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.