Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM
John the Baptist is an important figure in all four gospels. Mark begins with John’s baptisms, Luke with the events of his birth, and John weaves him into the prologue of the incarnation as one sent from God. One thing that the New Testament does NOT begin with, is an explanation of all the things that have radically changed for Israel since turning the last page of the Old Testament. Turn from Malachi 4 to Matthew 1, and it’s a whole new world, filled with Romans, Pharisees, and Zealots. There are Synagogues, Samaritans, and Sadducees. The phrase Sea of Galilee is new, and so are Perea, the Decapolis, and Nazareth. Oral law, the Sanhedrin, and “The Traditions of the Elders” are also new. In the Old Testament, there was no such thing as Baptism.
Old Testament… no baptism.
New Testament… lots of baptisms.
Where did baptism come from? What does baptism mean? How should modern Christians respond to baptism?
Baptism in the Ancient World
To even begin to answer these questions, you have to recognize at least six things about the world of the Old and New Testaments.
First, modern readers rarely understand covenant… even when they think they do. We tend to think of covenant in terms of Abraham, Moses, and David, but actually know little about covenant itself because we develop our thinking about covenant primarily from Scripture. The problem is that Scripture records covenants, but does not explain covenants. Abraham, Moses, and David make covenants with God because covenant was a big deal already in their world and the legal genre called covenant was a powerful vehicle for the kind of faithful bond God seeks with believers. Covenant has a long history and a complexity in practice and principles that Scripture illustrates, but never specifically teaches.
Baptism is one of many ways that Israel develops for making a covenant, i.e. for ratifying a covenant. Covenant ratification is a ritual way of “signing” a “contract” that the Divine will enforce. No contract is worth anything without the right heart to keep it (I am a man of my word!) or the capacity to monitor, the presence to intimidate, and the power to punish.
When you see people eating together, clasping hands, performing circumcisions, exchanging clothes, grasping garment hems, lining a path with chopped-up animals, or making various kinds of public declarations, like, “Brother!” “Father! “I have known you!” “Love!” etc, you are watching ratification acts… covenant-making. There are covenants and covenant language on almost every page of Scripture.
There are lots of things to know about covenant and most of them will apply to baptism.
Second, baptism developed in Israel in the intertestamental period out of Jewish purification rituals like the mikva, as a way of marking the conversion of already circumcised Jewish men into more exclusive Jewish movements, like joining the Essenes. One of these groups performed the rite every morning. Baptism also provided a means of ratifying the conversion of gentile women independent of their husbands when their presence in Israel and Jewish presence among them became more common.
Third, ratification acts almost always involved symbolic death, and/or the symbolic ingestion of death curses.1 The one entering into a covenant stood before his god, and often the god of the one with whom he was making the covenant (One reason to never covenant with pagans) and with either words or actions invited those gods to destroy the one ratifying the covenant IF he or she should prove unfaithful to the covenant’s stipulations and/or their common obligations.
Fourth, water was a powerful death symbol in the ancient world. It is not an accident that the New Testament speaks of baptism in association with Moses passing through the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:1ff), Noah passing through the flood (1 Peter 3:20-21), and of both baptism and Jonah’s descent into the abyss with Jesus’ death and resurrection. (Matthew 12:40; Romans 6:4)
Fifth, as a death symbol, baptism also becomes a symbolic “ordeal,” i.e. a successful passage through death by divine protection. Ancient pagan law courts would commonly execute people in such a way that the gods could easily intervene to save them when doubt in the testimony against the accused remained. Yes, unlike in Scripture and Israel, you were guilty until proven innocent. Throwing them into the water all tied up was a favorite—River Ordeal—but we have a record of fire and lions being used too.
Court ordeal found expression outside the law as well. To escape certain death was a sign of divine acceptance, divine election, or divinely declared innocence. Think, of Daniel in the Lion’s den, and Shadrach and his companions in the fiery furnace. Again, we have Israel through the Red Sea, Noah through the flood, and Jonah through the depths of the sea. David before Goliath was a contest ordeal, as was Moses and Korah’s men marching into holy space before Yahweh, AND we have the incident of the blooming staff when Israelite leaders challenged Aaron’s priesthood.
Finally, sixth, while baptism became common among Jewish sects, like the Essenes (Think Dead Sea Scrolls) and even John the Baptist (thought by many to have been raised among the Essenes), Jesus used it to ratify his own followers in the New Covenant community called the Church. The New Testament church continued to practice baptism, investing the rite with even more layers of meaning after Jesus’ successful passage through actual death in His resurrection into incorruptible glory.
What is Baptism?
Now, baptism is the second oldest Christian ceremony. The oldest is communion… but that’s a story for another day. When your pastor discusses the need for believers to be baptized, he is continuing the ancient tradition of public profession of faith in Christ and the use of a highly symbolic ratification act to seal the believer’s covenant with God and Christ.
Once upon a time, we would stand in court, ready to testify. We would put our hand on a Bible. They would say, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” We would say, “I do.” That “swear” and “so help me God,” was the threat part to a heart that believed God was real and, thus, had the capacity to monitor, the presence to intimidate, and the power to punish. The joke on a godless nation is that we have removed the “so help me God,” part. Thus, such promises have no power for getting at truth greater than the fear induced by the court’s own capacity to monitor, presence to intimidate, and power to punish… which is highly limited.
To take baptism is to say, “I swear to follow and obey Christ, the true Christ, and nothing but the true Christ, so help me God.”
1Some ratification acts embodied ideas of “oneness” in addition to, or instead of, death images.
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