Some Thoughts on Nephite Baptism

Nephite baptism is to me quite mysterious. We know they do it but the practice seems to evolve over time a fair bit. It’s worth noting the differences between baptism in Palestine and among the Nephites. First, the baptism of John the Baptist is quite mysterious. While the common assumption is that it arises out of the form of Judaism the Essenes practiced, the details are controversial. Ritual immersions were actually quite common in Judaism but, unlike in Christianity, were not just for conversion. Indeed baptism for conversion seems a rather late development. As late as the Maccabee era circumcision was the the token of the covenant and required for conversion. Many scholars argue that before period of the exile there wasn’t any real conversion at all within Judaism.[1] Later during the rabbinical period a type of mikveh (ritual washing by immersion in special fonts) became part of the conversion process. While there really is a paucity of data for pre-exilic Jewish conversion, Nephite baptism does appear out of character.

It’s worth noting that while baptism seems unusual before John, the idea of immersion for ritual washings was part of the law of Moses. Exactly how much of that Leviticus code developed during and after the exile isn’t clear. The more traditional Jewish mikvahs are done for numerous reasons and aren’t quite so limited the way we think of baptism. The high priest would ritually immerse himself at least three times a year for the Day of Atonement (doing it five times during the day), Day of Pentecost and Feast of the Tabernacles. It’s also done for other reasons such as ritually cleansing for women after menstruation or men for seminal fluids. In the Torah it marks a move from unclean to purity although we have to keep in mind that uncleanliness wasn’t always tied to sin but often was simply tied to bodily fluids (male or female) or illness. In modern Judaism one does a mikvah prior to marriage for instance. Also unlike baptism, typically one did the mikveh oneself, rather than having it administered to oneself.

This notion of ritual cleaning by water might explains one of the oddities of Alma’s baptism. In Mosiah 18 he baptizes himself at the same time he baptizes someone else. That seems alien to us but is closer to the traditional notion of a mikveh. While mikveh are typically tied to purification they don’t usually get associated with a covenant. The key symbol of the covenant, at least in post-exilic times, was circumcision. However early on Book of Mormon baptism is tied to a covenant. (See for example Alma 7:15 which significantly inspires the Mormon view of baptism) An other big difference in the Book of Mormon is the notion of authority for baptism whereas under the law, outside of certain priestly duties, one did the cleansing oneself. This is a key Mormon concept somewhat alien even to much of Christianity.

My guess is that the covenant language of baptism comes out of King Benjamin’s famous last address. There he doesn’t associate mikveh with the covenant but blood. (See for instance Mosiah 3:11, 15, 18) Some have speculated that Benjamin’s address was done on the Feast of the Tabernacles.[2] If so, then the priest (presumably Benjamin) would have engaged in multiple mikvehs as part of the process. Yet Benjamin doesn’t talk about that and instead talks about calling on God’s name for a remission of sins. The climax of his speech is a covenant (Mosiah 5:5) tied with taking Christ’s name that the people take up. This covenant language repeats through the Book of Mormon forming the basis of Alma’s baptism in Mosiah 18 and the sacrament prayer. It’s crucial to note though that for Benjamin that the covenant simply isn’t tied to baptism nor any water imagery.

This is not to deny that baptism is important before Benjamin. However the context is quite different. First Lehi learns that Christ will be baptized (1 Ne 10:9) then Nephi in his vision sees the baptism of Jesus by John. While we can’t assume Lehi’s understanding of the Law is the same that we find in the second temple period in Jerusalem, it’s fair to guess that he recognizes this as a mikveh. When Nephi then talks about baptism it isn’t quite the same way we think of it as a covenant, but is purely an emulation of what Jesus does. We witness we’re willing to take the name of Christ by “following [our] Lord and [our] Savior down into the water” (2 Ne 31:13) Now this taking the name is the one place where Benjamin and Nephi have overlap. Nephi does explicitly see the purification aspect of baptism that was common to the mikveh in the Law of Moses. (2 Ne 31:4-8) However the emphasis every time he speaks of it isn’t as an ordinance on its own but as a sign that we are following him and humbling ourselves.[3]

The two threads come together with Abinadi. Abinadi is quite the mystery in that we have no idea where he comes from. It’s probably safe to assume that he was present for Benjamin’s address since Abinadi quotes or paraphrases it regularly.[4] It’s Abinadi who converts Alma (although Alma was a priest – but to a corrupt and possibly syncretic form of the Law of Moses) and it’s Alma who gives us our conception of baptism in Mosiah 18. Alma seems to tie baptism to Abinadi’s Christology. The opening of Mosiah 15 takes up Nephi’s conception of Christ suffering the will of the Father, albeit in an even stronger sense. Abinadi’s focus is on who Christ’s seed is, using extensive reference to Isaiah. His idea appears that to take Christ’s name is akin to how Christ takes the Father’s name.

After Abinadi’s death, Alma takes up Abinadi’s words, mixing extensive aspects of King Benjamin’s speech with the idea of baptism in Mosiah 18. Following Nephi’s use, the baptism is a witness of what we are to do. But Alma intertwines the idea of imitating Christ in baptism with the covenant Benjamin’s people make.

…what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him…

It’s worth noting here that while later rabbinical Judaism uses a mikveh as the final step of conversion, there is no sense of covenant making. In post-exilic Judaism prior to the rise of rabbinical Judaism it appears that circumcision is the sign of the covenant. There are even indications that circumcision was required of converts. The origins of John’s baptism are more mysterious. The typical view is that it was an extension of the form of Judaism practiced by the Essenes and tied to a mikveh for ritual cleansing. But again, it’s not clear it’s for entering a covenant. We think of baptism as entering into a covenant, but this comes out of Alma and not the Palestinian church.

Going back to Benjamin, there is an interesting way in which Benjamin’s speech as a Sukkot or feast of the tabernacles might be related to baptism.[5] The feast of the tabernacles is in memory of the wandering in the wilderness as Moses led them from Egypt to the promised land. While a later change to the Book of Mormon, Joseph modified Nephi’s quotation of Isaiah 48 to the following:

Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah, or out of the waters of baptism, who swear by the name of the Lord and make mention of the God of Israel, yet they swear not in truth nor in righteousness.

This change makes the crossing of the river Jordan symbolically into a type of baptism. Note that in the Sukkot there are nightly water drawing ceremonies. While we can’t be sure that matches the form among the middle Nephites, it is possible. No strong water imagery is found in Benjamin’s address though. Yet it’s hard not to read Nephi seeing the crossing of the Jordan as a type of baptism as entering into the promised land after being purified. The culmination of Sukkot is the Great Salvation or Hoshaana Rabbah. This is the day when the judgment issued on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is finalized. It is the end of judgment. It’s quite possible that when Benjamin brings people to the covenant that it is ritually tied to entering into the land of promise in the Exodus pattern. Except that for Benjamin this is taking Christ’s name. Symbolically it is the entering into heaven by becoming like Christ.

[1] See for instance Shaye Cohen argues in From the Maccabees to the Mishnah “The central ritual of conversion was circumcision. This practice, quite common in the ancient Orient (Jer 9:24-25), figures prominently in only a few sections of the Bible . . . All these passages assign some unusual importance to circumcision, but the Bible as a whole generally ignores it and nowhere regards it as the essential mark of Jewish identity or as the sine qua non for membership in the Jewish polity. It attained this status only in Maccabean times . . . For the Maccabees, circumcision was such an essential component of Jewish identity that upon conquering various sections of the holy land they incorporated the inhabitants into the Jewish polity, a step that meant first and foremost circumcision . . . By the end of the first century BCE, circumcision was widely known to the Greeks and Romans as a typically (though not exclusively) Jewish practice.” (43-44)

[2] See John A. Tvedtnes, “King Benjamin and the Feast of Tabernacles,” in By Study and Also By Faith and Terrence L. Szink and John W. Welch, “King Benjamin’s Speech in the Context of Ancient Israelite Festivals,” in King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom,”

[3] I should add that Nephi does see it as commanded, as he says in 2 Ne 31:11-12 but he seems to see this as something new and the emphasis is to “follow me, and do the things which ye have seen me do.”

[4] See Gordon C. Thomasson, “Mosiah: The Complex Symbolism and Symbolic Complex of Kingship in the Book of Mormon” and Adam Anderson “Exploring and Explaining the Intertextual Relationship between King Benjamin and Abinadi.”

[5] The Sukkot is mandated in Deuteronomy 31:10-13. It’s worth noting that some see the Book of Deuteronomy as developing around the time of Josiah and thus close in time to Lehi.

9 comments for “Some Thoughts on Nephite Baptism

  1. Northern Virginia
    May 23, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    Clark, thanks for the interesting post. On a related note, do you have any speculation as to what Nephite temple rites were? Similar at all to the instructions found in the Torah or something different altogether?

    I seem to recall (whether from a class or some instruction manual) that the assumption is that Nephi and his descendants officiated using the Melchizedek priesthood. Not sure how I feel about that assertion, but it’s interesting to contemplate New World non-Levite Israelites trying to replicate rites that they’ve never witnessed with instruction from a man who was 14 or 15 the last time he was in Jerusalem.

  2. Hedgehog
    May 23, 2017 at 1:13 pm

    This is really interesting. I shall be pondering it for some time. Thank you.

  3. lemuel
    May 23, 2017 at 1:24 pm

    Good stuff. I wonder if baptism isn’t the covenant, but rather something that follows the covenant?

    “Helam, I baptize thee, having authority from the Almighty God, as a testimony that ye *have entered* into a covenant”

  4. Clark Goble
    May 23, 2017 at 2:52 pm

    Oh whoops. That wasn’t ready to post. My apologies. I quickly finished it up. But I’d hoped to have an other day of rewrites. C’est la vie. I’ll have an other addition to it soon.

  5. Clark Goble
    May 23, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    Virginia, I tend to assume that the temple as Nephi saw it was fairly different in details from what we get with the second temple after the exile. Part of that is because there are already clear differences in early Nephite practice and post-exilic practice possibly tied to the rise of the Deuteronomist movement around the time of Josiah. A lot of that is speculative though and there’s no real consensus among scholars.

    Some people have latched on to Margaret Barker’s ideas about the temple in the period around Jeremiah and Josiah. (Kevin Barney has written a fair bit using Barker) Barker tends to see the Deuteronomists as centralizing the religious cult so that only practice in Jerusalem was accepted. In the Old Testament you see some of that tension surviving the redactions in the post-exilic period when the canon was finalized. So the high places are condemned, in part because of their use in syncristic worship. Yet Lehi and Nephi have no trouble following the pattern of sacrifice in high places and other alters more akin to what you see with Abraham or Moses. Barker suspects that the divinine feminine in this period gets removed due to the connection with Baal worship. Yet most scholars assume that at some point in pre-exilic Israel the divine pantheon was much closer in similarity to the Canaanite pantheon with a heavenly mother. The removal of the high places outside of the centralized temple was often seen as tied to the divine mother. A few apologists have argued that these earlier traditions are present in the Book of Mormon in the form Nephi’s vision takes. A lot of the description of the Tree of Life as well as Mary have elements of the divine feminine in them.

    As to the rites themselves, it’s hard to say what develops when. Most of the evidence we have is from after the exile when the various traditions are more solidified. The Book of Mormon doesn’t really specify much. The closes we get is Alma 12-14 but that’s really vague. We know that whatever is going on, that there’s an early tradition of imitating Christ. With Mosiah 15 we have something very similar to Merkebah literature such as in 3 Enoch. Yet obviously this is after 400 years of Nephite and Palestinian Jewish evolution. So what these Merkabah traditions (often tied to kingship and being made a priest) were like for Nephi isn’t clear. The emphasis for both Benjamin and Abinadi is taking Christ’s name in an apparently quasi-mystic and covenant fashion. Is that new among the Nephites or does it reflect something Lehi held? It’s hard to say. I’m going to touch upon a few speculations in my next post.

    Your point about priests is worth commenting on too. The Deuteronomists, as I mention, centralize the cult in Jerusalem presumably elevating the place of the Levitical tribe. Lehi and Nephi clearly practice sacrifice independent of the Levitical priesthood. The question of how the Law of Moses was practiced without Levites is a traditional question of the Book of Mormon. There have been lots of speculations ranging from they brought a Levite with them to the old distinction between the Sons of Levi and the Sons of Moses having two rival priesthoods. In this case the Nephites take the Sons of Moses tradition that has only hints in the existing Old Testament as a rival priesthood. (Interesting the Sons of Moses make a reappearance in D&C 84) The paper “Priestly Lineages in History and Rhetoric” is worth reading on this.

  6. May 23, 2017 at 7:25 pm

    If Nephi saw the baptism of Christ, in a physical sense, could he have started performing baptisms from that point on, not as how he learned them, but as how he saw John and Christ do it?
    If you’re in a vision, and the heavenly messenger says “This is the baptism you’re supposed to be modeling” wouldn’t you change how you do it, to match the vision?

  7. Clark Goble
    May 24, 2017 at 9:25 am

    Jader, that’s exactly what I think happened. The question is that if he saw it, how would he interpret it symbolically and in terms of salvic theology. I think how we conceive of baptism is reasonably different from what was in Palestine even though clearly we’re highly influenced by the New Testament. So we see the symbolism of the death and rebirth. What’s interesting to me is that the Book of Mormon gives us additional symbolism of the exodus pattern, the emphasis of imitating Christ, and the strong emphasis of becoming his seed as we enter into the new covenant. Those last elements are in the New Testament but I think are given a stronger emphasis in the Book of Mormon.

    To me the most interesting symbolism you don’t really find as strong in the New Testament (although elements are there) is the exodus pattern. That makes a lot of sense in terms of our particular understanding of the plan of salvation. We wander in the wilderness then baptism is the imitation of Christ that brings us to the promised land that is the kingdom of God.

  8. Franklin
    May 24, 2017 at 4:11 pm

    Thanks, Clark. Interesting ideas. Any thoughts on the notion that, theologically, the Book of Mormon progresses along a translation rather than a historical timeline? Meaning that since 2 Nephi was translated quite a while after Mosiah, it is more theologically advanced, even though it is historically prior? Could this explain why baptism is a nonissue for Benjamin, and why baptism is less developed for Alma than for Nephi?

  9. Clark
    May 24, 2017 at 4:29 pm

    I’m open to that possibility. Presumably Joseph was still learning how to translate and the 116 lost pages may have seemed somewhat more primitive in certain aspects of translation. But by and large it seems a common aspect of the translation was to simply quote KJV passages from Joseph’s mind to translate similar ideas. I suspect most of the variants that people find from the KJV are accidental. However in some cases perhaps there were important variants, such as in this quotation of Isaiah 48. (Even though this was done after initial publication)

    However I don’t think theological sophistication which seems more conceptual rather than translational develops. I say that since from my perspective the most sophisticated parts theologically are Mosiah and the first half of Alma. While there are some sophisticated typology in 2 Nephi that seems a different issue.

    While one could argue relative to baptism a development, the problem is that 2 Nephi baptism is less developed than what we see in Mosiah 18 onwards. Also if we’re going with the translation rather than composition model I’d not expect that to appear.

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