The Antiquity of Baptism

Due to some of the lively discussion and questions that were generated from Baptism or Temple InitiationI decided to post the following from an email I received from Bryce Haymond who is responsible for the wonderful Bryce–ever the relentless researcher–came up with some great information regarding the antiquity of the ordinance of baptism. This is important to our discussion here, as we were looking at baptism as an ancient pre-Christian ordinance–but in what form? The following (with his permission) is what Bryce was able to dig up:

Apparently baptism constituted a much larger role in ancient Israel than is readily apparent from the scriptures, although the form might have varied. 

The article from the Jewish Encyclopedia  [on baptism] is very interesting.

I pulled up Tvedtnes’ book on GospeLink, “The Church of the Old Testament,” and in it he said (pages 5-9):

Baptism, then, was nothing new in the time of Christ. In fact, this ancient ordinance was established in the days of Adam, as is evidenced in the Book of Moses, a revelation of great importance received by Joseph Smith in 1830:

“And it came to pass, when the Lord had spoken with Adam, our father, that Adam cried unto the Lord, and was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord, and was carried down into the water, and was laid under the water, and was brought forth out of the water. And thus he was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended upon him, and thus he was born of the Spirit, and became quickened in the inner man.” (Moses 6:64-65.)

We find a vague reference to this event in 1 Adam & Eve, a pseudepigraphal work that exists in part in the Koran, the Talmud, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and old Greek and Ethiopic texts. In chapter 1, verses 2-5, of this work we read:

And to the north of the garden there is a sea of water, clear and pure to the taste, like unto nothing else; so that, through the clearness thereof, one may look into the depths of the earth. And when a man washes himself in it, becomes clean of the cleanness thereof, and white of its whiteness-even if he were dark. And God created that sea of His own pleasure, for He knew what would come of the man He should make; so that after he had left the garden, on account of his transgression, men should be born in the earth, from among whom righteous ones should die, whose souls God would raise at the last day; when they should return to their flesh; should bathe in the water of that sea, and all of them repent of their sins. But when God made Adam go out of the garden, He did not place him on the border of it northward, lest he should draw near to the sea of water, and he and Eve wash themselves in it, be cleansed from their sins, forget the transgression they had committed, and be no longer reminded of it in the thought of their punishment. (Rutherford H. Platt, The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden, pp. 4-5.)

In chapters 32 and 33 of 1 Adam & Eve, we find a long account of how Adam and Eve went to the waters and stood in them and prayed God to forgive them of their sins. They were separated by quite some distance. Satan appeared to Adam, telling him to come out of the water, for his sins had been forgiven him. But Adam recognized Satan, though he appeared in the form of an angel of light. (See D&C 128:20.) Adam knew that forgiveness of his sins could not come until he had been immersed in the water, and he rebuked Satan, who went henceforth to tempt Eve. For her part, she was deceived by his masquerade as an angel, and she left the water to find Adam and tell him that their sins had been forgiven. When she came to where Adam was standing in the water, her husband realized that she had once again given in to temptation, and “he saw her, and smote upon his breast; and from the bitterness of his grief, he sank into the water. But God looked upon him and upon his misery, and upon his being about to breathe his last. And the Word of God came from heaven, raised him out of the water, and said unto him, ‘Go up the high bank to Eve.'” (Platt, p. 23.) It is possible that we have here a reference to the baptism of Adam, which the Lord explained to him in these words:

If thou wilt turn unto me, and hearken unto my voice, and believe, and repent of all thy transgressions, and be baptized, even in water, in the name of mine Only Begotten Son, who is full of grace and truth, which is Jesus Christ, the only name which shall be given under heaven, whereby salvation shall come unto the children of men, ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, asking all things in his name, and whatsoever ye shall ask, it shall be given you.

And our father Adam spake unto the Lord, and said: Why is it that men must repent and be baptized in water? And the Lord said unto Adam: Behold I have forgiven thee thy transgression in the Garden of Eden. (Moses 6:52-53.)

The descendants of Adam also received the ordinance of baptism and were permitted to become sons of God. This practice existed in the postdiluvian era as well, even among the Israelites:

Israel was admitted into covenant by three things; namely, circumcision, baptism, and sacrifice. Circumcision was in Egypt…. Baptism was in the wilderness before the giving of the Law, for it is said: ‘Thou shalt sanctify them…and let them wash their garments….’ So, whenever a Gentile desires to enter the Covenant of Israel and place himself under the wings of the Divine Majesty, and take the yoke of the Law upon him, he must be circumcised and baptized, and bring a sacrifice. (Origin of Jewish-Christian Baptism -Maimonides.)

This passage bears directly upon the baptism of Gentile Christians [author’s note: in other words, Christian baptism was practiced in the same manner as Jewish baptism]; but it casts light also on the genesis of Jewish Christian baptism; for, apart from circumcision, the cases were largely parallel. Sinful Israelites, too, needed to re-enter the covenant in a deeper sense…so placing themselves ‘under the wings of the Shekinah’ for Baptism was practised in ancient Judaism, first as a means of penitence, as is learned from the story of Adam and Eve, who, in order to atone for their sin, stood up to the neck in the water, fasting and doing penance. (Jewish Encyclopedia 2:499.)


To receive the spirit of God, or to be permitted to stand in the presence of God (His Shekinah), man must undergo Baptism. (Ibid.)

This is precisely what Jesus said:

Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5.)

He was speaking to Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, who had come to him by night to ask concerning salvation. His response to Jesus’ statement was one of surprise: “Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” (John 3:9-10.) Jesus was evidently amazed at Nicodemus’s ignorance concerning the important subject of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. These ordinances existed long before Jesus, and it was to be expected that any learned Jew knew of them. Even present-day authorities admit the use of the ordinance of baptism in ancient days:

“Modern researches have shown positively that Judaism sent forth apostles….Sincerity of motive in the proselyte was insisted upon….from the law that proselyte and native Israelite should be treated alike (Numbers XV: 14 et seq.) the inference was drawn that circumcision, the bath of purification, and sacrifice were prerequisites for conversion.” (Jewish Encyclopedia 10:222.)

Ancient Mikvah in Jerusalem


Ablutions in the temple of Jerusalem were also important to the Israelite community. This is especially significant to Latter-day Saints, for our modern temples are equipped with baptismal fonts resembling that of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:23-26; Jeremiah 52:20), i.e., normally on the backs of twelve oxen. The font in Solomon’s temple was called the “brazen sea.” We read that “the sea was for the priests to wash in.” (2 Chronicles 4:6.)

The word wash often served in the Old Testament text in the same manner as did baptize (from a Greek word, baptizo, to immerse) in the New Testament. We have already seen that Jewish scholars sometimes refer to baptism as the “bath of purification.” It was not merely skin-deep purification; it referred to the overt sign of an inward repentance on the part of the proselyte: “To sum up: as baptism had in Judaism come to mean purificatory consecration, with twofold reference-from an old state and to a new-so was it in Christianity. It denoted…the convert’s attitude towards his past sinful state with its ‘dead works,’ or towards God as sinned against-repentance…. The practical effect was remission of past sins.” (Hastings’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics 2:377.)

“Christian baptism is of uncertain origin,” wrote Vergilius Ferm. “Possibly the baptism of Jewish proselytes furnished the model followed by the early Christian missionaries.” (Encyclopedia of Religion, p. 53.) Other scholars also see a Jewish origin in this New Testament ordinance:

The exhortations of this respectable messenger (John the Baptist) were not without effect; and those who, moved by his solemn admonitions, had formed the resolution of correcting their evil dispositions, and amending their lives, were initiated into the kingdom of the Redeemer by the ceremony of immersion, or baptism. Christ himself, before he began his ministry, desired to be solemnly baptized by John in the waters of Jordan, that he might not, in any point, neglect to answer the demands of the Jewish law. (Johann Lorenz von Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, vol. 1, Cent. I, p. 27.)

According to rabbinical teachings, which dominated even during the existence of the Temple (Pes. viii. 8), Baptism, next to circumcision and sacrifice, was an absolutely necessary condition to be fulfilled by a proselyte to Judaism. (Jewish Encyclopedia 2:499.)

The only conception of Baptism at variance with Jewish ideas is displayed in the declaration of John, that the one who would come after him would not baptize with water, but with the Holy Ghost (Mark 1:8; John 1:27). Yet a faint resemblance to the notion is displayed in the belief expressed in the Talmud that the Holy Spirit could be drawn upon as water is drawn from a well (based on Isaiah 12:3; Yer. Suk. v. 1, 55a of Joshua b. Levi). And there is a somewhat Jewish tinge even to the prophecy of the evangelists Matthew (3:11) and Luke (3:16), who declare that Jesus will baptize with fire as well as with the Holy Ghost; for, according to Abbahu, true Baptism is performed with fire (Sanh. 39a). Both the statement of Abbahu and of the Evangelists must of course be taken metaphorically. (Ibid.)

Circumcision, baptism, and sacrifice, then, were necessary in order to enter the covenant of Israel. Circumcision, as we know, was declared by the apostles at Jerusalem to be unnecessary to salvation (Acts 15), for it had not existed from the beginning, but was a special covenant-token beginning with Abraham. Baptism, however, began with Adam, as we have seen, and is to exist for all men at all times; it is thus necessary for salvation. Sacrifice also began with Adam. Early portions of the Old Testament demonstrate the practice of sacrifice by Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:3-7), Noah (Genesis 8:20-21), and Abraham (Genesis 22:1-14). After the Exodus, Moses, his father-in-law Jethro, and Aaron and his sons sacrificed (Exodus 17:15; 18:12). Many altars were built in the wilderness by the Israelites for the purpose of offering sacrifices unto the Lord (Exodus 20:24-26; 24:4-8).

Baptism of Jesus

I thank Bryce for the great research he did on this topic and also to John Tvedtnes for his great insights on gospel ordinances in the Old Testament that he has passed on.  I do not believe that Margaret Barker would agree with some of these conclusions, as it was her purpose to show that Christian baptism was a restoration of the priestly initiation (washing and anointing).  However, as Latter-day Saints we believe that baptism has existed as an ordinance since the time of Adam and that it has been a requirement for entering the Kingdom of God in all dispensations.  So I will leave it to you, the reader, to sort out in your mind how it all works!

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for the compliments and the link! Just to reemphasize, this information is quoted verbatim from John Tvedtnes’ book “The Church of the Old Testament” (pages 5-9). In it, Tvedtnes does a great job of showing how the Church existed in Old Testament times. We do not often realize to what extent baptism took a role in the ordinances of the Israelites in the Old Testament. But it was there, along with other Aaronic ordinances.

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