Supplementary Notes on Baptism

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.

Notes on Galatians 3:28, part 1

Galatians 3:28

The next three daily notes serve as a supplement to the recent article on Galatians 3:28 in the series Women in the Church, as well as to the study on the subject as it relates to the Pauline letters as a whole, and to the role of women from the standpoint of early Christianity and Gnosticism. Here I will be looking in more detail at three specific aspects of this verse—particularly, the declaration “there is no male and female”:

    1. The background and significance of the statement
    2. The logical consequences and possible interpretation(s), and
    3. Comparison with the Pauline teaching in 1 Cor 11:3ff; 14:34-35, etc

Today’s note treats the first of these topics.

1. Background and Significance

As previously discussed (cf. Part 3 of this series), the three-fold declaration in Gal 3:28 is clearly connected with the rite of baptism: “For as (many of) you as have been dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed (One) {Christ}, you have sunk in(to) (the) Anointed [i.e. put him on as a garment]” (v. 27). There are parallels to Gal 3:27-28 in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:11, also associated with baptism. Many commentators believe that this reflects an (earlier) baptismal formula; if so, it is probably not a specific formulation original to Paul, but rather something he cites to support his argument (and for dramatic effect), something which would be familiar (and dear) to recent converts. Let us compare these three passages (note the central statement in bold):

Galatians 3:27-281 Corinthians 12:13Colossians 3:9-11
“For as (many of) you as have been dunked [i.e. baptized] in the Anointed {Christ}, have sunk in(to) [i.e. put on] the Anointed;
in (Christ) there is no Yehudean {Jew} and no Greek, there is no slave and no free (person), there is no male and female
for you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua {Jesus Christ}.”
“For in one Spirit we all were dunked [i.e. baptized] into one Body—
(even) if Yehudeans {Jews} and if Greeks, if slaves and if free (person)s
and we all were given to drink of (the) one Spirit.”
“…having sunk out from the old man…and sinking in(to) [i.e. putting on] the new…
where in (Christ) there is no Greek and Yehudean {Jew}, circumcision and foreskin…, slave, free (person)
but the Anointed {Christ} is all (thing)s and in all (things).”

The basic setting is baptism as an initiation rite, similar to many other such religious rituals worldwide. The closest parallels would be from the Greco-Roman (pagan) mystery cults, though one can also cite similarities in a Jewish setting (such as the Qumran community of the Dead Sea Scrolls). We actually know relatively little about the specific ceremonies practiced by the mystery religions; however, note the reference in Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11:24, which involves an initiate in the mysteries of Isis, who has put on robes following the sacred ceremony (cf. also Plutarch, Isis and Osiris 352b; Firmicius Maternus, Error of the Profane Religions §§19, 22). For a (Hellenistic) Jewish use of the same kind of symbolism, cf. Philo, On Flight and Finding §§109-12; Joseph and Aseneth §§14-17. It is likely that early Christian tradition made use of (white) robes to symbolize the “putting on” of Christ.

In such religious initiation, the ritual signifies the establishment of a new identity, and all the more so in the case of Christian baptism—the believer enters the water, dying to the old, and being born (again, spiritually) to the new. Paul clearly connected baptism with the believer’s participation in the death (and resurrection) of Christ (Rom 6:3-11; 8:9-11; Col 2:12ff; cf. also Gal 2:19-20), and this must also inform the baptismal formula used in Gal 3:27-28, etc. Note the parallel between “putting on” (lit. “sinking in[to]”, vb. e)ndu/w) in Gal 3:27 and “putting off” (lit. “sinking out [from]”, vb. [a)p]ekdu/w) in Col 3:9—the believer “puts off” the ‘old man’, the old nature (like a snake shedding its skin), and “puts on” the new nature (Christ). It is this fundamental sense of a new religious (spiritual) identity which provides the context for the three-fold declaration in Gal 3:28 with its repeated use of e&ni (“there is in…”). The reference is to the preposition e)n (“in Christ”, e)n Xristw=|) at the end of the verse, but also to the earlier use of the verb e)ndu/w in v. 27. That verb is usually translated “put on”, “clothe [yourself]”, but, in order to preserve the wordplay (among other reasons), it is better to render it literally, “sink in(to)”. Note how this frames the central declaration:

    • “You have sunk in(to) [e)ndu/sasqe] Christ”—i.e., you are now in Christ (v. 27)
      “In (Christ) there is… [e&ni]”
    • “You are all one in Christ [e)n Xristw=|] (v. 28d)

Baptism symbolizes (ritually) the believer’s union in Christ, which is also to be understood as becoming part of a unity—that is, of all believers, as a single body. This is the point emphasized by the formula in 1 Cor 12:13:

    • “For we all were dunked [baptized] in one Spirit
      —”into one Body”
    • “…we all were given to drink of (the) one Spirit

A comparison between 1 Cor 12:13 and Gal 3:27-28 (perhaps written only a few years apart), indicates that the three-fold declaration in Gal 3:28 ought to be understood in terms of believers being part of the one body of Christ. In other words, the declaration is governed by the overriding idea of our union (together) in Christ; here is the formula:

    • V. 28a: “in (Christ) there is no Jew and no Greek”—religious/ethnic distinction
    • V. 28b: “in (Christ) there is no slave and no free (person)”—socio-economic distinction
    • V. 28c: “in (Christ) there is no male and female”—social (and biological) distinction

This makes for a powerful statement and strongly suggests that our new identity in Christ somehow transcends, or renders invalid, the normal distinctions and characteristics of our (previous) way of life. The problem is that Paul, in his letters, really only discusses the first of these—the religious (and ethnic/cultural) distinction between Jews and non-Jews (“Greeks”, i.e. Gentiles). This is a central theme, especially in Galatians and Romans, and Paul argues forcefully that the “new covenant” in Christ effectively abolishes the old. Perhaps the most direct declaration along these lines is in 2 Cor 3:1-18 (esp. verses 6-11, 12-16); while Ephesians 2:11-22 neatly sums up the Pauline teaching, with the idea that Jewish and Gentile believers have become “one new man” in Christ (vv. 15-16). Thus, while Jewish and Gentile believers, respectively, might (voluntarily) continue to observe certain customs, these cannot—and must not—create division or separation within the body of Christ (cf. Gal 2:11-14; Rom 14, etc). In every way that matters, there is no difference whatever between believers, from an ethno-religious or cultural point of view.

The same would certainly apply to socio-economic distinctions, such as slave vs. free, rich vs. poor, etc., though Paul says relatively little about this. According to the narratives in Acts, many of the earliest converts in Paul’s missionary work were from the upper levels of society (16:13-14; 17:4, 12, 34, etc), but certainly from the middle/lower classes as well (cf. 1 Cor 1:26ff, etc). In dealing with the social situation of slavery in the Greco-Roman world, Paul tends to downplay any possible revolutionary aspect to the Christian message (1 Cor 7:21-23; Col 3:22-4:1; cf. also Eph 6:5-9; 1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9-10); social change would occur naturally, through conversion to the Gospel, rather than by active efforts to change the laws and structure of society. More commonly, Paul uses slavery/freedom as a motif for the Gospel itself—human beings are in bondage under sin (and the Law), and only through trust in Christ and the work of the Spirit do we find freedom (cf. Rom 6:15-23; 8:1-17; Gal 2:4; 3:21-26; 4:1-7, 8ff, 21-31; 5:1). In the letter to Philemon, there is a moving account of a runaway slave (Onesimus) who has become a believer, and is now returning to his (Christian) master. This illustrates the dual (and somewhat paradoxical nature) of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus—on the one hand (at the social level), they remain master and slave, but on the other (in Christ) they are brothers and equals.

This brings us to the thornier question regarding the social (and biological) distinction of male and female—do these no longer apply to believers in Christ, as the declaration in Gal 3:28c suggests? I have already addressed this in Part 3 of the series (“Women in the Church”), but it will be useful to supplement that discussion with a few points here.

  • The expression “male and female” (a&rsen kai\ qh=lu) refers not only to the conventional, social difference(s) between men and women, but also to the essential physical/biological differences.
  • Almost certainly it alludes to the creation account in Genesis (1:27; 5:2); the significance of this will be dealt with in the next note. It is interesting that in 1 Cor 11:2-16 (also 1 Tim 2:11-15) the creation narrative is used to make virtually the opposite point—that gender distinction is to be preserved in the Church, with women (it would seem) in a subordinate role.
  • The context in Galatians is important—Paul is arguing that believers are the true heirs of Abraham (to the promise of God), which means, according to the cultural background of the illustration, that believers are sons. But clearly, this is not to be taken literally; believers—men and women both—are “sons” in this sense. It is not a question of gender (in spite of the traditional gender-based language).
  • Beyond this, Paul is definitely speaking of a new situation for believers. Again, this is especially clear from the surrounding context:
    —Believers are no longer (ou)ke/ti) bound under the old way of things (3:25; 4:7)
    —This old condition is described as being under (u(po/) the authority (i.e., bound, enslaved) of the old order—the Law, sin, death, etc. (3:10, 22-23, 25; 4:2-5, etc)
    —The old order of things involves “the (arranged) elements [stoixei=a] of the world” (4:3, 9; cf. Col 2:8, 20), which certainly includes the (fallen, corrupt) order of creation
    —But believers are freed from the old order (3:21-26; 4:1-11, 21-31; 5:1ff, 13); this freedom is in relation to the presence and work of the Spirit (3:2ff, 14; 4:6, 29; 5:5, 16-18ff), which is not tied to the created order (cf. John 3:3-10)
    —This new condition (and identity) in Christ, and through the Spirit, is defined as a new creation (6:15; 2 Cor 5:17; Col 3:10, also Eph 2:15; 4:24)—which suggests that the old (created order) has passed away or been completely transformed (cf. also Rom 7:6; 8:19ff; 1 Cor 5:7)

All of this sounds impressive, but what does it actually mean for believers? What are the consequences of this new condition or new identity? This must be addressed in two parts: (a) how extensively should Gal 3:28 be applied at the religious (and spiritual) level, and (b) what are the practical implications for Christian life and community? These questions will be dealt with, in turn, in the next two notes.