St Johns East Malvern

Historical Background

All religions have an event or ceremony to mark the admission of new adherents into the community. A number of ancient religions have used the potent primal element of water for their initiatory and purification rites.

While Christianity shares some common elements with the practice of other religions, its roots reach deeply into the Jewish traditions from which it arose. Baptism draws heavily on the Hebrew concept of covenant. In a covenant, God takes the initiative in reaching out to people and bestows favour upon them, and the people respond with a promise of faithful obedience. The agreement struck is then sealed with a ritual.

The covenant with Moses, for example, was sealed with the splashing of blood. Earlier, the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham was circumcision, which became the distinctive and enduring entrance rite of Judaism.

In various cultures circumcision was, and still is, employed at puberty as a sign of a male child’s transition adulthood. In early Judaism, however, circumcision was not connected with puberty but with admission into the covenant community.

Although there is no direct connection between infant circumcision in Judaism and infant baptism in Christianity, the principle is similar – that one may enter into the mystery of a special relationship with God at the beginning of one’s life, long before conscious commitments are possible.

As in other ancient religions, Judaism used water symbolically to wash away impurities. Uncleanness resulted when a person got a shade too close to the elemental mysteries of life: fertility and conception, childbirth or illness, or handling a dead body. Such uncleanness was a barrier to one’s relationship with God, the source and sustainer of life’s mysteries.

The most powerful image of water cleansing and washing away impurities in Judaism is the story of the Exodus and the Red Sea crossing in order to gain an altogether new existence.

Much later in Judaism, a number of new religious communities emerged in which washing with water became widespread. The Essenes at Qumran took daily baths. They devised an elaborate water system so that the entire community could wash before the sacred meal was held.

Among the Pharisees a rite of washing was used to mark the admission of members to this narrow sect of wider Judaism. Significantly, women and children were as eligible for washing and inclusion as males.

Although it took sometime to emerge, a washing rite eventually developed as part of the process of admission of gentile proselytes into Judaism. Women were eligible for proselyte baptism along with men.

By the first century before the birth of Jesus, rabbis were discussing whether both circumcision and baptism were necessary or whether baptism alone would suffice.

With the arrival of John the Baptist, immediately prior to the beginning of the public life of Jesus, the notion of baptism took off in a new direction. This dramatic figure proclaimed a profound and forceful message. He announced that the messianic age was at hand and that radical judgement was at hand.

John viewed baptism as more than a ritual for cleansing from impurity or an admission rite into Judaism. He preached “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John’s message was not aimed at proselytes but to his own people, the Jews, who he believed had repudiated their heritage and stood in need of intrinsic renewal.

John’s baptism was not self-administered, nor was it repeatable. It was intended only once. He understood his water baptism to be provisional and preparatory. Another was coming, he said, who will baptise with fire and spirit. That other one was Jesus of Nazareth.