While in England this past summer I came across a book entitled Baptismal Fonts Classified and Illustrated. This work is one of the most significant archaeological studies of baptismal fonts by paedobaptist E. Tyrrell-Green. I was struck by his candor regarding the mode of baptism in his introduction.

“In the earliest times it was natural that the ceremony of Baptism should be performed in running water by immersion, after the example of Christ’s own baptism in the Jordan. . . .References to the spiritual significance of Baptism also imply this method of administration, for the full force of St. Paul’s words, ‘We are buried with Him by Baptism into death,’ could only be realized if the candidate were wholly immersed in the water.”

He further stated that a study of the early Church Fathers confirmed that the mode of baptism was “complete submersion.”[1]

An interesting appendix, “Modern Fonts Constructed for Immersion,” catalogues 10 fonts in England designed for the “total immersion of adults,” and twenty such fonts in Wales and Monmouthshire. The explanation of so many such immersionist fonts in South Wales “lies in the fact that the Baptists are very strong there, and in face of Baptist opposition it is thought desirable to emphasise the Church’s normal rule for Baptism by ‘dipping,’ as expressed in the rubrics of the Prayer Book.”[2] By “Church” Tyrrell-Green means the Anglican Church.

One of the most significant books published on the archeology of baptism is W. N. Cote’s Baptism and Baptisteries (1864). Cote was a nineteenth century missionary to Rome, Italy and spent considerable time researching the writings of the Church Fathers and the art and archaeology of baptism in the Biblioteca Casanatense, a library adjacent to the Dominican convent containing over 120,000 volumes and ancient manuscripts.

The book is divided into two sections, the first treating baptism from the writings of the Fathers, the second covering the archaeology of baptisteries in Italy. He demonstrated clearly that immersion was the mode of baptism during the first three centuries of Christian history, and that the baptisteries of Italy were immersionist baptisteries. A complete list of sixty-six Italian baptisteries is given on pages 110-112. Cote dedicated his book to The Southern Baptist Convention.[3]

Phillip Schaff confirmed this finding:

“The baptisteries of the Nicene age, of which many remain in Asia, Africa, and Southern Europe, were built for immersion, and all Oriental churches still adhere to this mode.”[4]

The remains of several early churches in North Africa have been discovered and studied, and most have immersionist baptisteries, usually located at the entrance to the church building.[5]

John Christian’s The Form of Baptism in Sculpture and Art decisively proves that the evidence from both sculpture and art in early Christian Italy and beyond confirms immersion as the mode of baptism. Published in 1907, this was the first book in English to study the sculpture and art of baptism.[6]

In the last quarter of the twentieth century over 300 miqva’ot or immersion pools have been discovered in Israel and date from the first century B. C. to A. D. 70.

“Of these about150 have been found in Jerusalem—about 60 in the Upper City (Avigad’s excavations), about 40 from the excavations near the southern gates of the Temple Mount and the rest in various locations.”[7]

Jewish ritual baths involving the miqva’ot were used for purification of the entire body and were by immersion since, according to the Mishna, no part of the body’s surface could be untouched by water.[8]

Grasham stated,

“…all of the pre-A. D. 70 synagogues that have been discovered — at the Herodium, Masada, and Gamla–had immersion pools in close proximity for the purificatory washings of those who attended their services.”[9]

This discovery puts to bed once and for all the old argument put forth by paedobaptists that there was not enough water in Jerusalem to baptize 3000 and 5000 people in a single day.

Walter Bedard argued that the Church Fathers derived from Romans 6:3-5 the concept of baptism as “tomb” and from John 3:3-5 the concept of baptism as the “womb” of the church. He demonstrated this from the archaeological remains of baptisteries and baptistery inscriptions.[10] The significance of this study is three-fold. First, Bedard is a Catholic, yet he affirms immersion as the earliest form of baptism. Second, he demonstrates that the archaeological evidence confirms immersion as a mode of baptism used by the Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages. Third, he grounds the Church Fathers’ theology of baptism as a symbol of dying and rising with Christ in Romans 6.

It is clear that the archaeological evidence indicates baptism was performed by immersion at the very earliest time of Christian history, and evidence of this mode has been discovered in churches, sculpture and art from the earliest days to the end of the Middle Ages.

[1]E. Tyrrell-Green, Baptismal Fonts Classified and Illustrated (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1928), 1-2.

[2]Ibid., 167.

[3]W. N. Cote, Baptism and Baptisteries (Philadelphia: The Bible and Publication Society, 1864).

[4]Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2, 248.

[5]Lloyd Harsch, “The Architecture of Baptisteries in North Africa,” unpublished paper presented to the Evangelical Theological Society (Valley Forge: Pennsylvania, 2005), contra I. H. Marshall, “The Meaning of the Verb ‘Baptize,’”18: “Discoveries of early baptisteries shows that they were incapable of being used for immersion.” Wharton Marriott’s article on “Baptism” in William Smith and Samuel Cheetham, A Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1875), 161, 168, 177, concurred: “Triple immersion. . .was the all but universal rule of the Church in early times. Of this we find proof in Africa. . ., in Palestine. . ., in Egypt. . ., at Antioch and Constantinople. . ., in Cappadocia. . . .”

[6]John Christian, The Form of Baptism in Sculpture and Art (Lousiville: Baptist Book Concern, 1907). See especially his final conclusions on pages 225-235.

[7]Ronny Reich, “The Great Mikveh Debate,” BAR (March/April, 1993), 52-53. See also Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land: An Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 108.

[8]H. Danby, The Mishna, 732, 742. Yoma 3:3 states, “None may enter the temple court [an act of the temple-] Service, even though he is clean, until he has immersed himself” (164).

[9]Bill Grasham, “Archaeology and Christian Baptism,” Restoration Quarterly 43, no. 2 (2001), 115. See also William LaSor, “Discovering What Jewish Miqva’ot Can Tell Us about Christian Baptism,” BAR (January/February 1987): 57. LaSor believed that the Jewish miqva’ot provided the background for Christian baptism.

[10]W. Bedard, The Symbolism of the Baptismal Font in Early Christian Thought, in The Catholic University of America Studies in Sacred Theology, Second Series, 45 (Washington, D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1951).