How much do we know about baptism before Christ’s time?
previous next

“How much do we know about baptism before Christ’s time?” Ensign, July 1991, 74–75

How much do we know about baptism before Christ’s time?

Robert J. Woodford, institute instructor and administrative assistant to the area director at the University LDS Institute of Religion in Salt Lake City, and bishop of the Winder Thirteenth Ward, Salt Lake Winder West Stake. At the time the Church was organized in April 1830, a group of people who belonged to the Baptist church said they believed the Book of Mormon and wished to become members of the Church. Since they had already been baptized in the Baptist church, they wanted to know if they would now have to be rebaptized.

The Prophet Joseph Smith inquired of the Lord and received the revelation that is section 22 of the Doctrine and Covenants.1 We learn from this revelation that all people must be baptized to enter the Church. The Lord also revealed at that time that baptism is part of the “new and everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning.” (D&C 22:1; italics added.) Hence, the requirements Saints in this dispensation must fulfill are the same as those Adam and Eve were instructed to fulfill at the time of the Fall.

Through additional modern revelation we learn that Adam and Eve were taught about baptism and the covenants associated with it, and that they were baptized. (See Moses 6:52–68.) We also learn that Enoch was commanded to baptize followers of the Lord, and that Noah taught the people that they should be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, even as their fathers had been. (See Moses 7:11; Moses 8:24.)

There are more than fifty references to baptism in the portion of the Book of Mormon that records events prior to the advent of the Savior. Probably the best reference to the covenants entered into at the time of baptism is found in Mosiah 18.

These are all references to which we have access as members of the Church; and they support our understanding that the gospel, including the ordinance of baptism, was given to Adam. But are there other sources that substantiate the same teachings? The answer is a qualified yes.

Baptism is derived from a Greek word, so we will not find exactly equivalent words in the Semitic languages of the Old Testament world. Such phrases as cleansing pools and washing may refer to baptism. Those who have commented on the practices of the ancients sometimes refer to some of their rituals by using the word baptism even though the scriptural passages refer to cleansing by water in the vaguest of terms. In the Jewish Encyclopedia, we read:

“The real significance of the rite of Baptism can not be derived from the Levitical law; but it appears to have had its origin in Babylonian or ancient Semitic practise. As it was the special service administered by Elisha, as prophetic disciple to Elijah his master, to “pour out water upon his hands” (2 Kgs. 3:11), so did Elisha tell Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan, in order to recover from his leprosy (2 Kgs. 5). … This idea underlies the prophetic hope of the fountain of purity, which is to cleanse Israel from the spirit of impurity. (See Zech. 13:1; Ezek. 36:25; compare Isa. 4:4.) Thus it is expressed in unmistakable terms in the Mandean writings and teachings … that the living water in which man bathes is to cause his regeneration. For this reason does the writer of the fourth Sibylline Oracles, lines 160–66, … [write,] ‘Ye miserable mortals, repent; wash in living streams your entire frame with its burden of sin; lift to heaven your hands in prayer for forgiveness and cure yourselves of impiety by fear of God!’ This is what John the Baptist preached to the sinners that gathered around him on the Jordan; and herein lies the significance of the bath of every proselyte.”2

M. M. Noah, a noted nineteenth-century specialist on the ancient practices of the Jews, wrote: “Maimonides—great authority always among Jews and Christians, as a wise interpreter of the law—says, ‘Israel was admitted into the covenant by three things: by circumcision, by baptism, and by sacrifice. … Baptism was in the wilderness, before the giving of the law, as it is said, ‘Thou shalt sanctify to day and to morrow, and let them wash their garments.’ [Compare Ex. 19:10.”3

Mr. Noah also wrote: “You will thus perceive that the rite of baptism dates from the time of Jacob, and by the wisest interpreters of the law, was pronounced a Jewish rite and followed circumcision.”4

Even before John the Baptist’s ministry, gentile converts to Judaism were baptized.5 The Jewish Encyclopedia teaches that “according to rabbinical teachings, which dominated even during the existence of the Temple, Baptism, next to circumcision and sacrifice, was an absolutely necessary condition to be fulfilled by a proselyte to Judaism.”6

The Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that baptism was practiced at that time. G. Vermes wrote: “Ritual bathing was practised in the Community. The Damascus Rule devotes a section to purification by water. … The Community Rule refers also to a purificatory rite in connexion with entry into the Covenant. This seems to have been a peculiar and solemn act similar to Christian baptism, and to have symbolized purification by the ‘spirit … and [sanctification] by cleansing water.’”7

Thus, baptism was not a new ordinance among the Jews when John the Baptist came among them. As others have said, people who came to hear John did not ask him what was this new thing he was doing. They only asked who he was.8