As a supplement to the recently concluded series of daily notes on Baptism (and the bapt- word-group), I thought it worth discussing the mode and form of early Christian baptism. The New Testament writings give no precise directions as to how the ritual was (to be) performed; however, they do contain certain clues which may allow us to reconstruct, at least partially, the ritual as practiced by Christians in the second half of the 1st century A.D.
The Gospels and Acts
To begin with, the dunkings performed by John the Baptist were performed in the Jordan river (and similar water sources, Mark 1:5, 9 par; Jn 3:23). Presumably these would have taken place with the person standing (or kneeling) in the river, along with John, who would have literally “dunked” (vb. bapti/zw) the person down into the water, or, perhaps, taken up water to pour over the person’s head. In the Synoptic account of Jesus’ baptism, it is stated that he “stepped up” (vb a)nabai/nw) out of the water (Mk 1:10 par), clearly indicating that he had previously “stepped down” into the water (i.e. into the river). According to the notice in Mk 1:5 par, those who were dunked gave an account of (i.e. confessed) their sins; presumably, there would have been a corresponding announcement (by John) of the “release” (a&fesi$, i.e. cleansing, forgiveness) of the person’s sin. Assuming the historical accuracy and reliability of all this, these details, taken together, would form the kernal of a ritual (and rudimentary liturgy).
According to the (historical) tradition in John 3:22; 4:1-2, Jesus and his disciples performed similar dunkings, and, almost certainly, the earliest Christian baptisms, as referenced and narrated in the book of Acts, followed the Johannine (i.e. the Baptist’s) pattern. This means that those who were baptized would have been taken to the Jordan (or a similar water-source) and immersed (fully or partially) in the water, with a confession of sin, etc. The main difference was that these early Christian baptisms were performed “in the name of Jesus”, meaning that they involved a confession of trust/faith in Jesus (cf. 22:16), with the corresponding affirmation that this signified that the person now belonged to Jesus (as his follower). This early baptism is perhaps best illustrated in the episode of Philip and the Ethiopian official (8:26-40), which culminates in the official being baptized:
“And as they traveled down the way, they came upon some water, and the eu)nou=xo$ [i.e. the official] said, ‘See, water! What (would) cut me off (from) being dunked [baptisqh=nai]?’ And he urged the vehicle to stand (still), and they both stepped down into the water, Philip and the eu)nou=xo$, and he dunked [e)ba/ptisen] him. And when they stepped up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord…” (vv. 36, 38-39a)
Verse 37 is almost certainly not part of the original text, but reveals the early Christian concern that baptism be tied to a clear profession of faith by the one being dunked:
“And Philip said, ‘If you trust out of your whole heart you are able (to be dunked)’. And giving forth an answer, he said, ‘I trust (that) Yeshua (the) Anointed is the Son of God’.”
It is possible that this addition reflects early baptismal practice (i.e. in the late-first or early-second century). Two other elements were closely connected with baptism in the book of Acts: (1) the laying on of hands (by an apostle or other designated minister), and (2) that the Holy Spirit would come upon the person. In all likelihood each of these were incorporated into the early ritual.
The Pauline Letters
In discussing the passages relating to baptism in Paul’s letters (Rom 6:3-4; 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27-28; 2 Cor 1:22, etc), we explored the possibility that he was drawing upon baptismal traditions of the time—that is, how baptism was practiced c. 50-60 A.D. Given the highly formulaic language, and the basic character of the symbolism, this indeed seems likely. It would mean, then, that Paul’s references give us some idea of the mode and form of the ritual itself. I would note the following points:
- The symbolism of the believer participating in the death (and burial) of Jesus suggests that a literal dunking (i.e. full or partial immersion) was still being employed
- The language of putting off an ‘old’ garment, and putting on the ‘new’ (i.e. Christ and/or the Spirit as a garment) suggests that ceremonial clothing was involved in the ritual. This would be in accord with similar initiation rites performed in contemporary ‘mystery cults’, etc. The symbolism is so basic, and natural to the ritual action itself, that it is hard to imagine that Christians would not have applied it to baptism at a very early stage.
- References to anointing in a baptismal context. This could simply be an extension of references to Jesus as the Anointed One (vb xri/w, noun xristo/$), and to the coming of the Spirit as an anointing (Luke 3:22 par; 4:1ff, 14, 18ff). However, it would be natural enough, and quite expected, if this aspect were symbolized in the ritual through an actual anointing (xri=sma) with oil. We know that Christians in the first century did made ceremonial use of oil for anointing (James 5:14).
- In all likelihood, ceremonial anointing (if indeed it took place) following baptism was meant to symbolize the presence of the Spirit, which Paul elsewhere refers to with the (parallel) image of sealing (2 Cor 1:22; also Eph 1:13; 4:30). Such language may have been part of the baptismal ritual as early as Paul’s time (cf. below).
- The wording in 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27-28; Col 2:12, etc, may well reflect early baptismal formulae, such as would have occurred in performance the ritual, part of a basic liturgy. In addition to a confession of trust in Jesus by the person being baptized, there likely would have been a declaration (by the officiating minister[s]) prior to entering the water, and subsequently after the person emerged from the water. However, we can only speculate as to the details.
The Remainder of the New Testament
The only other direct reference to baptism is 1 Peter 3:21 (cf. the previous note). Most of what can be ascertained from the Pauline references (above) likely applies here as well. The use of the noun e)perw/thma could reflect a formal question/answer process as part of the baptism ritual, though this is far from certain. Baptism is presumably referred to in Hebrews 10:22, and also 6:2 (plural baptismoi/, dunkings/washings), but with little indication regarding the ritual itself; however, 6:1 could possibly reflect the sort of (formal) instruction which would precede baptism.
The noun xri=sma (“anointing”) in 1 John 2:20, 27 probably alludes to the baptismal symbolism of the believer’s union with Jesus through the presence of the Spirit—following the core early Christian tradition of the coming of the Spirit as an “anointing”. Similarly, there may be baptismal allusions in the motif of washing (i.e. washing of one’s robe) in the book of Revelation (7:14; 22:14), as also of the white robes that believers wear (3:4-5, 18; 6:11; 7:9ff; 19:14).
It may be possible to reconstruct the first-century baptism ritual, loosely, as follows:
- The believer descends into the water (i.e. full/partial immersion)
- This would involve a ceremonial removal of the ‘old’ garment
- An officiating minister would make declaration regarding the putting away of sin (the old nature), etc
- The believer makes public profession of faith, probably as part of a simple question/answer liturgy
- Upon stepping out of the water, there is the ceremonial donning of a ‘new’ garment
- An officiating minister makes declaration regarding the new life in Christ, etc
- A ceremonial laying on of hands, and(/or) anointing with oil
- Symbolic act/announcement to the effect that the believer has been “sealed” with the Spirit, along with an exhortation to live/act in a holy manner (until Jesus’ return)
Other Early Christian Evidence
References to baptism outside of the New Testament, in writings from the late-first and early-second centuries, are not as common or as extensive as one might hope. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110) makes two contributions to our knowledge of baptism in this period:
- It is not proper to baptize without a presiding overseer (e)pi/skopo$) for the congregation (or region) being present (Smyrneans 8:2)
- Ephesians 18:2 provides the earliest evidence for the mystical/symbolic belief that Jesus, in his own baptism, effectively sanctified the waters that are used (everywhere) when believers are baptized; this would become an important part of the baptism ritual in the Eastern (Syrian) churches.
The manual known as the Teaching (Didach¢¡) of the Twelve Apostles gives us the only real description of baptism prior to about 150 A.D. Generally dated to the first half of the 2nd century, but perhaps containing material and traditions from the late-1st century, the section dealing with baptism is in the short chapter 7; the instruction may be summarized as follows:
- Baptism should be performed with the trinitarian formula “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (cf. Matt 28:19); in spite of that same directive being uttered by Jesus in the Matthean passage, it does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament, nor is there any indication that Christians prior to 70-80 A.D. (i.e. when the Gospel of Matthew was likely written) ever used such a trinitarian formula; Didache 7:1 is the oldest direct evidence for its use.
- Baptism should be done in “living water”, that is, in the natural running water of a river or stream; this suggests a continuation of at least a partial immersion of the believer (and officiating minister) in the water.
- The baptism involves the pouring of water over the head of the person, presumably while he/she stood (or kneeled) in the water
- This pouring should be done three times (i.e. “trine baptism”), corresponding to the trinitarian formula
- The believer should fast (one or two days) prior to baptism, presumably as a sign of repentance
- In 9:5 it is further directed that no one should partake in the ritual meal (Lord’ Supper / Eucharist) unless they have first been baptized “in the Lord’s name”.
Other evidence from the mid-second century may be summarized:
- 2 Clement 6:9 emphasizes the need for the believer to maintain the purity of his/her baptism; presumably this sort of exhortation would have been part of the early ritual itself
- In this regard, baptism is specifically referred to as a seal (sfragi/$) in 2 Clement 7:6; 8:6 (cf. also Hermas Similitude 8.6.3; 9:16:3ff, etc), i.e. something which must not be broken. This language goes back at least to the time of Paul (cf. above), and would have related to the (ritual) symbolism of anointing.
- Justin Martyr, in his First Apology (c. 150-155), discusses Christian baptism in chapter 61; his instruction generally matches that of Didache 7 (above), though with greater exposition of the theological and ethical signficance, giving special emphasis to the older aspects of repentance and cleansing (from sin) which were first associated with the dunking/washing ritual (cf. above). He also provides a brief notice in chap. 65 of baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) as it is to take place in the congregational setting.
By the late-2nd and early-3rd centuries, more extensive treatments on baptism were being produced, and which have come down to us—most notably Tertullian’s On Baptism, and the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. These works demonstrate clearly how the older/earlier traditions were developed and given a more precise and authoritative form.
In terms of the visual representation of baptism, the earliest evidence comes from the 3rd and 4th century Roman “catacombs”. The representations generally support the description in Didache 7, of a partial immersion (i.e. standing in water), while an officiating minister pours water over the person’s head. Below are three examples (including a modern reconstruction):
Early depictions of the Baptism of Jesus followed a similar pattern, establishing an artistic template for the scene—both in Western and Eastern tradition—that would last for centuries:
Note on the Baptism of Children
Several of the images above suggest that children are being baptized. We know that by at least the late-2nd century, children were baptized regularly, though there appear to have been some misgivings about baptizing small children (cf. Tertullian On Baptism §18). The question regarding whether young children (and infants) should be baptized, or whether the ritual is best reserved for consenting adults (possibly including older children), has been the subject of longstanding debate and discussion. Many Protestants, in particular, argue strongly in favor of adult “believer’s baptism”, and against infant (or child) baptism. In spite of this, baptism of infants has been the common practice, throughout much of the Christian world, since the 5th century.
As far as the New Testament evidence is concerned, there is no indication that children (especially infants) were ever baptized. Since the original Johannine dunkings, and the corresponding early Christian baptisms that followed, were centered on a conscious profession of faith and repentance from sin, it is unlikely that they were ever performed on children (i.e., those younger than 12 years of age). The only possible evidence for the baptism of children are the notices of entire households being baptized (cf. Acts 16:31; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:16), but it is far from certain that this would have included young children. Supporters of infant baptism today cite parallels with circumcision; to be sure, a parallel is made between circumcision and baptism in Col 2:11-12 (possibly also Rom 4:11), but only insofar as the image of removing the outer skin resembles that of “putting away” the ‘garment’ of the old nature. There is no suggestion of its application to children; moreover, Col 2:11-12 is the only such example of this parallel being drawn.