After a month-long hiatus from baptism postings, I’ve decided to start them up again. Below is a condensed version of the second section of my Dead Sea Scrolls paper on ritual immersion. This is a long read, so I recommend you take it bit by bit. And as always, feel free to ask questions. Enjoy!
P.S. In case you haven’t yet read the other posts, here they are: Introduction, Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Below is Part Four and I’d recommend reading it a while before and/or after lunch… Just sayin’…
In order to see just how different the immersion practices at Qumran were, we must first understand the context surrounding the Dead Sea sectarians. During this time period (referred to as the “Second Temple time period” or “Second Temple Judaism,” which dates roughly from the 6th c. BC to the 1st c. AD), there was a great diversity of Jewish groups in and around Jerusalem and yet, there was something held in common. E.P. Sanders, a prominent figure in this field, calls this “Common Judaism.” To him, it was an era in which ordinary Jews “worked at their jobs, they believed the Bible, they carried out the small routines and celebrations of the religion, they prayed every day, thanked God for his blessings, and on the Sabbath went to the synagogue, asked teachers questions, and listened respectfully,” (Practice and Belief, 494).
A better way to understand Sanders’ words is to depict a group sitting around a camp fire. These people, all Jews, are from all over the Roman Empire sitting at this one camp fire. What Common Judaism asks is: Could there be common ground found amongst these Jews – even though they grew up in very different parts of the Empire? Or, specifically dealing with the Dead Sea Scrolls, could a regular Jew come across the practices at Qumran and understand what was going on? We come to find out that the existence of the Qumran sectarian depended upon a common understanding of Judaism.
To help outline what seemed to be common in regards to purity laws, I follow an outline given by Hannah K. Harrington in her book, The Purity Texts. Calling them the “Levels of Impurity,” she gives three main points: sources, contagion, and purification. Following these three points, we’ll see how the Yahad (“community”) distinguished themselves from “Common Judaism” in their ritual purification practices.
Although not a very popular read, Leviticus 11-15 outlines the main purity laws, which Jews in the Second Temple period made an emphasis to follow. From this section alone, we also see three main sources of impurity; death, leprosy, and bodily discharges. Sources of impurity at Qumran, however, have two more; excrement and outsiders. Rabbinic Jews regarded excrement as indecent (Deut. 23:12-14), but it wasn’t technically a source of impurity. Likewise for the treatment of outsiders; the Torah does not explicitly state that outsiders are impure, but as we shall see in certain scrolls, they certainly were treated as impure at Qumran.
Three major passages within the Hebrew Bible that highlight the indecency of excrement are; Deut. 23:12-14, Ezek. 4:12-14, and Zech. 3:3-4. It is likely these passages inspired the Qumran sectarians to regard excrement as impure, but what’s necessary here is the tone each of these sets. Deuteronomy requires Israelites to relieve themselves outside the war camp because God was present amongst the camp; excrement would be “indecent” in the eyes of God (v. 14). Ezekiel was commanded by God to eat bread baked on human dung, which repulsed Ezekiel on the grounds that his mouth had never been defiled. In Zechariah’s example, Joshua is standing before the Lord in a “filthy” garment and is changed into a clean one. It isn’t surprising for a common Jew to regard excrement as indecent, but the Community at Qumran went a step further.
Following the example from Deuteronomy, the Yahad had an area outside their camp designated for relieving oneself – and the only place to do so. And with a miqveh located at the entryway to the camp grounds, one who needed to relieve himself would go through the ritual purification process to re-enter back into the community, which seems to follow Zechariah’s story. Harrington says this designated area was located no closer than 4500 feet from the camp. Not only is that a long walk, but on Sabbaths, one could not walk more than 3500 feet (4Q265: 7), which means no one relieved themselves on the Sabbath (that’s when I’d stop being part of the Yahad, I think).
According to the Torah, Gentiles were allowed to live amongst the Israelites, but the daughters descending from Canaan were forbidden as wives to the Israelites. This was not for the sake of purity, but rather the belief that Canaan’s daughters were thought to persuade the sons of Israel into idolatry. This is possibly the influence for the Qumran Community to regard all Gentiles as inherently impure. The Damascus Document says that no member of the Community could send a Gentile to do his business on the Sabbath (11:2); spend the Sabbath near pagans (11:14); or sell animals, slaves or produce to Gentiles (12:8-11). And yet, as Harrington carefully points out, “Jews [were still] admonished by the Scrolls not to treat Gentiles unfairly so as not to give them a reason to blaspheme the God of Israel (12:6-8),” (Purity Texts, 114).
With two additional sources to the original list, the Scrolls indicate that the Qumran sectarians had a sort of “better safe than sorry” theme in their day-to-day conduct. An example that might shed a little light onto what this might have looked like comes from Luke 11: 37-38; “While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner.” And yet, the Qumran sectarians weren’t about sheer avoidance from impurity; there was a purpose, a direction they had within all of it.
In regards to ritual purity, contagions are not the same as sources. According to the Leviticus chapters on purity laws, sources rendered one impure while contagions were whatever that impure person touched or came into contact with in that state of impurity. If someone had come into contact with death, they would be considered impure as well as everything they touched (clothes, household objects, other people, etc.). In Common Judaism, a dead man’s house was considered impure along with everything in it – except for sealed containers (i.e. food or wine). But at Qumran, such a qualification did not matter; sealed or not sealed, if it was in the man or woman’s house, it was impure.
Along with a more extreme treatment of contagious objects and items, the Temple Scroll indicates certain camps designed to house the impure; “And in every city you will make places for those afflicted with skin disease, plague, or a scall who are not to enter you[r] cities and defile them,” (11Q19 48:14-15a). Ian Werrett says these quarantine camps would include “those with skin diseases, bodily discharges, women who were menstruating, and those who had recently given birth,” (Ritual Purity and the DSS, 153-154). The hemorrhaging woman in the Synoptic Gospels, if a part of the Essenes, would never have been healed; she would never have been allowed to leave her quarantined spot.
As was already indicated in Part Three, repentance would make or break the sectarian’s experience and pursuit of purity. In many ways, it was the added element that truly enabled one to enter the “highway” preparing the entrance for God into the world. To the Qumran Community, ritual purity was not a system to be worked; it was a lifestyle to be lived. It was a gradual alteration of identity hinged upon one’s repentant heart and mind. As some scholars have speculated, the group at Qumran was out in the wilderness partially due to what they believed as the erroneous treatment of the Temple by the chief priests and “seekers of smooth things,” which was a rhetorical way of referring to the Pharisees (4Q169). Practicing ritual purification intertwined with a repentant heart and mind was everything to the Community at Qumran. As Harrington says, “[W]ithout repentance, immersion was meaningless,” (Purity Texts, 23).
Here is where we begin to see the similarities within Qumran’s literature and the personality of John the Baptist – as depicted in all the Gospels. I’ll save this comparison for the next post on baptism, but what’s important here is the emphasis on the necessity of a repentant mindset and state of heart before ritual immersion could affect anything in a person’s purity. Unlike the Rabbinic Jews, who sought to “interpret the gaps in Scripture [in order to create] a workable system,” the Qumran community saw purity as more than a system; it was the pathway to God’s kingdom (Harrington, Impurity Systems, 115). And this pathway required an “upright and humble condition of the heart during immersion,” (Pfann, 2).