by Jim Myers
When John the Baptist invited those who were
listening to his message to be baptized, his invitation was nothing new
for his Jewish audience. They
were very familiar with the ritual of baptism and practiced it on a
regular basis. This is
often a surprise for many Christians because they have been taught that
baptism was a new "Christian" thing.
The proof offered to support that claim is that we don't find any
references to baptism in the Old Testament.
However, when we examine the first century Jewish
culture of Jesus we discover that baptism, or more correctly ritual
self-immersion, was a well-developed and accepted part of Jewish life.
Jewish law required Jews to undergo ritual self-immersion if
there was any question concerning ritual impurity.
Today it is common for Christians to exclusively
associate baptism with the forgiveness of sins or salvation.
This wasn't the case during the time of Jesus or within Jewish
communities today. Many
things could be the source of ritual impurity.
Many of these were simply the result of the natural course of
life - a woman's monthly period, giving birth, or touching something
dead. The problem with
being ritually impure was that the person in the state of impurity
couldn't travel within the Temple precincts or perform certain rituals.
We find an example of this in the life of Jesus'
mother who is in a state of impurity as the result of giving birth to
And when the days of her purification according to the
law of Moses were fulfilled, they brought him up to Jerusalem, to
present him to the Lord (Luke 2:22).
Why did Mary do this? It was required by the Torah (Law):
Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman
conceive seed, and bear a man-child, then she shall be unclean seven
days; as in the days of the impurity of her sickness shall she be unclean. And in the eighth
day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying
three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into
the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled (Leviticus
It is only after the fulfillment of this law that
Mary would have been permitted to enter the Temple precincts and
participate in religious rituals. In
order to fulfill the law of Moses, Mary would have been required to
participate in ritual self-immersion.
This was such a common practice in Jerusalem that the Temple
constructed a ritual bath complex along the southern wall of the Temple.
Archaeologists uncovered this complex in the second half of the
Baptism in the first century Jewish community, just
as it is in modern Jewish communities, is unlike the various styles of
Christian baptism practiced in churches today.
When John the Baptist baptized Jesus he didn't touch Jesus,
neither did he pour water over Jesus' head.
Jesus would have immersed himself and John wouldn't have touched
him. There are a number of
different drawings that depict Jewish baptism over the centuries.
One very famous ancient drawing was found in a Roman catacomb,
which depicts John and Jesus at Jesus' baptism. John is standing on the
bank of the Jordan River extending a hand to Jesus who is standing in
the water. Modern Rabbinic
Judaism still teaches this form of ritual self-immersion today.
have scriptural evidence to support the fact that ritual immersion was
an act of self-immersion. The problem is that it was lost when the
Hebrew stories of Jesus' life were recorded in the Greek language.
Dr. Robert Lindsey pointed this out in his study of
Luke 3:21. Most translations read like this:
when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized
and was praying, the heaven was opened."
Dr. Lindsey suggested that the our misunderstanding
of how first century Jews immersed themselves is due to the use of the
passive Greek verbs translated as "they were baptized" and
"he had been baptized" in the above verse.
The original Greek writer was faced with the need to translate
the Hebrew verb for self-immersion into Greek.
The Greek verb form that he chose created a new problem for the
English translators. He had
the choice translating the Greek verb as we saw above, or he could
translate it as a reflexive, in which case the English translation would
be this -
when all the people had baptized themselves, and when Jesus also had
baptized himself and was praying, the heaven was opened."
This is just more evidence that the Greek words of
the Gospels originally conveyed Hebrew stories that to be correctly
understood must be viewed through the eyes of the first century Jewish
culture. It also indicates
that their original source was Hebrew, not Greek.
The culture of Israel in the first century provides
us with the greatest source of evidence that baptism was understood to
mean ritual self-immersion. The
practice of being baptized by someone else - being plunged under the
water and lifted up by someone else - was unknown.
There are no records of anyone performing an act of similar to
Christian baptism in Israel. The
ancient drawing mentioned above, in which John stood on the bank and not
in the water, is a very accurate description of Jewish ritual
self-immersion. John did
not physically assist in the immersion of those who were baptized,
instead he functioned as a witness.
This also reflects the role of another individual involved in the
Jewish ritual of self-immersion. At
least one witness made required to ensure that the person immersing
himself or herself, completely immersed themselves under the water. The witness made sure that every hair was completely under
water. This will help us
understand how John's title should be translated.
Instead of John the Baptist, he should been known as John the
Witness of Self-Immersion.
As I pointed out above, usually the practice of
ritual immersion was for physical or ritual cleansing from an impurity.
The need for ritual immersion did not suggest
"sinfulness" on the part of the baptismal candidate.
John's message may have caught the attention of those hearing his
message was the innovative ideas that he attached to the ritual
combined the act of self-immersion for ritual impurity with an
accompanying need for repentance from sin.
His message connected the two and gave the act of self-immersion
a new meaning.
relationship between ritual immersion and spiritual purification in
John's ministry is spelled out more fully by the Jewish historian,
had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice
towards their fellow and piety towards God, and so doing to join in
self-immersion. In his view
this was a necessary preliminary if self-immersion was to be acceptable
to God. They must not employ it to
gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a purification of
the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right
John, however, doesn't seem to be the only one with
this novel new message. In
1948 the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and they provide
us with new information about how baptism was viewed by another Jewish
community, the Qumran community. It
seems that the Dead Sea Scrolls were also familiar with the ideas
reflected in John's message, or, on the other hand, John may have been
familiar with their ideas:
one may enter the water . . . unless he has repented of his evil,
because uncleanness clings to all transgressors of His word" (Community Rule [1QS] 5:13-14).
It appears that both John and the members of the
Qumran community believed that sin itself could render an individual
ritually defiled. Thus, one
who underwent ritual immersion without accompanying repentance would
come up from the waters as defiled as he went in.
shall not be reckoned among the perfect; he shall neither be purified by
atonement, nor cleansed by purifying waters, nor sanctified by seas and
rivers, nor washed clean with any ablution. Unclean, unclean shall he
This new idea that was being proclaimed by John the
Witness to Self-Immersion and also by the members of the Qumran
community was a significant departure from the beliefs that were held by
other first century Judeans. The
Qumran community believed that as the waters of ritual self-immersion
cleansed the outward person, God was also at work cleansing the inward
person. The instrument for
that God used for inner purification is revealed in the sectarian
Community Rule -
shall be cleansed from all his sins by the spirit of holiness"
(Community Rule 3:7).
The fact that the members of Jesus' movement adopted
this belief may be seen in the book of Acts where there are numerous
references concerning the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit. The authors of the Gospels do not specifically report that
this was part of John's message. Therefore,
we have no record of whether those who submitted to John's immersion in
the Jordan River were aware of the belief in the work of the Holy
Spirit. However, this may have been such a well-known part of his
message that the authors didn't feel the need to state it in the text.
They may have given us a clue that reveals the awareness of the
link between the water of self-immersion and the work of the Holy Spirit
in the account of Jesus' self-immersion.
it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee,
and self-immersed himself and witnessed by John in the Jordan.
And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens
opened, and the spirit like a dove descending upon him. (Mark
activity of the Spirit was an important part of the Jesus'
self-immersion. This is
consistent with the notion commonly held by the Qumran community.
From this point forward the connection between the ritual act of
self-immersion and the work of the spirit will continue to play a
central role in early Christian thought.
point that probably needs to be made now is that the ritual of
self-immersion was probably not seen as a one-time event.
Self-immersion was a regular part of life.
Every time one found himself or herself in a state of ritual
impurity ritual immersion was required.
Nothing indicates that the early Christians or the Qumran
community saw it any differently. The
Dead Sea Scrolls has many references to continued self-immersion.
Pharisees, Rabbinic Judaism's ancestors, did not accept the belief that
self-immersion was required in order to receive the forgiveness for
one's sins. Their decision
is still evident in their descendant's belief system; we do not find
ritual immersion as part of the synagogue's ritual for forgiveness of
sins. But, during the time of
Jesus, both beliefs existed side-by-side and were accepted by different
members of the Jewish population. I should note here that the
group that should have been the most upset by John's message was the
leaders of the Temple. They were the authorized agents who were
responsible for offering a way for the people to have their sins
forgiven through their sacrificial rituals. Both John's and the
Qumran community's use of the ritual immersion for the forgiveness of
sins would seem to be a direct challenge to the authority of the Temple.
theologians, however, were forced to deal with the obvious problem
raised by Jesus' self-immersion - had Jesus sinned?
John's invitation was to sinners and Jesus came forward.
The first part of his message called the individuals to
repentance and the second part was the act of ritual self-immersion.
Before we move on, let's make sure we have the same understanding
of repentance as that of the people in first century Israel.
Repentance consisted of a series of acts by the person repenting:
Acknowledge that one was guilty of committing one or more specific sins.
Sorry for doing the sin(s).
Stop committing the sin(s).
Start doing what one should have been doing in order to comply with
Hebrew for repent simply means to "turn around."
As you can see by the above definition, the sinner stops going
the wrong way and turns around and goes the way he was supposed to being
going in the first place. All
John did was add another requirement, ritual self-immersion, to those
above. So, based on the context of
the account of Jesus' self-immersion, the story indicates that Jesus was
moved by John's message to repent from one or more of his sins. As
a result of this act of repentance, God announced that Jesus was the one
He selected to be the "King of Israel," as indicated by the
title "my beloved Son" (Mark 1:11). This, of course,
would be unacceptable to later Christian theologians who were subject to
the boundaries created by doctrines such as Original Sin. At the
time of Jesus' self-immersion and even later when the words of in Mark's
gospel were recorded, those doctrines were centuries in the future.
The historical Jesus and the authors of the Gospels were aware of any
doctrine of universal sin, the need for a sin-free universal savior, and
the requirement of membership in a universal church.
Window Into the Past
we look at the words of the Gospels and see the characters and stories
through the eyes of first century Judeans, it becomes very clear that
they reveal the emerging Jewish ideas of the first century.
We are able to view the two streams of Judaism that became the
ancestors of the two Jewish movements that survived the destruction of
the Temple - (1) the Jesus Movement, and (2) Rabbinic Judaism.
Within the Gospel's historical and cultural environment we are
able to witness the interaction of these two forms of Judaism at a time
when neither was the dominant religion of the land.
The words the Gospels take on new depth and meaning when read in
light of that historical and spiritual milieu.
are probably aware of the challenges that this approach presents for the
modern believer. An almost
impenetrable wall of religious doctrines stands between the world of the
real Jesus and the modern believer.
Every thing we believe about Jesus comes from that wall of
doctrines. Due to the
tremendous authority and power that the Christian church has exerted
over its members for so many centuries,
it is almost impossible for many believers to even question the validity
of any of the church's doctrines. But,
due to the growing body of archaeological and textual evidence, it is
becoming very clear that the theological models of Jesus created by
generations of theologians is unrelated to the real Jesus who walked
along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and taught his followers.
A new understanding of Jesus, his teachings, and his
understanding of his mission is coming into focus.
new understanding raises a few questions:
Which Jesus should modern Christians follow, the real or one of the
doctrinal Jesus' created by theologians?"
What would your spiritual reality be without the doctrine of Original
What would the mission of your Church be if it wasn't to save everyone?
readers are probably pretty upset by now.
You know that your beliefs about Jesus and salvation are correct,
regardless of any evidence to the contrary.
You believe that your church has every thing just right.
Well, let me leave you with one request.
Will you check and see if the people being baptized at your
church's next baptismal service are self-immersing themselves?
If they aren't, then it should be apparent that your church isn't
doing what Jesus did. If
they missed it on baptism, isn't it possible that they may have made
some other mistakes? I
don't consider any belief to be so special that I would continue to
cling to it when I have evidence that it is wrong.