This study explores ways in which the anthropological model of rite of passage is useful for interpreting the portrayal of Jesus’ baptism and wilderness experience in Luke 3:1–4:15, and for considering the place of this account in the narrative of Luke-Acts. Such a ritual approach to the passage is demonstrated to be particularly promising based on the prominent role that ritual is shown to play in the literary structure of Luke-Acts, where Luke 3:1–4:15 holds a pivotal place among a series of ritual accounts.
After considering recent interpretations of the place of the passage in the work of Luke-Acts, a review of the last one hundred years of rite of passage studies and their application to biblical text provides the groundwork for establishing the approach of the study. The chosen methodology takes as its starting point Victor Turner’s still-insightful process for rite of passage analysis, modifying it in conversation with more recent critiques and developments. This process is applied first to three other ritual accounts from contemporary Greco-Roman narrative in order to provide a context for the study of the Lukan passage. These are: (1) Lucius’ initiation into the mystery cult of Isis in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses; (2) Josephus’ ritualized passage to adulthood in the Vita; and (3) Saul’s transformation from persecutor to witness in chapter 9 of Luke-Acts itself.
Luke 3:1–4:15 is treated in two chapters, reflecting the two interlocked rituals there depicted. These two rituals, the baptism of the many in 3:1–21a and Jesus’ singular anointing and wilderness testing in 3:21b–4:15, are connected by the shared baptism of Jesus and the people in 3:21. It is shown that these baptisms function as important beginnings in the narrative of Luke-Acts, and are used as a foundation for the portrayal of the course of Jesus’ ministry and the subsequent ministry of the church.