What is baptism? – History of Christianity

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Torchlight parade (this one is actually in India)

Torchlight parade (this one is actually in India)

Even before the time of Jesus, many mystery religions of the ancient Mediterranean had some sort of ceremony that people had to do in order to join the cult. Some of these, like the Eleusinian mysteries, involved dipping yourself in water to wash away your past life, and to show that you were beginning a new life.

One of the earliest Christian baptism images, from the catacomb of St. Callisto in Rome (200s AD)

One of the earliest Christian baptism images, from the catacomb of St. Callisto in Rome (200s AD)

Christianity, from the very beginning, also had this idea of dipping yourself in water, which we call baptism. Before Jesus began preaching, his cousin, John dipped Jesus in water to baptize him. That’s why we call Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist.

John the Baptist baptizes Jesus, in a mosaic. The river god of the river Jordan looks on.

John the Baptist baptizes Jesus, in the Orthodox Baptistery at Ravenna, 451 AD

During the Roman EmpireChristians, like other people, were usually baptized as adults. That way they were old enough to understand what they were doing. In fact, people often waited to be baptized until they were dying. Being baptized was supposed to wash away all your sins, so you could go to Heaven. Of course people wanted to wait until the last minute so that they would be sure of going to Heaven. If you got baptized earlier, you might do something bad, and not go to Heaven after all. The emperor Constantine, for instance, was not baptized until he was dying, in 337 AD.

Romanesque baptistery in Florence, Italy

Romanesque baptistery in Florence, Italy

But people worried about dying by accident, quickly, without having time to get baptized. So starting in the 200s AD, Christian bishops came up with another answer. Instead of waiting to be baptized, you could go ahead. Then if you did anything bad later, you could say you were sorry and do some sort of penance, like eating only bread and water for a while. That would make it okay again. So by the Middle Ages, people started baptizing their babies, to be sure of getting it done in case the babies died.

Some famous baptisteries (buildings where people got baptized) are in Florence and in Pisa.

Learn by doing: were you baptized? why or why not?
More about John the Baptist

Bibliography and further reading about the history of baptism:

More about Christianity
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By | 2017-08-21T17:41:19+00:00 August 21st, 2017|History, Religion, Romans|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is baptism? – History of Christianity. Quatr.us Study Guides, August 21, 2017. Web. November 23, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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