Baptism Part 3: Ritual Immersion in the Dead Sea Scrolls…

Once I picked ritual immersion as a paper topic for my Dead Sea Scrolls class, I quickly discovered it’s a topic with a lot of material behind it. Specifically with the Dead Sea Scrolls and Qumran, there a number of different subjects to discuss. What was so different about immersion practices in the Dead Sea Scrolls (or at Qumran) than practices in “Common Judaism”? Are the pools discovered at Qumran clearly ritual baths or cisterns? Did John the Baptist come from this community? These are issues my paper discusses (some with more depth than others), but I think it’s important to highlight and outline the immersion practices at Qumran first, then begin the comparisons.

At Qumran, you didn’t just join the group as if it was a political party; you joined because you felt that this movement and only this movement was where and how God’s proleptic kingdom would enter into human history. Ritual immersion for Qumran, I argued in my paper, was the process in keeping this movement strong, clean and straight. If this community believed it was their studying of the Law that was the “path” or “highway” described in Isaiah 40:3, then ritual immersion functioned as the practice keeping that roadway clear. It was a renewal of one’s mind, refreshing of one’s ways, and readmission to the “path” of God.

There are three main categories in which immersion was implemented; initiation, annual renewal, and regular purifications. The first two were ceremonies that involved the whole community (1QS – The Community Rule) while the third was a similar version of the purification system in the Second Temple period (4Q274-276 – The Purity Texts). Below, I describe each category of immersion and then describe a little bit about the archaeology at Qumran.

a. Initiation

A scholar by the name of Stephen Pfann outlines four main stages in one’s initiation: application for admission, first probationary year, second probationary year, and then full membership acceptance. The whole process could have taken as short as three years or as long as six or seven years. It’s quite clear to many who read the Community Rule that the Qumran community was very thorough in their evaluation processes for accepting members. Can you imagine several job interviews for one job over the course of four or five years? Although, it wasn’t as if the Community was suddenly going to pay you; they would test you so thoroughly in order to see if you were a “son of light” (a member of the chosen ones of God).

An initial indication of one’s chosen-ness was one’s volunteering to become a part of the Community. Unlike the early Christians, members of Qumran did not go around seeking new members or sharing their beliefs with others; they regarded outsiders as impure, not as people they were required to help. Being accepted into this community began with an appeal to the “Guardian” or “Overseer” (1QS 6:13). This Guardian would then evaluate the initiate’s understanding, knowledge and deeds to determine if he had potential of being a “son of light.” If accepted, the Guardian would then teach the candidate in the ways and knowledge of the Community.

After roughly a year of instruction with the Guardian, the initiate would be brought before the whole Community (it’s possible during the Annual Renewal Ceremony, but uncertain). It would then become the entire Community’s decision to admit the initiate into their discipline and thereby begin the official process. A year later from that point (which brought about a deeper instruction into the discipline, but not a full instruction), he would be brought before the Community again and they would then decide if the initiate was ready for the next stage or needed either another year of the discipline or to be removed from the Community entirely.

During this first year of probation, the initiate was allowed to partake in the “pure meal” of the Community (1QS 6:16-17), but not the “pure drink.” If the Community approved for a second year (the next stage), then he would be allowed to partake in the “pure drink” as well. Also during this second year of probation, the initiate’s possessions were given over to the treasury, but kept apart from the rest of the Community’s belongings. It wasn’t until after this second stage that the initiate would attain full on membership, which meant he was now allowed to speak at communal gatherings and all of his possessions were mixed in with the rest of the Community’s. All throughout these stages, the initiate would partake in ritual purity practices and upon gaining full membership, was immersed as a way of initiation.

b. Covenant Renewal Ceremony

There is an interesting similarity between the reason and need for a covenantal renewal ceremony at Qumran and the language Paul uses in discussing the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32. Just as Paul exhorts the young Corinthians to “examine [themselves]” before partaking in communion, the annual renewal ceremony at Qumran had a major emphasis on self-examination. Additionally, however, was the element of commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, which was remembered during the end of the third month of the year.

What’s unique to Qumran (as opposed to regular Jewish festivals during the Second Temple Period) was how this ceremony took place. Each member would enter in according to his rank, blessings would be given over the righteous, and curses would be delivered for the unrighteous or unrepentant. And then, as some of the archaeological evidence suggests, the entire Community would be immersed almost at the same time.

c. Purification

Already existing in the Second Temple time period was a stringent, thorough practice of ritual purification. My next post will be a comparison of Qumran’s purification ceremonies with those of “Common Judaism” or the Second Temple time period, but essentially what we see at Qumran is an intensification of sources of impurity, contagions of impurity, and state of one’s intent during the immersion practice. As has already been noted above, repentance was a key element during any immersion practice; it was heavily emphasized during the purification process. Hannah K. Harrington (a purity-text scholar) notes that while ritual purity and moral purity were separate in “Common Judaism,” they were practically interchangeable at Qumran. I’ll discuss this more in the next post.

d. Archaeology

The ruins at Qumran have been known about and studied long before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Some studies date back to the early 19th century and throughout most of Qumran history, it’s been believed that the site was more of a fortress or look-out point than anything else. Ever since 1947, however, scholars have gone back and forth on how they view the small ancient village that probably housed no more than 200 people. For my paper, I assumed there was a direct connection between the Scrolls and Qumran, but that’s mostly because I don’t know enough to effectively argue otherwise (and my main topic wasn’t about the archaeology at Qumran) and partially because almost every scholar I read from had assumed the Scrolls-Qumran connection. Even so, it’s important to note that there is no black-and-white proof that these ruins are the same ones that housed the Yahad (“community”) in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

With roughly 10 or 11 ritual baths to study from, scholars note that there are key differences between the Qumran baths and the “Common Judaism” baths – baths that were found in and around the Judean Hills and the Land of Benjamin (see Part One). Jodi Magness, an expert in Qumran archaeology, notes that there were wide-based steps leading down into the immersion area. She indicates that this was due to the annual covenant renewal ceremony wherein all of the 200-some members would file in and out of the pool as an act of communal immersion. What she also notes is the varying heights of steps on each side; low steps on one side leading down and high steps on the other exiting the pool. This was probably to reflect the symbology of immersion; to enter impure and lowly and to exit pure and upright.

Not all of the pools at Qumran had this feature, but they’re still only found at Qumran (as far as I’ve ready, anyway). As she makes note of, there wasn’t an elaborate list of requirements for a miqveh in the Second Temple Period: plastered pool dug or hewn into the ground, steps that allow the bather to immerse without jumping or diving, and they must hold a minimum amount of undrawn water. This last point of undrawn water was a difficult one for archaeologists to grapple with for Qumran sits in the desert and there aren’t many free-flowing streams around. But pictured below is one of the many aqueducts used to funnel that running water to the Qumran community. And many believe this was enough for drinking water and ritual immersion practices.

Overview of the Ancient Community
Ruins at Qumran
Immersion Pool at Qumran
Immersion Pool at Qumran
Immersion Pool at Qumran
Immersion Pool at Qumran
How the Sectarians Survived
Aqueduct supplying the Pools

e. Summary

As you can see, this sectarian community was very serious about purity. A theme consistent throughout many of the unique, non-Biblical Scrolls is the belief that the priests in charge of practices at the Temple in Jerusalem were, in some way, flawed in their practice. It was so bad that the Community at Qumran would rather live out in the desert to practice the purity rites than deal with the priests and Levites of the Temple. Beyond being in the desert, though, the Community distinguished itself over and above “Common Judaism” in the mere treatment of purity. This is the subject for the next post.


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

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