Bible Baptism Three

Carefully Studying The Baptism Texts Of The New Testament (Three)

It is written:

The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

There is another important association between Christian baptism and the Jewish Old Covenant context that we need to consider: proselyte baptism.

A proselyte is someone that converts from one religion to another.

In the ancient world, when someone from a Gentile nation wanted to embrace Jehovah and the teachings of the Old Testament, he would be required to undergo a baptism in water.

The Jewish rabbis believed that since a Gentile who had embraced false gods was ceremonially unclean, he needed to undergo a ritual baptism in order to break ties with his old life and declare his intentions to be faithful to Jehovah.

Barclay informs us:

“Baptism was a Jewish rite. If a man wanted to accept the Jewish faith, he had to do three things. He had to be circumcised, to offer sacrifice and to be baptized. Ceremonial washing to cleanse from defilement was common practice in Judaism (cf. Leviticus 11–15). The details of Jewish baptism were as follows. The man to be baptized cut his hair and his nails; he undressed completely; the baptismal bath had to contain forty seahs, that is about 280 litres, of water. Every part of the body had to be touched with the water. He made confession of his faith before three men who were called fathers of baptism. While he was still in the water, parts of the law were read to him, words of encouragement were addressed to him, and blessings were pronounced upon him. When he emerged, he was a member of the Jewish faith; it was through baptism that he entered into that faith.” (William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians (The New Daily Study Bible), 38-39 (Kindle Edition); Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press)

We are not entirely sure when Jewish proselyte baptism began, but the evidence suggests that it began a few hundred years before the time of Christ.

“So many scholars favor a pre-Christian date for the origin of Jewish proselyte baptism that Beasley-Murray could say that the “majority of investigators” regarded it as “axiomatic” (1962: 18). Myers cites an impressive list of scholars as having written in favor of an “older origin” of proselyte baptism.[ viii] But why do the “majority of investigators” opt for a pre-Christian date for the origin of Jewish proselyte baptism? According to H. Mueller, the rite of proselyte baptism must have been practiced by the Jews prior to Christian baptism because it was not likely that the Jews would have adopted it from a religious group toward which they were so antagonistic (1967: 55). R.E.O. White agrees with this and says, “It appears extremely unlikely that a hostile Judaism would borrow any significant rite from the ‘heretical sect of Christianity’ (Acts xxiv 5) at any time between A.D. 35 and 95 when proselyte baptism was certainly practiced” (1960: 320). Flemington also agrees with the majority opinion when he stresses the “extreme improbability” of the view that Christian baptism was antecedent to the Jewish practice of the rite as follows: The use by New Testament writers of βαπτίσμα [baptisma] and its cognates of John’s baptism, without any attempt to explain their meaning, is most intelligible if some similar rite were already in widespread use. Again, in view of the intense bitterness which existed between Judaism and the early Church, it would seem in the highest degree unlikely that the Jews would have borrowed so distinctive a practice from a Christian source (1948: 4). According to Beasley-Murray, Emil Schürer thought one consideration was enough to scatter all arguments against the early origin of proselyte baptism: “A Gentile, who did not observe the Levitical regulations concerning purity, was unclean as a matter of course, and so could not be admitted into Jewish communions without a tebilah, a ritual bath of purification” (1962: 20). As Schürer himself expressed it, “This general consideration is of itself so conclusive that there is no need to lay any very great stress on individual testimonies” (1979: 322). Another impressive line of evidence in favor of a pre-Christian date for Jewish proselyte baptism arises out of the discussions of baptism which occurred when “Jews of Jerusalem” sent priests and Levites to John the Baptist to “ask him who he was” (John 1: 19). When one reads John 1: 19f, Mark 11: 30 and parallels, it is interesting to note that the Sanhedrin’s enquiry concerning John’s baptism centered not upon its form or meaning, but only upon John’s authority to perform it. The practice itself appears to be accepted as familiar. Had the rite been an innovation, we would expect their question to be “Why baptize . . .?”; precisely because they were themselves already practicing a baptism after the mode described, but with duly appointed witnesses, and with legal implications, they saw John’s as an irregular, lay, unauthorised rite, and their question is: “Why baptisest thou?” (White 1960: 320-321). Seen in this light, it was not John’s baptism which was an anomaly. The Sanhedrin were already familiar with that form and its meaning. What excited them was that John was baptizing without the authority of the religious establishment of Jerusalem. It was happening without the authority of the local illuminati.” (George Beasley-Murray & Dean S. Gilliland, Baptism Why Wait?: Faith’s Response in Conversion, 839-864 (Kindle Edition))

What is especially worthy of notice is the language used by the Jewish rabbis to describe proselyte baptism.

“That baptism was absolutely necessary to make a proselyte is so frequently stated as not to be disputed (See Maimonides, u. s.; the tractate Massekheth Gerim in Kirchheim’s Septem Libri Talm. Parvi, pp. 38-44 [which, however, adds little to our knowledge]; Targum on Ex. 12: 44; Ber. 47 b; Kerith. 9 a; Jer. Yebam. p. 8d; Yebam. 45 b, 46 a and b, 48 b, 76 a; Ab. Sar. 57a, 59 a, and other passages)… As he stepped out of these waters he was considered as ‘born anew’, in the language of the Rabbis, as if he were ‘a little child just born’ (Yeb. 22 a; 48 b, as ‘a child of one day’ (Mass. Ger. c. ii.)…It was expressly enjoined that all the difficulties of his new citizenship should first be set before him, and if, after that, he took upon himself the yoke of the law, he should be told how all those sorrows and persecutions were intended to convey a greater blessing, and all those commandments to redound to greater merit. More especially was he to regard himself as a new man in reference to his past. Country, home, habits, friends, and relation were all changed. The past, with all that had belonged to it, was past, and he was a new, man the old, with its difilements, was burried in the waters of baptism.” (Alfred Edersheim, Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah, 26919-26943 (Kindle Edition))

Notice how the rabbis compared the proselyte who was baptized with a child in regard to sinlessness and innocence. This is because the Jewish people understood that children are born without sin. The doctrine of original sin (the teaching that all humans are born bearing the guilt of Adam’s sin) is not found in the Old or the New Testaments.

“THE UNIVERSALITY OF SIN is certainly a Jewish belief; there are many statements to this effect in the Scriptures, some of them quite famous. “Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?” (Prov. 20: 9, KJV); “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Eccl. 7: 20); “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way” (Isa. 53: 6). But there seems to be nothing in Jewish tradition to support the idea of original sin, of an inheritance of corruption from Adam….The evil in us, in our hearts—in Hebrew the heart is the seat of will even more than of emotion—can be seen in what we imagine, what we scheme, what we devise. But there is no indication from the rabbis that we scheme so because of Adam. We just do.” (Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History 102 (Kindle Edition); New York, NY; HarperCollins E-Books)

Indeed, it is fascinating that some Jewish rabbis connected the ideas of proselyte baptism, forgiveness of sins, and the innocence (sinlessness) of children!

“Forgiveness of sins is stated with reference to becoming a proselyte-y. Bikkurim 3.3; R. Judah concluded that since the proselyte became as a newborn child, his previous sins were cancelled-Geri 2.5”. (Everett Ferguson, Baptism In The Early Church: History, Theology, And Liturgy In The First Five Centuries, 21478, footnote 226 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

Furthermore, Jesus Himself used the familiar language of proselyte baptism that the rabbis did, when He describing the new birth.

John 3:3-5-Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4  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?” 5  Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

According to the Rabbis, the proselyte who submitted to baptism was “born anew,” and “just born,” etc. This is the same language that Jesus uses to describe one who is “born of water and the Spirit.” So Jesus uses language that was commonplace in His day and age to describe proselyte baptism, and from this we learn some very important lessons.

First, baptism was not for infants and small children. Those who submitted to proselyte baptism made the decision themselves to do so. They were therefore of sufficient age to make such a decision for themselves. More to the point, they had so sins to be forgiven of!

Second, baptism was by immersion. The baptism itself was compared to being born (being fully in the womb and delivered from such). As such, there is no room for the ideas of sprinkling and pouring of water in proselyte baptism (or Christian baptism).

Third, Jesus clearly embraced the notion that children are inherently pure and innocent. This is made clear from Jesus’ use of language that was commonly used to describe proselyte baptism, and the language of this baptism demanded the connection between sinlessness and birth. Children were free of sin, and those likewise who were baptized would become as innocent as children.

In the Bible, there is no hint of original sin.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Powered by

Up ↑