"Begotten of water and Spirit" (John 3:5): Baptism in the Johannine tradition

Patrick James Bayens, Marquette University


The Fourth Gospel witnesses to a single baptismal rite which embraces both outer and inner cleansing: the former being associated with the application of water, the latter with the giving of the Spirit. The "water" aspect of Johannine baptism has its roots in ablutions such as those described in the OT and hellenistic Jewish literature. These washings are colored by an OT concern for purity in the face of an impending epiphany or eschatological visitation by God; that is, in order to live in God's presence, it is necessary to be ritually pure. In the Johannine tradition, "water" and "Spirit" are brought together and associated with the saving work ("glorification") of Christ. Ablutions which in the OT and/or hellenistic Jewish practice are both frequent and repeatable have now become a one time act. The unrepeatable, all-encompassing act of Christian baptism provides outer, corporeal cleansing which suffices for the whole of earthly life (with a view, perhaps to the resurrection of the body). The "water" of Johannine baptism is not simply a carrier for the "Spirit" but has a spiritual significance of its own: to provide the necessary outer purification in order that the Spirit may dwell within the individual and the individual within the community of the Spirit. The notion that "Spirit" should be linked with "water" finds its antecedent in OT and hellenistic Jewish texts, including the eschatological expectations of Qumran--and especially the traditions associated with the baptism of Jesus and the ministry of John the Baptist. If Johannine baptism is at all connected with the removal of sin, it is because the Spirit of the glorified Jesus is given with it, and not because of the water associated with the rite. This Spirit, however, is granted only to those who have been in the bosom of the Father all along: those previously "begotten from above" in a manner theologically parallel to that of the Son of God himself. The Fourth Gospel thus witnesses to an integration of an outer-inner baptismal cleansing with a deterministic theology from hindsight: "This is why some believe ...."

Recommended Citation

Bayens, Patrick James, ""Begotten of water and Spirit" (John 3:5): Baptism in the Johannine tradition" (1993). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9325668.