On the Monday nearest to June 24, people in St. John’s celebrate St. John’s Day.
According to tradition, John Cabot discovered the island of Newfoundland on June 24, 1497. The rest of the province calls the day Discovery Day.
In the Roman Catholic Church year, June 24 marks the feast of an important figure for Christian history, St. John the Baptist, whom we have to distinguish from that other biblical John, St. John the Evangelist, to whom the Fourth Gospel is attributed.
What distinguishes the patron saint of St. John’s from other figures of Christianity’s past is the activity that defined his name: baptism.
Who among us who came of age in the 1960s can forget the playful recasting of the baptism of Jesus by John in Bethesda Fountain of New York City’s Central Park, as depicted in David Green’s film adaptation of the musical “Godspell?”
A historical reality check, however, will quickly demonstrate that the pouring of water over “Jesus’” head in Central Park hardly resembled the immersion that likely took place in the River Jordan.
Here, the public baptisms by Pentecostals at Mundy Pond, as recounted in Joey Smallwood’s memoirs, represent more accurately those performed by John the Baptist.
Let us examine a little more closely the practice and meaning of this defining rite in the first century of our common era.
That John baptized contemporaries is quite certain since we can read about it not only in the four gospels and the book of Acts, but also in the Jewish Antiquities of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who records that for John, baptism was a necessary requirement “to be acceptable to God.”
According to the gospels, John proclaimed to his self-satisfied religious contemporaries the need for repentance in the face of God’s impending judgment, followed by a demonstrable baptism.
Linked with repentance was the good news that God forgave those who turned their lives around and that the hoped-for messiah was not far off.
Early Christians saw the beginnings of their own movement as a fulfilment of what John the Baptist had been preparing. This was all the more plausible since Jesus himself had been baptized by his somewhat reluctant forerunner John.
Similarities and differences
In trying to find a context and possible parallels for John’s activities, biblical interpreters and historians have drawn attention to two contemporary practices: the baptism of Gentile proselytes who entered Judaism, and the ritual washings of the Essene community at Qumran.
Yet, while there are some striking parallels, Everett Ferguson — who recently published a tome of nearly 1,000 pages on Baptism in the Early Church — points also to profound differences in meaning and practice.
Proselyte baptism, through which Gentiles became Jews, was, like John’s baptism, a one-time event of initiation, but exhibited neither the urgency of John’s end-time oriented message nor his emphasis on forgiveness of sins.
While the Qumran sectarians shared a vivid notion of living in the end-time, the eschatological link is missing from the repeated ritual cleansings practised in this community.
Ferguson observes that John the Baptist was noted by his contemporaries for linking with baptism explicitly “repentance and forgiveness of sins so that people would be ready for the coming of the Lord.”
“His baptism,” according to this scholar of early Christianity, “was a conversion baptism, but not a variation of proselyte baptism; its premise was repentance, and its purpose was the forgiveness of sins; it was not the basis of a new Israel or to join a new community.”
Likewise, while Christian baptism was similar to that of John, it was also strikingly different.
Both rites were administered once for the forgiveness of sins, but Christian baptism was crucially linked to a confession of Jesus and baptism in his name.
“The major difference that was stressed,” Ferguson adds, “in addition to the connection with faith in Jesus as the Messiah who had come, was the offer of the Holy Spirit in Christian baptism.”
Hans J. Rollmann is Professor of Religious Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.