The Jewish Background of Christian Baptism by Ron Moseley, Ph. D.
"Baptism as a rite of immersion was not begun by Christians but was taken by them from Jewish and pagan forms...." - Dr. Merrill Tenney, the editor of the Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible
The term mikveh in Hebrew literally means any gathering of waters, but is specifically used in Jewish law for the waters or bath for the ritual immersion. Ancient sages teach that the word mikveh has the same letters as Ko(v)Meh, the Hebrew word for "rising" or "standing tall," therefore we see the idea of being baptized "straightway."
The building of the mikveh was so important in ancient times it was said to take precedence over the construction of a synagogue. On the third day of creation we see the source of the word mikveh for the first time in Genesis 1:10 when the Lord says,
"...to the gathering (mikveh) of waters, He called seas."
Because of this reference in Genesis the ocean is still a legitimate mikveh to orthodox Jews.
Tovelei Shaharit (Dawn Bathers)
The Essenes were anciently known as regular practicioners of daily immersion. In the Talmud these daily Mikveh practicioners are called tovelei shaharit or "dawn bathers."Not only Nasarenes, but several other Jewish groups observed ritual immersion every day to assure readiness for the coming of the Messiah. Epiphanius mentioned one of these groups called Hemerobaptists which means "daily bathers" in Greek. The Clementine Homilies, or Recognitions of Clement, tell us that Peter always washed, often in the sea, before dawn which was no doubt a custom of all Nasarenes of his time. This practice received great attention by early historical writers on the Essenes. Qumran is certainly filled with ritual bathing pools and one quite large community Miqvah has been uncovered outside of the Essene Synagogue / Temple site in the Essene quarter of Jerusalem.
Ancient dawn bathing Nasarenes used at least three forms of Baptism, or mikveh purifications. We know this because the surviving remnants of these Nasarenes, the Nasorai sect (Mandeans), still preserve these forms of this ancient Nasarene purification rite once practiced and promoted by Yeshua (Jesus). They are the daily Rishama Mikveh immersion, performed before dawn. The Tamasha immersion, and the Masbuta immersion. The surviving Mandean versions of these are:
The modern B'nai-Amen version of these three immersions are:
The rabbinical tradition attributes, in its
Mishnah, to Ezra a decree that each male should immerse himself before praying
or studying. Immersion was so important among the Pharisees that it occurred
before the high Priest conducted the service on the Day of Atonement, before
the regular priests participated in the Temple service, before each person
entered the Temple complex, before a scribe wrote the name of God, as well as
several other occasions.
The New Testament tells us that many of the early church's daily activities were centered around the Essene Temple. Historically, we know that there were also many ritual immersion baths (mikvaot) on the Bloody Temple Mount including one in the Chamber of Lepers situated in the northwest corner of the Court of Women (Mid. 2:5). Josephus tells us that even during the years of war (66-73 A.D.) the laws of ritual immersion were strictly adhered to (Jos. Wars, 4:205). Herod's Temple itself contained immersion baths in various places for the priests to use, even in the vaults beneath the court (Commentary to Tam. 26b; Tam. 1:1). The High Priest had special immersion pools in the Temple, two of which are mentioned in the Mishnah. We are told one of these was in the Water Gate in the south of the court and another was on the roof of the Parva Chamber (Mid. 1:4; Mid. 5:3). There was an additional place for immersion on the Mount of Olives which was connected with the burning of the red heifer (Par. 3:7). A special ramp led to the mikveh on the Mount of Olives from the Temple Mount, which was built as an arched way over another arched way to avoid uncleanness from the graves in the valley below. Recent archaeological excavations have found 48 different mikvaot near the Monumental Staircase leading into the Temple Complex.
According to non-Essene Jewish law there are three basic areas where immersion in the mikveh is required.
There are six descending orders of Mikveh spoken of in the non-Essene Mishnah (Oral Law), the highest being that of a spring or flowing river, such as the Jordon. Nasurai (Mandean) texts tell us that this was considered the highest form of Mikveh among Nasarenes as well.
The six non-Essene restrictions on the water used in the mikveh come from the corrupt Leviticus 11:36 text. They are:
To the ancient Jews, both Essene and non-Essene,
the mikveh was a process of spiritual purification and cleansing, especially in
relation to the various types of Turmah or ritual defilement when the Temple
was in use. We learn from the Clementine Homilees that Peter practiced daily
pre-dawn Mikveh immersion. We may infer from this that all Nasarenes, including
Yeshua and Maria, also practiced daily purifications. The orthodox (Rabbinic
Judaism) clasifies Mikveh laws under the Chukim group:
Mishpatim Laws: The moral or ethical laws
that are necessary for man to live in harmony are known as Mishpatim and are
literally translated judgments.
Edos Laws: The rituals and festivals which reawaken us to important religious truths such as Sabbath, holidays, the Tefillin and the Mezuzah that remind us of God's presence are known as Edos and are literally translated witnesses.
Chukim Laws: The third group often has no explicit reason given for their existence except for Israel's identification as God's chosen people to the other nations (Deuteronomy 4:6). This group of laws are known as Chukim and are literally translated as decrees. Among the decrees of this group are the dietary laws as well as ritual immersion.
In ancient times immersion was to be performed in the presence of witnesses (Yebam. 47b). The person being baptized made special preparations by cutting his nails, undressed completely and made a fresh profession of his faith before the designated "fathers of the baptism" (Kethub. 11a; Erub 15a). This is possibly where churches, sometime later, got the term Godfathers. The individual stood straight up with the feet spread and the hands held out in front. The candidate would totally immerse themselves by squatting in the water with a witness or baptizer doing the officiating. Note the New Testament points out the fact that Jesus came up straightway out of the water (Matthew 3:16).
The concept of immersion in rabbinic literature is referred to as a new birth (Yeb. 22a; 48b; 97b; Mass. Ger. c.ii). Note six other important aspects of ancient rabbinic Jewish immersion:
1. Immersion was accompanied by exhortations and benedictions (Maimonides Hilkh. Milah iii.4; Hilkh. Iss, Biah Xiv .6). A convert would reafirm his acceptance of the Torah by declaring, "I will do and I will hear" which was a phrase from the oath that was originally taken by the priests not to forsake the Torah (Deuteronomy 29:9- 14). Mandeans had a similar saying they were known to utter at such times. This ritual demonstrates the willingness of the convert to forsake his Gentile background and assume his Jewish identity by taking on the status of one who keeps the commandments.
According to a number of Jewish sages, mayim, which is the Hebrew word for water, shares the same root as the word "mah", meaning "what." This teaching points out that when a person immerses in water, he is nullifying the fleshly ego and is asking, "what am I?" in the same manner that Moses and Aaron did in Exodus 16:7 when they said to the Lord, "we are what?"
2. The Jewish baptism candidates were often immersed three times. The idea of total immersion comes from the Scripture in Leviticus 15:16 when it says, "he shall wash all his flesh in the water." One reason it was customary to immerse three times was because the word mikveh occurs three times in the Torah. We know this to have been an early Nasarenes practice under Yeshua.
3. According to Jewish law the immersion had to have a required witness. Dr. William LaSor in the Biblical Archaeology Review says apparently the Biblical phrase "in the name of" was an indication of the required witness. In several New Testament references such as I Corinthians 1:13, 15; Matthew 21:25; Acts 1:22; and Acts 19:3 we see early baptism mentioned in conjunction with the name of individuals such as John and Paul. Further information on this can be found in Jewish literature concerning proselyte baptism where it indicates his baptism required attestation by witnesses in whose name he was immersed.
4. The immersion candidate was not initially touched by the baptizer in Yeshua's (Jesus') day. Because Leviticus 15:16 says "He shall wash all his flesh in the water," Rabbinical Judaism stresses that the entire body must come in contact with the water of the mikveh. To insure the immersion was valid, no clothing or individuals could touch the candidate. Any such intervention that prevented the water from reaching a part of the body was known as Chatzitzah and rendered the immersion invalid. Although the mikveh was more spiritual than physical, often the bath had two sets of steps, one entering and another leaving so as not to defile what had been purified. We know from Mandean tradition, and also Cyril of Jerudalem, that early Nasarene baptisms were performed without restricted clothing. Once relativily pure from preliminary self immersions, catecumens could be touched by the oficiating Priest and Priestess for full Baptism.
5. The baptismal water (Mikveh) in rabbinic literature was referred to as the womb of the world, and as a convert came out of the water it was considered a new birth separating him from the pagan world. As the convert came out of these waters his status was changed and he was referred to as "a little child just born" or "a child of one day" (Yeb. 22a; 48b; 97b). We see the New Testament using similar Jewish terms as "born anew," "new creation," and "born from above", although among Nasarenes one was seen as born anew and separated from the non-Essene world, and among B'nai-Amen the immersion meant separation from all the world, including the unconsecrated Nasarenes.
6. Jewish law requires at least three witnesses made up of qualified leaders to be present for certain immersions (Yebam 47b). Ordinarily a member of the Sanhedrin performed the act of observing the proselytes immersion, but in case of necessity others could do it. Secret baptism, or where only the mother brought a child, was not acknowledged. Essene law had similar injunctions.
The Jerusalem Talmud states, "nothing can stand before repentance" (Yebamos 47b). According to Dr. David Flusser, the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as the New Testament teach that water can purify the body only if the soul has first been purified through repentance and righteousness.
The Jews believe that uncleanness is not physical,
but rather a spiritual condition as related in Leviticus 11:44 where it states
by wrong actions one can make the "soul unclean." Therefore, the purification
through ritual immersion, as commanded in Essene tradition, and rabbinical
scripture, is basically involved with the soul, rather than the body. In
rabbinical tradition, water and blood symbolism intertwine. In true Essene
tradition, purification comes thru the Earthly Mother and her consecrated
elements of earth, water, air and fire. There are two types of each of these
four elements, making eight consecrated substances used for purification among
the B'nai-Amen. The are Grain and Salt (Earth); Water and Oil (Water); Ash and
Spirit (Air), and Incense and Wine (Fire).
Associated with these 8 substances are eight everyday cleaning agents: Corn Starch and Borax (Earth); Water and Soap (Water); non-phosphate Detergent/Washing Soda and Hydrogen Peroxide (Air), and Aromatics and Vinegar (Fire).
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