Baptism was the central rite for entrance into the church in apostolic and later times. The basis for this importance was the experience of Jesus and the texts of the Gospels. This article discusses the terminology of baptism, possible antecedents to Christian baptism, the practice of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, a metaphorical use of the language of baptism, and two texts from the Gospels important for the future.

  1. Terminology
  2. Possible Antecedents to Christian Baptism
  3. Practice of John the Baptist
  4. Jesus’ Baptism
  5. Metaphorical Use of the Language of Baptism
  6. Two Texts Important for the Future

1. Terminology.

The common Greek word used to describe dipping in water for the purpose of purification, baptismos, occurs in the Gospels only in Mark 7:4 (cf. Heb 6:2; 9:10). In distinction from these repeated washings, the baptism of John and Christian baptism are represented by baptisma (e.g., Mk 1:4; 11:30; cf. Acts 1:22; Rom 6:4; Eph 4:5). The verb baptō (“to dip”) occurs in Luke 16:24; John 13:26 (cf. cognate embaptō in Mt 26:23 // Mk 14:20). Since its principal use in secular Greek was in the secondary sense “to dye” (from the practice of dipping an object in its coloring agent [cf. Rev 19:13, where Jesus’ robe is “dipped” in blood]), the intensive form baptizō came into general use. Two of its common uses were to describe the drowning of a person and the sinking of a ship (e.g., Josephus, B.J. 1.437; 3.423). There is no indication that the NT departs from the meaning “to dip, plunge” (Mk 1:5, 9; Mt 3:6, 16; cf. Acts 8:38).

2. Possible Antecedents to Christian Baptism.

2.1. Pagan Washings. The use of water—immersion, pouring, sprinkling—was common in Greco-Roman paganism. These applications of water were for ceremonial cleansing before entering a sacred precinct. In the mystery religions they were preliminary purifications and noninitiatory.

2.2. Jewish Practices. The law required bathing in water to remove various impurities (Lev 11:24, 32; 14:6–16; 15:5–27; Num 19:17–20). By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees understood many of the purifications to require an immersion (Lk 11:38), and the Mishnah (ca. a.d. 200), in its tractate Miqwaʾot, codified the regulations, including the size of immersion pools to permit submerging the whole body. The discovery of scores of miqwaʾot in Israel of pre-a.d. 70 date, including many adjoining the Temple Mount, confirm that these later regulations were observed in Jesus’ time.

The Qumran community observed a daily bath for purification. The DSS stressed a righteous life to accompany the physical cleansing by water. It may be that the first bath of a new member had a special meaning, but it cannot be proved that this had an initiatory significance. The Damascus Document, similar to the Mishnah later, requires that “No person shall bathe in dirty water or in an amount too shallow to cover a person” (CD-A X, 10–14), The stepped pools at Qumran likely served for ritual bathing, and the stepless cisterns stored water and had other uses (see Dead Sea Scrolls; Essenes).

Later sources speak of several baptizing groups among the Jews, but all appear to have originated post-a.d. 70.

Nor can proselyte baptism be confirmed before a.d. 70. Sources that speak of conversion to Judaism prior to this date make no mention of it. The later rabbinic formulation of the conversion ceremony required circumcision, immersion and sacrifice at the temple. The central rite was circumcision of males; this circumstance meant that the subsequent immersion acquired a special significance for female converts. This immersion probably was rooted in the earlier ceremonial cleansings, but when it became an initiatory act, it was given a moral meaning as a symbol of new life.

3. Practice of John the Baptist.

Early Christians saw the immediate antecedent to their practice of baptism in the activity of *John the Baptist. He is identified in the Gospels as John “the baptizer” (ho baptizōn, “the one who immerses” [Mk 6:14, 24]) or more commonly John “the baptist” (ho baptistēs [Mt 3:1; Mk 6:25; Lk 7:20]). This was a distinguishing title because unlike the Jewish washings, which were self-immersions, John administered baptism to others.

Mark’s account of John the Baptist is the briefest in the Gospels, but he gives the important information that John preached a “repentance baptism for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4), the people “were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mk 1:5), and he declared, “I baptized you in water,” but that the one who coming after him “will baptize you in the Holy Spirit” (Mk 1:8).

Matthew adds to these points the necessity of repentance in view of the near approach of the *kingdom of heaven (Mt 3:2) and the coming wrath (Mt 3:7), and that the stronger one coming after John would baptize “in the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:11). This last phrase has been subject to a variety of interpretations. The context (Mt 3:10, 12 // Lk 3:9, 17) suggests that the fire refers to *judgment and punishment. Luke identifies the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the overwhelming power of the Holy Spirit resulting from his coming at Pentecost (Acts 1:5; 2:1–4) and to the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:44–48; 11:15–17). Since grammatically the two elements are linked, perhaps we can think of a baptism inaugurated in the Spirit and consummated in fire.

Luke’s account of John’s preaching is the fullest of the Synoptic Gospels, but he does not add to the description of his baptism (Lk 3:1–20). He does later add a strong endorsement of the divine authority behind John’s baptism: “And all the people and the tax collectors who heard this acknowledged the righteousness of God by being baptized with John’s baptism; but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s will for them by not being baptized by him” (Lk 7:29–30; cf. Lk 20:4).

The Fourth Gospel elaborates on John’s testimony to Jesus (Jn 1:19–37; cf. Jn 1:6–8; 3:27–30). Although it locates John’s baptizing on the east bank of the Jordan (Jn 1:28; 3:26; 10:40), it identifies another place: “John was also baptizing at Aenon near Salim because there were abundant waters there” (Jn 3:23). The Fourth Gospel alone informs us that Jesus and his disciples also engaged in a baptizing ministry alongside John’s (Jn 3:22, 26; 4:1–2). The discussion between the disciples of John and a Jew (or Jews) concerning purification (Jn 3:25) suggests that the purpose of John’s baptism was a different kind of purification from that practiced by Jews.

Josephus’s account of John the Baptist complements the NT texts in most respects, but on one point he contradicts them: “[John, called the Baptist] was a good man and exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, practice righteousness toward one another and piety toward God, and so to come together for baptism [baptismos]. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism [baptisis, ‘dipping’] was to be acceptable to God. They must not use it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but for the purity of the body, since the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior” (Jospehus, Ant\. 18.116-17).

Josephus’s words imply that he knew the explanation given in the Gospels of the purpose of John’s baptism. He rather interprets John’s practice by what he knew of Jewish, and especially Essene, views of purity. The accounts in the Synoptic Gospels are to be preferred as earlier sources and as derived from those with firsthand contact with John’s ministry. Against the argument that their wording was conformed to Christian teaching, it may be replied that since there was competition between the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus, the latter would more likely have exaggerated the differences than made them agree.

John’s baptism had in common with Jewish washings the practice of immersion, the motif of cleansing, and the application to Jews. It differed in being an administered immersion, a one-time act (like proselyte baptism except not for non-Jews), requiring repentance and offering forgiveness of sins, and providing eschatological rather than ceremonial cleansing. John’s baptism was like Christian baptism in these points, but it differed in being accompanied by a confession of sins rather than a confession of faith (he taught believing in one to come rather than in one who has come), not being done in the name of Jesus, and not offering the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2–5).

4. Jesus’ Baptism.

The historicity of Jesus’ baptism by John is undeniable. The identification of the one proclaimed *Son of God with the movement led by a lesser figure would not have been invented, and the submission by one claimed to be sinless to a rite associated with *forgiveness of sins could only be an embarrassment.

Mark’s account is brief, conveying only the essential facts: “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized into the Jordan by John. And immediately as he was coming up out of the water he saw the heavens split open and the Spirit descending as a dove into him. And a voice came out of heaven, ‘You are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased’” (Mk 1:9–11). The descent of the Spirit may recall creation (Gen 1:2) or the return of the dove to Noah’s ark (Gen 8:8–11). The words from heaven echo Genesis 22:2; Psalm 2:7; Isaiah 42:1.

Luke is even briefer on Jesus’ baptism (Lk 3:21–22), but he adds three details: Jesus praying at his baptism, the addition of “Holy” to “Spirit,” and the Spirit’s coming “in bodily form.” For Luke, the coming of the Holy Spirit was Jesus’ anointing as the Messiah (Lk 4:16–21; Acts 10:38) (see Christ).

Matthew has the fullest account of the baptism of Jesus (Mt 3:13–17). His distinctive concern is the problem posed by Jesus coming for baptism by John, who protests that he needs to be baptized by Jesus, to which Jesus replies, “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” With these words, Jesus accepted his mission to bring the *righteousness of God by submitting in obedience to the divine will. Hence, later patristic interpreters saw the baptism as Jesus’ identification with sinful humanity (also reflected in early Christian art by showing Jesus as a smaller figure than John, in reverse of their respective importance) and his offering himself as an example of obedience.

The Gospel of John only alludes to the baptism of Jesus and indicates that the baptism was to reveal Jesus to *Israel (Jn 1:29–34). The declaration that Jesus “takes away the sin of the world” and will baptize “in the Holy Spirit” brings together two basic characteristics of the Christian age.

The indications are that the baptism of Jesus was by immersion. This accords with the meaning of the words, the contemporary Jewish practice, and the circumstantial details in the narratives. The Synoptic accounts bring together the voice of God, the descent of the Spirit, and the sonship of Jesus (a trinitarian dimension represented in early Christian art by the hand of God in the sky, the dove of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus in the water). That Jesus himself was baptized and that he and his disciples practiced baptism readily accounts for the disciples in the postresurrection period administering baptism to converts to Jesus.

5. Metaphorical Use of the Language of Baptism.

Words from the bapt- root had several metaphorical uses in reference to being overwhelmed by something. Jesus makes an important metaphorical use of baptism in reference to his death: “Jesus said to them [James and John], . . . ‘Are you able to drink the cup which I drink or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup which I drink you will drink, and the baptism with which I am baptized you will be baptized’” (Mk 10:38–39 [cf. Lk 12:50]). He was referring to being overwhelmed, submerged in suffering. This saying was the basis for later Christian writers referring to martyrdom as a baptism.

6. Two Texts Important for the Future.

Jesus, in explaining the begetting “from above” (or “anew”) to Nicodemus (Jn 3:3), a ruler of the Jews, said, “Unless begotten of water and Spirit, a person is unable to enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). Many evangelical scholars deny that water here refers to water baptism, but the early church thought otherwise. Indeed, John 3:5 was the most frequently quoted baptismal text in the second century a.d., not to minimize the place of the Spirit, but rather understanding the Spirit to work in connection with the water of baptism.

The Great Commission, in Matthew 28:18–20, was the foundation text for early Christian baptismal practice: “All authority was given me in heaven and upon the earth. Go, therefore, and instruct all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I commanded you” (cf. Mk 16:15–16, in the longer ending of that Gospel). Since the trinitarian words are absent from most (but not all) of the quotations of the passage in Eusebius of Caesarea, some have argued that it was a later addition to the Gospel. Its presence in all other witnesses to the text of Matthew make it likely that Eusebius abbreviated his quotation when his concern was with the universality of the gospel or the necessity of obedience to Jesus’ teaching but included the words when explicitly concerned with the Trinity. “Into the name of” in Greek usage carried the idea of “into the ownership or possession” of someone, but the equivalent Hebrew phrase meant “with reference to,” defining the purpose of the act. The phrase may have been descriptive of the nature of Christian baptism, but it soon became the framework of the candidate’s baptismal confession of faith and/or a formula pronounced by the administrator of baptism.

See also John the Baptist.


G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962).

G. Delling, “Βάπτισμα βαπτισθῆναι,” NovT 2 (1958) 92–115; idem, Die Taufe im Neuen Testament (Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1963).

E. Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).

L. Hartman, “Into the Name of the Lord Jesus”: Baptism in the New Testament (SNTW; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997).

D. Hellholm, et al., eds., Ablution, Initiation, and Baptism: Late Antiquity, Early Judaism, and Early Christianity, 3 vols. (Beihefte ZNTW 176; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2011).

R. Jensen, Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012).

J. D. Lawrence, Washing in Water: Trajectories of Ritual Bathing in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Literature (SBLAB 23; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006).

S. Légasse, Naissance du baptême (LD 153; Paris: Cerf, 1993).

K. McDonnell, The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996).

A. Oepke, “βάπτω, βαπτίζω, κτλ.,” TDNT 1:529–46.

R. L. Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Socio-Historical Study (JSNTSup 62; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991).

E. Ferguson