The word “baptism” is a transliteration and a technical term. If you knew nothing else, just knowing these things should raise red flags and questions.
(1) Why did the English translators choose to not translate the Greek word?
(2) What were the technical requirements connected to the word?
The translation of the Greek word transliterated “baptism” is “immersed.” It requires something to be completely immersed beneath water. Why did the English translators transliterate it "baptize" instead of translating it “immersion”? Probably for two reasons – tradition and because it is a theologically loaded word. Some argue that baptism requires complete immersion, while others argue that it only requires sprinkling. From a translators point of view, the transliteration will be accepted by both groups.
For the technical information we will turn to the Encyclopedia Judaica, which provides the following information (bold and highlighting have been added):
The term used in the Hebrew Bible for baptism is usually translated as washing and the purpose is for purification. The person or article to be purified must undergo total immersion in either mayim hayyim ("live water"), i.e., a spring, river, or sea, or a mikveh, which is a body of water of at least 40 se'ahs (approximately 120 gallons) brought together by natural means, not drawn. The person or article must be clean and have nothing adhering to him or it, including clothing. Therefore the person is naked when immersed so that the water comes in contacts with the entire area of the surface. Immersions were required especially of the priests since they had to be in a state of purity to participate in the Temple service or eat of the `holy' things. Individuals had to be ritually pure before they were allowed to enter the Temple.
It is very important to understand that a person immerses himself or herself beneath the water. They are not held and lowered beneath the surface by a priest or anyone else. There is a huge ritual immersion bath complex at the Temple that everyone entering the sacred spaces had to go through before they would be admitted.
John’s role in the immersion process was to witness that the person had gone completely beneath the surface and water had covered every part of the body, including the hairs on the head. Look at the earliest pictures of the immersion of Jesus – notice that Jesus is nude and John is not in the water.
Why did people immerse themselves? Once again we will turn to the Encyclopedia Judaica:
(1) A concept that a person or object can be in a state which, by religious law, prevents the person or object from having any contact with the temple or its cult (members, objects and rituals).
(2) The state is transferable from object to another in a variety of ways, such as touching the object or being under one roof with it, and is independent of the actual physical condition.
(3) The state of impurity can be corrected by the performance of specified rituals, mainly including ablution, after which the person or object becomes pure once more until impurity is again contracted.
(4) The state of impurity is considered hateful to God, and man is to take care in order not to find himself thus excluded from His divine presence.
(5) Three main causes of impurity are apparent: leprosy, issue from human sexual organs, and the dead bodies of certain animals. Later the concept was extended to the unrepentant sinner.
(6) Common to all purity rituals is the time factor: until the evening for the lesser degrees of impurity (e.g., Lev. 11:24, 25, 27) and seven days for the greater degrees (e.g., Lev. 12:2); with certain exceptions -- the purity of the leper is dependent on his complete recovery).
(7) Bathing is common to all purity rituals, even where it is not expressly specified.
(8) The terms `pure' and `impure' are also applied in the Bible to serious transgressions, especially sexual, which caused the land to become impure (Lev. 18:27-28 etc.). The prophets, especially Ezekiel, stress the uncleanness caused to the land by idolatry and bloodshed, but it seems that any sin is thought of as causing impurity and expressions taken from the purity ritual passages serve figuratively in the Bible as symbols for atonement and repentance (Ezek. 36:25; Psalm 51:4 et al.).
(9) The laws of impurity and purity have no relevant consequences of any substance except for priests and the affairs of the Temple and its hallowed things. In Jerusalem precautions were taken to guard the hallowed things and priests from impurity. No burials were permitted there, and corpses were not allowed to be kept there overnight. As a precaution against impurity it was forbidden to maintain refuse heaps or rear chickens in Jerusalem. Impure persons themselves took care not to impart impurity to the people of Jerusalem.
John the Immerser preached a message of TESHUVAH (repentance) and, after those accepting his message completed the requirements for TESHUVAH (which may have required them to leave find the people they sinned against, make restitution and receive forgiveness), they returned to have John witness their immersions. I was motivated to write this after watching the scene in CNN’s Finding Jesus in which John dunked Jesus like the Baptist do today. Sorry CNN but you definitely blew that one!
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