Since I’m taking both Religious Studies 412 and 414 (Dead Sea Sectarian and Early Christianity respectively), which are both taught by Professor Daniel Falk and have ten or fewer in the class, it’s been difficult to effectively separate the material from each other. For those who have never heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, they’re a bunch of ancient manuscripts that date back to a couple centuries before Jesus entered the scene and collectively make up one of the greatest religious discoveries of the 20th century. A small village or town known as Qumran is the site of ancient ruins; right near where the caves were that housed all the Dead Sea Scrolls. We’ve been reading through the more famous scrolls (The Serek ha-Yahad (“Community Rule”) and the Damascus Document) and studying the common ideals amongst sectarian communities, but more specifically what it meant to this particular group at Qumran.
While I’ve been reading from both the Scrolls and the Christian Scriptures, I’ve noticed a lot of similarities – too many to go into here. But in one of last week’s classes we were reading through Carol Newsom’s book, The Self as Symbolic Space: Constructing Identity and Community at Qumran, and one particular word stood out to me: proleptically. Given my several handy-dandy dictionaries at home, I looked up the word but couldn’t find it. I had to reference dictionary.com in order to get an idea of what this word means. Here’s the main definition that I believe Newsom had in mind:
“The assigning of a person, event, etc., to a period earlier than the actual one; the representation of something in the future as if it already existed or had occurred.”
For the community at Qumran, the future reign of God was being lived out in their present time through their community. “Prolepsis” was centered on their community as a whole, not on any one figure. In early Christianity, we see something similar to Qumran, but different in very significant ways. Firstly, Jesus is the central figure bringing God’s kingdom proleptically into the earthly realm (Luke 17:21) and the Spirit is the figure who continues the growth of this proleptic kingdom in and through the communities of Christians, as we see in the book of Acts. In one sense Qumran and the early Christians are very similar; the proleptic kingdom of God is living, working and moving through their community. But in another sense, they’re very different; Jesus is the King bringing His kingdom to us and letting it grow in and through us.
I must say, though, that the Qumran community did have a leader-like figure: the “Teacher of Righteousness.” This was most likely a prophetic-like figure like that of Jeremiah who had taught them the ways of God, but ultimately died. In Christianity, it’s made quite clear that their central figure, Jesus, not only died, but defeated death by resurrecting from the grave. Unlike the Qumran community, early Christianity believed in something more than the power of God being in their midst; God Himself was in their midst.
Granted, there were different Christian communities with slightly different theologies and Christologies than the others (compare Mark’s Gospel to that of John and you’ll probably see what I mean). But what seems quite clear to me is that like the Qumran community, early Christians believed God was working solely through their community, but unlike Qumran, the King of the early Christians continues to live on; He wasn’t bound up in mere memory or long lists of rules. Of course, as we see in the writings of Paul, there were rules and commands from Christ that did carry on His teaching to future generations. But, as we also see in Paul’s letters, Christ’s proleptic kingdom did not depend on the works of Christ’s followers. Certainly it helped if they were obeying Christ’s commandments, but with the death of death itself, Christ was (and is still) able to work past the failures and shortcomings of His followers to keep His future kingdom in the present. His kingdom’s prolepsis was unaffected by the people of His kingdom. They could not ruin it; they could only bring it forward.
For both classes, I’m writing my 12-page paper on baptism and how it functioned in both religious groups. As of right now, I’m seeing one major difference between the two: purity. Qumran had rules and stipulations requiring certain members to be “purified” by the pouring of water. They had the constant need to be ritually pure. In early Christianity, the constant need for purification was done away with; one baptism in the name of Jesus was enough. Why? Because His proleptic kingdom did not depend on any work that we do or don’t; He, our King, defeated death and eliminated the whole system of ritual cleansing. Baptism becomes, then, much more important to the Christian; in antiquity, it symbolized the crossing of a threshold, the breaking of a barrier, the elimination of a border. Baptism signified the freeing power of Christ’s proleptic kingdom.
No, not all of this is so black-and-white as I seem to portray. As I mentioned earlier, it’s possible Mark’s community didn’t believe Jesus was literally God. But I could argue that at the very least, almost all Christian communities believed Jesus was the King – the Messiah, bringing God’s future kingdom to our time and place in the present. As a Christ-follower, I am compelled to believe – without logical reason if need be – that the uniqueness of early Christianity wasn’t found in their belief of a proleptic kingdom of God in their midst; it’s found in Whom this proleptic kingdom came from.
I could go on and on about the contrasts between Christ’s glory and the expected glory of a king, but I’ll save that for another time. What struck me this week, though, wasn’t merely the idea of a future kingdom being in the present; it was how this kingdom continues to be in the present: God’s Spirit. It lives within us, moves through us, and continues on past us. I’m sure other religious groups believe His Spirit lives and moves through them, but what they may not believe is that Jesus is the forerunner. It’s Jesus who freed us. That’s one of if not the major difference I’ve found between early Christianity (and Christianity today – to a certain extent) and the early sectarian groups of antiquity. For us, it all centers on Jesus on the cross.