Where does Baptism come from?

Since we talked about Communion last week, I guess we ought to talk about Baptism this week. Rather than diving right into (baptism pun) the diversity of practice, though, I think it’s probably better to start at the beginning.
Recently, a reader asked**,”  Where does baptism come from? Is it a Jewish tradition?”
This is a great question and one not often asked, as many assume that since Christians are the most vocal about Baptism we must have invented it.
Many world religions, both ancient and modern, include ritual bathing among their religious rites. In most, but not all, cases, the purpose of the bath is to remove either physical or spiritual impurities that have separated the individual from either God or the community and disqualify him/her from full participation in future rites like prayer, sacrifice or healing. Occasionally the bath is about maintaining the sanctity of sacred space and ensuring that only the person enters – not anything from the outside world. And, in a few cases, the bath has to do with initiation.
Most of this would describe the ritual bathing practices of Jews during the time of Jesus. the ‘mikvah’ bath was a ceremonial washing used to restore those profaned through any of a number of circumstances (e.g. illness, contact with the dead, childbirth) to full participation in the Temple community and to ensure that nothing that was not a part of God’s people entered sacred spaces.
John the Baptist, forerunner of Jesus vis-a-vis the whole Baptism thing, takes this one step further. When he calls Israel “beyond the Jordan” to be Baptized “for the forgiveness of sins”, he adds two distinct pieces to Jewish ritual bathing that will ultimately become important for Christians. First, he brings a moral component to bear. That is, that Baptism will wash away not only your physical or spiritual impurity, but will also cleanse you of moral failings. Additionally, he invokes the image of Israel’s crossing of the Jordan (and by extension the Red Sea) as they trekked from bondage to freedom and inherited their promised land. This latter facet begins the process of changing Baptism into a form of initiation, as some ancient interpreters have suggested that there may have been an understanding at that time of an identical relationship between “those who crossed the Sea/Jordan” and “Israel.” But that probably is a bit obscure for this blog.
Needless to say, Jesus jumps on the moral and initiatory aspect of Baptism as he begins to practice it and commissions his disciples to do the same. Baptism, no matter how it is practiced, is believed to both cleanse the Christian from moral fault (ritual, racial and spiritual impurity being less important to Christian Tradition) and memorializes the escape from the bondage of sin and death to the eternal life prepared for God’s people that Jesus affects in his resurrection.
So, yes, gentle reader, Christian Baptism has its roots in Jewish tradition. But like so many things, it has taken that rootedness and grown into something much different. Thanks for the question.
** Remember, if you have a question that you’d like me to answer on the blog, send me an email or use the “contact” tab above. I’m always eager to hear what you want to know. **