Baptism in the Early Church -- By: George E. Rice
BSP 10:3-4 (Summer-Autumn 1981) p. 121
Baptism in the Early Church
[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 in 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. 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
BSP 10:3-4 (Summer-Autumn 1981) p. 122
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 Corinthians 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 himself.
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 purific...
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