Jewish Ritual Bathing
The Bible indicates that Christian baptism requires complete immersion in water. “Similar rites,” claims the book Jesus and His World, “can be observed in many religions, past and present, across geographical and cultural boundaries.” The book asserts that “the origins of Christian baptism . . . are found in Judaism.” How sound is this claim?
Jewish Ritual Bathing Pools
Archaeologists digging close to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount have discovered nearly 100 ritual baths, or bathing pools, dating to the first century B.C.E. and the first century C.E. A synagogue inscription from the second or third century C.E. speaks of such baths being provided for “visitors who need them.” Other pools have been found in the quarter of Jerusalem that was occupied by wealthy and priestly families; nearly every house had its own private ritual bath.
The baths were rectangular tanks hewed out of rock or dug into the earth and lined with brick or stone. They were plastered to prevent leaks. Most measured about six feet by nine feet [1.8 x 2.7 m]. Conduits channeled rainwater into the tanks. The water was at least four feet [1.2 m] deep so as to permit complete immersion by crouching. The steps leading down into the water were sometimes divided by a low partition wall. It is thought that one side of the steps was used to enter the purifying bath, when the bather was unclean, and the other side to exit, to avoid any contamination.
The baths were used in connection with Jewish ritual purity. What did this entail?
The Law and Tradition on Bathing
The Mosaic Law emphasized the need for God’s people to be clean, both spiritually and physically. The Israelites incurred various forms of uncleanness from which they had to purify themselves by bathing their bodies and washing their clothes.
Jehovah God is absolutely pure and holy. So priests and Levites were required, on pain of death, to wash their hands and their feet before approaching his altar.
Scholars believe that by the first century C.E., the Jewish religious establishment had extended the requirements for priestly cleansing to non-Levites. Both the Essenes and the Pharisees practiced frequent ablutions. One source reports regarding Jesus’ time: “Ritual purity was required of a Jew before entering the Temple Mount, before making a sacrifice, before receiving the benefit of a priestly offering and for other similar purposes.” Talmudic texts state that bathers were expected to immerse themselves completely.
Jesus criticized the Pharisees for their insistence on ritual cleansing. They evidently practiced “various baptisms,” including those for “cups and pitchers and copper vessels.” Jesus said that the Pharisees overstepped God’s commandments to impose their own traditions. (Hebrews 9:10; Mark 7:1-9; Leviticus 11:32, 33; Luke 11:38-42) No part of the Mosaic Law required complete bodily immersion.
Is the origin of Christian baptism to be found in the ritual bathing practiced by the Jews? No!
Ritual Bathing and Christian Baptism
The Jews performed cleansing rites upon themselves. The baptism John performed, though, was not a kind of ritual bathing familiar to the Jews. That John came to be known as the Baptizer indicates that the immersion he performed was different. Jewish religious leaders even sent a delegation to him to inquire: “Why . . . do you baptize?”
The cleansing required by the Mosaic Law had to be repeated as often as a worshipper became unclean. This was not true of the baptism John performed nor of that later practiced by Christians. John’s baptism indicated repentance and a rejection of a former life course. Christian baptism symbolized the fact that a person had dedicated himself to God. The Christian did so once, not over and over again.
The ritual bathing performed in the homes of the Jewish priests and in the public baths close to the Temple Mount bore nothing more than a superficial resemblance to Christian baptism. The respective meanings of these immersions were completely different. The Anchor Bible Dictionary observes: “A scholarly consensus holds that John [the Baptizer] did not take over or adapt any particular baptism from his milieu,” that is, from Judaism. The same can be said of the baptism practiced in the Christian congregation.
Christian baptism represents “the request made to God for a good conscience.” (1 Peter 3:21) It symbolizes that an individual has wholly dedicated himself to Jehovah to serve Him as a disciple of His Son. Complete immersion in water is an appropriate symbol of such a dedication. A person’s going under the water represents his dying to his former life course. Being raised out of the water symbolizes his being made alive to do God’s will.
Jehovah God grants a good conscience to those who make such a dedication and are baptized. The inspired apostle Peter could thus tell fellow believers: “[Baptism] is also now saving you.” That is something that no amount of Jewish ritual bathing could ever achieve.