1In those days, John the Baptizer came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” 3For this is he who was spoken of by Isaiah the prophet, saying,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,

make the way of the Lord ready!

Make his paths straight!”

4Now John himself wore clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then people from Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him. 6They were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Therefore produce fruit worthy of repentance! 9Don’t think to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire.

11“I indeed baptize you in water for repentance, but he who comes after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire.”

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14But John would have hindered him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?”

15But Jesus, answering, said to him, “Allow it now, for this is the fitting way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.

16Jesus, when he was baptized, went up directly from the water: and behold, the heavens were opened to him. He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming on him. 17Behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Baptism in Early Judaism

Passage study | Matt 3:6, 13, 14, 16 | Daniel G Garland

Baptism involves passage from an old relationship to a new identity by virtue of a spiritual purification symbolized by washing with water, or by purging with fire (Matt. 3:11).  Prior to John’s public baptism of people willing to repent of their sins and identify with his message, a variety of purification rites were self-administered in private under the Law of Moses (note the plural baptisms in Heb. 6:2).  After Moses washed Aaron and his sons with water prior to their service as priests (Lev. 8:6), Levites were sprinkled with purifying water when they took office (Num. 8:7).  Before offering the sacrifices required under the Law, priests washed their hands and feet from the bronze laver that was between the altar of burnt offering and the holy place of the tabernacle (Ex. 30:17-21).  Every year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest bathed himself before and after offering sacrifices for himself and the people (Lev. 16:4, 24). Anything—including persons—that had become ceremonially unclean had to be washed in pure water, including vessels, clothes, lepers, and those who were defiled by menstruation, sexual activity, or contact with a corpse  (see Lev. 14:8, 9; 15:5-27; 17:15, 16; 19:7, 8, 19; Deut. 23:11).  Gentile proselytes of Judaism were also required to undergo a ceremonial bath before being accepted in the community of faith.

While John’s baptism—and even Christian Baptism—involve aspects of baptism rooted in early Judaism, including purification with water and identification with a group and its message, important differences include the agency of a baptizer and a one-time ceremony performed in public.