Tonight I began reading James D.G. Dunn’s collection of essays in The Christ and the Spirit: v. 2: Pneumatology. In his 1978 “Spirit and Holy Spirit in the New Testament” he discusses John’s baptism as it relates to the “birthpangs of the messiah” and he says this of John’s baptism (p. 6):
“John’s baptism in the Jordan (presumably by immersion) was therefore a very potent symbol of the end-time tribulation = baptism in Spirit and fire = God’s fiery pneuma like a great stream through which all humanity must pass. Those who acknowledged their liability to judgment by submitting to the symbolized judgment of John’s baptism would experience the messianic woes as a cleansing by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning (Isa. 4:4). Those who denied their guilt and did not repent would experience the Coming One’s baptism in Spirit and fire as the bonfire which burned up the unfruitful branches and chaff.”
While I know ritual cleansing such as dipping in a mikveh provided a symbolism of washing could it be that John’s baptism (and subsequently later Christian baptism?) presented participants with an additional symbol: that of being made wet to resist the coming flame? John’s message was (1) be baptized in water unto repentance and (2) one is coming who baptizes with spirit/wind and fire. Dunn’s wording suggest that those who were not “dampened” (if you will) by his baptism unto repentance would be annihilated by the coming spirit/wind and fire, but those who had been dampened would find it to be a purifying and purging flame.
This may be simplistic, but it would present John’s message as easily understood by the crowds as this sort of symbolism is imaginable, even tactile.
This sounds like an excellent hypothesis. It would certainly fit with John the Baptizer’s firebrand eschatology. However, I wonder how it fits with the Matthean/Lukan tradition of being baptized WITH fire? In Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16, being baptized with fire is (presumably) a good thing, as opposed to a fire that accompanies final judgment.
It doesn’t seem like it would detract from the positive aspect of the coming spirit/wind and fire. Those who have repented will experience the fire differently than those who are not. Or, to use the tactile imagery John may be using (as Dunn alludes): those who have voluntarily submitted to the symbolic judgment of a baptism in water unto repentance will be dampened, so that when the symbolic fire (spirit) comes it will not consume, but purify instead. Those who have not submitted to the symbolic judgment of a baptism in water unto repentance remain dry, brittle, and unable to withstand the fire that will consume them in their present unrepentant state.
…my answer reminds me a bit of the words of 1 Pet. 4:7: judgment begins with the household of faith, but if these ones must face judgment, how much worse will it be for “the godless one and the sinner”? For John, judgment is coming when the Coming One arrives, who will bring fire (usually a symbol of judgment), but those who are ready find purification while those who are not find annihilation or consumption.
Makes good sense to me! Fits with my understanding of the apocalypticism of the time/place which apparently John and Jesus shared, at least in general terms. In Acts 19, at Ephesus (long distance from the Jordan), Paul finds about a dozen “disciples” who were only baptized into “the Baptism of John” and had heard nothing of “a Holy Spirit” (v.2). Just prior (ch. 18), Apollos, a well-educated religious Jew “born in” (and apparently coming directly from) Alexandria (N. Africa), also knows “only the baptism of John” though he “taught about Jesus accurately” (NIV).
Interesting how “John’s baptism” had spread so far and relatively fast, even when he died seemingly just before Jesus (a year or so?), and knowledge of Jesus seemed to accompany the spread, at least in Apollos’ case… yet the baptisms (and theologies) were distinct. This rarely gets treated at all by Evangelical preachers, or anyone else I’ve ever heard (thousands of sermons, Bible studies over the years). I know about it only from Acts directly and books I’ve read. Leaves some questions unanswered, doesn’t it?
Indeed, questions I aim to pursue, though admittedly in the face of a lack of data. Other than Josephus all we’ve got on John at the Gospels and Acts. That works just fine for liturgical/kerygmatic purposes, but not as well for historical inquiry. What Acts does tell us (without trying to do so) is that (1) while Christians worked hard to make sure people knew Jesus was superior to John this was not commonly accepted knowledge, since (A) John had a lingering following, even after his death, and (B) the very fact that the argument for Jesus’ superiority remained necessary (esp. in John 1, in the late 90s!) shows that there were some who thought more of John than many suppose. Also, (2) there must be a reason for disciples of John to be found outside Judea/Galilee. Now, it could be quite possible that they were Diaspora Jews who heard John then returned home to Ephesus, but apparently they had no qualms with waiting for the apocalyptic stage to arrive even as far away as Ephesus. One must wonder what how they lived and whether they told other Diaspora Jews about John.
Another possible line of inquiry is the Mandaean sect, where John is revered to this day, but I need to do more work on them to know whether or not their traditions about John have roots. FWIW, James McGrath believes it does and the is a Society for Mandaean Studies: https://www.facebook.com/SocietyForMandaeanStudies
The connection between baptism in general (so John’s baptism in the Jordan) as signifier, and Christ’s redemptive baptism (so potent symbol of the end-time tribulation) as thing signified is nicely tied together by Peter in his letters.
Peter’s references are so terse it’s easy to miss their significance. He explains baptismal significance by treating it as a metaphor for God’s mercy by way of a Noahide reference.
In [1 Peter 3:18-20] Peter says “For the Anointed One also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of YEHSHUA the Anointed One, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels authorities, and powers having be subjected to him.
This is brilliant stuff. Peter has so many themes all tied together here. There should be little doubt Peter is offering his own insight, rather it seems obvious we’re receiving words back the Messiah shared with Peter in private conversation. Peter is showing how baptism carries us from our life in the flesh and judgement into life in the spirit and salvation in Christ with baptism as a type of ark!
This baptism theme of Noah being saved from ordeal of fire by an ark would been well known to Israelites coming to be baptised, so the forward reference to salvation from end-time tribulation by Christ as our ark would have impacted the crown by gob-smacking them. (I sense we take our own baptisms for granted these days. We aren’t left with the same impression).
Later, in [2 Peter 2:4-5] Peter references Noah’s escape from judgement saying “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgement; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly;“. Yes Peter is emphasising the punishment here but he’s doing so to highlight salvation. In each of those instances, not all Angels were cast into hell, and not all humans were drowned, and recall that Peter saw Noah’s salvation from the flood the same way he saw baptism.
So many themes are related in baptism (judgement, salvation, living in sin, redemption, having power over sin) that I dare say that in looking at John’s baptism vs Jesus’ baptism, Peter’s words should provide the framework for understanding the relationship …
.. and in reading your comments, I see you pick up on the connection with [1 Peter 4:7]. That’s great insight. There’s a reason you’re reminded of Peter’s words in [1 Peter 4], because Peter was thinking of themes such as Noah, water, judgement, Christ and baptism all through 1 Peter.
What do you think of the proposal that John’s baptism provided tactile symbolism that would have allowed the crowds to think of water baptism as that which prepares them to endure the fire of the coming baptism of the Spirit? There does appear to be a connection between baptism as preventative of future judgment, but do you think those coming to John would have thought of it as water protecting from fire?
Both John and Jesus came to make the blind see (in some sense). How do you do that given how stubborn we can all be? The message Jesus ultimately needed to convey was that we (people) need some “out” from impending judgement (even if by ‘impending’ we mean at the conclusion of the eschaton) where that ‘out’ is redemption by way of God’s grace.
One way this might be done is to speak in parallels, explaining to a select few what those parallels indeed parallel often using language introduced in the old covenant.
Another way might be to take a story everyone would have known (such as Noah) and make people to ‘re-live’ that story as a exhibition of the truth they were to grasp (God sometimes made his prophets ‘live’ an example to teach, such as Jeremiah’s smashing of pots, or lying on his side). In this case the story would be entering into the water and safely exiting in the name of the Messiah, where water represents not only God’s judgement (from Noah), but also the grave [Rom 6:4] since the flood brought death.
The proposal that John’s baptism provided a tactile symbol which prepared them to endure the fire of the coming baptism of the Spirit is more than reasonable. Absolutely. The theological basis for making such an argument though, is founded on the observation that the Noahide flood is practically indistinguishable (from a theological perspective) from a coming baptism of the Spirit.
When God manifests Himself from his Holy of Holies, in the presence of man, where he IS as He IS there cannot be but death for the sinful, since God’s holiness is itself anathema to it. LIkewise, there is also life for the perfect (or in our case the redeemed), since God’s image, nature and very being is life. The adjoiner is the Messiah by way of baptism. This is no different than riding out the flood in an ark, or entering water (death) departing in the name of Christ.
I guess I’m saying ‘the water’, ‘the fire’ are the really the same thing, being representative of the ‘presence of God’ — which we might also call the “baptism of the Spirit”.
@ Brian, 7:19 a.m.
Thanks… I’ll try to check out the link and what they are up to.
While I wouldn’t “throw water on” (sorry) your suggestion re. water in relation to fire, it does seem that the main and more immediate connection any separatist kind of movement… for purification and preparation for Messiah coming… would make with water would be the ritual cleansing that washing already strongly represented in their laws. But carrying more than one meaning is plausible for sure.
Oh… a P.S., in case you’re not following my blog, I just posted a fairly meaty (but mostly raising questions) post partly about the issue of what was involved in the cleansing of the Temple that we’d discussed… and its interesting juxtaposition with “the insurrection” in which Barabbas was a murderer, and probably the other two “lestai” (bandits) crucified with Jesus were involved.
I suppose it depends on what we believe about John’s purpose. Was John’s purpose to simply follow the dead traditions of a people, or was it to prepare a Messiah’s message?
Also, it isn’t clear that the ritual cleansing of the old covenant wasn’t unrelated to the theme of the flood.
The whole Levitical cleansing cycle was about washing away impurity, a theme first introduced in Genesis (Noah). Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are not unrelated, all possessing interwoven themes.
If I understand you correctly you see an intertextual theme in the Torah connecting washing ritual with the flood narrative, i.e., the Great Flood provides the narrative from which the symbolism of washing in Lev.-Deut. is to be understood?
I don’t disagree that washing/cleansing is the primary symbolism of baptism, but in the context of juxtaposing with fire (another form of purification, but different, and one that appears to be superior to the former or necessary to complete the former) it would seem that merely being cleansed doesn’t explain why John’s baptism is water and the Coming One’s is fire.
@Brian, yes somewhat. The image of the flood is of ritual cleansing. Where you see ‘blot out’ or worse ‘destroy’ the word is actually “to wipe” – machah מָחָה (H4229), an act you do while cleansing:
[Gen 6:7] So YHWH said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.’
[Gen 7:11] “… on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.”
[Gen 7:23] “He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the land.”
(It’s possible this is more apparent in Hebrew than in English.)
It would be interesting to trace the theme of washing in the Pentateuch to see if there is a consistent theme. If so, it would be worth asking whether or not the narrative aims to closely connect purification rituals with the purifying of the land by flood, and if it does, does this change the “message” of the flood narrative.
I was reading in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies today and came across a section where he makes some of the connections you posit about water quenching the fires in 3.17.3 but almost all of 3.17 has some interesting intertextual connections to John and/or aspects of baptism.
Thanks Ben, I’ll have to take a look at that.
I was re-reading at least Mark on John and his relationship with Herod and subsequent death, and then the evaluations about Jesus. It’s still puzzling…. what we may just not understand about contemporary views of someone “becoming” (probably not ontologically) someone else… e.g., that Jesus was thought by some to be, among others, John the Baptist. If that was the case, what’s going on? If it wasn’t, why does the text include it?
When I say “among others” above, I mean among other possible identities mentioned.
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