This article is the second in a series of three on the question of baptism in early Christianity. My aim here is to offer conjectures about how baptism may have functioned in this period. Part I traced the basic limits of our historical knowledge and considered how evidence from Qumran, whilst not decisively settling the matter in favor of credobaptists, should perhaps make Calvin’s classic pedobaptist comparison of circumcision and baptism more open to question. The present Part II analyzes 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 and present a broader theory of the case.
Interesting Remarks in the New Testament
Where the age of the baptismal initiate is concerned, the evidence from the New Testament has been picked over for centuries now, so there is probably little to add here to shift anyone’s thinking significantly. In short, it provides few (if any) explicit directions about who could be baptized at what age or what level of catechesis. Those of a more credobaptist persuasion will undoubtedly argue that most stories of baptism seem to concern adults, like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). But this is where theological priors are likely to be decisive in the interpretation of biblical silence: a variety of different theologies can be read back into the New Testament here without torturing the text excessively.
Those caveats notwithstanding, two interesting cases from the book of Acts might catch the social historian’s eye. The first is Acts 10:44-48, which concerns the conversion of Cornelius the centurion. Here Peter addresses a group composed of Cornelius “relatives and friends” (Acts 10:24: τοὺς συγγενεῖς αὐτοῦ καὶ τοὺς ἀναγκαίους φίλους). Earlier in the chapter, we are told that Cornelius was a God-fearer “along with his whole household” (Acts 10:2: σὺν παντὶ τῷ οἴκῳ αὐτοῦ), and it is probable that the narrator intends us to understand they were part of the assembly as well. When Peter finishes his sermon, the Holy Spirit falls upon “all who heard the word,” at which point the apostle directs that they be baptized. Later, in Acts 16:31-34, Paul and Silas’ Philippian jailer asks how he can be saved. In response, they instruct him to believe in Christ so that he would be saved “along with your whole household” (καὶ σωθήσῃ σὺ καὶ ὁ οἶκός σου). A few verses later, the jailor and “all who were his” undergo baptism (ἐβαπτίσθη αὐτὸς καὶ οἱ αὐτοῦ ἅπαντες). It is curious that Paul and Silas do not explicitly call for this household baptism, but it does follow.
Ancient social dynamics would generally include two classes of person who “belonged” to the male head of household: his children and his slaves, and these two categories could and did overlap sometimes in the same persons (one wonders particularly about Cornelius and his “relatives,” since Roman centurions were typically forbidden from having legal marriages while commissioned). Of course, it may have been universally understood among the earliest Christians that children and slaves were not viable candidates without proper catechesis and attendant faith, such that they would read “whole household” to mean “everyone except the normal exceptions, of course.” Probably the more natural reading, however, is to take the text at its word: the whole household means the whole household. To put it in explicitly Roman terms, the religion of paterfamilias is the religion of the familia. When we consider the New Testament’s social context, then, the pedobaptist position finds some support.
Some Early Patristic Evidence
Data points from early in the patristic era (before c. 300) give us additional ambiguous information to ponder. One might begin by parsing the older church orders in an attempt to glean some information. The Didache, for instance, is quite old, with portions that may date as far back as the first century. In one version, we find a short set of instructions for baptism:
And concerning immersion (lit. “baptism”), immerse in this way: into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living (i.e. running) water. But if you do not have living water, immerse in some other water. And if you cannot do it in cold water, do it warm. And if you do not have either, pour out water on the head three times, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And prior to immersion, let the immerser and the one being immersed fast beforehand, and some others if they are able. You command the one being immersed to fast one or two days prior.
Unfortunately, textual critics have disputed the exact age of this section for decades now, as the Didache’s manuscript tradition remains appreciably involuted at certain junctures, including this one. But in any case, much as in the New Testament itself, we are told nothing specific about the age of the initiates. On the other hand, if we also take this text at its word, it seems to envision a somewhat older age than infancy: presumably, infants would not be fasting.
One of the most useful assemblages of evidence from this period (known to this author) is a book chapter by Everett Ferguson addressed to infant baptism directly. Ferguson raises some interesting points and pieces of evidence, even if he frequently applies this evidence to answer other questions than those we are most concerned with here, such as the discontinuity between Augustine and earlier fathers on notions of original sin and its implications for baptism. Regarding baptismal age specifically, Ferguson highlights Tertullian, who wrote the following:
According to the circumstances and nature, and also age, of each person, the delay of baptism is more suitable, especially in the case of small children. What is the necessity, if there is no such necessity, for the sponsors as well to be brought into danger, since they may fail to keep their promises by reason of death or be deceived by an evil disposition which grows up in the child? The Lord indeed says, “Do not forbid them to come to me.” Let them “come” then while they are growing up, while they are learning, while they are instructed why they are coming. Let them become Christians when they are able to know Christ. In what respect does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins? Should we act more cautiously in worldly matters, so that divine things are given to those to whom earthly property is not given? Let them learn to ask for salvation so that you may be seen to have given “to him who asks.”
Compared to some of his predecessors, Tertullian’s framework leaves little room for interpretation. At certain points in this excerpt, it seems likely that he has an existing practice in mind: some Christians did baptize their young children, apparently. Even so, as Ferguson notes, Tertullian appears to be sticking to the Christian mainstream throughout this treatise, which itself has a strong anti-heretical streak. It seems unlikely, then, that this was his own idiosyncratic view on that matter, or the product of, say, his later fling with Montanism. Tertullian is a crucial patristic witness, not least because he is our earliest Latin Church Father, and his reception by later Fathers in both the Greek and Latin traditions alike shows a deep appreciation for him. In other words, it stretches the imagination to suppose that Tertullian was alone in his view of baptism, though it should be noted that he appears to be in the minority of the early fathers on record (Ferguson considers fairly clear testimony from Origen, Hippolytus, and Cyprian in favor of pedobaptism). At the very least, we may surmise that Tertullian’s testimony shows that pedobaptism was not a universal practice. Moreover, when it comes to the question of which position has the first explicit, post-New-Testament source in its support, the credobaptists may have the upper hand in Tertullian.
Perhaps more intriguing is Ferguson’s collection of epigraphic evidence. I note two third-century inscriptions here. The first:
To the sacred divine dead. Florentius made this monument to his worthy son Appronianus, who lived one year, nine months, and five days. Since he was dearly loved by his grandmother, and she saw that he was going to die, she asked from the church that he might depart from the world a believer.
Pastor, Titiana, Marciana, and Chreste made this for Marcianus, their worthy son in Christ, who lived twelve years, two months, and … days, who received [grace] on the twelfth day before the Kalends of October, Marianus and Paternus the second time being consuls, and gave up [his soul] on the eleventh day before the Kalends. Live among the saints in eternity.
Assuming both refer to baptism (“depart from the world a believer,” “received [grace]”), what might the inscriptions like these tell us about early Christian practice? In the first place, we should probably imagine that the dedicators were better off than the average person, given the costs involved with commissioning this kind of epigraphy. In turn, this may mean that they had better than average access to education and catechesis. Put differently, they were probably not any worse informed about normal Christian practice and theology than anyone else.
In both cases, we have an apparent delay in baptism until death seems imminent. Appronianus’ grandmother—interesting that it is not his parents, but a concerned member of the extended family—sees the writing on the wall and only then presses the church for help. Likewise, Marcianus undergoes baptism just a day before his death. The functional theology on display does not neatly fit either traditional pedobaptism or credobaptism, nor does it quite align with the words of Aristides, Athenagoras, or the Shepherd of Hermas, which all stress that young children’s innocence absolves them of God’s judgment. “For all infants,” reads the Shepherd, “are honored before God and are in the first rank before him.” The patent anxiety exhibited by the funerary inscriptions, however, indicates a plainly different theological outlook to that of the Shepherd.
Why delay baptism until the deathbed? Perhaps these inscriptions suggest a credobaptist default in the mode of Tertullian and possibly the Didache: the local church would not turn away a dying toddler’s desperate grandmother who feared for the boy’s salvation, but it was not the preferred procedure; young children were guiltless before God, anyway. Alternatively, perhaps the families of Appronianus and Marcianus had simply been lax in their observance of the normal liturgical practice, which baptized infants as soon as possible, as per antiquity’s very high infant mortality. This interpretation, however, is probably the least compelling, given that the actors involved clearly cared deeply about these boys. In a world where very many young children died suddenly, why aver the church’s normal practice? Or it may be that these epigraphic notices reflect already in the third century a habit of theology and practice which Augustine will confront much later at the turn of the fifth century: the long-term delay of baptism from what he considered faulty sacramental theology. As we shall consider in Part III, this odd (to us) habit also offers one further clue about earlier practice in our Liturgical Dark Age.
For now, it is enough to appreciate the muddled state of the evidence. Even with the relatively clear inclinations of Tertullian, and the hard archeological evidence of the funerary inscriptions, a conclusive slam-dunk for either the pedobaptist or credobaptist positions remains elusive within early Christianity. One of the few things we can say for sure is that there were a variety of practices, some of which strike modern Christians of all stripes as peculiar.
This article is Part II of III. Part I 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.
There is an intriguing inversion here of Jesus’ own baptism as told especially by Luke. Jesus undergoes baptism and then receives the Spirit (Luke 3:21-2), whereas these Gentiles receive the christening of the Spirit first. ↑
Didache 7. My translation. ↑
Cf. the later, more specific Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus 21, which parallels the Didache at many points but offers specific instructions about small children. ↑
Everett Ferguson, “The Beginning of Infant Baptism,” in Early Christians Speak, 3rd ed., Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries (ACU Press, 1999), 53–64. https://openbookreligion.org/read/early-christians-speak/section/c545ef76-8f48-46db-bf50-8d67998ec04d ↑
On Baptism 18. Ferguson’s translation. ↑
Ferguson, 56. Inscriptiones Latinae Christianae Veteres (ILCV) 1:1343. ↑
Ibid. ILCV II:3315. ↑
Ferguson, 53-4. ↑