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Infant Baptism in Judaism?

I’m grateful to Weekend Fisher for bringing up the subject of Jewish proselyte baptism, particularly that of the infant children of adult converts to Judaism. Although I’m mostly spent on the subject, having outlined my reasons for believing churches that practice believers baptism should nonetheless accept the infant baptisms of those who wish to join their fellowships, it is worth responding to WF’s post for two reasons: (1) the analogy of Jewish proselyte baptism is clearly relevant to the understanding of early church practice, and (2) I have great respect for WF as a blogger and a Christian, and her point therefore deserves a thoughtful response.

The most important rabbinic citation WF offers comes from the Babylonian Talmud (Ketuboth 11a). As to the matter of acting on behalf of children of proselytes to baptize them, the rabbis concluded:

Surely we have learned this already: One may act for a person in his absence to his advantage, but one cannot act for a person in his absence to his disadvantage!

This is the most important citation because, unlike the other citation which simply establishes the antiquity of Jewish proselyte baptism, it comes in the context of the earliest explicit reference to the baptism of a very young child in all the rabbinic corpus. The context is the lifetime of Rab Huna, who died in AD 297. Thus, we are dealing with a rabbinic precedent first explicitly expressed some time in the second half of the third century.

The situation was this: a child’s father had died, and his mother wanted him to become a proselyte. It is clear from the context that the child was too young to answer for himself. Huna counseled that his proselyte baptism be allowed “according to the judgment of the court.” His rationale is what is quoted above: an advantage can be applied to a person without his or her knowing it. Note also that administering such a baptism was not a “given” in that era; at this late date it was still a question that required deliberation among the rabbis.

A later passage gives a statement from one of Rab Huna’s pupils to the effect that a foundling child should receive proselyte baptism‚ even if rescued in Israel‚ lest the child be of heathen parentage (Jeremias, Die Kintertaufe, 46). This halachah is quoted from Rab Hithqiya, who attributed it to Rab Abba (d. AD 247), and thus also comes from the third century, although somewhat earlier than the Huna citation.

I am prepared to believe that infant baptism arose in the early church at least in part because of the cross pollination of Christianity and Judaism in the formative period of both religions. But Judaism was also developing, especially after AD 70, and perhaps the development here goes in the other direction. In other words, might it have been that Jews began extending proselyte baptism to infants in the third century because they had seen Christians doing the same thing in the second?

If so, we are still left with silence as to what either group was doing in the first century. And even if Christians learned the practice from Jews, I’m not aware of any documentation that they did so as early as the apostolic generation.

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