Originally Answered: Water Baptism Before John The Baptist?
Few people today actually know and understand why many churches baptize converts to Christianity by immersion. This custom predates Christianity and is based upon Jewish Law and the demands of ritual purity. It is the mikvah!
When John the Baptist invited those who were listening to his message to be baptized, his invitation was nothing new for his Jewish audience. They were very familiar with the ritual of baptism and practiced it on a regular basis. This is often a surprise for many Christians because they have been taught that baptism was a new "Christian" thing. The proof offered to support that claim is that we don't find any references to baptism in the Old Testament.
However, when we examine the first century Jewish culture of Jesus we discover that baptism, or more correctly ritual self-immersion, was a well-developed and accepted part of Jewish life. Jewish law required Jews to undergo ritual self-immersion if there was any question concerning ritual impurity.
Today it is common for Christians to exclusively associate baptism with the forgiveness of sins or salvation. This wasn't the case during the time of Jesus or within Jewish communities today. Many things could be the source of ritual impurity. Many of these were simply the result of the natural course of life - a woman's monthly period, giving birth, or touching something dead. The problem with being ritually impure was that the person in the state of impurity couldn't travel within the Temple precincts or perform certain rituals.
We find an example of this in the life of Jesus' mother who is in a state of impurity as the result of giving birth to him.
And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were fulfilled, they brought him up to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord (Luke 2:22).
Why did Mary do this? It was required by the Torah (Law):
Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman conceive seed, and bear a man-child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of the impurity of her sickness shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled (Leviticus 12:2-4).
It is only after the fulfillment of this law that Mary would have been permitted to enter the Temple precincts and participate in religious rituals. In order to fulfill the law of Moses, Mary would have been required to participate in ritual self-immersion. This was such a common practice in Jerusalem that the Temple constructed a ritual bath complex along the southern wall of the Temple. Archaeologists uncovered this complex in the second half of the twentieth century. Modern Rabbinic Judaism still teaches this form of ritual self-immersion today. We also have scriptural evidence to support the fact that ritual immersion was an act of self-immersion.
Baptism in the first century Jewish community, just as it is in modern Jewish communities, is unlike the various styles of Christian baptism practiced in churches today. When John the Baptist baptized Jesus he didn't touch Jesus, neither did he pour water over Jesus' head. Jesus would have immersed himself and John wouldn't have touched him. There are a number of different drawings that depict Jewish baptism over the centuries. One very famous ancient drawing was found in a Roman catacomb, which depicts John and Jesus at Jesus' baptism. John is standing on the bank of the Jordan River extending a hand to Jesus who is standing in the water.
Apostolic Believer in One God, Jesus
Degree in History (focus Jewish studies) and Spanish, New Mexico State U. 1990