Review: “Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” John Bergsma (Pt II)

Part Two: Baptism and the Scrolls

At the outset, Bergsma succinctly states why a connection between the Baptist and the Essenes seems probable:

The Essenes were the only sect of the Jews that produced prophets, observed strict asceticism, and practised celibacy; and all that describes John: a celibate, ascetic prophet preaching repentance before an imminent judgment – a message also found abundantly in the Scrolls (32).

He then moves to more specific reasons to think there was some connection: first, they were active in the same area (32-33); second, they placed an emphasis on baptism and interior repentance for sins (noting the significant difference that John would baptise anyone, not only those Jews prepared for initiation, as was the case with the Essenes) (33); third, the importance of Isaiah 4-:3 in their theology (33-34), and fourth, how the DSS elucidate some “otherwise very curious and inexplicable facts about John’s person” (35).

These new clarifications include the Baptist’s diet: John ate honey and locusts, and those expelled from Qumran were obliged to “eat grass,” meaning, perhaps raw food taken from the land where they found themselves, and not any food which had been prepared outside of the Qumran community (35-36). Interestingly, the DSS, which describe how to cook locusts, are together with the Gospels the only documents from the time of the Lord which refer to eating the insect (37).

Then, as Bergsma notes, Luke 1:80 makes it sound as if John was raised in the wilderness; but since it is known that the celibate Essenes raised other people’s children, to “form them according to their own (i.e. the Essenes’) manners” (37), it is at least an informed conjecture that his parents had John raised by the Essenes. Despite some clever speculation (37-38), it seems to me that there is a serious, but not completely insurmountable, difficulty: John’s father Zechariah was a priest who served in the Temple, and it is hard to imagine him entrusting his only son to a group which denounced the Temple authorities and their sacrifices. There may be various scenarios which would have led to John being raised by the Essenes: it is just that on the available material it looks less than likely.

After some interesting comments about the Hebrew basis for the Magnificat (i.e. “remember his mercy” is a direct translation from the Hebrew, where it means “remember his covenant”), Bergsma passes to how John’s criticism of Herod Antipas’ marriage to Herodias is congruent with Essene beliefs (38-40). He also notes in passing that John’s teaching that whoever had two tunics should share one with the poor corresponds to the communal ethic of the Essenes, who each had but one tunic (41).

Bergsma then conjectures that John had been given to or voluntarily joined the Essenes, but was expelled for taking literally and immediately the prophecy in Isaiah that the coming salvation was for all peoples, not the Jews alone, but also for Gentiles (40-41). To conclude here, Bergsma’s thesis that John the Baptist had an Essene background but eventually deviated from them is indeed plausible: but – on the present sources – it is, I suggest, more likely that he voluntarily joined them than that he was fostered with them by his father. It is not impossible that he learned of them when he was raised in the wilderness. However John did meet them, if he did, they were a significant influence on him.

Chapter Four commences with the suggestion that the unnamed disciple of John the Baptist who joins Jesus was in fact St John, the evangelist of the Fourth Gospel (44-45). Bergsma notes, quite correctly, that modern biblical criticism had at one time been dominated by Bultmann’s view that the Gospel of St John was a second century invention, with “virtually nothing of the actual words and deeds of the Lord” (45). But when the DSS were discovered, it was found that the “second century Greek sources” on which this fantasy had been based, were matched by first-century Semitic thought (45-47). In demonstrating the similarity of John’s teaching to that from Qumran, Bergsma also points to the epistles of St John (47-50), and does not omit to note that while both teach love for our brethren, John goes beyond the Essenes in “the absence of hate for those outside” (50).

Bergsma contends, probably correctly, that St John’s emphasis on baptism in his Gospel is related to his having been a disciple of John the Baptist (51-67). Along the course, we learn that the hosts of the Wedding in Cana were probably wealthy, since even one of the stone jars used at the wedding of John 2 have been expensive, and therefore they must have cared about the Mosaic ritual law. He opines that the jars symbolised the old covenant, and Jesus’ turning of water into wine pointed to his superseding the old covenant and the former washings with water (51-52).

Turning to the cleansing of the Temple, Bergsma points not only to Essene criticism of the Temple and its priesthood, but also to the correspondence between Jesus’ saying “destroy this Temple,” meaning His own body, and the Essene idea that they “Temples of Adam / a Man / Humanity,” and even the new Holy of Holies (52-54).

The English translations of the Gospel of John incessantly speak of “the Jews.” This, Bergsma contends, with some force, would usually be more accurately rendered as “Judaeans”. For both Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, and for the Essenes, “Israel” tended to be positive, and the true Israel was to be restored: in the case of the Lord, the Twelve Apostles were a representation of this (55-56).

We next come to the meeting with Nicodemus in John 3: when Jesus expressed wonder that Nicodemus did not understand his teaching on the Spirit, He was referring to a doctrine well-known in Qumran (56-58). The next few pages contain many interesting allusions, but they move rather quickly, and inconclusively, until we come to the healing of the blind man, where the use of spittle to make clay is shown to be an “act of re-creation,” the Lord performing anew the creation of Adam by the Father. As Bergsma states:

Jesus is re-creating this man, born in darkness, into a “son of the light”! And he is doing it, in part, by having him wash in water. And not just any water, but the Pool of Siloam, which caught the waters of the Gihon Spring, which originally flowed from Eden (Gen 2:13). In this way, the Pool of Siloam is another image of a new creation! (63)

According to Bergsma, John 9 comprises a lesson on Baptism, with a teaching similar to the Essene idea that everyone is born in darkness but can become a “son of light” through washing in water sanctified by the Holy Spirit. On this view, original sin is not a positive guilt, but an absence of the light- and life-giving spirit; and baptism is a new creation (63). The blind man answers questions about his identiy by saying “I AM”, using the words employed by the Lord, and hence showing that, having been baptised, he now shares in the life of God and can also say “I AM” (63-64).

After noting some other allusions to baptism, Bergsma comes to the flowing of blood and water from the side of the Lord. He states that when there were blood sacrifices in the Temple, the blood would be washed away with buckets of water, which flowed down into the Kidron Valley – hence Jesus’ body was the new Temple, and the prophecy “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water (John 7:37-38)” was fulfilled. Further, blood and water symbolise the Eucharist and Baptism (65).

All this fortifies Bergsma in the probably correct conclusion that John the Apostle had been a disciple of the Baptist, and that his Gospel was infused with a consciousness of the importance of baptism, and the dualistic division in light and darkness, truth and falsehood, good and evil. For these and other reasons, the Gospel of John emerges in this light as a truly ancient and Palestine Gospel from the time of the Lord, and not a late Hellenistic variation on a theme (65-66).

Chapter 5 is headed “Baptism Today.” Bergsma returns to the Essenes, and the fact that in addition to the regular ritual washings, there were special baths in which was a “purer kind of holy water,” and to which one could be admitted only after probation of a year, with a demand that they be repentant for their sins. I am not sure which of the two he refers to when he says that “ritual washing” was “not merely symbolic: it had spiritual effects, and therefore can be called truly sacramental” (70). That the ritual had to be conducted with the community was also necessary, so that there were three conditions: an interior disposition of penance, the “Spirit-infused community” and the purifying waters (71). This teaching is parallel to that of early Christianity, with the Church rather than the Qumran yahad (community) (71-72).

Importantly, Bergsma points out that baptism was always understood as a scene of the action of God, not merely a subjective act or declaration. This highlights how in 1 Peter 3 the apostle speaks of a clear conscience as being the gift of God (72-75). This belief in baptism as a divine action also provides the basis for infant baptism (75-77). He ends this chapter with an interesting note: his Qumran research shows that baptism is a part of the common heritage of Christians and Jews, and not primarily a point of distinction (77).

Joseph Azize, 18 October 2019

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