I’m posting on baptism. A theological account of baptism is one thing, but what about the evidence of the New Testament? A covenantal theology of baptism is all very well, but what about the practice of the apostles? Who actually was baptised in the Early Church, according to the documents of the New Testament?
The baptism of the apostles and hence of the Church (the baptism of John the Baptiser is something different, see Acts 19:1) begins in Acts 2. At the very birth of the Church (the New Covenant moment described in my previous post) 3,000 people believe and are baptised. The word Luke uses is psuchai (persons or better, lives), not andres (men) which he uses elsewhere, such as in the Feeding of the 5,000 (Luke 9.14). The usual way to denote a crowd was by the number of men. Luke chooses psuche for a reason – it wasn’t just men who were baptised. Of course, that in itself would have been something new. Up till then, only men received the covenant sign through circumcision. Women were also baptised, and if women, then I think children too, given the way that the Jews understood covenant membership according to God’s promises. After all, Peter tells the Jewish crowd, ‘The promise is to you and to your children’ (an affirmation of something they were already familiar with). If the apostles had intended to bar children from receiving the sign of the covenant, they would have had to make it explicit!
But, let’s get to the nitty-gritty…
In Acts 8:12, when Philip is in Samaria, both Samaritan men and women are baptised. No children or families are explicitly mentioned. In Acts 8:36-38, Philip baptises a eunuch at the roadside. He’s a eunuch, so no children there. In Acts 9:18, Paul is baptised. Paul isn’t married (1Cor 7:8), so no children there either. In Acts 10, Peter is at Caesarea with Cornelius: a God-fearer. He’s a centurion who had adopted the Jewish faith, but had not become a Jew. At a family occasion several people are baptised, presumably from the family. In Philippi, the first European covert, Lydia, believes. No-one else is mentioned as believing. But she is baptised with all her family (16:15). The first readers of Acts might wonder, does the same covenant arrangement apply to Gentiles? Luke makes his answer explicit in this case. The word for family is literally ‘house’ (οἶκος) and, yes, it may include any servants, but first and fundamentally refers to the family (this is true throughout the Greek OT and the NT). If there is any doubt, the Philippian Jailor, also a Gentile, is also baptised with all his family (16:33-34; it’s interesting that ‘he rejoiced with all his family that he had believed in God’). Crispus, a Jew and the synagogue ruler in Corinth, he’s also baptised with all his family (18:8, 1Cor 1:14). In Corinth, Paul baptised the family of Stephanus (1Cor 1:16) and perhaps also the family of Gaius (1:14). There is also the account of the twelve men baptised by Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19:5).
So out of these 11 instances of baptism(s), 2 instances involve people who didn’t have children. Out of the remaining 9 instances:
- 5 explicitly mention the baptism of the family.
- 4 relate to Jews, Samaritans, or God-fearers (2 explicitly mention the baptism of the family, 1 is a crowd of psuchai, 1 mentions men and women).
- 5 instances relate to Gentiles (3 explicitly mention the baptism of the family, 1 could involve family, 1 is a group of men).
So, the important points are that, in a Jewish religious society where covenant membership in the People of God included children, there is no indication in the practice of the apostles that children are now excluded. In fact, Peter explicitly states the opposite, and Luke goes out of his way to mention that even for Gentiles, the families of those who believe are baptised. The practice of the apostles is in harmony with the covenantal theological account in my previous post.
But, in the words of Paul, ‘someone might say’ what about all the instances where baptism of children isn’t mentioned? And, why don’t we read of any infant baptisms where a child has been born into the church? On the first, you can’t make an argument for the whole based on the absence of a feature in some stories. That’s just bad method. On the second, show me all of the accounts in the OT of babies being circumcised on being born during the hundreds of years of the history of Israel. You’ve got Isaac (Gen 21:4). That’s it. But you’re not going to argue from that for doubts over whether any Israelite babies were circumcised in the OT! Some things are such a part of the life of the People of God that they are taken for granted. They don’t need constant mention. And that’s why you don’t find written in the NT that Antonia, the wife of Metellus the Stonemason (hitherto unknown members of the church in Ephesus!) gave birth to their daughter Chloe, who was baptised by the elder of the church, Matthias.