by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Monday, May 2, 2011 at 3:45pm

QUESTION: In your book, Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace (pages 216-217), you say that baptism is a “new condition” for salvation. Was there any custom of baptism among the Jews, or any other people, prior to its introduction by John the Baptist? I know that the Jews practiced purification rites where they immersed themselves in water. Was this a shadow of salvation baptism to come?

ANSWER: Lots of water ceremonies and baptism-like ceremonies existed around the time of the early first century and maybe before. Several pagan religions practiced initiation rites involving a kind of baptism, particularly in the Hellenistic mystery religions. Examples include the Dionysian mysteries; the worship of Attis; Mithraism; the Eleusinian mysteries; and the worship of Isis and Osiris. (Attis-worship and Mithraism involved a taurobolium, i.e., being drenched in a bull’s blood.) Some liberal critics have suggested that Christian baptism was ultimately copied from one or more of these, but the idea is ludicrous.

Others have suggested that Biblical baptism (especially John’s baptism) may have been derived from one of two kinds of baptism practiced among Jews. One is the ceremony of Jewish proselyte baptism. At least by the first century A.D. the Jews were actively seeking Gentile converts (Matt. 23:15; Acts 2:10; 6:5). At some point, in addition to requiring (male) converts to be circumcised, the Jews began to require a baptismal ceremony. This required the proselyte to stand nude in the water while being instructed in the law. Two or three teachers and witnesses taught him from the law and questioned him as to his sincerity and understanding of what he was doing. Then he immersed himself. (The baptistery was required to hold a minimum of 60-100 gallons of water.)

What did this baptism mean? It was a rite of purification. If Jews themselves could become unclean at times, then it is only natural that GENTILES would be regarded as inherently unclean and that some form of cleansing ceremony would be thought of in connection with their joining the covenant people. “That a gentile would need purification before he entered the commonwealth of Israel was an axiom of Jewish thought” (Flemington, 16). Also, most agree that it was also an initiation rite, ushering the proselyte into the covenant community and admitting him into the ranks of the chosen people. As part of this ceremony a proselyte’s whole family was baptized, including infants. Thus the whole family was considered to be a part of the covenant people.

One problem with the idea that proselyte baptism may have influenced Biblical baptism is that we do not know for sure when this practice began. Some say it was already being done prior to Biblical baptism; others say it is post-Christian. The fact is that the first RECORD of the practice is post-Christian, in the latter first century. It is of course possible that the practice itself existed earlier than this, but there is no real evidence of it.

The more serious problem, of course, is that this practice of Jewish proselyte baptism is not derived from the Old Testament and is not based on divine revelation. It is altogether a man-made institution. But John’s baptism was of divine, not human, origin. John the Baptist testifies that God sent him to baptize in water (John 1:33), and Jesus challenged the authority of the Jewish leaders with this question: “The baptism of John was from what source, from heaven or from men?” (Matt. 21:25). The implied answer is obviously the former. Thus if Biblical baptism was somehow based on or derived from this man-made Jewish baptism, then Biblical baptism is not really a divine institution and has no binding force, either as a practice as such or with regard to any of its details.

This same criticism applies to the theory that John’s baptism was derived from a baptismal practice of the Jewish sect known as the Essenes, inhabitants of the Qumran community from whom the Dead Sea Scrolls came. In this community, after a day’s work, the members gathered together for their daily ritual bath—a self-immersion in the Dead Sea, followed by a sacred meal. This baptism had neither an initiatory nor a moral significance, but was a purification ceremony in the sense of the OT washings. This ceremonial cleansing made them fit to partake of the holy meal. Some speculate that John the Baptist had some early connection with Qumran. But again, this contradicts the NT testimony that John’s baptism is of divine origin, and is not based on any water ceremony of human origin.

My conclusion is that nothing outside the Bible has any connection whatsoever with Biblical baptism, either that of John or Christian baptism.

Is there anything in the OT itself that points ahead to, or prepares the way for, or is a type of NT baptism? The only things that qualify as such an antecedent for NT baptism are the ritual purification ceremonies (washings, lustrations). The Mosaic Law prescribed the application of water, sometimes mixed with the blood of sacrificed animals, for purification from ritual uncleanness. It is very likely that the water of cleansing pointed forward to baptism. See Heb. 6:1-2 (baptismos); Heb. 9:10 (baptismos); Heb. 10:22 (plain water). In this last passage the allusion is to the OT washings in which water was mixed with blood. Under the New Covenant the water and the blood are always separated: our hearts are spiritually “sprinkled” with the blood of Christ, and our bodies are literally “washed, bathed” [Greek, louō] in plain water unmixed with sacrificial blood.

None of these OT cleansing ceremonies, however, had the same meaning as NT baptism. One could argue that the purpose of such ceremonies was similar to the purpose of John’s baptism, but there does not seem to be any inherent or deliberate connection. It is true that they seem to be an intentional type of Christian baptism; but even so, they were designed to lead to ceremonial cleanness only, not to moral and spiritual purity and thus to salvation.

In the OT there definitely were conditions for salvation. Salvation from sin has always required faith and repentance, i.e., faith in God’s promises to take away sin and guilt, and repentance toward God for sinning against his laws. Even a kind of confession is specified as a condition in Joel 2:32: whoever calls upon the name of Yahweh will be saved. (See Paul’s application of this to Jesus in Romans 10:8-17.)

The bottom line is that there is no practice preceding Christian baptism, either in the OT or in extra-Biblical sources, that can be considered to be a God-appointed condition for salvation equivalent to Christian baptism. Not even John’s baptism falls into this category. Thus we conclude that the baptism introduced on the Day of Pentecost is a new condition for salvation.

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  1. In the OT the person who was bringing a sacrifice had to purify oneself before he could enter the inner temple area to give the sacrifice to the priest.
    I understand that it is a symbol of his death and so forth. I believe it has a deeper meaning than that.
    Would it not be the same when we offer ourselves “as a holy living sacrifice” to God? The animal had to be unblemished and so the man offering it was to be pure (clean). So in other words; “if we are the sacrificing ourselves(other than Christ)do we not have to be pure as in the OT?

    • In this life, the only sense in which we as Christians will ever be pure is by having our sins covered by the blood of Jesus Christ (Rom. 4:7-8). As Christians we are always pure in this sense, and should always thus be offering ourselves to God as a living sacrifice. (I’m not sure what OT practice you have in mind when you speak of someone “bringing a sacrifice” and then “entering the inner temple area to give the sacrifice to the priest.”)

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