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The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah

by 'Alfred Edersheim'

Book 6 — Appendix -

Chapter 12 —

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ONLY those who have made study of it can have any idea how large, and sometimes bewildering, is the literature on the subject of Jewish Proselytes and their Baptism. Our present remarks will be confined to the Baptism of Proselytes.

It was indeed a great thing when, in the words of Maimonides, a stranger sought shelter under the wings of the Shekhinah, and the change of condition which he underwent was regarded as complete. The waters of baptism were to him in very truth, though in a far different from the Christian sense, the 'bath of regeneration' (Titus iii. 5). As he stepped out of these waters he was considered as 'born anew' - in the language of the Rabbis, as if he were 'a little child just born' (Yeb. 22 a; 48 b; 97 b), as 'a child of one day' (Mass. Ger. c. ii.). But this new birth was not 'a birth from above' in the sense of moral or spiritual renovation, but only as implying a new relationship to God, to Israel, and to his own past, present, and future. It was expressly enjoined that all the difficulties of his new citizenship should first be set before him, and if, after that, he took upon himself the yoke of the law, he should be told how all those sorrows and persecutions were intended to convey a greater blessing, and all those commandments to redound to greater merit. More especially was he to regard himself as a new man in reference to his past. Country, home, habits, friends, and relation were all changed. The past, with all that had belonged to it, was past, and he was a new man - the old, with its defilements, was buried in the waters of baptism. This was carried out with such pitiless logic as not only to determine such questions as those of inheritance, but that it was declared that, except, for the sake of not bringing proselytism into contempt, a proselyte might have wedded his own mother or sister (comp. Yeb. 22 a; Sanh. 58 b). It is a curious circumstances that marriage with a female proselyte was apparently very popular (Horay. 13 a, line 5 from bottom; see also Shem. R. 27), and the Talmud names at least three celebrated doctors who were the offspring of such unions (comp. Derenbourg, Hist. de la Palest., p. 223, note 2). The praises of proselytism are also sung in Vayy. R. 1.

If anything could have further enhanced the value of such proselytism, it would have been its supposed antiquity. Tradition traced it up to Abraham and Sarah, and the expression (Gen. xii. 5) 'the souls that they had gotten' was explained as referring to their proselytes, since 'every one that makes a proselyte is as if he made (created) him' (Ber. R. 39, comp also the Targums Pseudo-Jon. and Jerus. and Midr. on Cant. i. 3). The Talmud, differing in this from the Targumim, finds in Exod. ii. 5 a reference to the baptism of Pharaoh's daughter (Sotah 12 b, line 3; Megill. 13 a, line 11). In Shem. R. 27 Jethro is proved to have been a convert, from the circumstances that his original name had been Jether (Exod. iv. 18), an additional letter (Jethro). as in the case of Abraham, having been added to his name when became a proselyte (comp. also Zebhach. 116 a and Targum Ps.-Jon. on Exod. xviii. 6,27, Numb. xxiv. 21. To pass over other instances, we are pointed to Ruth (Targum on Ruth i. 10,15). and to Nebuzaradan, who is also described as a proselyte (Sanh. 96 b, line 19 form the bottom). But it is said that in the days of David and Solomon proselytes were not admitted by the Sanhedrin because their motives were suspected (Yeb. 76 a), or that at least they were closely, watched.

But although the baptism of proselytes seems thus far beyond doubt, Christian theologians have discussed the question, whether the rite was practised at the time of Christ, or only introduced after the destruction of the Temple and its Services, to take the place of the Sacrifice previously offered. The controversy, which owed its origin chiefly to dogmatic prejudices on the part of Lutherans, Calvinists, and Baptists, has since been continued on historical or quasi-historical grounds. The silence of Josephus and Philo can scarcely be quoted in favour of the later origin of the rite. On the other hand, it may be urged that, as Baptism did not take the place of sacrifices in any other instance, it would be difficult account for the origin of such a rite in connection with the admission of proselytes.

Again, if a Jew who had become Levitically defiled, required immersion, it is difficult to suppose that a heathen would have been admitted to all the services of the Sanctuary without a similar purification. But we have also positive testimony (which the objections of Winer, Keil, and Leyrer, in my opinion do not invalidate), that the baptism of proselytes existed in the time of Hillel and Shammai. For, whereas the school of Shammai is said to have allowed a proselyte who was circumcised on the eve of the Passover, to partake after baptism of the Passover, 1 the school of Hillel forbade it. This controversy must be regarded as providing that at that time (previous to Christ) the baptism of proselytes was customary 2 (Pes. viii. 8, Eduy. v. 2).

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