On page 162 of The Cambridge History of Christianity: Origins to Constantine, Wayne Meeks says the following:
three of the four canonical gospels recount Jesus' own baptism by John,
it is not connected expressly with Christian baptism until the early
second century, when Ignatius says that Jesus was baptised 'in order to
purify the water by his own submission [or suffering]' (Ign. Eph. 18.2)."
reason that this passage stood out to me is that I have wondered about
the relationship between the baptisms conducted by John the Baptist and
those conducted by early Christianity. As Meeks goes on to document,
early Christianity viewed baptism as a time when the initiate was united
with Christ in his death and resurrection, resulting in a new person.
But did it believe that John the Baptist's baptisms had this
significance, when they occurred way before Christ's death and
resurrection? This question first entered my mind when I was
following debates about whether or not baptism is required for
salvation. People who answer "no" appeal to the thief on the cross as
one who was saved without being baptized. There are a variety of
responses to this argument from those who answer "yes", but one that
I've heard is that we do not know for sure that the thief was not
baptized. After all, John the Baptist performed baptisms, as did Jesus'
disciples. But did such baptisms result in the death of the old man
and the birth of a new one? And if early Christianity's baptisms were
the first to have this significance, then perhaps people before the
death and resurrection of Jesus could be saved apart from water baptism.
I can't say that I understand what Ignatius is saying. Is
Ignatius' point that Jesus, by submitting to John's baptism, was
purifying the waters of John's baptism such that they could bring
forgiveness of sin? Or is his point that Jesus' passion----which was
yet to come----was being retroactively applied to the waters of John's
baptism when Jesus was baptized, thereby purifying them? Or is Ignatius
saying that Jesus purified the ritual of baptism itself----not so much
John's baptism? In this scenario, baptism before Jesus' death
accomplished something, but it was imperfect. Jesus, by his death and
resurrection, made baptism into a ritual of death and rebirth, meaning
that Christian baptism was an improvement upon John's baptism.
the Gospels and Acts, could John's baptism have anything to do with the
death and resurrection of Jesus, or Jesus, period? The synoptics
present baptism as a ritual that brings forgiveness, but there is no
reference to being united with Christ in his death and resurrection. In
the Gospel of John, John the Baptist appears to be aware that Jesus
will die, for he calls Jesus the lamb of God who takes away the sin of
the world. I realize that there is debate about whether John's Gospel
is anti-ritual, and that the Gospel of John does not mention the
significance of John's baptism, but I can understand why one could argue
that John the Baptist in John's Gospel baptizes in light of the coming
death of Christ.
In Acts 19, Paul appears to re-baptize people who
had only received John the Baptist's baptism. E.W. Bullinger, however,
interprets Acts 19 differently. He thinks that v 5 is still part of
Paul's speech: that Paul is saying that people were baptized by John in
the name of Jesus. This may or may not make sense, but there is a sense
in which Jesus was relevant to John's baptism, for John in the synoptic
Gospels was baptizing people in preparation for the coming of Jesus.
At the same time, if the people being baptized by John knew about the
significance of Jesus, why do Acts 18-19 present people who only
received John's baptism as essentially clueless about Jesus, which was
why they needed to be instructed by Christians?