By January 17, 2016 Read More →

William Sanford La Sor. “Discovering What Jewish Miqva’ot Can Tell Us about Christian Baptism.” Biblical Archaeology Review 13, 1 (1987)

Temple Esplanade MikvehUntil the discoveries of modern archaeology, we knew about ancient Jewish ritual immersion baths only from literary texts. Now, however, archaeology has provided us with numerous examples of Jewish ritual immersion baths, called miqva’ot (singular, miqveh), dating to the late Second Temple period, prior to and during the time when John the Baptist lived. These miqva’ot undoubtedly provide the background for Christian baptism. But many questions concerning the precise relationship are nevertheless likely to remain unanswered.

The first ancient miqva’ot to be identified as such were found by Yigael Yadin in the early 1960s at Masada, Herod’s mountain fortress in the Judean wilderness. Masada later served as the last stronghold of the Jews in the revolt against Rome that culminated in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 10 A.D. The 960 defenders of Masada held out for three years after Jerusalem fell.

Archaeologist Yadin describes the excitement at the discovery of two miqva’ot at Masada,1 especially among talmudic scholars; they carefully measured the first one when it was unearthed in order to ascertain whether it conformed to the requirements of talmudic law, in other words if it was a genuine miqveh. The Masada miqveh passed the test.

The two Masada miqva’ot were at opposite ends of the site, apparently for the convenience of Masada’s defenders. Functionally, the two were identical, although their measurements varied somewhat. Each was a complex of three pools. In one pool water was collected during the rainy season, directed there by a conduit. This reserve pool, or otzar, was connected by a pipe to a second pool that served as the actual ritual bath. Before the bath pool was used, the bung in the pipe connecting the reserve pool to the bath pool was opened to allow water to flow into the bath pool. The third pool in each complex was a small one unconnected to the other two pools. This small pool was for actual cleansing purposes—washing the hands and feet before immersing in the ritual bath.

The ritual bathing pool was meant not for hygienic cleansing, but rather for ritual purification. Thus Maimonides, a 12th-century exegete, stated: “Now ‘uncleanness’ is not mud or filth which water can remove but is a matter of scriptural decree and dependent on the intention of the heart.”2 Normal dirt, such as dust on the feet (Miqva’ot 9:2), was removed before entering the miqveh. Hence the need for the small pool for washing near, but unconnected to, the immersion pool.

Ritual purity was required of a Jew before entering the Temple Mount, before making a sacrifice, before receiving the benefit of a priestly offering and for other similar purposes. Impurity was occasioned by nocturnal emissions, sexual intercourse, or contact with a corpse. A woman was unclean after her menstrual period or childbirth. Ritual immersion was part of the process to remove such uncleanness. In most cases, the impurity ceased at sunset after ritual immersion.

To understand how the Masada miqva’ot functioned, we must turn to the rabbinic texts that govern them. In this instance, the archaeological materials and the literary texts dovetail; each enhances our understanding of the other.
It is clear from the archaeological evidence that water for only a relatively few baths could be stored in the reserve pool of the miqveh. Obviously most of the water for the bath itself had to be drawn and brought from the huge cisterns that supplied Masada’s needs.

But there is a problem. “Drawn” water—water carried to the miqveh in a bucket or vessel from a cistern—is impure according to Jewish law. “Flowing” water or “living” water—rain or spring or river water that has flowed directly into the miqveh is ritually pure by Jewish law. What happens when “impure,” drawn water comes into contact with the pure water? The answer is explained in the Mishnah, a code of Jewish laws compiled about 200 A.D., and in the Mishneh Torah, a 12th-century compilation by Maimonides of existing talmudic law. “Flowing” water, it is said, purifies “drawn” water.3 So when the “flowing” water stored in the collecting pool is allowed to come into contact with the “drawn” water via the connecting pipe the “flowing” water purifies the “drawn” water and makes the bath ready to use for ritual immersion.

Complete immersion was required.4 Maimonides stated: “Whosoever immerses himself must immerse his whole body, naked, and all of it at once. … And if any who is unclean immerses himself in his garments, the immersion still avails him since the water enters through the garments and these do not interpose.”5 Even the hair must be totally immersed; ribbons on the heads of girls rendered the immersion invalid (Miqva’ot 9:1). Commenting on the Mishnah, Herbert Danby, whose translation of the Mishnah is the standard English version, observed, “For immersion to be valid, no part of the body’s surface may be untouched by water.”6 However, the Mishnah states, “It is not needful that the water should enter into every orifice and wrinkle [in the body]” (Miqva’ot 8:5).

The immersion pool must contain at least 40 seahs of water. A seah is approximately two gallons (U.S.).a Traditionally, the ritual immersion or bath pool held almost three cubic cubits of water (about 75 U.S. gallons).7 It was approximately one cubit square and three cubits deep, a cubit being about 18 inches. A height of three cubits was enough “to enable a person standing in it to be completely immersed, although the knees may be bent” (Sifra 6.3).8
Since the excavation of the miqva’ot at Masada, miqva’ot have also been discovered at a number of other sites, including Herodium in the Judean wilderness and King Herod’s winter palace at Jericho.b

Miqva’ot have turned up in special abundance in excavations of late Second Temple Jerusalem—near the Temple Mount, in private homes of wealthy Jerusalemites who lived on the hill opposite the Temple Mount and elsewhere. One puzzle is that in most of these miqva’ot, archaeologists did not discover reserve pools.

Since 1967 two important excavations have been conducted near the Temple Mount. The first, led by Professor Benjamin Mazar of Hebrew University, uncovered a massive area south of the Temple Mount where in Second Temple times two monumental staircases led to the Temple Mount.c Pilgrims would enter and exit the Temple Mount by these staircases. Adjacent to the staircase on the east, Mazar found a number of miqva’ot that apparently served Jews who came to Jerusalem to worship and offer sacrifices,9 especially during the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Weeks or Pentecost) and Sukkot (Tabernacles).

West of the Temple Mount, across the Tyropoean Valley, was the upper city of Jerusalem where the wealthy and the priestly families lived. Part of this area was excavated by Professor Nahman Avigad, also of Hebrew University, who reports finding in each house at least one miqveh, and sometimes more, cut from the rock and lined with a gray plaster.10 One particularly elegant miqveh had a reserve pool, or otzar, containing living rainwater adjacent to the bath pool. Into the wall between the two pools a connecting pipe was built, through which the pure rainwater collected in the otzar could come in contact with the water in the bath pool, which was drawn from a nearby cistern. In this example, which is the only complete example of a miqveh complex found in this excavation, or anywhere in Jerusalem for that matter, a vestibule paved with mosaics led to the room with the ritual immersion pool and to the separate room with the reserve pool. In this miqveh, five steps ran the full length of the bathing pool. Several steps also led down into the reserve pool. Leading off the vestibule was another room with a bathtub, which people apparently used for ordinary, not ritual, bathing.

Just outside Jerusalem’s Old City wall, west of the entrance known as Dung Gate, Israeli archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov also cleared an area that once contained the homes of wealthy Jerusalemites. Here, too, a number of miqva’ot were found. Today these miqva’ot are the most easily accessible to the visitor. Several of the ritual immersion pools, here as elsewhere, contain stairways divided by a wall. Since a person entering the miqveh is ritually unclean, different sides of the stairway were probably used to enter and to leave. As explained by BAR editor Hershel Shanks:11

“Especially palatial mikva’ot … have two sets of stairs divided by a low wall or pillars. Presumably one set of steps was used to enter (while the bather was in an impure state), and the other set of steps was used to leave the purifying bath, uncontaminated by any contact with the impurities of the entrance steps.”d

The case of Qumran is especially interesting. At Qumran, on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, lived the people who hid the Dead Sea Scrolls in nearby caves. Most scholars identify the sect of Jews at Qumran as Essenes. Two years after the first Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947, a French archaeological expedition to Qumran began, led by Père Roland de Vaux of the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem. Strangely enough, although a large number of water installations were found during the seven-year course of the excavations, none was originally identified as a miqveh. Instead, they were regarded as ordinary baths or as cisterns for the collection of water in this arid area.

The reader will recall that at Masada Yadin found the first bathing installations identified as miqva’ot. Yadin dug in the early sixties. When he wrote his popular book on Masada, he was, of course, thoroughly familiar with the Qumran discoveries that preceded his Masada excavations; but somehow Yadin did not connect the cisterns at Qumran—even those that conformed rather closely to the ones found at Masada—with Miqva’ot.

Roland de Vaux published a report on his Qumran excavations in 1973. In it he stated that two small water installations “were certainly baths, but archaeology is powerless to determine whether the baths taken in them had a ritual significance.”12

In 1978 de Vaux modified his position somewhat:13

“This system was designed to fill the needs of a large community living in an arid region. However, the care taken in constructing these installations may suggest that they were intended for the ceremony of ritual immersion.”
Another weighty authority, Professor Frank Moore Cross of Harvard, seems to have rejected the notion that the Qumran water installations included miqva’ot; Cross wrote:14

“Unfortunately, the pools are typical examples of water reservoirs well known from other sites.”

Cross recognized that bathing was especially important to the Essenes of Qumran and that it had a ritual aspect, but he observed, “The living waters of the Jordan not far distant [or] possibly the waters of ‘En Feskhah nearby would have sufficed.15 In fact, the nearest point of the Jordan River was at least six miles away from Qumran—hardly an acceptable location.

A recent (1984) study by Bryant G. Wood of the University of Toronto16 has shown rather conclusively that some of the water installations at Qumran were indeed miqva’ot.

Wood divides the Qumran water installations, or pools, into two types—those without steps and those with steps along the entire width of the pool. The latter he identifies as miqva’ot. He notes that steps the full length of the pool take up a large percentage of its volume, something the hydraulic engineers who designed the systems would never have tolerated if the purpose of the pool had been purely water storage. A narrow set of steps would have served as well. To those who argue that the steps were necessary to gain access to lower levels of water or to facilitate maintenance and cleaning, Wood replies that steps were not needed in the deepest of the Qumran cisterns, nor in other cisterns on the site. Wood believes that the full-width steps were intended to provide easy access on a regular basis for more than a few people who would together use the pool for a ritual bath. Moreover, some of the steps were divided in a way similar to the Jerusalem miqva’ot steps, further suggesting a ritual use. At Qumran, however, there were two dividers on the steps, creating three passageways. The central passageway was apparently used as a channel for water, leaving the other two dry—for entering and exiting.

Moreover, Wood argues, some of the bathing installations at Qumran were simply too elegant, too fancy, for just ordinary bathing. As Wood argues,17

“Such a well-appointed bathing facility would be totally out of keeping with the austere life of a religious sect living in an arid region. A simple tub is sufficient for most people, even those of us privileged to live in an affluent society where water is abundant.”

By an ingenious evaluation of the water needs of the Qumran inhabitants and of the total water reserve capacity, Wood persuasively argues that the people of Qumran had twice as much water as they needed and no doubt used much of the excess for ritual bathing. Wood concludes:18

“The stepped cisterns served other than a utilitarian function. Unless we imagine that the sectarians were constructing luxurious swimming pools, or assume a vastly overdesigned system or a much larger population than the evidence indicates, we must conclude that the stepped cisterns were used for religious rites. The number, size, and design of the stepped cisterns indicate that they were used frequently by a relatively large number of people. The small baths, on the other hand, were no doubt reserved for special ceremonies for individuals, such as initiation rites or the purification of a member who had fallen from grace.”

The importance the Qumranites attached to purificatory rites and water ablutions is now documented in the Temple Scroll, recently published by Yadin.19 Sections of the document, which comes from the Qumran library, discuss ritual defilement caused by nocturnal emissions,20 sexual intercourse,21 physical impairment,22 or contact with a corpse.23 Several of these matters have been discussed in an article on the Temple Scroll by Jacob Milgrom.24 But so far as I can tell, Milgrom does not refer either to the miqva’ot at Qumran or to the pertinent portions of the tractate Miqva’ot. I must confess that I too failed to connect these passages from the Temple Scroll with the archaeological discoveries at Qumran when I discussed Qumran baptism.25

Now—with all this newly available evidence—we can ask what these miqva’ot can tell us about Christian baptism, for almost surely these Jewish miqva’ot provided the background for Christian baptism.

John the Baptist was a Jew. What little we know about him from the New Testament and from the first-century historian Josephus clearly indicates this.26 John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest of the division of Abijah who served, according to lot, in the Jerusalem Temple (Luke 1:5, Luke 1:9). John was recognized by Jewish people as a prophet (Mark 11:32). A delegation from the Pharisees investigated him, asking him if he was Elijah or “the prophet” (John 1:19–28; cf. Deuteronomy 18:18). He proclaimed the presence of the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 3:1). According to Josephus, the destruction of Herod’s army was seen by some to be “divine vengeance,” for Herod had put John to death, “though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism.”27 Equally important, his ministry was to Jews. This fact is surely of major significance in any attempt to understand John’s baptism. No person seeking to influence Jews in any matter concerning religion would introduce something entirely new. If he could not support his ideas either from Scripture or from the sayings of recognized rabbis, he could not expect a hearing. We have only to examine the rabbinic sayings28 or the Mishnah29 to appreciate how much stress was laid by Jews on the continuity of tradition. We may therefore reasonably conclude that John’s baptism was not something new. It was something that grew out of Jewish ritual immersion in miqva’ot.

First, let us consider what form early Christian baptism took—or more precisely pre-Christian baptism, because we are talking about the activities of John the Baptist, as described primarily in the Gospels. Later scholars (in the Middle Ages) took three principal positions based on a philological study of the various words and word forms used in the New Testament: Christian baptism involved (1) immersion, or (2) effusion—pouring water from a container over the person being baptized, or (3) aspersion—that is, sprinkling. Sometimes the doctrinal splits that developed among various churches over this question have been expressed colloquially as “to dip [immersion] or to sprinkle [aspersion].” The philological evidence is technical and inconclusive.

But the archaeological and Mishnaic evidence seems to support the argument for immersion. That is clearly what occurred in the contemporaneous Jewish miqva’ot, so that is probably what happened in early Jewish Christian baptism.

John’s baptisms took place in the Jordan River (Matthew 3:6; Luke 3:3)—this conformed to rabbinic law, which required flowing or living water to provide a valid purification (Mikva’ot 5:5).

John also baptized at Aenon near Salim, “because there was much water there” (John 3:23). The location of Salim is uncertain, so we do not know precisely what the writer of the Fourth Gospel meant by “much water.” A location where there were numerous springs—for example, Umm el-Amdan, south of Scythopolis (Beth-Shean), as suggested by Eusebius30, is not unreasonable; but other locations are also possible. The reference to “much water” may well be the Gospel writer’s way of indicating that the “living water” requirement had been met. If the water was copious, it was enough for immersion.

Next, we may ask what was the role of John and other baptizers in Christian tradition? Were they administering the baptism, immersing those who were being baptized? Again the philological evidence is technical and inconclusive. It is possible, perhaps probable, that John did not “administer the sacrament” (to use a church term), but rather witnessed the rite. Jewish law required ritual immersion in the miqveh to be witnessed, although it is clear that the person immersed him or herself. The Mishnah uses the words tabal “immersed himself” (Mikva’ot 2:1, 2) and tabelu “immersed themselves” (Mikva’ot 7:6).

Incidentally, to be a witness at a ritual immersion, it was not necessary to be a rabbi. Accordingly it would not have been necessary for the disciples to be rabbis if they either witnessed or “administered” a ritual immersion (baptism). Thus, we find Philip (most likely one of the Sevene), (Acts 6:5) and Ananias of Damascus involved in the baptism of the Ethiopian and Saul, respectively (Acts 8:38, Acts 9:18).

What lies behind the Christian custom of baptizing “in the name of”? According to several references in the New Testament, the new believer was to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38), “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:16), or “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Paul asks the Corinthians, “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13). There are also baptisms where “in the name” is not used.

A possible suggestion is that baptism “in the name of” was originally an indication of the required witness. John’s baptism was commonly referred to as “the baptism of John” (Matthew 21:25; Mark 11:30; Luke 7:29; Acts 1:22, 18:25, etc.), which could imply that he was the witness rather than the administrator. On the other hand, there is no talmudic basis, so far as I know, for naming the witness to ritual immersion when it is required.

One major difference between Jewish ritual immersion and Christian baptism has been mentioned by a number of scholars who have considered the possible relationship between the two. Jewish ritual immersion is purifying, or to use the technically correct term, purificatory. Christian baptism, on the other hand, is initiating, or initiatory; it is a one-time ritual that initiates the person into the sect.

Initiatory baptism, however, has its parallels in Jewish proselyte baptism.31 Three things were required of a proselyte to Judaism: circumcision, the offering of a sacrifice and immersion in the miqveh (and of course acceptance of the Torah, the law). After the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., the sacrifice was no longer required. While the Church confined its missionary activities to Jews, circumcision was not an issue. When it decided to reach out to gentiles, the requirement of circumcision was abrogated.

This left ritual immersion in the miqveh as the only applicable Jewish requirement of conversion. Ritual immersion (i.e., baptism) became the central Christian initiatory rite.

According to Jewish tradition, a convert “is like a new-born child.”32 Jesus himself said that “Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” John 3:3). How can he be born anew? “Unless he is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Paul compares baptism with being baptized into death with Christ and risen with him to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 3–4).

(Since writing this, I have learned of a recent publication by a leading scholar on Jewish law of this period, expressing the view that Christian baptism most probably derives from Jewish proselyte immersion. I agree.)33
The early Church was composed in the beginning exclusively of Jews, and assuredly followed Jewish law and tradition. We can learn much about the early Church by a better understanding of its Jewish background. The Jewish miqva’ot and laws of ritual immersion are but an example.

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