Jesus' Baptism
by Jim Myers

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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 him.

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 12:2-4).

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 twentieth century.

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.

We also 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:

"Now 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 -

"Now 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 self-immersion.  John 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. 

The relationship between ritual immersion and spiritual purification in John's ministry is spelled out more fully by the Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius.

"(John) 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 behavior. (Antiquities 18:117)

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:

"No 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.

"He 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 be" (Community Rule 3:5-6).

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 - 

"He 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.

"And 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 1:9-10).

 

The 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. 

A 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.

The 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.

The Other Problem

Christian 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:

(1) Acknowledge that one was guilty of committing one or more specific sins.

(2) Sorry for doing the sin(s).

(3) Stop committing the sin(s).

(4) Start doing what one should have been doing in order to comply with God's will.

The 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.

A Window Into the Past

When 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.

You 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.

 

This new understanding raises a few questions:

(1) Which Jesus should modern Christians follow, the real or one of the doctrinal Jesus' created by theologians?"

(2) What would your spiritual reality be without the doctrine of Original Sin? 

(3) What would the mission of your Church be if it wasn't to save everyone? 

Some 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.  Do you?                                                                                DTB

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