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Foundations of Faith Series

The Jewish Background of Christian Baptism
Marji Hughes

All of us are aware of the concept of baptism, even though we might not agree about the level of importance it holds for the Believer. We're also aware of the disagreements concerning just what "baptism" is or where it came from. Did John "invent" the idea of baptism? Is baptism necessary for salvation? Is there one baptism or more than one? What does it mean to be baptized "into" the name of Yeshua? Into His death? Those are just a few of the many questions concerning the subject. While I’m fairly confident that this study will not answer every question or settle every debate we might have, I do hope that the information presented will help us to at least answer some of them.

For many, the title of this study might appear confusing at first. Baptism sounds like a VERY "unJewish" concept - and the last several hundred years of church history don't really help us to see the connection. However, like it is with so many other aspects of Christianity, virtually everything goes back to its Jewish roots. While some may find it hard to make the connection between Christian baptism and Jewish customs, the historical facts are pretty clear and hopefully, this study will help us to see this. I want to point out that it is not my intention to criticize Christendom for the lack of understanding that abounds about immersion. Nor am I deluded into thinking this study will produce a great change across the world of Christianity - that would be like thinking I could empty the Atlantic ocean with a spoon.

I will remind you that this isn’t intended as a time for us to debate our doctrinal differences. We're here to study the Hebraic/Biblical roots of our faith by looking at the culture of those who lived in Israel during the first century and see if this helps us to better understand our faith today. For the most part, I try to simply present the information and allow those listening to draw their own conclusions. This study isn't meant to be "exhaustive" in the sense that we cover every possible connection to the subject under discussion, but rather to serve as a "spring board" for you own continued study.

The Bible has much to say about immersion, or the doctrine of washing/baptisms, but it is still one of the most misunderstood teachings in Scripture. This doesn’t appear to have been a problem for the first century believers, however. We read in Hebrew 6:1-2:
Therefore leaving the elementary teachings about Messiah, let us go on to perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.

Here, Paul tells us that the elementary teachings of Messiah are:
Foundation of repentance from dead works
Faith toward God
Of the instructions/doctrine of immersions/baptisms
Laying on of hands
Resurrection of the dead
Eternal judgment

A couple things in particular stand out in this passage. First, the fact that these are "elementary teachings", in other words - something that was (or should be) understood by the newest believers. Secondly, that the word "baptisms" is plural.

Regarding this first point, Paul implies that an understanding of these six principals is foundational to our ability to understand any of the other teachings of Scripture. For this reason, I'm convinced that there are no "unimportant" or "minor" doctrines for those who follow Messiah. Everything that we believe affects everything else we believe. Our understanding of the "elementary" teachings greatly affects our understanding of the "meat" of the Word. Nothing can be any stronger than the foundation upon which it is built. All the festivals, customs, foods, sacrificial system, and laws of ritual purity, including immersion, were given to the Jewish people as teaching tools for us to learn more about Messiah. We must always keep Messiah in the forethought of our studies and realize that all things are to give us a better understanding of what Messiah has done for us, and what He will do in the future.

The second point needs a little opening explanation. First, much of what we know about first century Jewish life is found in the Talmud, a collection of ancient rabbinical writings. To the Jewish mind, there are two basic parts of Torah or “Law”. One is the written Torah, which is what we know as the Old Testament. The second part is what is called the Oral Torah or “unwritten law”. According to Jewish thought, this was handed down orally from generation to generation for about 1,500 years. About the third century AD Oral Torah was put into writing and is the foundation of Mishnah. The Talmud was formed after discussion and commentary was added. We might call it the "how to" book, for in it we find detailed instructions on how to carry out all worship, the festivals, sacrifices, and commandments, including ritual purification.

Second, Scripture speaks of numerous things that make a person "tomeh" - ritually unclean, and a number of processes of purification. The one act required in all purification processes was immersion or “mikvah”.  The word "mikvah" means "collection or gathering" and speaks of a place where the waters of immersion are gathered. Over the years, the word “mikvah” has come to be used to refer to the act of immersion itself. The earliest biblical usage of the specific word "mikvah" is found in Genesis 1:9 where God called for the collection of the waters during the creation week. Other Biblical uses of the word "mikvah" occur in 1 Kings 7:23 and its Parallel passage in 11 Chronicles 4:2. These verses describe the huge, circular "Sea of Solomon," constructed along with the first Temple for the priests to carry out their ceremonial washing. Leviticus 15 is an important chapter containing detailed instructions about ritual immersion. Three Hebrew words are used in this chapter for ritual washing:
Rachatz is "to wash, bathe" this is only used for people.
Shataf is "to wash, rinse, overflow, engulf, rinse or wash off" and is used once in Leviticus 15 (v11) for rinsing hands.
Kabas is "to wash, to be washed out" and this is used only for things, clothes etc.
In addition, three types of ritual washing mentioned in biblical and talmudic literature:
Tevilah - complete immersion
Rachatz - washing of the feet and hands and
Netilah Yadayim - washing of the hands

So, returning to the second point of “special notice” in the Hebrews 6 passage, we see that the reason for the plurality of the word "baptisms" is that there is more than one type of immersion. But what about Ephesians 4:5, which states that there is "one Lord, one faith, one immersion"? At first glance, this might seem to be a contradiction in Scripture. But remember the word "baptisms" is plural in the Ephesians passage, while it is singular in the passage in Hebrew. This is due, in part, to the fact that there are different words used in these two passages. In Hebrews the word is "baptismon", which is normally used for "washings" or "purifications" of which the initial immersion which accompanies faith is but one. In Ephesians, the word used is "baptizma" which refers primarily to the act of baptism. Paul is speaking of unity in the body, so context indicates he is referring to the thing that identifies all believers as belonging together. Here, Paul is referring to one of the many immersions  - in particular to the immersion into Messiah, which we read about in Romans 6:3-4 among other places.

Now, let's see if we can figure out where we get the connection between mikvah and baptism. The Hebrew word for immersion is tevilah and means literally, "to totally immerse" It is used specifically to refer to immersion in a mikvah The closest word in Greek for tevilah is baptidzo. Baptidzo is derived from an industry of dying cloth in Lebanon. It carries the connotation of something being immersed into a liquid, so that the thing immersed takes on the characteristics of that which it is immersed into, such as cloth into dye or leather into tanning solution. Baptidzo is where we get our word "baptism".

We have to realize that John the Baptizer didn't simply have a heat stroke in the Judean desert and suddenly invent the idea of baptism in his delirium:) Apparently it was something they were familiar with. Notice that John was not suspect, by anyone, as to where he received the doctrine, nor did anyone question the validity of the teaching. Never did anyone ask him why was he immersing. They all seemed to accept the teaching, even in light of Deuteronomy 4:2, and 12:32 stating that the Word could not be added to or taken away from. Why do you think this is? It is because the concept of ceremonial washings is as old as the Torah itself.

The mikvah/ritual bath was of great importance to the first century Jew. While it was always possible to have these immersions in a body of fresh or "living" water, (such as a lake or river) it wasn't always practical, so it became common to construct special pools called "mikvah". It was understood that if a community or village had only enough money for a synagogue or a mikvah, the mikvah would be built first. In this time and culture, this was a critical part of life in the daily routine of Jewish religious society. Women had to undergo the immersion every month after the completion of their menstrual cycle. Men, particularly the religiously observant ones, engaged in the mikvah every dawn, in preparation for morning prayers in the Temple.

Archeologists continue to unearth ancient mikvah pools near and around the Temple mount. These pools are identical in form and construction to the mikvah baths found in modern Orthodox Jewish synagogues, where today, Orthodox women still visit the mikvah after their monthly flow and often after intimate relations. Orthodox men go to the mikvah to prepare for Shabbat and Holy Days. Sometimes, even secular Jewish people go to the mikvah once in their lifetimes, before marriage.

This “mikvah” -  ritual immersion  - was – and remains - a "self immersion". In other words - the person doing the "baptizing" did not actually touch the one being immersed, but rather was there as a witness to the act. We learn this from the Talmud in the section devoted entirely to teachings concerning ritual immersion. In many cases, the biblical phrase "in the name of" could be an indication of this required witness. This is implied in Jewish literature concerning proselyte baptism, where it says his baptism required attestation by witnesses in whose name he was immersed. Yet, while immersion was to be performed in the presence of witnesses, there was no physical contact between them during the immersion. 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 mikvah They would remove clothing, jewelry, bandages, or anything else that might obstruct the waters from touching the entire body. Any intervention that prevented the water from reaching a part of the body rendered the immersion invalid.

The mikvah was not for the purpose of physical cleansing, so the candidates for immersion would make special preparations by taking a bath, washing their hair, cleaning their fingernails, etc. They would make a "confession of faith" before the witness(es) and then would totally immerse themselves by placing themselves in a sitting or fetal position under the water with a witness or “baptizer” doing the officiating. They would then stretch themselves back into a standing position, reciting another blessing as they rose from the water. The New Testament illustrates this point when it tells us that Yeshua came up “straightway out of the water” (Matthew 3:16).

There is another related meaning to the phrase "in the name" in regard to baptism. Most of us are familiar with the passage of Scripture found in Matthew 28:18-20, known as "The Great Commission" Here we read the instruction to "Go and make disciples . . . baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." Some have taken this to be a sort of "baptismal formula" that has to be pronounced when someone is baptized. This understanding has lead to all kinds of questions concerning what this "name" really is. The fact is - these questions miss the point. Now, the Greek word "eis" generally means "into" instead of "in." So what is being said here is "baptizing them INTO the name." Although "name" is the literal meaning of the Greek word used here (onoma), immersing into a name isn't literally possible :) In Hebraic/Biblical thought, "name" stands for the reality behind the name. A person's name was not simply the title by which he was known - it was, in essence, who he was. Remember, "baptism" means to be immersed into something so that you take on the characteristics of that which you were immersed into. Much easier to say simply "baptism", isn't it?

Along with the purposes already mentioned, another use of symbolic purification by water became part of early Jewish tradition. This was immersion or baptism for Gentile converts to Judaism known as “proselytes”. Though the only Biblical requirement for entrance into the covenant was circumcision, baptism became an added requisite. No one knows exactly when or by whom the requirements were changed to include baptism, but it was before the time of Yeshua. We know this because debates on the subject of proselyte baptism are recorded between Rabbinic schools of Shammai and Hillel, both contemporaries of Yeshua. According to Maimonides, a highly respected 12th century Jewish scholar, "The gentile that is made a proselyte and the slave that is made free, behold he is like a child new born." In this practice, the Talmud teaches that he enters the waters, dies to himself, is buried, and emerges on the other side, "born again." Not unlike the Christian understanding, is it?

The water of immersion (mikvah) 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. His status was changed and he was referred to as "a little child just born" or "a child of one day". We see the New Testament using similar Jewish terms as "born anew," "new creation," and "born from above." In a similar way, Rabbinic literature uses the term "born again" to refer to at least six different occurrences, each of them a life changing experience:
When a Gentile converts to Judaism.
When an individual is crowned king
At age 13 when a Jewish boy chooses to embrace God's covenant and be numbered with the believers.
When an individual gets married.
When an individual becomes a rabbi.
When an individual becomes the head of a rabbinical school.

The water is not used to remove any physical uncleanness, but rather as a symbolic rebirth. The mikvah symbolizes moving from one state to another - from ritual impurity to ritual purity, from one phase of life to another. This is clearly illustrated in the regulations concerning the healing of leprosy found in Leviticus 14:1-4,7,9. The word we translate "leprosy" was used for a number of "infectious skin diseases" that were incurable plagues which left the sufferer at the mercy of God. However, when God performed the miraculous and the leper was healed, the ceremony described in that passage took place. The designated sacrifices were brought to the Tabernacle (and later, the Temple) after it was confirmed by the priest that a true healing had taken place. It is noteworthy that the person was immersed in water after the healing was validated. The immersion was a symbolic, physical witness to a spiritual truth. It is an outward statement that an inward change has taken place.

Hopefully, we can see that the use of water to symbolize cleansing and consecration is very much a Jewish concept, and a very ancient one at that. Because of this, when the Jewish prophet John came upon the scene, the Jews of his day saw nothing pagan or wrong in his demands that people repent of sin and be symbolically cleansed in the Jordan River. John's message, though not a popular one, was in keeping with what all the other Jewish prophets proclaimed. He preached God's impending judgment, warning that Israel must repent and be spiritually renewed because the coming of the Messiah was at hand. The self-righteous may have disagreed about their personal need for repentance, but they had no quarrel with John's method of symbolic cleansing. Otherwise, surely the religious leaders would have had him stoned as a false prophet.
 
As we have seen, immersion was observed for a variety of reasons. Yet another of these is the immersion of repentance, the practice we find John the Baptist engaging in the gospel of Matthew. John was the son of Zechariah, of the Levitical clan of Abijah (Luke 1:5). As a Levite, John would have been well accustomed to the mikvah In fact, one custom among the Levites was that in order for a priest to be ordained, he had to undergo immersion and have that ritual purification witnessed by another Levite In Matthew, chapter three, we find Yeshua coming to John for baptism. This has long perplexed Believers with the question, "If the Messiah was without sin, why did he need to go through the immersion?"

Alfred Edersheim aptly points out "Had it primarily and always been a 'baptism of repentance,' He [Yeshua] could not have submitted to it" (The Life, p. 280). Certainly we would all agree! Yeshua had nothing to be repentant of, no sins to confess. However, He was about thirty years of age, the biblically required age of a man to be ordained a priest. John was a Levite, qualified to witness such immersions. When Yeshua says, "We must fulfill all things righteously," (Matthew 3:15) He is not referring to a baptism of repentance, but rather stepping into the waters of ordination. Yeshua was about to take on his mantle as Messianic priest.

The main rabbinical requirement for building a mikvah pool is that the waters must be from a natural source, that is, rain water or a river, lake, etc. It must be living water. To understand the reasons for this, we need to take a look at a few Scriptures and the rabbinical understanding of them.

According to the ancient sages, Leviticus 11:36 shows us that "living water" can not be defiled, which we will discuss in detail a little later on. Genesis 1:9 speaks of the waters being "gathered together." The Hebrew word translated "gathered together" that is used here is mikvah and for this reason, a sea is always considered a valid mikvah In Genesis chapter 7, we have the account of Noah's Flood, when God chose "living water" as the vehicle to cleanse the earth. In Genesis 35:2, Jacob commands his household to destroy their idols and to "purify themselves." The Jewish sages understand this purification as none other than the mikvah

Virtually from the very beginning, this concept of the mikvah and Mayim Chayim - which is Hebrew for "living water", and much more fun to say :) - plays an important role that carries over into the rest of Scripture. In what parallels the "born again" experience of the modern Christian, Jewish theologians look at the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus 14, as a mikvah As we mentioned earlier, the sea qualifies as a pool of living waters, and the crossing of the Hebrews demonstrated not only God's immense provision, but also a separation from that which defiled them - Egypt - and that which gave the nation of Israel new life - the crossing through the midst of the waters.

In a way, our immersion places us on the same shores as those Hebrews in Exodus 14. They were a redeemed people, now able to rest from slavery to Pharaoh. Soon, they would have God's instructions at Mt. Sinai and then they would be on their journey to the Promised Land. If this was true for them, then how much more so for us through the redemption provided us by Yeshua the Messiah? We have been redeemed, washed clean, brought into rest from bondage, we are learning about God and His ways, and we are enroute to the eternal Promised Land.

The Mayim Chayim has many important spiritual qualities. The Hebrew sages taught that the Temple of God was a miniature Garden of Eden. When God created the Garden, He formed four headwaters that flowed from Eden to all the earth (Genesis 2:10-14). It is believed that the waters of Eden are the spiritual source of all waters. As I mentioned earlier, according to the Torah, a source of Living Waters cannot be defiled. Mayim Chayim overcomes defilement, but defilement can never overcome Mayim Chayim. When something becomes defiled or ritually unclean as defined by the Biblical standard, whether a person or an object, it must be immersed in Living Water to be declared "clean." Anyone unclean or defiled was forbidden access to the Temple and therefore, unable to participate in worship or sacrifice.

The sages teach that everything in the physical world has a spiritual counterpart. Consequently, when a person immerses his physical body in the mikvah, his soul is immersed as well. The prophet Jeremiah calls God the Mikvah of Israel (2:13, 14:8; 17:13; 50:7), leading to the belief that the spiritual counterpart for the mikvah waters is the Spirit of God. So then, immersion is the equivalent of being overwhelmed by or saturated in the Spirit of God. In Jewish thought, the waters that covered the earth, the mikvah waters, symbolize the womb of creation. As we've mentioned several times during our study, the rabbis say that emerging from the mikvah is very much like a process of rebirth. When a person immerses in the waters of the Mikvah, he is placing himself in a state of being "unborn" - subjecting himself totally to God's creative power. The mikvah itself represents both the grave and the womb. First the individual enters the world of the non-living - the grave - since he ceases to breathe under the water. Then he emerges from the womb, his soul having been saturated or overwhelmed by the Spirit of God, resurrected from the watery grave as God's new creation.

This aspect of the mikvah is of great relevance to the Believer. Remember that those who wrote the New Testament Scriptures were very aware of the things we have been discussing and would have assumed that those who would read their words would be as well. The things we have been studying "colored" the teachings of Messiah and the biblical writers and influenced the understanding of those teachings for the first Believers. With this in mind, let's take a look at John 7:37-38: "If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures said, 'From his innermost being shall flow rivers of Living Water'" (referencing Isaiah 44:3, 55:1, 58:11). Is it possible that what Yeshua was saying, is that we - through faith in His death and resurrection - have become a source of this wellspring of Living Water? If this is true, then the lesson of the mikvah and mayim chayim shows us that we are now a source of Living Water on legs. We can go out and share this good news with an unclean world and because this bubbles up from within us, nothing can defile the source. Mayim Chayim overcomes defilement, but defilement can never overcome Mayim Chayim. We are free to worship our God without barrier or concern of being accepted by Him. Nothing can render spiritually unclean the Holy Spirit's sanctifying presence within the believer. Does anyone have any questions or comments before we continue?

Throughout the Scriptures, just as mayim chayim and mikvah are often associated, the Holy Spirit and water are often found together, as in Genesis 1:2: "and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters." Passages such as Zechariah 12:10: "I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication," and Isaiah 44:3: "For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour My Spirit upon your seed, and My blessing upon your offspring," join water and the Spirit of God. These verses show us the reason why, in Hebraic theology, the Holy Spirit (Ruach haKodesh) and the Living Waters are synonymous.

The Prophet Joel (2:28, 29) wrote, "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out My Spirit." This passage plays a prominent role on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles.

This last day, the great day of the feast, is the occasion when the Israelites would gather together in the Temple and pray for God to send the rains. They would read and declare the passages we have just mentioned: Zechariah 12:10, Isaiah 44:3, Joel 2:28, 29. It was at this festival that Yeshua spoke while standing in the Temple, "Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Yeshua stood and cried out, saying, 'If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, "From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water."' But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Yeshua was not yet glorified" (John 7:37-39). This shows clearly that the rabbinical understanding of the association of water and the Spirit is a correct one.

Before I continue, I want to again clarify that I know that no amount of ritual will have a bearing on our spiritual standing. There must be first something genuine within us - and that something is the eternal life given by Messiah. This is true for anything we do that has symbolic meaning to us. Not only is it true for our own step of obedience in baptism, it is true for festivals like Passover or doing good deeds and acts of charity. But when you are right before God - meaning your sins have been forgiven and your faith is genuine - then all of these acts of testimony add to our spiritual growth. When a person is redeemed by the Spirit of God, he or she is forever changed.

This is symbolized in coming forth from the mikvah/baptism waters. There is a new life that was not there before one's redemption. And with it comes a release from fear and risk and uncertainty. This was the theme illustrated in the story of the Israelites' crossing of the Red Sea. Their redemption had already taken place. They passed through the water to a new life. And that which enslaved them before now lies dead on the shore. The people then responded to God's great act of intervention:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord: "I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him" (Exodus 15:1,2). The praise is glorious, but woven into this song of Moses and the Israelites is a remarkable Messianic foreshadowing. The phrase, "he has become my salvation" is v'yehi li l'yeshua, which also means the Lord "has become Yeshua for me."

The concept of baptism is wrapped up in the word immersion. To be baptized is to be immersed in something, whether it be in repentance, in sanctification, in the Holy Spirit, in the body of Messiah, in suffering, in death, or in water. In whatever form it is manifested, it represents a complete surrender to God, to his will and his Word. Each time a new believer is immersed in the waters of baptism, he is participating in a long-standing tradition that church inherited from Judaism. The real baptism - the inner washing of the human heart - comes first. The water baptism that follows is only a public announcement of what has happened within, and we who believe make this public proclamation because we want to share our good news with others. Through the waters of baptism we demonstrate to the sinful world, just as Israel demonstrated to Pharaoh, that the God of the Bible is a deliverer - One who helps His chosen people pass from the curse of death into the promise of everlasting life by being translated from the darkness of this world into the kingdom of Messiah (Colossians 1:13). Praise God!

 

 
 

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