Baptism in the Ancient World (Matthew 3)

Matthew 3

Ritual immersion in water, or baptism, represented a powerful and frequently used religious symbol in ancient Judaism. This sacramental ceremony was enacted to symbolize purification and the removal of sin or was sometimes used as an initiation rite to consecrate a change of status or a conversion.

In the Old Testament, rites of immersion were associated with maintaining ritual purity, especially for priest (Leviticus 15, 16:4, 24).

During the New Testament period, water itself and immersion in water functioned as the primary means by which ritual impurity was removed within Pharisiac Judaism (Matthew 15:2, John 2:6).

Baptism was practiced by the Essene community at Qumran as a symbolic act by which one was “made holy by the waters of repentance” (Manual of Discipline 3:9).

During the first century A.D. certain groups within Judaism began to practice proselyte baptism, a rite that required converts, in addition to male circumcision, to undergo immersion in a ritual bath prior to their full reveption into the community.

Purification through immersion in ritual baths was required for all Jews in order to preserve that state of purity without which they could neither enter the temple nor participate in its services during major festivals (Numbers 9:10, John 11:55, Acts 21:24-27, Josephus “Wars” 1,11,6).

A number of Jewish ritual baths, or miqvaat,  have been excavated in Jerusalem, Jericho and elsewere. By rabbinical law these had to hold at least 60 gallons (227 liters) of water and be deep enough to completely immerse the body.

Within emerging Christianity the rite of baptism aquired fundamental importance. Baptism in water defined the central symbolic act required by John in the course of his prparatory preaching in the wilderness (Matthew 3, Mark 1:4). It is precisely this act for which he was divinely commishioned and later reveived the epithet “the Baptist” (Matthew 3:1, Josephus “Antiquities 18,5,2). John summoned his hearers to be baptized in light of the imminent advent og God’s judgement upon the earth (Matthew 3:5-6, Luke 3:17).  His baptism thus evoked prophetic images of cleansing with water for forgiveness, purification and the repentance that would characterize the Messianic age (Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36:25, Zecheriah 13:1).

The Gospels present the baptism of John as a necessary precursor to the public ministry of Jesus, who would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11, see Mark 1:8, John 1:31). The risen Jesus sanctioned this sacramental act as an important aspect of conversion, requiring baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Other New Testament texts record slight variations in the wording of the baptismal formula, such as “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38, 10:48), “into the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:16, 19:5) or simply “into Christ” (Galatians 3:27). The place of baptism within early Christianity occationed sustained reflection by various New Testament authors upon the meaning of this symbolic act. Within the New Testament canon baptism is viewed as the symbolic identification of the believer with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6, Colossians 2:12), through which the believer becomes “clothed… with Christ” (Galatians 3:27), as well as a lear expression of repentance before God (1 Peter 3:21).


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