Baptism (in the Bible)

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Described in the NT as the sacramental entrance into the people of God, baptism was foreshadowed in the OT by circumcision and typified by the crossing of the red sea. Baptism into Christ, when received in faith, effects forgiveness of sin, bestows the Holy Spirit, and unites the believer to Christ's Mystical Body (see church, i [in the bible]). As a providential preparation for the baptism instituted by Christ, a widespread use of ablutions and washings appeared in the religious sects of the pagan and Jewish world in the age preceding Christ; this preparation was climaxed in proselyte baptism of the Jews and the ministry of John the Baptist. This article treats baptism in three main sections: terminology, pre-Christian practices, and baptism in the NT.

Terminology. The name "baptism" came from the Greek noun βάπτισμα, "the dipping, washing," less commonly βαπτισμός, stemming from the verb βάπτω, "to dip" or "immerse." In the NT this verb is used only in the literal sense (Lk 16.24; Jn 13.26; Rv 19.13). From this form is derived the iterative form βαπτίζω, which, in classical Greek, was used in the literal sense of "dipping" and in the figurative sense of "being over-whelmed" with sufferings and miseries. The latter figurative meaning occurs in the NT where Christ and His Apostles are described as "baptized" with suffering (Mk 10.3839). For the rest of the NT, however, the verb βαπτίζω has its technical sense signifying the religious ceremony of baptism. The nouns, also, are used in a technical religious sense: βαπτισμός designates the act of baptizing; βάπτισμα, used only in the NT and by later Christian writers, signifies baptism as an institution; and, βαπτιστής (the baptizer) became the title of John the Baptist. This development of technical terminology demonstrates that baptism was considered something special, something new; therefore, these technical terms were merely transliterated, not translated, into the Latin alphabet as baptizo, baptisma, and baptista.

Pre-Christian Practices. Christian baptism is an external rite that signifies what it effects. The rite of washing had long been used as a religious practice; the signification attributed to it in Christian times builds upon these earlier usages, and so an investigation of them will be useful to the present study.

In the Pagan World. In the ancient world the waters of the Ganges in India, Euphrates in Babylonia, and Nile in Egypt were used for sacred baths; the sacred bath was known also in the Hellenistic mystery cults. And in the Attis and Mithra cults sacred initiation included a blood bath. A two-fold effect was attributed to these baths: first, a cleansing from ritual and, more rarely, moral impurities that, according to primitive notions, could be washed away like bodily dirt; second, a bestowal of immortality and an increase of vital strength. The latter idea developed especially in Egypt where a person who drowned in the Nile became divinized. Mystery baths and baptisms are only a further step; in symbolic rite the initiate dies, and his death results in divinization. Cleansing and vivification, however, are understood more in the merely ritual or magic than in the moral sense. This deficiency in their religion was sensed even by the pagans.

In the Old Testament and Judaism. The Hebrew verb ābal, which the Septuagint (LXX) regularly translates by βάπτω, means "to dip" into a liquid, e.g., a morsel into wine (Ru 2.14), the feet into the river (Jos 3.15), and ritually defiled objects into water. In the OT, ābal becomes a technical term connected with removal of ritual impurity: dipping (ābal, βάπτω) hyssop into blood and sprinkling it upon a leper who has been healed is part of the ritual by which he is pronounced clean (Lv 14.67). Later Judaism multiplied prescriptions of ritual purity referred to in the Gospels as "washing [βαπτισμός] of cups and pots" (Mk 7.4) and "bathing [βαπτίσθη] before eating" (Lk 11.38).

Baths were prescribed also by the Torah for the removal of various kinds of ritual impurities; one must bathe after being cured of leprosy (Lv 14.89), after contracting personal uncleanness (Lv 15.11, 13, 16, 18,27), and after touching a corpse (Nm 19.19). But in all these instances, not the term ābal, but rāhas (bammayim ), "to wash (in water)," is used, equivalent to a sort of sponge bath. Only once, in a clear case of immersion, does the LXX translate ābal with βαπτίζω: "He [Naaman] went down, and washed in the Jordan seven times" (2 Kgs5.14). In later times, ābal and, therefore, βαπτίζω, became the technical terms for such bathing to remove ritual uncleanness: "Each night she [Judith] went out to the ravine of Bethulia, where she washed herself [βαπτίζετο] at the spring of the camp" (Jdt 12.7). But these Jewish practices of washing and bathing were intended merely as ritual purifications and had no direct moral purpose.

An extension of the general custom of ritual washings and the simple bath of purification was proselyte baptism, which in later Judaism was prescribed for Gentile converts (see proselytes [biblical]). Slowly it developed into a recognized rite of initiation consisting of three parts: circumcision, baptism, and sacrifice. It seems that this ritual rose from Jewish consciousness of the necessity for a Gentile proselyte to repeat the triple experience of the Israelites who had participated in the Sinaitic covenant: they were circumcised "a second time" (Jos 5.2), they were baptized in the desert (Ex 19.10 reads "sanctify," but Jewish tradition understood this in a baptismal sense; cf. 1 Cor 10.2), and they shared the covenant sacrifice (Ex 24.38). Thus it was through circumcision and baptism that the non-Jew entered the covenant and became a full-fledged Israelite. All this, however, was concerned primarily with legal purity and juridical incorporation. As for the origin of proselyte baptism it must have been practiced in Judaism prior to Christianity; it is hardly likely that the Jews would have borrowed the practice of baptism from a sect they looked upon with animosity.

In the New Testament. By Christian baptism one enters into the kingdom of God and into the sphere of the saving work of Christ. John the Baptist proclaimed the advent of the kingdom and administered a baptism of penance by which those who received it proclaimed their willingness to enter the kingdom; his ministry, then, presents a good transition from earlier baptismal practices to those which were specifically Christian in character.

Baptism of John. From the middle of the 2d century b.c. until c. a.d. 300 there was a great deal of baptismal activity in Syria and Palestine, especially along the upper Jordan, among many different groups (see J. Thomas). But the different forms of ablution, whether the lustrations of Hellenistic syncretism, the baptism of the Mandaeans (a Gnostic sect of the Christian era; see mandaean religion), the bath of the essenes, or finally, proselyte baptism of late Judaism, are insufficient to account fully for the baptism of John; they fall short of the ethical and messianic implications of his baptism. Providentially, by the earlier baptismal movements, the people were disposed more immediately for John's baptism and ultimately for that of Christ. The fact that John came to be known as "baptizer" or the "Baptist" (even Flavius Josephus mentions him by this title in Jewish Antiquities 18.5.2 par. 116117) shows that his activity must have been considered as something special and, at least partly, something new. This title was obviously first given him, not by Christians, but by pre-Christian popular consent.

In the mystery religions the lustrations and baptisms were conceived of as working magically; in Judaism proselyte baptism was derived from a legalistic conception of uncleanness; in contrast, John's baptism had an explicitly moral character. It was the visible sign of μετάνοια (repentance; see conversion, i [in the bible]), a change of heart necessary for the remission of sins ("There came Johnpreaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins": Mk 1.4; see also Acts 13.24; 19.4). Soon after John, the mightier One, the Messiah, was to come. John's baptism prepared for the eschatological kingdom: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt 3.1).

The Prophets had already used the symbolism of bathing to express the idea of interior, moral purification (Is 1.16; Ez 36.25; Zec 13.1; Ps 50[51].9). Although John's baptism was administered by divine command ("Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?" Mk 11.3033), it was a baptism with water lacking full messianic efficacy; it was a figure and a preparation for the baptism instituted by Christ, a symbol of the right disposition for the coming kingdom.

John's baptism posed a crisis for the piety of contemporary Judaism. His baptism implied that the law and all efforts to observe it could not produce the sanctity envisioned and foretold by the Prophets. One greater than John must come who would baptize "with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (Mt 3.11). The Messiah would pour forth the Holy Spirit and with that (according to the baptist) a coinciding eschatological judgment. In Acts it is emphasized that the baptism of John, in contrast to that of Jesus, did not confer the Spirit (Acts 1.5; 11.1516; 19.16). The baptism of John, unlike proselyte baptism, was administered primarily to Jews (Mk 1.5). Between John and those he baptized, a community that lasted beyond his death was established (Acts 19.14).

The lustral practices of the Essenes attest to the widespread concern for ritual purity in later Judaism. The bath of the qumran community shows similarities to John's baptism: both demand a conversion to God as a condition for the forgiveness of sin; both occur more or less in an eschatological context (see J. Gnilka, 205). John's baptism, however, stands more in the tradition of the Prophets both in its demand for moral reform and as the climactic preparation for the imminent messianic kingdom, whereas the bath of the Essenes is inspired more by the tradition of the law, especially in its emphasis on ritual purity as a precondition to participation in community cult. The practice of the Essenes was exclusive, whereas John's baptism was open to all. Moreover, the bath of Qumran neither symbolized nor effected entrance into the community; it is not regarded as an initiation rite by the Manual of Discipline.

Jesus also baptized during His public life (Jn 3.22), not personally, but through His disciples (Jn 4.2). In this pre-Passion baptism St. Augustine and St. Thomas saw the Christian Sacrament, but this is improbable ("The Spirit had not yet been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified": Jn 7.39).

Jesus Baptized by John. The Synoptic Gospels (Mk1.911 and parallels) record and the Fourth Gospel (Jn1.3234) presumes that Jesus accepted baptism from the hands of John. In this baptism Jesus is symbolically and actually commissioned as Servant of Yahweh (see suffer ing servant, songs of). Other Jews came to the Jordan to be baptized by John for their own sins. Jesus was baptized not for His own sins, but for those of the whole people; He is the one whom Isaiah prophesied must suffer vicariously for the sins of the people. The words "Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased" (Mk 1.11) bring to mind Is 42.1, 4: "Here is my servant [LXX πα[symbol omitted]ς] whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations,establish justice on the earth." The Greek term πα[symbol omitted]ς means both servant and son, two titles of Christ. And this allusion is meant to recall the wider context of the other Servant of Yahweh Oracles, especially Is 53.47: "It was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured. The Lordlaid upon him the guilt of us all. He was harshly treated ; like a lamb led to the slaughter, he opened not his mouth." Jesus was baptized in view of His death that effected the forgiveness of sins for all men. For this reason Jesus must unite Himself in solidarity with His whole people; "all justice must be fulfilled" (Mt 3.15). Thus the baptism of Jesus points forward to the cross, in which alone all baptism will find its fulfillment.

At His baptism in the Jordan Jesus also received the fullness of the Spirit. His full possession of the Spirit was to be joined to His redemptive suffering as the Servant of God: "I have put my Spirit upon him [the Servant of God]; he shall bring forth justice to the nations" (Is 42.1). Consequently, in Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, the prototype of every Christian baptism, the effects of the later Sacrament are foreshadowed, i.e., "justice to the nations [forgiveness of sins]" and possession of the Spirit. (see baptism of christ.)

In the Apostolic Church. To Nicodemus Jesus clearly stated the necessity of baptism for salvation: "Unless a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God," and more specifically, "Unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (Jn 3.3, 5). The author of the Fourth Gospel viewed the washing of the feet of the Apostles by Jesus as a symbol of the cleansing of baptism; this is suggested by the words of Christ: "If I do not wash thee, thou shalt have no part with me" (Jn 13.8).

After His Resurrection Jesus gave His disciples the commission to preach the Gospel to all nations and to "baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt 28.1920). To this, Mk 16.16 adds the necessary condition of faith for baptism and thus for salvation. Since the command to baptize is one of His most important commissions, Jesus refers to the eschatological Lordship that empowers Him to give such a command. Although the explicit formula of baptism in Mt 28.19 may derive from the liturgy of the Church, the central meaning of baptism and the command to baptize derive from Christ. It is to be noted, too, that the clearly formulated necessity of baptism found in the Fourth Gospel is due to the fact that the final form of this Gospel reflects the actual experience and practice of the Apostolic Church. This does not contradict the teaching that Jesus spoke explicitly about the necessity of baptism and that He gave the commission to baptize. If He had not, one could not explain why, from the very outset, starting with Pentecost, the Apostolic Church preached the absolute need of baptism for salvation, admonishing all to do penance, to believe in Jesus, and to be baptized (Acts 2.38, 41; 8.1213, 16, 36, 38; 9.18; 10.47; 19.35). References in the Epistles also prove that baptism was a well-established institution forming the climax of preaching and its acceptance by faith (Rom 6.3; 1 Cor 12.13). Although St. Paul says that Christ did not send him to baptize but to preach (1 Cor 1.17), this does not argue against the necessity of baptism. No writer in the NT stresses the need for baptism more than St. Paul; he knows no unbaptized Christian (Rom 6.3).

It is evident that baptism in the early Church was by immersion. This is implicit in terminology and context: "Let us draw nearhavingthe body washed with clean water" (Heb 10.22), and the account of the Ethiopian chamberlain, who, to be baptized, "went down into the water" and "came up out of the water" (Acts8.3839). St. Paul sees in baptism a burial with Christ and a rising with Him (Rom 6.34; Col 2.12). The term λουτρόν (Eph 5.26; Ti 3.5), finally, can mean only "bath." The didache for the first time clearly advises baptism of infusion in case of necessity, "If you have no running water, pour water on the head" (7.23). The NT does not explicitly mention infusion. Yet one might wonder if the Apostles did not use it in cases where a great number of people were baptized (3,000 on the first Pentecost: Acts 2.41), or when circumstances hardly allowed immersion, as in the case of the nocturnal baptism in Philippi of the jailer and his family (Acts 16.33). The NT defines neither the exact rite of baptism nor the exact formulas. That some formula was pronounced by the minister in baptism is certain from Christ's command (Mt 28.19) and is perhaps alluded to in Ephesians when St. Paul says that Christ shall sanctify His Church "cleansing her in the bath of water by means of the word" (Eph5.26). Yet, possibly, "the word" may refer to the confession of faith of the one baptized. Despite baptismal traditions evident in 1 Peter, the exact reconstruction of the baptismal rite remains problematic, as attempts of H. Preisker, R. Perdelwitz, and M. E. Boismard show. Besides the formula of Matthew in explicit Trinitarian form (Mt 28.19), the NT refers also to baptism "into Christ" and "into the name of Christ" (Acts 2.38; 8.16; 10.48; 19.5). It is not clear whether either short phrase represents a formal, established baptismal formula. To baptize in the name of Jesus may mean to baptize by the authority of Jesus in distinction from any other baptism. The Didache in one place quotes the Trinitarian formula, "baptize as follows: after first explaining all these points, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (7.3) and in another place states that only "those baptized in the name of the Lord" (9.5) shall eat and drink of the Eucharist. The frequent use of ες (into) in this context, however, probably expresses the new relationship into which one enters with Christ through baptism; one enters into the sphere of His saving activity, becomes His property.

The recipient of baptism made a profession of faith, as evidenced from Acts 22.16, which was essentially an expression of belief in Jesus as Son of God, Lord, and Messiah (see also Rom 10.9; 1 Cor 12.3; Phil 2.11), of belief in God as the one who raised up Jesus from the dead, and in the Holy Spirit as Him whom Jesus in His exaltation possesses and imparts (Acts 2.3239). It seems that the phrase often occurring in the context of baptism, "What prevents [i.e., baptism]"τί κωλύει (Acts 8.36;10.47; 11.17; see also Mt. 3.13) refers to the prebaptismal examination that sought to determine whether any hindrance existed and whether the candidate had really fulfilled the preliminary conditions. Texts treating baptism furnish primary sources for the profession-of-faith formulas used in the early Church (Rom 10.9; 1 Cor 10.16; Heb 6.2).

Theological Significance. Christian baptism is the NT fulfillment and replacement of circumcision (Col2.11). Just as Jewish circumcision meant reception into the Old Covenant, so too Christian baptism means reception into the New Covenant. Circumcision was the seal (σφραγίς) of the faith of Abraham. Rightly understood, circumcision is of the heart (Rom 2.29) and leads directly to Christian baptism. Christian baptism is "the circumcision of Christ" (Col 2.11) by which the tyranny of "the flesh" is categorically repudiated; henceforth life is "in the Spirit" since the baptized is sealed (σφραγίσθητε) with the Holy Spirit (Eph 1.13). Baptism is the seal, the climax of preaching and of the reception of preaching by faith. Faith is required for baptism and there is no true faith that does not lead to baptism (cf. Gal 3.2527). Even the visible outpouring of the Holy Spirit does not remove the necessity of receiving baptism as a rite of initiation (Acts 10.48). Baptism is the initiation rite for all those who want to belong to Christ. They who "have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ" (Gal 3.27), they have become a new man "in Christ," and they are "conformed" (σύμμορφοι) to Christ (Rom 8.29). Baptism initiates into the Christian community: "All [believers] are baptized into one body" (1 Cor 12.13), i.e., into the body, which is Christ's Church (Eph 1.23). Baptism brings one into the community that knows no barriers between different nations (Eph 2.14); all are one in Christ, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free man, male or female (Gal3.28). They are one body through the one Spirit (1 Cor 12.13), namely, the "Body of Christ" (1 Cor 12.27). Thus baptism has a great importance for both the local and world community since it symbolizes and at the same time brings about unity and harmony in society.

The full messianic efficacy of the baptism instituted by Christ became possible only through His death on the cross and His Resurrection. Only after Christ's death and Resurrection does the Church become the sphere of activity of the Holy Spirit (Jn 7.39). The baptismal rite of immersion suggests dying and rising with Christ. Being buried with Him means forgiveness of sins, and the emergence from this burial with Him means walking "in newness of life" (Rom 6.4; cf. Col 2.12), or walking "in the Spirit" (Gal 5.16). Both effects are essentially bound up with one another as is the death of Christ with His Resurrection. The baptism of John the Baptist was only an outward sign of contrition that cleansed according to the degree of contrition; Christian baptism, however, when received with faith, "washes sins away" (Acts 2.38;3.19); it is a moral purification effected by the power of Christ's redemptive action (Heb 10.1922). Thus it demands a decisive turning from evil and the reception of the gospel of Christ (Acts 2.3841; 3.1719).

Baptism effects justice, holiness, and sinlessness (Rom 6.114; 1 Cor 6.11; Eph 5.2627) through the operation of the Holy Spirit, the eschatological gift of God (Acts 2.1721, 33) given to all who are baptized (Acts2.38). It makes man a child of God, forming him to the image of Christ (Gal 3.2627), who is "the firstborn among many brethren" (Rom 8.29), and "the firstborn from the dead" (Col 1.18; see also 1 Cor 15.20). To have died to sin and to have risen with Christ to a new life imposes the obligation on the Christian of becoming morally what he is ontologically (1 Thes 4.38). Baptism does not magically effect sanctification, but requires conscious struggle against unruly passions (Rom 6.1214, 19; Gal5.24). The Christian life is a progressive laying hold of and appropriation of what was rendered accessible by baptism (Eph 5.614; Phil 2.15; Col 3.1217).

In their endeavor to describe the baptismal mystery, the NT writers, besides drawing directly on Jesus' earthly career, have recourse also to the wonderful acts of God in the OT. St. Paul sees baptism as a new life, a second creation (Eph 2.10). Since the creation of light was most impressive and mysterious (Gn 1.3), it is fitting that the divine Word should be called "the true light" (Jn 1.4), and faith and baptism in His name an enlightenment (2 Cor 4.6; see also Heb 6.46). St. Peter saw baptismal symbolism in the waters of the flood and in the ark in which Noah was saved (1 Pt 3.2021). The typology of the crossing of the Red Sea presents baptism as an incorporation by immersion, as it were, into Christ (1 Cor 10.15).

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[h. mueller]

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Baptism (in the Bible)

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