Based on an excerpt from the book The Way Of Life.
A crowd gathers around a lake. They’re either all women or all men. One of them walks out into the lake, says a few words, and submerges himself or herself completely underwater.
What just happened?
If you were a medieval Christian, you might have been unsure. Maybe you wouldn’t have known enough about Judaism to know what their immersion ritual looked like; you most likely wouldn’t have. You probably wouldn’t have thought that you had just witnessed a Christian baptism because adults going underwater had gone out of fashion centuries ago. It wouldn’t come back as a standard Christian practice until the Anabaptists came along with their dogged insistence that the ritual more closely resembled what they saw in the New Testament.
No one liked the Anabaptists at first; today millions of Christians follow their lead. Some churches still sprinkle infants (and adult converts); some pour water over them instead; but many completely immerse only those old enough to articulate their faith. Which one of these is closest to the way the earliest believers in Yeshua baptized?
We can find the answer in the Didache. The Didache preserves the specific method of baptism used by some of the earliest followers of Yeshua; this method is thoroughly rooted in Jewish tradition.
The Didache is an extraordinary book, and even though its contents are aimed at Gentiles, it’s exhaustively Jewish in character. Some scholars have (mistakenly) speculated that the first six chapters made up a Jewish (not necessarily “Messianic”) guide for converts to Judaism (“proselytes”) that was later adapted for use by the early Yeshua movement. Its morality, its ritual, and its outlook are just too concordant with first-century Judaism to see the Didache’s earliest layers as anything other than the product of a Jewish community. These scholars assume that it couldn’t be the product of Jesus followers. But that assumption is based on a misunderstanding called replacement theology. It’s the idea that Jesus started a new religion in place of Judaism. He didn’t.
The first six chapters of the Didache train the new follower of Yeshua in matters of faith and righteous conduct, making him or her ready to be initiated into the Messianic community through immersion. Chapter 7 presents specific instructions for carrying out the immersion procedure. Its contents represent the earliest legal instructions for immersion outside the New Testament, and they may be older than much of the New Testament itself.
This makes the Didache an incredibly useful source for a Messianic Jewish congregation hoping to get in touch with the earliest stratum of its faith. If you’re looking for a guide to baptism that is authentically Jewish while also being a product of the early Yeshua movement, the Didache is going to be your primary text.
The seventh chapter of the Didache is short; here is the First Fruits of Zion translation:
Concerning immersion, immerse in this way: Having first said all these things, immerse in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in living water. But if you do not have living water, immerse in other water; and if you cannot immerse in cold water, then immerse in warm water. But if you do not have either in sufficient quantity to immerse, pour water on the head three times in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Prior to the immersion, the one performing the immersion and the one being immersed should fast beforehand, and also any others if they can. Require the one being immersed to fast one or two days prior to the immersion. (Didache 7.1-4)
The seventh chapter starts with the statement, “Having first said all these things …” That is, a candidate for immersion needed to be familiar with the first six chapters of the Didache. These chapters are a highly condensed summary of the ethic of Yeshua as transmitted by the apostles. There is little added or subtracted from what we see in the New Testament except an additional clarification on the prohibition against abortion.
The Didache’s instructions make it clear that baptism was not the first step on one’s journey of faith. Baptism was an important step of a discipleship program that had already begun some time before. How long or how intense this program was when the Didache was written, we don’t know; the New Testament gives several cases of baptisms occurring almost immediately after contact with an apostle— Cornelius, for example. But it seems that as the community became more settled and structured, candidates for immersion were required to learn the rules of the community before formally joining.
This is, of course, similar to what is required of a proselyte to Judaism. The Talmud mandates that a proselyte become familiar with both the greater and the lesser commandments before undertaking the ritual components of the conversion process—one of which was immersion. This makes sense; you don’t want to start off your new life as a member of the family of God without knowing what’s going to be expected of you.
The Didache instructed the community to immerse the convert, if possible, but it also allowed for contingencies when full immersion was not possible. The Greek word translated “immerse” here leaves no doubt about the preferred method; the candidate for baptism was wholly submerged in water. This again mirrors Jewish practice. While Christian baptism evolved into multifarious forms, its roots lie in the Jewish practice of being completely submerged.
Ritual immersion emerged as the definitive way of crossing the boundary from being outside the community of faith to inside long before the Didache was written; the Master commanded it himself. But this ritual was not chosen randomly. Immersion was also a critical step for proselytes to Judaism. The Jewish people had already been using immersion as part of the process of joining God’s people for millennia. It was the natural choice for Yeshua to direct his disciples to use when bringing Gentiles into the kingdom of God.
Jewish immersion requires one to be completely clean—not ritually clean but free of grime and dirt. The water must contact all the skin all over the body, or the immersion will fail to result in ritual purity. The Didache doesn’t mention this aspect of immersion because the new believer used the ceremony as a legal transition, not a purification rite. The Didache gives enough detail, however, that one might assume that the normal practice of Jewish immersion applied in more ways than are specifically listed. The connection to ritual purity might seem out of place in our era. Ritual purity only really matters when there is a possibility that one might enter the Temple or eat meat from an animal that was sacrificed there; these conditions don’t exist today. The Talmud, however, equates the pollution of idolatry with the ritual impurity caused by contact with a corpse. Recall that the earliest followers of Yeshua from among the nations were all former idolaters; the sins and stains of the past needed to be symbolically removed.
While the Didache’s instructions were written specifically for Gentiles, Jewish people were also immersed when they joined Yeshua’s community. Of course, for a Jewish person joining the community of Yeshua followers, this immersion would have been one of many that they would have already undertaken. Immersion was and is a regular part of observant Jewish life. Its unique utility in this context is signified by the formula “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
Furthermore, although Jewish people were generally not idolaters in the first century, baptism was still symbolically associated with repentance and renewal among the Jews—for example, the baptism of John the Immerser.
The Didache specifies “living water” as the optimum kind of water in which to immerse. “Living water” is equivalent to the Hebrew term mayim chayim. Mayim chayim is water from a natural spring. John the Immerser probably used living water for his baptisms; John 3:23 records that he chose his location on the banks of the Jordan River because “water was plentiful there.”
The second option the Didache lists is “other water.” This may be a reference to a mikvah. A mikvah is a pool of collected rainwater used for ritual immersion in Judaism. It must contain a certain amount of rainwater, but it can be topped off with other water to make up the difference. Jerusalem in the time of Yeshua had many mikva’ot in it. Festival pilgrims would use them to immerse before celebrating the festivals, during which sacrificial meat and attendance at Temple services were common.
While a mikvah is usually sufficient for ritual immersion in Judaism, Jewish law requires living water in certain cases—that of a “leprous” house, for example. But some rabbis required living water for proselyte immersion as well. This may be because living water has a special significance drawn from the prophecies of the Old Testament about the final redemption.
Zechariah foretold, “On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem” (Zechariah 14:8). “Living water” is then a reference to eschatological renewal. The Master used this term to express the foretaste of the kingdom of heaven that was available to all those who would abide in him: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10); “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38). When we immerse in living water, we symbolically come into contact with the blessings of the Messianic Era.