“Buried with Christ by baptism into death"
Some New Testament Texts: Matthew 3:16; John 3:23; Acts 8: 36-39; Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12.
Testimony that Baptism was a Submersion
IV.1TERTULLIAN: Baptism itself is a bodily act, because we are immersed in water, but it has a spiritual effect, because we are set free from sins. (On Baptism 7)
2There is no difference whether one is washed in the sea or in a pool, in a river or a fountain, in a reservoir or a tub, nor is there any distinction between those whom John dipped in the Jordan and those whom Peter dipped in the Tiber, unless that eunuch whom Philip dipped in the chance water found on their journey obtained more or less of salvation. (Ibid. 4)
3ORIGEN (in commenting on the crossing of the Red Sea speaks of Christian baptism): The evil spirits seek to overtake you, but you descend into the water and you escape safely; having washed away the filth of sin, you come up a “new man,” ready to sing the “new song.” (Homilies on Exodus 5.5)
4CYRIL OF JERUSALEM: For as he who plunges into the waters and is baptized is surrounded on all sides by the waters, so were they also baptized completely by the Spirit. The water, however, flows around the outside, but the Spirit baptizes also the soul within completely. (Catechetical Lectures 17.14)1
5BASIL OF CAESAREA: How then do we become in the likeness of his death? We were buried with him through baptism. . . . How then do we accomplish the descent into Hades? We imitate the burial of Christ through baptism. For the bodies of those being baptized are as it were buried in water. (On the Holy Spirit 15.35)
6AMBROSE: We discoursed yesterday on the font, the appearance of which in shape is like a tomb,2 into which we are received, believing in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and we are plunged and we lift ourselves up, that is we are resurrected. . . .
So therefore also in baptism, since it is a likeness of death, without doubt when you dip and rise up there is made a likeness of the resurrection. (On the Sacraments 3.1.1, 2)
7JOHN CHRYSOSTOM: When the priest pronounces, “So-and-so is baptized into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” he three times puts the head down and raises it up, preparing you to receive the descent of the Spirit by this mystical initiation. (Baptismal Instructions 2.26)2a
8Exactly as in some tomb, when we sink our heads in water, the old man is buried, and as he is submerged below, he is absolutely and entirely hidden. Then when we lift our heads up, the new man again comes up. (Homilies on John 25.2, on John 3:5)
Evidence of a Different Practice
9CYPRIAN: You have asked also, what I thought concerning those who obtain God’s grace in sickness and weakness, whether they are to be accounted legitimate Christians, because they are not washed with the water of salvation but have it poured on them. . . . We think that the divine benefits can in no way be mutilated and weakened. . . . In the sacraments of salvation, when necessity compels, and God bestows his mercy, the divine abridgements confer the whole benefit on believers, nor ought any one to be troubled that sick persons seem to be sprinkled or poured upon when they obtain the Lord’s grace. . . . Whence it appears that the sprinkling also of water holds equally with the washing of salvation. When this is done in the church, where the faith both of receiver and giver is sound, all things may stand firm and be consummated and perfected by the majesty of the Lord and by the truth of the faith. (Epistle 69 . 12)
10EUSEBIUS: [Novatian] fell seriously ill and was thought to be about to die. In the bed itself on which he was lying he received grace3 by water being poured around over him, if it is proper to say that such a one received it. . . . When he believed, he was counted worthy of the office of presbyter by the favor of the bishop who laid his hand on him for this rank. The bishop was opposed by all the clergy and many of the laymen, since it was not lawful for someone who had received pouring in bed on account of sickness to become a member of the clergy,4 but he asked to be allowed to ordain this one alone. (Church History 6.43.14, 17, quoting a letter from Cornelius, bishop of Rome, 251-253)
Immersion Was Customary
The ordinary practice of baptism in the ancient church was immersion. Such is the consistent testimony of the sources from the New Testament until later times. Chapter III noted the early second-century indications of immersion (III.1, 3,4, 6, 15) and described the ceremony at the end of the second century according to the reports of Hippolytus and Tertullian.4a The sources at the beginning of this chapter (IV.1-8) give a sampling of representative texts from the third and fourth centuries. These writers clearly describe or allude to a total submersion of the body. They are representative, authoritative church leaders from both the Greek and Latin speaking branches of the church.
Immersion has remained the practice of the Greek and other Eastern Churches until this day. The exceptions came to prevail in the medieval Western Church, and from that development most Protestant churches used mainly sprinkling or pouring, but immersion is becoming more common even in churches (both Catholic and Protestant) that have not traditionally used it.
The Didache’s Exception
The earliest reference to a substitute for immersion, and the only one before the third century, is found in the Didache (III.5). It may be noted that in this document “baptize” (baptizō) still means “immerse,” and to describe another action another word was used. The document reveals many Jewish affinities, and the preferences for the kind of water for baptism may go back to Jewish preferences. The word for “running” water is “living.” Motion was a characteristic of “life” in ancient thought and made such water more appropriate for a “life-giving” ordinance. “Still” water that had been collected in a pool or cistern was subject to impurities. Natural sources of water supplied the locations for baptism in the earliest times (IV.2) before specially designed structures were built. It was in the absence of such natural sources or of water in sufficient depth for immersion that the compiler of the Didache permitted pouring. And that is clearly a last resort.
According to the Didache a copious amount of water could be poured three times on the head. The three times may have been due to the Trinitarian formula; trine immersion was customary by the end of the second century (Chapter III). The head, as the most important part, perhaps represented the whole body.
One of the leading modern students of the Didache, the Roman Catholic scholar J. P. Audet, has concluded that the section after the command to immerse in the triune name in running water is an interpolation into the original document.5 Audet’s elaborate analysis of the document is not at all convincing. Nevertheless, there is good evidence that the present form of the Didache has undergone several stages of compilation. It is a characteristic of the church order literature, of which this is the earliest representative, to bring the instructions “up-to-date” by including later practices alongside earlier material. There are grammatical changes in the text at the point where Audet marks the interpolation. The unusual, not to say exceptional, nature of the Didache’s instructions about pouring could be explained as an interpolation made somewhere in the transmission of this composite document. On the other hand, since I would accept such hypotheses only if other explanations fail, I would propose a way in which the passage as it stands can be accepted and placed in the line of development.
Didache 7 may be describing in its later part a “partial immersion,” and not a simple pouring. According to a partial immersion the candidate stands in as much water as the font will hold and water is poured over the head three times in sufficient amount to run down over the remainder of the body and wet the whole person.6 The intention may have been to give the effect of running water covering the person. Such a “partial immersion” is permitted as an alternative to a submersion in modern Orthodox Churches and is found by some scholars in the archaeological evidence. It is possible that the Didache is saying, “If you do not have either cold water (in a natural pool or fountain) or warm water (in an artificial container) in sufficient amount to duck the head into it, pour out water three times on the head.”
The substitution of pouring perhaps came through Jewish influence with the different types of purifications under the Law. The Jewish “flavor” of the Didache has already been noted, and “Jewish” influence was stronger in the Western Church, which took the Old Testament more literally, than in the Greek Church. A triple lustration was known in paganism, and if this passage is early, the analogy of pouring may have led to the three immersions. Another possibility, especially applicable to the baptisteries mentioned below, was the desire to reproduce “living water” where cistern water was used.7 In the present state of knowledge we are reduced to speculation.
Other Possible Exceptions
Tertullian, Baptism 12, allows that some call a baptism the overwhelming of the apostles in the boat during a storm (Matt. 8:24), but he denies that this was Christian baptism.8 His statement in On Repentance 6, “Who will grant a man of such faithless repentance a single sprinkling of any water,” means that an impenitent person would not be given even a sprinkling much less an immersion. The apocryphal second-century Epistle of the Apostles has been thought by some to refer to pouring,9 but the words about the hand of the administrator do not necessarily imply affusion: “I [Jesus is speaking] have given them the right hand of the baptism of life and forgiveness” (27).10 The work survives only in late Coptic and Ethiopic manuscripts. If the latter translation is more literal, the reference could be to the hand of the administrator and imply nothing about affusion. There is a reference to pouring and sprinkling water in the Christian Sibylline Oracles 7.74-91, but what is being described in the ceremony, which draws on the imagery of pagan sacrificial ritual, is obscure and offers no clear evidence for normal church practice.11
Evidence from Archaeology
Natural supplies of water or already existing structures built for the collecting and storing of water supplied the first sites for baptism. Tertullian’s listing of sources in pairs of running versus still water (IV.2)12 may be to quiet reservations about the propriety of using stored water. For Tertullian the validity of any water depends on the coming of the Holy Spirit upon it.
The earliest specially designed baptisteries which have been identified and dated do not go behind the third century.13 These early baptisteries are too large, and indeed unnecessary, for an affusion. But it has been contended that some are not large enough or deep enough for submersion. It is possible that some of these were constructed for the partial immersions described above. Where the dimensions (about a yard in length) would seem to rule out a horizontal immersion (but with the shorter stature of ancient peoples this would not be the case as often as might be supposed), a vertical immersion (the administrator’s hand ducking or bending the upper part of the body under the water) would be possible. Literary texts (II.12; IV. 6, 7, and 8) and pictures showing the administrator’s hand on the head of the candidate14 indicate that this was the normal mode of immersion. Such a procedure does not require the size baptistery that laying the body out (in imitation of modern burial practice) does. Some existing fonts or basins are reported to be too shallow even for this (sunk a foot or less below floor level).15 But it is not clear that there were never walls built up around the depression. Walls extending at least to waist height occur commonly in fourth-century and later baptismal fonts.
Lack of space precludes the examination of individual baptisteries that a full study would require, but their later date gives them only secondary value for a study of the second-century practice. One of the famous finds of Christian archaeology is the house at Dura Europos remodeled as a place of Christian meeting after 232 and destroyed before 256. One room was designed for the performance of baptism and paintings were executed on the walls. At one end of the room was placed a basin under a canopy. The dimensions of the basin are a length of five feet four inches by a width which varies from three feet to three feet four inches by a depth of three feet one inch. A step or ledge on the inside aided entry and could have been used for a person to sit on and have the upper part of his body lowered beneath the water, submerging the whole.16
Some of the Christian catacomb paintings have in the past been dated to the second century, but the current conclusion is that there is no Christian art before about 200.17 Some of the earliest paintings from the Catacombs depict a baptism. Indeed a baptism (especially the baptism of Christ) was one of the more popular scenes on wall paintings in the Catacombs and in sculpture on sarcophagi.18
Certain characteristic features in the portrayal of baptismal scenes argue for an immersion. The candidate is normally naked, as for the baths. He stands in water or (in sculpture) the water is piled up behind him. The administrator’s hand rests on the head of the candidate, ready to guide the head down. No early picture shows the administrator pouring or sprinkling water. Where, in later pictures, something comes from the beak of the dove, we should likely think of the anointing oil which symbolized the Holy Spirit given after baptism (see Ch. III), inasmuch as the dove symbolized the Holy Spirit. Since the nakedness and the hand on the head are mentioned in the literary texts (II.12; IV.7), the artist was giving a realistic portrayal, whatever symbolic meaning was present (nakedness–new birth; hand on the head–blessing). Since immersion is a continuous act, it cannot be portrayed in a still picture as easily as a pouring or sprinkling could be shown. A particular moment has to be selected. What is shown is consistent with an immersion and contains details inappropriate, unnecessary, or contradictory to some other method of administering baptism. The low level of water in some pictures, particularly in the sculptures on sarcophagi, is to allude to the presence of water rather than to give a realistic picture.
There is some evidence for streams of water coming into some of the fonts, and some of the sculpture may indicate that the head was pushed into the stream of water or that the water was guided over the head of the one being baptized. Such might be an indication of partial immersion, but such representations are later and are not necessarily exceptions to submersion.19 Pictures of an undoubted sprinkling do not come until the late Middle Ages in the West.20 Even after infant baptism (Ch. V) became the rule, immersion was the usual practice, as shown by both art and the baptisteries.
The Didache is the only indication before the middle of the third century of the use of anything but immersion, even in case of emergency. In the third century there is evidence for pouring as a substitute for dipping in the cases of infirm or sick persons. Since it was given to persons confined to their beds (klinē in Greek), it was called clinical baptism. Initially the practice seems to have sought to duplicate the normal rite as much as possible by wetting the whole person.
Cyprian (IV.9) is the first writer to give a systematic defense of such a practice. Apparently there were those who had doubts about its efficacy. Cyprian recognizes that it is an “abridgement” or “accommodation.” He is careful to insist that everything else must be in order, but when it is, he considers sick-bed pouring equally effective with the normal practice. It may be noted that his language contrasts “wash” with “pour.” “Wash” in itself said nothing about the manner of the application of water, but the word was used by Christians for the baptismal immersion bath (perhaps in part from the influence of Greco-Roman bathing establishments). Cyprian’s terminology reflects Christian word usage.
The clinical baptism of Novatian (IV. 10) provided an interesting case. We know the circumstances from his opponent, Cornelius, who was elected bishop of Rome in A.D. 251. Novatian set himself up as a rival bishop, receiving ordination from three Italian bishops. Cornelius had every interest in discrediting his rival, and the report reflects this. The opposition to the validity of Novatian’s ordination rested as much on the fact of his receiving sick-bed baptism as on the way it was administered, but doubts about the latter were part of the misgivings about the former.21 There was a feeling that those who received baptism in these circumstances were not fully converted and submitted to baptism only as a safety precaution in view of impending death. The question of the sincerity of Novatian’s conversion was groundless, but the reservations attaching to the practice continued in the feeling that such individuals should not be recognized in the clergy.
The Reasoning Behind the Substitution
The origin of alternative practices was in emergencies-either shortage of water or the circumstances of the candidate. What made the change justifiable was the importance attached to baptismal grace. Cyprian calls baptism “receiving God’s grace.” Because baptism was so important, a substitute in the mode was considered better than missing out on the act altogether. There would not have been a substitution, if baptism had not been considered essential for one’s salvation.
By the mid-third century the water plus the Trinitarian formula had become all-important for the validity of baptism. Conscious faith, the command of Christ, and exact obedience were not in the forefront of thinking. If water worked the cleansing, could the amount of water or the manner of its application be essential? This emphasis on the water, per se, apart from faith and the meaning of the act may be related to the “sanctification of the water,” which Chapter III showed to have become a part of the baptismal ceremony. This can more properly be called “water salvation” than can the New Testament teaching.
Conant, T. J. The Meaning and Use of Baptizein. New York: American Bible Union, 1861.
Khatchatrian, A. Les baptistéres paléochrétiens. Paris, 1962.
Stauffer, S. Anita. On Baptismal Fonts: Ancient and Modern. Bramcote: Grove, 1994.
1 Cf. his Lectures on the Mysteries 2.4 (=Catechetical Lectures 20.4), which some scholars ascribe to his successor John of Jerusalem.
2 For archaeological confirmation on this point, see J. G. Davies, The Architectural Setting of Baptism (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1962), pp. 14ff. and references there. See also W. M. Bedard, The Symbolism of the Baptismal Font in Early Christian Thought (Washington, 1951), chapter II.
2a The numbering is that of Paul W. Harkins, St. John Chrysostom: Baptismal Instructions, Ancient Christian Writers 31 (New York: Paulist, 1963).
3 The Greek reads, “received,” and the object must be supplied: “baptism,” or better “grace.” Note Cyprian’s phrase (IV.9) and the same usage in inscriptions (V.19-21, 23, 27). The following phrase “by water being poured around over him” is a paraphrase to bring out the force of a single Greek word which suggests an abundance of water being spread over an object.
4 Such a regulation is found in Canon 12 approved by the Council of Neo-Caesarea in the early fourth century.
4a Acts of Peter 5 and Acts of Paul and Thecla 34 are other early evidence.
5 J. P. Audet, La Didache (Paris, 1958), pp. 105-110, 365-67. When the fourth-century compiler of the Apostolic Constitutions (7.2.22) used the Didache’s instructions on baptism he did not include the part on pouring; he either did not find it in his text, considered the exception no longer relevant (in an age of artificial baptisteries), or objected to it. W. Rordorf and A. Tuillier, La Doctrine des Douze Apôtres, Sources Chrétiennes 248 (Paris: Cerf, 1978), p. 36, and Kurt Niederwimmer, The Didache: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), pp. 125-129, speak of the redactor rather than an interpolator adding the passage and place his work quite early.
6 Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Oration 35 has been thought to refer to a partial immersion: “having the water three times poured over us (epicheamenoi) and ascending again from the water.” Gregory certainly intends the water to cover completely (see in the same chapter, “immersed himself in death as we in water,” and “to be three times in the water”), so he may refer to the water pouring over the body as it goes under rather than to an administrator pouring the water on the body. Cf. his On the Baptism of Christ where he speaks of “three plungings” (kataduseis) and “hidden in the water as the Savior was in the earth.”
7 Theodore Klauser, “Taufet in lebendigen Wasser!” Pisciculi, ed. T. Klauser and A. Ruecker (Münster, 1939), pp. 163f.
8 The Ante-Nicene Fathers translation of On Baptism 2, “A man is dipped in water and amid the utterance of some few words is sprinkled,” should be changed to, “A man is sent down into the water and between a few words is dipped.” The first verb refers to the descent into the baptistery; the second is tingo (“to dye, wet, bathe, dip”) and is Tertullian’s usual word to translate the Greek “baptize.”
9 M.R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), p. 494. The revision by J. K. Elliot (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993) drops James’ translation, “I poured out upon them” in chapter 27 and reads instead, “having given them the right hand of the baptism of life and forgiveness” (p. 573); chapter 42 reads similarly (p. 583).
10 New Testament Apocrypha, revised edition, Vol. I, p. 265 [See Ch. II, note 2.] Chapter 42 in the Ethiopic version is clearer, “They will receive by my hand through you the baptism of life and forgiveness of their sins” (p. 273). J. Daniélou, Theology of Jewish Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964), p. 239 translates, “With my right hand I gave them the baptism of life.”
11 Introduction and translation by J. J. Collins in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 1 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1983), p. 412.
12 Pseudo-Clement, Recognitions 4-32 speaks of “sins washed away with the water of the fountain, river, or even sea.” The Acts of Thomas record baptisms in public baths (26), a river (49), and in vessels for the storage of water in a private home (132); but the former two are mentioned only in the revised Syriac text and not in the Greek-both texts are printed in Whitaker, Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy (London: S.P.C.K., 1960), pp. 10ff.
13 Davies, op. cit., p. 2.
14 L. de Bruyne, “L’imposition des mains dans l’art chrétien ancien,” Rivista di archeologia Christiana XX (1943), 212-246, has assembled the evidence, but I differ with his interpretation that the hand on the head represents the conferring of the Holy Spirit in confirmation following the baptism. The Apostolic Tradition (11.12) shows that the hand on the head refers to the moment of the baptismal confession. For the Catacomb pictures, see J. Wilpert, Die Malereien deṙ Katakomben Roms (Freiburg, 1903), plates 27, 39, 58, 73, 228, 240; for art in general Gunter Ristow, The Baptism of Christ, “Library of Eastern Church Art” (Recklinghausen: Aurel Bongers, 1967). See Plates I and II of this book, and note in the latter that the body of the one being baptized is inclined forward.
15 Davies, op. cit., pp. 23ff.
16 Carl H. Kraeling, The Christian Building, The Excavations at Dura Europos, Final Report VIII, II (New Haven, 1967), Part I, Section III on the Structure.
17 André Grabar, Christian Iconography: A Study of Its Origins (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press), p. 7, and The Beginnings of Christian Art, “The Arts of Mankind” (London: Thames and Hudson, 1967), p. 82; Paul Corby Finney, The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 99 and passim.
18 Walter Lowrie, Art in the Early Church (N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 1947), p. 78.
19 C. F. Rogers, Baptism and Christian Archaeology, Studia Biblica et Ecclesiastica Vol. V (1903), p. 274. Rogers argues that affusion was the normal practice. I question his conclusion, but the work, pp. 239-358, represents a still valuable collection of evidence. See also his articles in Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 6 (1905), pp. 107-110 and Vol. 12 (1911), pp. 437-445. The reply by I. Abrahams, “How Did the Jews Baptize,” Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 12 (1911), pp. 609-612 proves immersion among the Jews; his evidence about the amount of water required for Jewish baptism may be relevant for the Didache's exception. See the Mishnah tractate Mikwaoth (“Immersion-Pools”), especially 1.68; 2.1-10; 5.6.
20 The picture of the baptism of Christ in the dome of the Cathedral Baptistery (Baptistery of the Orthodox) at Ravenna (fifth century) is often reproduced as an example of pouring: the naked Christ is waist deep in water while John pours water from a vessel above his head. However, the part with John’s arm and the pouring is a nineteenth-century restoration; in the original the hand of John would have rested on Jesus’ head, as in the nearly contemporary picture in the Arian Baptistery at Ravenna. Spiro K. Kostof, The Orthodox Baptistery of Ravenna (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), pp. 86-87.
21 A negative attitude toward clinical or death-bed baptism continued in the fourth century; see my “Exhortations to Baptism in the Cappadocians,” Studia Patristica, Vol. XXXIII (1997), pp. 121-129, esp. 123-125.