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Archaeology of BaptismThe Bath, Under The Old Testament.



Bread and wine, the symbols of the support of life, were brought forth by Melchizedeck to greet Abraham; they were constant symbols on the golden table in the tent and temples, and the invariable accompaniment of the Passover feast. These simplest of all symbols were filled with deeper meaning than they had ever borne when Christ made them the memorials of his broken body and his blood poured out. The custom of dipping the person in water, common from the earliest times in Israel as a religious rite of impressive and spiritual import, was made by God the witness of Christ in his all-comprehending life and death and resurrection for us.

One of the unexpected revelations of the countless Egyptian monuments, by their inscriptions and pictures, is that, for at least a thousand years before Moses, they were a people of excessive and minute cleanliness, especially with regard to religious services.

The laws concerning cleansing, given by God through Moses, were not something far off from the thought of that age. These laws are far stricter in this matter of cleanliness than any of our present codes. Cleanliness of person, of dress, of house, of furniture, of utensils, of habits, of food, was prescribed with minute insistence. The Israelite who from the heart strove to be true to the teaching of God was, in consequence, an excessively clean man. No priest and no others could take part in the sacrifices and services of the temple or even in the Passover with any uncleanness upon him, under the penalty of being cut off from his people. There were less and greater uncleanness. Some of these rendered unclean for a day only. Others could only be put away by ceremonies continued through a week. The greater bodily uncleanness were contracted by being in the house of a dead person, touching any dead body or a bone of a man or a grave, by leprosy, etc. Of course, these were typical, and the cleansing was merely "unto the cleanness of the flesh," for the greatest of all uncleanness, that which by the teaching of God defiled soul and body with utter abomination, was turning from the heart worship of the only God to serve idols, the work of men?s hands. That is the uncleanness that sends its poison through every nerve and vein.

The lesser uncleanness was put away by washing the clothes and bathing, immersing the body in water. But the greater uncleanness could be put away only by ceremonies continued through a whole week. That which concluded them all was the immersion of the body in water, the bath, which immediately preceded the sacrifice offered on the eighth day.

From the very numerous causes of defilement, seen and unseen, no Israelite could be sure of his being ceremonially clean. And hence the bath was a constant religious necessity, frequently repeated, and always taken before offering sacrifice. Its high importance in the service of the temple is marked on the greatest of all the high days of Israel, the day of atonement, when the high priest, though he had bathed before, was required during those supreme services to "bathe his Mesh in water" when he exchanged his usual dress for the holy linen garments, and again when he put off the holy linen to take his usual dress.

What the form of this washing (bath) was, how it was clearly understood in Western Asia, is plain from Elisha?s direction to Naaman the Syrian, "Go and wash in the Jordan seven times." "Then went he down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God." The New Testament terms these various washings, baths, "various dippings," "baptisms" (Heb. 9:10). And when Pedobaptist Hebrew scholars of the first class, like the Lutheran Delitzach, and Salkinson, translate the New Testament into its corresponding Hebrew, they must use for baptism and these various washings the Old Testament terms signifying washing, dipping. The authoritative Jewish writings on these subjects from New Testament days teach that these ceremonial washings were complete immersion. The great Christian writers for five centuries after Christ use the terms "washing" and "bath" for baptism quite as often as they use the specific New Testament term. And in this they are only following the example of the New Testament (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5; Heb. 9:10; 10:22).

That this ritual washing, dipping, bath, was understood in its spiritual typical import by spiritually-minded men under the Old Testament is shown by the cry out of the depths from Israel?s king returning from his long and foul uncleanness: "Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity and cleanse me from my sin." And, referring especially to the cleansing from the greater uncleanness by sprinkling from a bunch of hyssop twigs the ashes of the red heifer (Num. 19:8, 19): "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." The presumptuous are warned away by God: "Wash you, make you clean," for Zion?s dawn shall not appear till "the filth of her daughters has been washed away."

Our eyes and our thoughts have been so far restricted to the one word "baptism" and its significance after Christ that we have overlooked the same fact under another term, "washing," "bathe," with its spiritual significance under the Old Testament. But the New Testament does not overlook it. The Epistle to the Hebrews applies that older ceremony in both its parts with vivid realism to the new condition: "Let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith; having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our body washed with pure water." To the Corinthians, befouled with all the uncleanness of heathenism, Paul says: "Such were some of you, but ye washed yourselves, but ye were sanctified," etc. And, in the Epistles to the Ephesians and to Titus, Paul uses the term "bath" with plain reference to the custom of the Old Testament applied to the New; and still further in that beautiful word painting of Christ?s bringing the church to himself (the washing and renewing of the garments was always prescribed with the bath)

"As Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it; that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the bath of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish."

It has been assumed, against the facts, that there was no ceremony ordained by the law of God for the reception of proselytes from the heathen. But the law certainly provided for the reception of slaves purchased from the heathen, as well as for captives by war. And the Pentateuch tells us of one foreigner who became eminent in Israel, Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite. The succeeding books tell us of Rahab the Canaanitess, the Hivites who became servants of the house of God, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Heber a Midianite, the lovely Moabitess Ruth, and others. Was the only rite of reception for men? Was then no ceremony for the reception of Rahab and Ruth?

The mistake in assuming that the law did not provide for the reception of converts from the heathen has arisen from a forgetfulness of the reiterated statute of the law, that there shall be one and the same law for the home-born Israelite and for the alien who would come near to sacrifice to God (Ex. 12:49; Lev. 17:16; 24:22; Num.9:14; 15:1416, 29-31; 19:10). The Israelite could be cleansed from the greater uncleanness only by certain ceremonies. The alien coming to take refuge under the wings of Jehovah could be cleansed from his uncleanness just as Israel was from his. The bath and the sacrifice, the bath and the sacrifice-these were the two rites that stood out most prominently in their reception. It is to these ceremonies of cleansing, the sprinkling of the ashes of the red heifer, to be followed by the bath and the sacrifice, that God himself refers when, in his glowing prophecy of bringing back his people from all the uncleanness of their idolatry in Babylon, he says: "I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you" (Ezek. 36:25). As is so frequent in the Bible, a part of the week?s ceremony is here put for the whole. If Israel?that was said by God to be more defiled by idolatry than Sodom or Assyria or Egypt?could be so cleansed, surely those with lesser uncleanness upon them could be cleansed in like manner.

Until the appearance of John the Baptist, the dipping of the person in water was the absolute prerequisite under the law for every man and woman who would enter the inner court to take part in the worship. It was as common as sacrifice. Its spiritual meaning was known and felt by every one taught by the Spirit?as David, the prophets, Joseph and Mary, Zacharias and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, and all who "were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem."

It is not at all surprising, therefore, that, when John came dipping, baptizing in living, running water. there should be no query by the Jews as to the well-known custom. Their only query was as to John himself: "Who art thou? Art thou the Christ? Art thou Elijah? Art thou the prophet?"

The great sacrifice, "once for all time," was about to take place, and it was in exact accordance with the law and the promise that those who repented of their sins should be dipped, baptized, "unto remission of sins"; that is, that they might enter in and have part in that final really atoning sacrifice. "John baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people that they should believe on him who should come after him; that is, on Jesus." They were baptized in expectation and hope of that sacrifice. We are baptized because we know it has taken place and we trust in it.

That the baptism (dipping) enjoined in the New Testament was a complete immersion is now so fully acknowledged and taught by those most familiar with the language, customs, and history of that time that it is not needful to add to this discussion.

Baptism After the Time of Christ

From Justin Martyr (A.D. 150) onwards for 700 years there is the united testimony of literature and art that baptism was a dipping, immersion of the candidate. There are a few minor councils that, with Cyprian of Carthage, advocated a sprinkling of the body of a dying man, in case he had not received baptism; but none of the great authors or the numerous rituals or the great councils acknowledged this exception, even in the case of the dying. With united voice they teach that immersion, most frequently repeated thrice?that is, at each name of the Trinity?is the only baptism, and anathematize all who would teach differently. The Egyptian ritual, A.D. 200-300; the Roman ritual, A.D. 250; the Apostolic Constitutions, A.D. 350-400; the church of Palestine, A.D. 386; the Milanese church, A.D. 397; Chrysostom, the Gregories, Augustine, about A.D. 400; Dionysius, A.D. 450, and many lesser authorities, all agree that all around the Mediterranean, in Europe, Asia, and Africa, there was but one baptism, trine immersion. But for trine immersion there is no warrant in the New Testament.

What the "washing" of the Jews at this date was we know from the twelve treatises on purification in the heart of the Talmud, the Mishna. Every one, even with any of the lesser uncleannesses upon him, must dip his body wholly under water, and the least quantity of water sufficient for this purpose was put at eighty gallons. No exception is allowed to this requirement. That the Jewish washing and Christian baptism were the same in form is proved by Tertullian?s (A.D. 220) argument that the difference consisted in the secret power of God conveyed in baptism.

From A.D. 450 there is a long series of pictorial representations of baptism, found in churches, catacombs, manuscripts, etc., etc. They all follow closely one type?the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. The Savior stands in the water, John stands on the bank and extends his hand over the head of Jesus. There are no representations for 800 years after Christ of the baptizer being in the water with the candidate, and the literature on this point is very decided?the baptizer is outside the baptistery.

What, then, was the action of the baptizer and of the candidate? Here the literature, Christian and Jewish, comes in to confirm the uniform representation in art. The candidate entered the baptistery, either alone or attended by a friend, the minister placed his hand upon the head of the candidate, pronouncing the words, and the candidate bowed his head forward beneath the water. In this, literature and rituals agree. There can be no doubt that this was the usual, though not exclusive, action in New Testament times and for hundreds of years afterwards. To baptize one?s self and to be baptized are expressions found in the New Testament, and more frequently in Christian writers of the following centuries. For Instance, in Acts 22:16, Ananias says to Paul, "Arise and baptize, immerse thyself" (though it is wrongly put in the old and new versions, "be baptized"). So in 1 Corinthians 6:11, "Ye washed yourselves" (in the old and new versions, "Ye are, were washed").

The following witnesses, among many others, show the custom in their days:

The Christian church in Rome (A.D. 250) observed the following custom: "Then the candidate descends into the water, but the elder (`who stands above the water?) places his hand upon his head and asks him in these words: ?Dost thou believe in God the Father almighty? The candidate answers: I believe. Then for the first time he is immersed in the water. Again he asks him in these words: Dost thou believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whom the virgin bore by the Holy Spirit, who came to save men, who was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, who died and arose from the dead on the third day and ascended to heaven and sits at the right hard of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead? He answers: I believe; and the second time he is immersed in the water. He is asked the third time: Dost thou believe in the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, proceeding from the Father and the Son. He answers: I believe; and the third time he is immersed in the water. At each of these times he (the elder) says: I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Canons of Hippolytus, sections 123-133. And in accord with this, Hippolytus, in his "Divine Theophany," tells us: "Christ bowed his head, to be baptized by John."

Gregory Thaumaturgus (A.D. 279) sets before us his idea of the hesitation of John to, touch the head of Jesus to baptize him. "How shall I dare to touch thine immaculate head? How shall I extend my servant fingers over thy divine head?" And Jesus is said to reply: "Lend me, O Baptizer. thy right hand for the present dispensation. Touch my head. Baptize me." "The Baptizer obeyed the divine command, and, stretching out his gently trembling and rejoicing right hand, he baptized the Lord."

Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. 386): "Even Simon Magus dipped his body in water." Gregory Nyssen (A.D. 395): "Coming to the water, we hide ourselves in it."

Ambrose of Milan (A.D. 397) : "Thou wart asked. Dost thou believe in God the Father Omnipotent? Thou saidst, I believe, and thou didst dip thyself; that is, wast buried. Again thou wast asked, Dost thou believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and in his cross? Thou saidst, I believe, and thou didst dip thyself; and so thou wast buried with Christ. The third time thou wast asked, Dost thou believe in the Holy Spirit? Thou saidst, I believe; and the third time thou didst dip thyself."

Chrysostom (A.D. 407): "For when we Immerse our heads," etc. "It is easy for us to dip anti lift our heads again." Augustine (A.D. 407): "After you promised to believe, we thrice dipped your heads in the sacred fountain."

It is this custom of standing in the water and bowing the head beneath the water that explains the peculiar usage of the Syrians in their very early translation of the New Testament and in their literature, where "to stand," "standing," is always the translation of "to baptize," "baptism," etc. The candidate stood up to confess Christ, and his baptism was standing up for Christ.

Baptism, then, was not merely the dipping of the head beneath the water, but the dipping of the head art the same time that the minister laid his hand upon the head and pronounced the words of baptism.

That this custom in baptism?standing and bowing the head, while the baptizer placed his hand upon the head of the candidate and pronounced the words of baptism?was the universal custom of early Christianity, is the united testimony of ritual, literature, and art. It is simple, dignified, safe. The present custom generally observed in our churches is the invention of very recent centuries.

T o the apostle of Burma, Adoniram Judson, who returned to the ancient custom of baptism, and who united the refinement and fire of Greek Christian culture with absorbing gratitude and love to Christ his Savior, we are indebted for the noble lines with which I close this paper.

"Come, Holy Spirit, Dove divine,
On these baptismal waters shine;
And teach our hearts in highest strain
To praise the Lamb for sinners slain.

"We love thy name, we love thy laws,
And joyfully embrace thy cause;
We love thy cross, the shame, the pain,
O Lamb of God, for sinners slain.

We sink beneath thy mystic flood:
O bathe us in thy cleansing blood!
We die to sin and seek a grave
With thee beneath the yielding wave.

And as we rise, with thee to live,
Oh, let the Holy Spirit give
The sealing unction from above?
The breath of life, the fire of love."

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