Beginning from the Baptism of John

Two facts in the life of Jesus1 command almost universal assent. They bracket the three years for which Jesus is most remembered, his life's work, his sion.2 One is Jesus' baptism by John. The other is his death by crucifixion. Because they rank so high on the 'almost impossible to doubt or deny' scale of historical 'facts', they are obvious starting points for an attempt to clarify the what and why of Jesus' mission. It would be quite feasible, then, to begin with the crucifixion, as the event most amenable to historical study, and to work back from that.3 But since Jesus' baptism by John is an equally strong fact, I prefer to begin at the beginning. An added advantage is that a study of John the Baptist in effect completes our review of the historical context from which Jesus emerged (chapter 9).

1. On the name 'Jesus' see Meier, Marginal Jew 1.205-208. Some modern translations use the Hebrew form 'Yeshua', which on first encounter has the useful effect of jerking readers out of their over-familiarity with the English form and reminding them that Jesus was a Jew.

2. I use the term 'mission' because it is the most accurate but also the most flexible term. 'Ministry', when used of someone's activity, has an almost unavoidable ecclesiastical overtone, despite its use also for high political office in the UK and elsewhere. 'Mission' was never quite so restricted in connotation. Not only does it refer to a religious enterprise ('missionary work'), but the term is also used of a body of people sent abroad to conduct negotiations, and recently it has become fashionable for businesses and higher education institutions to set out their goals in 'mission statements'. Its overtone of carefully conceived purpose, of responsibility to a sending authority, even of 'vocation', raises just the questions we will need to clarify as we proceed.

3. Thus Harvey, Jesus; Sanders, Jesus, follows similar logic in starting with the 'cleansing' of the temple.

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