“1 And concerning baptism,15 thus baptize ye:16 Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,17 in living water.18 2 But if thou have not living water, baptize into other water; and if thou canst not in cold, in warm. 3. But if thou have not either, pour out water thrice19 upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. 4. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but thou shalt order the baptized to fast one or two days before.20”
15 Verse vii. 1 is found, well-nigh entire, in Apostolic Constitutions, 22, but besides this only a few words of verses 2 and 4. The chapter has naturally called out much discussion as to the mode of baptism.
16 [Elucidation I.]
17 Matt. 28:19.
18 Probably running water.
19 The previous verses point to immersion; this permits pouring in certain cases, which indicates that this mode was not unknown. The trine application of the water, and its being poured on the head, are both significant.
20 The fasting of the baptized is enjoined in Apostolic Constitutions, but that of the baptizer (and others) is peculiar to this document.
Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (Eds.). (1886). The Lord’s Teaching through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations. In Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies (Vol. 7, p. 379). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
“x. Neither do we permit the laity to perform any of the offices belonging to the priesthood; as, for instance, neither the sacrifice, nor baptism, nor the laying on of hands, nor the blessing, whether the smaller or the greater: for “no one taketh this honour to himself, but he that is called of God.”7 For such sacred offices are conferred by the laying on of the hands of the bishop. But a person to whom such an office is not committed, but he seizes upon it for himself, he shall undergo the punishment of Uzziah.8”
7 Heb. 5:4.
8 2 Chron. 26.
Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (Eds.). (1886). Constitutions of the Holy Apostles. In J. Donaldson (Trans.), Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies (Vol. 7, p. 429). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
“sec. ii.—on deacons and deaconesses, the rest of the clergy, and on baptism.
Let not therefore either a bishop, or a presbyter, or a deacon, or any one else of the sacerdotal catalogue, defile his tongue with calumny, lest he inherit a curse instead of a blessing; and let it also be the bishop’s business and care that no lay person utter any curse: for he ought to take care of all,—of the clergy, of the virgins, of the widows, of the laity. For which reason, O bishop, do thou ordain thy fellow-workers, the labourers for life and for righteousness, such deacons as are pleasing to God, such whom thou provest to be worthy among all the people, and such as shall be ready for the necessities of their ministration. Ordain also a deaconess who is faithful and holy, for the ministrations towards women. For sometimes he cannot send a deacon, who is a man, to the women, on account of unbelievers. Thou shalt therefore send a woman, a deaconess, on account of the imaginations of the bad. For we stand in need of a woman, a deaconess, for many necessities; and first in the baptism of women, the deacon shall anoint only their forehead with the holy oil, and after him the deaconess shall anoint them:5 for there is no necessity that the women should be seen by the men; but only in the laying on of hands the bishop shall anoint her head, as the priests and kings were formerly anointed, not because those which are now baptized are ordained priests, but as being Christians, or anointed, from Christ the Anointed, “a royal priesthood, and an holy nation, the Church of God, the pillar and ground of the marriage-chamber,”6 who formerly were not a people, but now are beloved and chosen, upon whom is called His new name7 as Isaiah the prophet witnesses, saying: “And they shall Call the people by His new name, which the Lord shall name for them.”8
concerning the sacred initiation of holy baptism.
xvi. Thou therefore, O bishop, according to that type, shalt anoint the head of those that are to be baptized, whether they be men or women, with the holy oil, for a type of the spiritual baptism. After that, either thou, O bishop, or a presbyter that is under thee, shall in the solemn form name over them the Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, and shall dip them in the water; and let a deacon receive the man, and a deaconess the woman, that so the conferring of this inviolable seal may take place with a becoming decency. And after that, let the bishop anoint those that are baptized with ointment.
what is the meaning of baptism into christ, and on what account everything is there said or done.
xvii. This baptism, therefore, is given into the death of Jesus:9 the water is instead of the burial, and the oil instead of the Holy Ghost; the seal instead of the cross; the ointment is the confirmation of the confession; the mention of the Father as of the Author and Sender; the joint mention of the Holy Ghost as of the witness; the descent into the water the dying together with Christ; the ascent out of the water the rising again with Him. The Father is the God over all; Christ is the only-begotten God, the beloved Son, the Lord of glory; the Holy Ghost is the Comforter, who is sent by Christ, land taught by Him, and proclaims Him.”
5 [Compare Jas. 5:14.]
6 1 Pet. 2:9; 1 Tim. 3:15.
7 The words from “upon whom” to the end of the chapter are omitted in one V. ms.
8 Isa. 62:2.
9 Vid. Rom. 6:3.
Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (Eds.). (1886). Constitutions of the Holy Apostles. In J. Donaldson (Trans.), Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies (Vol. 7, p. 431). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
“xxxix. For I Matthew, one of those twelve which speak to you in this doctrine, am an apostle, having myself been formerly a publican, but now have obtained mercy through believing, and have repented of my former practices, and have been vouchsafed the honour to be an apostle and preacher of the word. And Zacchæus, whom the Lord received upon his repentance and prayers to Him, was also himself in the same manner a publican at first. And, besides, even the soldiers and multitude of publicans, who came to hear the word of the Lord about repentance, heard this from the prophet John, after he had baptized them: “Do nothing more than that which is appointed you.”7 In like manner, life is not refused to the heathen, if they repent and cast away their unbelief. Esteem, therefore, every one that is convicted of any wicked action, and has not repented, as a publican or an heathen. But if he afterward repents, and turns from his error, then, as we receive the heathen, when they wish to repent, into the Church indeed to hear the word, but do not receive them to communion until they have received the seal of baptism, and are made complete Christians; so do we also permit such as these to enter only to hear, until they show the fruit of repentance, that by hearing the word they may not utterly and irrecoverably perish. But let them not be admitted to communion in prayer; and let them depart after the reading of the law, and the prophets, and the Gospel, that by such departure they may be made better in their course of life, by endeavouring to meet every day about the public assemblies, and to be frequent in prayer, that they also may be at length admitted, and that those who behold them may be affected, and be more secured by fearing to fall into the same condition.”
7 Luke 3:13.
Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (Eds.). (1886). Constitutions of the Holy Apostles. In J. Donaldson (Trans.), Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies (Vol. 7, p. 414). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
“The idea of baptism
This might seem a silly question: was not Jesus baptized by John the Baptist (Mark 1:9, followed by Matt. 3:13 and Luke 3:21), did he not engage with his disciples in baptizing (John 4:1–2), and did he not command his followers to make disciples from all the nations and baptize them using the very words we have in the Didache (> Matt. 28:19)? However, these Gospel passages, with the possible exception of Mark whose Gospel was being preached before AD 70, are later than the instruction in the Didache. Therefore, we have to explain both the choice of the action of baptizing and how that action was linked with the memory of Jesus in the first churches.
For Jews, the ritual that marked their boundary as a community, and as the assembly who had accepted the covenant, was circumcision. Circumcision, along with the sabbath and the regulations regarding food, was the mark of accepting God’s promises (Gen. 17:9–14). By the time of Jesus, indeed for more than a century before his time, circumcision was closely linked to Israel’s self-perception as the covenant people of God (1 Macc. 1:14–15, 60–61; 2 Macc. 6:10). It was the most important boundary marker separating Jew from gentile, those within the covenant from those outside it. So there was no need for any other fundamental boundary ritual—a boundary ritual is an action that distinguishes a group from those who are not-belonging-to-the-group, ‘the people’ as distinct from everyone else.
But there were many other traditions that marked transitions from one state of relationship with God to another for those who were within the covenant community. One such important ritual was that of a bath to cleanse away certain impurities before acts of worship. A leper, for instance, once clear of disease—after seeing a priest—could only be readmitted to the community after washing his clothes, shaving his hair and having had a bath (Lev. 14:2–8). And contacts with ‘impure’ bodily discharges which could make one unfit to perform the service of God were to be washed away by washing clothes and having a bath (e.g. Lev. 15:2–5). We know from archaeological discoveries that in Jewish towns there were pools for taking these special religious baths, while in Qumran there were numerous pools so that this community could see itself as always pure, and so always ready to offer praise to God. It was this ritual practice that was adopted by John the Baptist to mark out those who had accepted his preaching that the judgement of God was imminent. These were the people who had fled sin and repented, were washed by John in the living, that is, flowing, water of the Jordan, and now purified of sin could withstand coming judgement. John’s message was that the crunch was about to come upon a wicked generation: those who listened to him saw the need to separate themselves and be purified of their sins by a bathing. This washing which made his followers into the purified people may have been taken over from existing rites of purification, but it had the effect of making them a group within a group, a people within a people—and, as such, the purification bath became a boundary ritual. The followers of John were a distinct community because each of them had been baptized by him.
In the Gospels, the relationship between John and Jesus is presented, especially in Luke, as one of intimacy, harmony and seamless continuity: they were cousins, John announces Jesus, baptizes him, and then Jesus brings to perfection that which was inaugurated by John the Baptist:
‘ “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 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 baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’
(John 1:30–34 [NRSV])
However, this is the picture looking backwards from several generations later, and, more importantly, with hindsight the evangelists saw all that happened as part of God’s providential plan. But the relationship was far more fraught. John preached that the judgement of God was coming on a sinful generation—the crunch was coming and only those who set themselves apart would be saved. Jesus seems to have had links with this movement, but broke away from it. His message about the imminent coming of the kingdom was radically different: the Day of the Lord was not a grim day of judgement, but rather the day of the Lord’s forgiveness.
In some places in our Gospels (e.g. the image of the sheep and the goats in Matt. 25) there is a sense of dread future judgement, but these instances—which exhibit the more widespread views of the early communities—have to be seen against the broad sweep of Jesus’ statements about the coming kingdom where he addresses God as ‘Father’ and such stories as that about the welcoming father in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32), or his own practice in the case of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:2–11)—a story about Jesus whose ‘laxity’ with regard to judgement shocked many early communities.
His new community was to rejoice that God had shown mercy and that that mercy would extend to all (> Meier, 1994, pp. 116–30). Whether Jesus would have seen any need for a washing to remove the ‘impurities’ of people before they could see themselves as part of the kingdom is very doubtful. There are so many stories of Jesus and the disciples eating without observing the purity laws (e.g. Mark 7:3), having contact with that which would make them impure, and not worrying about it (Matt. 8:3 and 9:20), and eating with sinners (e.g. Luke 7:34) that it appears that he considered the whole notion of impurity as having been swept away by God’s forgiving love. Purity was not a matter of cups and plates, but rather rooting out greed and self-indulgence (> Matt. 23:25). So, even though Jesus had at one stage in his life been baptized, why was there any later use for a notion of the need for a bath for impurity, and why was Jesus remembered as intimately linked with John’s bath?
The answer lies in the movement of many of John’s followers to become followers of Jesus—and it would seem that with John’s death many more of his disciples became followers of Jesus. One might imagine that if someone has left John and followed Jesus, then he or she would simply have jettisoned what was linked with John and adopt what belonged to Jesus! But this is not how human beings act, especially in religious matters: people carry their histories and their precious customs with them into the new situation. Some who changed over to Jesus may have only seen what John and Jesus had in common such as that the Lord was coming among his people or that there was another special route distinct from ‘ordinary Judaism’; others may have grafted Jesus’ teaching into what they had already heard from John; many others would not have realized the extent to which John’s teaching was still influencing them even when they thought they had moved from one prophet to another. The result was that the early communities that looked to Jesus as the Anointed One actually combined many elements from John’s teaching with elements from that of Jesus. We see this legacy in Christianity to this day: there are some people who look to the Gospels and come away with a message of God’s impending judgement, and their outlook is apocalyptic; others look at the same Gospels and think that this approach is wrong-headed. The legacy of John’s notion of the Day of the Lord as crunch, while it may not sit well with that of Jesus’ kingdom of welcome, is still with us, and is a theme that Christians return to from time to time.
One of those elements of John’s teaching that was carried over was the belief that accepting that the kingdom was at hand formed them into a distinct people apart; they were in a special relationship to the covenant; and while every Jewish boy was circumcised, this group was ritually distinct in that everyone in it, man and woman, had been baptized. For John’s followers this ritual bath was an item of major importance; it was how they thought of themselves as a group and how others thought of them—hence the sobriquet given to their prophet: ‘the baptizer’—and as such it was a custom they would have held as precious. There is a funny phenomenon we see happening time and again in religion: group practices (the ritual) remain stubbornly the same, yet how they are explained (the theology) changes with circumstances. This is counter-intuitive: we might expect that people would hold onto their theories, and that practices would vary; but it is almost never like that. A group that has made the action of ‘plunging’ a key group moment is going to keep that custom when they see one leader replaced by another, and despite the fact that the way they explain the action has changed many times. No doubt when John opted for a bathing he was thinking in terms of the law in Leviticus and of purifying the people before the terrible day of judgement—we see this in references to his preaching ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Luke 3:3)—but the practice soon took on the significance of being, for those not in the group, the brand of his followers, while for those in the group it became their badge of identity: we are the community within the larger Israel that is ready for what is coming. Later, when that group came under the influence of Jesus—and now saw themselves as his followers—they continued with this badge of identity. You knew that you were part of this new People of Israel—amidst all the other Jews who were children of the covenant—because you had been through the plunging in the living water (i.e. flowing water). Baptism formed the boundary for John’s community, and it migrated to become the boundary for Jesus’ community.
However, while the action of baptism seems to have been accepted by all the followers without much difficulty—all groups seem to generate boundary rituals in one way or another—the assimilation of John’s teaching with that of Jesus would be no easy matter. In the Gospels we see stories which present the two strands living harmoniously, but the fissures that open up again and again in Christianity—as we shall see later with the practice of fasting—can often be traced to the fact of two very different visions of how God relates to us: one can be traced to John and the other to Jesus. These views were never integrated—that would have been impossible—but were shoved together as if the differences could be passed over. Every so often the glue fails and groups reject either the Jesus or the John vision of God’s love. Meanwhile most Christians, for the most part, shuffle on with the ‘lumpy mixture’ of both that we find in the early churches and their great evangelists. Baptism is a case in point: by the time of John’s death it had ceased being simply a requirement of the covenant’s law so that people could offer pure service to God and had become a mark of belonging to John’s people, then the practice continued and it came to be the mark of belonging to Jesus’ people. And as such, it became the key moment of initiation into the Way of Jesus in the Didache and has remained a key feature in Christian practice ever since—but even then, the legacy of the ‘lumpy mixture’ continued in the many divisions that have occurred in the Church over baptism. Some would argue that it was about removing sin that could lead to death (a very John-like view) and so it was very important to baptize infants—and they saw initiation as something happening afterwards; others would see baptism as fundamentally the moment of commitment to Jesus and so would argue that only adults could be baptized. Significantly, in the Didache we have the emphasis on the practice, without any attempt at ‘explaining’ its significance.”
O’Loughlin, T. (2010). The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians (pp. 47–53). London; Grand Rapids, MI: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; Baker Academic.