Baptism: Pagan or Jewish?

by Ceil Rosen | July 01 2007

BINST GEVOREN A GOY! “You’ve become a Gentile!” We Jewish believers in Jesus the Messiah often encounter this accusation from non-believing family and friends after we’ve been baptized. They see baptism as the mystical key to an irreversible and dreaded change that severs the one who is baptized from his or her heritage and loyalties; and they hope that a person who has not yet been baptized may still change his mind about being a believer.

Those who think this way have the sequence of cause and effect reversed. Baptism does not produce commitment; a person’s commitment through faith prompts the desire for baptism in obedience to God’s command. Those who baptize babies do it in the belief that one day they will make a faith commitment. A believer seeks baptism because the irreversible change has already occurred in his heart. That inner change, produced by God Himself, is not intended to alienate a person from his background and heritage, but to produce a new and closer relationship with the Creator.

Why Do Jewish People Fear Baptism?

Baptism does not change Jews into Gentiles any more than it changes a man into a woman, or a black African into a blonde Swede. Why then is there so much misunderstanding and fear among our Jewish people concerning baptism? One needn’t search very far to find the answer.

History contains shocking accounts of forced baptisms of Jews by so-called “Christians” during the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. Given the choice of baptism or death, many Jews were executed by people who never knew the Christ they claimed to serve. Understandably then, our Jewish people often regard baptism as the final act of assimilation into an enemy camp that has a long and bloody history of persecuting Jews. Unfortunately, people who jump to this conclusion fail to see three important truths.

The first truth is that real Christianity is not a pagan, antisemitic religion, but the gathering together of both Jewish and Gentile believers to the Jewish Messiah and to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The second truth is that the commitment of a believer in Jesus is not to any group, but to a Person—the Messiah himself. Any group loyalty that we believers feel and practice stems from our love for the Messiah and his teachings. The love and unity we feel for one another comes because of him and through his enabling power in our lives.

Third, baptism is as Jewish as mikveh! The Hebrew word tevilah (translated “immersion”) is used in the benediction recited during the mikveh ritual. Certainly no one would dispute that mikveh is a Jewish ceremony. The ritual washings and cleansings commanded in Torah and the other writings formed the basis for the rabbinical mikveh laws. Our ancient sages who formulated these rules agreed and emphasized that the purpose of mikveh was spiritual rather than physical cleansing. They taught that as the mikveh cleanses the unclean, so does the Holy One cleanse Israel (My 8:9). The roots of baptism rest deeply and permanently in the soil of these Jewish scriptures and traditions. That is, both baptism and mikveh depict by an outward act the inward transaction of faith; and both declare that only the Holy One has the power to cleanse men’s hearts and lives.

Ceremonial Washings Pre-date Mikveh

In the Torah we read that before the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, God commanded the people to wash their clothing as a symbolic act of purification (Exodus 19:10).

Leviticus 8:6 records the washing of Aaron and his sons when they were ordained as priests to minister in the holy tabernacle. Again, in Leviticus 16:4, God commanded Aaron to wash himself before and after he ministered in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.

Numbers 19 gives explicit instructions for purification after defilement by a dead body. After bathing and washing his clothes, the “unclean” person had to be sprinkled with fresh water combined with ashes from a sacrificed animal. The Israelites also used this “water of cleansing” to purify themselves and their plunder after they battled with the Midianites (Numbers 31:21-24).

The Torah also commanded ritual purification for both men and women who had been “defiled” by flows of various body fluids, or who had been healed of leprosy.

All these water rituals formed the basis for the Jewish mikveh laws. While the Hebrew word mikveh means literally “a collection or gathering together,” in this context it refers to a gathering or pool of water for the purpose of ritual cleansing. The earliest Biblical uses of the word “mikveh” occur in 1 Kings 7:23ff. and its Parallel passage in 2 Chronicles 4:2ff. These verses describe the huge, circular “Sea of Solomon,” constructed along with the first Temple for the priests to carry out their ceremonial washing.

Mikveh the Forerunner of Baptism

Along with the purposes already mentioned in the Torah, another use of symbolic purification by water became part of early Jewish tradition. This was immersion or baptism for Gentile converts to Judaism. Though the only Biblical requirement for entrance into the covenant was circumcision, baptism became an added requisite. No one knows exactly when or by whom the requirements were changed to include baptism, but it was before the time of Jesus. We know this, because debates on the subject of proselyte baptism are recorded between rabbinic schools of Shammai and Hillel, both contemporaries of Jesus. Whereas the school of Shammai stressed circumcision as the point of transition, the Hillelites considered baptism most important because it portrayed spiritual cleansing and the beginning of a new life. Ultimately the Hillelite view prevailed, as is reflected in the Talmudic writings. Maimonides, that greatly revered 12th century Jewish scholar, summed up all Talmudic tradition concerning converts to Judaism as follows.

By three things did Israel enter into the Covenant: by circumcision, and baptism and sacrifice. Circumcision was in Egypt, as it is written: ‘No uncircumcised person shall eat thereof’ (Exodus 12:48). Baptism was in the wilderness, just before giving of the Law, as it is written: ‘Sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes’ (Exodus 19:10). And sacrifice, as it is said: ‘And he sent young men of the children of Israel which offered burnt offerings’ (Exodus 24:5)…When a gentile is willing to enter the covenant…He must be circumcised and be baptized and bring a sacrifice…And at this time when there is no sacrifice, they must be circumcised and be baptized; and when the Temple shall be built, they are to bring a sacrifice…The gentile that is made a proselyte and the slave that is made free, behold he is like a child new born.

To this day, Gentiles who would embrace Judaism must undergo baptism in a mikveh ritual. The purpose of this ceremonial immersion is to portray spiritual cleansing, as Maimonides concluded in his codification of the laws of mikveh:

Uncleanness is not mud or filth which water can remove, but it is a matter of scriptural decree and dependent on the intention of the heart.

A Jewish Prophet Who Baptized

From all of the foregoing, we see that the use of water to symbolize cleansing and consecration is very much a Jewish concept, and a very ancient one at that. Because of this, when the Jewish prophet John (Yochanon ben Zechariah) came upon the scene, the Jews of his day saw nothing pagan or wrong in his demands that people repent of sin and be symbolically cleansed in the Jordan River. John’s title, “Baptist” (literally baptizer), comes from the Greek verb baptidzo, which carries the same meaning as the Hebrew root taval: to wash by dipping or plunging in water. John’s message, though not a popular one, was in keeping with what all the other Jewish prophets proclaimed. He preached God’s impending judgment, warning that Israel must repent and be spiritually renewed because the coming of the Messiah was at hand. The self-righteous may have disagreed about their personal need for repentance, but they had no quarrel with John’s method of symbolic cleansing. Otherwise, surely the religious leaders would have had him stoned as a false prophet.

One day Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized by John. Recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, John pointed him out to the crowd, saying, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1 :29b). Although Jesus was perfect and sinless, by being baptized with penitent sinners he identified himself as the one who had been sent to suffer God’s wrath and judgment, so that all who would believe in him might go free.

In the days Messiah walked this earth, those who repented and were symbolically cleansed by John in the river still brought animal sacrifices to the Temple in order to receive God’s forgiveness. But after the righteous Messiah gave his life as an atonement for sin, baptism took on a different and fuller meaning for those who believed. Now those who accepted Messiah’s atonement on their behalf received a new and permanent cleansing through his sacrificial death. Then, after believing, they were baptized in obedience to his command (Matthew 28:19).

New Covenant Baptism

The New Covenant portion of the Bible (known as the New Testament) ascribes a multiple symbolism to the baptism of believers in Jesus the Messiah.

Titus 3:5 teaches that baptism depicts the washing away of sin and uncleanness by Messiah’s blood sacrifice, and the giving of new life by God’s Holy Spirit to those who are cleansed in this way.

Romans 6:3-4 further describes baptism as a picture of death and resurrection. That is, by his baptism the believer publicly announces that through faith in the Messiah, he has died to his old sinful ways and has been made alive to God. The New Covenant scriptures teach that those who believe in the Messiah are plunged or buried into his atoning death, so that God might raise them to a new life, even as the Messiah himself rose from the dead.

Jewish Proselyte Baptism Compared with New Covenant Baptism

While in many aspects the symbolism of New Covenant baptism coincides with the symbolism of proselyte baptism, there are some important differences, especially in their respective roles. Maimonides listed the three requirements for Gentile proselytes to Judaism as circumcisionbaptism and sacrifice, presumably in that order. Both Jewish and Gentile believers in the Messiah fulfill their commitment of faith in all three of these requirements. But they do it in a different order, and in a different way.

In New Covenant faith, sacrifice comes first. Because he recognized that the Jewish people have no place of sacrifice since the destruction of the Holy Temple, Maimonides temporarily waived this requirement until such time as the Temple should be rebuilt. But Maimonides failed to realize that God never waived that requirement for atonement through sacrifice. Indeed, that is why he sent the Messiah before the Temple was destroyed, so that Messiah could atone for sin once and for all—so that all who believed in him would not be left without an acceptable sacrifice for sin.

This sacrifice of Messiah is the underlying reason and motivation for New Covenant baptism. Because of Messiah’s sacrifice, believers are cleansed spiritually and forgiven for their sin. Their baptism then becomes the outward portrayal of that inward spiritual renewal brought about by their faith in Israel’s Messiah. Others see baptism as an initiatory rite similar to circumcision.

In New Covenant faith the aspect of circumcision is also fulfilled by Messiah’s atoning sacrifice. The Gentile who wants to serve God through Israel’s Messiah no longer needs to submit to physical circumcision, as his ancestors would have needed to do before Messiah came. At the moment of that person’s faith and commitment, he receives God’s inward mark upon his heart that brings him under the New Covenant sealed in Messiah’s blood. The rabbi and apostle Paul described it this way in his New Covenant letter to the Gentile believers in Colosse:

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

Colossians 2:9-12

Whereas before Messiah died, Gentile proselytes had to be circumcised to be brought under God’s covenant, the token of the New Covenant is inward and visible only to God. By his Spirit, he inscribes his law upon the hearts of all those who commit themselves to him through faith in Messiah’s sacrifice (Jeremiah 31:33). The Scriptures teach that all people, Jews and Gentiles, need this inward circumcision of the heart in order to please God and to have an eternal relationship with him.

There remains one more important difference between the proselyte baptism of Judaism and the New Covenant baptism that speaks of a relationship with the Creator through Messiah’s sacrifice. In Jewish thought, proselyte baptism implies renunciation of one’s past associations. Because in ancient times the proselyte to the God of Israel usually came from a background of idolatry, that person had to renounce his idols and be made ceremonially clean from their polluting influence. On the other hand, the Jewish believer in Messiah does not renounce Judaism or God’s law, or His physical covenant with Abraham. God’s covenants were pure; only man polluted them.…

Therefore there is no need to renounce them in order to place one’s faith in the Messiah. The only thing that a New Covenant believer renounces and converts from is his propensity toward sin, his falling short of God’s holy standards. It is the affirmation that no human can please God without the supernatural help he has provided through Messiah’s atoning sacrifice. This difference —affirmation rather than renunciation—must be clearly defined. If not well understood, it is probably a major cause for negative reaction among our Jewish people against New Covenant baptism. And misunderstanding over this major difference is usually what prompts the often bitter accusation toward the Jewish believer in Messiah, “You’ve become a Gentile!”

A Final Mikveh or Baptism to Come

In the 36th chapter of Ezekiel, God promised Israel final cleansing and restoration in the Days of the Messiah. He said:

“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you…You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people; and I will be your God”

Ezekiel 36:24-28

Again, in Chapter 37, verses 20 through 24 Ezekiel prophesied:

“This is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘I will take the Israelites out of the nations…I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land…There will be one king over all of them…I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them…'”

Here, “my servant David” refers to the Messiah himself. Speaking of that same event, God promised through Zechariah, another Jewish prophet:

“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son…On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity”

Zechariah 12:10, 13:1

On that day all the Jewish people will know that Jesus truly is our Messiah. Zechariah 14:3 tells of his return, when his feet will actually stand on the Mount of Olives. The Jewish people will see him return; they will mourn for his previous sufferings and rejection, and they will then give him their unqualified allegiance and receive God’s perfect eternal cleansing.

That time could come very soon, according to what the Bible teaches. In the meantime however, every individual, Jewish or Gentile, must have this cleansing from God through Messiah’s sacrifice. Isaiah 64:6 teaches that “…all our righteous acts are as filthy rags.” For this reason, it’s not enough to try to keep the Law, or to go to the mikveh, or to do acts of charity and kindness (mitzvot). Jesus the Messiah has provided God’s acceptable way of cleansing. He said:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”

John 14:6

Won’t you accept God’s way of being clean and acceptable to Him? The real baptism—the inner washing of the human heart—comes first. The water baptism that follows is only a public announcement of what has happened within, and we who believe make this public proclamation because we want to share our good news with others.

Editor’s Note: This article does not represent all Christian views of baptism, but that of the author and her research assistants, Bob Mendelsohn and Rachmiel Frydland.