Wednesday, May 25, 2011

(3) Holy Land

Cruising alongside a river can make one hard pressed as to
where they are at. After Nazareth and Sepphoris, on another day,
I found myself standing by the River Jordan where Jesus was
baptized by John the Baptist. Where I was standing, this river
seemed more a stream to me--considering I come from a country
of huge expansive rivers.

I had to do some follow-up study about the River Jordan. At
least the geographers agreed with me, in that they refer to this
river as a shallow stream. It rises in Syria and flows some 200
miles south through the Sea of Galilee to the northern end of the
Dead Sea.

As for where Jesus was baptized, there has been some debate
as to any precise location. For years most modern Christian
visitors (who wished to be baptized or re-baptized) went to
Yardinet, on the western side of the River Jordan in Israel.
However, more recently a challenge for the baptismal site has
come from Jordan. Scholars there declare that the more likely
place where Jesus was baptized was on the eastern side of
the river, at a place called Bethany Beyond the Jordan. Not to
be confused with the Bethany near Jerusalem, this particular
Bethany in Jordan has been considered John the Baptist's

So one is left to take their pick, I suppose. But what interests
me more is why Jesus would require baptism? What did baptism
mean back then, in his day? From what I could discover, the
historical background of this is that the Baptist's baptism rite is
probably Jewish proselyte baptism, with John emphasizing by
this that both Jew and Gentile were ceremonially unclean as far
as the true people of God were concerned. Hence, as scholars
put, the baptism of Jesus by John is to be explained not as a sign
that Jesus needed repentence, but rather that by this act he was
identifying himself with mankind in the proper approach to
God's kingdom.

As Scripture tells us, after being baptized Jesus headed into the
desert where he struggled with the dark power for 40 days and
40 nights. I, too, followed the River Jordan southward heading
into the desert,

Driving into the desert was not as gradual as I thought it would
be,especially after leaving the valleys and hills of Lower Galilee
where Jesus had lived. It seemed suddenly that we were in the
Judean Desert, assumed to be where Jesus headed after his
baptism. Though there's always speculation, one cannot
presume to know the exact part of the desert where Jesus

The Judean Desert is not a sandy Sahara, but rather a
mountainous and rocky landscape. Essentially, it is a scrub-
coveed badland; but it does have intermittent oases. As I
looked out upon this rough place, I really had to wonder how
any man--including Jesus--could have survived on his own for
some 40 days and nights. It could be that Jesus was already
familiar with this desert, knowing where the oases were located.
But climbing and walking alone out there in that demanding
place would imply a certain physical and mental toughness!
As for battling the dark power, well this would be the place to
do it.

As we continued towards the Dead Sea we passed the mountain
caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Those
Scrolls are a story all by their selves, consisting of three types of
materials: (1) a collection of copies of the actual books of the
Hebrew Scriptures; (2) commentaries on these biblical texts; and
(3) material that offers insight into the life of the community,
presumably the reported Essene monastic establishment at
nearby Qumran. There's continuous debate regarding the Scrolls
and Qumran, from wondering if the Scrolls included parts of the
Temple Library to whether Qumran was actually an Essene

Nonetheless, speculation runs wild. And some of that speculation
may not be unreasonable. A lot of focus is on John the Baptist--
presumably a kin of Jesus. Could the Baptist have been an
Essene, perhaps somehow linking Jesus to the Essenes?

All I can justifiably say is that there were three major religious
groups in the Holy Land at the time of Jesus: the Saddacees, a
priestly group; the Pharisees, who were concerned with the Law
of Moses and were kind of "moral policemen;" and the Essenes,
a puritanical reform group noted for their abstemious living.

As for the Essenes, specifically, they had their own communities,
lived in villages of their own or in establishments in larger cities.
Of course, too, they had monastic communities composed of male
celibates, who adopted children so as to guarantee continuance
of the monastery. When it comes to Jesus, we can only wonder o
ver but not prove if he ever had any links with the Essenes.

There were similarities: a close community life; sharing a common
purse; baptism; healing ministry with power through the hands;
and the importance given to common meals. However, Essenes
did not go out into the world, like Jesus; and Jesus enjoyed festive
meals, whereas Essenes were quite picky. And Jesus was loose
with puritanical laws, so valued by the Essenes.