On May 12th, 2002, I was baptized into Christianity. I awkwardly stood at the front of the congregation in my swim trunks and cut-off t-shirt while everyone else watched in their Sunday best. It wasn’t any regular Sunday either; it was Mother’s Day. Lots of perfume, flowers, and girls sitting with watchful eyes. You see, I grew up in a congregation of roughly 15 people that came every Sunday. On that particular day there were close to 50 or so in the small little church. I was a bit nervous.
After I was dunked, people cheered and thus began my walk with God. For a long time I didn’t think much of my baptism; I thought it was just something one is supposed to do in order to be a part of the group. Mere paperwork for attaining membership. And now, almost nine years of walking with God, I suddenly had an interest in the meaning of getting dunked for Jesus.
This winter term I took two classes from Dr. Daniel Falk (my favorite professor): Early Christian Religion and Dead Sea Sectarian (REL 414 and 412 respectively). In the first week of classes I immediately caught on to one major similarity: Isaiah 40:3. It says, “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” For Christian readers, we immediately think of John the Baptist as this voice in the wilderness (Mark 1:2-4). But what I found remarkable about the Community at Qumran was that they also refer to this verse:
“And when these [initiates] become members of the Community in Israel according to these rules, they shall separate from the habitation of unjust men and shall go into the wilderness to prepare there the way of Him; as it is written, ‘Prepare in the wilderness the way of… make straight in the desert a path for our God.’ This (path) is the study of the Law which He commanded by the hand of Moses, that they may do according to all that has been revealed from age to age, and as the Prophets have revealed by His Holy Spirit,” – Community Rule, 8:13-16a (or 1QS 8:13-16a – I’ll explain in another post).
This striking similarity began an interest in baptism because John was baptizing and Qumran, as I would later discover, had a lot of ritual immersion pools – either 10 or 11, which Hannah K. Harrington (a scholar on the purity laws in the DSS) indicates that given the small size of the community (big enough for about 200 people) is the greatest number of miqva’ot (Jewish term for immersion pools – plural; miqveh – singular) in one condensed location. This said to me that the Qumran sectarian group was stringent about purity laws, even adding their own (Harrington–The Purity Texts, 19).
Digging a little deeper, I found ritual immersion to be already extremely important in Judaism. Boaz Zissu and David Amit note 220 ritual baths that archaeologists have discovered in the Judean Hills and in the Land of Benjamin (Common Judaism, 49). So what made Qumran so different? And since the Qumran community existed roughly around the time of Jesus, then we can begin to ask the question, what made the Christian baptism so different? As I argued in both my papers from this past term, Qumran utilized ritual immersion to keep themselves, as God’s “highway,” clean and clear for His kingdom to enter; early Christianity utilized baptism in order to signify one’s death to the old life of sin and rise to new life specifically in the name of Jesus.
There is a lot of information regarding these two directions, so I have no idea how long of a series this is going to be; I just know it’s going to be several posts. For those who aren’t familiar with the Dead Sea Scrolls or Qumran, don’t worry; I’ll explain. Teaching on that subject alone will take two, possibly three, posts alone. But what I think first needs to be explained is the major emphasis on ritual purity in what scholars call “Common Judaism,” – a time period in which a familiar system to all Jews was in place. This is the time period that the Qumran sectarians distinguished themselves from the “common Jew,” and from which Christians would also come to distinguish themselves. “Common Judaism,” as already indicated, had a major emphasis on ritual purity; so I find it to be a foundation for understanding both Qumran and Christianity.
What’s also important, especially for early Christianity, was the importance of ritual purity in the Greco-Roman society. I did not realize this before, but apparently it was extremely important to the average pagan to be cleansed with water in a ritual purity act before dealing with “sacred” things (i.e. entering temples). This requires an explanation also, but I won’t get to that until after I’ve explained both Judaism and Qumran; Greco-Roman purity pertains a little more to early Christianity than to Qumran.
My tentative outline for this series is as follows; Judaism’s ritual purity, Qumran’s ritual purity, Greco-Roman paganism’s ritual purity, and finally Christianity’s baptism. Looking through both my papers, it should be between 8 and 10 posts, but we’ll see. I may add more or take some parts out. Nevertheless, I’m actually excited (in a nerdy sort of way) to revisit what I’ve spent 10 weeks studying to share with those who might not be otherwise interested in this material. Baptism is so incredibly important in Christianity (and religions throughout) and I’m not sure if we’ve really understood that level of importance. Heck, even after immersing myself in this stuff for an entire term, I’m not sure I fully grasp the stuff.
Finally, at any point please comment on the blog if you have any questions about this stuff. I recommend doing so specifically through the blog site so that other people may ask questions about your questions; essentially I would like a central location for any possible discussions. You can “like” it on Facebook (or on WordPress, too), but I’d prefer comments to be on the site itself. I really hope all those who read enjoy the material as much as I have. It makes for a greater thirst of God’s knowledge.