From long before Jesus gave the command to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19)—even before John the Baptist came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4)—the Jews have used baptism or immersion1 for many reasons: to receive new converts, as preparation to enter the Temple, and after contact with a dead body. Women also sought immersion just before being married and following their menstrual periods.2
In contrast to current Christian practice, Jewish baptisms have always been self-administered: a person stood alone in the water (often in the presence of one or more witnesses), immersed himself, and then emerged in a state of purity before God. These baptisms could be performed in a body of water such as a river, a lake, or even the sea, but they could also be done in a specially constructed pool called a mikveh. Hundreds of such pools, dating back to the first century, have been found by archeologists working in Israel.3
Because baptism was already an important part of Jewish religion andculture, no one ever accused John of introducing an innovation to the sacred traditions of Judaism. Jesus was never criticized for the fact that His disciples were baptizing,4 and the Apostles were never challenged or questioned about the call to “Repent and be baptized.”5 No one had to ask how or why baptisms should be done, because immersion was already a well-known, well-received, and well-loved custom of the Jews.
With this in mind, is it reasonable to consider that 15:29 may be referring not to what we might think of as Christian baptism, but to an older Jewish tradition—specifically, the preparation of the dead for burial? Part of this preparation process involved a baptism or, more correctly, a final cleansing and purification for an individual who had died in the hope of the Resurrection and with the expectation that they would soon stand before God.6 Since the various explanations of 15:29 have been so unsatisfactory and unconvincing, would it not be worthwhile to consider something actually based in the history and culture of the Jews?
While there are no Biblical instructions regarding any such customs, the Jewish Talmud does contain the record of the traditions that developed during the centuries before Christ. These included various ceremonial washings as well as instructions about preparing the dead for interment. This practice is apparently mentioned in the New Testament regarding the death of a Christian woman named Tabitha; “About that time, she became sick and died, and her body was washed7 and placed in an upstairs room” (Acts 9:37). We know the early Christians did not give up their Jewish culture, nor were they required to do so, but naturally continued in the traditions and practices that seemed right and godly to them. Likewise, as a trained Rabbi, Paul was knowledgeable and experienced in the customs of Judaism.8 Without a doubt, this would have included the traditions associated with death and mourning.
The Jewish practice of preparing the body for burial is known as Taharah, which means “purification.” Not just the practical washing of a dead body, it is preparing a person to stand before God clean, pure, and dressed in appropriate clothing. It is done with such solemnity and great care about the privacy and dignity of the deceased that observers (especially family members) are not allowed to be present. One important detail is that the Taharah ceremony involves two very different and separate washings. After the body is carefully washed and groomed, the deceased then receives the final cleansing or purification through total immersion or the uninterrupted pouring of water from head to toe.9 Complete with prayers and scripture readings, Taharah is indeed a holy exercise that proclaims and affirms the hope of the Resurrection.10
 “Baptism” is rarely used by Jews because of the association with Christianity. The preferred term in Judaism is immersion.
 Maurice Lamm, Becoming a Jew (Middle Village, New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 1991), p.156ff
 Ferguson, p. 64 (See also footnote 27 on that page)
 John 4:1-2
 Acts 2:38
 Job 19:25-27, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”
 The word here translated “wash,” (Greek = luo) refers to completely bathing the body and is used as a synonym for baptism numerous places in the Bible (Acts 22:16, Ephesians 5:26, Titus 3:5, and Hebrews 10:22; see also 2 Kings 5:13-14 in the Septuagint).
 The Apostle Paul, as a well-educated Rabbi, was knowledgeable and experienced in the customs of Judaism. He did not outright reject certain Jewish rituals, such as: circumcision, vows, and purification rites, but used them as he saw fit for the sake of the Gospel (see Acts 16:1-5, 21:20-26, and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
 Details about Taharah may be gleaned from the Internet, but a full and clear explanation can be found in The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, by Maurice Lamm, 1969, Jonathan David Publishers. See “APPENDIX – The Preparations of the Remains: A Guide for theChevra Kadisha,” pages 239ff.
 Taharah is also known as a Chesed Shel Emet (a true act of kindness) because it is a ministry of love that involves doing something important on behalf of someone who can no longer do it for themselves. As such, it is a deep and meaningful act of worship on the part of those who participate.
Copyright © 2022, Robert D. Claiborne