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.