by Kaufmann Kohler and Samuel Krauss
This is an article from the Jewish Encyclopedia, published from 1901-1906. While it naturally does not address the sacramental nature of Christian Baptism, it does provide an excellent answer to what John the Forerunner was doing when he began baptizing penitents in the Jordan river.
A religious ablution signifying purification or consecration. The natural method of cleansing the body by washing and bathing in water was always customary in Israel (see Ablution,Bathing). The washing of their clothes was an important means of sanctification enjoined on the Israelites before the Revelation on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19. 10). The Rabbis connect with this the duty of bathing by complete immersion ( “tebilah,”Yeb. 46b; Mek., Bahodesh, 3.); and since sprinkling with blood was always accompanied by immersion, tradition connects with this immersion the blood lustration mentioned as having also taken place immediately before the Revelation (Ex. 24. 8), these three acts being the initiatory rites always performed upon proselytes,
“to bring them under the wings of the Shekinah” (Yeb.l.c.).
With reference to Ezek. 36. 25,
“Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean,”
R. Akiba, in the second century, made the utterance:
“Blessed art thou, O Israel! Before whom dost thou cleanse thyself? and who cleanses thee? Thy Father in heaven!” (Yoma 8. 9).
Accordingly, Baptism is not merely for the purpose of expiating a special transgression, as is the case chiefly in the violation of the so-called Levitical laws of purity; but it is to form a part of holy living and to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with God. This thought is expressed in the well-known passage in Josephus in which he speaks of John the Baptist (“Ant.” 18. 5, § 2):
“The washing would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.”
John symbolized the call to repentance by Baptism in the Jordan (Matt. 3. 6 and parallel passages); and the same measure for attaining to holiness was employed by the Essenes, whose ways of life John also observed in all other respects. Josephus says of his instructor Banus, an Essene, that he
“bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day” (“Vita,” § 2),
and that the same practice was observed by all the Essenes (“B. J.” 2. 8, § 5).
The only conception of Baptism at variance with Jewish ideas is displayed in the declaration of John, that the one who would come after him would not baptize with water, but with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1. 8; John 1. 27). Yet a faint resemblance to the notion is displayed in the belief expressed in the Talmud that the Holy Spirit could be drawn upon as water is drawn from a well (based upon Isa. 12. 3; Yer. Suk. v. 1, 55aof Joshua b. Levi). And there is a somewhat Jewish tinge even to the prophecy of the evangelists Matthew (3. 11) and Luke (3. 16), who declare that Jesus will baptize with fire as well as with the Holy Spirit; for, according to Abbahu, true Baptism is performed with fire (Sanh. 39a). Both the statement of Abbahu and of the Evangelists must of course be taken metaphorically. The expression that the person baptized is illuminated (Justin, “Apologae,” 1. 65) has the same significance as is implied in telling a proselyte to Judaism, after his bath, that he now belongs to Israel, the people beloved of God (Yeb. 47a; Gerim i.).
According to rabbinical teachings, which dominated even during the existence of the Temple (Pes. 8. 8), Baptism , next to circumcision and sacrifice, was an absolutely necessary condition to be fulfilled by a proselyte to Judaism (Yeb. 46b, 47b; Ker. 9a; ‘Ab. Zarah 57a; Shab. 135a; Yer. Kid. 3. 14, 64d). Circumcision, however, was much more important, and, like Baptism , was called a “seal” (Schlatter, “Die Kirche Jerusalems,” 1898, p. 70). But as circumcision was discarded by Christianity, and the sacrifices had ceased, Baptism remained the sole condition for initiation into religious life. The next ceremony, adopted shortly after the others, was the imposition of hands, which, it is known, was the usage of the Jews at the ordination of a rabbi. Anointing with oil, which at first also accompanied the act of Baptism , and was analogous to the anointment of priests among the Jews, was not a necessary condition.
The new significance that Christianity read into the word ” Baptism ,” and the new purpose with which it executed the act of Baptism , as well as the conception of its magical effect, are all in the line of the natural development of Christianity. The original form of Baptism —frequent bathing in cold water—remained in use later among the sects that had a somewhat Jewish character, such as the Ebionites, Baptists, and Hemerobaptists (compare Ber. 3. 6); and at the present day the Sabeans and Mandeans deem frequent bathing a duty (compare Sibyllines, iv. 164, in which, even in Christian times, the heathens are invited to bathe in streams).
Baptism was practiced in ancient (hasidic or Essene) Judaism, first as a means of penitence, as is learned from the story of Adam and Eve, who, in order to atone for their sin, stood up to the neck in the water, fasting and doing penance—Adam in the Jordan for forty days, Eve in the Tigris for thirty-seven days (Vita Adae et Evae, i. 5-8). According to Pirke R. El. xx., Adam stood for forty-nine days up to his neck in the River Gihon. Likewise is the passage,
“They drew water and poured it out before the Lord and fasted on that day, and said, ‘We have sinned against the Lord’” (I Sam. 7. 6),
explained (see Targ. Yer. and Midrash Samuel,eodem; also Yer. Ta’anit 2. 7, 65d) as meaning that Israel poured out their hearts in repentance; using the water as a symbol according to Lam. 2. 19, “Pour out thine heart like water before the Lord.” Of striking resemblance to the story in Matt.3 . 1-17 and in Luke 3. 3, 22, is the haggadic interpretation of Gen. 2. 2 in Gen. R. 2. and Tan., Buber’s Introduction, p. 153:
“The spirit of God (hovering like a bird with outstretched wings), manifested in the spirit of the Messiah, will come [or "the Holy One, blessed be He! will spread His wings and bestow His grace"] upon Israel,”
owing to Israel’s repentance symbolized by the water in accordance with Lam. 2. 19.
To receive the spirit of God, or to be permitted to stand in the presence of God (His Shekinah), man must undergo Baptism (Tan., Me?ora’, 6, ed. Buber, p. 46), wherefore in the Messianic time God will Himself pour water of purification upon Israel in accordance with Ezek. 36. 25 (Tan., Mezora’, 9-17, 18, ed. Buber, pp. 43, 53). In order to pronounce the name of God in prayer in perfect purity,the Essenes underwent Baptism every morning (Tosef., Yad. 2. 20; Simon of Sens to Yad. 4. 9; and Ber. 22a; compare with Kid. 70a,
“The Name must be guarded with purity”).
Philo frequently refers to these acts of purification in preparation for the holy mysteries to be received by the initiated (“De Somniis,” 14.; “De Profugis,” 7.; “Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres Sit?” 18. 23.; “Quod Deus Sit Immutabilis,” 2.; “De Posteritate Caini,” 14., 28.).
The Baptism of the proselyte has for its purpose his cleansing from the impurity of idolatry, and the restoration to the purity of a new-born man. This may be learned from the Talmud (Sotah 12b) in regard to Pharaoh’s daughter, whose bathing in the Nile is explained by Simon b. Yohai to have been for that purpose. The bathing in the water is to constitute a rebirth, wherefore
“the ger is like a child just born” (Yeb. 48b);
and he must bathe
“in the name of God”—”leshem shamayim”
—that is, assume the yoke of God’s kingdom imposed upon him by the one who leads him to Baptism (“matbil”), or else he is not admitted into Judaism (Gerim. vii. 8). For this very reason the Israelites before the acceptance of the Law had, according to Philo on the Decalogue (“De Decalogo,” 2., 11.), as well as according to rabbinical tradition, to undergo the rite of Baptism al purification (compare I Cor. 10. 2,
“They were baptized unto Moses [the Law] in the clouds and in the sea”).
The real significance of the rite of Baptism can not be derived from the Levitical law; but it appears to have had its origin in Babylonian or ancient Semitic practice. As it was the special service administered by Elisha, as prophetic disciple to Elijah his master, to
“pour out water upon his hands” (II Kings 3. 11),
so did Elisha tell Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan, in order to recover from his leprosy (II Kings 5. 10). The powers ascribed to the waters of the Jordan are expressly stated to be that they restore the unclean man to the original state of a new-born “little child.” This idea underlies the prophetic hope of the fountain of purity, which is to cleanse Israel from the spirit of impurity (Zech. 13. 1; Ezek. 36. 25; compare Isa. 4. 4). Thus it is expressed in unmistakable terms in the Mandean writings and teachings (Brandt, “Mandäische Religion,” pp. 99et seq., 204et seq.) that the living water in which man bathes is to cause his regeneration. For this reason does the writer of the fourth of the Sibylline Oracles, lines 160-166, appeal to the heathen world, saying,
“Ye miserable mortals, repent; wash in living streams your entire frame with its burden of sin; lift to heaven your hands in prayer for forgiveness and cure yourselves of impiety by fear of God!”
This is what John the Baptist preached to the sinners that gathered around him on the Jordan; and herein lies the significance of the bath of every proselyte. He was to be made
“a new creature” (Gen. R. 39).
For the term photistheis (illuminated), compare Philo on Repentance (“De Poenitentia,” i.),
“The proselyte comes from darkness to light.”
It is quite possible that, like the initiates in the Orphic mysteries, the proselytes were, by way of symbolism, suddenly brought from darkness into light. For the rites of immersion, anointing, and the like, which the proselyte has or had to undergo,
E. G. Bengel, Ueber das Alter der Jüd. Proselytentaufe, Tübingen, 1814;
M. Schneckenburger, Ueber das Alter der Jüd. Proselytentaufe, Berlin, 1828;
E. Renan, Les Evangiles, 2d ed., p. 167;
idem, Les Apôtres, p. 96;
idem, Marc-Aurèle, p. 527;
Schechter, in Jewish Quarterly Review, 1900, xii. 421;
Schürer, Gesch. 3d ed., iii. 129;
Edersheim, The Jewish Messiah, ii. 745.K. S. Kr.