Baptismal Trajectories in Early Christianity, Part I: The Liturgical “Dark Age” and Second Temple Judaism

Christians have been thinking about baptismal procedure for a long time, arguably as far back as the New Testament itself. In the last few centuries, with the rise of the Anabaptist and Baptist traditions, the question of appropriate age for initiates has generated much debate. These groups notwithstanding, the baptism of infants and small children does appear to have been the norm for most of Christianity’s tenure, be it in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or most streams of Protestantism.

It is often supposed that these disagreements about baptism would resolve were we better informed about Christian practice in the first few centuries. If we could definitively discover the practice of the apostolic (or, at least, immediately post-apostolic) era then surely that would be a proverbial slam-dunk.

Yet what do we find when we look closely at early Christianity? Far from decisive evidence for either side, it may be that we in fact find things which trouble both our familiar pedobaptist and credobaptist theologies, and which require a fresh account. It may be that our well-entrenched positions are revealed to be worn, overly-taught wineskins, and that, if we look carefully, there are (counter-intuitively) fresher, more durable wineskins to be found in church history.

This article is the first in a series of three on the question of baptism in early Christianity. Our modest aims are to examine in what directions Christian baptismal practice and thought seems to have traveled, whether or not this matches our contemporary categories, and to tentatively propose a fresh explanation of some crucial dynamics. Part I traces the basic limits of our historical knowledge and considers one strand of evidence from Second Temple Judaism that has some bearing on the problem. Part II will analyze some of the less-than-dispositive clues left by early Christians themselves, from the New Testament era through about the third century. Part III will consider later patristic evidence concerning delayed baptism, before concluding by suggesting a conjectural, constructive explanation for what our inquiry has unearthed.

The Problem

Our knowledge from the New Testament to the Constantinian era (beginning in 315 AD) presents us with a kind of liturgical Dark Age–not in the sense of a backward or primitive time but of a period where our historical information “goes dark,” as it were. At least among Protestants, if we knew with clarity what standard practice was in the apostolic era alone, that would settle the issue, but even a better sense of the subsequent 200 years would go a long way. Given the stakes for Christian tradition, some historians have tried to throw more light on the subject of Christian liturgy, but other than a few fragments—bits of archeology here and there, some texts like the Didache and other such “church orders,” spotty quotations from certain Church Fathers—we have comparatively little to go on.[1] There are, however, two additional angles from which to probe into the practices of that era: what immediately preceded in Judaism and what immediately followed in imperial Christianity.

Calvin and Qumran

First, Judaism. One of John Calvin’s more famous arguments for pedobaptism is that it covenantally corresponds to circumcision among the Jews.[2] To some extent, then, we should expect the historical record to back this up, and so are prompted to ask: did the Jews of the Second Temple era—which may have significant implications for the earliest Christians of the same milieu—think about circumcision as we might think of baptizing children today?

The difficulty is that, as with early Christianity itself, discerning what constituted Jewish orthodoxy in the Second Temple period is notoriously difficult, and many scholars are wary of declaring “what most Jews believed” at the time. Here we want to consider some fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls (henceforth DSS), which represent at least one Jewish school of thought.[3]

The exact identity of those who produced the scrolls has been and is poised to remain a hotly debated mystery. Scholarly consensus tends to lean toward an identification of Qumran with the Essenes, a rigorist sect known to us through Josephus, Philo, and Pliny the Elder.[4] The community rules—detailed regulations to guide members’ conduct—found in the DSS seem to align fairly well with that rigorist outlook. These Jewish sectarians appear to have thought of themselves as a specially chosen remnant, whereas the rest of Israel was slack and accordingly ripe for God’s severe judgment along with the Gentile world. The Qumranites believed that they themselves would be the particular vehicle through which God would fulfill all the covenantal promises of Scripture. Though markedly less hostile to the outside world, there are strong parallels here with how apostolic Christians thought of themselves: God had fulfilled his promises through Jesus and now it was their job to get all the other Jews (and Gentiles, Paul would argue) on board with the project that the Messiah had left them. In other words, the earliest Christians were also Jewish particularists, albeit ones more outwardly focused, if we take the New Testament at face value.[5]

Two texts from DSS are particularly relevant: the so-called “Messianic Rule” and “Damascus Document.” Both make stipulations for those entering into participation in the covenant community. The Messianic Rule has the clearest rendition of the pertinent regulation (I have tried to maintain the editors’ formatting, with those to whom the law applies italicized, and the law itself in plain text):

I This is the Rule for all the congregation of Israel in the last days, when they shall join [the Community to wa]lk according to the law of the sons of Zadok the Priests and of the men of their Covenant who have turned aside [from the] way of the people, the men of His Council who keep his Covenant in the midst of iniquity, offering expiation [for the Land]

When they come, they shall summon them all, the little children and the women also, and they shall read into their [ears a]ll the precepts of the Covenant and shall expound to them all their statutes that they may no longer stray in their [errors].

And this is the Rule for all the hosts of the congregation, for every man born in Israel

From [his] youth they shall instruct him in the Book of Meditation and shall teach him, according to his age, the precepts of the Covenant. He [shall be edu]cated in their statutes for ten years . . .

At the age of twenty years [he shall be] enrolled, that he may enter upon his allotted duties in the midst of his family (and) be joined to the holy congregation. He shall not [approach] a woman to know her by lying with her before he is fully twenty years old, when he shall know [good] and evil. And thereafter, he shall be accepted when he calls to witness the judgements of the Law, and shall be (allowed) to assist at the hearing of judgements.[6]

The regulation about sex (and presumably marriage) is superlatively intriguing in its own right. Conscience and maturity are stressed, and it demonstrates that rigorous Jewish asceticism could look rather different than later Christian asceticism.

In the Damascus Document, we get a little more information about what seems to be the same process of initiation: 

And all those who have entered the Covenant, granted to all Israel for ever, shall make their children who have reached the age of enrolment, swear with the oath of the Covenant. And thus it shall be during all the age of wickedness for every man who repents of his corrupted way.[7]

If it is correct that these two excerpts refer to the same process, they offer interesting evidence about how (some) Second Temple Jews thought about covenant participation. Presumably, all the male members born into the DSS Community were circumcised like any good Jews of the time. Interestingly, however, they could not become full members of the Community until they had achieved a particular level of catechesis and training. This appears to have mostly taken place at the age of twenty, after years of preparation and education. Only then could they truly participate in the life of the community. Whilst these two fragments from one narrow community do not wholly refute Calvin’s exegetical reasoning that baptism replaced circumcision such that it applied to children, they may caution us against accepting his analogy too swiftly: circumcision appears to have functioned quite differently in Qumran than baptism did in Geneva.


All in all, critical readers will of course realize none of this constitutes proof that early Christians refused to baptize their own children. It is very possible that the earliest Christians intentionally and explicitly conducted themselves differently. For example, the Qumran community’s regulations also explicitly forbid rescuing distressed animals or people during the Sabbath, whereas Jesus simply assumes his Pharisee interlocutors would not hold such a rigid standard themselves (Luke 14:5).[8] What the evidence from Qumran does offer, however, is a sense of how some devout Jews could think of covenant. This particular sect of Second Temple Jews does approximate the Christian profile in its particularism and covenantal understanding. And yet, it apparently did not reflexively think that circumcision was what made you part of the special remnant or the “New Covenant,” to use the language of the Damascus Document.[9]

Interestingly, during the disputes in Acts and Galatians over circumcision, much like the Qumranites, the Pharisee/Judaizer contingent similarly saw circumcision as just a starting point: they also want Gentiles to follow the law of Moses in its entirety (Acts 15:5). The Jerusalem Council and Paul disagreed—much to the relief, one imagines, of Gentile Christian men awaiting the decision. In either case, however, circumcision appears to have served as only the first of many markers of participation for covenantally-minded Jews. In some of the few places we have meaningful evidence, we see a variation of Jewish theology that countenanced far more nuance, stressing both the knowledge and agency of the covenanting parties. It may be that Calvin’s preferred position on pedobaptism holds up on other grounds; as we shall see in Part II, there are suggestive passages in the New Testament itself with which committed credobaptists must contend. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the earliest Christians turned to baptism as the ritual, covenantal substitute for Jewish circumcision. While not insuperable proof for credobaptism, it should perhaps call into question overly hasty pedobaptist comparisons of baptism and circumcision.

This article is Part I of III. Part II can be found here, and Part III here.
Andrew Koperski is a doctoral candidate in ancient history at The Ohio State University. His fields of focus include Late Antiquity, Early Christianity, and Byzantium. Much of his current research examines the formation of the biblical canon and the reception of apocryphal literature.

  1. A good overview of this material appears in Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, esp. chapter 7 for this topic).
  2. See esp. Calvin’s Institutes 4.16. Much earlier, Justin Martyr (e.g. Dialogue with Trypho 19) juxtaposed circumcision and baptism, although he does not seem to link this to the age of Christian initiation.

  3. All references to Géza Vermès, ed., The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Rev. ed, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin, 2011).

  4. “The Dead Sea Sect . . . was probably an offshoot of the Essenes.” Seth Schwartz, The Ancient Jews from Alexander to Muhammad, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 67.

  5. Another difference: the New Testament seems to depict Jesus and his earliest followers as more akin to the sect of the Pharisees.

  6. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 159-60.

  7. Ibid., 138.

  8. Ibid., 142. Against the context of the DSS, we might hear Jesus implying to the Pharisees, “Surely, you’re not like those rigorists?”

  9. Ibid., 136.


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