Baptism comes from the Greek word baptizo which means “to immerse” in the sense of making clean with water. Ritual washings were commonplace in the first-century, Greco-Roman world. The purpose was not hygienic but sacred: such washings symbolized purification in anticipation of performing some holy ritual or entering sacred space. From archaeological discoveries, it appears that ritual washings were widely performed in Jewish Palestine at that time. Washing pools, called miqva’ot, have been found all over Israel, inside homes, beside synagogues, and around the ruins of the Temple.
Jewish priests were most concerned with remaining ritually pure due to their frequent presence in the Jerusalem Temple. Rules governing the need for priestly purity are articulated in the book of Leviticus in the Torah. Other reasons for ritual washing by Jews were established around the time of John the Baptist. Evidence of more widespread practice of ritual washing can be found in the New Testament gospels. Pharisees had taken upon themselves the purity requirements normally reserved for priests which included a number of ritual washings. These included washing the hands before eating (Exodus 30:17-21) and ritually washing cooking and eating items (Lev. 11:32ff; 15:12). Jesus is portrayed as speaking out against focusing on such matters when weightier points of the law were being ignored (Mark 7:6-9).
Ritual washing for repentance and atonement from sin perhaps has its origin among the sectarian group of Jews known as Essenes (4Q414). Originally a priestly group that separated itself from the Jerusalem Temple in the 2nd c. BCE, the Essenes established themselves by the banks of the Dead Sea at a place called Qumran. Since the Temple was deemed unacceptable for sacrificial atonement for sin, the Essenes turned to other means of atonement such as prayer, righteous living, and ritual bathing.
It is unclear, and frequently debated, whether John the Baptist was an Essene or was exposed to Essene ideas. There are several clues in the gospels that lend credence to the theory of some connection between the two. John, like the Essenes, had an apocalyptic worldview. He proclaimed that the end of the world was about to occur. God would soon exercise his wrath against the sinful and redeem the righteous. John encouraged the people to get right with God now. Rather than waiting until they could get to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices for their sins, the people should repent before John and submit to his washing as a sign of atonement. (It is unclear, according to the textual evidence, whether John’s baptism brought on repentance or was a result of it; in any event, repentance was a prime ingredient.) This procedure may have alarmed the priests in charge of the Temple who reserved the right, per Torah, to pronounce sins forgiven (e.g., Lev. 4:20, 26, 35, etc.). There is evidence in both the gospels and in the writings of first-century Jewish historian Josephus, that John aroused enmity from both the leading priests and the political authorities in Galilee. Among the reasons were the crowds attracted by John, his claim that political realities were about to change, and, no doubt, his pronouncement of forgiveness for sins (Matt. 21:23-27, 32). John was of priestly descent according to the Gospel of Luke (1:5, 13).
It is incorrect to characterize John’s baptism as an initiation or an intentional “once for all” washing. If John’s baptism for repentance was performed only once it was because John did not think the world would last much longer. In John’s view, one would not have had time for repeated washings to prepare for the new age. Neither John nor his baptizands could know that the world would not end and that neither God nor his messiah would not establish His rule after all.
Our earliest gospel, Mark, indicates that Jesus was baptized by John in the same way as everyone else (Mark 1:1-18). Later gospels, apparently embarrassed by this acknowledgement of John’s superiority or the notion that Jesus had sins to repent, mask the event. The Gospel of Matthew creates an extended conversation between Jesus and John wherein John admits his inferiority but baptizes Jesus anyway. Luke has Jesus baptized after John is imprisoned (so who performed it?). The Gospel of John does not even mention it. It should be remembered that these are Christian texts designed to highlight Jesus as the hero, even at John’s expense. Nevertheless, it appears that some of Jesus’s followers were baptized by John as well (John 1:35-37; Acts 1:21-22). They were all apocalyptically oriented, believing that the end was just around the corner.
The arrest and ultimate execution of John must have caused many to rethink the imminence of the Day of the Lord. John clearly was not the messiah since he died before doing the things a messiah was expected to do. Jesus picked up the apocalyptic and prophetic mantle of John and ran with it. He took his message to the towns and villages, not limiting his missionary field to watery places as John may have done in order to effect baptisms. Whether Jesus baptized or not is debated (John 4:1-2). He probably did for a while but the gospels in general play down a specifically baptizing mission for Jesus and his disciples before Easter.
Yet baptism would not be forgotten after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. This indicates that it was always part of the program of the Jesus movement even if rarely mentioned in the gospels. According to the gospels, which may be suspect at this point, John promised that God would send someone who would baptize with spirit/fire as well as water (Mat. 3:11). This spirit baptism seems to have begun after the resurrection. An early Christian belief was that the Spirit of God empowered the followers of Jesus to continue to spread the message of the end times by ensuring that the people would be found in a righteous state. This was the focus for John, Jesus, and Jesus’s disciples; it was not about individual salvation.
The New Testament Acts of the Apostles dates the first “baptism” by the Holy Spirit (as fire) to the first Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) after the resurrection. Tongues like fire are said to have alit upon the disciples after which they proceeded to baptize with water and spirit. Sometimes the spirit was conferred afterward by the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6; 8:16-17). Other times the conferral of the spirit preceded baptism (Acts 10:44-48). Generally, though, it seems that the two were meant to go together (Acts 19:5-6).
Whether Paul was baptized or not is debatable though he probably was (Acts 9:17 only describes a laying on of hands to confer the spirit to Paul). His primary concern, of course, was not so much the righteousness of the Jewish people but how to include the nations (non-Jews) in God’s promise of everlasting life. The nations were comprised of sinners with no means of atonement since they did not subscribe to Torah. Paul adapted the spirit baptism of the Palestinian Jesus-movement for the nations in order to “justify” (make righteous) non-Jews before God. For non-Jews, being made righteous could not simply be a matter of ritual washing. That was alright for Jews who were the chosen people of God guided all their lives by Torah. More was required for non-Jews.
Paul came up with the idea of a non-Jew being baptized “into the death” of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:3-4). This joining in the death of the god was not unheard of in the Greco-Roman world; ritual washings were part of the process of joining certain mystery cults in Paul’s day (e.g., the cults of the Great Mother and Attis, Isis and Osiris, Mithras, etc.). By joining in the death of the god (e.g., Osiris, Mithras, Jesus), the believer might also join in his/her rebirth. Paul was cautious about guaranteeing this rebirth, or resurrection as apocalyptically-minded Jews understood it. He only speaks of the “hope” of resurrection (Romans 5:2; Galatians 5:5; 1 Thess. 1:3). Nevertheless, this process in effect atoned for the sins of the non-Jew (though Paul used other terms like “redemption” rather than atonement or even forgiveness). After such baptism the spirit of God (conferred in the process) would work within them, according to Paul, as evidence of their adoption as “sons” of the God of Israel. These “gifts of the spirit” included speaking in tongues, prophesying, healing, etc. (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-13).
Paul seems to have adopted and adapted baptism for his non-Jewish audience but did not consider his own personal calling to specifically include baptizing. He claims that he did baptize on occasion but apparently left most of the work to his assistants (1 Cor. 1:14-17). Paul never addresses in his letters the subject of baptizing a person multiple times. Again, this is likely due to his apocalyptic outlook. Paul expected the return (parousia) of Christ at any moment (1 Thess. 4:15-17). There should have been no reason or time to conduct multiple baptisms. In fact, Paul does not seem prepared for the situation in which the baptized Christ-follower continues to sin. He instructs his communities to throw the sinners out (1 Cor. 5:5; Rom. 16:17)! Had Paul a longer-range mission in mind, he might have developed some protocols for treating the sinning believer. On one occasion he does counsel forgiveness and readmission (2 Cor. 2:7-10).
The event horizon has as much to do with the administration of baptism as with the rationale behind it. Regardless of who performed it, the early Christ-community saw baptism as a last-minute “righteousing” to prepare the people (“Jew or Greek”) for God’s coming or the coming of His messiah. No thought was given to the failure of that day to materialize. How might baptism have been conceived if the day were thought to be far off? Would the ritual have even been instituted?
Baptism appears to be a residual ritual left over from a first-century apocalyptic movement, one that had to be reinterpreted if it was to be kept as a rite within the emerging non-Jewish religion known as Christianity. It developed, in fact, as a non-repeatable initiation rite as well as a sign of spiritual cleansing for members in the young church (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 13, 166). Baptism as initiation was not foreign to Judaism either, with some texts advocating such a process for non-Jews (especially/only women? See Joseph and Aseneth 14:12-13, 15) to be admitted to Judaism. Christians eventually added a trinitarian formula to the baptismal rite, washing the initiate in the “name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19; Didache 7.1, 3). In time, Christian baptism would only be performed on converts who had successfully spent up to a year being instructed in the faith and who could memorize a Christian creed or properly answer a set of doctrinal questions (catechism). Orthodox and Conservative Jews continue to practice ritual washings for purity or holiness’s sake, especially at festivals, often following Biblical prescriptions where possible.