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.

January 12: Baptism (1 Cor 12:13; 2 Cor 1:22)

Baptism: Clothed with the Spirit

In these notes on baptism (and the bapt- word-group), I have pointed out the two uniquely Christian aspects of the dunking ritual: (1) being dunked “in the name of Jesus”, and (2) the association between baptism in the Holy Spirit. Both of these were developed by Paul, in each instance giving deeper theological (and Christological) significance to the early Christian understanding of the ritual. In the previous note, we examined how the tradition of baptism “in the name of Jesus” led to a greater emphasis on the believer’s union with Jesus (i.e. being “in Christ”), and, in particular, of a participation in the death (and resurrection) of Jesus.

The association with the Spirit is even older, going back to the early layers of the Gospel Tradition—to the saying of the Baptist (Mark 1:8 par), and the appearance of the Spirit during Jesus’ own Baptism (Mark 1:10 par; John 1:32-33). The historical traditions in the book of Acts show how each of these came to be part of the distinctively Christian dunking ritual. The coming of the Spirit on the first disciples (2:1-4ff) was seen as a fulfillment of the saying in Mk 1:8 par (1:5, 8), an event which would essentially be repeated as individuals and groups came to trust in Jesus, and were baptized, throughout the narratives (on this, cf. the prior note).

To the extent that Paul develops this connection between the Spirit and baptism, it is in terms of the same participatory aspect—i.e. of being “in Christ”, united with him—which we explored in the previous note (on Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:12). The direct evidence for this is relatively slight, but I would highlight two passages in the Corinthian letters—1 Cor 12:13 and 2 Cor 1:22.

1 Corinthians 12:13

The principal theme of 1 Corinthians is the unity of believers in Christ. The thrust and (rhetorical) purpose in the letter is to address the points of division and disunity which have come about in the congregations (1:10-11ff). Interestingly, in the introductory causa, stating his reason for writing, baptism is specifically mentioned as a possible source of division:

“Has the Anointed (One) been separated? Paulus was not put to the stake [i.e. crucified] over you(, was he)? or were you dunked [e)bapti/sqhte] in the name of Paulus?” (v. 13)

Here the meaning of baptism in the name of someone is made clear—it essentially signifies that one belongs to that person: “I am of Paul [i.e. I am Paul’s]…” (v. 12). Even saying “I am of the Anointed (One) [i.e. I am Christ’s]” can be problematic if it results in fostering sectarian division among believers. By the time Paul comes to chapter 12, he has developed the theme of unity extensively, throughout the letter, even as he addresses specific practical issues. One particular image used to illustrate this unity of believers is that of the many different parts that make up a single human body; in 12:12, this image is turned into a direct declaration of Christian identity:

“For accordingly, just as the body is one, and (yet) holds many parts, and all the parts, (while) being many, are one body, so also is the Anointed [i.e. so he is one body]…”

This is a seminal declaration of the doctrine of “the body of Christ”, and its meaning is unmistakable—believers are united together in Christ as parts of a body. And what is the basis of this union? Paul makes this clear in verse 13:

“…for, indeed, in one Spirit we all were dunked [e)bapti/sqhmen] into one body—if Yehudeans {Jews} or if Greeks, if slaves or if free (person)s—and we all were given to drink (from) one Spirit.”

A similar baptismal formula occurs in Galatians 3:27-28 (cf. also Col 3:9-11), which includes the idea of entering into Christ (i.e. putting him on) as a garment:

“For as (many of) you as (have) been dunked [e)bapti/sqhte] into (the) Anointed, you (have) sunk yourselves in (the) Anointed (as a garment). (So) there is in (him) no Yehudean {Jew} and no Greek, in (him) no slave and no free (person), in (him) no male and female—for you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua.”

A comparison of these two statements reveals that being dunked “into Christ” is essentially the same as being dunked “into the Spirit“; similarly, we may say that “sinking into [i.e. putting on] Christ” also means “putting on the Spirit”. If this is understood as happening from without (i.e. by submerging in water), it simultaneously occurs from within, using the image of drinking water. The joining of these two motifs, or aspects, is paralleled by the saying of Jesus in Mark 10:38, where Jesus’ suffering and death is figured both as drinking from a cup and being dunked (in water). Thus, in the Pauline expression of the significance of baptism, we may isolate three distinct, and related, points:

    • The union with Christ, symbolized by the ritual, occurs and is realized through the presence of the Spirit
    • It is the Spirit which effects the reality of our participation in the death (and resurrection) of Jesus
    • This is effected both without and within—i.e. involving the entirety of our person—the imagery of “dunking” blended with that of “drinking”

2 Corinthians 1:22

To this imagery of being clothed by the Spirit, we may add that of being sealed. Like being baptized in the name of Jesus, the motif of the seal (sfragi/$) primarily signifies belonging—i.e. that believers belong to Christ (and to the Spirit). It is in the book of Revelation that this imagery is most prevalent (7:2-8; 9:4, etc), but Paul makes use of it as well. For example, he uses it to characterize his role and position as an apostle (1 Cor 9:2); but the primary context is that of the essential identity of believers, as manifest by the presence of the Spirit (which is also the Spirit of Christ). This is most clearly expressed in 2 Corinthians 1:21-22:

“And the (One) setting us firmly with you in (the) Anointed (One), and (hav)ing anointed us, (is) God—the (One) also (hav)ing sealed [sfragisa/meno$] us and (hav)ing given (us) the pledge of the Spirit in our hearts.”

Here sealing (vb sfragi/zw) is more or less synonymous with anointing (vb xri/w), and it is likely that both reflect the symbolism of the baptism ritual as it was practiced in Paul’s time (and, presumably, in the Pauline congregations); for more on this, cf. below. The noun a)rrabw/n is a transliterated Hebrew word (/obr*u&), which fundamentally refers to a token meant as a guarantee that a person will fulfill an obligation (i.e. make [full] payment, etc). For believers, this means a guarantee (or pledge) of our future salvation (and glory)—i.e., deliverance from the Judgment, resurrection/transformation of the body, and eternal life with God. The Spirit is this pledge, given to those who trust in Christ (the Anointed One), and symbolized in the baptism ritual. Much the same idea, with the same language of sealing, is found in Ephesians 1:13 and 4:30. For other Pauline use of the seal motif, cf. 2 Timothy 2:19, and Romans 4:11 where it refers to circumcision, as an Old Covenant parallel to the baptism ritual for believers in the New Covenant (cf. the previous note on Col 2:12).

On the Baptism Ritual

Many commentators believe that, in passages such as these (discussed above), Paul is drawing upon the baptism ritual as it was practiced by Christians at the time. If so, then it may be possible to reconstruct the rite, at least partially. Based on the Pauline references, and in light of the origins of baptism in the Johannine dunkings (followed by Jesus and his disciples), I would suggest the following rudimentary outline of elements, or components, to the early Christian baptism (c. 50-70 A.D.):

    • A ceremonial action whereby the believer removes his/her (outer) garment and enters the water (full or partial immersion); upon coming out of the water a new garment is given to the person which he/she puts on, symbolizing the new life in Christ.
    • Having emerged from the water, the believer is anointed with oil, symbolizing the anointing or “seal” of the Spirit
    • (This anointing possibly would be accompanied by a ceremonial laying on of hands)
    • Throughout the ritual, a simple liturgy would be followed, including:
      • Confession of faith in Jesus by the believer
      • A declaration by the officiating minister, prior to the person entering the water, and
      • A corresponding declaration, after the person leaves the water, including
      • An exhortation that he/she should live in a manner consistent with the new life (that the baptism symbolizes)

The mode and form of early Christian baptism will be discussed further in a supplemental note.

January 6: Epiphany

January 6 is the traditional date celebrating Christ’s Epiphany (e)pifa/neia, “appearing upon [earth]”). By the third century, the Eastern Church celebrated the birth of Jesus on this date. Only late in the century, in the West, was a similar date adopted—December 25, presumably to combat the pagan festival of the Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of the Sun-god, signifying the victorious return of the Sun at the Winter Solstice. Certainly the return of the sun conquering the darkness fit just as well the Birth of Jesus, and the seasonal imagery was widespread in early Christian hymns and commentary. A kind of cultural exchange seems to have ensued—Dec. 25 was adopted in the East, and Jan. 6 in the West—a transfer which must have taken place by the mid-fourth century, since both feast days are mentioned in context by Ephrem the Syrian (cf. his Hymn 5 on the Nativity, st. 13). In the West the celebration came to focus on the Visit of the Magi (Matt. 2:1-12), while in the East the emphasis was on the Baptism of Jesus—an association no doubt unfamiliar to most Western Christians today.

The Eastern Churches developed an exceptionally rich Baptismal tradition—far surpassing that of the West—and which can best be seen in the hymns and liturgy of the Syrian Church. The principal motif was the robe of glory—the glory with which Adam was originally clothed; this glory was lost (at the Fall), and then restored by Christ. This image seems to derive primarily from a variant reading of Genesis 3:21: instead of rou tont=k* (k¹¾nô¾ ±ôr, “garments of skin”) is read roa tont=k* (k¹¾nô¾ °ôr, “garments of light”)—nearly identical in sound and spelling. From this came the idea of “clothing of glory”, which passed through the Aramaic Targum and wider Jewish tradition, into the early Syrian Church. Ephrem the Syrian draws upon the image many times in his hymns. Here are a few examples (translations from S. P. Brock, The Luminous Eye, 1992 [Cistercian Publications], pp. 85-97):

Christ came to find Adam who had gone astray,
He came to return him to Eden in the garment of light. (Hymn 16 on Virginity, st. 9)

and it was Christ who was able to reclothe them
in the glory they had stripped off, thus replacing the leaves (Hymn 1 on the Nativity, st. 43)

The glory was restored specifically through the Incarnation, at two points: (1) by Christ taking on the ruined flesh of Adam (and Eve) in the womb of Mary, and Mary in turn being clothed with the glory of Christ (the ‘new Adam’)—

Eve in her virginity put on leaves of shame,
but Your mother, Lord, in her virginity
has put on a robe of glory
that encompasses all people,
while to Him who covers all,
she gives a body as a tiny garment. (Hymn 17 on the Nativity, st. 4)

In Bethlehem did king David put on fine linen,
but David’s Lord and Son
hid his glory there in His swaddling clothes.
These same swaddling clothes
provided a robe of glory for humankind. (Hymn 5 on the Nativity, st. 4)

And (2) when Christ was baptized, he ‘returned’ this glory within the waters, through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit—

In baptism did Adam find
that glory which had been his among the trees of Paradise;
he went down and took it from the water,
put it on, went up and was held in honour in it.
(Ps.-Ephrem, Hymn 12 on Epiphany, st. 1)

As the daystar in the river,
the bright One in the tomb,
He shone forth on the mountain top
and gave brightness too in the womb;
He dazzled as He went up from the river,
gave illumination at His ascent.  (Hymn 36 on the Church, st. 5)

All sorts of related images come together in the Syrian baptismal tradition—primeval light/glory, washing/cleansing, the brightness of oil for chrism/anointing, the Holy Spirit hovering over the water, the Spirit as fire hidden in the water, the Pauline motif of ‘putting on’ Christ (cf. Gal. 3:27: “for as many of you as have been dipped [i.e. baptized] into Christ, you have put [yourselves] in [i.e. put on] Christ”), and so forth. Especially noteworthy is the image of the Holy Spirit as light/oil/fire in the water—”In fire is the symbol of the Spirit, it is a type of the Holy Spirit who is mixed in the baptismal water”(Ephrem’s Hymn 40 on the Faith, st. 10); “…the Father rejoices, the Son exults, the Spirit hovers; the baptismal water is set aflame with fire and the Spirit” (Syrian Orthodox/Maronite service, cf. S. P. Brock, The Holy Spirit in the Syrian Baptismal Tradition, p. 12); “See, Fire and Spirit in the womb that bore You, see, Fire and Spirit in the river in which You were baptized; Fire and Spirit in our Baptism…” (Ephrem, Hymn 10 on the Faith, st. 17). This is a powerful echo of the words of John regarding Jesus: “…he will dip [i.e. baptize] you in the Holy Spirit and Fire”.

Interestingly, it is possible that this baptismal imagery has crept into the narrative of Jesus’ baptism: in the Old Latin MS (a) and one Vulgate MS, the following appears between Matthew 3:15 and 16—”And when Jesus was being baptized a great/tremendous light flashed from/around the water, so that all who had gathered there were afraid” (translation from Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on  the Greek NT, 2d ed., p. 8). Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 88), and Epiphanius (Panarion 30.13.7) have similar references. Not surprisingly, the baptism of Jesus was also graphically described along these lines in the Diatessaron of Tatian, an early Gospel Harmony which was immensely popular and influential, especially in the Syrian Church (cf. the Commentaries of Ephrem [IV. §5] and Ish‘odad of Merv).

So, in the Eastern tradition, when the individual believer undergoes baptism, he/she puts on the same glory which Jesus left in the waters at His baptism, mystically, through the residing power of the Spirit. How many Christians being baptized today envision anything of the sort?