Faith 01/17/19

“Baptism is as Jewish as mikveh”

By Gerald Donovan

What is the history of baptism? John the Baptist baptized Jews before Christ came on the scene. Where did he come up with the practice of baptism?

In the Torah we read that before the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, God commanded the people to wash their clothing as a symbolic act of purification (Exodus 19:10). Leviticus 8:6 records the washing of Aaron and his sons when they were ordained as priests to minister in the holy tabernacle. Again, in Leviticus 16:4, God commanded Aaron to wash himself before and after he ministered in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. Numbers 19 gives explicit instructions for purification after defilement by a dead body. In the book of Leviticus, God instructs Jews to cleanse themselves from ritual impurities, contracted through such acts as touching a corpse or a leper. Washing primarily fulfilled the legal requirements of ritual purity so that Jews could sacrifice at the Temple. Later, as “God-fearers” or “righteous” Gentiles expressed their desire to convert to Judaism, priests broadened the rite’s meaning, and along with circumcision, performed baptism as a sign of the covenant given to Abraham. The Torah also commanded ritual purification for both men and women who had been “defiled” by flows of various body fluids, or who had been healed of leprosy.

Baptism is as Jewish as mikveh! Mikveh is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, the mikveh’s main uses remained as follows: by Jewish women to achieve ritual purity after menstruation or childbirth before she and her husband may resume marital relations; by Jewish men to achieve ritual purity; as part of the traditional procedure for conversion to Judaism; to immerse newly acquired utensils used in serving and eating food.

Most forms of impurity can be nullified through immersion in any natural collection of water. However, some impurities require “living water,” such as springs or groundwater wells. Living water has the further advantage of being able to purify even while flowing, as opposed to rainwater which must be stationary in order to purify. The mikveh is designed to simplify this requirement, by providing a bathing facility that remains in ritual contact with a natural source of water.

In Orthodox Judaism, these regulations are followed steadfastly and, consequently, the mikveh is central to both Orthodox and Conservative Jewish communities. The existence of a mikveh is considered so important in Orthodox Judaism that an Orthodox community is required to construct a mikveh before building a synagogue, and must go to the extreme of selling Torah scrolls or even a synagogue if necessary, to provide funding for the construction.

Depending on which Denomination you agree with, most Christians view baptism either as the means of salvation and entry into the church or as a sign of Christ’s redemptive work in the converted. In both cases, the new believer is considered wholly regenerated, and baptism seals this radical change. This baptism may be done by total immersion in a pool of water, or pouring water over the head or sprinkling water on the individual.