Published: 23 August 2021

Baptism: Where Did It Come From?

Bubbles

There are any number of things God could have commanded to mark our entrance into a new life in Christ. What is the significance of being immersed in water? Can we speculate as to why God may have chosen baptism? I would like to suggest that God chose to use immersion because it was something that the Jews were already doing.

Baptism wasn’t new to first century Jews

It is a common misconception that immersion originated with John the Baptist. 

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mk. 1:4 ESV)

In fact, the Jews had a very long history of immersion for ritual purification. There are a number of commands in the Law of Moses which required washing or bathing of both objects and people to restore the thing or person to a ritually pure state (Lev 15:5, for example). The Hebrew word translated as bathe is rachatz. The word is non-specific regarding the manner of the bathing, but was understood by the rabbis to be full immersion as the following quote explains.

“[T]he Tannaitic and Amoraitic rabbis were completely consistent in assuming that whenever the Torah commands its listeners to “wash” (“rachatz”) in order to remove impurity, nothing but full-body immersion is intended.

This simple, straightforward supposition is later taken up by the medieval sages (Rishonim), as exemplified by [Rabbi] Maimonides in his opening to the laws of mikva’ot, in which he attributes this understanding to an oral tradition (“מפי השמועה”), presumably one which dates all the way back to Sinai (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mikva’ot 1:2):

Every place that the Torah speaks of washing of flesh and laundering of clothing [to purify] from the impurities—nothing other than immersion of the entire body in a mikveh [is meant]. And that which is said of a man with a discharge: “[…] without having rinsed his hands in water” (Lev. 15:11)—that is to say that he must immerse his entire body. And the same is true for all other impure people, that if one immersed his entire body aside from the tip of his small finger—he remains impure.

And although all of these things are [known only] from tradition (mipi hashmuah, literally, “from an oral transmission”), it is nevertheless said [in the written Torah]: “[…] it must be put into water, and it shall be unclean until the even; then shall it be clean” (Lev. 11:32)—a basic principle applying to all that are impure that they should be put into water.”[1]http://thetorah.com/on-the-origins-of-tevilah-ritual-immersion/.

As you can see, the Jews from long ago considered immersion to be the mode of bathing as it pertains to regaining a state of ritual purity.

The Jewish Baptistry

By around 100 BC the Jewish population of Palestine had established dedicated pools of water for the purpose of ritual immersions. These pools, which we today would refer to as baptistries, are known as mikveh (plural mikva’ot) by the Jews. The existence of these mekva’ot demonstrate that the Jews of the late Second Temple period were practicing immersion.  

Mikveh
Mikveh south of Temple Mount, Jerusalem. Photo: BiblePlaces.com

“Large numbers of stepped-and-plastered mikva’ot have been found in excavations in Jerusalem, in outlying villages, as well as at various rural locations. Most of the installations in Jerusalem were in basements of private dwellings and therefore must have served the specific domestic needs of the city inhabitants. Numerous examples are known from the area of the “Upper City” of Second Temple period Jerusalem (the present-day Jewish Quarter and Mount Zion), with smaller numbers in the “City of David” and the “Bezetha Hill.” A few slightly larger mikva’ot are known in the immediate area of the Temple Mount, but these installations could not have met the needs of tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims from outside the city attending the festivities at the Temple on an annual basis. It would appear that the Bethesda and Siloam Pools – to the north and south of the Temple Mount – were designed at the time of Herod the Great to accommodate almost all of the ritual purification needs of the large numbers of Jewish pilgrims who flocked to Jerusalem for the festivals.”[2]https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mikveh#4.

Burge, Cohick, and Green observe that the mikvah was not about hygiene, but ritual purity.

“Most Jewish homes in Jerusalem during Jesus’ day had a mikvah (an underground bathing chamber). A bather entered on one side unclean and exited on the opposite side clean. Such cleansing was not about hygiene; it was a religious ceremony readying a person or object for God’s use.”[3]Burge, Gary M.; Cohick, Lynn H.; Green, Gene L.. The New Testament in Antiquity (p. 171). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.

By the time of Jesus’ ministry, immersion (and the mikveh) was a well established practice which the Jews of Palestine would have been completely familiar and comfortable with. This explains why there is an absence in the gospels of John’s disciples questioning his practice as if it were something strange or new. The many mikva’ot and pools in Jerusalem also helps to explain how the first disciples were able to immerse 3000 people in a short time on the day of Pentecost (Act 2:41).

Proselyte baptism

The process of a gentile converting to Judaism has several elements which are relevant to our own conversions, and not obvious to a non-Jew. The process surely influenced how the very first Jewish Christians must have viewed their own conversion to Jesus.

Scholars generally agree that there is little evidence the Jews practiced proselyte baptism prior to 70 A.D. However, they do not necessarily conclude that it wasn’t being practiced earlier. In the first century BC, rabbis Hillel and Shammi debated proselyte baptism .

Since Christian baptism is an imitation of proselyte immersion as required by Jewish law, we can establish that immersion was a requirement for conversion to Judaism before the redaction of the books of the New Testament, that is, the latter part of the first century A.D. An argument between the houses of Hillel and Shammai regarding the details of proselyte immersion already indicates that this requirement was in force by their time.[4]Feldman, Louis H., editor. Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity. Brill, 1987, 305.

While there is no very clear evidence for the practice of baptizing proselytes at a date prior to the ministry of John [the Baptist], it is in the highest degree improbable that Judaism adopted a practice which had already become an essential practice of Christianity, and the opinion is today generally held that, despite the paucity of evidence, it is scarcely to be doubted that the Jewish practice antedates the ministry of John the Baptist.”[5]Rowley, Harold Henry. “Jewish Proselyte Baptism and the Baptism of John.” Hebrew Union College Annual 15 (1940): 313. 

Like a child newly born

Gentiles wishing to convert to Judaism, after learning the law, submitted to circumcision and immersion as the final steps into the Jewish faith. The Talmud (oral law) states, “When he comes up after his immersion, he is deemed an Israelite in all respects” (Yevamot 47b). Rabbi Yose says in the Talmud, “One who has become a proselyte is like a child newly born”  (Yevamot 48b). 

“The baptismal water (Mikveh) in rabbinic literature was referred to as the womb of the world, and as a convert came out of the water it was considered a new birth separating him from the pagan world. As the convert came out of these waters his status was changed and he was referred to as “a little child just born” or “a child of one day” (Yeb. 22a; 48b; 97b). We see the New Testament using similar Jewish terms as “born anew,” “new creation,” and “born from above.”[6]McFadden, Jeff, One Baptism. Lulu.com, 2006, 55.

“A Jewish proselyte was said to be born again, when baptised.”[7]”Baptism.” in The London Encyclopaedia. Vol. 3. London: Thomas Tegg, 1829. 496.

In our own conversions, we also separated ourselves from a pagan world, underwent a circumcision (of the heart), and submitted to immersion. In this way, we are like the proselytes who converted to Judaism. 

Conclusion

Jesus took something the people were already accustomed to and re-purposed it. Immersion was not new with John’s ministry, nor was it new with Christianity. One notable difference was that while Jewish immersion was for ritual purification, both John’s immersion and Christian immersion was for the forgiveness of sins (Mar 1:4, Luk 3:3, Act 2:38).

In the next post, we’ll consider the Holy Spirit’s role in our conversion.

References

References
1 http://thetorah.com/on-the-origins-of-tevilah-ritual-immersion/.
2 https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mikveh#4.
3 Burge, Gary M.; Cohick, Lynn H.; Green, Gene L.. The New Testament in Antiquity (p. 171). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.
4 Feldman, Louis H., editor. Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity. Brill, 1987, 305.
5 Rowley, Harold Henry. “Jewish Proselyte Baptism and the Baptism of John.” Hebrew Union College Annual 15 (1940): 313.
6 McFadden, Jeff, One Baptism. Lulu.com, 2006, 55.
7 ”Baptism.” in The London Encyclopaedia. Vol. 3. London: Thomas Tegg, 1829. 496.