The following is from Taylor Marshall's book The Crucified Rabbi: Judaism and the Origins of Catholic Christianity.
If you prefer to listen to a full audio presentation on this topic, click here to listen.tevilah (tevilah = Jewish ceremonial water ritual) in order “to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). Saint Ignatius of Antioch (writing before A.D. 108) said that Christ was baptized not so that the water should purify Him, but rather “that He might purify the water,” so that others might be saved through baptism.
It is also at this moment that God the Father announces his love for His Son, and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus to confirm that He is the anointed Messiah. This is the first depiction of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and this is why Catholics are baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The image of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus echoes the account in Genesis where the Spirit of God was “moved over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). At the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit once again hovered over the waters as God inaugurated a New Creation.
According to the Catholic Church, the baptism of John the Baptist was not the sacrament of baptism, but a Jewish tevilah preparing the Jewish people for the advent of the Messiah. John the Baptist did not administer the Christian sacrament of baptism because he did not baptize in the Trinitarian name. Moreover, the Apostles re-baptized those who had received “only the baptism of John” (cf. Acts 19:1-4). Saint Augustine wrote, “Those who were baptized with John’s baptism needed to be baptized with the baptism of our Lord.”
The Christian sacrament of baptism is an incorporation of a person into the death and resurrection of Christ for the remission of sins (Rom 6:4-6). Thus, the twelve Apostles first administered the sacrament of baptism on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon them and enabled them to proclaim the Gospel to the Jewish pilgrims of Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-41).
Baptism, the Tevilah of Conversion
The Jewish rabbis also use the tevilah washing as a sign of conversion. Thus, Orthodox Jews require that a convert to Judaism:
- be instructed about how to live as a Jew
- undergo kabbalat ol mitzvot (“receiving the charge to obey the commandments”)
- receive mila (“circumcision”)
- undergo a tevilah (“immersion” in a mikvah)
In light of the established Jewish customs for conversion, the debates in the early Church over whether Christian converts were obligated to receive both baptism (tevilah) and circumcision can be better understood. The Apostles decided at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) that converts to Christianity need not be circumcised. The Apostle Paul, who was present at this council, later explained why Christians do not require the rite of circumcision:
In Christ, you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ. You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead (Col 2:11).Baptism as the sacramental tevilah of the Church is sufficient to incorporate a believer into the Kingdom of God (Jn 3:3-5). The Christian has already received “spiritual circumcision” by virtue of his being incorporated into the circumcised body of Christ. The circumcision of Christ applies to the baptized Christian because the believer is united to Christ’s person and enjoys all the blessings of Christ’s sonship. In similar manner, Christians are counted as having fulfilled the Mosaic Law because Christ perfectly fulfilled the Law of Moses.
Therefore, Catholics baptize infants for the same reason that Jews circumcise infants. The children of believers are accounted as “holy” (1 Cor 7:14) and are entitled to the covenantal blessings received by being incorporated into the communal life of the Church. For this reason, Saint Peter said that the promise of baptism “is to you and to your children” (Acts 2:39). A Jewish man or woman at the time of the Apostles would not have been able to comprehend the modern Evangelical claim that babies and young children cannot and do not belong to the ritual life of the community.
Is Baptism a Ceremonial Washing?
The Hebrew word tevilah was translated by the Greek word baptisma. They both mean wash or immerse. The idea of plunging into water is associated with Christ plunging into death and rising again in newness of life (Rom 6:4-6). Baptism unites us to the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection and it is therefore associated with regeneration, recreation, the forgiveness of sins, life everlasting, and the final resurrection of the body. Christ spoke of his death as a “baptism” when he asked John and James, “Are you able to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk 10:38)
As we can see then, Christ brings all the ceremonial washings of the Old Testament to fulfillment in His own body and ministry. The Old Covenant water rites find their fulfillment in His institution of New Covenant baptism:
All the Old Covenant rites find their fulfillment in Christ Jesus. He begins his public life after having himself baptized by St. John the Baptist in the Jordan. After his resurrection Christ gives this mission to his apostles: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1223).The Spirit over the waters at creation, the Great Flood and deliverance of Noah, the passing through the Red Sea with Moses, the crossing of the Jordan River, the customary ceremonial washings—all these events point toward Christ and find their fulfillment in the sacrament of baptism.
Saint Paul teaches that we enter into Christ’s death and resurrection by “putting on Christ” (Gal 3:27) and being regenerated through the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). Baptism formally identifies us with Christ’s death (for the forgiveness of sins) and his resurrection (for our resurrection and eternal life).
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4-6).Baptism also plants in us the “incorruptible seed” of God’s Word (1 Pet 1:23) so that we might grow to full maturity in Christ.
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