On page 287 of Verus Israel (translated into the English by H. McKeating), Marcel Simon talks about how ancient Christians distinguished Jewish baptism from Christian baptism:
“Sometime when they use the word baptism they are thinking of the regular ablutions, which is why these authors sometimes emphasize, as a contrast between Jewish baptism and Christian, the fact that the Jewish rite is repeated. Most frequently they are thinking of proselyte baptism and purificatory baths at the same time. But they always put the Jewish rite and Christian baptism side by side, and set themselves to demonstrate the conspicuous superiority of the latter. The former can have no effect except on the body. Only Christian baptism is capable of purifying the soul. St. John Chrysostom does allow to Jewish baptism a religious value, which distinguishes it from the ordinary bath taken for hygienic reasons.”
Here are some thoughts about this:
1. The part about Jewish baptism only affecting the body, whereas Christian baptism purifies the soul, reminds me of what Josephus said about John the Baptist’s baptism in Antiquities 18:117: “for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness toward one another, and piety toward God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body: supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness” (Whiston’s translation).
The idea here seems to be that baptism purifies the body, whereas something else was necessary for the purification of the soul, namely, righteousness. Why would the body need to be purified, though? Is this referring to ritual purification?
2. The endnote for Simon’s claim that certain ancient Christians said that Jewish baptism only affects the body refers to Apostolic Constitutions 7.44. That includes the following (see here): “O Lord God, who is without generation, and without a superior, the Lord of the whole world, who has scattered the sweet odour of the knowledge of the Gospel among all nations, grant at this time that this ointment may be efficacious upon him that is baptized, that so the sweet odour of Your Christ may continue upon him firm and fixed; and that now he has died with Him, he may arise and live with Him. Let him say these and the like things, for this is the efficacy of the laying on of hands on every one; for unless there be such a recital made by a pious priest over every one of these, the candidate for baptism does only descend into the water as do the Jews, and he only puts off the filth of the body, not the filth of the soul. After this let him stand up, and pray that prayer which the Lord taught us. But, of necessity, he who is risen again ought to stand up and pray, because he that is raised up stands upright. Let him, therefore, who has been dead with Christ, and is raised up with Him, stand up.”
The idea here seems to be that, while Christian baptism is powerful because it entails becoming dead and rising again with Christ, it is not enough for the cleansing of the soul. Unless baptism is followed by the laying on of hands and prayer by a pious priest, it amounts to mere purification of the body, not cleansing of the soul.
3. The endnote for Simon’s statement that Chrysostom believed that Jewish baptism has religious value refers to Chrystostom’s Instruction to Catechumens 1:2, which includes the following (see here): “There is that laver by means of the baths, common to all men, which is wont to wipe off bodily uncleanness; and there is the Jewish laver, more honorable than the other, but far inferior to that of grace; and it too wipes off bodily uncleanness but not simply uncleanness of body, since it even reaches to the weak conscience. For there are many matters, which by nature indeed are not unclean, but which become unclean from the weakness of the conscience. And as in the case of little children, masks, and other bugbears are not in themselves alarming, but seem to little children to be alarming, by reason of the weakness of their nature, so it is in the case of those things of which I was speaking; just as to touch dead bodies is not naturally unclean, but when this comes into contact with a weak conscience, it makes him who touches them unclean. For that the thing in question is not unclean naturally, Moses himself who ordained this law showed, when he bore off the entire corpse of Joseph, and yet remained clean. On this account Paul also, discoursing to us about this uncleanness which does not come naturally but by reason of the weakness of the conscience, speaks somewhat in this way, ‘Nothing is common of itself save to him who accounts anything to be common.’ Romans 14:14. Do you not see that uncleanness does not arise from the nature of the thing, but from the weakness of the reasoning about it? And again: ‘All things indeed are clean, howbeit it is evil to that man who eats with offense.’ Romans 14:20. Do you see that it is not to eat, but to eat with offense, that is the cause of uncleanness?”
The idea here appears to be that Jewish rites of washing had the religious value of cleansing Jews’ weak consciences when they touched something that they considered to be impure, but which was not impure in itself.
4. There are passages in the New Testament about the purification of the body or flesh, and the purification of the conscience or soul. I’ll give you some samples. I Peter 3:21 (KJV): “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” Hebrews 10:22: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.” II Corinthians 7:1: “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”
What do these mean? There is a belief that the conscience needs to be cleansed. That makes sense to me: that our guilt needs to addressed. In I Peter 3:21, baptism is associated with that. But, at least in Hebrews 10:22 and II Corinthians 7:1, there is an acknowledgement that the body needs to be cleansed. Does that relate to ritual purity? Or are the passages saying there that the body needs to be pure, in terms of not engaging in sexual immorality? Sexual immorality is a prominent issue in I Corinthians.