Baptism Part 7: Introduction to Christian Baptism…

Baptism gets interesting when it’s brought to Christianity. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, ritual immersion plays a major role in the belief system and practice at Qumran. But in the New Testament, there is a rich diversity of what baptism means and how it’s practiced. It’s difficult – probably near impossible – to give one decisive meaning for baptism, which then makes it essential to look at each text in and of itself to see what possible meanings can be deduced.

In my paper I broke it down to five main spheres of influence: John’s baptism (which combines the various Gospel views), Paul’s baptism (drawing from Galatians 3:27-29 and Ephesians 4:5), Acts 19:1-7 (which is an interesting turning point in the Christian baptism), 1st Peter 3:21, and – since it was a discussion of early Christianity and not just New Testament Christianity – Didache 7, which probably has more of a philosophical interpretation than the others.

I really didn’t get to discuss these varying facets at any real length, just briefly highlighting one or two main points. But since I’m not trying to fit any 12-15 page limitation, I’m hoping to break open each of these more fully. Also, after writing two 13-page papers on people being dunked in water, I’ve noticed other verses and passages in the NT that offer an interesting view of baptism and I’m looking forward to discussing those as well.

Right now, my plan for this next set of posts is to implement Gerd Theissen’s thoughts mixed with a couple other scholars (Everett Ferguson, N.T. Wright, and others). Theissen’s book, The Religion of the Earliest Churches: Creating a Symbolic World, acted as the framework of thought for Dr. Falk’s Early Christianity class in the winter, so I thought it’d be interesting to present some of his main points and invite readers into some of the discussions we had as a class.

Since from here on out is a long discussion on Christian baptism, I think it’d be best to title this set of posts as such; “Christian Baptism.” Of course there will be references back to Qumran or Greco-Roman washing rituals to discuss certain similarities, but ultimately my focus will be on the New Testament books as well as some of the non-canonical books (books that, for one reason or another, didn’t make it into the New Testament).

Ultimately the goal is to see/discuss the formulation of Christian thought regarding baptism’s role in following Christ. Was it simply an initiatory rite or could an early Jewish-Christian still partake in purity rituals? Was it thought of as simply a metaphor or did one need to physically be baptized? In answering and/or discussing these questions, I’m hoping to read through the New Testament and relevant books to see the evidence with fresh eyes. As scholars indicate, we can’t look into the minds of the New Testament authors and know what they were thinking when they penned their letters/gospels. But what we can do is read the text for what it is and go from there.

As N.T. Wright says, though, it can’t simply be a discussion based on speculation and mystical fantasy; there must be some grounding in historical evidence. Currently I’m reading his book The New Testament and the People of God, which I hope will provide some historical insight that isn’t otherwise present in the New Testament. I’ll also borrow information from Bart Ehrman and his textbook, A Brief Introduction to the New Testament.

There isn’t much time left in the summer, so I’m hoping to milk it for all it’s worth. Once again, though, I open the floor to any who would like to share questions, thoughts, or possible conclusions on the various things I write. What drove both my religious studies classes last winter wasn’t a long series of lectures from Professor Falk (although I’d pay just as much for that as well). No, what drove those seminars were the class discussions. Students’ thoughts were shared, challenged, and refined and I’m hoping something similar happens through these posts.

***For all the previous posts on baptism/ritual immersion, please click here or the “Baptism” tab on the side.

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Ehrman’s Error…

My first experience with Bart Ehrman actually proved more positive than negative. Reading through Misquoting Jesus gave me a much different and brutally-honest perspective of the Biblical manuscripts we have – such a perspective that compelled me to dive much deeper into the study of Scripture. After reading Misquoting, I turned to his text book, A Brief Introduction to the New Testament, and received an even deeper education into the formulation of each book of the New Testament. In comparison to Misquoting, Ehrman’s text book was also much more balanced.

As a recent post of mine makes clear, inerrancy is not an essential doctrine for my faith in God and His Son, Jesus Christ. In fact, if anything, it dilutes Scripture for me – dulling it down to a mere book on doctrine and systematic theology rather than a unique, inspirational text that interacts with the divine God, Yahweh. From this standpoint, I gravitated (at least initially) towards Ehrman’s approach much easier than many of my friends might. But after reading the first chapter of his most recent book, Forged, I must say that Bart Ehrman has gone off his rocker.

If you’re unfamiliar with Ehrman, he’s gained much publicity for his controversial books: Misquoting Jesus; Jesus, Interrupted; God’s Problem; and finally Forged. While I haven’t read either Jesus, Interrupted or God’s Problem, I could easily detect throughout Misquoting an undertone of cynicism and bitterness towards Christianity. I detect an even more intense undertone in Forged. But that’s beside the point. What really ticked me off was certain moments in his new book where he’d mention something in passing that was completely subjective, but yet he wouldn’t back up his claim with the evidence. The premise of this new book is to see how the New Testament books were all (or at least mostly) deliberately forged by other names and not the names the books claim to. He claims “objectivity,” but fails to recognize his conclusions are completely subjective.

Ehrman does admit that this new book is not a thorough study of ancient forgeries. Be that as it may, as a “layperson,” I want evidence. If you’re going to make a claim such as “[W]e know of over a hundred writings from the first four centuries that were claimed by one Christian author or another to have been forged by fellow Christians,” you better have the objective evidence – that is, evidence not stilted by one’s own personal agendas when reading the text – to back it up. I personally believe that pure, untainted objectivity is extremely unlikely, bordering impossible. There always seems to be some deep root of subjectivity that has a major influence on how we read texts and formulate opinions. In a paper for one of my English classes, I called this natural-subjectivity our “literary goggles.” We all have them. Some are more obvious than others; while some are less. Ehrman’s literary goggles are laid out flat on the table in his introduction.

I really became frustrated with this book when I came across page 22. Ehrman says in passing, “The book of Hebrews was particularly debated; the book does not explicitly claim to be written by Paul, but there are hints at the end that the author wants readers to think that he’s Paul (13:22-25),” but does not back up this passing claim with any evidence nor does he refer to a later chapter where he might. And if you actually look up the passage in Hebrews, one is not clearly driven to Ehrman’s conclusions:

“I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. You should know that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom I shall see you if he comes soon. Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those who come from Italy send you greetings. Grace be with all of you.”

Pauline language? Yes. Author’s attempt at deceiving you? No – at least not “objectively” as Ehrman claims. It could well be a common way of communities writing back and forth. And, as Ehrman implies (he likes the word “intimate,” which basically means “imply”) in Misquoting, for all we know it could have been a later scribe thinking it was a Pauline letter and therefore added in something that would suggest it as so. It does not decisively mean the author of Hebrews was intending to mislead his audience. Not even close.

What really gets under my skin from this book is his self-contradiction at the end of chapter one. Presenting his case as seemingly-objective as possible, he then ends the chapter with this: “We simply can’t peer into their hearts and minds to see what they were thinking, deep down, when they decided to hide their own identity and to claim, deceitfully, that they were someone else,” (42). But wait a minute, if “[w]e simply can’t peer into their hearts and minds,” then how do we know they were deliberately being deceptive? How do we know that they intended to deceive their readers?

What Ehrman fails to acknowledge to the “layperson” is that the arguments and debates are much bigger than how he presents it. In discussing Ehrman two days ago, Dr. Falk (my favorite professor) said, “He’s still a fundamentalist – just from the other side. And he doesn’t seem to acknowledge it.”

Erhman’s error simply is making a strongly-subjective claim in the name of objectivity. As he says, we can never know what the New Testament authors intended with their writing. For all we know, they could be the names written on the cover. And even if they happen not to be, there isn’t conclusive, objective evidence to show they deliberately intended to deceive their readers for their own agendas. Ehrman cheats the “layperson” by not presenting the full argument; there are many more elements that go into textual criticism than what he has presented thus far. I may pull back my words a little as I read, but right now, I doubt it. Bart Ehrman has gone against what is true to authentic scholarship – even his own scholarship. His literary goggles have begun to blind him.