When we think of baptism, it's always in the context of Jesus telling us we need to be baptised. In the context of it being a purely Christian thing. But if you think about it, Jesus was baptised before He started His ministry. John the Baptist was baptising people before then. Basically, he was baptising people before it was cool!
The practice of ritual immersion, similar to baptism, has ancient roots in Jewish culture. Jewish purification rituals, such as mikveh, involved immersion in water for spiritual cleansing. These rituals were an integral part of Jewish life and were performed for various purposes, including preparation for religious ceremonies, purification after contact with impurity, and initiation into certain groups or roles. The act of immersing oneself in water symbolized a spiritual rebirth and a renewed commitment to God.
In the book of Exodus, the Israelites were instructed to immerse themselves in water as a way of purifying themselves before approaching Mount Sinai to receive the commandments from God. This act of immersion was a physical and symbolic representation of their readiness to enter into a covenant with God.
While the term "baptism" may not have been used, the concept of immersion in water for ritual purity and initiation was familiar to Jewish communities before the time of John the Baptist. In the Old Testament book of Leviticus, there are references to symbolic cleansing in water for priests before and after their duties. Although not explicitly called "baptism," these passages highlight the importance of cleansing oneself in preparation for serving God.
For example, Leviticus 8:6 describes Moses washing Aaron and his sons with water as part of their consecration as priests. This act of cleansing was a prerequisite for their service in the tabernacle, emphasizing the need for spiritual purity in their role as mediators between God and the people of Israel.
John the Baptist's baptism of repentance followed this paradigm of cleansing, preparing individuals for the coming of the Messiah and foreshadowing the final cleansing through Christ. His baptism was a continuation of the Jewish tradition of immersion in water for spiritual purification and dedication to God.
Historical evidence suggests that baptism as a form of ritual purification was practiced in pre-Christian Jewish communities, such as the Qumran sectarians. These communities believed in the arrival of Israel's Messiah and practiced baptism for spiritual cleansing. John the Baptist may have been influenced by the teachings of the Qumran sect or even been a member himself.
The Qumran sectarians, who lived near the Dead Sea during the time of Jesus, were known for their strict adherence to purity rituals, including baptism. They believed that baptism was a necessary step in the process of becoming ritually pure and prepared for the coming of the Messiah. The similarities between the baptism practiced by the Qumran sectarians and that of John the Baptist suggest a connection between the two.
Early believers in Jesus were also baptized after professing their faith. Baptism served as a public expression of their commitment to Christ and their identification with His death and resurrection. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, writes about the significance of baptism in uniting believers with Christ in His death and resurrection. This understanding of baptism as a symbolic representation of dying to one's old self and being raised to new life in Christ continues to be a central aspect of Christian theology.
Jesus Himself was baptized by John the Baptist at the start of His ministry. This act of baptism symbolized Jesus' identification with humanity and His submission to God's plan. It also served as an example for Christians to follow, signifying their commitment to Christ and their participation in His death and resurrection through baptism.
So while baptism may not be "new" in a biblical sense, it is still very much an important part of Jesus' ministry and an example we should all follow.