April 24, 2012

Was John the first baptist?

by Jesse Johnson

Was John’s baptism the first baptism the world knew? Commentators are not quite agreed on the history of Christian baptism. Obviously Christians baptize, and obviously Jews don’t. But was John the Baptist the first to actually baptize? Or were the Jews doing baptisms in the inter-testamental period?

The short answer is that baptisms in the Christian sense began with John. The Jews had the concept of purifying through water, and different groups practiced various forms of these ceremonial washings, but they were nothing like what John was doing.

Before John, there were essentially three kinds of washings:

1. The sects (common in the hills around the Jordan wilderness, such as Qumran) had a form of ritual washings. These were the closest to Christian baptism in terms of means—those who were washed would submerge themselves in water, hence it could legitimately be called a baptism. These baptisms happened in specific pools that were private and clean. One set of stairs exist for you to use on your way in, and another on your way out, that way your “clean” feet don’t touch where your unclean feet once trod. These were usually done naked, as any clothing that touched your body would have rendered that part of your body as “unclean” as the water did not directly touch it.

But while the means—submersion—was similar to John’s baptism, the rest was not. These sects were exclusive, reserved for those who had already achieved some measure of religious standing. The baptisms were private and sanitary. These elitist washings were a world apart from the masses that were publically baptized in the dirty, salty, and grimy Jordan. While the sects used baptism for the pure and the religious leaders, John reserved his for the sinners, and treated the religious leaders like trespassers.

2. Jewish proselytes (gentiles who desired to convert to Judaism) also had a form of baptism. They would publically wash themselves as a rite of initiation, and to show that they were now joining a new religion and nation. They were turning their back on their former life, and their former gods. In that sense, this washing was similar to John’s. They both marked a turning away, and they both marked a desire to affiliate with a new religion.

However, the similarities end there. These washings were usually compared more to bathing than to baptism. It was less about submersion, and more about pouring; they certainly were not done in the river either. Finally, and most significantly, there is no way a Jewish person would have ever participated in this rite. That wouldn’t have eve made sense—after all, they were born Jewish, so this washing was not even available to them.

3. Those who were unclean—such as through leprosy or touching a dead body—would also participate in a ceremonial washing. This was done to signify that they were now clean, and that they should be welcomed back into the community and religious life. And in that sense, John’s baptism was similar. It too marked a desire to be declared clean and pure.

But John’s baptism was certainly more symbolic, while these washings were definitely practical. They were actually supposed to clean the person (Lev 15:10, 15:17, 17:16). And these washings are not properly called baptism either, as they were not a form of submersion, but more a form of scrubbing. I suppose these washings could conceivably have been done in the Jordan, but it is more likely that simple baths would have been used.

So John’s baptism was novel for the Israelites. Its not as if there were a parade of people baptizing followers in the wilderness, and John just happened to be the most popular. Rather, John’s baptism was a radical call to flee the wrath about to come upon Israel, and to identify with the coming messiah.

But what makes John’s baptism even more remarkable is that it combined the most humiliating aspect of all three of the washings described above. All three of them have a common presupposition: namely, that the person being baptized is unclean. Lepers needed washing to prove to the priest they were healed. Proselytes washed as a way to declare they were leaving their former life. Those in the sects were baptized to show that they were ceremonially pure before doing a religious activity.

Participation in John’s baptism would have revealed not that you had a skin disease, but that you had a heart disease. It was a confession that the entire religious system in Jerusalem was spiritually bankrupt, and that you were putting your faith in the future messiah, not in the temple system. It was a confession of inadequacy, spiritual uncleanness, and a general hopelessness if left to your own. It was a turning from all that had gone before, and a statement that you needed a new heart, not simply a bath.

So with that in mind, John really was the frist Baptist.

Jesse Johnson

Posts Twitter Facebook

Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Kip’ Chelashaw

    This doesn’t make sense of John 1:19-28. In verse 24-25, the Pharisees ask John why he is going about baptising if he is not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet. In other words there is an assumption in the question that baptism is something the Messiah etc would do and nowhere do they hint that they what they are witnessing in John is a novelty. This should alert us that there are hints in the OT that inform the praxis of Christian baptism and lo and behold when we read the OT carefully we come across Scriptures like Isaiah 52:15 and Ezekiel 36:25 which point to baptism by sprinkling!

    Kip’ Chelashaw
    Staffordshire, UK

    • Thanks for commenting Kip. I think if you see baptism in Isa 52:15, well I don’t really know what to say other than I disagree. I’d point out that the text on that passage could be read “startle” rather than sprinkle (I think that is what the LXX does, if memory serves), but regardless it speaks to the way the Messiah will purify his people, not to an initiatory rite. The Ezek passage makes the same point. That God purifies his people through the washing of the word (also repeated in John 3 and Titus 2). That I think is a constant motif in the Scriptures, and is most certainly not a reference to baptism.

      • Kip’ Chelashaw

        Hello Jesse,

        Thanks for the reply. You still haven”t deal with the question the Pharisees ask in John. Why don’t they seemed surprised by the act of baptism and presume that it was a thing to be expected of the Messiah, Elijah, etc? And where would they have gotten that presumption from?


        • I’m not sure what you are asking. The question (esp. v. 25) to me implies that nobody else was baptizing. Right? I mean, the question is “why are you baptizing if you are not Elijah or Messiah.” Or are you saying that there were others doing the same thing, and the pharisees were kind of working down the line asking everyone that question?

          • Larry

            Jesse, I don’t know how you deal with it. lol! Some ask questions, just for the sake of nonsense. Your point is that OT “washing/baptism” served the purpose to cleanse the body and was practical. NT baptism serves the purpose to symbolize a cleansing of the heart, relative to what Christ has done.

            I suppose if you said “Jesus wept” some would “press” to determine the salt content of the tears to determine whether he was crying or had allergies.

          • Kip’ Chelashaw

            I’m saying that the Pharisees were expecting the Messiah to baptise and that this expectation was grounded in the OT Scriptures. Their question doesn’t express surprise/intrigue at what John was doing but rather why he was doing it if he was not one of those people who were expected to do it. So my question is where (if not the OT) did they get this knowledge that Messiah – when he came – would baptise?


          • Got it. Sorry Kip, I honestly had a hard time understanding. That is a good question, and one that I don’t entirely know the answer to. I see the imagery of being washed by the word in the OT. Also, if the OT did prophecy baptism as something new for the Messiah to initiate, then that certainly would make John the first baptist, right?

            In reading a handful of commentaries on John, I haven’t found one that connects the verse you are asking about to a preconceived idea of baptism. Instead, most commentators say that what John was doing was so outrageous, and he was clearly representing Elijah (by his dress and his appearance in the wilderness), that the pharisees are perplexed at his rejection of the label. So I take his actions as an identification with Elijah, his baptism as a radical call to flee the system set up in Jerusalem, and the priests stunned by the audacity of it all, especially from someone who is not even claiming to be the Messiah.

            Do you know of any authors that take the passage differently and see in it an implication that the pharisees were expecting the messiah to do baptisms?

            Thanks Kip

  • Larry

    Jesse, on point again. Great job on the simplicity, yet the profoundness between the two methodologies. I promised you early on when you were installed, I would come down from Baltimore to visit and say hey.

    It’ll happen in May. I’ve been teaching the adult Sunday school class the entire month of April.

  • Michael Delahunt

    Thanks Jesse! I loved the read. Keep up the faithful work!

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Hi Jesse,

    I appreciate the historical background! Good post.

    As a related aside, have you ever engaged a confessional Lutheran about the Lutheran doctrine of baptism? Specifically, baptismal regeneration and/or infant baptism?

    • I have. The Luthern I talked to about it (he was leading a college Bible study at a campus I was also ministering on) was not comfortable saying “baptismal regeneration” but was totally comfortable saying that infant baptism saves you. He saw a hard and fast difference between the two. I’m not so sure how representative his view is.

  • Scott C

    Mikveh (ritual baths) are found along the southern wall of the entrance to the Temple Mount. These were used for ritual cleansing before entering the Temple. Todd Bolen has a picture of one here: http://www.bibleplaces.com/southerntm.htm. You can see that this involved people becoming fully immersed. I forget how many of these baths have been found. But their presence may explain how 3000 people were baptized on the day of Pentecost after Peter’s preaching (Acts 2:41).

    • Totally. Just the sheer number of them demonstrates that these were used for ceremonial purposes, frequently. Not once in your life.

      Also interesting that John did this in the wilderness, not in Jerusalem. He didnt’ wear the preists’ hats, and he didn’t use their water. He told people to repent from that whole system, and publicly rebuked the leaders of that system.

  • Kip’ Chelashaw

    Hello Jesse,

    Thanks for your last comment. I tried to reply under it but I couldn’t so I’m doing this as a new entry. The one author I know who tries to link the Pharisees question in John 1 with the OT is a man called Duane Garner – his book Holy Baptism: Word keys which unlock the Covenant is extra-ordinary. A word of warning if you decide to get this book – if you are a thorough-going baptist, prepare to be assaulted!



    • Sweet. Thanks Kip. I appreciate the book tip, and thanks for your gracious interaction here.

  • kokanut2

    Perhaps I’m missing something here. Although John’s baptism is described in the NT, it takes place in in the period prior to Christ’s completed work on the cross. Christian baptism acknowledges the active and passive obedience of Christ, including not only His death, but also His resurrection. In Acts 19, Apollos, who knew only the baptism of John, was baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. The Holy Spirit came on Apollos, and the others with him, only after Paul placed his hands on them. It seems then, that John’s baptism was not the first NT baptism.
    I seem to be missing something else here as well. You said, “But while the means—submersion—was similar to John’s baptism, the rest was not.” I guess you’ll have to point out to me a description of John’s baptism, or any other for that matter, as “submersion.”

    • Hey Kokanut,
      I get your point about John’s baptism (“John’s baptism was not the first NT baptism”). Clearly it was the first NT baptism, in that it is in all the gospels. It was not identical to Christian baptism in the sense that Christians are baptized into the church, and what I’m arguing above is that it was the first real baptism the world had known, although there were various other kind of religious washings. And even the disciples of John were also baptized into the church after Pentacost. Good point.

      As far as submersion goes, the Mikvas in Israel around the temple and in Qumran are still there today. They are baths. And in the sects, the whole point was that the entire body would go under the water. They wouldn’t let hands touch them, so that water could touch every part of their body to make them clean. That was my point there.

      As for John’s baptism, the word “baptize” means “to submerge.” Also, the text says that John took people “down to the water,” then that people came “up out of the water.”

  • Ari C’rona

    The concept of ‘baptism’ is not at all new to Biblical teaching. The ritual immersion, called a mikvah, was common for many things as is stated in the Tenach, not exclusive of certain sects. Any life changing event could be followed by a mikvah to mark a ‘change in status’. Therefore, John’s ‘baptism’ is merely a less formal mikvah that marked a change in status from unclean to clean in regards to the state of the heart in turning from sin.

    • Thanks for commenting Ari. I talked about Mikvahs a few comments earlier. In fact there are some pictures linked above. John’s baptism almost represented a repentance from the temple system, not simply a variation of it.

  • Pingback: SUNDAY EDITION (9): News For Christians WEEK-IN-REVIEW April 29, 2012 Iyyar 7, 5772 « Michael James Stone()

  • Pingback: SUNDAY EDITION (9): News For Christians WEEK-IN-REVIEW April 29, 2012 Iyyar 7, 5772 « Last Generation Report()

  • Pingback: SUNDAY EDITION (9): News For Christians WEEK-IN-REVIEW April 29, 2012 Iyyar 7, 5772 | Last Call Devotionals()

  • Pingback: SUNDAY EDITION (9): News For Christians WEEK-IN-REVIEW April 29, 2012 Iyyar 7, 5772 « "VidDevo's"()