Once again, I’ve taken a long break from this series (this time, two months), but I hope to finish them off by the end of this summer. If you haven’t read (or would like to re-read) any of the previous posts, here they are: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, & Part 4. Feel free to ask questions and/or make comments.
Comparisons between the Qumran Community and John the Baptist aren’t that difficult to make. Both were related with Jewish priests in a unique way; both seemed to have a large age-gap between parents and children; both were located in the wilderness (possibly very close to each other); both ministry’s were based on Isaiah 40:3; and both practiced – in a unique way – immersions (Ferguson, 87). And as I discussed in my papers, both believed that their practice of ritual immersion was a part of their ministry to usher in God’s eschatological kingdom.
What was different? Quite simple: Qumran’s immersions were repeatable whereas John’s were not. With Qumran, as we’ve seen, there were three categories of immersion: Initiation, renewal, and purification. But with John’s baptism, it was once and only once. And yet even beneath that surface-level difference, it appears to have meant something different to each, as well.
Qumran’s immersion was a way of entering and then re-aligning oneself in the pathway of God. John’s baptism, which eventually became the model for Christian baptism, was a foreshadowing of the baptism to come; a one and done practice wherein one would enter the kingdom of God without needing to be ritually immersed once more. And yet the book of Acts contains an instance where John’s baptism is explicitly superseded by the baptism into Christ, but I’ll save that for a later post.
Both Qumran and John the Baptist utilize immersion in a central way to their overall movements, but with different purposes attached. Qumran’s was an important pathway-check to make sure each member wasn’t only studying the Torah, but strictly retaining purity as well. With John, though, purity was given in one act, “For the forgiveness of sins,” as Mark indicates (1:4). Perhaps a good way of looking at the comparison (though definitely not a perfect way) is to think of a sports team’s tickets throughout the season. Either you can buy an individual ticket for every game or you can buy a season pass. That’s sort of what the differences look like.
Yet it’s crucial to emphasize that both John and Qumran were intensely focused on genuine repentance. Neither would view the act of baptism as the redeeming factor; one’s heart and mind must be authentically in a repentant state. And it also wasn’t as if you could simply get baptized with a repentant heart and have that be the end of it. In both movements, following God’s commandments was an additional, crucial element to ushering in God’s kingdom.
Christian baptism followed John’s model of a one-time immersion, but added a major element with a major difference as to what was happening. It’s clear to me that both Qumran and John the Baptist believed something extreme was changing in their worlds and that they were playing a major role – especially within their immersion practices. And yet, Qumran thought that God’s kingdom would arrive through their movement – within their community. John believed that he was merely preparing the way for the One, Jesus.
In the next several posts, we’ll see how baptism is portrayed in the Gospels, NT letters, and even some non-canonical texts that discuss baptism’s role. In addition to all of that, the history of baptism in the pagan community stands out as something that the Christian baptism needed to distinguish itself from. And so we’ll look at the elements of Greco-Roman immersion.