarus was at this time a disciple of John, so Mary, his mother, could have come from Sychar to visit her son, who was at the time of the baptism still a disciple of John, and thus certainly there to witness it. Mary may even have come to be herself baptized by John, to recollect her Jewish heritage after serving as a Samaritan priestess, to have her past “washed away” through the baptism. If so, then not only Jesus but Mary too would have been naked for the baptism, as was customary (and still is today in the mikvah), for this was a birth ritual and we are all born naked (Job 1:21). Jesus’s nakedness in this scene forms an inclusio with his being nearly so to wash the disciples’ feet (13:3-12a), and his complete nakedness on the cross (19:23-24) and at the resurrection (20:6-7) when he was spiritually reborn and spiritually remarried to Mary. At the crucifixion and resurrection Mary would again have been nigh naked herself, since the tradition then was for a grieving person to rend his or her clothes into pieces.
It is not inconceivable that Mary was assisting John in the baptism ritual; as a former Temple priestess this would be a familiar role for her to take. She may have helped Jesus (and others there for the ritual) to undress, and to untie his sandals, the very act that John felt he could not do himself (1:27), and throw around him a fresh white linen robe afterwards. If Mary undressed and reclothed him in this scene, there is an inclusio with her coming to the tomb (20:1) to undertake the wifely responsibility of tohorah, the ritual purification of a body by unclothing it, washing it (equivalent to the baptism here), and then dressing it again in a takhrikhin, a fresh white linen wrapping. And if the great preacher John felt he was not worthy of unlacing Jesus’s sandals and helping him undress, and these tasks fell instead to Mary, then Mary must already have been in a very special capacity as regards Jesus; at the least she would be such as a Temple priestess.
The Gospel of Philip may provide some support for this possible involved presence of Mary at the baptism of Jesus. (I agree with others that this noncanonical gospel appears to have preserved some oral traditions; it most decidedly should not be derided as Gnostic, for it portrays a very physical, real-world Jesus, and it speaks of this mundane earth as God’s creation, quite real and good.) At verse 82 it closely associates baptism and marriage: “The baptism has the resurrection [with] the Atonement coming into the bridal chamber; yet, the bridal chamber is more exalted than these. … One will never find its like”. And it may be speaking of John (as the friend of the bridegroom; cf. John 3:29) and the disciples (as the sons of the bridegroom; Jesus often addresses the disciples as his children) when it says of the nakedness of the bride (verse 131): “Let her [the bride] come forth and be revealed only to her father and mother with her, before the friend of the bridegroom, [and] before the sons of the bridegroom”. And, in the recently published fragment from the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, Jesus not only calls Mary “my wife”, but says, “As for me, I dwell/exist/live with her in order to […] an image […].” The verb suggests “I live with her” in three senses: the ordinary sense of cohabitation, the higher sense of spiritual union, and the highest sense, of the vitality in all things that vivifies life. Thus, Jesus is probably saying that his marriage to Mary is part of the Messianic image that he hopes to convey; applied to the baptism, their meeting at his symbolic death-and-resurrection in the river would be perfectly matched by their meeting again following his very real death and resurrection.
Dove imagery is universal in the spiritual traditions of the eastern Mediterranean, and it supports the identification of Mary with a dove. James A. Montgomery (in The Samaritans: the Earliest Jewish Sect) discusses the oft-cited belief that the Samaritans worshipped a dove on Mount Gerizim, where Mary was a priestess. He eventually dismisses it, but yet he speaks approvingly of other scholars (Selden and Ronzevalle) who associate the dove cult with the goddess Semiramis and the Ashima mentioned in II Kings 17:30. Donald A. MacKenzie (in Myths of Babylonia and Assyria) discusses the close connections between Semiramis and doves in the myths about her. Her Assyrian name, Sammu-rammat, is probably derived from Summat (“Dove”), and signifies “The Dove Goddess Loves Her”. In the most ancient form of the myth, says MacKenzie, she was turned into a dove and took flight into heaven in that form. He adds that Robertson Smith has demonstrated that the dove was of great sanctity among the Semitic nations, often closely associated with love, and also symbolizes innocence, gentleness, and holiness. So, ultimately, in the double entendre of πρηστηρ (wind) and περιστερα (dove) we have masculine and feminine, god and goddess, anointing this first encounter of Jesus and Mary.
If this theory that Mary was actively present at the baptism is true, then it must be asked why there is nothing about it in the gospel. It may be that the amanuensis meant to add it to the telling of the baptism, but never got to it; we know that the original version of the gospel was never completed. It may also be that the redactor found it unacceptable (for the clear suggestion that Jesus was involved with this woman) and excised it; I reject this possibility because the redactor let other similarly “romantic” passages stand with but minimal changes. The compositional problem may have been because the author has put the description of the baptism in the mouth of John (even though Lazarus the eyewitness was certainly there), and either an expansion would have to be still in the first person or else a new narrative strand based on Lazarus’s memories would need to be inserted.
Should this hypothesis of Mary at the baptism be correct, it is not hard to theorize how it would have been recounted in this gospel. As discussed in the Introduction, many scenes in the gospel appear to be sketches that were going to be expanded later, but, alas, there was no opportunity to do so, probably because of the Roman decimation of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. John’s narration of what happened (1:31-33) is complete as it stands, but it could have been slightly extended, to say that after the whirlwind churned up the water in a miniature inundating storm of water (a parallel to the Flood [Genesis 7:17-23], in which everything died, just as this baptism was a symbol dying, and after which a wind descended from heaven [Genesis 8:1, the Hebrew wording of which is close to Genesis 1:2]), the dove came down to the waters in the person of Mary, to guide Jesus to dry land (Genesis 8:8-12), to draw him forth from the waters (Exodus 2:5).
If Mary was there to be baptized herself, and/or to assist John, then likely Jesus took notice of Mary, whom Lazarus would have told his teacher was his mother, and that would have led to the arranging of their meeting in the next episode, at the well in Sychar. This is, of course, pure speculation, but it would connect this scene closely with the next one, at Jacob’s Well, and explain why this scene is immediately followed by that one, and then the wedding. It would also help explain the disciples’ surprise in 4:27, since she is not entirely unfamiliar to them!