The following is excerpted from my essay “Against Baptismal Regeneration: An Exposition of John 3:5 & Titus 3:5”.
The cultural and religious context of the New Testament did not occur in a historical vacuum. Many antecedent beliefs and practices went into the notion of water baptism. In the first century, religious lustrations had already become a common ceremonial rite of initiation and/or purification within Judaism. What follows in this section is (1) a brief introduction to the various uses of βαπτω in the Septuagint (LXX), (2) a survey of some Mishnaic and Talmudic sources, and (3) a few parallels between the practice of baptism at Qumran with that of John the Baptist. This will serve as a starting point for an introduction to the historical basis for Christian baptism.
Of the 16 times βαπτω is used in the LXX, several mean “to dip.” The priest is required to dip his finger or other materials into the blood of a sacrificed animal in a ritual cleansing (Lev. 4:6, 17; 9:9). Dipping hyssop into water or blood is also mentioned (Num. 19:18; Ex. 12:22). In addition, a moral purification is clearly in view from Lev. 14:19-29. On account of pride, Naaman was stricken with leprosy then told to go and dip seven times in the Jordan River for cleansing. The Qal stem of the verb “to be clean” is nowhere used in the Old Testament for physical cleanliness, hence some type of religious purity must have taken place in Naaman, and his subsequent confession demonstrates a change of heart (2 Kgs. 5:15ff. See Richard Averbeck, “The Focus of Baptism in the New Testament,” Grace Theological Journal 2 (1980): 272. Also, cf., G. R. Beasley-Murry, “Baptism,” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed., Colin Brown, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 144.). The significance is that ritual cleansing by immersion is clearly in view in the canonical Old Testament writings (also, cf., Heb. 6:2).
Proselyte baptisms can be found in early Judaism. The Mishnah attributes the practice of baptism to Jewish proselytes dated ca. A.D. 10-80 and is associated with the schools of Shammai and Hillel (see H. Danby, The Mishnah (London: Oxford University, 1933), 148, 431.). Though there is much disagreement as to when the practice actually began (cf., Alfred Eedersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Appendix 12 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint, 1980), 745-747), it seems that Oepke’s comments are worth considering.
It is hardly conceivable that the Jewish ritual should be adopted at a time when baptism had become an established religious practice in Christianity. After A.D. 70 at least the opposition to Christians was too sharp to allow the rise of a Christian custom among the Jews. Proselyte baptism must have preceded Christian baptism.
Albrecht Oepke, “βαπτω” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed., G. Kittel, trans. G. W. Bromiley, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1964), 535.
If Judaism did not derive its practice of water baptism from Christianity, then Christianity may very well have procured the practice from Judaism. This may account for why so many readily accepted the baptism of John the Baptist. Though some deny that Jewish proselyte baptisms were as early as New Testament times, the practice is affirmed by many experts on Jewish literature (cf., H. H. Rowley, “Jewish Proselyte Baptism, Hebrew Union College Annual 15 (1940), 313-334. Also, T F. Torrence, “Proselyte Baptism,” New Testament Studies 1 (1954), 150-154). Though it is difficult to date precisely when proselyte baptisms occurred – before, during, or after New Testament times – their proximity to the schools of Hillel and Shammai place them very close to the first century.
Related to John the Baptist and water baptism is the Qumran sect. In spite of the numerous speculations of John the Baptist’s supposed relationship with Qumran (if he even had one at all), a glance at the Manual of Discipline (as cited in L. F. Badia, The Qumran Baptism and John the Baptist’s Baptism (Lanham: University Press of America, 1980, 52-53) indicates that the people at Qumran did administer some type of water lustration. The text of 1QS 3:4-9 demonstrates that a changed lifestyle, or repentance from sin, and obedient commitment to Torah was the necessary prerequisite before one could enter into the Qumran community. It remains possible that John adapted the Qumranian practice of daily ritual cleansing to a single, unrepeatable, and eschatological rite (cf., Mt. 3:2; 3:11, 12).
The idea that repentance ought to occur prior to water baptism is precisely what John the Baptist put forth to the Pharisees and Saducees (Mt. 3:7-9). Furthermore, the fact that a dispute arose over John’s baptism and “the matter of ceremonial washing” (Jn. 3:25) strongly suggests some degree of continuity between John’s water baptism and Jewish purification rites. Many Old Testament passages allude to a moral purification that utilizes water as the chief agent of cleansing (Is. 1:16; Jer. 4:14; Ez. 36:25; Zech. 13:1).
The significant point of difference between John’s baptism is that it was meant for Jews as well as Gentiles. No more could the children of Abraham insist that their heritage alone was sufficient for entry into the kingdom of God (Mt. 3:9). They too needed to manifest true repentance and submit to water baptism. Though the ethical element regarding repentance is present in all three types of baptism (Jewish, Qumranian, Baptistic), it was John’s baptism alone that inaugurated God’s coming reign in Jesus of Nazareth.
With Qumran’s ceremonial activities, assumed to be known at least among the Pharisees and Saducees (interestingly, it is now known that one period in which the Qumran sect occupied the area near the Dead Sea was ca. 4 B.C.-68 A.D.), and the Jewish practices of ceremonial washings and proselyte baptism, it is no doubt that some clarification was needed from John as to how his baptism was different. Despite important theological differences between the Jewish ceremonial purification rites, Qumran’s administration of baptism, and John’s baptism, it is historically undeniable that early Christian baptism had a number of significant influences that helped develop the notion of water baptism for the early Christian Church.