Higher Criticism of the Bible: Comparing the Four Canonical Gospels


I have posted two articles giving examples of lower criticism of the Bible.
Lower criticism is textual criticism, weeding out scribal errors and textual
corruptions. Higher criticism is the inquiry into authorship, integrity, and historical accuracy. Higher criticism would include comparing the canonical Gospels, studying the influence of the old testament and Greek and Roman authors on the Christian Bible and many other issues. In this article the four canonical Gospels are compared in order to see how the four authors present the baptism of Jesus Christ.

Christian dogma asserts that the Bible is literally the word of God. The New
Testament is thus literally true. Any cursory inspection of the New Testament,
however, shows that the New Testament including the Gospels can not be
literally true. This is made clear by comparing the treatment of the baptism
of Jesus Christ in the four canonical Gospels. I will show the different
treatments of the baptism of Jesus Christ in different gsopels and the
probable reason why the different Gospel authors gave differing versions of
the baptism story. I will start with Mark's Gospel since it is regarded as the
earliest canonical Gospel.

Mark's version of the baptism of Jeus Christ

3: The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
4: John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance
for the remission of sins.

5: And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem,
and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
6: And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about
his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;
7: And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the
laces of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.

8: I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the
Holy Ghost.

9: And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of
Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
10: And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and
the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
11: And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in
whom I am well pleased.

12: And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.

(Mark 1.3-12)

Any one reading this version will immediately notice two dangerous overtones
in Mark's version. One such dangerous overtone is that fact that John the
Baptist used to baptize people "for the remission of sins". This is dangerous
since Jesus Christ surely did not need baptism since Jesus Christ was the Son
of God. Mark tries to soften the blow, the fact that Jesus was baptized for
the remission of his sins by John, by putting these words, "There cometh one
mightier than I after me, the laces of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop
down and unloose" in John's mouth. The other dangerous overtone is that Jesus
is told privately from a voice of heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I
am well pleased". This is dangerous since Jesus being the son of God by birth
should not need to be told privately of that fact! It will be of interest to
compare Mark's version with that of the other three Gospels, that of Mathew,
Luke and John. Do the other three Gospels agree with Mark's story? It would be
of special interest to compare Mark with the synoptic gospels of Mathew and
Luke. The Gospels of Mark, Mathew and Luke are called synoptic because of
strong parallels between them. Scholars have found that of Marks' 661 verses
606 verses appear in Mathew, many with deliberate stylistic and theological
changes and others with fictional additions. Luke uses 360 Markan verses
either word-for-word or with deliberate changes.

Mathew's version of the baptism of Jesus Christ

Let us now take a look at Mathew's version to see how Mathew changed Mark.

1: In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,
2: And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
3: For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice
of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his
paths straight.
4: And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle
about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.
5: Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round
about Jordan,
6: And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.
7: But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he
said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the
wrath to come?
8: Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:
9: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for
I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto
10: And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every
tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
11: I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after
me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize
you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:

12: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and
gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with
unquenchable fire.
13: Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.
14: But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and
comest thou to me?
15: And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it
becometh us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he suffered him.

16: And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water:
and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove, and lighting upon him:
17: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am
well pleased.

(Mathew 3.1-17)

One notices after reading this version that Mathew tries to soften Mark's
story by making John say "I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou
to me?". Remember that Mark who wrote the Gospels earlier than Mathew didn't
say that John forbade Jesus. It is clear that Mathew inserted this in order to
soften the first dangeorus overtone of the Markan baptism story. How did
Mathew soften the second dangerous overtone of the Markan story? He did by
shifting the private revealation to Jesus by the heavenly voice to a public
revealation. While Markan version says, 'he saw the heavens opened', the
Mathew version says,'the heavens were opened unto him'. Thus in the Mathew
version the heavenly voice is telling the reader that Jesus is the son of God.
Basically, Mathew adjusts the story to eliminate the dangerous overtones of
the Markan version. Did John the Baptist even know Jesus? It seems not from
the following Mathew text:

1: And it came to pass, when Jesus had made an end of commanding his twelve
disciples, he departed thence to teach and to preach in their cities.
2: Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of
his disciples,
3: And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?
4: Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things
which ye do hear and see:
5: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed,
and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel
preached to them.
6: And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.
7: And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning
John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the
8: But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold,
they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses.
9: But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more
than a prophet.
10: For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before
thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
11: Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not
risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the
kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

(Mathew 11.1-11)

You notice that John the Baptist who forbade Jesus from baptism and
confidently asserted that Jesus was mightier than him in chapter 3 now in
chapter 11 wants to know if "Art thou he that should come, or do we look for
another?". Both these stories can not be true. Moreover, Mathew's version does
not match the version of Mark! It seems that Mathew seems to have felt that
John the Baptist actually did not know Jesus at all!

Luke's version of the baptism of Jesus Christ

Let us now take a look are Luke's version of the story.

16: John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but
one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to
unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire:

17: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will
gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire
18: And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.
19: But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother
Philip's wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done,
20: Added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison.
21: Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also
being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened,
22: And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a
voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well

(Luke 3:16-22)

Luke's changes are similar in spirit to that of Mathew though not exactly the
same. In Mathew, John the Baptist tried to stop Jesus from the whole baptism
ceremony. In Luke, John the Baptist admits that he is not worthy of tying
Jesus' shoe laces but nevertheless does not forbid Jesus. Luke also changes the private revealation to Jesus by the heavenly voice in Mark to a public revealation to the reader of the Gospel.

John's version of the baptism of Jesus Christ

Let us now take a look at John's version.

19: And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites
from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?
20: And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.
21: And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art
thou that prophet? And he answered, No.
22: Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them
that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?
23: He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the
way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.
24: And they which were sent were of the Pharisees.
25: And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be
not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?
26: John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one
among you, whom ye know not;
27: He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe's laces
I am not worthy to unloose.
28: These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was
29: The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb
of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.
30: This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before
me: for he was before me.
31: And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel,
therefore am I come baptizing with water.
32: And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like
a dove, and it abode upon him.
33: And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same
said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining
on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.
34: And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.
35: Again the next day after John stood, and two of his disciples;
36: And looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God!

(John 1.19-36)

You notice that John has gotten rid of the story of John the Baptist baptizing
Jesus Christ completely!! The Gospel author, John, never mentions John the
Baptist baptizing Jesus Christ.

Possible reasons for the difference between the Gospels

There is actually strong evidence that the later Gospel authors rewrote Mark's
version. In fact Luke mentions the reason for his writing a Gospel in the
following verse:

1: Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of
those things which are most surely believed among us,
2: Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were
eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;
3: It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things
from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,
4: That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast
been instructed.

(Luke 1.1-4)

You will notice that Luke claims that he is going to give the most certain
version of the story. That implies that there are other stories going around
that were not considered to be certain versions by Luke. That would imply that
Luke did not believe in Mark's version of the story! Nor did Mathew or John
for the matter accept the Markan version. John, in particular, did not accept that Jesus was baptised at all by John the Baptist! This raises a serious question. Which version of the baptism story can one believe since the details of the baptism story differ from Gospel to Gospel?

It is the contention of Randel helms that all 4 Gospels are giving us fictional accounts of the baptism of Jesus Christ. Helms thinks that the Gospels were not written to be historical accounts of the life of Jesus Christ but were rather written to make important theological points. The reason why Mathew, Luke and John changed the Markan version was that they were dissatisfied with the Markan handling of the baptism story. Jesus Christ, being the son of God, would not need baptism for remission of sins and would not need heavenly voices to tell him that he is the son of God. John, the author of the Gospel of John, felt so dissatisfied with the Markan version that he just dropped the whole story from his Gospel.

End Notes

Gospel Fictions by Randel Helms

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