95. Baptism in the First Century

Richard Veach

Where did the practice of baptism originate? Could the idea of baptizing converts come from the many lustrations used in the purification rites that are found in the tabernacle laws? Perhaps it was adopted from the use of the Mikveh during the first and/or second Temple periods.

Proselytes to Judaism were required to comply with the same laws for conversion as the native Israelite based on Nu. 15:14-16 which basically says that there is one law for the native born and stranger alike. “From the law that proselyte and native Israelite should be treated alike the inference was drawn that circumcision, the bath of purification, and sacrifice were prerequisites for conversion.” “They (laws of immersion) are also obligatory for the immersion of proselytes, as part of the ceremony of conversion.” Proselyte immersion is as old as the Tabernacle era. “Since Israel had always known the ‘stranger within the gates’ proselyte baptism is as old as the Levitical code.” “The principal method of purification is immersion in a miqve (mikveh), literally a gathering of water; this is the origin of Christian baptism.”

It seems then that there is sufficient supportive evidence to be able to trace the baptism of the disciples of Yeshua back to the practice of proselyte immersion during the days of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. There are, of course, major differences in what was expected of the candidate and what the immersion would accomplish when completed. For the Israelite and Gentile proselyte it represented a change from a pagan life of worshiping many gods to committing to a life of obedience and worship of the one and only true God, YHVW, the God of Israel, and to complete observance of the laws of the covenants and the Torah. When a Gentile proselyte completed the conversion process he or she was considered an Israelite in every way, partaker of the covenants, able to participate in all of the feasts, could offer sacrifices, and was considered a Jew in every way. “At his conversion the proselyte began a completely new life as a Jew; he was ‘like a new-born child.’ His entire Gentile past was annulled, which meant two things: his sins were wiped out, together with his past; and his former family relations were annulled, from now on he had no father or mother, and only such offspring and family as he made after conversion. So complete was this break with the past that in theory a proselyte could marry any of his or her former relatives.” (Marrying ones relatives is, of course, a Rabbinic ruling and not a biblical principal and could be the reason Paul addresses incest in the church in 1 Cor. 5:1). “The view that conversion from heathenism to Judaism implies a new life, whether a dying and rising again, or a new birth, is firmly attested in the Talmud.” The prerequisites and affects of Christian Baptism are quite different, but how did we get from the Tabernacle immersions and lustrations to Christian Baptism?

What was the baptism of John the Baptizer? How was his baptism different from the Tabernacle, the Temple, and Christian Baptism? John’s Baptism was different from that of Christian Baptism and was a departure from the practice of proselyte immersion in the Mikveh of the Temple. It was restricted to Israelites and served to bridge the gap between the Temple immersions and Christian Baptism. John is the Preparer of the way of the Lord (Isa 40:3-4) and his baptism is a baptism of repentance and a call to turn to God for the kingdom of God is at hand. “The baptism of John was a (“baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”) (Mk1:4 KJV and parallels); it was intended for Jews, not for Gentiles, and the purpose of ordinary immersions according to the Torah~ritual cleansing of the body~seems not to have played a major role in John’s baptism”. “The difference between the baptisms of John and Jesus was that baptism in the name of Jesus imparted the Spirit. So, baptism and the Spirit belong closely together in the early Christian consciousness. One of those who were baptized by John was Jesus. Christians later came to consider this event as having instituted Christian baptism. The New Testament leaves no doubt that the baptism of John was in many respects and important precursor of Christian baptism not least because Jesus himself was baptized by John.”

During the early first century when an individual was born again, believing that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God they were taken to water by one who witnessed the conversion and baptized without further delay. There is sufficient evidence of this throughout the book of Acts, I will cite just two such occurrences: “Then Peter said unto them, repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:38, 41) “But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” (Acts 8:12) As the church grew it acquired more Gentiles than Jews and began to introduce a form of baptismal rites within the church much like the Jewish rite of proselyte baptism. The following examples compare the Christian baptism and Jewish proselyte baptism and are quoted from the book “In The Shadow of The Temple” by Oskar Skarsaune, pp. 359, 360.

“The usual form of baptism was immersion. This is inferred from the original meaning of the Greek ß?pt?sµa and ßapt???; (both of which mean, immersion, submersion). From the analogy of John’s baptism in the Jordan; from the apostles’ comparison of the sacred rite with the miraculous passage of the Red Sea, with the escape of the ark from the flood, with a cleansing and refreshing bath, and with burial and resurrection; finally, from the general custom of the ancient church, which prevails in the East to this day.” “Triple immersion, that is thrice dipping the head while standing in the water, was the all but universal rule of the church in early times.”

Christian baptismJewish proselyte baptism
The candidates are asked about their conversion (Apostolic Tradition 16).The candidates are asked about their motives for conversion (TB Yevamot 47a). (TB=Babylonian Talmud)
The candidates must have witnesses who can guarantee their sincerity (Apostolic Tradition 16.2)Two or three witnesses required at baptism (TB Yevamot 46b).
Pre-baptismal instruction in ethical Catechism (Didache 1-5, Justin, First Apology 61, Apostolic Tradition 16-17)Instruction in some of the heavier and some of the lighter commandments (TB Yevamot 47a).
Immediately before baptism: Exorcisms, prayer and fasting (Didache 7; First Apology 61; Apostolic Tradition 20.3-10).Proselyte Aseneth praying and fasting (Joseph and Aseneth 10-13).
Candidate renouncing the devil=rejection of idol worship (Apostolic Tradition 21.9).Aseneth renouncing the devil and idols (Joseph and Aseneth 10:8-13, 12:9-12).
Baptism preferably in “living [running] water,” but also in a basin (Didache 7).Baptism in “flowing water” (Sibylline Oracles 4:162-70), or in a mikveh.
Water to touch every part of the body, women should loosen their hair and take off all jewelry, nobody bring an alien object with them (Apostolic Tradition 21.5).Water to touch every part of the body, women should untie their hair and nobody let an object come between the water and their body (TB Bava Qamma 82a/b).
After baptism: participation in first eucharist, Bringing bread/wine as first offering (First Apology 65; Apostolic Tradition 20.10; 23.1).After baptism: participation in first Passover meal; bringing of sacrifice (Mishna Pesahim 8:8; Keritot 2:1).

The Christian Church has inherited many customs and traditions from Judaism that have a very ancient origin, many as far back as the Tabernacle period. There is great value and much insight to be gained in studying the Hebraic roots of Christianity. The first century church is the model of the church that the Lord has given us and He imparted that vision of the church to His apostles so that they would pass it on to the world. I believe there is a definite move of the Holy Spirit that is drawing all those who seek Him to return to the Biblical roots of their Christian faith.

(This article was first published in the third series of Tishrei Journals, Number 6, September 2009)



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