I love telling people that I got baptized in Vegas. Of course, I was seven years old at the time, and it happened in my aunt’s swimming pool. But who’s to know?
As popular as this opener has made me at college dorm events and wedding receptions, I don’t usually mention it when I begin a conversation with other Jewish people. Why? Because the ideas of baptism and being born again are considered, most politely articulated, as foreign to Judaism.
Even most Christians assume that these concepts were introduced by Yeshua (Jesus) to the Jewish people along with a new religion called Christianity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Baptism is first mentioned in the New Testament when recounting the ministry of Yochanan the Immerser (John the Baptist), son of the priest Zechariah and Elisheva (Elizabeth). Ritual immersion, however, was already prevalent in Jewish life and custom, even for repentance, and it had a well-established connection to the term “born again.”
We first encounter this phrase in John 3 when a prominent Jewish leader came to visit Yeshua one night. His name was Nicodemus (better known in Jewish history as Nakdimon ben Gurion), and he was deeply curious about the young rabbi he had heard about—Yeshua from the town of Netzeret (Nazareth)—who had been turning water to wine, healing the sick, and proclaiming that the kingdom of God was nearby. Nicodemus wanted to know whether it was true— could this wonder-working rabbi be the Messiah?
So he asked him—in so many words: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). In other words, Are you the anointed one God has sent for our deliverance? Yeshua probably smiled, knowing what Nicodemus most desired, and replied, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
It’s at this point that most Bible commentators assume that Nicodemus realizes he’s in over his head. People assume that Yeshua’s words must have been language that Nicodemus had never heard, that Nicodemus was convinced that the young rabbi was crazy because he was asking him literally to re-enter his mother’s womb. But it’s not that simple. Nicodemus had a pretty good idea of what Yeshua was talking about; in fact, that’s why he was confused.
Most of the Pharisees (the sect of Judaism to which Nicodemus belonged) expected that all Israel would have a portion in the kingdom and the World to Come. The rabbis taught that even those who were executed by the court would not be excluded (Talmud). Everyone else, however, needed to convert to Judaism if they wanted a share in the kingdom and the reward of the resurrection.
It was obvious to Nicodemus that those from the idol-worshiping nations outside Israel’s covenant with God would not enter the kingdom. But he probably assumed that Jewish people had a free pass. The point Yeshua wanted to make with Nicodemus was that just as non-Jews needed to enter the kingdom, so also did Jewish people. But he wanted Nicodemus to work it out for himself. He shrewdly used an old rabbinic teaching strategy—introducing a new teaching with a familiar concept.
The term “born again,” or “born anew,” was likely already in use among the rabbis. The Talmud uses the same language to describe the legal transformation that a Gentile must undergo to complete a conversion to Judaism. The conversion ceremony included a full ritual immersion in living water, i.e., a baptism of sorts. The Gentile entering the covenant immersed in water to symbolize being transformed into a Jewish person, and his or her previous legal identity, including the sins he or she had committed, were erased. It was like becoming a newborn baby all over again. The Talmud says, “One who became a proselyte is like a child newly born.” And again, the Talmud states, “Rabbi Yosei says … a convert who just converted is like a child just born in that he retains no connection to his past life.”