Jesus’ baptism was unique, but baptism wasn’t

By | January 15, 2011

However, Jesus’ baptism by John — or John the Baptist’s work before the arrival of Jesus — was not the first instance of baptism in the ancient world.

“Baptism,” as the word, comes from the Greek, bapto, or baptizo, or baptein, means to wash, to immerse or to dip. It can also mean “to overwhelm” such as in suffering. Since Greek was the first written language of the Gospels, the authors no doubt intended their audiences to remember that Christ’s baptism in water was followed by his baptism in suffering on the cross. As Jesus said to James and John, alluding to his death, “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk 10:38).

In the ancient world, baptisms, or ritual baths or washing, were not uncommon. Ancient Greeks poured water over new ships to dedicate them to the sea god Poseidon. (The Romans followed suit, dedicating ships to Neptune.)

Also in ancient Greece, the oracle of Trophonion was associated with a ritual bath that may have been associated with seeking immortality, but was also associated with receiving insight from the gods.

Ancient Babylonians used baptism for purification, as did the ancient Egyptians, whose religion was focused around death and the River Nile. So it was not unusual that part of their preparations of the dead included ritual washing to prepare a body for resurrection — as had been done in the story of their god, Osiris.

In Jewish culture, the importance of ritual washing and purification was seen in the presence of mikvahs outside the ancient Temple and many synagogues. These ancient ritual baths, many of which can still be seen in Israel today, were used for purification before approaching God. Teachings in the Midrash, the writing of the Jewish sages, say that Adam and Eve stood for days in the rivers that flowed out of Paradise, after they were expelled from Eden, as a form of penance. Modern mikvahs are still being built and used by Jews in Israel and elsewhere.

In Jesus’ time, one could not presume to approach God in a state of ritual impurity — this could range from disease (leprosy or skin rashes) to touching a corpse to handling certain insects or lizards.

That simple washing rituals were also part of daily life in Jesus’ time can be seen in the Gospel stories of the wedding at Cana (Jesus’ first miracle in John’s Gospel) — “Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding 20 to 30 gallons (Jn 2:6) — and in Matthew: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash (their) hands when they eat a meal” (15:2).

Baptism was also part of the process of becoming a convert to Judaism in the days of the Temple. Converts underwent a period of preparation and, usually on the feast of Passover, confessed their sins, were immersed in flowing water and given a new name. The baptism served to cleanse them of the taint of idolatry, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia.

John the Baptist, while not himself an Essene, lived a life similar in some ways to this group of men who had gone into the desert to purify themselves for the end times. They lived in the Judean desert near the caves of Qumran. Part of their way of life included fasting and ritual bathing for the repentance of sins.

When John, who lived in the desert and ate and dressed simply, arrived on the scene, he also preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4). His baptism required a confession of sins and washing with water, usually flowing water in the Jordan.

Fr. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, a Dominican priest and New Testament scholar said that, “Clearly, John was thinking of a radical transformation of the person along the lines of one of his predecessors …”

That predecessor was the priest-prophet Ezekiel, who lived 600 years before Christ and wrote of God’s promise to Israel: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you” (36:25-27).

Of course, all of these washings and baptisms were only precursors to the true baptism “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:11) that came to us through Jesus Christ.

Sources:;; The Catholic Encyclopedia; The Harper-Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; The New Dictionary of Theology;

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