Barry Newman's Blog

November 4, 2012

The Sacraments (part XVI)

Filed under: The Sacraments,Uncategorized — barrynewman @ 9:27 pm

John the Immerser

John the Baptist practised a water ceremony in which he immersed those who responded to his call to repent.  It was dissimilar to the various regular washing ceremonies performed by Jews for themselves.  It was also dissimilar to the proselyte washing ceremony performed by Jews for gentiles.  With respect to this latter practice, there is no clear evidence that such ceremonies took place earlier than towards the end of the 1st century AD.  Unlike the regular washings, John’s practice was a once only affair, similar to the washing ceremony of proselytes.  Furthermore, people washed themselves or in the case of proselyte baptism baptised themselves whereas John did the immersing. It is understandable then that he went by the name of John the Baptist, better referred to however as “John the immerser”[1]. There is no evidence that people were baptised “in the name of John”, although they would have been known as those who had come under John’s teaching, his disciples.

The Sense of “baptizo

The Greek verb, “baptizo” and its related noun, “baptisma” is used of John’s baptisms, whereas in the literature outside of the New Testament, there is little evidence that these words were used of either the Jewish washings or proselyte baptisms[2].   The words have the sense of “immersing’ or “immersion” rather than surface washing and there is something “intense” about the words – the immersing and the immersion is thoroughgoing.  It is of interest that once in the New Testament, “baptizo” is used in reference to Jews washing themselves when coming from the market place and once it is used in describing the surprise of a Pharisee that Jesus did not wash himself before coming to a formal meal.[3]  It would seem that an intense washing, probably involving a full immersion of the whole or part of the body, was in mind.


[1] The name given to John by Flavius Josephus in Jewish Antiquities, 18.117.1 was the “baptistes”, literally, the “immerser”, which in the New Testament is misleadingly but commonly translated, the “Baptist“.

[2] There is one instance where “baptizo” is used of a ritual washing in Ecclesiasticus 31: 25 and another where the reference could be to a ritual washing in Judith 12: 7.  “Baptisma” is found in Flavius Josephus in Jewish Antiquities, 18.117.4, where he refers to John’s “immersions”. The only other reference to “baptisma” found outside of the New Testament up until about the beginning of the 2nd century A.D. occurs in a work by Plutarch, On Superstitions, Stephanus, 166A.10 where he lists among various so-called superstitions, “immersions”.

[3] See Mark 7: 4 and Luke 11: 38

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