The first exposure in the English Bible to the word “baptize” is in the Gospels, when we see John the Baptizer in the Jordan performing some Jewish cleansing ritual. Some might be tempted to speculate that Baptism began here. However, if one looks at the Greek Translation of the Jewish Bible (used by the apostles and the early church to read the Old Testament) the word appears there as well. Such a use can be seen in Leviticus 14:6, where the priest is given instructions to take two doves, kill one, and then dip the other dove in the blood of the first bird. Besides being a striking picture of the coming atonement in Christ, this action is called dipping or baptso (the root of baptismo – Baptism).
Later, in Jewish practice, baptism became a normal part of worship. Later, according to the Talmud, it became a ritual associated with proselyte initiation. The confessor Gentiles would be circumcised (if male) and undergo a washing ritual (the Talmud calls baptism). Why mention this in a post on the history of infant baptism? Because if the convert had any children, males over 13-years old and females over 12 would speak for themselves if they wanted to convert. If they were under that age, the father spoke for them and the males were circumcised and both the females and the males underwent baptism. Thus, the history of infant baptism starts BEFORE the New Testament. (so, when educating the Jews on baptism, they would have to be told to stop baptizing infants, not to start)
During the New Testament period, the Christians adopted baptism from Judaism. The question to be answered was whether children are included in the covenant as they had been in Judaism, when they were circumcised as infants. In Acts 2:38-39 and 1 Cor 7:13-14, the answer given seems to be yes, but with baptism instead of circumcision (Col 2:11). In regards to infant baptism, however, no statement as blatant as “and this infant so-and-so was baptized” occurs. However, many “household” baptisms occur in the book of Acts (such as Acts 16:15) and the word for household οἶκος includes any children and infants of the family (even in the same book of Acts in 7:20).
After the time of the New Testament, in the Early Church baptism always had a close identification with circumcision. (as it does in Paul in Col 2:11) The first recorded instance we have of a local synod addressing the timing of baptism is in Carthage in the early 200s. But it did not debate the efficacy of infant baptism, for that was assumed, instead the debate was over how some wanted baptism preformed even sooner. Many Christians were waiting until the 8th day, like circumcision in the OT, and the synod gave parents permission to baptize sooner if they wished. (Pelikan, Christian Tradition Vol 1. Pg 290-292)
But what is our earliest reference? Origen was baptized as an infant in 185AD. We also have liturgies detailing the practice of baptism near Rome in “On the Apostolic Tradition” that attempts to detail the practices of the church for posterity as they were practiced in the time of the apostles and the apostles’ followers. The later parts of the book have a “late date” (conservative scholars like to date things at their latest possible date) of 215, which is the part that gives instructions on prayer and the like. However, the early part of the book all scholars who have worked on the syntax and sources believe is older, perhaps conservatively the late 100s. The manual instructs the elder to ask the person seeking baptism to speak to their faith for themselves. But “you are to baptize the little ones…those who cannot speak for themselves, their parents or someone who belongs to their family should speak for them.” (Apostolic Tradition – Chapter 21)
Here are the hard questions to ask if infant baptism was not the consistent practice of the church in the first three centuries (really, the first 15 centuries, but let’s just focus on the early church first):
1. The church was not afraid to debate doctrine on everything from Christ’s person to Scripture canon. If a new practice arose that the apostles did not practice, why is there no record of any debate on the subject?
2. The practice of infant baptism was universal geographically. This would mean the practice would have a starting point and then spread quickly between the time of the apostle John’s death (90AD) to the time of Origen’s birth (185AD), being the most silent and fastest spreading heresy of any heresy faced in the early church.
3. Why did infant baptism stop (for it existed in Judaism) and then start again with no statement of either the stopping of the practice in the New Testament or the starting of it in the historical record?