Fudging the Gospels

Everett Ferguson. Baptism in the Early Church. Eerdmans 2009.

In Christian history, as in Chinese history, the tendency is to prove that everything has always been the same. This can lead to methodological difficulties. Here is a case in point.

Baptism in the Early Chuyrch

How does one write a theological book without undermining their own or someone else's faith? Easy. Take a wide span of time, focus on the late part (where the preferences of the reader and the actual course of history run pretty much together), and fudge the early part.

Do your exercises before picking up this book with one hand. At 3 pounds 8 plus ounces, you can get away with the short customs form, if you are mailing it out of the country, but your wrist may still not like it. xxii + 956 = 978 pages, a challenging prospect for one afternoon. The reader interested in early Christianity will begin by mentally walling off the part beginning with "The Second Century" (p199), and will probably start with the Summary of New Testament Information on Baptism, bottom of p196. Less than 2p total; a more practical prospect. Those 2p are mostly taken up with summaries of the conclusions of three scholars about baptism in the New Testament." The favored three are Kuss 1952, Beasley-Murray 1978, and Hartman 1997. So is this a work of research, or a compendium of research? One peeps at the blurbs on the back cover, to find the work praised as a "valuable compendium of references to baptism in the early Christian centuries" (Hurtado) which has "assembled, categorized, and analyzed countless primary documents and vast swaths of scholarship on the history of early Christian baptism" (Jensen). Right. But still, what do the three favored secondary sources say? Kuss (as here summarized) says that baptism "is connected to the eschatological baptism of John but has its specific character from the saving work of Christ." Beasley-Murray (as here summarized) notes "the association of baptism with the objective grace of God" but also as "often associated with faith, as an expression of one's belief in Christ." Hartman (as here summarized) identifies "certain motifs of baptism that belonged to the viewpoint of the earliest disciples of Jesus, most derived from John's baptism, but then Christianized." What these three people are pointing to is a shift in meaning from John's baptism to the eventual Christianized baptism. That is, they suggest an evolution of the theory of baptism during the first Christian century. Ferguson's last sentence brings puts things in a way that excludes that evolution: "The New Testament texts provide the ideas that were foundational for the later developments of the theology of baptism."

This tendency to put things together, whether at first or third hand, and then to defer their meaning until "later developments" in theology clarify them, is not historically responsible. How does Ferguson deal with the actual data earlier in his book? The previous section ("Baptism of Jesus II," p113), like the abovementioned summary, begins by quoting opinions, some modern and some Patristic. Two pages further on, we hear how Gregory of Nazianzus felt about the feast of the Epiphany (the 6 January occasion "which celebrated the baptism of Jesus"). We skip that, and go back still another section (to "Baptism of Jesus I," p99). Here we do get into contact with the Gospel evidence, but with heavy warnings about how little reliable it is likely to be:

So the evidence could not have told us anything, but lest it should seem to, we deny that we know, and can make any use of, the distinction (basic to Ranke and to all responsible persons before and after him) between early and late evidence. And the first word about Mark emphasizes the uniformity, not the distinctiveness, of Markan evidence:

If we go back further toward the front of the book, we find ourselves in an etymological maze, based on the Greek word for "baptize." Enough, already. Somehow one comes away from this small sample with the feeling that any history the sources contain is being blended by the author into an orthodox, or at least a not subversively counter-orthodox, milkshake.

To let the historical cat out of the evidential bag would not take any 978 pages, but it would take more pages than are here available. The gist of it is that on the basic point, namely, How do I get into Heaven, the followers of Jesus during and shortly after his death took two major roads of interpretation. One, the earlier, because rooted in the teachings of Jesus during his lifetime, regarded salvation as achieved by obedience to the commandments - not the whole burdensome Jewish "Law" containing more than 600 provisions, and championed by the Pharisee party in particular, but just the nonritual half of the Mosaic Ten (plus a sixth, with a traditional basis but outside the standard Ten; see the list as given by Jesus himself in Mk 10:19). I find it convenient to call this kind of Christianity "Alpha." The other kind, Beta, which must be later because it is a theory of the meaning of Jesus's death, and thus could not have been preached by Jesus in his lifetime, is that we are saved not by our own repentance, but by Jesus's sacrificial death, which atones vicariously for our sins.

Alpha baptism, whether administered by John or by the early Christians portrayed in Acts, is by water. It is a sign of forgiveness arising from repentance: it signifies the sinlessness of the one baptized (a late interpolation into Josephus spells this out very clearly: baptism is not magic; it does not of itself forgive; it symbolizes forgiveness). Beta baptism, as expounded very clearly by Paul, in documents which can be dated to about a generation after Jesus, is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus; it is, at least symbolically, a baptism by blood. The war of theory between the Gospel tradition or its earliest elements, and the advanced and mystical-participation viewpoint articulated by Paul, is between these two positions: between the religion of Jesus, which centered on the forgiveness of God, and the religion about Jesus, in which Jesus increasingly replaces God as the dispenser of forgiveness, and eventually in all God's other functions as well.

That war of dogma, with all its complications and crosscurrents, is the big story of the Christian first century. Its major combatants continued to exist as late as the fourth century, but with the Alpha view increasingly marginalized and finally forbidden (it figures recognizably in several of the heresies catalogued by Epiphanius). We today live in, and modern scholars thus tend to think and write from, a Beta perspective. Everyone is a child of their own age. But not necessarily to the same extent, and historians may fairly be judged on how far they have gotten outside their native envelope of acceptances, and into the mind and practice of the lost period for which they presume to speak.

Whether Ferguson, somewhere in his 978 pages, has linked up with the key opposition within early Christianity is a question that will require another and more pertinacious reviewer to determine. The present experiment seems not to be favorable to that verdict, but time perhaps will tell.

E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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21 Oct 2012 / Contact The Project