In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Baptism

  • Introduction
  • Primary Sources
  • Word Studies
  • Social-Scientific and Ritual Studies

Biblical Studies Baptism
Everett Ferguson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0004


Baptism was the central rite in the ceremonies of initiation into the Christian church. It required faith, and so was normally associated with a period of instruction and involved a verbal confession of faith, and of repentance, so it was often accompanied by prayer, fasting, and a renunciation of Satan. It was normally administered by immersion in water. After examining antecedents to Christian practice and usage of the words for baptism, this article will consider the baptism of Jesus as foundational for Christian practice, other texts on baptism in the Gospels, the corpus of Pauline writings, the Acts of the Apostles, and other New Testament texts. Then some attention will be given to developments in the early history of the church, especially related to the doctrine of baptism, and particular problems related to the practice of baptism. The literary evidence from the early church in regard to baptism is supplemented by attention to evidence supplied by art and archaeology.

General Overviews

General studies of the early history of baptism not limited to one century or group of writings include comprehensive surveys covering the theology and liturgy of baptism, topical studies of one aspect or theme connected to baptism, and collections of primary sources. Maertens 1962 is a comprehensive historical treatment of baptism in early Christianity. Heiser 1987 concentrates on the development of baptism in the Greek church. The liturgy of baptism is the central theme for Stenzel 1958 and Saxer 1988. Kretschmar 1970, a very comprehensive treatment of baptism in the early church, consciously includes much theology along with liturgy. Johnson 1999 and Spinks 2006 present briefer but comprehensive surveys in English. The most complete study in English is now Ferguson 2009, covering Greco-Roman and Jewish practices, the New Testament, and the Christian development until 500 CE.

  • Ferguson, Everett. Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.

    This work aims at completeness in coverage of the sources in the first three centuries and becomes more selective, but still representatively comprehensive, for the 4th and 5th centuries. It builds on recent scholarly work and pushes areas of consensus to form a synthesis from which further study can proceed.

  • Heiser, Lothar. Die Taufe in der orthodoxen Kirche: Geschichte, Spendung, und Symbolik nach der Lehre der Väter. Trier, Germany: Paulinus, 1987.

    Heiser studies the Greek Fathers up to the 6th century, when the Orthodox rite was essentially established. He emphasizes the patristic interpretation of the baptism of Jesus as the pattern for Christian baptism, of baptism as part of the renewal of humanity into the pattern of paradise at creation, and of the biblical images of baptism.

  • Johnson, Maxwell E. The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999.

    This textbook on the history of the rites of initiation includes extensive quotations of primary texts and covers history and theology from an ecumenical perspective. It notes the current status of scholarship on controversial points.

  • Kretschmar, Georg. “Die Geschichte des Taufgottesdienstes in der alter Kirche.” In Leiturgia Handbuch des evangelischen Gottesdiensts. Vol. 5. Edited by Karl Ferdinand Müller and Walter F. Blankenburg. Kassel, West Germany: J. Stauda, 1970.

    Kretschmar notes that in the early centuries baptism (and not the eucharist) was the central liturgical act of the church. The unifying theme of baptism was the work of Christ, which provided the ground for the “once for all” nature of baptism. He argues that the Syrian sequence of only one anointing, and that before baptism, was present also in Egypt and Cappadocia.

  • Maertens, Thierry Histoire et pastorale du rituel du catéchuménat et du baptême. Paroisse et liturgie collection de pastorale liturgique 56. Bruges, Belgium: Publications de Saint-André, 1962.

    Maertens follows primarily the Western development through the Middle Ages within a Roman Catholic framework of interpretation. In the early centuries the action of God, liberty of the candidate, and participation of the community were held together in the baptismal ceremonies, but by the Middle Ages the practice of infant baptism meant that the community elements either disappeared or were reinterpreted.

  • Saxer, Victor. Les rites de l’initiation chrétienne du IIe au VIe siècle: Esquisse historique et signification d’après leur principaux témoins. Spoleto, Italy: Centro Italiano di Studi Sull’alto Medioevo, 1988.

    Saxer gives more attention to the rites associated with the catechumenate and the preparation for baptism than to baptism proper and the postbaptismal rites and provides little on the doctrinal meaning of baptism. The same ritual scheme for the nucleus of the baptismal rite may be discerned in all regions. The detachment of confirmation from baptism was made at different moments in different places.

  • Spinks, Bryan D. Early and Medieval Rituals and Theologies of Baptism: From the New Testament to the Council of Trent. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006.

    Spinks’s brief but thorough survey gives, for the early sources, more of the theology while also presenting variant views on disputed questions of ritual practice; for the later sources, where liturgies are preserved, the proportions are reversed. In the West after Augustine, baptism “came to be a baptism from something (original sin) more than a baptism into something (the eschatological community of God).”

  • Stenzel, Alois S. J. Die Taufe: Eine Genetische Erklärung der Taufliturgie. Innsbruck, Austria: Felizian Rauch, 1958.

    Stenzel’s interest is liturgy, not theology or parallels from the history of religions, and primarily the Western development leading to the medieval Roman liturgy. The earliest sequence in conversion was proclamation, faith, and baptism. Stenzel opposes the interpretation that the baptizand stood in the font when water was sprinkled or poured on him.

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