From circumcision to baptism I

Por: diácono Orlando Fernández Guerra

In ancient times circumcision was practiced with ethnic and cultural meanings by the Egyptians, the Semites and many other peoples. The first mention in the Bible of this practice refers to God’s covenant of friendship with Abraham based on the promise of a land and a large offspring (Gen 17.10-14). Then he did not have the profound religious significance that would later be given to him. Thus, when Joshua circumcised all those born during desert transhumance, this only meant that he was part of that human community (Jos 5.2-9). Being circumcised was synonymous with truly being a man (1 Sa 17.26,36; Thu 14.3). But gradually circumcision begins to theologize into the sign of belonging to Israel, which, freed from slavery, makes a new Alliance in Sinai (Ex 4:20-26). Without being circumcised, you could not eat the Easter lamb (Ex 12:48). Therefore, the book of Leviticus established that all males from the age of eight should have their foreskin removed (Lev 12.3).
The sign is spiritualized with the prophets, already speaking of “circumcision of the heart” (Jer 4.4; Ez 44.7), for Israel had fallen into the temptation to believe that the physical sign was sufficient to enjoy the Lord’s promises. Priestly literature invites a constant conversion of the heart which is translated by an exclusive love for Yahweh and the practice of fraternal charity (Lev 26.41; Dt 10.12-22; 30.6). By the 1st century, near the Jerusalem Temple, there was a courtyard dedicated to the uncircuten Gentiles who went up to the city to worship the God of Israel; provided that they respected – under the death penalty – the prohibition of exceeding the limits of that area.
On the other hand, ablutions with water are a rite used by various peoples and with many meanings. The Jews also practiced them and appear repeatedly in the Old Testament among the Mosaic purification laws (Ex 29.4,17; 30.17-21; 40.12,30; Lev 1.9,13; 6.27; 9.14; 11.25; 14.8-9,47; 15.5-27; No. 8.7; 19.7-21; 31.23-24; Dt 21.6; 23.11). The story of Naaman the Syrian is well known, demonstrating how important these ritual baths were in Israel and the Jordan River as the setting for many of them (2 D 5.14). Even the Bible of the LXX – of the Seventy, also known as the Septuagint – used by the Jews of the diaspora in the Greek language, refers to these purifications twice with the term “baptism” (2 Re 5.14; Is 21.4). Water purifications, circumcision and animal sacrifices completed the process of insertion into Judaism of new proselytes from different peoples, making them members of the same covenant (Ez 36.25; Jer 4.14; Zac 13.1; Come out 51.9). The Estonians living in Qumrán also used this practice in their religious life as attested to both the dead sea scrolls and the various ponds discovered in the archaeological excavations carried out in the ruins of their community in the desert.
The baptism of John the Baptist on the bank of Jordan, while possessing some similarities with the legal ablutions of the Jews and with the initiation rites of the proselytes, distinguished himself from these because it required new moral behavior. It was a penitential expression in order to convert the heart and the remission of sins (Mk 1:4; Lk 3-4; Mt 3.11). And in preparation for a new baptism that would come later practiced by the Messiah: “I baptize them with water, but He will baptize them with the Holy Ghost and fire” (Mk 1.8). Judaism knew the idea of a immersion in water that gave life through the Spirit (Is 44.3; Ez 47.7). Therefore, what the religious authorities question John the Baptist is not the validity of his gesture, but the authority with which he performs it: “Why, therefore, do you baptize, if it is not you the Christ neither Elijah nor the prophet?” (Jn 1.19-27).
From the Gospels we know that Jesus was circumcised eight days after he was born (Lk 2:21). Just as we assume that the apostles and the first Christians being all Jews would be circumcised since they were children. So would the Christians of the first generation of believers who would come from Judea or Galilee. The problem begins when the Gentiles accept the Savior in Jesus as a result of Christian missionary work. The expansion of Christianity in the different regions of the Empire had been very rapid in obeying the Lord’s missionary mandate (Mk 16:15; Mt 28. 19-20; Lk 24.47). Among the first converts were the Hellenistic Jews. Then the “God-fearing” and later the heathen of the poorest classes of the Roman Empire. All were added to the community by receiving the Holy Ghost and being baptized (Acts 10.47-48). Ω

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