Historical Culture Context
The Baptism of Jesus
In the reports by Matthew, Mark, and Luke of Jesus’ baptism, the testimony of the voice from heaven is very important. Jesus is identified as “my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22).
The ancient Mediterranean world believed that the male deposited a fully formed miniature adult (a seed) into the female (viewed simply as a field for the seed).
Not yet having achieved the contemporary understanding of human reproduction and lacking the sophisticated paternity tests of our modern era (see Num 5:11-31 for their test), these people were totally unable to prove paternity at the biological level.
For this reason, the public and social acknowledgment of paternity by the male was of critical importance. This act not only gave the child legitimacy and appropriate social standing in the community but also publicly obliged the father to accept responsibility for the child.
In Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism, the voice from heaven acknowledges Jesus as “my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
What kind of human experience was this in which Jesus hears a voice from heaven speaking to him?
Scholars note that it is an experience in an altered state of consciousness or an experience of alternate reality. On average, 90 percent of the world’s cultures regularly have such experiences and find them useful and meaningful in their cultural context.
Only the industrialized West has managed to block this pan-human potential. Even scholars who would insist that the baptism of Jesus is an interpretation from the evangelist’s hand must admit that the evangelist built wisely on the culture and made the point with very persuasive cultural plausibility.
The transfiguration of Jesus and the appearances of the risen Jesus also belong to this category of human experience.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University