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.

Baptism Part 5: John the Baptist and Qumran…

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.

Baptism Part 4: Common Judaism and Qumran…

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.

Sources:

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.

Excrement

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).

Outsiders

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.

Contagions:

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.

Purification:

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).

Baptism Part 3: Ritual Immersion in the Dead Sea Scrolls…

Once I picked ritual immersion as a paper topic for my Dead Sea Scrolls class, I quickly discovered it’s a topic with a lot of material behind it. Specifically with the Dead Sea Scrolls and Qumran, there a number of different subjects to discuss. What was so different about immersion practices in the Dead Sea Scrolls (or at Qumran) than practices in “Common Judaism”? Are the pools discovered at Qumran clearly ritual baths or cisterns? Did John the Baptist come from this community? These are issues my paper discusses (some with more depth than others), but I think it’s important to highlight and outline the immersion practices at Qumran first, then begin the comparisons.

At Qumran, you didn’t just join the group as if it was a political party; you joined because you felt that this movement and only this movement was where and how God’s proleptic kingdom would enter into human history. Ritual immersion for Qumran, I argued in my paper, was the process in keeping this movement strong, clean and straight. If this community believed it was their studying of the Law that was the “path” or “highway” described in Isaiah 40:3, then ritual immersion functioned as the practice keeping that roadway clear. It was a renewal of one’s mind, refreshing of one’s ways, and readmission to the “path” of God.

There are three main categories in which immersion was implemented; initiation, annual renewal, and regular purifications. The first two were ceremonies that involved the whole community (1QS – The Community Rule) while the third was a similar version of the purification system in the Second Temple period (4Q274-276 – The Purity Texts). Below, I describe each category of immersion and then describe a little bit about the archaeology at Qumran.

a. Initiation

A scholar by the name of Stephen Pfann outlines four main stages in one’s initiation: application for admission, first probationary year, second probationary year, and then full membership acceptance. The whole process could have taken as short as three years or as long as six or seven years. It’s quite clear to many who read the Community Rule that the Qumran community was very thorough in their evaluation processes for accepting members. Can you imagine several job interviews for one job over the course of four or five years? Although, it wasn’t as if the Community was suddenly going to pay you; they would test you so thoroughly in order to see if you were a “son of light” (a member of the chosen ones of God).

An initial indication of one’s chosen-ness was one’s volunteering to become a part of the Community. Unlike the early Christians, members of Qumran did not go around seeking new members or sharing their beliefs with others; they regarded outsiders as impure, not as people they were required to help. Being accepted into this community began with an appeal to the “Guardian” or “Overseer” (1QS 6:13). This Guardian would then evaluate the initiate’s understanding, knowledge and deeds to determine if he had potential of being a “son of light.” If accepted, the Guardian would then teach the candidate in the ways and knowledge of the Community.

After roughly a year of instruction with the Guardian, the initiate would be brought before the whole Community (it’s possible during the Annual Renewal Ceremony, but uncertain). It would then become the entire Community’s decision to admit the initiate into their discipline and thereby begin the official process. A year later from that point (which brought about a deeper instruction into the discipline, but not a full instruction), he would be brought before the Community again and they would then decide if the initiate was ready for the next stage or needed either another year of the discipline or to be removed from the Community entirely.

During this first year of probation, the initiate was allowed to partake in the “pure meal” of the Community (1QS 6:16-17), but not the “pure drink.” If the Community approved for a second year (the next stage), then he would be allowed to partake in the “pure drink” as well. Also during this second year of probation, the initiate’s possessions were given over to the treasury, but kept apart from the rest of the Community’s belongings. It wasn’t until after this second stage that the initiate would attain full on membership, which meant he was now allowed to speak at communal gatherings and all of his possessions were mixed in with the rest of the Community’s. All throughout these stages, the initiate would partake in ritual purity practices and upon gaining full membership, was immersed as a way of initiation.

b. Covenant Renewal Ceremony

There is an interesting similarity between the reason and need for a covenantal renewal ceremony at Qumran and the language Paul uses in discussing the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32. Just as Paul exhorts the young Corinthians to “examine [themselves]” before partaking in communion, the annual renewal ceremony at Qumran had a major emphasis on self-examination. Additionally, however, was the element of commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, which was remembered during the end of the third month of the year.

What’s unique to Qumran (as opposed to regular Jewish festivals during the Second Temple Period) was how this ceremony took place. Each member would enter in according to his rank, blessings would be given over the righteous, and curses would be delivered for the unrighteous or unrepentant. And then, as some of the archaeological evidence suggests, the entire Community would be immersed almost at the same time.

c. Purification

Already existing in the Second Temple time period was a stringent, thorough practice of ritual purification. My next post will be a comparison of Qumran’s purification ceremonies with those of “Common Judaism” or the Second Temple time period, but essentially what we see at Qumran is an intensification of sources of impurity, contagions of impurity, and state of one’s intent during the immersion practice. As has already been noted above, repentance was a key element during any immersion practice; it was heavily emphasized during the purification process. Hannah K. Harrington (a purity-text scholar) notes that while ritual purity and moral purity were separate in “Common Judaism,” they were practically interchangeable at Qumran. I’ll discuss this more in the next post.

d. Archaeology

The ruins at Qumran have been known about and studied long before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Some studies date back to the early 19th century and throughout most of Qumran history, it’s been believed that the site was more of a fortress or look-out point than anything else. Ever since 1947, however, scholars have gone back and forth on how they view the small ancient village that probably housed no more than 200 people. For my paper, I assumed there was a direct connection between the Scrolls and Qumran, but that’s mostly because I don’t know enough to effectively argue otherwise (and my main topic wasn’t about the archaeology at Qumran) and partially because almost every scholar I read from had assumed the Scrolls-Qumran connection. Even so, it’s important to note that there is no black-and-white proof that these ruins are the same ones that housed the Yahad (“community”) in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

With roughly 10 or 11 ritual baths to study from, scholars note that there are key differences between the Qumran baths and the “Common Judaism” baths – baths that were found in and around the Judean Hills and the Land of Benjamin (see Part One). Jodi Magness, an expert in Qumran archaeology, notes that there were wide-based steps leading down into the immersion area. She indicates that this was due to the annual covenant renewal ceremony wherein all of the 200-some members would file in and out of the pool as an act of communal immersion. What she also notes is the varying heights of steps on each side; low steps on one side leading down and high steps on the other exiting the pool. This was probably to reflect the symbology of immersion; to enter impure and lowly and to exit pure and upright.

Not all of the pools at Qumran had this feature, but they’re still only found at Qumran (as far as I’ve ready, anyway). As she makes note of, there wasn’t an elaborate list of requirements for a miqveh in the Second Temple Period: plastered pool dug or hewn into the ground, steps that allow the bather to immerse without jumping or diving, and they must hold a minimum amount of undrawn water. This last point of undrawn water was a difficult one for archaeologists to grapple with for Qumran sits in the desert and there aren’t many free-flowing streams around. But pictured below is one of the many aqueducts used to funnel that running water to the Qumran community. And many believe this was enough for drinking water and ritual immersion practices.

Overview of the Ancient Community
Ruins at Qumran
Immersion Pool at Qumran
Immersion Pool at Qumran
Immersion Pool at Qumran
Immersion Pool at Qumran
How the Sectarians Survived
Aqueduct supplying the Pools

e. Summary

As you can see, this sectarian community was very serious about purity. A theme consistent throughout many of the unique, non-Biblical Scrolls is the belief that the priests in charge of practices at the Temple in Jerusalem were, in some way, flawed in their practice. It was so bad that the Community at Qumran would rather live out in the desert to practice the purity rites than deal with the priests and Levites of the Temple. Beyond being in the desert, though, the Community distinguished itself over and above “Common Judaism” in the mere treatment of purity. This is the subject for the next post.

Baptism Part 1: Ritual Immersion in “Common Judaism”…

My first time reading the Bible was spent in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. I didn’t start with the New Testament at all; I started with the Torah. Thumbing back through those books, I realize now it’s a miracle that I even stuck with this Christian thing. Don’t know Moses ever realized this, but what he put down isn’t that exciting of a read.

Whether reading the Torah is boring or not, I have found it to be absolutely essential in order to truly understand the New Testament Scriptures. Having gone through the research from this past term has really opened up a lot of the New Testament; I get a better understanding of how Jesus’ not-washing-His-hands-before-He-ate thing was really kind of shocking. Granted, at the time of Jesus there were additional rules on purification, but those rules found their roots in Leviticus 11-15 or Numbers 19. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not you were sinning, but rather a matter of whether or not you were clean.

It’s important here to clarify what I mean by “clean.” In our 21st century world, “clean” is closely tied with sanitation. At work we wash all the dishes and pie pans so that customers are less likely to consume sickness-causing bacteria. We “clean” all the utensils for this purpose. But in the mindset of Jews in Jesus’ time, “clean” had spiritual connotations; not only was the physical dirt washed away, but it was believed that the spiritual dirt was also wiped out.

This spiritual dirt, though, did not just reside inside the person; it was believed to be outside the person as well. If someone had a bodily discharge, their clothes were rendered impure as well as anything they touched (Lev. 15). One’s uncleanness was also believed to affect the surrounding people as well, which is why many of the Pharisees and the religious leaders of the New Testament were repulsed by the impure; they believed they were in danger of being contaminated as well.

Ritual purity, as one may easily see, was an on-going process. In fact, it was practically daily. In “Common Judaism,” the era in which both Jesus and the community at Qumran were around, ritual purity was practically everything. Sure, theologies regarding the resurrection and what one believed about God were very important, too. But in order to be a part of those discussions, you were required to watch out for your purity. If you were deemed impure, you were required to go through the ritual process in order to regain the ability to discuss theology (or really anything else) with other people. No, it isn’t a commandment necessarily (it is at Qumran), but it makes common, practical sense. Religious leaders didn’t want to be impure or unclean, so if they were in close proximity with someone else who was unclean, then they’d avoid that person.

Just to get a sense of what I mean, I turn to Boaz Zissu and David Amit, archaeologists who specialize in the study of miqva’ot (immersion baths in ancient Judaism). They’ve outlined six different types of baths within two main categories: in-settlement ritual baths and other ritual baths. Under the in-settlement umbrella are domestic baths, public baths and public baths near synagogues. Domestic baths were located nearby houses and were probably used for purification after a bodily discharge, which includes a man’s seminal discharges and a woman’s menstruation cycle (as you might guess, this probably a frequently used bath). The public baths away from synagogues are located near villages and whatnot and were probably used by those who didn’t have their own at home and who couldn’t get to a synagogue bath. At Qumran, Zissu and Amit note, their public baths were intended for a “quick immersion of a large number of people,” which aligns with the Community’s annual renewal ceremony. But I’ll get there later.

The public baths located next to synagogues are interesting because there is nothing in the rabbinic traditions, as Zissu and Amit explain, requiring purity for entry into the synagogues. What has been suggested, though, was that these were used in order for various religious leaders to be purified before handling the sacred Scriptures – more of a precautionary measure. It didn’t matter whether or not they were impure; they just wanted to make sure they were pure before handling anything sacred. What these baths could have also been used for is, like the public baths away from the synagogues, anyone who didn’t have access to an immersion bath at home or in their home town.

Ritual baths located away from the settlements had three types as well; in agricultural locations (i.e. vineyards), along roadways intended for pilgrim-usage, and near graveyards. For the ones located in agricultural places, it’s possible these were utilized to ensure one’s wine or oil was prepared in purity so that nothing would be sold impure. Pilgrims in route to Jerusalem could have incidentally come into contact with something impure (i.e. a dead animal) and simply to ensure purity upon entry into Jerusalem, they were immersed in these baths. Grave sites were littered with the possibility of impurity. Coming into contact with the dead was the worst form of impurity to the common Jew. That’s why, when Jesus heals a demon-possessed man in the graveyard (Luke 8:26-33), you don’t see any religious leaders just walking around. They avoided the graveyards because they were too risky. These baths were there, though, to ensure one’s purity.

Studying through all the things that would make one impure often made me feel like taking a shower. The level of seriousness devoted to ritual purity in Common Judaism is already an intense level. But both early Christianity and the Qumran sectarian group had to find ways of differentiating themselves and their baptisms away from what was Common Judaism. Why? In order to be its own autonomous religion, it had to separate from the old, “mother religion” of Judaism, as Theissen notes. Qumran is a different direction because they were very much Jewish; they did not believe Jesus was the Messiah (assuming they even heard of Him) and therefore did not feel the need to be their own religion. However, they obviously felt the need to renew and revitalize the practices of the Torah as they should be rightly practiced. Both of these subjects, though, will be discussed in later posts.

What I advise for you, though, is – if you have the time – study up on the Torah, specifically the purity laws. Read Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19 several times slowly. They’re boring and very elaborate, but in order to truly get the sense of what both the Qumran baptism meant and the Christian baptism means, we need to know what the Torah requirements were. We need to know what Qumran and early Christianity were up against.

Water’s Washing Power: An Introduction to Qumran Immersions and Christian Baptisms…

On May 12th, 2002, I was baptized into Christianity. I awkwardly stood at the front of the congregation in my swim trunks and cut-off t-shirt while everyone else watched in their Sunday best. It wasn’t any regular Sunday either; it was Mother’s Day. Lots of perfume, flowers, and girls sitting with watchful eyes. You see, I grew up in a congregation of roughly 15 people that came every Sunday. On that particular day there were close to 50 or so in the small little church. I was a bit nervous.

After I was dunked, people cheered and thus began my walk with God. For a long time I didn’t think much of my baptism; I thought it was just something one is supposed to do in order to be a part of the group. Mere paperwork for attaining membership. And now, almost nine years of walking with God, I suddenly had an interest in the meaning of getting dunked for Jesus.

This winter term I took two classes from Dr. Daniel Falk (my favorite professor): Early Christian Religion and Dead Sea Sectarian (REL 414 and 412 respectively). In the first week of classes I immediately caught on to one major similarity: Isaiah 40:3. It says, “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” For Christian readers, we immediately think of John the Baptist as this voice in the wilderness (Mark 1:2-4). But what I found remarkable about the Community at Qumran was that they also refer to this verse:

“And when these [initiates] become members of the Community in Israel according to 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.’ 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,” – Community Rule, 8:13-16a (or 1QS 8:13-16a – I’ll explain in another post).

This striking similarity began an interest in baptism because John was baptizing and Qumran, as I would later discover, had a lot of ritual immersion pools – either 10 or 11, which Hannah K. Harrington (a scholar on the purity laws in the DSS) indicates that given the small size of the community (big enough for about 200 people) is the greatest number of miqva’ot (Jewish term for immersion pools – plural; miqveh – singular) in one condensed location. This said to me that the Qumran sectarian group was stringent about purity laws, even adding their own (Harrington–The Purity Texts, 19).

Digging a little deeper, I found ritual immersion to be already extremely important in Judaism. Boaz Zissu and David Amit note 220 ritual baths that archaeologists have discovered in the Judean Hills and in the Land of Benjamin (Common Judaism, 49). So what made Qumran so different? And since the Qumran community existed roughly around the time of Jesus, then we can begin to ask the question, what made the Christian baptism so different? As I argued in both my papers from this past term, Qumran utilized ritual immersion to keep themselves, as God’s “highway,” clean and clear for His kingdom to enter; early Christianity utilized baptism in order to signify one’s death to the old life of sin and rise to new life specifically in the name of Jesus.

There is a lot of information regarding these two directions, so I have no idea how long of a series this is going to be; I just know it’s going to be several posts. For those who aren’t familiar with the Dead Sea Scrolls or Qumran, don’t worry; I’ll explain. Teaching on that subject alone will take two, possibly three, posts alone. But what I think first needs to be explained is the major emphasis on ritual purity in what scholars call “Common Judaism,” – a time period in which a familiar system to all Jews was in place. This is the time period that the Qumran sectarians distinguished themselves from the “common Jew,” and from which Christians would also come to distinguish themselves. “Common Judaism,” as already indicated, had a major emphasis on ritual purity; so I find it to be a foundation for understanding both Qumran and Christianity.

What’s also important, especially for early Christianity, was the importance of ritual purity in the Greco-Roman society. I did not realize this before, but apparently it was extremely important to the average pagan to be cleansed with water in a ritual purity act before dealing with “sacred” things (i.e. entering temples). This requires an explanation also, but I won’t get to that until after I’ve explained both Judaism and Qumran; Greco-Roman purity pertains a little more to early Christianity than to Qumran.

My tentative outline for this series is as follows; Judaism’s ritual purity, Qumran’s ritual purity, Greco-Roman paganism’s ritual purity, and finally Christianity’s baptism. Looking through both my papers, it should be between 8 and 10 posts, but we’ll see. I may add more or take some parts out. Nevertheless, I’m actually excited (in a nerdy sort of way) to revisit what I’ve spent 10 weeks studying to share with those who might not be otherwise interested in this material. Baptism is so incredibly important in Christianity (and religions throughout) and I’m not sure if we’ve really understood that level of importance. Heck, even after immersing myself in this stuff for an entire term, I’m not sure I fully grasp the stuff.

Finally, at any point please comment on the blog if you have any questions about this stuff. I recommend doing so specifically through the blog site so that other people may ask questions about your questions; essentially I would like a central location for any possible discussions. You can “like” it on Facebook (or on WordPress, too), but I’d prefer comments to be on the site itself. I really hope all those who read enjoy the material as much as I have. It makes for a greater thirst of God’s knowledge.

God bless.