For nearly two millennia, Christians across the globe have practiced baptism. Despite their many differences of opinion, the centrality of baptism for membership in the Christian community is something that all modern Christians agree upon. They believe that at baptism their sins are forgiven, they die to their old lives and are reborn in Christ. But now a new book suggests that early Christians held very different beliefs about baptism than we do today.
In his book, The World’s Oldest Church, Fordham Associate Professor Michael Peppard examines the iconography from the walls that adorned the earliest surviving Christian church, from Dura-Europos in Syria. Located above the Euphrates River in what is now ISIS territory, Dura Europos was a bustling metropolis in the ancient world. The church, one of three ancient religious buildings that have survived intact from the city (the others are a Jewish synagogue and a pagan Mithraeum), was originally the home of a wealthy third century Christian that had been converted into a “house church”: a building containing an assembly room and a baptistery.
The walls of the baptistery were adorned with biblically inspired artwork, including a depiction of a woman drawing water from a well. Traditionally, scholars have thought that the woman is meant to be the Samaritan woman who engages Jesus in conversation at a well in John 4.
In his analysis of the artwork, Peppard, following and expanding on the work of theologian Dominic Serra, argues that scholars have misread the scene. He suggests that the woman is actually Mary, the mother of Jesus. Not only would this be the earliest, albeit somewhat blurry, portrait of the Virgin Mary (she looks terrible, by the way), but, Peppard argues, her presence at the scene changes our understanding of what is taking place at baptism.
Peppard thinks that Mary and the other biblical figures present at the baptistery evoke a kind of wedding scene. As a neophyte (a Christian initiate) passed through the space, he or she would see the paintings and understand the ritual in marital terms. What this means is that baptism wasn’t always seen as death and rebirth; for newly minted Christians at Dura-Europos, baptism was a kind of marriage to Christ. This isn’t just a more upbeat take on the purpose of baptism; it also suggests a different kind of intimacy with Jesus. It’s not just nuns who can be “brides of Christ.” Heck, it’s not just women either.
Peppard’s hypothesis certainly changes how we think about baptism. But baptismal controversy and adaptation is nothing new. According to Paul, Christians in Corinth performed “baptisms for the dead,” whatever those are. Latter-day Saints continue to perform baptisms for the dead (with live surrogates standing in for the deceased) in temples across the globe, but no one really knows what kinds of practices Paul himself actually refers.
The earliest church surviving church manual, the second-century Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), stipulates that ideally baptism would be performed in flowing water (i.e., a river). If the baptized could not make it to a river, then the author pragmatically concedes that a pool or bath of cold water would be the next best thing, and, if cold water was not available, as it might not have been in warmer climates, then warm water would suffice. Finally, if none of the above were available, drizzling some water on the forehead of the baptized would suffice. This concession proved practical when, in the fourth century, Augustine made the case for baptizing infants as well as full-grown adults.
If all of this seems confusing, it probably should: Unlike the Eucharist, there’s no biblical moment when Jesus tells his disciples how to baptize other people. And despite its pervasiveness in Christianity, the Gospels never really describe how baptism should be performed. With so many different ideas about how and why to baptize, chances are you’re doing it at least partly wrong.