Q. During Advent we hear Gospel readings about John the Baptist and his ministry. This month we celebrate Jesus’ Baptism by John. This, however, was not a Jewish practice, was it? Why was John baptizing in the first place?
A. You cannot find the word baptism or any of its derivatives in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Baptism was not an official part of Judaism as it reshaped itself during and after the Exile in Babylon (most of the sixth century B.C.). Baptism was, however, practiced unofficially by some Jewish people in the century before and after Jesus’ birth.
In this context, baptism was a sign of general repentance and thus could be repeated (as altar calls can be among Protestants). At Qumran on the west side of the Dead Sea, the Jews known as Essenes practiced a baptism of repentance during Jesus’ lifetime. Some scholars think this group may have influenced John’s ministry.
Around the same time, ritual baths for purification became more common among Jews in urban areas. These were obviously not possible during the desert years under Moses. If you go to the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem today, you can see houses with ritual baths dating back almost 20 centuries.
Eventually, some confusion arose concerning the baptism conferred by John the Baptist and the Sacrament of Baptism given by Jesus’ disciples. In Matthew 3:11, John describes his baptism as being “with water” while Jesus’ Baptism will be “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
In Acts 8:14-17, the apostles in Jerusalem send Peter and John to baptize some Samaritans who had been baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus” but had not yet been baptized with the Holy Spirit.
Later we meet Apollos, a Jewish man instructed in the Way of the Lord (Christianity) but who “knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25). Priscilla and Aquila explained to him the Baptism that Jesus’ disciples used. In Ephesus, Paul rebaptized those who had received only the baptism of John (Acts 19:1-5).
The relationship of John’s baptism to Christian Baptism is directly addressed in Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8 and Luke 3:16.