Isaiah 40:3 (continued)
Having briefly discussed the key passage of Isa 40:3ff in the previous note, it remains to explore further the association with John the Baptist in Gospel tradition. To understand the original context and background of this association, it is helpful to turn to the texts from the Qumran Community (the Dead Sea Scrolls). I will be discussing here two principal aspects which shed light on the establishment of the early Christian tradition regarding John the Baptist (and his relationship with Jesus):
- The Eschatological interpretation of Isa 40:3, as evidenced in the Qumran texts, and
- The possible relationship between John the Baptist and the Qumran Community
1. The Eschatological Interpretation of Isa 40:3
While the original setting of Isa 40 would appear to be the promise of the restoration of Judah and the return from exile, certain features of the prophecy, like many in (Deutero-)Isaiah, came to be viewed from an eschatological standpoint—as a promise of what God would do for his people in the future, at the end-time. Interpreted in this light, the herald (or “voice”) of vv. 3ff is calling on people to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord (YHWH) at the end-time, when he will rescue/deliver his people and bring Judgment upon the world. This eschatological orientation is reflected strongly in the Community of the Qumran texts, written primarily between the period of 150 B.C. and the first years of the common era (A.D.). Many of these writings evince a belief that the end was near, and that the Community, as the faithful ones (or “remnant”) of Israel, held a central place in the work of God that was about to take place. This is expressed most clearly in two central documents which shape and define the history and character of the Community—the “Community Rule” [1QS, etc] and the so-called Damascus Document [CD/QD]. The importance of Isaiah 40:3 in terms of the Community’s self-identity is seen in the Community Rule [1QS] 8:12-16; 9:19-20:
“And when these have become /a community/ in Israel /in compliance with these arrangements/, they are to be segregated from within the dwelling of the men of sin, to walk to the desert in order to open there His path. As it is written: ‘In the desert, prepare the way of [YHWH], straighten in the steppe a roadway for our God’. This is the study of the Law which he commanded through the hand of Moses, in order to act in compliance with all that has been revealed from age to age, and according to what the prophets have revealed through His holy Spirit.” (8:12-16a)
“This is the time for making ready the path to the desert, and he will teach them about all that has been discovered, so that they can carry it out in this moment…” (9:19-20)
The Community of these texts has separated from all other people, living apart together in the desert (presumably at the site of Khirbet Qumrân, among others[?]), devoting themselves to a strict communal lifestyle centered on the study and exposition/interpretation of the Law and Prophets. This Way (Heb. Er#D#) in the desert is a “way of holiness” (cf. Isa 35:8ff; 57:14), which also draws upon several important images and ideas from Israelite history and the oracles of the Prophets (esp. Deutero-Isaiah):
- The return of exiles to the Land—defined in terms of the the coming of salvation from God (Isa 62:10-11)
- This is parallel to the way of the Israelites through the wilderness (i.e. the Exodus traditions) into the Promised Land (Isa 11:16; 48:21; 51:10-11)
- This same salvation is also understood more properly in an eschatological sense, in terms of the coming Judgment (Isa 1:27-31, etc)
These aspects play on the dual meaning of the verb bWv (šû», “turn, return”)—i.e., (1) the return from exile and the restoration of Israel, and (2) a return to God, that is, a turning back away from sin. The Qumran Community refers to itself at times as <yb!v* (š¹»îm), “ones turning/returning”, in two qualified senses:
- The š¹»ê Yi´r¹°¢l—the faithful ones or “converts” of Israel, i.e. those who have joined the Community (CD 4:2-3; 6:3-7)
- The š¹»ê peša±—the ones who have turned away (i.e. repented) from sin (CD 2:5; 20:17; 1QS 1:17; 10:20; 1QHa VI.24; X.9; XIV. 6); the expression is likely derived from Isaiah 59:20f.
By turning from sin and the wickedness/faithlessness of the world, and joining the Community, one follows the “way of holiness” and prepares for the end-time Judgment and the salvation God will bring for his faithful ones.
2. John and the Qumran Community
There are a number of similarities between the ministry of John the Baptist and the Community of the Qumran texts:
- The desert location. Based on the evidence from the Gospels, as well as subsequent Christian tradition, much of John’s ministry would have taken place in the Judean desert, not all that far from the site of Qumrân.
- The central importance of Isa 40:3 (cf. above). In Jn 1:23, it is John himself who makes the identification with Isa 40:3.
- The practice of ritual washing/cleansing. For the importance of this for the Qumran Community, see esp. 1QS 2:25-3:12; 4:20-22; 5:8-23. Ritual washing marked the person’s entrance into the Community; in addition, there were regular washings for various times or occasions.
- An eschatological emphasis. Warning of the coming Judgment (or anger/wrath) of God was a significant element in both the Qumran texts and in the preaching of John (according to the Gospels). For the Qumran evidence, see e.g., CD 1:5; 10:9; 1QHa VII.17; XI. 28; XXII.5; 1QpHab i.12; 4Q169 1-2.
- The importance of repentance. Cf. the Qumran references cited directed above, as well as the self-identification based on the verb bWv (šû») listed earlier above. The related Hebrew word hb*WvT= (t®šû»â) generally corresponds to the Greek meta/noia (Mk 1:4 par, etc).
- Opposition to Pharisees and other (religious) leaders. This is attested only indirectly in the Qumran texts, such as the pesher (commentary) on Nahum (4QpNah [4Q169] fragments 3-4); cf. also CD 5:13-14; 6:11-14, etc. In the Gospels, note Matt 3:7ff par, and Jn 1:19ff.
- Fire and Spirit. The Baptist’s saying in Mk 1:8; Matt 3:11 par regarding cleansing/purification by fire and the (holy) Spirit has an interesting parallel, too, in the Community Rule (1QS 4:20-21):
“the time appointed for Judgment… Then God will refine, with his truth, all men’s deeds, and will purify for himself the structure of man… and cleansing him with the spirit of holiness from every wicked deed. He will sprinkle over him the spirit of truth like lustral water (in order to cleanse him) from all… defilement”
These points of similarity have prompted many commentators to allow at least the possibility that John the Baptist had some contact with the Qumran Community (usually identified, in various ways, with the Essenes). Josephus, according to his own testimony, had spent time with the Essenes, and describes an ascetic figure similar in certain respects to John (Life §§11-12). Moreover, Josephus also refers to the Essene practice of ‘adopting’ children and raising them according to their own teachings and practices (Jewish War 2.120, for more on the Essenes, cf. throughout 2.119-161). If one accepts the biographical details of the Lukan Infancy narrative, John came from a priestly family, and his parents, presumably, would have died when he was quite young. This would have made him a strong candidate, perhaps, for joining the Essenes (and/or the Qumran Community) as a youth. All of these factors make this at least a plausible scenario.
Whether or not John the Baptist had any real contact with the Qumran Community, if he identified himself with Isa 40:3 (cf. Jn 1:23), such as they did, then we are immediately transported beyond a specific Christian interpretation of the passage. At the earliest (historical) level of Gospel tradition, John would have viewed himself as fulfilling the role of the Isaian herald, and, through his preaching and ministry, he was preparing “the Way of the Lord”—that is, preparing God’s people for His end-time appearance and the coming Judgment on humankind. It is important to keep this possibility in mind as we explore the way that the earliest traditions were interpreted and developed within the Gospel heritage.
Translations of the Qumran texts given above (adapted slightly) are from The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, ed. by Florentino García Martínez & Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (Brill/Eerdmans: 1997-8 & 2000).