Advertisement - Ministry in Motion 728x90

Baptism in the Early Church

  english / français
Archives / 1981 / March



Baptism in the Early Church

George E. Rice
George E. Rice, Ph.D., is associate professor of New Testament, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


The evolution of Christian baptism through the centuries has been recorded hi mortar and bricks, paint and mosaics. Among the ruins of early Christian structures, and also in ancient churches still in use, the history of Christian baptism can be traced. Paintings in catacombs and churches, mosaics on floors, walls, and ceilings, sculptured reliefs, and drawings in ancient New Testament manuscripts add details to this history, as well as raising interesting questions that need further investigation.

The record left by these various witnesses overwhelmingly testifies to immersion as the normal mode of baptism in the Christian church during the first ten to fourteen centuries. 1 This is in addition to the evidence found throughout the writings of the church fathers that immersion was the early church's common mode of baptism.

Most students of church history are acquainted with the early written record about baptism, but what do the mosaics, the mortar, the brick, and the paint say?

For some time scholarly circles have been discussing the origin of Christian baptism. Some see its origins in the mystery cults that flourished during the first century A.D. Actually, it is not necessary to go beyond the religious heritage in which Christianity has its roots—the religion of Israel.

Here we find baptism by immersion already in existence. Gentiles who espoused Judaism were required to enter its fold by circumcision, baptism, and the offering of a sacrifice. This article cannot discuss the beginnings of proselyte baptism in Judaism, but the fact that the apostle Paul reflects rabbinic argumentation for proselyte baptism in one of his early epistles (1 Cor. 10:2: "And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea") would seem to indicate that this practice was in existence at the time of the birth of the Christian church. A Gentile convert to Judaism was required to undergo immersion. While he stood in the water, two scholars nearby read some of the lighter and some of the heavier requirements of the Law. Then at the proper time he immersed him self. 2

It is generally agreed that immersion was practiced at Qumran. Matthew Black envisions a candidate for acceptance into the community being baptized in full view of the assembled members in an area that forms a natural amphitheater. Not only were the baptistries at Qumran used for ritual purifications throughout the year, but the entire community renewed its covenant by entering the baptismal waters in the order of their rank and status at the time of a ' 'general convention" of the sect, at which time the neophytes were also baptized. 3

Because fresh water was scarce at Qumran, a number of large cisterns were built to collect and store water during the rainy season. A few of these cisterns are small and shallow, serving better as baths and baptistries than as storage tanks. One such cistern, located by the northwest entrance to the monastery, lies beside an aqueduct that leads to a large settling tank. The cistern has a series of steps leading down into it, serving the purpose of baptism by immersion very nicely.4

It would seem, therefore, that John the Baptist, and later the disciples of Jesus, simply followed the mode of baptism that was familiar to the people of that day immersion. Indeed, Black says that most Jewish sects in the New Testament period practiced baptismal rites.5

During the active ministry of the apostles, baptisms were performed wherever adequate water could be found in lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, the sea, et cetera. When imperial persecution drove the Christians underground, baptistries were constructed in the catacombs at Rome. The remains of these baptistries stand as the oldest archeological witness to the rite of Christian baptism.

One such baptistry in the catacomb of San Ponziano is four and a half feet long, three and a half feet wide, and three and a half feet deep. A channel diverted water from a nearby stream to fill this font. Wolfred Cote believes it was in use from the first to the fourth century. Neophytes either stood or knelt in the water and were immersed by "bending forward under the hand of the administrator." 6 The baptistries in the catacombs of Saint Priscilla and Saint Callixtus also received water through canals, while those in the catacombs of the Vatican and Saint Alexander were fed by natural springs. 7

After the conversion of Constantine resulted in the legalization of the church, large buildings for public worship began to appear. Baptismal fonts were constructed in separate enclosures alongside these churches. These early baptistries, usually round or octagonal in shape, which housed the fonts, were generally quite large for two reasons: (1) baptisms were performed only on the festivals of Easter, Pentecost, and Epiphany,8 and thus the rapidly growing church required a large facility to accommodate those desiring baptism; and (2) since baptisms were performed solely by the bishop at this early point in church history, the only baptistry would be located at the church where the bishop officiated. Therefore, baptismal days would bring together a large crowd from the surrounding parishes.9 Later, when it was no longer feasible to carry on this arrangement, baptistries multiplied, and after the sixth century they began to be placed within the church. 10

Cote lists the locations of sixty-five baptistries in Italy alone, giving the approximate dates of construction (from the fourth through the fourteenth centuries) and the shapes of the fonts (circular, octagonal, square, twelve-sided, Greek cross, et cetera). Regardless of other differences, all sixty-five were constructed for baptism by immersion. 11 Henry Brown speaks of baptistries having "two conclaves," one for men and one for women. 12 However, it is not clear whether these conclaves were robing rooms or separate fonts. Cote does describe one baptistry, that of Pesaro, in which two fonts were discovered. The second font was for the baptism of women, "who, as we know, received the rite separately from the men." 13 These baptistries were usually beautifully decorated with paintings, mosaics, and carvings of Biblical scenes, mostly from the life of Christ.

As adult baptism became less frequent, and infant baptism became more popular, a decided change occurred in the size and shape of the baptismal font. Below-floor-level fonts, large enough for the immersion of an adult, gave way to fonts greatly reduced in size and raised by various means to a level of three or four feet, thus making the immersion of infants easier for those officiating. With the introduction of sprinkling or pouring, the fonts became even smaller.

The font of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran is an excellent example. The original font is below floor level, twenty-five feet in diameter and three feet deep. Lined and paved with marble, it was once used for adult immersion. 14 Falling into disuse, it was filled in and a bath for infant baptism was erected in its place. This, in turn, was no longer used, and a smaller font was placed above it for the pouring of children. 15

Ancient works of art dealing with Christian baptism support the testimony of baptismal fonts that in the early Christian centuries baptism was by immersion. The earliest Christian art work comes from the cata combs. A picture in the catacomb of San Ponziano shows Jesus being baptized by John. Jesus is standing waist deep in the water of the Jordan and unclothed. John is standing on the shore, clothed, with his right hand on Jesus' head. An angel appears to Jesus' right, standing on the opposite bank and holding Jesus' robe. Looking at the picture, one understands that John is about to immerse Jesus. 16

A similar painting found in a crypt of the catacomb of Santa Lucina portrays John the Baptist standing on the shore with an extended right hand helping Jesus out of the water and up the bank of the Jordan. Again John is clothed and Jesus is not. Numerous ancient pictures, mosaics, and reliefs can be found in churches and baptistries illustrating the baptism of Jesus. Generally He is standing waist deep in water, unclothed, and John is on the bank, clothed, with his right hand on Jesus' head preparing to immerse Him. It seems clear that these pictures reflect the baptismal rite as it was practiced in the early church. Indeed, by picturing Jesus in the water and John standing on the riverbank, they reflect more accurately what happened at the baptismal font than what happened at the Jordan. But unquestionably these ancient illustrations convey the concept of baptism by immersion.

Pictures of Jesus standing in water while John pours water over His head are of a much later date than those depicting immersion and they demonstrate the change in the mode of baptism that came into the church. However, Brown does date to the fifth century a mosaic found in the dome above the baptistry of the Church of San Giovanni, Ravenna. It shows Jesus waist deep in water with John on the bank pouring water over His head. Yet it is of interest to note that directly below this dome is a font for immersion that has been subsequently altered for sprinkling! 17 This fact would tend to place a question on Brown's date for the mosaic, especially since it appears over a baptistry that is inside a church. Baptistries were only beginning to be moved into churches in the sixth century.

The catacomb of Saint Callixtus contains the picture of what appears to be a young boy standing in water. A larger person is standing in the water beside him. What is apparently intended as water streams from his head and down his nude body. There has been a great deal of discussion regarding whether this illustrates affusion. The one who is administering baptism is not holding a container from which the water is poured; rather, his right hand is placed upon the neophyte's head as in pictures of immersion. Therefore the water spraying over the candidate's head and down his body is not the result of pouring, but could be the artist's primitive representation of the neophyte being completely covered by water, or immersed. 18

A fresco in the ancient Basilica of Saint Clement pictures Saint Cyril baptizing a neophyte as a result of his first mission to the Bulgarians. Cyril, dressed in his clerical robes, is standing by the neophyte, who is pictured in a pyramid of water to his waist. Cyril's right hand is on the neophyte's head, as in the typical portrayals of baptism by immersion. 19

A number of pictures show the candidate in a pyramid of water, some up to their waists, some to their necks, and some entirely under the apex of the water pyramid. Each portrayal apparently represents the same thing—immersion.

Cote lists a total of twenty-six New Testament manuscripts found in various libraries and museums containing sketches of baptism. Some are of Christ, some of others. But they all have one thing in common: baptism is by immersion.20

In all of the early pictures presented by Brown and Cote, three things remain constant: (1) baptism is by immersion, except for the one mosaic in the dome of San Giovanni, Ravenna, whose fifth-century date may be questionable; (2) the baptismal candidate is nude; and (3) the one administering baptism is not with the candidate in the water, but stands clothed on the bank of a river or next to a baptismal font.

The last point raises an interesting question of how immersion was administered to adults, especially in light of a variant reading of Luke 3:7 in Codex Bezae and the Old Latin manuscripts. Codex Bezae is especially significant, because it is the only existing Greek manuscript that represents the Western text type. Probably copied in Lyons, France, in the fifth century, it reflects in many of its variant readings, even more than the Old Latin manuscripts, historical developments in the church or existing traditions that do not show up in the other text types. Luke 3:7 speaks of the people that came to be baptized by John. Codex Bezae changes the Greek preposition hypo ("by") to enopion ("before," or "in the presence of"), thus possibly reflecting the tradition of Jewish proselyte baptism in which the candidate immersed himself in the presence of those authorized to administer the rite. Is it possible that these ancient pictures are actually presenting self-immersion as the practice of the early church, and that the placing of the right hand of the one officiating upon the head of the neophyte represents a rite of blessing rather than the officiator physically immersing the neophyte?

It seems clear that although archeology confirms immersion as the common mode of baptism during the early centuries of the Christian church, it also raises other questions that deserve further attention.

Advertisement - Protexting 300x250 (#2)

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus



1 Henry F. Brown, Baptism Through the Centuries (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1965), p. 36. Cf. William L. Lampkin, A History of Immersion (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1962), p. 19.

2 Jebamoth 47 a, b. Cf. A. Cohen, Everyman's Talmud (New York: E. P. DuttonandCo., Inc., 1949), p. 65, and George Foot Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim, Vol. I (Cambridge'. Harvard University Press, 1927), pp. 331, 332.

3 Matthew Black, The Scrolls and Christian Origins (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), pp. 95-97.

4 John Marco Allegro, The People of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Text and Pictures (Garden City: Doubleday and Company), pp. 38, 39, 177, 178.

5 Black, op. cit., p. 97.

6 Wolfred Nelson Cote, The Archeology of Baptism (London: Yates and Alexander, 1876), pp. 152, 153.

7 Ibid., p. 153.

8 Ibid., p. 156.

9 Ibid.

10 Brown, op. cit., p. 77.

11 Cote, op. cit., pp. 160, 161.

12 Brown, op. cit., pp. 76, 77.

13 Cote, op. cit., p. 187.

14 lbid., pp. 164, 165.

15 Brown, op. cit., p. 80. Cf. Cote, op. cit., p. 236.

16 Ibid., p. 45. Cf. Cote, op. cit., pp. 32, 33.

17 Ibid., pp. 54, 55.

18 Cote, op, cit., p. 34. Cf. Brown, op. cit., p. 44.

19 Ibid., p. 35.

20 Ibid., pp. 42-45.

back to top