A gracEmail subscriber inquires, “Is there biblical or historical mention of proselyte baptism among the Jews? What did a Gentile do to become a proselyte?” Another subscriber asks for information about pre-Christian Jewish washing ceremonies, and how those who first heard John the Baptist and Jesus would have understood the significance of baptism in that light.
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The Rabbis formulated a procedure for receiving Gentile proselytes, including sacrifice, immersion and circumcision (of males). We cannot know for sure when these rules began, since the Babylonian Talmud which reports them was not actually written until some time after the Gospels. According to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Qumran desert sect also practiced ritual washings and built baptistries (“miqwaot”) for that purpose. I have personally seen the ruins of many of these miqwaot in the Temple precincts in Jerusalem and also at Qumran.
There is no direct biblical mention of proselyte baptism to my knowledge, although some scholars relate John Baptist’s baptism to such a practice (Lk. 3:1-6). In this light, John insulted the Jewish establishment by commanding them to be baptized — something they regarded as appropriate only for Gentiles (Lk. 3:7-8). John’s baptism differed from proselyte baptism also in its ethical significance (Lk. 3:3, 10-14) and especially in its connection to the coming Messiah and God’s kingdom which he would bring (John 1:25-36).
The Mosaic law included washings for various ritual impurities (Lev. 11-15), and specific instructions for preparing the “water of purification” (Num. 19:1-10). These washings were not only for the common people but also for the priests (Lev. 16:24). The prophets looked forward to a time when God would cleanse his people’s hearts as well as their bodies (Ezek. 36:22-28; see also Heb. 9:13-14; 10:22; Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:4-7). New Testament writers also compared Christian baptism to original creation out of water (2 Cor. 5:17), deliverance from an evil world by the Flood (1 Pet. 3:19-22) and deliverance from Egyptian bondage through the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:1-4; 12:13).
Undoubtedly all these themes, practices and events formed a background for those Jews who heard first John, then also Jesus and his apostles, command baptism in water in connection with the Messiah and the Good News of God’s coming kingdom.