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baptism, Church History, Historical Theology

>The History of Infant Baptism: Who started it?

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(Disclaimer: CRM has no official stance on this topic and the contributers contain people from both camps, however, I thought this would be good for conversation)
When looking at the issue of infant baptism, the historicity of the practice is one of great speculation. Many Baptists historians have said the practice arose in the third century and then engulfed the church shortly thereafter. The question of when it started is an important one, for if it was not a practice of the early church and one that was invented or arose later, then it should be rejected..

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?


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Discussion

28 thoughts on “>The History of Infant Baptism: Who started it?

  1. >Thanks Matthew. I’ll check that out.

    Posted by Mark Mathews | August 8, 2008, 4:23 pm
  2. >That should have been “The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism”.

    Posted by Matthew Bradley | August 8, 2008, 1:32 pm
  3. >Mark,I just finished reading some of the best material I’ve come across for explaining how the New Covenant is new without completely superceding the old covenants.If you can get your hands on “The Case for Covenant Baptism” edited by Strawbridge, chapters 7-9 each do this in a different way and with varying degrees of success.

    Posted by Matthew Bradley | August 8, 2008, 1:31 pm
  4. >Mark,Great questions! The difficulties you raise are issues all traditions face. I think our confession, Westminster, gives us an excellent start and sets fine boundaries for us: Chapter 7 “On God’s Covenant with Man” articles 5 and 6 read:V. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.VI. Under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 8, 2008, 12:29 am
  5. >I am familiar with Berkhof’s work and see the point he is trying to make, though I must admit the holes in this kind of systematic approach become obvious.I wonder, however, how much the three aspects can be differentiated from one another. This is an area I struggle with at times. The New Covenant is distinct from the Old but in what way? Can one apply the principles of the Old Covenant to the New legitimately? Does the New Covenant not emphasize the internal over the external, and if so, to what degree can we say that a person can be a member of the New Covenant without having received this internal work that the NC promises?I don’t want to take the conversation too far out of context. Just some thoughts.

    Posted by Mark Mathews | August 8, 2008, 12:14 am
  6. >I mean covenant membership in a sense distinct from full having met the covenant stipulation and thereby fully participating in the benefits of the covenant promise.I see covenant as fundamentally including three aspects:(1) Members(2) Stipulations(3) PromisesOne can be a member without having met the stipulation and therefore gained the blessing of the promise. Louis Berkhof has a helpful explanation in a section of his Systematic Theology entitled The Dual Aspect of the Covenant.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 8, 2008, 12:00 am
  7. >I’m with you. I am just unclear on your terminology “covenant membership.” Do you mean membership in the covenant community or do you mean a participant of the New Covenant or do you see these as synonymous terms?

    Posted by Mark Mathews | August 7, 2008, 11:42 pm
  8. >Mark,You’ve misunderstood my point.What I am thinking is that John’s baptism was not Christian baptism. It was not a sacrament. It was simply a new law delivered by God’s prophet with the express intention of preparing the way for the work of Christ. It prepared the way by exposing the false belief of the Jewish religious leaders that covenant membership equated to right position before God (which was then maintained through the sacrificial system). John’s teaching is that covenant membership does not equate to right position before God.Entrance into covenant membership is for believers (those who profess faith) and their children, without respect to salvation in the sense of Eph. 2:8. God normally works among the covenant people to call his elect (i.e. salvation), but covenant membership neither guarantees nor requires salvation.The Pharisees assumed covenant membership equaled right position. Baptists assume Right position equals covenant membership. Both conflate these Biblical categories.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 7, 2008, 11:31 pm
  9. >”In order for this to be true in John’s mind, he must be in agreement with this thesis: Covenant membership is not for the saved (in the sense of Eph. 2:8) alone. In other words, covenant membership and salvation should not be conflated.”Are you saying then that a person can be a participant (member) in the New Covenant and not be saved? It seems that John’s baptism is pointing away from the idea that covenant membership placed the Jews in a right position with God (as you said) but pointing to something new. If that new thing is the New Covenant, which Christ inaugurates, then why is repentance necessary for this baptism? In the gospel tradition people were being baptized confessing their sins. If this was just a rite into the covenant why was this taking place as well?Don’t get me wrong, I see where you are coming from but I’m not sure you can relegate John’s baptism to just a rite of entrance into the covenant. Moreover, if the New Covenant is new indeed, in what way is it new and how does it differ from the old believers and unbelievers alike can gain entrance? When we get to the book of Acts, after the Christ event, I think we can entertain different ideas about baptism but John’s baptism seems to be doing something different. What do you think?

    Posted by Mark Mathews | August 7, 2008, 11:03 pm
  10. >Again, your view hinges on the existence of Jewish proselyte baptism before JBap. Do we know this existed?If it did (and if it was widely practiced), it could very well have been the background of JBap’s baptism.But if baptism was only for proselytes and not ethnic Jews, how does this support the Reformed view? I’m not sure what this means. The argument I proposed was that Gentile converts to Judaism were required to be baptized prior to their entrance into the community worship. So, when John tells the Jewish leaders that THEY also need to be baptized, what is the implication? With respect to salvation, Jews are in no better position than the Gentile’s if they remain in their unrepentant state. That was, of course an unthinkable and offensive proposition to the Jewish leaders who viewed themselves as being in a better position before God than all most Jews, let alone Gentile sinners. That interpretation supports the Covenantal view of baptism in this way:(1) The typical baptist view is that John’s baptism was Christian baptism, and as such, it demonstrates that repentance is required as a prerequisite for it.(2) But according to the above interpretation, John’s view was not Christian baptism. It was a new law meant to expose the false doctrine of the Jewish leaders. (3) The false doctrine was that covenant membership automatically put one in a right position before God, which was then maintained through the temple system. (4) John’s teaching is that covenant membership does NOT automatically put one in a right position before God.(5) In order for this to be true in John’s mind, he must be in agreement with this thesis: Covenant membership is not for the saved (in the sense of Eph. 2:8) alone. In other words, covenant membership and salvation should not be conflated.(6) The Covenantal view of baptism (i.e. that it is the entrance rite to the covenant in the new administration, and covenant membership is not just for the saved) maintains the important distinction between covenant membership and right position before God or salvation.(7) The Baptist view conflates the two categories thus falling into the error of the Jewish leaders, albeit from the opposite end of the spectrum (rather than teaching that covenant membership equals right position, Baptists teach that right postition equals covenant membership).That’s my thought on John’s baptism.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 7, 2008, 10:45 pm
  11. >Matt,I think you’ve taken my comments a little further than I intended. My point was not that a reference in Serek ha Yahad “proves” infant baptism or any kind of systematic baptismal program in the Temple. It simply indicates the possibility that some form of baptism was practiced. The critique is leveled at the leadership of the Jerusalem cult which would imply ethnic Jews. However, one could also say this might imply the washings that took place at Qumran, though I would lean the other way.The study of baptism, however, is outside of my research interest and is not something I am that familiar with. At least not from the perspective of comparative studies. I just thought I would bring up the reference in 1QS. Though I have enjoyed the discussion.As far as infant baptism, I’m for it. My little Sara was baptized at PCPC on Aug 19, 2007! Thanks be to God!

    Posted by Mark Mathews | August 7, 2008, 6:15 pm
  12. >The date that it was widespread in the explicit historical record is late Second Century and Early Third. Cyprian in Carthage in the early 200s allowing baptism earlier than 8 days old.”on the Apostolic Tradition” detailing Roman practice of infant baptism in the Latin Church in the late 100s.Origen baptized in Alexandria Egypt in 185AD, a part of the Greek side of the Church.You have infant baptism all over the Christian world in the late 100s and early 200s from Rome, to Latin Africa to Greek Africa. If that’s not widespread I don’t know what is.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 7, 2008, 5:28 pm
  13. >Mark,Thanks for the input and the clarification. This kind of a discussion is so much better than talking about some random Brit’s view of government. :)I don’t have a copy of Yahad in front of me, but I don’t find the argument convincing.There were repeated, non-initiatory washings at Qumran, and a statement about how washing in a river will not cleanse you from disobedience to the Yehad. This is our evidence for an initiatory water rite at the Temple for ethnic Jews? Sounds like a stretch. If the water rite was performed at the Temple, wouldn’t all of the Jews have to take a pilgrimage to Jerusalem when they had a son? That would be huge–surely there would be mention of it somewhere. If the water rite was not performed at the Temple, then why would the Qumran folks have a problem with it?I think we can agree that water rites as illustration of “cleansing” were common in Second Temple Judaism (Jesus mentions the Pharisees’ washing of cups, and he tells the man born blind to wash off in the pool of Siloam ). But this is a far cry from an established initiatory rite for proselytes or ethnic Jews. “Washings” are not necessarily “baptisms.” I think JBap started “baptism” as an initiatory rite.Okay, that’s all interesting, but what is y’all’s take on Christian infant baptism? :)The reason that Jewish baptism is important is because Jared’s initial post indicates that there was a Jewish practice whereby a Gentile convert would be baptized and would also have his children baptized. If this practice pre-dated Christianity, it would be strong evidence for infant baptism.I see evidence both for an against infant baptism. My decision is based on an inference from ecclesiology. I think a major problem for “believer’s baptism” folks is the widespread practice of infant baptism in the early church (even if we define “early” as fourth century). If the original practice was believers baptism only, why the change?

    Posted by Matt | August 7, 2008, 1:47 pm
  14. >I’m for it.

    Posted by Matthew Bradley | August 7, 2008, 1:42 pm
  15. >Okay, that’s all interesting, but what is y’all’s take on Christian infant baptism? 🙂

    Posted by robert | August 7, 2008, 1:12 am
  16. >”I always took that as saying the Pharisees did not know of their sickness, but thought they were well, and ought to leave Christ to ministering to those who knew they needed forgiveness.”I think it is true that the Pharisees did not recognize their truly sinful “condition” although they were aware that they sinned. The whole sacrificial system that they followed was a stark reminder day in and day out. I’m not sure it’s accurate to say of any conservative group in Judaism that they did not think they sinned. The traditions in the Two Spirits Treatise and texts in Ben Sira, 1 Enoch and 4QInstruction all indicate that the faithful were at times doing the same things the children of darkness were doing. These texts provide an explanation for this phenomenon. THese people knew they were sinners. And these texts probably represent some of the most conservative groups within the Second Temple period. The fact that Jesus says the Pharisees don’t see their need of a physician is that they are unwilling to recognize the eschatological fulfillment of what is taking place in front of them. Moreover, this eschatological event that all Jews expected was met with great unwelcome by the Pharisees. THis was indicative of a much greater condition than they were aware of.

    Posted by Mark Mathews | August 6, 2008, 11:54 pm
  17. >Matt,The water ceremonies (if you will) were regularly practiced at Qumran. Forgive my ambiguity but I was not comparing these rituals with John’s baptism. What I meant to draw attention to was simply the fact that some form of baptism was practiced in the Temple cult since the Yahad attacks it explicitly.In the prologue, the person who does not place himself under the authority of the Yahad (this pointing to the leadership of the Temple cult) cannot be cleansed by being baptized by oceans or rivers. What I was trying to point out is that this implies the cult did practice some sort of baptism as early as the first century B.C.E. And here it is differentiated from ritual washings and ceremonial cleansing. Earlier you had stated But if baptism was only for proselytes and not ethnic Jews, how does this support the Reformed view? and I was trying to indicate that apparently it was not for proselytes alone. Sorry about that!

    Posted by Mark Mathews | August 6, 2008, 11:23 pm
  18. >Thanks for that Mark.Sadly, I don’t have a copy of the DSS. It is my understanding, though, that the water rituals at Qumran were not initiatory rites, but, like you said, cleansing rituals performed regularly. JBap’s baptism, like later Christian baptism, seems to be initiatory and not repeated.Is this your reading of Yahad? Do you think that provides an adequate parallel of what JBap was doing?

    Posted by Matt | August 6, 2008, 11:10 pm
  19. >I am a little perplexed by the assertion that the Pharisees saw themselves as sinner in need of forgiveness. What do make of Christ’s telling the Pharisees “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” I always took that as saying the Pharisees did not know of their sickness, but thought they were well, and ought to leave Christ to ministering to those who knew they needed forgiveness. Am I reading that wrong? Is this a NPP vs TR thing? 🙂

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 6, 2008, 10:45 pm
  20. >If we are talking about the term and concept of a “washing” associated with baptism, then the concept is throughout the OT. The LXX uses it for washing after touching a dead body in Sir 34:25 and for the washing in 2 Kings 5:14 where the man washed himself 7 times to be cleaned. Also in Judith 12:7, the woman baths (baptizes) herself before praying.Other Jewish literature tells us of other “baptisms” such as one by Josephus that is “baptism” by the ashes of heifer.Jewish baptism of proselytes are attested in Moses Maimonides, who though a medieval Jew, was relating old customs. (It is hard to imagine the Jews adopting baptism AFTER the Christians as they preferred to distinguish themselves from them whenever possible – such as changing the word for one in Shema to a more emphatic single one). The same attested in the Babylonian Talmud detailing three requirements: circumcision, peace offering and baptism.

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 6, 2008, 10:39 pm
  21. >”If it did (and if it was widely practiced), it could very well have been the background of JBap’s baptism.But if baptism was only for proselytes and not ethnic Jews, how does this support the Reformed view?”We know some form of baptism took place at least as early as the first century B.C.E. since it is explicitly mentioned in the Serek ha Yahad from Qumran. And since this document is a direct critique of the leadership of the Temple cult in Jerusalem it is likely that baptism was not only a procedure for Gentile proselytes but in some way functioned as a means of sanctification for Jews. This can be found in the prologue of the document where it specifies a difference between ritual baths and atonement ceremonies involving water. The statement indicates that the one who rejects the authority of the Yahad cannot be sanctified even by being baptized in oceans and rivers, probably a reference to the inability of even an abundance of water to perform any sanctifying work.Like Matt says, the desert communities of Qumran had already voiced a concern for the Jerusalem cult and had separated from the Temple system. Then you have John the Baptist doing the same thing. Certainly John offering a means of forgiveness outside of the Temple cult would raise a number of red flags. The Pharisees knew very well they were sinners, as Matt has noted, otherwise there would be no need for the Temple sacrificial system. It is this continual rejection of their authority in the Temple, first by the desert communities and now by John (some have even tried to relate the two although wrongly) that had them up in arms.

    Posted by Mark Mathews | August 6, 2008, 10:06 pm
  22. >Matt,You hit the nail on the head. It’s about who belongs to the covenant community. The historical argument has something to offer on the issue, but simply cannot settle it (either way).”Again, your view hinges on the existence of Jewish proselyte baptism before JBap. Do we know this existed?”I’m not sure what you mean by this. You mean Jared’s post? Because I know Jared’s view doesn’t hinge on it.”To me it all hinges on one’s view of the church. Is the church the body of believers, or the covenant community of believers and their children?”And this is where we are in agreement (as to what the issue hinges upon). I can hardly flip a page in my Bible without finding references to children being in the covenant. I’ve yet to find a place that teaches they aren’t (either in the OT or the NT). And I’m very curious what motivated the first anabaptists to insist the the earthly ministry and work of Christ had the effect of removing our children from covenant relationship with Christ until they make a confession of faith.

    Posted by Matthew Bradley | August 6, 2008, 8:56 pm
  23. >Perhaps the thing that sets John apart is that he was commanding Jews to repent and be baptized, and that’s why the “clean” Pharisees were so offended by his teaching. According to their understanding, only pagans needed to repent and be baptized.Perhaps. But this assumes that “repent and be baptized” was a message with which they were familiar. I am not sure that it was. I think John was exposing what Jesus later exposes even further. The Pharisees believed that their status as obedient covenant members basically equated to having a right standing before God. John is contradicting their false belief by commanding that they repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sin.I think that there is more going on here. The Pharisees knew full well that they were sinners in need of forgiveness—that was the whole purpose of the temple system.I think you can make a good case that John’s baptism was a deliberate rival to the Second Temple. Many in that day were frustrated with the temple system because the high priest was no longer a descendant of Zadok. This is one of the reasons the Qumran community took to the wilderness.John was the son of a priest. We have no evidence that he himself was ever a priest, which suggests he walked away from the whole thing. A baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” would have flown in the face of the temple system, which was supposed to perform this function. But John prophesied the temple’s destruction, asking the people, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” I think the Pharisees’ displeasure with JBap was not that he called them sinners, but that he said their whole system was going down (which it did in AD 70). His baptism was alternative and direct rival of the temple. Thus, the Pharisees’ objections were not about whom he baptized, but on what authority he baptized. Again, your view hinges on the existence of Jewish proselyte baptism before JBap. Do we know this existed?If it did (and if it was widely practiced), it could very well have been the background of JBap’s baptism.But if baptism was only for proselytes and not ethnic Jews, how does this support the Reformed view? To me it all hinges on one’s view of the church. Is the church the body of believers, or the covenant community of believers and their children?

    Posted by Matt | August 6, 2008, 7:53 pm
  24. >If “baptism” was such a common practice before John, why was he given the surname “the baptizer”? Doesn’t this imply that his practice was something different?Perhaps the thing that sets John apart is that he was commanding Jews to repent and be baptized, and that’s why the “clean” Pharisees were so offended by his teaching. According to their understanding, only pagans needed to repent and be baptized.I think John was exposing what Jesus later exposes even further. The Pharisees believed that their status as obedient covenant members basically equated to having a right standing before God. John is contradicting their false belief by commanding that they repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sin. Covenant membership is not the same as salvation from sin. They are distinct realities.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 6, 2008, 7:16 pm
  25. >The Aland-Jeremias dialogue is also famous, and if we are giving book recommendations, Jeremias is good too:http://www.amazon.com/Infant-Baptism-First-Four-Centuries/dp/1592447570/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1218047022&sr=8-1

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 6, 2008, 6:28 pm
  26. >To be fair, I haven’t read Beasley-Murray’s work. But Meier is an excellent scholar and I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps I should ask first, What are the examples that Beasley-Murray gives, and do any of them pre-date Christianity?Sorry for jumping to conclusions above.

    Posted by Matt | August 6, 2008, 6:20 pm
  27. >Water rituals may be associated with gentile conversion to Judaism in the Talmud, but is there any evidence that this rite pre-dated Christianity?John Meier points out in A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol 2., that Beasley-Murray has no examples of a Jewish rite of baptism that pre-dates Christianity. This is a serious weakness of his view.(All pre-Christian Jewish accounts of Gentile conversion mention circumcision, but no accompanying “baptism.” Meier grants that perhaps this is an argument from silence, but it is significant that all accounts would mention circumcision without any mention of baptism.) According to Meier, the closest parallels we have are the Qumran washings, but these differ from John’s baptism in significant ways.If “baptism” was such a common practice before John, why was he given the surname “the baptizer”? Doesn’t this imply that his practice was something different?

    Posted by Matt | August 6, 2008, 6:12 pm
  28. >The two preeminent scholars in the world on this topic are/were G.R. Beasley-Murray (credo) and David Wright (paedo). Both spent distinquished scholarly careers on this subject. They are in absolute agreement on the relation between the two positions historically. I would urge everyone to get Beasley-Murray’s “Baptism” and Wright’s “What has Infant Baptism Done to Baptism?”

    Posted by Michael Spencer | August 6, 2008, 5:58 pm

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