Pre-Christian Baptisms (and why it was an early shelf item for me)

When it comes to a faith crisis, timing can be everything. Most of us found critical resources of the church through the internet. Before then, that kind of information was difficult to find. It was out there, for sure – Dialogue, D. Michael Quinn and the Tanners were all publishing good information – but you were unlikely to read it unless you were really looking for it, and the church did a good enough job to scare us away from those sources anyway. Nobody “stumbled” across Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. The rare criticism I encountered in those darker times was usually produced by evangelical Christians, not historians, and the quality was usually sub-par. We spent most of our time batting down half-baked criticisms that appealed to Christian interpretations of bible verses, arguments for which we were well prepared. The only other person sharing information critical of Mormonism was maybe that weird guy in the ward who wanted to hand out pamphlets to ward members until the Bishop asked him to leave. And that guy was crazy, so you never gave him a second thought.

So for most of my adolescence, the only doubts I had were inconsistencies I found myself; not in the historical record, but in the text of the scriptures themselves. My family grew up hearing the counsel to read the Book of Mormon daily, and boy did we ever. My family pretty much never missed a day, and I rarely missed a day of personal study either. If I went on a scout campout, I was sure to bring along a Book of Mormon, lest I miss a day and offend the Almighty. I’ve been reading the Book of Mormon regularly since I was old enough to read. There’s no book I’ve come even close to reading as frequently and thoroughly as the Book of Mormon. I couldn’t begin to estimate how many times I’ve read it through. I’m sure it’s been dozens of times. However, reading the book that much provokes questions.

I don’t see many ex-mormons comment on this topic, so I gather it’s not that important for most, but it was an item that weighed on me since early adolescence. The Book of Mormon insists that baptism is an eternal covenant, beginning with Adam, that was practiced throughout history, long before Christ came. This is very difficult to square with recorded history.

Pre-Christian baptisms in the Standard Works

The Book of Mormon establishes the importance of baptism pretty early on. On my mission, the second most shared chapter of the Book of Mormon was 2 Nephi 31, in which Nephi expounds on the importance of baptism:

And now, if the Lamb of God, he being holy, should have need to be baptized by water, to fulfil all righteousness, O then, how much more need have we, being unholy, to be baptized, yea, even by water! …And also, the voice of the Son came unto me, saying: He that is baptized in my name, to him will the Father give the Holy Ghost, like unto me; wherefore, follow me, and do the things which ye have seen me do. 2 Nephi 31:5,12

Nephi goes on to lump the gift of the Holy Ghost along with baptism as a necessary part of salvation. I can’t quote the whole chapter here, but Nephi describes modern Christian doctrines regarding baptism. Elsewhere in the Book of mormon, we learn that Alma, moved by Abinadi’s call to repentance, secretly baptized a group of closet believers at the Waters of Mormon (side note – someone should create a group for closet non-believers called the “Waters of Ex-Mormon”).

Additionally, Nephi updated Isaiah 48 with some language that makes it an explicit reference to baptism:

Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah, or out of the waters of baptism2 Nephi 20:1 (emphasized words are present in the Book of Mormon but not in Isaiah 48:1)

The fact that Nephi is quoting Isaiah 48 at all is a problem, but I didn’t know that at the time. In this case we’re led to believe that the original passage of Isaiah included a reference to baptism. This makes sense from the LDS position that the gospel of Jesus Christ – that is, faith, repentance, baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost – is eternal and has been taught in all dispensations. It makes less sense from a scholarly point of view, since the phrase here that’s rendered “waters of Judah” in the King James version is referring to the lineage of Judah, and is so translated in modern bibles.

Other LDS works support pre-Christian baptisms. The Book of Moses teaches us that Adam was baptized:

And he also said unto him: If thou wilt turn unto me, and hearken unto my voice, and believe, and repent of all thy transgressions, and be baptized, even in water, in the name of mine Only Begotten Son… ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, asking all things in his name, and whatsoever ye shall ask, it shall be given you…Wherefore teach it unto your children, that all men, everywhere, must repent, or they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God…and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten…And it came to pass, when the Lord had spoken with Adam, our father, that Adam cried unto the Lord, and he was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord, and was carried down into the water, and was laid under the water, and was brought forth out of the water. Moses 6:52-64

It’s clear that Joseph Smith believed baptism to be an eternal ordinance, taught in all dispensations, as opposed to a new ordinance of the Christian era.

The Problem

By the time I was a teenager, this doctrine really started to bother me. If baptism, and more broadly, the first principles and ordinances of the gospel were eternal and taught among all dispensations… why is it absent from the Old Testament? This is, after all, a book that’s notorious for spelling out the ordinances of the law of Moses in excruciating detail. This is a book that carefully spells out rules regarding menstruation and textiles. There are a lot of things you can call the Old Testament, but “light on details” is not one of them. And yet, the whole book says nothing about the single most important ordinance that’s necessary for salvation.

The problem doesn’t end at the Old Testament. Rabbinical Judaism has been nothing if not literate, and has produced plenty of literature on these topics, and there’s nothing in the Talmud about baptism. I’m to believe that Israel was baptizing people for thousands of years, but never mentioned it to anyone?

Bruce R. must have been aware of the issue, since it’s alluded to in the Bible Dictionary published in the back of the Church’s bible:

Although there is some obscurity in the Bible as to the antiquity of baptism before the time of Jesus, from latter-day revelation it is clear that Adam was baptized (Moses 6:64–68) and that the patriarchs and prophets since his time have taught the gospel and administered the ordinances that pertain to the gospel. This includes both water baptism and the laying on of hands for the Holy Ghost (Moses 8:23–24). The Book of Mormon shows also that baptism was taught and practiced long before the coming of Jesus Christ (2 Ne. 31; Mosiah 18:8–17). -“Baptism,” Bible Dictionary.

The Bible Dictionary entry also references 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, in which Paul describes the children of Israel being “baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” Whatever Paul is trying to say here, it isn’t a convincing argument that Old Testament peoples were practicing baptisms, at least not in the way Nephi and Bruce described it.

Traditional Christianity deviates from Mormonism in that it does not view Baptism as an “eternal” ordinance that was practiced in the days of Moses. The early Christian Father Tertullian wrote on the subject of Baptism sometime between 200-206 AD, arguing that salvation by faith alone was possible in the pre-Christian era:

And so they say, “Baptism is not necessary for them to whom faith is sufficient; for withal, Abraham pleased God by a sacrament of no water, but of faith.” But in all cases it is the later things which have a conclusive force, and the subsequent which prevail over the antecedent. Grant that, in days gone by, there was salvation by means of bare faith, before the passion and resurrection of the Lord. But now that faith has been enlarged, and has become a faith which believes in His nativity, passion, and resurrection, there has been an amplification added to the sacrament, viz., the sealing act of baptism; the clothing, in some sense, of the faith which before was bare, and which cannot exist now without its proper law. On Baptism. Tertullian

Another Christian Father, St. Justin, describes the Baptism as part of the new and everlasting covenant between Jesus and his followers that supplants the law of Moses.

As, then, circumcision began with Abraham, and the Sabbath and sacrifices and offerings and feasts with Moses, and it has been proved they were enjoined on account of the hardness of your people’s heart, so it was necessary, in accordance with the Father’s will, that they should have an end in Him who was born of a virgin, of the family of Abraham and tribe of Judah, and of David; in Christ the Son of God, who was proclaimed as about to come to all the world, to be the everlasting law and the everlasting covenant, even as the forementioned prophecies show. And we, who have approached God through Him, have received not carnal, but spiritual circumcision, which Enoch and those like him observed. And we have received it through baptism, since we were sinners, by God’s mercy; and all men may equally obtain it. Dialogue with Trypho. St. Justin

It’s certainly possible that you can find some Christian writer out there who argues for pre-Christian baptisms, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be the norm among mainstream Christianity. Baptism as we know it begins with John the Baptist and became the defining ordinance of Christianity.

The Mikveh

So yeah, this bothered me. But when I was in my late teens, I had a breakthrough! Through some online research I discovered the Mikveh: a Jewish baptismal font (or so I would have described it at the time). Even better, immersion in the Mikveh was required for converts to Judaism. As far as I was concerned, I had resolved my doubt through diligent study.

judenbad_speyer_6_view_from_the_first_room_down
A medieval mikveh, courtesty of Wikipedia.

I excitedly showed my mom what I had found. I don’t think she intuited that this was a doubt that I had just resolved; I suspect she was simply happy to see me studying something gospel oriented.She suggested I share my findings in our next Family Home Evening.

So I did. I produced the internet content I had found and explained what the Mikveh was and how it was clearly a baptism under a different (Hebrew) name. My mom seemed interested. My dad seemed decidedly uninterested, almost annoyed, though I was never sure why. I suspected he didn’t like me doing gospel study on the internet instead of from church materials.

This explanation satisfied me for a while, until some other inconsistencies started gnawing at me. It’s not enough that Jewish people immersed their converts. In order to be the same ordinance, the one that the church teaches is restored among all dispensations, it must be:

  • Done in the name of Jesus Christ.
  • For the remission of sins.
  • As a one-time ordinance that begins your journey on the road to salvation. This isn’t to say that rebaptism isn’t a thing – the early Mormon church did tons of rebaptizing after all. But the nature of the ordinance is that it is the “gate” by which you must enter (see 2 Nephi 31) to begin on the straight and narrow path, as opposed to a recurring ordinance that you repeat throughout your life, such as the Sacrament (the LDS term for the Lord’s Supper, for all you non-Mormons out there). By nature, it is not an ordinance that you expect to keep doing over and over.
  • Followed up by the laying on of hands for the Gift of the Holy Ghost.

By contrast, the tevilah, that is, the Jewish immersion ritual, is done for the following reasons:

  • For converts to Judaism. As far as I can tell, if you were born “in the covenant,” you do not have this ceremony done. To my knowledge, there is, and never has been, a Jewish custom of baptizing their youth when they reach 8 years old. It’s strictly for Gentiles.
  • For men, after they ejaculate
  • For women, after their period is over.
  • For anyone who has had abnormal bodily discharges.
  • For people with certain skin conditions
  • For people that have come in contact with the aforementioned unclean people.
  • For someone who is being consecrated to the Aaronic Priesthood.
  • For the Priest who sends away the scapegoat
  • For someone who’s touched a corpse or a grave

…and for many other reasons. Now I should note that I’ve simplified a complex subject in making this list; the tevilah is not observed the same way among all branches of Judaism, and I described the list of reasons tersely, at the expense of precision. But these requirements come from the Torah (aka, the first five books of the Bible) and the Talmud. They faithfully represent the purpose of the tevilah in Rabbinical Judaism. When you take a step back, you quickly recognize that the tevilah is really not that much like the ordinance of baptism. There are some physical similarities, but it is clearly not the “gate” that you must enter described by Nephi. It’s clearly not a covenant between you and God that sets you on your life’s journey and absolves you of your sins. It’s part of the ritual washing and purification tenets of the Judaic law. There’s no laying on of hands for the Gift of the Holy Ghost afterwards. And of course – do I have to say it? – the tevilah is decidedly not done in the name of Jesus Christ.

So after a brief respite, it started bothering me again. “Why, Joseph?!” I would think to myself. “You could have made my life so much easier by not insisting on this doctrine. It’s not even that impactful to the rest of Mormonism!” That’s a hypothetical conversation I’ve had many times with Joseph Smith, by the way. He insisted on so many ideas that are just very hard to square.

Confronting the problem

Just a few years ago, I was sitting in an institute class with an institute instructor I greatly admired (and still do). He was sort of a Marlin K. Jensen type, willing to be a bit more open about troubling issues and willing to interpret Mormon doctrine a bit more liberally. He conducted a series of institute classes on difficult topics (only a few of the Gospel Topics Essays had been published at the time), and he handled it masterfully, walking a fine line between allowing a more liberal, “nuanced” approach to Mormonism that people like me needed at the time, but gently and subtly enough that the students who were just there to meet people to date didn’t even notice something controversial was happening. He was probably the only person I knew in the general geographic area who could pull that class off. He also had a deep, scholarly understanding of the Old Testament and Christianity, and was capable of giving those rare, thoughtful and insightful institute lessons where you genuinely walked away having learned something, as opposed to the countless institute lessons I have attended that were indistinguishable from any Seminary, FHE or Sunday School class.

So as I was sitting in this institute class, the instructor handed out slips of paper with a few questions. One of them asked us about any questions or subjects that we’d like him to answer or comment on. There wasn’t much space, and I assume the intention is that people would write something like “tithing,” but I thought about this long-lingering question on pre-Christian baptisms. I started jotting down my question, but quickly ran out of space in the designated spot, and started writing on the back of the paper, and then around the margins, telling him about my research into the Mikveh, and how it didn’t seem quite the same, and why don’t we find any mentions of baptism in the Old Testament? By the time I was done, there wasn’t any white space left on that piece of paper. The girl I was dating at the time looked at it quizzically as I turned it in.

The following week, the instructor let me know he was preparing a response, and that he would email it to me. I thanked him for his time. Eventually the email came. I still have it. He basically agreed that the Mikveh was a baptismal font, stating that it descended from the baptism given to Adam, but “somewhat removed.” He believed that the Nephites had a “restoration” of the true practice, which Jesus had to again instruct them on when he visited America.

Essentially, the Jewish people had a corrupted version of the ordinance. Basically, they were in a state of apostasy, much like those silly early Christians the church told us about that sprinkled people instead of immersing them. Unfortunately this explanation didn’t help me much, other than to let me know that I had reached the end of the line on this investigation. If Abraham and Moses were the leaders of their dispensations, they should have had the single most important ordinance, the one necessary for salvation, restored to them. It doesn’t make sense that Nephi had a proper understanding of baptism, but Jeremiah didn’t. If, according to Nephi, the house of Jacob came out of the “waters of baptism,” they can’t have an ordinance “somewhat removed” from the version given to Adam. It’s one thing for ordinances to change over time – our own ordinances have changed quite a bit in less than 200 years – but it’s quite another thing when Nephi insists on a baptism for the remission of sins in the name of Jesus Christ. It’s simply not the same thing as the tevilah, and doesn’t have the same purpose at all.

There is surely a connection between the tevilah and baptism. It seems likely to me that John the Baptist developed his ordinance from the one he and his followers were already familiar with. The symbolism of purifying yourself is still there. John taught a gospel of repentance, and instructed people to be purified from the sins that soiled them, as opposed to the bodily discharges and maladies that otherwise made them unclean. One can understand the reluctance of the Pharisees to accept John’s baptism when you look at it that way. Doing so would admit that they are impure because of sin. From John’s baptism grew the Christian baptism. But it’s clearly a descendant of the tevilah, not the other way around.

So ultimately, I did resolve my doubt. Not by twisting the facts around until I could make it fit, albeit uncomfortably, into a Mormon paradigm. I resolved it by allowing myself to understand these concepts outside the scope of Mormonism. And that has made all the difference.

3 thoughts on “Pre-Christian Baptisms (and why it was an early shelf item for me)

    1. I mentioned the Book of Moses reference to Adam being baptized. My conclusion is that baptism is a Christian ordinance and that references to baptism for the remission of sins (distinguished from the Jewish tevilah) prior to John the Baptist are anachronistic.

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