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baptism in Nag Hammadi writings

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  • Yuri Kuchinsky
    Dear friends, This article about baptism in Nag Hammadi writings may be of interest to gthomas members. While baptism is not mentioned in GOT specifically, the
    Message 1 of 1 , May 5, 2000
      Dear friends,

      This article about baptism in Nag Hammadi writings may be of interest to
      gthomas members.

      While baptism is not mentioned in GOT specifically, the talk about "five
      trees" may be a reference to it. The first part of this review is avalable





      Majella Franzmann, _Jesus in the Nag Hammadi writings_, T & T Clark,


      The whole question of baptism, and how it is portrayed in Nag Hammadi
      writings, is quite complicated.

      As Franzmann writes, only one passage in the whole NH corpus portrays
      Jesus unambiguously as being baptised by John,

      "The only clear references to baptism for the Jesus
      figure occur in Gos. Phil." (p. 113)

      This seems to indicate that the idea of Jesus being baptised by JB was
      seen with some discomfort in the circles that produced these documents.
      But, of course, this event is also seen very ambiguously in the canonical
      gospels as well.

      (Franzmann also notes that there's another possible reference to such a
      baptism in Tri. Trac. (125.5-7), but the text is fragmentary, and the
      meaning is not very clear. (p. 113))

      My own feeling, based on recent research, is that Jesus was a close
      associate of JB, and would have been baptised by JB. But later, this whole
      association of Jesus and JB became controversial, and yet later was even
      seen in some Christian circles as "heretical". So baptism, both of Jesus
      by JB, and of Jesus per se, started to be a cause of considerable
      controversy. This is reflected in Lk and Jn especially.

      Some scholars believe that there's no clear precedent in first century
      Jewish practice for a baptism of initiation similar to later Christian
      baptism. But others disagree. So this is a complicated matter, but such a
      baptism of initiation may have existed.

      It is generally thought that the baptism of John was quite different from
      Christian baptism, since it was a mass baptism, everyone was welcome, and
      no special requirements or preparation were apparently made for it besides
      the general repentance. But again, the matter is complicated, because we
      don't really know so much about the baptism of John.

      It seems like a lot of gnostic influences entered the Jesus movement after
      the messianic expectations were disappointed post 70. Gnosticism seems to
      have been rife in the Jesus movement in the 2nd century, and a lot of this
      is reflected in deutero-Pauline texts. Many of these ideas probably came
      from Hellenistic magical sources. This is what Morton Smith liked to
      attribute to the Historical Jesus. And yet these ideas are more plausibly
      attributed to later gnostic admixtures.

      In any case, earliest Christian baptism is obscure, enigmatic, and also
      quite controversial. So here the connection of Jesus and JB may provide
      the best leads.

      What light may we derive from the NH texts about any of this? I'm afraid
      there's not that much that appears to be very early. It seems reasonably
      clear that many if not most of the controversies associated with baptism
      that we see in the following NH texts are controversies from later
      historical periods.

      The Paraphrase of Shem.

      The portrayal of baptism in this NH work is highly intriguing. But there
      is considerable disagreement among scholars as to what sort of baptism
      exactly is being portrayed. The text talks about the Saviour, named as
      Derdekeas, coming down to the water, and possibly being baptised. But it
      is not exactly clear that Derdekeas is being baptised.

      One thing that emerges clearly is that the baptism is viewed negatively in
      this text. We are seeing here some sort of an anti-baptism polemic, and it
      seems quite possible that it is directed against John the Baptist.

      While most scholars in this area assume that the scene in 32.5-15 refers
      to the baptism of Jesus by JB, Franzmann, for her own part, has some
      doubts about this,

      "There is nothing in the text itself to suggest the
      canonical traditions about the baptism of Jesus, yet the
      baptizer is invariably identified by scholars as John and
      the baptised as Jesus (she cites here as examples
      Sevrin, Orbe, and Evans)." (p. xviii)

      According to Franzmann, while some sort of an anti-baptism polemic is
      apparent in the text, the identity of the group targeted in this polemic
      is not too clear,

      "...even the target of the polemic cannot be identified
      clearly as mainstream Christian church, or the followers
      of John, or some Jewish or Jewish-Christian baptizing
      group." (p. xviii)

      According to our text, early on, Derdekeas speaks of his future appearance
      "in the baptism of the demon" (31.17-19). According to Franzmann,

      "This may be what is described in 32.5-15 although
      there are no details concerning what the demon actually
      does. The reader is told of Derdekeas coming down to
      the water, the conflict between him and the whirlpools
      and flames of fire, followed by his rising from the water
      in the light of faith and the unquenchable fire."

      While Franzmann herself concludes that, in the text, "...baptism is not
      certain but possible", for my own part, I cannot see any plausible
      alternative to the conclusion that it is the baptism of Jesus by JB that
      is being portrayed. But the view of this event in the text is far from a
      conventional catholic view, since JB is seen as a "demonic" figure. A
      possible indication of lateness of this polemic.

      The Testimony of Truth.

      Baptism is portrayed negatively in this document,

      "Earlier in the text, we read that the Son of Man came
      forth from Imperishability (30.18-19) and came to the
      world by the Jordan river (30.20-22). At first sight this
      appears to be a reference to the baptism of Jesus at
      the Jordan, but both the Jordan and John the Baptist
      are perceived in negative terms: the Jordan as the
      power of the body and the senses of pleasure (30.30-
      31.1), its waters as the desire for sexual intercourse
      (31.1-3) [Here she footnotes some interesting parallels
      found in the Mandaean scriptures], John as the archon
      of the womb (31.3-5). [In the footnote, she says that the
      concept of JB as the "archon of the womb" is paralleled
      in the negative view of baptism in the above mentioned
      Paraph. Shem as "baptism of the demon"]".

      The Second Treatise of the Great Seth.

      This text contains clear polemic against the Pauline version of baptism as
      the "baptism of the death of Jesus".

      "...self-knowledge is necessary for knowing the Christ
      perfectly. ... [so-called Christians, the opponents of this
      community] follow false teaching (=slavery), such as
      believing that they must die with Christ (49.25-27). They
      have been led astray by the archons who proclaim a
      doctrine of the dead man, Jesus, which is a lie
      designed to resemble the freedom and purity of the
      perfect assembly (60.21-25)." (pp. 186-7)

      The same theme is also apparent in the G Phil, where the connection of
      baptism with death is rejected.

      "By perfecting the water of baptism, Jesus emptied it of
      death. Thus we do go down into the water, but we do
      not go down into death, in order that we may not be
      poured out into the spirit of the world."

      Thomas the Contender.

      This community seems to be undergoing persecution, including apparently
      from other Christians. They practice some sort of false baptism. "They
      have baptised their souls in the water of darkness." (144.1) (p. 191)


      As I've said above, these controversies associated with baptism as
      reflected in NH texts seem to be mostly later controversies in the
      movement. Some of them were clearly associated with the struggles between
      Pauline pro-Gentile factions, and the more traditionalist Jewish-Christian
      Ebionite factions. These theological struggles are known well enough from
      various sources, especially from pseudo-Clementine literature. The more
      traditionalist veteran believers probably resented some of the ideas of
      the new arrivals to the faith.

      A negative portrayal of JB in these texts may be explainable by them being
      a product of later, more Pauline-oriented gnostic factions.

      What seems to emerge rather clearly is that in the later Christian
      movement there was a lot of opposition to the idea that Jesus was baptised
      by John, or that he needed to be baptised by John. And this of course is
      also evident in the very ambivalent attitude to baptism by JB in the
      canonical gospels, themselves, especially in Lk and Jn where a number of
      rather inconsistent and even contradictory portrayals of baptism are
      found. One senses that even in proto-catholic circles that produced the
      canonicals there was a lot of background controversy in this area.

      The canonical gospel of Mark begins with the baptism by JB, of course, and
      such a version of the ministry of the HJ is rarely challenged in today's
      scholarship. But in early times, apparently, this was controversial, and
      this can explain the desire to disguise the connection between Jesus and
      JB as evident in Lk and Jn. The origins of the Jesus movement in the JB
      movement, and the probable fact that Jesus movement was in the beginning
      Ebionite, i.e. entirely Jewish, was a problem for the later mostly
      Gentile-oriented mainstream. Controversies raged in this area, from what
      we can see, and the gospels were re-edited accordingly. So this can also
      explain some of the controversies as are visible in these NH texts.

      One thing is very clear, there was a lot of complex controversies about
      the baptism and its nature among earliest Christians. Some of these
      controversies may have began very early indeed. Pauline literature,
      including some of the passages that Paul himself may have authored,
      already speaks about various competing baptisms as being administered by
      various earliest missionaries. And as various versions of Christianity
      evolved theologically, controversies about baptisms probably continued,
      while changing shape.

      The question of the multiple baptisms was also probably debated intensely
      by various early Christian factions, so this should complicate this matter
      even further.

      We know that the baptism of initiation was a very important ritual for
      early Christians. But when exactly was this ritual introduced, or was it
      simply borrowed from JB? Did Jesus himself baptise some of his disciples?
      Probably yes, but these are difficult questions indeed.

      My own feeling is that the Historical Jesus baptised, and with a baptism
      probably similar to JB. It is possible that JB and Jesus may have
      practiced multiple baptisms -- some for the general public, and others for
      selected disciples, which baptisms probably would have been some sort of
      secret baptisms of wisdom -- gnostic type of baptisms.

      There was a lot of secrecy about early Christian rituals in general, as we
      know from numerous historical sources, so such secrecy must have
      originated somewhere. Secrecy associated with early Christian rituals
      declined substantially as Christianity progressed, and very little of this
      remained in later periods, but modern day scholars and believers alike are
      often unaware of these past developments.

      Gnostic baptisms were usually multiple -- there were baptismal cycles. An
      appropriate form of baptism was administered to an initiate as a symbol of
      entering into a higher degree of initiation. Multiple baptisms, such as a
      cycle of five or of three baptisms, are well known from various early
      sources, including NH. For example, here is an example of three baptisms
      being mentioned,


      On the Origin of the World ("The Untitled Text")


      "So, too, there are three baptisms - the first is the spiritual,
      the second is by fire, the third is by water."


      See also an interesting passage in Heb 6:1-2 where "baptisms" in the
      plural are mentioned as part of the "elementary Christian instruction",

      "Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about
      Christ ... instruction about baptisms, the laying on of
      hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment."

      And here's a passage from the Gospel of Philip that Franzmann does not
      comment upon,

      "The chrism is superior to baptism, for it is from the word
      "Chrism" that we have been called "Christians," certainly
      not because of the word "baptism". And it is because of the
      chrism that "the Christ" has his name."

      This passage indicates that, surprisingly enough, in some of these
      sectarian "gnostic" circles baptism was not seen as such a key ritual. And
      yet it was perhaps the most important ritual for the proto-catholics.

      Best wishes,


      Yuri Kuchinsky || Toronto


      The goal proposed by Cynic philosophy is apathy, which is
      equivalent to becoming God -=O=- Julian
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