One of our recent guests on the Bible and Beyond podcast, Elli Elliott, painted a poignant picture of life in the early years of the Jesus movement in her recent book, Family Empires, Roman and Christian, Vol. 1. It’s a picture of baptism that speaks to the heart. On pages 106–107 she asks us to:
“picture yourself as a member of one of those households [of a Roman family]…Odds are you are a slave. Odds are you have experienced some form of abuse. You have been beaten or threatened with beatings….It was simply part of how things were ….
“Now imagine yourself coming through the waters of baptism in the Christian ritual. You come up from the water, and as someone wraps you in a fresh white robe, the assembly greets you speaking the words from God to Jesus, “You are my beloved child! With you I am well-pleased!”
I can imagine how comforting those words would be for anyone who has been rejected, oppressed, or considered unclean for any reason.
This is a different picture from the way baptism works in my life today. Although I love and recommit to the idea of baptism as full submergence in Spirit, I also experience it as a rejection at the table of Eucharist (giving of thanks) of my friends. My Protestant friends can’t join their Catholic friends, and I am not welcome to join some of my Protestant friends. I wasn’t baptized in water (although I was taught the seriousness of the frequent purification by Spirit). Some are appalled that others were baptized as infants; others are equally appalled that they waited until adulthood for the rite of baptism.
The earliest indications of baptism don’t tell us anything about exclusion, but they convey more of an inclusive community support for spiritual cleansing.
It isn’t clear just when or how the Christian ritual now called ‘baptism’ began, but some of the earliest writings tell us that it was a natural part of the community meal. Since the English word ‘baptism’ is directly related to the Greek baptizmo, the meaning of baptizmo is important. As Hal Taussig (also a former guest on the Bible and Beyond podcast) explains, baptizmo simply means ‘washing’ — washing our clothes, our dishes, or our bodies. It was natural for those who may have walked miles in the dusty road to ‘wash’ before a community meal.
But the spiritual element of the washing was also present from the earliest connection with Jesus, who was a Jew. Whether John, also a Jew, performed the baptism (as in Matthew and Mark) or watched it (as in Luke), the canonical and some extracanonical gospels agree that the Holy Spirit was present when Jesus was baptized. Jesus and his early followers weren’t becoming Christian, but they probably prayed before, during, and after these community meals, mostly in the giving of thanks (which is what ‘eucharist’ means).
The act of baptism appears to merge with the frequent meal-sharing among those in a spiritual community. These meals continued long into the evening, with people reclining around the table, talking, singing, eating, and drinking. The ubiquity of Roman baths implied a common practice of cleansing before meals, and this kind of washing/baptizing may have been an early practice among Jesus followers as well.
Interestingly, one of the earliest teachings on Christian conduct – the Didache, or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” – does not say anything about a one-time washing (baptism). Even though it does teach baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and with the preference of running water, there is no reference to an unrepeatable act of baptism.
Also missing in the Didache is any instruction on the preference between the believer’s baptism (a personal confession of faith) or infant baptism (baptizing the infant children of believing parents).
How strange it is to consider that these two most divisive issues regarding baptism today are not even mentioned in the earliest known teachings of the Apostles. But the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in conjunction with the cleansing is more persistent than the modern arguments over who is and who is not welcome to ‘give thanks’ at the spiritual and communal meal.
Another early writer, the author of the Testimony of Truth, describes the ‘seal’ of baptism as a hope of salvation. It is through the renunciation of worldly powers and worldly attractions that the “baptism of truth” can be found, this writer claims (69:7-32).
All these ancient writings on the subject of baptism once again shed light on the heritage belonging to Christians. There may well have been numerous ways of practicing baptism before a meal of thanks in antiquity, but the common feature was the acknowledgement of the cleansing of impure influences and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
For those of us seeking a model of unity in diversity, the ancient views of baptism may be one of those ideas that help us shift our priorities from how to do it to why we do it.