by Ed Gallagher

Bonus Material for Luke Lesson 1, “John the Baptist in Luke

As mentioned in the opening lesson on the Gospel of Luke, not only John but also the Qumran community practiced a type of baptism. This is a practice that developed in the centuries before Jesus. We read nothing of baptism as such in the Old Testament, but there is plenty about ritual cleansing through water in the Old Testament. For instance, water is used in the priestly ordination ritual in Leviticus 8:6, and on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16: 4, 24, 26, 28), and frequently for cleansing in Leviticus 15, and for cleansing after sickness (Lev 14:8).

There are also prophecies that God would one day cleanse his people by means of water. 

On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.

Zechariah 13:1

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

Ezekiel 36:25

Such Old Testament passages probably motivated people to seek cleansing through ritual immersion (called in Greek “baptism”). In fact, if you want to convert to Judaism today, you will have to get baptized. This “proselyte baptism” goes back a long way, but probably not quite to the first century. The earliest evidence for it is second or third century.1 At any rate, ritual immersion was commonly practiced in the first century, and archaeologists have dug up all kinds of mikva’oth, what Christians would call “baptistries.” According to Everett Ferguson (p. 64), “Excavations have revealed hundreds of mikvaoth in Israel, over 150 from the first century in Jerusalem alone (including those adjoining the temple mount) as well as many at Jericho, Gamla, Masada, and Herodium from the period before the destruction of the temple.”

John didn’t use a mikveh but the Jordan River. This in itself was probably symbolic. (See Colin Brown.) The Jordan River was the barrier between the Promised Land and the territory outside Israel. When Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land, they had to cross the Jordan. In a re-enactment of the Red Sea crossing, God stopped the flow of the Jordan so that the people could cross on dry ground (Josh 3:14–17). Now John is at the Jordan, baptizing people in its waters, offering forgiveness of sins, announcing that One is coming who will be God’s representative, who will execute God’s judgment. 

There were a few differences between these Jewish forms of baptism and what John was doing. Jews do not “get baptized”; they immerse themselves. They walk down into the water and cover their head rather than having someone else dunk them. John the Baptist is the first person we know about who had a practice of dunking other people under the water. That’s probably why he became known as “the baptist” or “the baptizer”: he wasn’t the only person practicing baptism, but he was the only one baptizing other people. Ferguson (pp. 95–96) suggests that perhaps John administered the baptism in order to communicate a particular symbolism, perhaps: “one cannot effect one’s own cleansing.”

Another difference between John’s baptism and other Jewish baptism is that it was a one-time act, not something that a person would do for routine ritual cleansing. That point is linked to the purpose of John’s baptism; he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). This purpose connects John’s baptism to Christian baptism, but there are differences here as well, in that John’s baptism required a confession of sins (Mark 1:5) rather than a confession of faith, and John’s baptism does not impart the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 19:1–7; see Ferguson, p. 89).


(1) There is no mention of proselyte baptism in Philo or Josephus, or in the pseudepigraphon Joseph and Aseneth. In the apocryphal book of Judith, Achior received circumcision (14:10) but there is no mention of baptism. Some see proselyte baptism at m. Eduyyoth 5.2 (Danby p. 431), but see Shaye J. D. Cohen, “Is ‘Proselyte Baptism’ Mentioned in the Mishnah?” See also Cohen, Beginnings of Jewishness, 209–11, on what is probably the earliest reference to the rabbinic conversion ceremony (b. Yebamoth 47a–b). 

%d bloggers like this: