During a season of the Jewish calendar each person is expected to reflect upon his or her actions during the past year. Commencing with the Jewish New Year there are ten days in which one is to reconcile relationships in anticipation of the Day of Atonement. This season of repentance and reconciliation echoes the voice of one whose prophetic message was permeated with a call to repentance. All of the Gospels open with a description of John the Baptist’s proclamation of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). In this brief study we want to consider both the form of John’s baptism and his distinctive call to accompanying repentance.
Immersion and Ritual Impurity
Many Christians are surprised to discover that John’s invitation to ritual immersion was nothing new for his Jewish hearers. Although scant mention is made of the practice in the Hebrew Scriptures, by John’s day the custom was already well developed. According to Jewish faith one undergoes immersion if there is any question of ritual impurity. This can result from a number of causes, many in the natural course of life—for example, after childbirth.
Luke’s Gospel speaks concerning the period of Mary’s “purification” (Luke 2:22). This was the forty days following the birth of Jesus (cf. Lev. 12:2-4). It was only after this period that she was permitted to enter the Temple. Before entering the Temple precincts Mary would have been required to submit to ritual immersion, perhaps even in one of the ritual immersion baths archeologists have uncovered along the southern wall of the Temple Mount.
Once again we find that characters in the New Testament story belong to emerging Jewish ideas in the first century and were inseparably connected to that vital spiritual community. The message of the New Testament takes on new depth and meaning when read in the context of that historical and spiritual milieu.