Friday, May 6, 2011

Did the Sacrament in Secret Mark Really Involve Water Immersion?

Maybe it's just me but it often feels like the direction of much of the research in New Testament and Patristic scholarship is utterly misguided.  I don't know where to start here other than to say that when lots of Christians study Christian, lots of Jews study 'being Jewish,' gay people homosexuality, criminals law enforcement etc you often end up with less than critical scholarship.  This is what I mean by 'the direction' of research.  An individual scholar or too can at least theoretically engage in a critical examination of beliefs and traditions close to their hearts but with large groups of such essentially biased researchers less than objective research necessarily follows.

The reason for this should be obvious but let me reduce it down to this - people with 'something at stake' in the research, whether it be tobacco companies studying the effects of smoking or a particular political party controlling being in charge of counting the votes in an election, the end result can't be good.  This isn't to say that I think turning everything over to 'atheists' is the solution either.  The American 'news channel' approach of taking two representatives of an 'agenda' and putting them side by side to achieve 'objectivity' is just a waste of time.  I think it just comes down to producing lots of little investigations as we have been doing for the last two years on interesting subjects and hoping that it has some influence on researchers using internet search engines.

In any event, the question that stands before us now is how and why the central mystery rite in Christianity is inevitably connected with Joshua's crossing of the Jordan on the tenth of Nisan.  Indeed as I take seriously the Marcionite tradition, I am not even sure that our inherited understanding of Jesus standing in the Jordan river with John the Baptist dunking him was the original paradigm.  For what does any of this have to with Joshua's crossing of the Jordan?  Seriously.  Just because Jesus happened to be in the same river as Joshua isn't much of a resemblance.  Yes they both share the same name but when you think about it there is so much that is fundamentally different it is hard to believe that anyone would have compared what appears at the beginning of the canonical gospels to the prelude to the conquest of Canaan in the Book of Joshua.

I am increasingly convinced that the fragmentary narrative from Secret Mark which appears in the Letter to Theodore is more original that the 'baptism' story in the canonical gospels.  The reason for this is that the figure crossing the Jordan in Secret Mark is clearly imitating Joshua.  As we saw yesterday in our citation of the Fourth Homily of the Book of Joshua, Origen makes a curious reference to the original significance of the tenth of Nisan with respect to Christian baptism.  How is this possible with the standard John baptizing Jesus narrative which has always been understood to take place on Epiphany.

Indeed let's take a second look at the Epiphany association with Christian baptism.  The oldest reference to the veneration of this celebration appears in the Stromateis when Clement writes:

And the followers of Basilides hold the day of his baptism as a festival, spending the night before in readings. And they say that it was the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, the fifteenth day of the month of Tubi; and some that it was the eleventh of the same month.

For what it is worth, the Basilideans end up venerating the baptism of Christ on the 10th day of the first month of the Roman calendar (= January).  The evidence from Secret Mark would suggest a commemoration of an event which occurred on the tenth of the first month of the Jewish calendar (= 10 Nisan the day Joshua originally crossed the Jordan).  As we have noted in our last post, the last line from Secret Mark is a word for word citation of Joshua 1.15 LXX "εἰς τὸ πέραν τοῦ ιορδάνου ἀπ' ἀνατολῶν ἡλίου."

The question that now arises is if those of us who concede that Secret Mark is indeed a real text - a late second century preservation of Mark's original gospel written in Alexandria - it has to be conceded that this original form was edited and reshaped to form canonical Mark.  The 'baptism' narrative at the beginning of Mark is clearly an attempt to recast the initiated disciples original crossing as something other than an imitation of Joshua's paradigmatic act.  We needn't puzzle over whether it is 'possible' that a gospel could exist without a John the Baptist baptism for we know from Tertullian and other sources that the Marcionite gospel reflects this very reality.  The Marcionites had some sort of 'baptism on behalf of the dead' which may or may not have involved water.  What scriptural passage was this rite developed from?  The Resurrection from the Dead and Initiation of the Rich Youth is as good a possibility as any.  Indeed it is really the only possibility available to us.

Yet I am even wondering if water baptism was necessarily even a feature of the Marcionite rite.  We hear references to the fact that the heretical 'redemption' (ἀπολύτρωσις) rite did not involve water in Irenaeus (AH 1.21.2) This seems to be confirmed in the Nag Hammadi text the Testimony of Truth where the author criticizes his Basilidean, Valentinian and perhaps orthodox contemporaries for engaging in such practices.

I don't know if I will ever be able to convince Christians that nothing is more fundamentally alien to the traditional Jewish and Samaritan understanding of the crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan than to liken it to water immersion.  The ancient Israelites simply did not touch the water during these crossings.  That is the whole point of the 'miracle.'

To this end, the author of the Testimony of Truth (whom I have always supposed to be a Marcionite) goes out of his way to identify the waters of the Jordan as 'pollution':

But the Son of Man came forth from Imperishability, being alien to defilement. He came to the world by the Jordan river, and immediately the Jordan turned back. And John bore witness to the descent of Jesus. For it is he who saw the power which came down upon the Jordan river; for he knew that the dominion of carnal procreation had come to an end. The Jordan river is the power of the body, that is, the senses of pleasures. The water of the Jordan is the desire for sexual intercourse. John is the archon of the womb.

We shall discuss this symbolism in more detail in the next post but it is enough to say here that there is no mistaking that the ritual here does not seem to involve water in any respect. In exactly the same manner as the original crossing narrative, divine power causes the waters of the Jordan to 'go back' exposing the river bottom.

The author of the Testimony of Truth clearly distinguishes the true baptism from the water immersion of the Basilideans, Valentinians and the orthodox. He says that there is "death in the waters. This is the baptism of death which they observe."   Indeed in what follows the identification of 'pollution' being present in the waters of the Jordan serves to distinguish the 'true baptism' of the Son of Man from the practices of the other churches:

there are some, who upon entering the faith, receive a baptism on the ground that they have it as a hope of salvation, which they call the "seal", not knowing that the fathers of the world are manifest (in) that place. But he himself knows that he is sealed. For the Son of Man did not baptize any of his disciples. But [...], if those who are baptized were headed for life, the world would become empty. And the fathers of baptism were defiled.  But the baptism of truth is something else; it is by renunciation of the world that it is found. But those who say only with the tongue that they are renouncing it are lying, and they are coming to the place of fear. Moreover, they are humbled within it. Just as those to whom it was given to have been condemned, they shall get something!

We should be careful to remember that in Secret Mark our reconstruction of the first fragment makes clear that Jesus did not actually baptize the initiated disciple.  After receiving instruction the narrative just says that he crossed to the other side of the Jordan using the exact language of Joshua 1.15 LXX.

In other words, this is not a baptism in the traditional sense.  Once could even conceive of administering the rite by oneself (at least theoretically).  Such 'self-baptisms' are well known in early Christian writings.  Yet I am starting to wonder whether what is being reported in Irenaeus's account of the followers of Mark, the related report of the Anonymous Treatise on Baptism and even Origen's Fourth Homily on Joshua is something entirely removed from water immersion.  I am starting to wonder if Alexandrian Christianity maintained some form of actual 'fire baptism.'

I will explain myself in greater detail in the next post ...

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