Baptism in Early Christianity by Michael Peppard

Baptism with water, whether by immersion or sprinkling, has always been the primary initiation ritual for Christians. But where did this ritual come from? And what did it mean?

What were the earliest Christian baptisms like?

Many ancient cultures had bathing rituals for important occasions, such as entrance to a holy place or a wedding ceremony. Ancient Jews, for example, used water basins for purificatory immersion after having sex, giving birth, or coming into contact with a corpse. Some of these mikva’ot (mikvehs) have been excavated in Israel. In the early first century CE, a charismatic Jewish prophet named John “the Baptist” developed a variation on this practice. He welcomed people to the wilderness near the Jordan River to experience a one-time baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins, a kind of entrance into a new phase of one’s life (Mark 1:4-8; Josephus, AJ 18.116–118). According to the gospels, many people undertook this mini-pilgrimage to the Jordan, but the only baptism narrated was John’s baptism of Jesus. The four gospels agree on the basics: that Jesus was in the river with John, that God’s spirit descended upon him like a dove, and that the event signified that Jesus was God’s son.

Later, Acts describes the supplementary ritual of laying on of hands (Acts 19:1-7), which seems to pass on the Holy Spirit in addition to forgiving sins. Jesus’s final teaching in Matthew is the lone biblical example that connects baptism with the well-known invocation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Other parts of the New Testament offer interpretations of the meaning of baptism (see below), but they do not specify the when, the where, or the how.

The word baptism means “immersion” or “dipping” or “dunking,” and so it stands to reason that the earliest baptisms were full-body immersions. A second-century source notes a preference for “running water” instead of “standing water” (Did. 7.1), which would both imitate the Jordan River and also provide the cleansing experience more effectively than stagnant water does. But textual sources and archaeology do not offer many more specifics about procedures until the third and fourth centuries. The oldest known baptistery, from a third-century house-church in Syria, was probably not large enough for an adult to experience immersion baptism.

Over the third and fourth centuries, other rituals began to accompany baptism. Christians introduced preparatory fasting and instruction, an emphasis on anointing with oil, laying on of hands, renunciation of sin and the devil, lighting of fire, new garments, and more. Baptism became an important part of larger, composite rites of initiation.

What were the main meanings of these baptismal rituals?

Early Christians ascribed a wide diversity of meanings to these rituals, which varied according to geographical region, time period, and theological orientation. In the New Testament, the baptismal experience was tied to repentance and forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4), the descent of the Holy Spirit (John 1:33), the Trinity (Matt 28:19), rebirth (John 3:5), adoption into a new kinship (Gal 3:17-4:7), marriage (Eph 5:25-27), illumination (Heb 6:1-8), and imitation of the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6:3-4). All of these images were carried forward, and the third and fourth centuries added other metaphors of incorporation into a community, especially of shepherds and sheep, fish and fishermen, athletes and soldiers.

One recurring topic of debate concerned postbaptismal sin: if baptism was a one-time event of repentance and forgiveness of sin, then what should Christians do about sins after baptism? Other controversies involved the validity of baptisms administered by baptizers whose holiness, authority, or ritual practices were called into question. Different early Christians gave different responses to these questions, and Christians still do today.

Michael Peppard, "Baptism in Early Christianity", n.p. [cited 26 Nov 2022]. Online:



Michael Peppard
professor of theology , Fordham University

Michael Peppard is professor of theology at Fordham University. He received his PhD in Religious Studies from Yale University and does research on the New Testament and other early Christian sources in their social, political, artistic, and ritual contexts. He is the author of The Son of God in the Roman World (Oxford, 2011) and The World’s Oldest Church (Yale, 2016).

Attributed authorship. ("Tradition ascribed the Pentateuch to Moses, even though he probably did not actually write it himself.")

Dug up, often from an archaeological site.

separate from the ordinary or profane.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

Completely surrounding a person in something. Within Christianity, it refers to baptisms where the baptized person is dunked entirely underwater, as opposed to having water poured over them.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

a journey, usually with religious significance

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

God as expressed in three persons: the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit.

Mark 1:4-8

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.5And people from the whole Judean countryside and ... View more

Acts 19:1-7

Paul in Ephesus
1While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples.2He said to them, “Di ... View more

Matt 28:19

19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Mark 1:4

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John 1:33

33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptize ... View more

Matt 28:19

19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

John 3:5

5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

Gal 3:17-4:7

Chapter 4

Eph 5:25-27

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of wat ... View more

Heb 6:1-8

6 Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and ... View more

Rom 6:3-4

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into ... View more

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