Did Jews before John the Baptist practice something called "baptism"? If so, what was it and what was its significance? I am looking for a traditional Jewish understanding of this concept in its historical context.

I understand that John the Baptist was a Jewish priest and perhaps an Essene which was a Jewish sect, and that he was also considered a Prophet by the Jewish people of his time. This makes me think that Judaism might have something to say about baptism.

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    Can you define "baptism"? – Double AA Nov 4 '15 at 21:56
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    IINM (though I know very little about it) the definition of "baptism" is up for some very heated debate even among Christians. I really don't think readers of this site can be expected to know what it means. I move to close as "unclear what you're asking". cc @DoubleAA – msh210 Nov 4 '15 at 22:32
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    @Adam Heeg - "baptism" is not a translation of "mikveh". Certainly not. And, yes, "baptism" is essentially a Christian word. And if you don't know much about Jewish history, then how can you be confident that John the Baptist was a historical character that was considered anything by Jews in his time, let alone a prophet? You are simply assuming the truth of the New Testament. John the Baptist is only mentioned in the Gospel narratives and in Josephus (a book that has been modified greatly by Christian redactors and censors). And herein lies the problem... – user3342 Nov 5 '15 at 4:53
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    We (Jews) don't know what a 'baptism' is that we should know if Jews did anything like it at the time. The fact that the Christian gospels claim Jews did it then doesn't help us much as we don't ascribe a huge amount of reliability to those texts. Please define, as I asked you above, what process exactly you want to know about and use words that we can understand. – Double AA Nov 5 '15 at 14:06
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    @AdamHeeg So you will not accept the answer of "no" to this question? Then it's not really a question. – Daniel Nov 5 '15 at 15:10

Yes, Jews practiced something that in English would be called Baptism before John the Baptist. However, there were many different groups who viewed it in different ways.

The laws for baptism (which i will henceforth call immersion) had to do with ritual purity. It's hard for us to grasp how much purity mattered to Jews/Israelites in times of yore since we no longer have a temple. But just to give a small illustration, if you were a woman, and you flipped out and stabbed someone, and they escaped but died on the road, you could still go to the temple and stand before God because while you had sinned, you were not ritually impure. But a woman on her period? She is unfit to stand before God.

The rules and laws of immersion as set forth in the Bible all had to do with purity. Whether it was contact with corpses, seminal emissions, sex, leprosy, etc etc. But after the Jews returned from captivity, you started seeing new and innovative religious innovations. People could go to Synagogue rather than the temple to learn, people were encouraged to learn to read and write for themselves, to take on small traditions that usually only the priests did (like washing ritually before eating). And there started cropping up different views of immersion, and just how certain actions could make you impure such as sex, perhaps also sins caused spiritual impurity, and therefore getting immersed could clean you of those impurities as well.

In terms of the specifics, who did what, and how long. Most of that information has been lost. But we do know that people were doing it, and for lots of different reasons. From a historical perspective, it would be a fair statement to say that out of all the others doing immersion during that time, John was probably the most popular, and also why the New Testament probably mentions him so much. If John was famous in that contemporary time, to write and say that he was on your religious side would be a good advantage for spreading your message.

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    I really don't think the OP is talking about mikveh. He mentions atonement for sin, which the mikveh doesn't directly have anything to do with. – Daniel Nov 5 '15 at 18:18
  • @Daniel Jews no longer practice Baptism for atonement of sin, but historically there were Jews who did so. But we only have vague snippets from them. Just like we know there were Jews who believed in a solar calendar, that the days started with sunrise rather than sunset, and thought the priesthood was evil. All of these notions have fallen off for contemporary Judaism, but they all very much existed at some point – Aaron Nov 5 '15 at 18:24
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    @Aaron re your answer and your comment: Asking what Jews do/did, unrelated to Judaism, is off-topic on this site, so the only reasonable interpretation of the question above is as asking what Judaism does/did, unless the question includes some explanation tying "baptism" to Judaism (which it does not). – msh210 Nov 5 '15 at 18:35
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    @msh210 Asking what observant Jews did as part of historical Judaism sounds pretty on topic to me. The fact that we modern religionists don't hold by that anymore doesn't change that to me. If someone asks did Jews ever believe that only the Talmud was binding, we can say yes via history! And that was valid Judaism, even though now only very few follow that belief – Aaron Nov 5 '15 at 18:47
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    @Aaron no one said "observant" until you just did. And I already said (well, implied) that asking what Jews did as part of Judaism is on-topic. Asking what Jews did in general, however, is off-topic. – msh210 Nov 5 '15 at 19:09

Did Jews before John the Baptist practice something called "baptism"?

No, Jews before that time spoke mostly Aramaic and, earlier, Hebrew. English as we know it didn't even exist until after Chaucer's time.

Nor did Judaism (at any time) include a practice now called "baptism" (if that's what you meant by your question). The word doesn't appear in any English-language work I've ever read (or talk I've heard) as a description of a practice of Judaism; and current dictionaries, in defining the term, make no reference to a practice of Judaism.

  • alanknox.net/2008/01/baptism-in-josephus though it's more of a verb there than a name of a ritual. – Double AA Nov 5 '15 at 14:55
  • @DoubleAA, I don't see how that shows that Judaism includes something that people now call "baptism". It shows only that (Josephus claims) Jews (and boats etc.) did something that he called "βαπτίζω", and that wasn't the question, above. (The question did mention Jews, not Judaism, but if it really meant that then it's totally off-topic, so I'm interpreting it as meaning Judaism.) – msh210 Nov 5 '15 at 15:24

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