Christian Baptism

Did you know there is no mention of infant baptism (Christening) anywhere in the Bible? Yet the early church took it upon themselves to interpret their prophet Yeshua’s message as they saw fit.

The purpose of the christening service is, of course, to deliver another generation of youngsters into church membership as parents promise to bring them up faithful to its teachings. In decades past, most infants in the UK were christened as a matter of course; it was synonymous with naming a child, giving him or her an identity.

Nowadays most parents no longer consider it essential. Even the majority who have their infants christened are not particularly religious; they do it because it is expected of them and because it gets the family together to have a nice day.

There are exceptions of course. The last christening I attended was a very devout affair. The service followed the standard Anglican format, and the sermon was a lengthy diatribe on how Yeshua’s resurrection had saved the young infant from his sins. I wondered what possible sins he had committed? ‘Mewling and puking’ (to quote Shakespeare)?

I didn’t have my children christened. I felt that baptism was a commitment best made in adulthood, not for the gratification of others when they are too young to know what they are doing. Nor was I willing to make undertakings I had no intention of carrying out, such as schooling my children as Christians to the exclusion of all other faiths.

I was taken aback when a relative asked me in all seriousness wasn’t I worried that my children would go straight to hell if they died. This idea was promulgated by the theologian St Augustine[1], second perhaps only to Paul of Tarsus as the main shaper of Roman Christianity. He insisted that those who died without being baptised would suffer in hell for eternity, although he could not have pointed to any passage in the Bible to back this up because there isn’t one.

There’s a simple reason why there is no reference to infant baptism in the Bible. As now, Jews did not practise it. Infant boys were (and are) circumcised soon after birth and their transition into adulthood marked by the Bar Mitzvah ceremony on entering adolescence.

However, the baptism of adults plays an important part in the New Testament. They say that Yeshua himself was baptised by an ascetic mystic named John who baptised people by total submersion in the River Jordan. Water symbolised cleansing of one’s sins and preparation for the life to come.

The earliest written biblical mention of baptism – of adults only, remember – is in the letters of Paul of Tarsus written in the sixth decade of the First Century. Paul was in the habit of baptising converts, probably aware of Yeshua’s reported baptism by John the Baptist.

There is no record of Yeshua ever baptising anyone or insisting that they be baptised. Nowhere in the gospels does Yeshua call for baptism as an initiation rite for joining his band of followers or as preparation for entering the promised kingdom of G_d.

There is a passage at the end of the Second Gospel in which the resurrected Master urged the eleven surviving disciples (the twelfth, Judas Iscariot, having committed suicide) to ‘go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’[2] but the evidence suggests that this was added to the text much later by an unknown author.

In the fourth century, the leaders of the Roman church assumed the authority to expand on Biblical teachings where ‘gaps’ existed. Infant baptism was one such ‘gap’ (along with purgatory, confession, the Trinity, the infallibility of popes, women priests and so on).

By the 11th and 12th centuries, the Roman church had succeeded in regulating all aspects of life from the cradle to the grave. All the main stages of life were to be ruled by sacraments and marked by a church ceremony. Baptism as an infant was the first, naturally, and so it has remained ever since.

Baptism is crucial to Yeshua’s story. It marked the start of his public ministry, but its significance was much greater than that, because Yeshua’s core philosophy was inspired by John the Baptist. John made a huge impression on Galilean society with his warnings that the Day of Judgement was near and Jews must repent for their sins. Nowadays most people would think him mad, but at that time he was a popular and revered figure. Historical sources indicate that John the Baptist was better known and more popular than Yeshua and feared by the ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas.

Incredibly, some Christians (including, apparently, the last pope) believe that John’s head was placed in a sack, buried in a dung heap and discovered four hundred years later. It has since apparently been lost and rediscovered a number of times and is considered a sacred relic by the Catholic Church!

John’s teachings undoubtedly shaped Yeshua’s. If events had turned out differently, perhaps Yeshua would have gone down in history as the Baptists’ best known disciple, but a disciple nonetheless. Of course, the gospel writers were not about to let that happen. Stuck for an explanation for why their ‘Lord’ had succumbed to baptism by a mere mortal, they created far-fetched narratives that emphasised Yeshua’s superiority. But if one reads between the lines, the real truth is clear.

©David Lawrence Preston, 22.8.2016

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Balboa Press, 2015

 


[1] Bishop of Hippo in the 5th century, not the one who took Roman Christianity to Britain.

[2] Matthew 28:19

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