Baptism in the Early Church

I started reading Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity by Robin M. Jensen. I didn’t have to read long before I realized that what happens today is a far cry from what happened in the early Church. Here’s what I mean:

Didymus’s synopsis conforms to a several-stage ritual pattern that characterized most early Christian baptismal rites. Initially those who wished to join the community were enrolled, catechized, exorcised, scrutinized, and given sponsors. Their sincerity of purpose was judged as they faster, refrained from bathing, kept vigils, and gave alms. When their baptismal day arrived, they were required formally and publicly to renounce Satan and to declare their allegiance to Christ. They were stripped, anointed over their whole bodies, and then dunked three times in cold, fresh water as they affirmed faith in the trinitarian God.

Once they emerged from the font, they were given new white garments, and received certain concluding (confirming) gestures from the bishop: the imposition of hands, the sign of the cross, and a final anointing with scented chrism. In some places, the bishop also washed their feet. Finally, they joined the community for their first eucharistic meal, which consisted of milk and honey as well as bread and wine. (2-3)

In citing this I don’t want to give the impression that this is how every baptism occurred in the early church. Jensen makes it clear that she’s not trying “to re-create a single, actual experience of baptism.” She explains that “Ritual acts and their order were not the same everywhere and always . . . Rituals are by nature local and adaptable even though they are, ideally, timeless and changeless.” (4) The book rather “seeks to explicate the sensory as well as the spiritual experience by showing how symbols and figures emerged, merged, and took precedence at various points in the ritual progress.” (3)

I find this fascinating and think this will be a fun read.

Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity is from Baker Academic. It is a paperback with 256 pages and sells for $24.99.

Robin M. Jensen (PhD, Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary) is Luce Chancellor’s Professor of the History of Christian Art and Worship at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She has authored several books, including Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity and Understanding Early Christian Art.


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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One Response to Baptism in the Early Church

  1. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III says:

    Dear Louis,

    Interesting report. I find that there several issues indicated by your quote,

    1) That those being baptized were adults not children, i.e. under 12 or 13 years of age.

    2) That baptism involved being completely immersed.

    3) That the one being baptized were assigned a mentor that seems to follow the pattern of Paul and Timothy, et al.

    4) That extensive teaching occurred before the baptism. This would seem to indicate some divergence from what is seen in the Gospels and that Acts where the baptism preceded the instructions to the one being baptized.

    5) The issue of not going to the baths would indicate that some “unsavory” acts were usually done there or that the person was to abstain from being “nude” in public. Hard to say why.

    6) The issuing of a new, white garment identifies the new believer with the new garments issued to followers of Christ in the marriage supper in the Gospels and in Revelation.

    There are others interesting features, but that should be enough to generate a good discussion. Also, as you indicated, the author does show that rituals varied depending on location.


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