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Woman Being BaptizedIf you grew up in a Christian home, you probably know a little about baptism. Perhaps you were baptized as an infant and sprinkled with water. Or maybe you chose baptism later and were immersed in a pool of water. There are many ways to be baptized, and the practice has a fascinating and complex history. Learning its story can help you better understand its symbolism and core objectives.

Judaism and the Mikveh

Before John the Baptist stepped foot near the Jordan River, Jewish people immersed themselves in water for many reasons. In antiquity, most Jewish communities had ritual baths known as mikva’ot. Scholar Shoshanna Lockshin mentions that people would immerse in a mikveh for many reasons: conversion, purification before getting married, after giving birth, or several days after the end of a menstrual period. Other conditions resulted in ritual impurity, thus requiring immersion in a mikveh to help regain purity. The Torah, most notably the Book of Leviticus, mentions ritual purity in detail.

The Essenes and Ritual Purity

Religion can be a complicated thing. Disagreements about values and theology often produce breakaway movements or new sects. That’s probably what created the Essenes, a community of Jewish ascetics active between the second century B.C.E. and the end of the first century C.E. There weren’t a lot of Essenes – in fact, ancient Roman historian Pliny the Elder estimated that only 4,000 existed in his day. But they were among the first to practice baptism as we know it.

The Jewish Encyclopedia explains that baptism was part of the Essenes’ rites: first as penitence, and then to cleanse followers from ritual impurity. Proselytes were baptized during their initiation. At some point, they started baptizing themselves every morning. To even pronounce the name of God required personal ritual purity, so they baptized themselves before the daily prayers.

John the Baptist and His Mission

The most enduring image of John the Baptist comes from the Bible’s New Testament: a wild man from the desert, wearing rough camelhair clothing, subsisting on locusts and wild honey. He warned of impending judgment by God and baptized those wishing to repent of their sins. The Encyclopedia Britannica mentions that he was mostly active in the lower Jordan Valley, declaring his message and baptizing in the river east of Jericho.

John’s mission was laden with symbolism. His camelhair clothing recalled the prophet Elijah’s garb. His locust and honey diet wasn’t just “cheap eats” – they were also kosher, according to Jewish dietary laws. Remember that the ancient Israelites crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Lands, according to the Torah.

Just where did John the Baptist come from? Some believe he may have been one of the Essenes or was influenced by teachings. Truthfully, we really don’t know. But John’s core message was quite different from theirs: He focused his mission on ordinary people rather than excluding them, as the Essenes did.

Baptism in Christianity’s Earliest Years

Baptism was relevant in early Christian movements. The New Testament records that John baptized Jesus. Later, Act 8:16 mentions followers “baptized in the name of Lord Jesus.” Acts 19:5-6 depict St. Paul laying hands on new converts after their baptism. As the Encyclopedia Britannica reveals, those baptized during the first century C.E. were usually converts from pagan Greek or Roman faiths. We also see the first evidence of infant baptism in the second century C.E. Modern sects have set their own doctrines and practices regarding who can be baptized and when.

In human cultures across the world, water represents cleansing and purity. While we mostly focus on the practical, that symbolism also carries spiritual weight. Baptism now represents many things: purification, transformation, rebirth, and membership within unique communities of faith.

Category: Baptism

Baptism family history

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