Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Baptism of Jesus

Stained glass window by Gian Lorenzo Bernini of the
Holy Spirit as a dove in the apse of St. Peter's
Basilica in Rome.
Recently I've been studying the book of Mark and when I came to the account of Jesus' baptism I was reminded of an interesting idea that I don't believe I have shared here.

In the well known story Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist and as Jesus comes up out of the water the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove (see Mark 1:10). From this account in Mark and the other gospels Latter-Day Saints recognize the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit but generally do not attach any meaning to it beyond that.

The dove is a fascinating symbol that modern readers often fail to appreciate fully. The Israelites utilized the dove as a cultic symbol at least several hundred years prior to the advent of Christianity.

In Iron Age Israel (ca. 1200 - 539 BC) the dove was a well known symbol of the Canaanite/Israelite deity Asherah as noted by Dorothy Willette on BAR's website:
Judahite pillar figurine c. 8th century
B.C. Lachish. Associates the dove with

"In the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, the dove became an iconic symbol of the mother goddess. . . . The doves represented feminine fertility and procreation, and came to be well-recognized symbols of the Canaanite goddess Asherah and her counterpart Astarte . . . There is strong evidence in the Hebrew Bible, as well as the archaeological record, that many ancient Israelites believed the goddess Asherah was the consort of their god Yahweh (aka Jehovah)."

Additionally, as Willette notes:

"Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that the heirs of this Israelite religion incorporated the 'feminine' symbol of the dove to represent the spirit of God (the word for 'spirit,' ruach, is a feminine word in Hebrew). The Babylonian Talmud likens the hovering of God’s spirit in Genesis 1:2 to the hovering of a dove."

At least some early Christians identified Jesus with Jehovah and had begun to see the Holy Spirit, not as his consort, but as his mother. This is reflected in the writings of Jerome who quoted from the now lost Gospel of the Hebrews as noted by Margaret Barker in her book entitled The Mother of the Lord:

"Jerome quoted the Gospel of the Hebrews in his commentary on Isaiah 11.2.

'In the [Gospel of the Hebrews] I find this written: "And it came to pass when the Lord was come up out of the water, the whole fount of the Holy Spirit descended and rested upon him, and said unto him: My son in all the prophets I was waiting for thee that thou shouldst come, and that I might rest in thee. For thou art my rest thou art my first begotten son that reignest forever."'

"In his commentary on Isaiah 11.9 he also noted that in the Gospel of the Hebrews, Jesus spoke of 'My mother the holy Spirit.' . . . The Spirit was his Mother, and the imagery is from the royal cult."

During the October 23, 2013 Lady of the Temple Conference sponsored by the Academy for Temple Studies at Utah State University Alyson Von Feldt made an intriguing suggestion of how Latter-Day Saints could understand this idea. Here is her talk:

Therefore, there is much more than meets the eye in the story of Jesus' baptism that we often fail to fully appreciate. The symbol of the dove would have been pregnant with meaning to the Jews of the first century AD and studying it can help modern readers understand what the gospel authors and perhaps what God himself was trying to convey by utilizing this symbol.

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