THE JEWISH BACKGROUND
OF CHRISTIAN BAPTISM
BY Ron Moseley, Ph. D.
The following article is provided by:
Arkansas Institute of Holy Land Studies
9700 Highway 107 Sherwood, Arkansas 72120
or visit our site at: Arkansas Institute of Holy Land Studies
There is no question that the church is debtor to Judaism for its main structure including such items as Messiah, Scripture, canon, liturgy, altar, pulpit, church offices, songs, offerings, the Lord’s Supper, as well as baptism itself. Dr. Merrill Tenney, the editor of the Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible said, “Baptism as a rite of immersion was not begun by Christians but was taken by them from Jewish and pagan forms….” Since early Christianity was a part of the Judaism of Jesus’ day, it is without question that baptism in today’s church was originally Jewish. Further evidence comes from Scholars like William Lasor and David Daube who tell us of the early church’s practice of baptism by self immersion after the custom of the Jews.
History of the Jewish Mikveh
The term mikveh in Hebrew literally means any gathering of waters, but is specifically used in Jewish law for the waters or bath for the ritual immersion. The building of the mikveh was so important in ancient times it was said to take precedence over the construction of a synagogue. Immersion was so important that it occurred before the high Priest conducted the service on the Day of Atonement, before the regular priests participated in the Temple service, before each person entered the Temple complex, before a scribe wrote the name of God, as well as several other occasions.
The Mishnah attributes to Ezra a decree that each male should immerse himself before praying or studying. There were several Jewish groups that observed ritual immersion every day to assure readiness for the coming of the Messiah. The Church Fathers mentioned one of these groups called Hemerobaptists which means “daily bathers” in Greek. Among those used to regular immersion were the Essenes and others that the Talmud calls tovelei shaharit or “dawn bathers.”
On the third day of creation we see the source of the word mikveh for the first time in Genesis 1:10 when the Lord says, “…to the gathering (mikveh) of waters, He called seas.” Because of this reference in Genesis the ocean is still a legitimate mikveh.
The Mikvaot Around The Temple
The New Testament tells us that many of the early church’s daily activities were centered around the Temple. Historically, we know that there were many ritual immersion baths (mikvaot) on the Temple Mount including one in the Chamber of Lepers situated in the northwest corner of the Court of Women (Mid. 2:5). Josephus tells us that even during the years of war (66-73 A.D.) the laws of ritual immersion were strictly adhered to (Jos. Wars, 4:205). The Temple itself contained immersion baths in various places for the priests to use, even in the vaults beneath the court (Commentary to Tam. 26b; Tam. 1:1). The High Priest had special immersion pools in the Temple, two of which are mentioned in the Mishnah. We are told one of these was in the Water Gate in the south of the court and another was on the roof of the Parva Chamber (Mid. 1:4; Mid. 5:3). There was an additional place for immersion on the Mount of Olives which was connected with the burning of the red heifer (Par. 3:7). A special ramp led to the mikveh on the Mount of Olives from the Temple Mount, which was built as an arched way over another arched way to avoid uncleanness from the graves in the valley below. Recent archaeological excavations have found 48 different mikvaot near the Monumental Staircase leading into the Temple Complex.
Three Basic Areas
According to Jewish law there are three basic areas where immersion in the mikveh is required.
1. Immersion is required for both men and women when converting to Judaism. There were three prerequisites for a proselyte coming into Judaism: Circumcision, baptism, and sacrifice (Maimonides, Hilkh. Iss. Biah xiii. 5). 2. Immersion is required after a woman has her monthly period (Lev. 15:28). 3. Immersion is required for pots and eating utensils manufactured by a non-Jew (Encyclopedia of Jewish Religion p-263).
Besides these, there are other times when it is customary to be immersed in the mikveh such as the occasion before Yom Kippur as a sign of purity and repentance and before the Sabbath in order to sensitize oneself to the holiness of the day.
The Six Descending Orders of Ritual Immersion
There are six descending orders of ritual baths in the Mishnah (Oral Laws of how to accomplish the written Law) and the highest order is that of a spring or flowing river. We see Jesus understanding and fulfilling this order in Matthew 3:16 as He comes to be baptized in the Jordan River “fulfilling all righteousness.” This highest order was called Living Water and illustrated the forgiving of sins, therefore, we hear Jesus using this term concerning Himself (John 4:10-11).
The Water Restrictions
There were also six basic restrictions on the water used in the mikveh including such rules as:
(1) the mikveh can not contain other liquid besides water. (2) The water has to be either built into the ground or be an integral part of a building attached to the ground. (3) The mikveh can not be flowing except for a natural spring, river or ocean. (4) The water can not be manually drawn. (5) The water can not be channeled to the mikveh by anything unclean. (6) The mikveh must contain at least 40 sa’ah or approximately 200 gallons of water.
The term sa’ah is an ancient Biblical measurement equivalent to approximately five gallons. All six requirements come from the original Hebrew words found in Leviticus 11:36. Rabbi Yitzchok ben Sheshes said the amount of 40 sa’ah was derived from the idea that the largest normal human body has a volume of 20 sa’ah, therefore the amount of water needed to “nullify” this body is double this amount or 40 sa’ah.
Why Be Immersed?
To the ancient Jew, the mikveh was a process of spiritual purification and cleansing, especially in relation to the various types of Turmah or ritual defilement when the Temple was in use. Although God has not revealed all the meaning of the mikveh, it is obvious because of the amount of space given to it in Scripture, and the effort of Jesus to fulfill it, the command is of utmost importance. All commands of the Lord fall into three categories:
1. The moral or ethical laws that are necessary for man to live in harmony are known as Mishpatim and are literally translated judgments. 2. The rituals and festivals which reawaken us to important religious truths such as Sabbath, holidays, the Tefillin and the Mezuzah that remind us of God’s presence are known as Edos and are literally translated witnesses. 3. The third group often has no explicit reason given for their existence except for Israel’s identification as God’s chosen people to the other nations (Deuteronomy 4:6). This group of laws are known as Chukim and are literally translated as decrees. Among the decrees of this group are the dietary laws as well as ritual immersion.
How Immersion Was Done
Jewish baptism has never been taken lightly, but in ancient times immersion was to be performed in the presence of witnesses (Yebam. 47b). The person being baptized made special preparations by cutting his nails, undressed completely and made a fresh profession of his faith before the designated “fathers of the baptism” (Kethub. 11a; Erub 15a). This is possibly where churches, sometime later, got the term Godfathers. The individual stood straight up with the feet spread and the hands held out in front. The candidate would totally immerse themselves by squatting in the water with a witness or baptizer doing the officiating. Note the New Testament points out the fact that Jesus came up straightway out of the water (Matthew 3:16).
The earliest drawing of Christian baptism was found on the wall of a Roman catacomb in the second century showing John standing on the bank of the Jordan helping Jesus back to shore after self immersion.
Ancient sages teach that the word mikveh has the same letters as Ko(v)Meh, the Hebrew word for “rising” or “standing tall,” therefore we see the idea of being baptized “straightway.”
Although it is the Jewish belief that repentance is necessary, purification from defilement is done primarily through water, while other effects of sins are covered by blood (Romans 4:7; note the “almost all things” in Hebrews 9:22). The concept of immersion in rabbinic literature is referred to as a new birth (Yeb. 22a; 48b; 97b; Mass. Ger. c.ii). Note six other important aspects of ancient Jewish immersion:
1.Immersion was accompanied by exhortations and benedictions (Maimonides Hilkh. Milah iii.4; Hilkh. Iss, Biah Xiv .6). A convert would reaffirm his acceptance of the Torah by declaring, “I will do and I will hear” which was a phrase from the oath that was originally taken by the priests not to forsake the Torah (Deuteronomy 29:9- 14). This ritual demonstrates the willingness of the convert to forsake his Gentile background and assume his Jewish identity by taking on the status of one who keeps the commandments.
According to a number of Jewish sages, mayim, which is the Hebrew word for water, shares the same root as the word “mah”, meaning “what.” This teaching points out that when a person immerses in water, he is nullifying the fleshly ego and is asking, “what am I?” in the same manner that Moses and Aaron did in Exodus 16:7 when they said to the Lord, “we are what?”
2. The Jewish baptism candidates were often immersed three times. The idea of total immersion comes from the Scripture in Leviticus 15:16 when it says, “he shall wash all his flesh in the water.” One reason it was customary to immerse three times was because the word mikveh occurs three times in the Torah.
3. According to Jewish law the immersion had to have a required witness. Dr. William LaSor in the Biblical Archaeology Review says apparently the Biblical phrase “in the name of” was an indication of the required witness. In several New Testament references such as I Corinthians 1:13, 15; Matthew 21:25; Acts 1:22; and Acts 19:3 we see early baptism mentioned in conjunction with the name of individuals such as John and Paul. Further information on this can be found in Jewish literature concerning proselyte baptism where it indicates his baptism required attestation by witnesses in whose name he was immersed.
4. The immersion candidate was not touched by the baptizer in Jesus’ day. Because Leviticus 15:16 says “He shall wash all his flesh in the water,” Judaism stresses that the entire body must come in contact with the water of the mikveh. To insure the immersion was valid, no clothing or individuals could touch the candidate. Any such intervention that prevented the water from reaching a part of the body was known as Chatzitzah and rendered the immersion invalid. Although the mikveh was more spiritual than physical, often the bath had two sets of steps, one entering and another leaving so as not to defile what had been purified.
5. 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.” According to Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum rabbinic literature uses the term “born again” to refer to at least six different occurrences. Note each of these life changing experiences: (a) When a Gentile converts to Judaism. (b) When an individual is crowned king. (c) At age 13 when a Jewish boy chooses to embrace God’s covenant and be numbered with the believers. (d) When an individual gets married. (e) When an individual becomes a rabbi. (f) When an individual becomes the head of a rabbinical school.
6. Jewish law requires at least three witnesses made up of qualified leaders to be present for certain immersions (Yebam 47b). Ordinarily a member of the Sanhedrin performed the act of observing the proselytes immersion, but in case of necessity others could do it. Secret baptism, or where only the mother brought a child, was not acknowledged.
Repentance Without Baptism
One of the most important teachings in Judaism is that of repentance. According to both Scripture and rabbinic literature, no matter how great the sin, if a person repents and forsakes the sin before God he can be forgiven. As we see in the case of John, Jesus, and all New Testament writers, repentance was always involved. The Jerusalem Talmud states, “nothing can stand before repentance” (Yebamos 47b). According to Dr. David Flusser, the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as the New Testament teach that water can purify the body only if the soul has first been purified through repentance and righteousness.
Water and Blood Both Illustrate God’s Cleansing In Judaism
Both water and blood are used constantly in the Torah and the New Testament as the two main agents to illustrate God’s cleansing. The Jews believe that uncleanness is not physical, but rather a spiritual condition as related in Leviticus 11:44 where it states by wrong actions one can make the “soul unclean.” Therefore, the purification through ritual immersion, as commanded in Scripture is basically involved with the soul, rather than the body. Note how both water and blood are cited in Scripture: (1) Blood is used in cleansing in relation to the Passover Lamb (Exodus 12). (2) Blood is used in cleansing in relation to the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). (3) Blood is used in cleansing in relation to the Feast Offerings (Leviticus 23). (4) Blood is used in cleansing in relation to the five Levitical Offerings (Leviticus 1-7). (5) Blood is used in cleansing in relation to the atonement for the soul (Leviticus 17:11-14).
(1) Water is used in cleansing in relation to the separation and the ashes of the Red Heifer (Numbers 19). (2) Water is used in cleansing in relation to the consecration to priestly ministry (Leviticus 8:6). (3) Water is used in cleansing in relation to the cleansing of the leper (Leviticus 14:1-8). (4) Water is used in cleansing in relation to the different washings of the Law (Hebrews 9:10). (5) Water is used in relation to the remission of sins (Acts 2:38); Titus 3:5; Mark 16:16; Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3; I Peter 3:20-21; Ephesians 5:26; John 19:34; I John 5:6; Hebrews 9:19- 23).
A detailed study of the Jewish background of Christian baptism shows that it is vitally important, but God doesn’t always tell us why. Obviously, the convert could repent and have a part in the life to come without it, but the emphasis seems to be pointing to the taking on of a new “believer” status illustrated as a “new birth” by immersion. In any covenant with the Lord the three items of God’s Word, the blood, and a token are always present (Genesis 17:11). Jesus was always cautious to have three witnesses in everything He did (I John 5:7-8). In the Old Testament circumcision was considered the token of God’s covenant, and in the New Testament we see the same wording concerning baptism as it is referred to as “circumcision made without hands” (Colossians 2:11-12). Whatever religious denomination, all believers should agree that immersion has its roots in the Jewish mikveh of Jesus’ day, and it is of utmost importance for each of us to fulfill this righteous deed.
The Greek for the word ‘baptizo’ means to immerse, plunge, dip, or bury in water.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
I Peter 3:21
This is a symbol of baptism, which now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, it saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
And the angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, Get up, and go toward the south unto the way that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza, which is desert. And he got up and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Isaiah the prophet. Then the Spirit said to Philip, Go near, and stay close to this chariot. And Philip ran up to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, Do you understand what you are reading? And he said, How can I, except someone should guide me? And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. The place of the scripture which he read was this, “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.” And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I ask you, of whom is the prophet speaking? of himself, or of some other man? Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached to him Jesus. And as they went on their way, they came to some water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what keeps me from being baptized? And Philip said, If you believe with all your heart, you may. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stop: and they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and Philip baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, and the eunuch saw him no more: but he went on his way rejoicing. But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea.
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
And he said unto them, Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved, and he that disbelieves shall be condemned.
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewal of the Holy Spirit
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.
And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls
And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.
When Jesus died on the cross, He, who had no sin, paid the death penalty for our sins. Through baptism we are united, or joined with Christ in paying the death penalty for sin. We are baptized into His death, into the death penalty for sin. We, who are unable to return from death because we have sin, are joined to Christ—and since Christ is sinless and was victorious over death, we, now being united with Him through baptism, are made victorious being united with Christ in His resurrection.
Now if God allows us to participate in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (an event which occurred 2000 years ago), through baptism, it can truly be said we are saved through faith and God’s grace!
Baptism can be likened to the Israelites coming up out of the land of slavery, passing through the Red Sea and entering the Promised Land. Baptism can be likened to passing through the flood of Noah. Baptism is about leaving our old sinful, worldly ways behind and taking upon our shoulders the yoke of Christ. It is about lifestyle change and dying to ourselves and doing God’s will instead of ours. Our reason and purpose for living changes after baptism. Afterward is a new way of life. Baptism is about heart, faith, total commitment, surrender, self-denial, death, resurrection, repentance, and seeking God’s mercy through Jesus Christ and the work He did on that cross on that day of infamy 2000 years ago.
1. Baptism is for Believers
Matthew 28:19 Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
2. Baptism is by Immersion
Mark 1:10 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens rent asunder, and the Spirit as a dove descending upon him
3. Baptism Does Not Save (or help to save) Us
Mark 1:8 I baptized you in water; But he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit.
1st Corinthians 12:13 For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Ephesians 4:5 “One Lord, one faith, one baptism”
Galatians 6:15 For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.
4. Baptism is a Symbolic Act
A. It Symbolizes Identification with Jesus
And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper country came to Ephesus, and found certain disciples: and he said unto them, Did ye receive the Holy Spirit when ye believed? And they said unto him, Nay, we did not so much as hear whether the Holy Spirit was given. And he said, Into what then were ye baptized? And they said, Into John’s baptism. And Paul said, John baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people that they should believe on him that should come after him, that is, on Jesus. And when they heard this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.
B. It Symbolizes Christ’s Substitutionary Work
Romans 6:3 Or are ye ignorant that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
C. It Symbolizes Cleansing from Sin
Acts 22:16 And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on his name.
D. Baptism Testifies of the Death Christ Has Made For Us
Romans 6: 4 We were buried therefore with him through baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life.
5. Baptism is Required for Church Membership
Acts 2:41 They then that received his word were baptized: and there were added unto them in that day about three thousand souls.
6. Baptism is Not Dependant upon a Special Person to Administer It
Acts 8:38 And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.