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The Jewish Background of Christian Baptism

Ron Moseley, Ph. D.

There is no question that the church is debtor to Judaism for its main structure including such items as Messiah, Scripture, canon, liturgy, altar, pulpit, church offices, songs, offerings, the Lord's Supper, as well as baptism itself. Dr. Merrill Tenney, the editor of the Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible said, "Baptism as a rite of immersion was not begun by Christians but was taken by them from Jewish and pagan forms...." Since early Christianity was a part of the Judaism of Jesus' day, it is without question that baptism in today's church was originally Jewish. Further evidence comes from Scholars like William Lasor and David Daube who tell us of the early church's practice of baptism by self immersion after the custom of the Jews.

History of the Jewish Mikveh

The term mikveh in Hebrew literally means any gathering of waters, but is specifically used in Jewish law for the waters or bath for the ritual immersion. The building of the mikveh was so important in ancient times it was said to take precedence over the construction of a synagogue. Immersion was so important that it occurred before the high Priest conducted the service on the Day of Atonement, before the regular priests participated in the Temple service, before each person entered the Temple complex, before a scribe wrote the name of God, as well as several other occasions.

The Mishnah attributes to Ezra a decree that each male should immerse himself before praying or studying. There were several Jewish groups that observed ritual immersion every day to assure readiness for the coming of the Messiah. The Church Fathers mentioned one of these groups called Hemerobaptists which means "daily bathers" in Greek. Among those used to regular immersion were the Essenes and others that the Talmud calls tovelei shaharit or "dawn bathers."

On the third day of creation we see the source of the word mikveh for the first time in Genesis 1:10 when the Lord says, " the gathering (mikveh) of waters, He called seas." Because of this reference in Genesis the ocean is still a legitimate mikveh.

The Mikvaot Around The Temple

The New Testament tells us that many of the early church's daily activities were centered around the Temple. Historically, we know that there were many ritual immersion baths (mikvaot) on the Temple Mount including one in the Chamber of Lepers situated in the northwest corner of the Court of Women (Mid. 2:5). Josephus tells us that even during the years of war (66-73 A.D.) the laws of ritual immersion were strictly adhered to (Jos. Wars, 4:205). The Temple itself contained immersion baths in various places for the priests to use, even in the vaults beneath the court (Commentary to Tam. 26b; Tam. 1:1). The High Priest had special immersion pools in the Temple, two of which are mentioned in the Mishnah. We are told one of these was in the Water Gate in the south of the court and another was on the roof of the Parva Chamber (Mid. 1:4; Mid. 5:3). There was an additional place for immersion on the Mount of Olives which was connected with the burning of the red heifer (Par. 3:7). A special ramp led to the mikveh on the Mount of Olives from the Temple Mount, which was built as an arched way over another arched way to avoid uncleanness from the graves in the valley below. Recent archaeological excavations have found 48 different mikvaot near the Monumental Staircase leading into the Temple Complex.

Three Basic Areas

According to Jewish law there are three basic areas where immersion in the mikveh is required.

1. Immersion is required for both men and women when converting to Judaism. There were three prerequisites for a proselyte coming into Judaism: Circumcision, baptism, and sacrifice (Maimonides, Hilkh. Iss. Biah xiii. 5). 2. Immersion is required after a woman has her monthly period (Lev. 15:28). 3. Immersion is required for pots and eating utensils manufactured by a non-Jew (Encyclopedia of Jewish Religion p-263).

Besides these, there are other times when it is customary to be immersed in the mikveh such as the occasion before Yom Kippur as a sign of purity and repentance and before the Sabbath in order to sensitize oneself to the holiness of the day.

The Six Descending Orders of Ritual Immersion

There are six descending orders of ritual baths in the Mishnah (Oral Laws of how to accomplish the written Law) and the highest order is that of a spring or flowing river. We see Jesus understanding and fulfilling this order in Matthew 3:16 as He comes to be baptized in the Jordan River "fulfilling all righteousness." This highest order was called Living Water and illustrated the forgiving of sins, therefore, we hear Jesus using this term concerning Himself (John 4:10-11).

The Water Restrictions

There were also six basic restrictions on the water used in the mikveh including such rules as:
(1) the mikveh can not contain other liquid besides water. (2) The water has to be either built into the ground or be an integral part of a building attached to the ground. (3) The mikveh can not be flowing except for a natural spring, river or ocean. (4) The water can not be manually drawn. (5) The water can not be channeled to the mikveh by anything unclean. (6) The mikveh must contain at least 40 sa'ah or approximately 200 gallons of water.

The term sa'ah is an ancient Biblical measurement equivalent to approximately five gallons. All six requirements come from the original Hebrew words found in Leviticus 11:36. Rabbi Yitzchok ben Sheshes said the amount of 40 sa'ah was derived from the idea that the largest normal human body has a volume of 20 sa'ah, therefore the amount of water needed to "nullify" this body is double this amount or 40 sa'ah.

Why Be Immersed?

To the ancient Jew, the mikveh was a process of spiritual purification and cleansing, especially in relation to the various types of Turmah or ritual defilement when the Temple was in use. Although God has not revealed all the meaning of the mikveh, it is obvious because of the amount of space given to it in Scripture, and the effort of Jesus to fulfill it, the command is of utmost importance. All commands of the Lord fall into three categories:

1. The moral or ethical laws that are necessary for man to live in harmony are known as Mishpatim and are literally translated judgments. 2. The rituals and festivals which reawaken us to important religious truths such as Sabbath, holidays, the Tefillin and the Mezuzah that remind us of God's presence are known as Edos and are literally translated witnesses. 3. The third group often has no explicit reason given for their existence except for Israel's identification as God's chosen people to the other nations (Deuteronomy 4:6). This group of laws are known as Chukim and are literally translated as decrees. Among the decrees of this group are the dietary laws as well as ritual immersion.

How Immersion Was Done

Jewish baptism has never been taken lightly, but in ancient times immersion was to be performed in the presence of witnesses (Yebam. 47b). The person being baptized made special preparations by cutting his nails, undressed completely and made a fresh profession of his faith before the designated "fathers of the baptism" (Kethub. 11a; Erub 15a). This is possibly where churches, sometime later, got the term Godfathers. The individual stood straight up with the feet spread and the hands held out in front. The candidate would totally immerse themselves by squatting in the water with a witness or baptizer doing the officiating. Note the New Testament points out the fact that Jesus came up straightway out of the water (Matthew 3:16).

The earliest drawing of Christian baptism was found on the wall of a Roman catacomb in the second century showing John standing on the bank of the Jordan helping Jesus back to shore after self immersion.

Ancient sages teach that the word mikveh has the same letters as Ko(v)Meh, the Hebrew word for "rising" or "standing tall," therefore we see the idea of being baptized "straightway."

Although it is the Jewish belief that repentance is necessary, purification from defilement is done primarily through water, while other effects of sins are covered by blood (Romans 4:7; note the "almost all things" in Hebrews 9:22). The concept of immersion in rabbinic literature is referred to as a new birth (Yeb. 22a; 48b; 97b; Mass. Ger. c.ii). Note six other important aspects of ancient Jewish immersion:

1. Immersion was accompanied by exhortations and benedictions (Maimonides Hilkh. Milah iii.4; Hilkh. Iss, Biah Xiv .6). A convert would reaffirm his acceptance of the Torah by declaring, "I will do and I will hear" which was a phrase from the oath that was originally taken by the priests not to forsake the Torah (Deuteronomy 29:9- 14). This ritual demonstrates the willingness of the convert to forsake his Gentile background and assume his Jewish identity by taking on the status of one who keeps the commandments.

According to a number of Jewish sages, mayim, which is the Hebrew word for water, shares the same root as the word "mah", meaning "what." This teaching points out that when a person immerses in water, he is nullifying the fleshly ego and is asking, "what am I?" in the same manner that Moses and Aaron did in Exodus 16:7 when they said to the Lord, "we are what?"

2. The Jewish baptism candidates were often immersed three times. The idea of total immersion comes from the Scripture in Leviticus 15:16 when it says, "he shall wash all his flesh in the water." One reason it was customary to immerse three times was because the word mikveh occurs three times in the Torah.

3. According to Jewish law the immersion had to have a required witness. Dr. William LaSor in the Biblical Archaeology Review says apparently the Biblical phrase "in the name of" was an indication of the required witness. In several New Testament references such as I Corinthians 1:13, 15; Matthew 21:25; Acts 1:22; and Acts 19:3 we see early baptism mentioned in conjunction with the name of individuals such as John and Paul. Further information on this can be found in Jewish literature concerning proselyte baptism where it indicates his baptism required attestation by witnesses in whose name he was immersed.

4. The immersion candidate was not touched by the baptizer in Jesus' day. Because Leviticus 15:16 says "He shall wash all his flesh in the water," Judaism stresses that the entire body must come in contact with the water of the mikveh. To insure the immersion was valid, no clothing or individuals could touch the candidate. Any such intervention that prevented the water from reaching a part of the body was known as Chatzitzah and rendered the immersion invalid. Although the mikveh was more spiritual than physical, often the bath had two sets of steps, one entering and another leaving so as not to defile what had been purified.

5. The baptismal water (Mikveh) in rabbinic literature was referred to as the womb of the world, and as a convert came out of the water it was considered a new birth separating him from the pagan world. As the convert came out of these waters his status was changed and he was referred to as "a little child just born" or "a child of one day" (Yeb. 22a; 48b; 97b). We see the New Testament using similar Jewish terms as "born anew," "new creation," and "born from above." According to Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum rabbinic literature uses the term "born again" to refer to at least six different occurrences. Note each of these life changing experiences: (a) When a Gentile converts to Judaism. (b) When an individual is crowned king. (c) At age 13 when a Jewish boy chooses to embrace God's covenant and be numbered with the believers. (d) When an individual gets married. (e) When an individual becomes a rabbi. (f) When an individual becomes the head of a rabbinical school.

6. Jewish law requires at least three witnesses made up of qualified leaders to be present for certain immersions (Yebam 47b). Ordinarily a member of the Sanhedrin performed the act of observing the proselytes immersion, but in case of necessity others could do it. Secret baptism, or where only the mother brought a child, was not acknowledged.

Repentance Without Baptism

One of the most important teachings in Judaism is that of repentance. According to both Scripture and rabbinic literature, no matter how great the sin, if a person repents and forsakes the sin before God he can be forgiven. As we see in the case of John, Jesus, and all New Testament writers, repentance was always involved. The Jerusalem Talmud states, "nothing can stand before repentance" (Yebamos 47b). According to Dr. David Flusser, the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as the New Testament teach that water can purify the body only if the soul has first been purified through repentance and righteousness.

Water and Blood Both Illustrate God's Cleansing In Judaism

Both water and blood are used constantly in the Torah and the New Testament as the two main agents to illustrate God's cleansing. The Jews believe that uncleanness is not physical, but rather a spiritual condition as related in Leviticus 11:44 where it states by wrong actions one can make the "soul unclean." Therefore, the purification through ritual immersion, as commanded in Scripture is basically involved with the soul, rather than the body. Note how both water and blood are cited in Scripture: (1) Blood is used in cleansing in relation to the Passover Lamb (Exodus 12). (2) Blood is used in cleansing in relation to the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). (3) Blood is used in cleansing in relation to the Feast Offerings (Leviticus 23). (4) Blood is used in cleansing in relation to the five Levitical Offerings (Leviticus 1-7). (5) Blood is used in cleansing in relation to the atonement for the soul (Leviticus 17:11-14).

(1) Water is used in cleansing in relation to the separation and the ashes of the Red Heifer (Numbers 19). (2) Water is used in cleansing in relation to the consecration to priestly ministry (Leviticus 8:6). (3) Water is used in cleansing in relation to the cleansing of the leper (Leviticus 14:1-8). (4) Water is used in cleansing in relation to the different washings of the Law (Hebrews 9:10). (5) Water is used in relation to the remission of sins (Acts 2:38); Titus 3:5; Mark 16:16; Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3; I Peter 3:20-21; Ephesians 5:26; John 19:34; I John 5:6; Hebrews 9:19- 23).


A detailed study of the Jewish background of Christian baptism shows that it is vitally important, but God doesn't always tell us why. Obviously, the convert could repent and have a part in the life to come without it, but the emphasis seems to be pointing to the taking on of a new "believer" status illustrated as a "new birth" by immersion. In any covenant with the Lord the three items of God's Word, the blood, and a token are always present (Genesis 17:11). Jesus was always cautious to have three witnesses in everything He did (I John 5:7-8). In the Old Testament circumcision was considered the token of God's covenant, and in the New Testament we see the same wording concerning baptism as it is referred to as "circumcision made without hands" (Colossians 2:11-12). Whatever religious denomination, all believers should agree that immersion has its roots in the Jewish mikveh of Jesus' day, and it is of utmost importance for each of us to fulfill this righteous deed.

Used with the author's permission.

RON MOSELEY, Ph.D., D.Phil., D. Litt. (Middle Eastern History/Society and Religion)

Ron Moseley has studied the Jewish roots of the Christian faith at Princeton, University of Texas, Oxford Graduate School, and Oxford University. He spent twelve years studying at the Hebrew and Jerusalem Universities in Jerusalem, Israel during the summers, and has lectured throughout America, Europe, and the Middle East. Moseley is the president of the American Institute for Advanced Biblical Studies in North Little Rock, Arkansas, and has a Master of Divinity, a Master of Jewish Studies, a Ph.D. in Second Temple History, a D.Phil. in Religion and Society, and a D.Litt. in Research. He has written numerous books and over eighty courses for Bible colleges in eighteen countries. He has been awarded both the status of Fellow and Scholar by the Oxford Society of Scholars.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved