John the Baptist and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Purity Perspectives

Mikveh at QumranI want to begin my remarks today with a methodological issue that needs to be brought to bear in the attempt to place John the Baptist squarely within the framework of Second Temple Judaism. This has to do first with the extent of our knowledge of the religious situation in the Greco-Roman period in the Land of Israel and, second, with the ramifications of this situation on the use of comparative evidence.

Here is what concerns me: we need to recognize that the amount of information that we have about the complex ferment of ideas that was going on in this period is very fragmentary. This is true not only about many of the significant texts that were recovered at Qumran, of which we have some 5-15% preserved (judging form biblical MSS), but also about the various groups that we term “sects.” After all, had the Dead Sea Scrolls not been preserved and had they not been found, look how much less complex our view of Second Temple Judaism would have been! Now imagine how much richer our understanding would be if the libraries or genizot of other communities (assuming that such collections existed) were to come to light. So attempts to trace direct influence or to claim with no direct evidence that someone belonged to some specific group constitute a highly questionable enterprise.

And here is where we need to be careful about stretching the value of valid comparative evidence. Whenever we look at various Jewish historical figures, texts or groups from the Second Temple period, we need to expect that we will easily find parallels between them. This is because these various individuals or groups share overlapping isoglosses that link one to another in some characteristics, but often neither the majority nor certainly all of their practices and beliefs. Great degrees of similarity in one area may exist alongside great disparities in other areas. Let us take a simple example: the Gospels testify to great differences regarding matters of Jewish law, Sabbath, purity, etc., between the nascent Christians (or at least the Gospel authors) and the Pharisees. Yet the same Gospel authors are imbued with Pharisaic ethics, at least to the extent that we can document them in sources. This is why the many valid parallels between early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls sect and the Essenes, as described by Philo and Josephus, still require that we treat these groups as a very small and partial features of much wider religious and social phenomena. When it comes to the Dead Sea Scrolls in particular, we always need to remember that the New Testament and the rabbinic corpus testify extensively to interaction between Pharisees and Sadducees, and both of them with early Christians. However, neither of these corpora includes any direct mention of the Essenes or Dead Sea sectarians. Yes, they mention sectarian groups that sometimes have parallels with these groups. But now we are back to my main point: these isoglosses are insufficient to speak of identity. For us as scholars, the Dead Sea Scrolls loom enormously large because it is the library of this group that is in our hands. But that doesn’t mean that they loomed anywhere near as large in the fabric of Second Temple Judaism. Our erstwhile coreligionists, whether Jewish or Christian, did not subscribe to Revue de Qumran or Dead Sea Discoveries. They lived in a world in which various Jewish religious ideas circulated among various groups in ways that we will never be able to document fully. The discovery of the Scrolls and the literature found there cautions us again that we have only a very partial picture.

It is not hard to guess now what I think about the connection between John the Baptist and Qumran. The temptation to stop now, however, was overcome by my desire to do some good solid research. So let’s start by looking at the very limited number of passages that describe John’s ideology of immersion.  After all, this is the only direct information that we have. Then I want to say more about the role of immersion in the Qumran sect and to show how different the conceptions reflected in these materials are.

I apologize for the fact that by the time I present this quick and short summary you will have heard some of this material several times. Let me also explain that I am operating on the assumption that all the material that connects Jesus to John, which probably consists of two layers of tradition, needs to be discounted here, since it points towards Christian baptism as it developed after the crucifixion. I see the connection of Jesus to John as at the very least greatly enhanced by the Gospels, and for this reason I do not see that material as yielding evidence for the basic conceptions under which John’s immersion operated.

Let’s begin with Josephus in Antiquities 18.5.2 (117-118).[1] We learn that John:

…had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body, implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior.

Whatever the result of the immersion was supposed to be, this passage makes clear that righteousness and the fulfillment of what the Jewish tradition would later call “commandments between human beings” and “commandments between human beings and God” were a prerequisite for the efficacy of immersion. Only then would immersion be accepted by God, although the meaning of this acceptance is never explained. Josephus makes clear that John saw immersion not as a means of gaining atonement for transgressions, but rather as a means of effecting purification of a body after the soul had been spiritually purified.

Now let us look at the core Gospel traditions. Mk 1:4 // Lk 3:3 states that John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”[2] While the text of Luke then quotes the prooftext of Isa 40:3-5 (Lk 3: 4-6), that passage has nothing to do with immersion. Further, Mark quotes the same verse before describing John’s appearance and his proclamation. Mt 3:11, a passage that is already connecting John the Baptist with Jesus, has him proclaiming: “I baptize you with water for repentance.” This, of course, is the very same core message. I see all reference to the Holy Spirit in baptism as part of the link with Jesus, as in Mt 3:11, Mk 1:8, Lk 3:16 and Jn. 1:26. Hence, it is not part of the core explanation of the function of immersion. If I had not previously read Josephus, I would have assumed from these core passages in the Synoptics that immersion was indeed seen as the action bringing about atonement. However, this is contradicted by the account in Mt 3:7-12 // Lk 3:7-9, the viper passage. In Matthew, Pharisees and Sadducees come to John for immersion, whereas in Luke it is only “multitudes.” He chastises them as trying to use the immersion as a means of avoiding the coming divine wrath. He tells them that it is necessary first to repent and that they should not simply assume that as Jews they would escape God’s wrath. In Matthew, the text continues with the quotation above and then makes the link with Jesus. In the Lukan version, John proceeds to instruct the people as to how they can attain repentance. He tells them to practice what we would call social justice and honesty and then goes on to explain that his baptism will be superseded by the coming of one more powerful, that is, Jesus, and that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit (vss. 10-17; cf. Jn 1:24-28). If we take the Matthew passage as expressing accurately John’s theory of immersion and repentance, we can see that it is clearly in agreement with Josephus. As the Hebrew prophets say over and over, ritual is meaningless without a life of righteousness. Here John essentially expresses what Josephus attributed to him, namely that the efficacy of immersion is dependent on a life of righteousness and that those who wish to be immersed should first make their lives righteous and just.[3]

We can sum up this part of the presentation by concluding that the account provided by Josephus is accurate. John saw immersion as the culmination of the process of purification of the soul and the attainment of righteousness in performing the commandments, both those entailing obligations to fellow humans and those entailing obligations to God. Only after such rectification of one’s way of life would immersion be efficacious, leading to acceptance by God. If we can assume that this acceptance is similar to that which is discussed over and over in Leviticus regarding sacrifices, then it would mean God’s acceptance of the repentance. Following the narrative of the vipers that we discussed above, it would emerge that John understood that this immersion after repentance would ensure that those who underwent it would escape the soon-to-come divine judgment.

Now let us look at immersion in the Dead Sea Scrolls to see whether we can make any useful comparison. Before actually “jumping in” (excuse the pun), it seems appropriate to note that regarding the Qumran sectarians themselves, despite the fact that they were close to the Dead Sea and even to the Jordan River, they seem to have preferred immersion in artificially constructed ritual baths (miqva’ot) that aimed to re-create the natural waters in a human-made pool. These ritual baths certainly fit into the context of what we know about the development of Jewish practice at that time, whereas John seems to have practiced immersion only in natural water sources.

The sectarian process of admission is described in the Rule of the Community. We are interested here only in the way in which purity and impurity are part of this process. The first step toward entry into the sect was examination by the “official at the head of the community.” If this official approved the candidate, the novice took his oath of admission and was then taught the sectarian regulations. Only then did the sectarian assembly render a decision on him, presumably based on his performance to date. If he passed the examination, he attained a partial status. After a year in which he was not permitted to touch the pure food, the novice was examined by the sectarian assembly. He could then be elevated to a higher status in which his property was temporarily admitted into communal use although full title remained his. Nonetheless, he was still not a full member. After the second year he was again examined, a third time, by the sectarian assembly. If he passed, at this point he became a full member oif the sect and his property was available for communal use; he then took his place in the sectarian assembly.

The stages regarding ritual impurity may be summed up as follows. The recruit, even after his examination by the sectarian official, instruction in some sectarian teachings, and re-examination by the community was considered ritually impure and was not permitted to come in contact with any of the sect’s victuals. After his second public examination, he was allowed to touch only solid food for year. Apparently, even after being admitted and allowed to come in contact with solid foods, he was still not considered entirely free of the danger of ritual impurity until he passed a final examination before the sectarian assembly. After this examination, a year later, he was allowed to touch even the liquid foods of the community. Only then was he a full member regarding ritual purity. This approach assumes that liquid foods are much more susceptible to impurity than are solids. Hence the new recruit is first excluded from communal meals, then admitted and allowed only to touch solid foods, and in the final stage permitted to come in contact with liquid foods. This system closely parallels purity laws documented in tannaitic texts as well. In order to understand the process of initiation, it must be remembered that one who eats or drinks impure food will himself become impure as a result and that the impurity he contracts will be in the same degree as the food or drink consumed. He could then transmit that impurity to the food and drink of the sect.

What emerges here is a unique relationship between the processes of what the sect regarded as repentance to joining its ranks and ritual purification. This ritual purification was to the sectarians no more than a symptom of spiritual purification. Indeed, the sect believed that no amount of lustrations and immersions would render pure anyone who was still an unrepentant transgressor, as shown from some known Dead Sea Scrolls passages.

In the description of the Essenes provided by Josephus, after completing the initial period of probation, the Essene is allowed to “to share the pure kind of holy water.”[4] We take this phrase as referring to admission of the novice to the ritual bath and attendant purification. If that is the case, we can see that after a trial period but before admission, according to Josephus, the novice participates in ritual purification. Regarding the Qumran sectarians, we cannot actually be sure of when the first ritual bath would have taken place. It can be surmised that after the initial oath, purificatory facilities were made available to the novices, even if these baths were perhaps separate from those of the full-fledged members. Nowhere in the text discussing initiation into the sect is a specific occasion of immersion ever mentioned.

Now we can sum up the situation in comparison with John the Baptist. First of all, John’s immersing involves an agent who somehow immerses the recipient. This has absolutely no parallel whatsoever in any Jewish text. John’s immersing has absolutely no connection to the framework of the halakhah of ritual purity, whereas that of the Qumran sectarians is dependent on a complex set of halachic regulations within which the new sectarian is entering into higher levels of ritual purity. John’s immersion has nothing to do with halakhic requirements, whereas the sectarian is pursuing ritual purity as a precondition to participating in the full life of the Dead Sea sectarians who see this as a halakhic requirement. Second, John’s immersion is not actually a form of initiation into any group whatsoever, whereas that of the sectarians, that does not take place at the initial process of recruitment but somewhat later, and that in fact is not even specified in the process, is an obligation imposed on the sectarian precisely because he is now a member of the group. Further, John’s immersion comes as a capstone to a process of personal repentance. This does have some similarity to the beautiful passages in which the Rule of the Community states that one who has not mended his ways and remains a transgressor cannot be rendered pure by immersion. However, this parallel results from a much wider set of Jewish beliefs represented in a variety of texts and a variety of groups that became normative in later Judaism. Even if we were to judge this view to be exactly the same, the ritual baths of the sectarians admit them to meals performed in ritual purity, but the immersion undertaken by those who followed John the Baptist has no immediate result whatsoever in terms of their status, but is only perceived as part of their spiritual self-improvement.

It is not up to us in this presentation to explain other differences between the social role of John and that of the Qumran group and/or Essenes within the fabric of Second Temple Judaism. Suffice it to say that in our view the many differences that exist in those other areas are paralleled closely by fundamental differences in the role of immersion, and I see no reason at all to assume that John was at any time a member of the Qumran group and/or Essenes who had split from them. This, despite the fact that he and they clearly shared the basic principles and beliefs of the common Judaism of the time, upon which their particular practices were based.

[1] Loeb trans. Josephus, 9.80-83.

[2] All New Testament translations are from the NRSV.

[3] We should note that Paul in Acts 1819 tells “disciples” that “John baptized with the baptism of repentance,” but then continues by explaining as the Gospels go beyond the core passages that we are studying that he exhorted them to believe in Jesus.

[4] It has also been suggested that this “water” is similar to the liquid food described in the Rule of the Community. Josephus would then have mistaken the order and thereby placed the liquid food before the solid food in describing the Essene initiation process. This is not likely, however.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *