On Being a Seminarian: Reminder of Purpose…

This is part of a weekend series I’m writing for Near Emmaus. Be sure to check out other posts by other bloggers, especially if you’re interested in biblical studies.

In my first post for Near Emmaus, I had talked about the Dead Sea Scrolls class I had taken. In that post, I was focusing on nuance and how one little shift in interpretation meant the difference between Qumran and Christianity. I had discussed the impact of that little nuance and how I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that class and my research papers. Well, as the semester went along, I had completely forgotten that post and why I do what I do.

Thursday, through a Qumran lecture, I was reminded about why I am in seminary. I’ve known the practical reason: to earn a Master’s degree to hopefully get into a PhD program at some point in the hopefully-near future. But the purpose as to why that even matters – the reason behind attending seminary in the first place – is not always easy to remember. My unwritten research papers are coming due, reading assignments are not even halfway from completion, and summer plans are mildly distracting. In all of this, I had lost sight of that moment as an undergrad.

So when my professor, Roger Nam, started talking about the site of Qumran with all the miqva’ot and giving a brief history of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery, all of my current stresses were forgotten. Instead, I was realigned with the ancient world (well, as much as one’s imagination could be, anyway), exploring the significance of living in a relatively isolated community, and wondering how different Jesus’ movement was from the many of his time.

There’s no guarantee that this little reminder will help me finish my work efficiently and on time, but I am at least re-awakened to what initially drew me in. So in this short post, I want to ask what makes you do what you do? What was it that launched your interest in biblical studies, theology, language, or whatever it is that you’re interested in? Is that purpose driving you now?


On Being a Seminarian: Power of Nuance…

This is my first post as a part of Near Emmaus. Feel free to view it there or view other posts by the other bloggers.

Three years ago around this same time I was in Eugene finishing up my final year at the University of Oregon. Since my final two required courses I needed for my communication studies minor weren’t offered until the spring, I was spending the winter term taking a couple electives from Dr. Daniel Falk. One was Early Christian Religion and the other was Dead Sea Sectarian, an area of expertise for Falk.

In both classes we were required to write 10-12 page research papers and the topics were relatively open-ended. For an English major who was used to one or two prompts to choose from for a 4-5 page argumentative essay, finding a topic was a bit of a challenge. However, after reading the Community Rule from the Dead Sea Scrolls, something caught my eye:

“And when these become members of the Community in Israel according to all 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,’ [Isa. 40:3]. 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.” – Column VIII, lines 14-17 (about)[1]

Recognize anything – particularly from Isaiah? This same exact verse is found in the Gospels: Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:2-3; Luke 3:4; and John 1:23 (John’s own version, of course). However, the Gospels obviously interpret this verse differently. Instead of beginning a new community out in the wilderness, it is John who is already in the wilderness “crying out.” And instead of launching God’s movement through a stronger devotion to the Sinaitic Law (“by the hand of Moses”), it was announcing the arrival of Jesus, the Christ.

Such a slight variation in interpretation is a prime example of what’s called “nuance.” Regular readers of Near Emmaus probably know this word quite well, but for the newcomers (kind of like myself), its literal definition is “a subtle difference or distinction in expression, meaning, response, etc.”[2] This particular nuance in utilizing Isaiah 40:3, the focal point for both my research papers that winter term, was what really piqued my interest in the academic side of seminary – and in the world of biblical literature beyond the Bible. Barely over one semester into George Fox, I find myself fully immersed into that academic world.

Yet, and I imagine many have similar stories from their respective seminaries, I have also found nuances in the spiritual side of life here. Hearing all the stories I have from my classmates, I often find myself amazed at the diversity of life experiences that brought everyone here. Many of them similar; not quite satisfied with the “real world,” so trying their hand at something more fulfilling to them. And yet there is such rich flavor in their various ways of perceiving their world.

I mentioned something along these lines in my reflection over fall term at George Fox; that my perspective isn’t yours and that our real challenge in the midst of such diversity is to find the beauty in each other’s point of view, each other’s nuance. Whether it be the text of Scripture or our own personal stories, the power of nuance – of a slight, subtle difference in expression – speaks volumes to the expanse (and complexity) of our God. And what’s driving my studies through my second semester (coincidentally enough with two 10-12 page research papers, also) is every little nuance I find. They’re kind of like breadcrumbs.

Tomorrow I’ll share a few notes from my class’ discussion of Paul and the nuances in the way he uses “law.” I’ve already begun that series over on my own blog, but I’ll share that post here as well.

What are some nuances you’ve discovered in your own studies? Your community? How have they guided your life?

[1] Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Penguin Classics, 2004), 109

[2] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/nuance?s=t (emphasis mine)

Dutch Uncles: Why We Need Them & Why We Need to Be Them…

My first short story received a “D” in my Creative Writing class two and a half years ago.

My first argumentative essay in Writing 121 received an “F” my freshman year.

And yet here is my 227th blog post.

“Dutch Uncle” is a term referring to a person who tells it like it is. It’s someone who doesn’t beat around the bush or make your mistakes look not that bad. They tell you your flaws and why they’re considered “flaws,” but without overlooking your strengths.

When I received that “F,” I turned off my TV, opened my laptop, and got to work on a better paper. And when I received that “D,” I closed my door, tuned everyone and everything out until I was so enthralled with the story I was writing, so lost in a world I was creating, I didn’t even notice I had stayed up all night.

We might not like our Dutch Uncles, but we know we need them. Why? Because when someone tells you you’re doing great and treats you like you’re some gift to mankind, you never become inclined to make any changes. But when someone tells you your argument is circular or your story is “pathetically cliché,” you wake up to your own humanity.

I miss college for a number of reasons, but one in particular is that when you had an idea or something you wanted to argue, you were expected to handle and rebuttal the criticism. In my Dead Sea Scrolls class, Dr. Falk had told us a story of a famous scholar he had the privilege of meeting. This guy was at the top of the field and then one day, he found out he had terminal cancer. It was right before he was supposed to give a presentation at some huge conference.

As these conferences go, Dr. Falk informed us, each speaker would present their argument as clearly and as concisely as possible and then open the floor for critiques and discussion. Everyone in the room knew this man had received a grim diagnosis. I for one would have expected his peers to take it easy and praise him for whatever work he had done. But even though he had months to live, his peers gave him what they knew he deserved: Their full criticism. Every single hole in this man’s argument was ripped open until tears began to fall from his eyes. When asked why, he said they gave him their full respect when they were expected not to.

My point is this: People who tell us the truth are far more valuable than those who like to agree with every thing we ever say, write, or do. They move us forward because they reveal to us the areas in our life that need improvement. Sure, someone could commend us for 9 things and then criticize us for 1, but quite honestly, I would pay more attention to the person who shows I’m wrong for 9 different things. And why is that? Because a Dutch Uncle looks beyond someone’s pride and right into what they’ve done – what they’ve produced.

My writing was changed forever with those two terrible grades I received in college. In those situations, someone had sat me down and told me that what I created was not much better than garbage. Believe me, it stung – especially the creative writing professor. I left that conversation wondering if I should have even continued on with college. But I came out of that class not only with a decent grade, but with a greater focus, a greater attention to the details within my stories, and a greater desire to write a better story than the one I had written the day before.

When it comes to our spiritual lives, we need that somebody who calls us a hypocrite when we’re being hypocritical; arrogant when we’re being arrogant; and reckless when we’re being reckless. In the ten years I’ve lived this Christian life – or at least tried to – I can think of countless people who have praised me for one thing or another. And oftentimes, I needed the encouragement. I didn’t have much of that growing up. But I think I grew the most with Christ when a few people told me I wasn’t living like Him. Sadly enough, most of those people were non-Christians.

Calling someone out for their flaws or failures takes some guts. And ideally, it’s best if a constructive – not a “kiss ass” or a destructive – tone is used. But even if someone’s condescending in their criticism of you, you still learn from it. When an old manager of mine, in a condescending tone, told me I was the slowest pizza cook he had ever seen, I made sure I picked up the pace the next time I was in the kitchen. I eventually left because I could not put up with the manager for the long haul. But I’ve never been lackadaisical on the job again.

“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently,” – Galatians 6:1

I think we Christians oftentimes focus too much on “gently” that we don’t end up restoring each other. Paul didn’t want sin to be minimized; it’s pretty clear throughout each of his letters he absolutely despised sin. This is exactly why he didn’t coddle anyone. So when it comes to a popular YouTube video that has misleading sentiments or a famous pastor has an abusive personality, do not be afraid to be a Dutch Uncle. And if you need some practice, the person in the mirror is a good place to start.

God bless.

P.S. Just to be clear, Dr. Falk wasn’t the one with a terminal illness; it was someone he knew. Don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. Dr. Falk is doing very well living in the UK right now.

Thoughts on Mars Hill and Andrew…

I deliberately waited several days to give my thoughts on Matthew Paul Turner’s posts about Mars Hill and a guy named Andrew. I knew that if I were to write something immediately after reading those posts (Part 1 & Part 2), I would not be very nice to Mars Hill or Mark Driscoll. Even in my tweets and Facebook posts, I wasn’t very gentle with my language. But it’s been almost a week since I read the first post, so I’ve had a little time to cool.

First off I need to say that with a church community as large as Mars Hill is, I think there ought to be codes of conduct in place from which the leadership staff can effectively protect and serve the congregants. If someone comes across as seemingly reckless with their lifestyle, I think the leaders and elders ought to go out of their way to protect everyone else while ministering to that individual as best as possible. Honestly, I’d rather read a story about how Mars Hill kicked someone out than about how someone was either raped or murdered in one of their community groups. All of this to say, I commend Mars Hill on erring on the side of caution.

And yet, I think they still erred in handling this particular situation. No, I don’t know Andrew or anyone from Mars Hill so I can’t tell you whether or not they erred in understanding the actual situation. But there was a certain passage of Scripture used to justify what “Pastor X” deemed “church discipline”:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” – Matthew 18:15-17

Several things pop up given the story from Matthew Turner’s blog: 1. Andrew sinned against his fiancé, not “Pastor X,” 2. The matter between her and him was handled appropriately (he went to his community group leader and then a pastor as an act of repentance), 3. “Tell it to the church” apparently meant describing Andrew’s “sins” to the entire Mars Hill Church instead of only Andrew’s community group, and 4. “Gentile and a tax collector” apparently meant excommunication – or, rather, leaving Mars Hill “not in good standing.”

That last point is probably the biggest one I noticed, but I didn’t know why initially. After some time spent in Matthew 18, though, I started picking up on what Jesus was actually saying here. To get there – and to see just how powerful of a statement Jesus is making – we need to back up.

In the ancient Jewish context, Gentiles were allowed to reside within the Israelite community. In fact, when discussing “outsiders” or non-Israelites, the Torah gives no indication that they are to be banned from the community, unless inherently impure (i.e. a leper). In Deuteronomy 7:1-4, we see a ban against marriages with the seven Canaanite nations, but, as Hannah Harrington points out, “[not] on account of ritual impurity; rather, it is on account of idolatrous influence,” (Purity Texts, 112). This is the heart of the Torah, mind you.

In the Second Temple time period, which is when Jesus lived and died, we see much more animosity towards Gentiles.

“The Torah labels idolatry, and, in particular, Molech worship, ‘impure,’ but Jubilees extends this impurity from the practice of idolatry to the idolater, i.e. the Gentile. […] Jews begin to avoid not only contact with the sin but with the sinner. Physical consequences now apply for mere contact with Gentiles, not just for participation in their idolatry. People, not just principles and behavior, are considered impure.” – Harrington, 113.

The Community at Qumran takes this theme of treating the Gentile as an impurity and makes rules governing interaction with them: Not allowed to send a Gentile to do a Jew’s business on the Sabbath; cannot sell clean animals, servants, or agriculture to Gentiles; and they definitely could never accept a sacrifice from Gentiles. If there was any social interaction with a Gentile, the Community member must immediately ritually purify himself and remain “impure” until sundown.

Now that we see a common mentality toward the non-Jew, we can hopefully see just how bold Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:17 are, “Let him be to you a Gentile and a tax collector.” Why is it so profound? Because He used the same language as many of the Jewish sects, but completely inverted its meaning. When someone said “Treat them like a Gentile” it didn’t mean “heal them” (Matt. 8:5-13). And if you were to treat them like a tax collector, you most certainly would not eat dinner with them (Matt. 9:10). And yet Jesus did both of these things. His words in Matthew 18:17 have such a weight because he turned the meaning around: “Don’t throw them out; love them.”

Again, I appreciate the fact that this particular pastor within the leadership of Mars Hill sought to protect the rest of the congregation. But when using Matthew 18 as a justification to amp up punishment and discipline over someone seemingly errant in their ways, I am compelled to adamantly disagree. “Treat them like a Gentile” can no longer mean, “treat them as if they weren’t a part of the congregation.” Instead, it means, “Welcome them in all the more.”

For what is Scripture’s definition of love?

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,” – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Mars Hill’s response to Andrew’s errors was not acting in love. They were not patient, they were not kind. They sought their own agenda instead of Christ’s commandments. They kept a record of Andrew’s wrongs and even made it public. And they neither trusted nor hoped in Andrew and his walk with Christ. Jesus wants a church set apart from the legalistic mindset – a church different from the religions of the world.

Mark Driscoll seems to have little to do with the whole situation, but really, those protocols from which “Pastor X” operated are only in place because of Driscoll. He theologically beats people down until they submit, which is exactly what “Pastor X” sought to do with Andrew. Thankfully, though, Andrew would not submit.

I used to have a ton of respect for Driscoll and Mars Hill. I liked what they were about and I thought they were truly bringing Christ into the world. And maybe they still are. But Andrew’s story is an indication that there might be another agenda added in. It seems as though they want people to believe in Christ, but only if they agree with every word of Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe. I am hoping and praying that something dramatically changes – especially with Mark Driscoll’s ego. But I’m also praying for Andrew as he seeks to follow Christ within a truly loving community.

Being “set apart” means loving when no one else will. It means going the extra mile, giving the extra dollar, and refusing to give up on someone – even if they’ve already given up on themselves. If there is ever one doctrine to believe in, it’s this: To live as Christ commanded in light of what He did. Treat the tax collector just like He did; have dinner with him. And treat the Gentile like He did; help to heal him.

God bless.

P.S. For another response to Mars Hill & Andrew’s story, please read Kurt Willems’ post: Treat Them Like a Tax Collector: Reflections on Matthew 18, Church Discipline, and Andrew

Christ, Calvin, and Canons…

Something stirred in my mind today after reading a post from a blogging friend. It was about John Calvin and his reasoning behind narrowing the Catholic canon of 73 books to 66, which is the number most Protestant evangelicals accept today (like upper 90 percentile). What was Calvin’s reason? As Brantly points out, it was because of “the testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit.”

Brantly goes on to make a very valid point; that modern day Protestants would not accept this as a valid reason for either adding in new books to the current 66 canon or taking a few out, much like those who disagreed with John Calvin. Going along this same logic – that is, “the testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit” – what do we do today?

Do we simply tag along with the majority of Protestant evangelicals who never question the canon of their Bible simply because, if we don’t, we’ll be deemed “heretics”? Or do we follow this same logic of John Calvin and determine for our own communities and our own individual selves a canon that best teaches Jesus’ Gospel and God’s ways? Or, though many might disagree with us, do we do away with canons entirely?

Essentially, Brantly’s post got me thinking about what a canon – that is, a standard collection of texts that teaches God’s ways and Jesus’ Gospel – actually means. How has my faith been shaped by the 66-book canon I’ve been raised under and have always assumed? What would it look like if certain books were removed or added? Would Jesus still look the same? Would I appreciate the Gospel message more or less?

Tons of questions flood my mind when I reconsider the canon of Scripture for most evangelicals today. I’ve learned quite a bit from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, and other non-canonical texts, so what separates any of those texts from being considered part of a modern-day canon? One of my friends told me awhile back that the other Christian writings that didn’t make it into the New Testament weren’t inspired by God. But how do we know? Must they be written by an Apostle? Many New Testament letters probably weren’t written by any of the Apostles (Hebrews doesn’t even have a named author!), so are we to reject those as well?

When considering the removal of any relatively-prominent doctrine in Christian theology, it’s tough to figure out what things would look like without it. And I think that’s our problem. We want things to be figured out and set straight in order to move forward. But faith often does not have straight and clear roads. There are bends, twists, and turns. Heavy fog frequently clouds our path before us – so much so that we’re driving terribly slow, always watching where the white lines bend. And yet all the while we forget who’s driving our car: God.

There is an episode of How I Met Your Mother where Marshall struggles to accept his father’s passing. He reflects back to times when he was a kid riding along with his dad in his car and how he marveled at his dad’s ability to keep driving even though Marshall couldn’t see a single thing in front of them. He remembers always feeling safe with his dad at the wheel. In a very similar way, God is in the driver’s seat of our faith. If we truly trust in Him, then He won’t ever steer us wrong – even if our canon of Scripture looks different.

For the past week I’ve been going on a Gospel binge; reading through the Gospels in sequential order in a short amount of time. Right now I’m nearing the end of Mark, but in chapter 7, Jesus says something quite interesting. Quoting Isaiah 29:13, He says, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men,” (7:6-8).

Contextually speaking, Jesus was ridiculing the religious leaders for adhering to their own traditions above the commandments of God, which forsook the commandment of honoring one’s father and mother. But what are the traditions of our religious leaders today? Inerrancy, canonicity, infallibility, sola scriptura – there’s a whole list of them. Are we forsaking our “faith” in God for a faith in “the commandments of men”?

In general, the current canon is helpful. I certainly would not have known the Gospel of Jesus without it. But I think there’s a difference between “helpful” and “authority.” Scripture (the current 66-book Bible) is helpful for describing who God is and what He is like and for teaching His ways. But I would have to say, following Calvin’s logic, that God (through the “inward illumination” of His Holy Spirit) is the ultimate authority to whom I must give an account. Scripture teaches me God’s ways so that my account, assuming I follow them, may be pure and blameless. But I don’t think God cares too much about what our canons look like, as long as we’re living out the love of Jesus and trusting Him in our driver seats.

Still a Student…

“You’re a gentleman and a scholar,” the man told me as I handed him his pizza, 2 liter of Pepsi, and side of chicken strips and potato wedges (a.k.a. “jo-jos”). I awkwardly said, “You, too,” and turned around to my delivery car.

Ever since that night back in high school, I’ve always been intrigued by that phrase – mostly that last word, “scholar.” In my time in college, I came across this word quite a bit and I began to treat this word with a high regard: It’s not just a “student” of one subject or another, but rather a well-educated student – one who could easily teach classes on that particular subject.

What I find interesting, though, is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a professor or anyone with a PhD. It could be a college graduate or maybe even a high school graduate – anyone who is knowledgeable in a particular subject beyond the average person. Strangely, this hit me on my way home from Starbucks tonight.

I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I’ve gotten used to saying, “I’m not a student anymore.” Every time I’ve said this, though, it’s been in reference to how I’ve just graduated and am no longer a student at U of O. By definition, though, I could theoretically be considered a “scholar” if given the right topic in the right setting. Not that anyone would call me such a thing; I’d prefer it if they wouldn’t. But by the definition of the word it could happen.

I really don’t want it to, though.

Why? Because I don’t think I would be learning very well if I was teaching. Some people can still learn as they teach; those are probably the better teachers. But I know that for myself, I often have the tendency of sticking to my own opinion if given the platform of “teacher.” Not to say that I would always stick to my own knowledge and never learn anything. But if constantly referred to as a teacher, my own learning capabilities would be severely hindered.

One definition of “scholar” actually does mean “student,” but how we’ve come to use the term throughout the years, it’s usually referring to someone with a particular expertise in a specific subject. For instance, one of my favorite professors, Dr. Daniel Falk, is considered a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, but even then it’s too broad. His expertise is even more refined than that; his focus is on the liturgical texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But if you wanted a lecture on the New Testament and how it came to be, he could still give you ten lectures on the Gospels alone.

His knowledge in many biblical studies subjects is beyond that of the average person. In more ways than one, he’s a “scholar.” But the cool thing about Dr. Falk – what makes him a great teacher – is that he doesn’t stop learning. He’s not the only one, no; I’ve had a handful of professors quite like him. I just use him as an example because in the two seminars I had with him last winter, I could really see his desire to learn.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I never want to stop learning. I never want to become so “knowledgeable” in a particular subject that I stop letting my opinions be reworked and challenged. Francis Bacon once said, “Knowledge is power,” but I think knowledge loses its power if it stays the same. If nothing is added to it or redeveloped within it, then I think whoever possesses it will become nothing more than another book on the shelf. Books, unlike people, do not change once published.

What does my degree mean, then? Shouldn’t it mean that I’ve learned all one can learn and is now able to turn around and teach the current students? No. It means I’m now a professional student – equipped with the proper skills and know-how to continue asking questions and seeking out answers. What my degree means to me is that I have a set of skills that allows me to never stop learning.

I may not have anymore assignments, quizzes, or exams, but that does not mean I can’t still be a student. It does not mean I can’t still be studying certain subjects into the late hours of the night. It doest not mean that I must now put down the pencil, turn off the laptop, or close the book. It means I must do all of those things in any direction I choose.

Christian Baptism Part 1: John the Baptist…

“The Jews asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie,’” – John 1:25-27

Baptism carried a great deal of significance in Jesus’ time. Notice, though, that “the Jews” aren’t questioning John because he is baptizing, but because he’s not “the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet.” They don’t ask him, “Why are you dunking people in water?” This indicates to me that somewhere along the way the practice of baptizing people became the norm.

John the Baptist has stood as a seemingly-pivotal character in Christianity; he’s the forerunner for Christ – clearing the paths for Him, so to speak. The Gospel authors interpreted Isaiah 40:3 as speaking of John (while the small sect of Essenes located at Qumran interpreted this verse for themselves and their movement); “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” To the Gospel authors, John was a game-changer.

But what does his baptism mean? Can Christianity exist without it? Does John the Baptist even need to be a historical character in the Christian narrative? These are questions that drove most of my research for my Early Christianity class last winter. When it came time to write my paper, I didn’t get to talk much about John or his baptism since I was more focused on Christian baptism as a whole. But looking back over what I’ve studied, what I’ve written, and what I’ve read since last winter, I would have to say that John the Baptist is a fascinating character in Christianity.

Gerd Theissen offers interesting thoughts about John:

“His baptism is a symbolic action. And implicitly it has a political significance. If all Jews have to have themselves baptized again, the whole land is threatened with uncleanness. Here the question of cleanness is pointedly blown up – against a ruler who blatantly violated the commandments relating to cleanness in building his capital. John’s criticism of [Herod] Antipas’ marital politics also fits this picture. For Jewish marriage laws had been violated in this marriage. Here John the Baptist was merely articulating a widespread hostility to rulers who were increasingly alienating themselves from Jewish traditions,” – Pg. 35

To the Gospel authors, John’s baptism was something more than a political statement or a symbolic action; it was the ushering in of God’s kingdom. It was clearing the way for Jesus. But historically speaking, as plenty of scholars have discussed, John the Baptist and Jesus may have never had any contact with each other whatsoever. This idea is shocking to the average Bible-believing Christian, but hypothetically speaking, the Gospel authors could have adopted John and his baptism into the narrative of early (or as Theissen likes to say, “primitive”) Christianity. The encounters we see in the Gospels may have been creative insertions into the historical facts in order to get at the deeper picture: Many thought John was the Messiah or that his baptism was powerful; but Jesus supersedes him.

If it had been the center of my research paper, I would have argued that John didn’t need to be “preparing the way” for Jesus; He could have believed that he was waiting for someone else and Jesus surprised him as well. Case in point, re-read Matthew 11:2-3; “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” Many interpret this as John simply doubting his earlier convictions about Jesus (especially if we take Luke 1:41-44 as historically true), but what if he was discovering for the first time, here in Matthew 11 (or in Luke 7:18-35) that Jesus was the Messiah he had been waiting for all along? It changes things a little, doesn’t it? It describes John the Baptist with a little more humanity than what we might have been taught in Sunday school, doesn’t it?

Then what meaning can be found in his baptism if he had little or no communication with Jesus? If he was unaware that he was “preparing the way” for Jesus, then what good is his baptism? Mark’s Gospel (believed to be the earliest of all the Gospels – except for maybe Q, but that’s for another post) gives a pretty clear description of why John was baptizing: “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (1:4). Much like his Jewish relatives at Qumran, John was enacting a symbolic action of repentance.

What does it mean, though, for Christianity? I think it means quite a bit: It was the model early Christians used to signify their death with Jesus (and to their sins) and rise to life with Jesus (and receiving the new life of the Holy Spirit). Of course this took a long time to get worked out in Christianity because we religious folk like to disagree on a lot of things, but without the model of John’s baptism of repentance, it may not have had much of an affect for the early readers to follow Christ. What I mean is, it’s quite possible that the early readers knew who John the Baptist was and if his work was interpreted as the beginning of Christianity, then the early followers might be much more convinced to follow.

I do not mean to imply that John the Baptist’s role in Christianity was entirely made up by the Gospel authors. John’s historicity is just as probable as Jesus’; Josephus talks (I think) more about John the Baptist than he does Jesus (he barely mentions Jesus). What I do mean to say is that John may not have had contact with Jesus and/or may not have believed Jesus was the Messiah he was prophesying about. Either way; John’s baptism was eventually done away with – even though it was the blueprint to Christian baptism.

Why was it done away with? Jesus had arrived. In John’s Gospel we see John the Baptist’s departure begin very early. Jesus had been teaching His disciples to baptize and happened to be doing so in eyesight of John. John’s disciples asked him why and he famously says, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” (3:30). To John the Gospel author, John the Baptist knew his time had come and his purpose was fulfilled.

And yet even to the author of Luke and Acts we see John’s baptism superseded by a baptism “into Christ.” In Acts 19:1-7, Paul encounters former disciples of John and says, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus,” and then proceeds to baptize them “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” (19:4-5). This is one passage I highlighted for discussion in my paper, so I’ll save most of the talk about it for the next post(s) (although, it’s worth pointing out that Paul never talks about this incident in his letters). But suffice it to say, when Jesus had died and then resurrected three days later, John’s baptism was no longer needed. It had served its purpose.

Theissen’s suggestion of political implications is still highly plausible. In fact, all of the elements discussed here (symbolism, political statements, allusions to Jesus, etc.) could be present in John’s baptism. I believe this is the beauty of the Scriptures we read; they’re so incredibly nuanced (layered in meaning) that they never run out of life. And I don’t think God intended them to, either.