John the Baptist baptised. That is the core fact we know about him. Aside from the occasional painting of his head on a platter, every piece of artwork we have shows him baptising people. This is one of the curious features of the sparseness of both the biblical narrative and of religious iconography. Later figures will be shown in a more 3D way. We will see Abraham Lincoln not simply giving the Gettysburg Address in every image, but playing with his kids, splitting rails, telling bawdy jokes and fighting with his cabinet. But biblical figures like John are reduced down to the distilled essence of their mission. John baptised. He exists in our minds, forever standing at the banks of Jordan, pouring water on sinners, exhorting them to repent, and announcing that there is One coming after him whose sandals he is not worthy to untie, who will baptise, not with water, but with the Spirit and fire.
Indeed, baptism is so identified with his John’s mission that some people wonder if John invented baptism.
He did not.
John was a Jew. Jews had practiced ritual ablutions for ages before John came along. The Old Testament had a long tradition of associating ritual impurities with sin. It is what I call the “Ick Factor”. All cultures have an Ick Factor, including ours. If you don’t believe me, try sitting down to a nice bowl of squirming larvae for dinner. Different cultures find different things to be icky, but all cultures find something icky and most cultures find much of the same things icky.
Jewish culture was no different and so practiced mikveh or ritual ablutions for purification from things like contact with blood, semen, menstruation, skin infections, or dead bodies (among other things). And given the intensely sacralized imagination of the Old Testament authors, ritual impurity was easily transmuted into an image of moral and spiritual impurity. Just as icky things could lead to diseases that spread, rot, defile, and kill, so too sin could do the same thing to the soul. So Jewish culture wound up enshrining a habit of washings and ablutions that were both pious acts and, by good Providence, excellent hygiene as well.
John the Baptist took this pious custom from Jewish culture and, if you will, re-purposed it. The washing he offered was, as Scripture describes it a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). This was not a washing that aimed to purify the body of ritual defilement but was, instead, a sign of a conscience seeking cleansing. It was not, by the way, sacramental baptism either. John is, recall, a sort of hinge figure in the passage from the Old Covenant to the New. Sacramental baptism, which actually has the power to cleanse from sin, was only established with the death and resurrection of Jesus. In John’s day, his baptism was, like the rest of his ministry, a foreshadow of the sacrament, not the sacrament itself.
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