Bible Review 9:1, February 1993

What Are Pagan River Gods Doing in Scenes of Jesus’ Baptism?

By Robin M. Jensen

From its earliest days, one of the most popular scenes in Christian art has been John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River—and understandably so. Jesus’ baptism is a central moment in the Gospel narrative.

The standard cast of characters in the baptism scene includes the Baptist, Jesus and the dove of the Holy Spirit. (“The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased’ ” [Luke 3:22; see also the parallels in Matthew 3:16–17 and Mark 1:10–11].)a Sometimes angels also appear across the river from the Baptist.

But beginning in the late fifth or early sixth century C.E.b and continuing to modern times, another figure turns up in scenes of baptism—perhaps we should consider him an uninvited guest—a classical male river deity, either sitting on the side watching the action, or partially submerged in the river itself. He makes a gesture of acclamation, or surprise, or fear at what is happening in his river. Sometimes he holds a jug that is the source of the river’s flow.

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