How Should We View Baptism in the Didache?

How Should We View Baptism 
in the Didache?

How Should we View Baptism in the Didache?

The Didache is a Greek instruction manual with the full title, The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles through the Twelve Apostles. Philotheos Bryennios, the Greek Orthodox metropolitan of Nicomedia, discovered a manuscript of the Didache (dated 1056) in a Constantinople library in 1873. Dating the original composition is difficult, with suggestions ranging from the first to the third century, but probably it can be dated to the first half of the second century. “It was probably known to Clement of Alexandria [ca AD 200] and was considered by Eusebius [ca AD 265-339] to be almost a canonical NT book” (The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 297).

The section of the Didache dealing with baptism (Chapter 7, verses 1-4) is problematic. The text follows:

(1) Concerning baptism, baptize in this way. After you have spoken all these things, “baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” in running water.

(2) If you do not have running water, baptize [baptizon] in other water. If you are not able in cold, then in warm.

(3) If you do not have either, pour out [ekcheo] water three times on the head “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

(4) Before the baptism [baptizomenos] the one baptizing [baptizon] and the one being baptized [baptizomenos] are to fast, and any others who are able. Command the one being baptized [baptizomenon] to fast beforehand a day or two.

The following points may be observed:

(1) Since there are many differences between this document and the actual teaching of the apostles of the Lord (in the New Testament), we can be confident in concluding that the writing does not fully represent the true teaching of the apostles themselves. (Thus the full title is not altogether correct.) This is so in regard to the chapter dealing with baptism.

(2) The document has been dated at the second century, from AD 100 to AD 150. If it be dated at AD 125, this would be about 100 years after Christ (AD 30) and about 60 years after Paul’s death (ca. AD 65). This is sufficient time for departures from sound teaching to occur. (The contemporary writings of Ignatius also reflect departure from sound teaching.)

(3) Paul warned that after his departure, false teachers would arise to lead away the disciples from what he had taught (Acts 20:28-31). Many of the New Testament writings indicate the presence of false teaching at the time of the apostles and also reveal that soon thereafter people would turn away from the truth (2 Tim. 4:2-4; Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Cor. 11:3-5,14-15; Gal. 1:6-9; Col. 2:4,8; Tit. 3:10-11; Heb. 13:9; 2 Pet. 2:1-22; 1 John 4:1-6; 2 John 9-11).

(4) Much can be gained from a study of the second-century writings known as the Apostolic Fathers, but we must bear in mind that not everything they taught was truly “apostolic” (according to the apostles’ teaching–Acts 2:42). There is a wide divergence between some of what we read in the New Testament writings and what we read in these writings. (A careful reading of these documents will reveal this fact to the knowledgeable student of Scripture.)

(5) Concerning the chapter in the Didache dealing with baptism (Chapter 7), we should make the following comments. The unknown writer is aware of Christ’s “Great Commission” for he quotes a part of Matt. 28:19 in his baptismal directives. As to whether he truly understood the significance of the words he quotes or whether he simply uses the words as a “formula” to be spoken at the time of baptism is unknown. (We have a study available entitled The Significance of the Great Commission Baptism that deals with this more fully.)

(6) The Didache deviates from Scripture when the writer directs that baptism be carried out in “running water” (a river, stream, spring). Surely Scripture does not make this a requirement for baptism. Presumably on the day of Pentecost, the crowds were baptized in the pools in Jerusalem, some of which may not have involved “running water” as the Jordan River would have provided. Other cases of baptism in Acts may have involved still and standing water (pools, cisterns, ponds, lakes, etc.) rather than a stream or river, as probably was the case with Lydia (Acts 16:13-15). Some years later, Tertullian (ca AD 200-210) rightfully states that the place of baptism is of no consequence: “There is no difference whether one is washed in the sea or in a pool, in a river or a fountain, in a reservoir or a tub” (On Baptism, IV.2).

(7) No directives at all are found in Scripture as to whether the water used in baptism should be cold or warm. The temperature of the element is entirely immaterial. Jesus simply commands baptism without specifying the nature or source of the water used to carry out the command (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:16; cf. Acts 2:38-41). All that is specified is that “water” be used (cf. Acts 8:36-39; 10:47; 1 Pet. 3:20-21).

(8) Verse 3 gives an exception if one cannot “baptize” in the manner recommended in verses 1-2. “If thou hast neither, pour water three times on the head.” That is, if one does not have sufficient water to “baptize” the subject into the threefold name, he should instead have water “poured” on his head in the threefold name. This is very significant. The writer is saying that a substitute for baptism is possible–providing it is done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In other words, he is not offering a different “form” or “mode” or “action” of baptism, but a substitute for baptism–that of pouring.

(9) This point is made clearer when we see the terms employed. A term is used to refer to the action preferred–that the subject should be “baptized.” This is from the Greek baptizo—to immerse, dip, sink, overwhelm, submerge. Then, if one cannot be “baptized” (immersed), he should have water “poured” on his head. This is an entirely different term in the original. The term in the text is ekcheon, from ekcheo, meaning “to pour out.” Thus, the writer says that if one cannot be baptized, he should have water poured upon him. We search in vain in God’s Word for the allowance of such a substitute.

It is possible that the substitution of pouring for baptism may reflect a Jewish influence, in light of the Jewish practice of pouring in their rituals.

(10) The Didache also prescribes that there should be fasting for a day or two before the baptism. Although Paul fasted (for three days) before his baptism, this was neither required nor prescribed (Acts 9:9,18; 22:16).

(11) Within a century or two after the Didache was written, there was widespread false teaching developing in regard to the act of baptism. Some of these follow:

(a) Baptisms were confined to religious holidays, such as Easter and Pentecost (the observance of these and other “holy days” was foreign to the early Christians).

(b) Infants were “baptized,” especially by the time of Origen (ca. AD 240), and Tertullian (ca. AD 200-210) seems to allude to the growing practice (without approval).

(c) Subjects for baptism had to submit to the act totally naked, a practice entirely foreign to the New Testament practice (cf. 1 Tim. 2:9-10).

(d) The “bishop” was required to perform the act or, at least, be present–thus it could not be carried out spontaneously as in New Testament times (cf. Acts 2:38-41; 8:35-39; 16:13-15, 30-34; 22:16; etc.).

(e) Three years waiting time was required before the subject could receive baptism (cf. Acts 2:38-41; 8:35-39; 10:47-48).

(f) The baptismal water was “blessed”–surely a forerunner of the Catholic use of “holy water” in their ritual.

(g) “Sacramental regeneration” developed in which baptism in and of itself (ex opere operato) was thought to confer salvation. Thus a significance was attached to the act of baptism that was not attached to New Testament baptism was meant to express faith and repentance. The growing practice of infant “baptism” was joined with this semi-magical view of baptism.

(h) Various unscriptural accompaniments to the ritual of baptism developed: the “bishop” exorcised the candidate to drive out demons; an anointing with the oil of exorcism; anointing with the oil of thanksgiving after rising from baptism; the sign of the cross; baptismal communion given to the baptized person, including water and milk mixed with honey.

(i) For a period of time, baptism was postponed until just before death in order to prevent post-baptismal sin.

(12) These various innovations and departures did not just arise in AD 200 or 300 or later, but departures began in the first century–even before the Didache was composed. Perhaps Paul’s enigmatic reference to baptism for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29) shows that some had a false view of baptism in about AD 55 to 57.

(13) It is interesting to note that the first writer to give a defense of pouring instead of baptism was Cyprian (AD 240-260). At this time the practice of “clinical baptism” was discussed, a pouring (or drenching) given to the sick and infirm if they could not actually be immersed. Clinical baptism was given to Novatian about A.D. 251, and the question arose as to whether one could become part of the clergy if he had only received pouring rather than immersion.

(14) The Greek Orthodox Church (as well as other Eastern Churches) continues to immerse even infants, whereas the Western Church (Roman Catholicism) came to accept pouring as an acceptable practice (approved at the Council of Ravenna, AD 1311). Most of the Reformation churches inherited certain baptismal practices from apostate Catholicism (e.g., infant baptism).

(15) The baptism taught by Christ and the apostles was a very simple and ordinary act–one infused with deep and beautiful meaning. Careful attention should be given to the following passages:

  • Acts 2:36-41
  • Acts 8:12-13
  • Acts 8:35-38
  • Acts 10:47-48
  • Acts 16:13-15
  • Acts 16:30-34
  • Acts 18:8
  • Acts 19:1-6
  • Acts 22:16
  • Matthew 28:18-20
  • Mark 16:15-16
  • Romans 16:15-16
  • 1 Corinthians 12:13
  • Galatians 3:26-27
  • Ephesians 4:5
  • Colossians 2:11-13
  • 1 Peter 3:20-21

We cannot base our teaching and practice upon uninspired writings of the second, third, or fourth centuries. We can legitimately use such writings with profit if they shed light upon the meaning of the Scriptures. Beyond this we cannot go.

(You may read with profit Everett Ferguson’s Early Christians Speak.)

Richard Hollerman

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