The Baptism of Jesus

The baptism of Jesus is one of the most well-known stories in the gospels. While there are some stories from Jesus’s life that are only attested in a single gospel (e.g., Jesus turning water into wine in John or his journey to Egypt as a child in Matthew), the story of his baptism appears in three of the four gospels in the New Testament. The writers of these gospels all situate this event at the beginning of his public preaching career and treat it as a pivotal moment in his life.

Mark, Matthew, and Luke are known collectively as the Synoptic Gospels (synoptic means “see together”) because of their striking verbal and structural similarities, which encourage New Testament scholars to study them together. Indeed, their versions of Jesus’s baptism are remarkably similar—they agree that the event involved the tearing open of the heavens, the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and a statement about Jesus’s identity as the son of God. Scholars have explained similarities like this with the hypothesis that Mark’s Gospel was the source for Matthew and Luke, both of whom supplemented his brief narrative with other parables, aphorisms, and apocalyptic teachings. Even though these strong verbal similarities exists among the Synoptic baptism stories, there are also noticeable differences, discussed in more detail below, suggesting that each author was interested in emphasizing different elements of the event.

The Gospel of John contains only some elements of this story. In John, the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus and the statement that he is God’s son are not narrated, but they are attested by John the Baptist (John 1:32-34). However, the gospel never actually states outright that Jesus underwent baptism. This puzzling absence is part of a much larger body of evidence that suggests John’s Gospel does not have any literary connection on the Synoptics.

Did you know…?

  • The baptism of Jesus appears in three of the four canonical gospels: Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
  • Mark, Matthew, and Luke treat Jesus’s baptism as the inauguration of his public preaching.
  • All versions of the story agree that the Holy Spirit descended like a dove upon Jesus immediately after his baptism.
  • Some early authors may have been uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus submitting to John the Baptist’s authority.
  • Mark and Luke imply that only Jesus heard the voice from heaven proclaim that he was God’s son.
  • Matthew changes the statement of the heavenly voice so that it proclaims Jesus’s identity to the public.
  • The Gospel of John never states that Jesus was baptized.

What is the earliest version of Jesus’ baptism?

Mark’s account of Jesus’s baptism is the shortest and the earliest. In his story (Mark 1:9-11), Jesus goes out to John the Baptist, who is preaching about repentance in the Judaean wilderness (Mark 1:4). After John baptizes Jesus, the heavens are “torn apart” and the Holy Spirit comes down upon him “like a dove” (Mark 1:10). A voice from heaven then addresses Jesus directly, proclaiming, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).

Jesus is an adult when he is baptized, and Mark shows no knowledge of (or interest in) his birth or early life. For this reason, many commentators have explained the baptism in terms of adoption: though Jesus was a remarkable human being, it was not until the moment that the Spirit came upon him that he was adopted as God’s son.

How are Matthew and Luke’s versions of Jesus’s baptism similar to Mark’s original story?

Matthew’s Gospel speaks briefly of Jesus’s early life before narrating his baptism, including such stories as his birth in Bethlehem, his family’s flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth, and a recitation of his ancestors back to Abraham. The author of Matthew’s Gospel apparently felt some discomfort with the idea of John baptizing Jesus, since the implication may have been that Jesus was inferior to John or needed to submit to his authority somehow. Thus, in basing his own gospel on Mark, he inserts a dialogue between Jesus and John into this scene (Matt 3:14-15). In the dialogue, John protests that he should not be baptizing Jesus, but Jesus responds that it must be done to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). In this way, Matthew both acknowledges and answers the question of why Jesus needed to be baptized by John. While he retains the imagery of the heavens parting to allow the descent of the Spirit in the form of the dove, Matthew tweaks the proclamation from the heavenly voice. Instead of addressing Jesus directly with “you,” Matthew opts for a demonstrative proclamation: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). Many scholars have argued that Matthew’s version amounts to a public proclamation of Jesus’s identity, whereas the announcement in Mark may have only been heard by Jesus himself.

Luke’s baptism story is also preceded by stories from Jesus’s early life, including the angel’s announcement of his birth to the shepherds, a list of his ancestors back to Adam, and his presentation as an infant at the temple. Luke’s version of Jesus’s baptism is, like Matthew’s, built on the basic narrative of Mark. Luke, however, avoids stating outright that John baptized Jesus. He opts for the passive construction “Jesus had been baptized” (Luke 3:21). Curiously, Luke seems to have taken John out of the scene all together: just before Jesus’s baptism, Luke tells us that Herod Antipas had imprisoned John (Luke 3:19-20). As confusing as it may seem, this awkward construction might be Luke’s way of avoiding the problem of John having to baptize Jesus, which had also been Matthew’s concern. Like Mark, Luke retains the imagery of the heaven opening and the Spirit descending on Jesus in the guise of a dove and styles the voice of heaven as a direct address to Jesus himself: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).

From this brief exploration, we can see that Mark, Matthew, and Luke all share the same core story about Jesus’s baptism, but they have each put a distinct spin on it as they situated it within their own gospels.


  • Sarah E. Rollens

    R. A. Webb Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Rhodes College

    Sarah E. Rollens is the R. A. Webb Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College. She is the author of Framing Social Criticism in the Jesus Movement: The Ideological Project of the Sayings Gospel Q (Mohr Siebeck, 2014) and of numerous articles and essays on the social history of earliest Christianity in the first century.