In the gospels, John the Baptist's ministry of baptism was "for the remission of sin." But in Josephus, it's for the purification of the body after moral repentance already occurred.

Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119

He was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. For immersion in water, it was clear to him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions.

Thinking about why Josephus would say "it was clear" to John that immersion was not for the remission of sin, I surmise that this is related to the fact that immersion - a common practice in Judaism - was and still is used for purification from ritual uncleanness, not sin. For sins, sacrifice was required; and in order to visit the Temple, people should be ritually clean.

Christians will no doubt reject the idea that Josephus should be believed over the testimony of the gospels. But is there is a way in which Josephus' view and that of the NT can be reconciled?

  • 1
    I don't see any contradiction. Water cannot make anyone clean, it's an outward ritual for inward purity of repentance and righteousness. Baptism wasn't just for ritual bathing but for purity n healing from diseases like the examples of sick people wanting to baptise in the Pool of Siloam etc. Christians shouldn't blindly follow any text as scripture. The Gospels are as much independent history as Josephus.
    – Michael16
    Oct 6, 2023 at 6:15
  • Josephus specifically says John's baptism is not for the forgiveness of sins but purify the body. There may be a way to harmonize Jos. with the Gospels but I don't see it in your comment. Oct 7, 2023 at 15:06

3 Answers 3


It should not surprise anyone that the purpose and function of baptism varies among Christians. Josephus simply reports what he understands from some Christian group with whom he had spoken. I am sure that ideas surrounding baptism were almost as varied at the end of the first century (with the rise of Gnosticism, Monarchianism, Nestorianism, etc.) as now. For example, various Christian denominations/groups believe Baptism is:

  • a sacrament
  • an ordinance
  • necessary for membership of the church
  • necessary for becoming a follower of Jesus
  • necessary for repentance
  • necessary for starting a sanctified life
  • required for the reception of the Holy Spirit
  • variously administered by immersion, affusion, sprinkling, or not at all
  • using water that is "living" (i.e., running in a river), or still, or consecrated by an "ordained" (properly authorized) cleric, etc.

For a brief survey of the various practices and beliefs surrounding baptism.

Indeed, historically, the number of disputes arising from the details of baptism is second only to those associated with communion. This is despite the embarrassing fact for many of the protagonists in these disputes that the Bible is silent about many of these matters.

Thus, if Josephus claims that some Christians (in his time) believed that the function of baptism -

could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions

... I am not surprised at all. I simply read this as part of the spectrum of understanding that existed then, with similar ideas perpetuated to the present.

For completeness only, I list the references in the NT that touch the subject of baptism in the NT.

APPENDIX - Baptism in the NT

Early historical records indicate that John the Baptist used the early Jewish practice of baptizing converts as a public demonstration of their commitment to a new way of life. This rite was used in the early church in an almost identical way with a slightly expanded significance about which the New Testament has much to say. Let us note the following about the rite of baptism.

  • The word baptism comes from the Greek verb, baptizo, meaning to dip or immerse and “was used among the Greeks to signify the dying of a garment, or the drawing of water by dipping a vessel into another, etc.” [W E Vine, “Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words”, Oliphants, London, 1978] Thus, when a person is baptized, it indicates a complete immersion. See below and 2 Kings 5:14 in the Septuagint. [The word had expanded idiomatic meanings including: “wash the hands” (by dipping them) Matt 15:1, 2, Luke 11:38; “go through a difficult trial” Mark 10:38, 39, Luke 12:50.] This immersion signified being buried with Christ. Rom 6:4. When a cloth was “baptized” to dye it, a complete change (in color) was effected.
  • Baptism, expanding on the above idea, is sometimes expressed as a “death” (and burial) to the old way of life and a resurrection to a new way of life in Christ. Rom 6:4-9, 1 Cor 10:2, 12:13, 14, Gal 3:27, Col 2:12, 13, 1 Peter 3:21. Thus baptism was used as an outward symbol of inner conversion or setting apart of the Christian's life for Christian duty to Christ.
  • Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Matt 3:6, 13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21, 22; and Philip baptized in another way-side river, Acts 8:36-38, but there is no description of exactly how the rite was administered.
  • The apostles and disciples practiced the rite of Baptism. John 3:22, 23, 4:1, Acts 8:36, 38, 1 Cor 1:14, 16.
  • Baptism symbolized repentance (i.e., a change of life direction, i.e., conversion) and was accompanied by confession and a “washing” away of (i.e., turning away from) sin. In some places, the metaphor of spiritual death and resurrection is used to describe what baptism represents in the Christian life. Mark 1:4, 5, Luke 3:3, 7-12, 7:29, 30, Acts 2:38, 13:24, 16:15, 33, 19:4, 5, 22:16, Rom 6:4, Gal 3:27. (See also 1 Cor 6:11.)
  • Thus, baptism is necessarily associated with teaching about Christ in order to learn about the rights and responsibilities of baptism and the completely new Christian life as a disciple, imitating Christ. Matt 28:19, 20, Acts 2:38, 41, 8:26-39, 16:15, 18:8.
  • Baptism also symbolized the reception of the gift(s) of the Holy Spirit, Matt 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, Acts 1:5, 2:38, 8:12-16, 10:47, 48, 11:16, 19:4, 5.
  • The New Testament is silent about who should, and how to administer the rite of Baptism other than the example of the disciples. However, we note that all Christians are to be Disciples of Christ, and all are instructed to baptize (Matt 28:19, 20).
  • On occasions, the early church practiced rebaptism, Acts 19:1-7.
  • There is no evidence that baptism was a sacrament in the sense of being essential to salvation and imparting grace. Baptism appears to have been an outward symbol of the inner change of life which should have already occurred at conversion.
  • Historical Note: The early Christian document, “Didache”, (about 150 AD??) describes the process of baptism of a neophyte as done after instruction and preferably by immersion, but where a river or pool is unavailable, poring was permissible. See Didache 7:1-3.
  • +1... very helpful but why presume that he spoke to Christian groups rather than remnant followers of John? Or do you think his movement had basically disappeared by that time? (I note there are still believers who follow what they think are the teachings of John but do not accept Jesus.) As I mentioned in the Q, I also wonder about the Jewish practice of immersion/baptism, since this agrees with Josephus that it purifies the body from ritual defilement rather than that it is for the remission of sin. Oct 5, 2023 at 23:15
  • @DanFefferman - we obviously do not know who Josephus spoke to, whether Christians or John's followers or someone else such as Gnostics. Thus, all that can be said is that such a belief existed in the time of Josephus, but by how many and whom, we cannot say.
    – Dottard
    Oct 5, 2023 at 23:49
  • We also don't know whether he understood what they meant to say, or reported it honestly. Both are major issues in reading documents.
    – Mary
    Oct 6, 2023 at 3:11
  • @Mary - fully agree.
    – Dottard
    Oct 6, 2023 at 3:26
  • Sorry to belabor the point, but the idea that baptism/immersion is used to purify the body (from ritual impurity, not from sin) is a standard Jewish idea... no need for Josephus to speak to Christians about it. So the more likely question for me is whether Josephus projected his own view of the ritual onto John's practice or derived it from the teaching of the Baptist himself, since his ministry was apparently well known. Oct 6, 2023 at 13:52

There is no contradiction. You misunderstood the quote.

For immersion in water... could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions.

Josephus writes that it was clear that water itself was never believed to cleanse sins, as though sin is a stain on the flesh, a matter or disease as the Gnostics believed humans are born with the stain of sin on their flesh, and you can wash it away with water with chanting of some charms, some of them believe sin cannot be removed and is a permanent part of the unholy creation, unlike the Biblical view of good creation of God.

The Gnostics, for example, taught that the flesh was sinful in and of itself. Hans Jonas said that in Gnosticism, “The human body is of devilish substance and – in this trait exceeding the general derogation of the universe – also of a devilish design.” Because the Gnostic’s viewed the flesh as a sinful substance, they denied that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, and that is why the Scriptures called them “antichrist” (1 Jn. 4:3, 2 Jn. 1:7). “And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is the spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world” (1 Jn. 4:3). “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist” (2 Jn. 1:7).

Gnosticism believes that sin is the substance of the body, which is inherited at conception, so that man is born sinful or with a sinful nature. The Early Church, on the other hand, taught that sin was a free choice of the will, which is originated by the individual. The Gnostics taught that man was sinful by nature, while the Early Church taught that man was sinful by choice.

If water could cleanse from sins, then there must be some magical charm in the special water, as believed by pagans like Hindus for their baptism in holy rivers which they worship as goddesses. Sin, according to the Jewish theology is a spiritual and moral disobedience and transgression from God's laws (Ezekiel 18 and 33) from which one repents and begs spiritual purification from God like the water washing. Thus, the purpose of John's baptism was indeed to receive cleansing from sins and wasn't unusual, but water purification is just an analogy in a ritual. The ritual itself is not necessarily observed by sinners, but the righteous may also observe it to recommit their mission of obtaining higher and continuous holiness.

The Jewish obsession with cleanliness is founded in their doctrine that sin is the root cause of all problems, and believers ought to be clean. The priestly rituals and even the washing of hands before eating comes from the same core doctrines which. The Fausset's Bible dictionary states on Baptism:

Baptisms in the sense of purifications were common in the Old Testament The "divers washings" (Greek "baptisms") are mentioned in Heb 9:10, and "the doctrine of baptisms," Heb 6:2. The plural" baptisms" is used in the wider sense, all purifications by water; as of the priest's hands and feet in the laver outside before entering the tabernacle, in the daily service (Exo 30:17-21); of the high priest's flesh in the holy place on the day of atonement (Lev 16:23); of persons ceremonially unclean (Leviticus 14; 15; Lev 16:26-28; Lev 17:15; Lev 22:4-6), a leper, one with an issue, one who ate that which died of itself, one who touched a dead body, the one who let go the scape-goat or buried the ashes of the red heifer, of the people before a religious festival (Exo 19:10; Joh 11:55). The high priest's consecration was threefold: by baptism, unction, and sacrifice (Exo 29:4; Exo 40:12-15; Leviticus 8). "Baptism" in the singular is used specially of the Christian rite. Jewish believers passed naturally from the Old Testament baptismal purifications, through John's transitional baptism, to Christian baptism and the subsequent laying on of hands, accompanied with the Holy Spirit (Act 8:12; Act 8:14-17). The spiritual sense of ceremonial baptisms was recognized in the Old Testament (Psa 26:6; Psa 51:2; Psa 51:7; Psa 73:13; Isa 1:16; Isa 4:4; Jer 4:14; Zec 13:1.)

Ceremonial washings had been multiplied by tradition, before the Lord's coming (Mar 7:3-4). Even the Gentile Pilate washed his hands to symbolize his innocence of Jesus' blood. The Targum of Jonathan on Exo 12:44 is the earliest authority for the common notion that the Jews baptized male (besides circumcising them) and female proselytes. No notice of such a custom occurs in Philo, Josephus, or the Targum of Onkelos; the commonness of such ceremonial purifications makes it a probable one.


Ps 26:6 I wash my hands in innocence and go around your altar, O LORD,
Ps 51:2 ​Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
Ps 51:7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Ps 73:13 All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.
Isa 1:16-17 ​Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.
Isa 4:4 when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.
Jer 4:14 O Jerusalem, wash your heart from evil, that you may be saved. How long shall your wicked thoughts lodge within you?
Zech 13:1 “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness. (ESV)

  • Josephus says that it is not a baptism of forgiveness because it is performed "only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions." This seems at odds with the Gospel teaching. I'm not suggesting that Josephus is characterizing John as a gnostic. I'm suggesting he was referring to the Jewish tradition of Leviticus, that bodies that he become ritually impure needed to be bathed in water. Ritual impurity is not a stain of sin... for that, sacrifice was required. What am I missing? Oct 8, 2023 at 4:57
  • My answer didn't suggest that Jewish concept of ritual impurity relates to Gnostic beliefs of counting matter and soul as sinful. The rituals themselves cannot purify unless repentance, change of heart has been done. Or repentance is more important than ritual. See the topics on Amos 5:21-27; Hos. 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Isa. 1:11-17; Jer. 6:20; 7:21-22)
    – Michael16
    Oct 8, 2023 at 5:15

Josephus preserves for us an early non-messianic Jewish voice on this matter, and so we should not expect it to be the same as Christian teachings. If he held that baptism did effect the forgiveness of sins, he would be a Christian himself!

I would call this passage fascinating for exactly this reason - why would an author say what baptism does not do? This passage reads to me as a response to a known claim of his time: the claim of Christians that baptism is the means of forgiveness of sins through the blood of Jesus.

There is no 'contradiction' here as such, the fact Josephus says this is not a means of forgiveness demonstrates that others of his time claimed that it is, or why else should he say it? Effectively it reads as a non-Christian apologetic against Christian perspectives.

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