A term first appearing in the New Testament as a purification ritual used by an unorthodox Jewish figure named John (the Baptist). All four Gospels and the book of Acts describe him “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1.4; Luke 3.3).
Scholars have speculated how John's mission might be related to other Jewish separatist groups such as the Qumran community, but exact origins remain unclear. There is abundant evidence that lustral bathing was an important aspect of Greco‐Roman religions, especially related to healing divinities such as Asklepius. In the Hebrew Bible, cleansing with water is an important part of purification rites, especially after sexual activity or contact with a corpse (Lev. 15.18, Num. 19.13; see Purity, Ritual). John the Baptist calls for a more general repentance symbolized by baptism.
The report that Jesus himself was baptized in the Jordan by John (Mark 1.9–11) raises the possibility that Jesus was a disciple of John who broke off and started his own movement. It is clear that later followers of Jesus were concerned about this perception. Matthew's gospel includes a dialogue in which John recognizes Jesus' spiritual superiority and baptizes him reluctantly only after Jesus insists (Matt. 3.13–17). Luke goes a step further by excluding John from the account of Jesus' baptism (Luke 3.21) and telling the story of John's imprisonment immediately before the event takes place (Luke 3.19–20). Thus, in Luke, Jesus is baptized, but the story line indicates that the baptism could not have been performed by John.
In the Gospels, John is of interest only as he is related to the ministry of Jesus (Mark 1.2–3, 7–9; Matt. 3.11–12; Luke 3.15–17), but the baptism symbol used by John becomes a central image for the developing churches. Matthew's gospel concludes with the charge to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28.19). The book of Acts elaborates further when Peter says to the crowd gathered on Pentecost, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven” (Acts 2.38).
Baptism in Acts takes place immediately after someone comes to believe in Christ, and it is usually followed by receiving the Holy Spirit. This two‐stage process is founded on the contrast between John's water baptism and “being baptized by the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1.5; cf. Mark 1.8; Matt. 3.11; Luke 3.16; John 1.33). It is so important that the leaders of the Jerusalem church send Peter and John to lay hands on believers in Samaria who had “only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus,” after which they receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8.14–17). The situation is reversed when the gentiles of Cornelius's house come to believe. They receive the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues as a sign of God's acceptance of gentile converts (see Glossolalia), so Peter asks, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10.44–48).
Paul's letters provide the earliest evidence about baptism among the Jesus followers. It is striking, therefore, that Paul makes no mention of John the Baptist or of baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit as a dual process. Paul sees that the person who has been baptized is “in Christ,” no longer subject to the divisions of human society (Gal. 3.27), and part of a unified body (1 Cor. 12.13; cf. Eph. 4.5). Emphasis is on the state that has been achieved, not the way in which it has been accomplished. In fact, Paul is concerned that the Corinthians are putting too much stake in the person by whom they were baptized, and he is grateful that he baptized only a few of them: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel” (1 Cor. 1.17).
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is using every possible argument to convince his readers that a resurrection of the dead will take place. In doing so he asks why people are baptized on behalf of the dead if there will be no resurrection (15.29). This brief allusion indicates that within the early churches it was possible to receive baptism in order to include in the body of Christ a friend or relative who was already dead. Paul does not specifically condemn the practice here, but it did not become an accepted part of Christian ritual.
Paul equates baptism symbolically with the death of Jesus (Rom. 6.3–4, cf. Col. 2.12), and he insists that rituals such as baptism are not spiritual guarantees, since God was not pleased with the Hebrews even though they went through a proto‐baptism with Moses at the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10.1–5). This latter point is also made in the letter to the Hebrews (9.9–10), while 1 Peter contends that the story of Noah's ark prefigures the saving value of baptism (1 Pet. 3.21).
The New Testament evidence is used in debating later Christian baptismal practice, but it is rarely definitive. Certainly the majority of people who are baptized in the New Testament are adults who are entering the community. The exception might be children included in some of the households baptized in Acts (11.14; 16.15, 33). The baptism of infants became a more routine practice within the church as the doctrine of original sin became more widely accepted.
Another controversy concerns baptism by immersion or by the sprinkling of water on the participant. The descriptions of specific New Testament baptisms indicate that the person being baptized was dipped under the water. Jesus is said to come out of the water (Mark 1.10; Matt. 3.16), while Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch go down into the water (Acts 8.38). Going under the water also fits best with the image of being buried with Christ in baptism (Col. 2.12). At the same time baptisms in the New Testament are not described in specific terms, so diverse interpretations and practices develop.
Daniel N. Schowalter