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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Baptism Part 6: Immersions in the Greco-Roman World…

To read (or reread) the previous posts regarding baptism, here they are: Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. Please feel free to ask questions or leave comments on any of these posts.

Ritual purity was not an exclusively Jewish or Christian idea; paganism had a major emphasis on purity through immersion as well. As a friend commented on my last post, it was a way to keep the gods happy so that bad things wouldn’t happen. Newborn Christians in the ancient world, especially the Gentile Christians, had to come face to face with the surrounding pagan view of immersion. Much like separating from Judaism, Christianity now had to separate itself from paganism.

And yet, as discussed below, there was something unique about pagan rituals of immersion that one doesn’t necessarily find in Jewish immersions: washing for personal hygiene. Baptism within the Christian mythology and teachings needed to be interpreted as something more than a ritual and more than a simple bath. Everett Ferguson (the scholar who discusses quite a few similarities and differences between John the Baptist and Qumran) outlines 4 main points for Greco-Roman pagan washings: general usage for purification, washings in the mystery religions, bathing practices, and then a special case from mythology (25-37).

a.      General Usage for Purification

Ferguson notes that these washings were already so common in the Second Temple time period that little information exists that details how they were conducted. But basically, paganism within the Greco-Roman world believed immersions were necessary in order to be cleansed before entering a temple (i.e. the temple of Athena at Pergamum), after warfare, before handling sacred things (i.e. one’s hand-made idols), and/or in order to set oneself in a spiritual position to properly obtain an oracle. As I’ll discuss in later posts, Christian baptism appears essential in order to receive the Spirit of God.

b.      Washings in the Mystery Religions

While the Mysteries had similar themes to the Christian baptism (i.e. “ideas of forgiveness, rebirth after a mystic death, eternal life, and illumination,” – Ferguson 28-29) their immersion ritual usually was a preliminary preparation for the entire ceremony of initiation. I’ll get into this a little deeper later on, but it’s important to emphasize the preliminary aspect of the immersion ritual. The whole ceremony for initiations was usually concluded with a meal (which in and of itself was similar to the Christian Eucharist or communion, but that’s a topic for another post).

c.       Bathing Practices

In Roman society, as Ferguson notes, bathing was regarded as healthy and encouraged amongst the Roman men. The “ritual,” as he suggests was as follows; “The typical order of the baths was a warm bath, a hot bath, and a cold plunge, and the baths had separate rooms for each: the tepidarium [tepid’ water], the caldarium [hot water], and the frigidarium [‘frigid’ water],” (35).

d.      A Special Case from Mythology

Of the four points from Ferguson’s outline, I found this one most interesting, especially in regards to the baptismal idea of complete immersion. Thetis, the goddess of mother of Achilles, dipped him in the River Styx in the underworld in order to make him entirely invulnerable. Where she held him at – and the only point on Achilles’ body that was not immersed in the water – was his heel, which implicitly stresses the importance of complete immersion. In John’s Gospel, when Jesus bends down to wash Peter’s feet, Peter cries out, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (13:9). It isn’t entirely clear whether or not this mythological example influenced the early Christian idea of full immersion, but it’s an interesting resemblance nonetheless.

This is the world surrounding Christianity when it emerged. As is the case on several levels of theology, immersion into water had to be redefined for the early Christian. If it wasn’t so very different from pagan or Jewish rituals, then the whole message of the gospel could have been disregarded. As I’ll discuss in the next couple of posts, the early Christian world had some difficulties in defining what baptism meant, but ultimately, it had to be more than a bath and more than a purity ritual. Christian baptism had to contain a key ingredient that superseded all other versions of immersion. As the NT makes clear, there is indeed such an ingredient: the Holy Spirit.