Baptism Part 1: Ritual Immersion in “Common Judaism”…

My first time reading the Bible was spent in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. I didn’t start with the New Testament at all; I started with the Torah. Thumbing back through those books, I realize now it’s a miracle that I even stuck with this Christian thing. Don’t know Moses ever realized this, but what he put down isn’t that exciting of a read.

Whether reading the Torah is boring or not, I have found it to be absolutely essential in order to truly understand the New Testament Scriptures. Having gone through the research from this past term has really opened up a lot of the New Testament; I get a better understanding of how Jesus’ not-washing-His-hands-before-He-ate thing was really kind of shocking. Granted, at the time of Jesus there were additional rules on purification, but those rules found their roots in Leviticus 11-15 or Numbers 19. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not you were sinning, but rather a matter of whether or not you were clean.

It’s important here to clarify what I mean by “clean.” In our 21st century world, “clean” is closely tied with sanitation. At work we wash all the dishes and pie pans so that customers are less likely to consume sickness-causing bacteria. We “clean” all the utensils for this purpose. But in the mindset of Jews in Jesus’ time, “clean” had spiritual connotations; not only was the physical dirt washed away, but it was believed that the spiritual dirt was also wiped out.

This spiritual dirt, though, did not just reside inside the person; it was believed to be outside the person as well. If someone had a bodily discharge, their clothes were rendered impure as well as anything they touched (Lev. 15). One’s uncleanness was also believed to affect the surrounding people as well, which is why many of the Pharisees and the religious leaders of the New Testament were repulsed by the impure; they believed they were in danger of being contaminated as well.

Ritual purity, as one may easily see, was an on-going process. In fact, it was practically daily. In “Common Judaism,” the era in which both Jesus and the community at Qumran were around, ritual purity was practically everything. Sure, theologies regarding the resurrection and what one believed about God were very important, too. But in order to be a part of those discussions, you were required to watch out for your purity. If you were deemed impure, you were required to go through the ritual process in order to regain the ability to discuss theology (or really anything else) with other people. No, it isn’t a commandment necessarily (it is at Qumran), but it makes common, practical sense. Religious leaders didn’t want to be impure or unclean, so if they were in close proximity with someone else who was unclean, then they’d avoid that person.

Just to get a sense of what I mean, I turn to Boaz Zissu and David Amit, archaeologists who specialize in the study of miqva’ot (immersion baths in ancient Judaism). They’ve outlined six different types of baths within two main categories: in-settlement ritual baths and other ritual baths. Under the in-settlement umbrella are domestic baths, public baths and public baths near synagogues. Domestic baths were located nearby houses and were probably used for purification after a bodily discharge, which includes a man’s seminal discharges and a woman’s menstruation cycle (as you might guess, this probably a frequently used bath). The public baths away from synagogues are located near villages and whatnot and were probably used by those who didn’t have their own at home and who couldn’t get to a synagogue bath. At Qumran, Zissu and Amit note, their public baths were intended for a “quick immersion of a large number of people,” which aligns with the Community’s annual renewal ceremony. But I’ll get there later.

The public baths located next to synagogues are interesting because there is nothing in the rabbinic traditions, as Zissu and Amit explain, requiring purity for entry into the synagogues. What has been suggested, though, was that these were used in order for various religious leaders to be purified before handling the sacred Scriptures – more of a precautionary measure. It didn’t matter whether or not they were impure; they just wanted to make sure they were pure before handling anything sacred. What these baths could have also been used for is, like the public baths away from the synagogues, anyone who didn’t have access to an immersion bath at home or in their home town.

Ritual baths located away from the settlements had three types as well; in agricultural locations (i.e. vineyards), along roadways intended for pilgrim-usage, and near graveyards. For the ones located in agricultural places, it’s possible these were utilized to ensure one’s wine or oil was prepared in purity so that nothing would be sold impure. Pilgrims in route to Jerusalem could have incidentally come into contact with something impure (i.e. a dead animal) and simply to ensure purity upon entry into Jerusalem, they were immersed in these baths. Grave sites were littered with the possibility of impurity. Coming into contact with the dead was the worst form of impurity to the common Jew. That’s why, when Jesus heals a demon-possessed man in the graveyard (Luke 8:26-33), you don’t see any religious leaders just walking around. They avoided the graveyards because they were too risky. These baths were there, though, to ensure one’s purity.

Studying through all the things that would make one impure often made me feel like taking a shower. The level of seriousness devoted to ritual purity in Common Judaism is already an intense level. But both early Christianity and the Qumran sectarian group had to find ways of differentiating themselves and their baptisms away from what was Common Judaism. Why? In order to be its own autonomous religion, it had to separate from the old, “mother religion” of Judaism, as Theissen notes. Qumran is a different direction because they were very much Jewish; they did not believe Jesus was the Messiah (assuming they even heard of Him) and therefore did not feel the need to be their own religion. However, they obviously felt the need to renew and revitalize the practices of the Torah as they should be rightly practiced. Both of these subjects, though, will be discussed in later posts.

What I advise for you, though, is – if you have the time – study up on the Torah, specifically the purity laws. Read Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19 several times slowly. They’re boring and very elaborate, but in order to truly get the sense of what both the Qumran baptism meant and the Christian baptism means, we need to know what the Torah requirements were. We need to know what Qumran and early Christianity were up against.


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“Do not mistake me for a conjuror of cheap tricks.”

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