Posts Tagged ‘Ancient Christianity’

Over the past few weeks I have been exploring the Apostle Paul’s thought on gender and the broader theological implications thereof.  Thus far I have argued that the allegedly Pauline passages usually adduced as warrants for quelling gifted Christian women are not actually Pauline at all.  I have also argued that Paul’s gospel entails a radical reordering of creation that undermines sharp social distinctions between the sexes.  I now turn to a very knotty passage,  1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

At first glance, the passage would seem to raise grave difficulties for anyone who would argue that Paul advocates a more egalitarian view of gender roles under the umbrella of his gospel.  Paul here argues that Corinthian women are to wear head-coverings or veils in public worship.  Paul’s rationale is as follows,

For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority (evxousi,an) on her head, because of the angels.

 Paul here seems to root a hierarchical relationship between the sexes in the very ordering of creation.  Verse 7 clearly echoes Genesis 1:27, but with an extremely odd interpretive twist that apparently makes man the primary bearer of the imago Dei.  Verses 8-9, likewise, allude to the creation narrative of Genesis 2.  Woman, he says, was in some sense made “for man” and, therefore, is under his authority.  Thus she should adorn herself in a manner befitting her subordinate status.  However, I want to suggest that this first impression of the passage is highly misleading.

A veiled woman depicted in fresco from Pompeii, 20-60 CE.  London, British Museum.

A veiled woman depicted in a fresco from Pompeii, 20-60 CE. London, British Museum.

Taken in isolation, this passage would seem to cohere well with the pseudo-Pauline sanctions against women teaching or having authority over men in 1 Timothy 2.  However, it is clear from the context that Paul is concerned that women wear these veils precisely when they pray and prophesy in public worship (11:5).  These women are clearly not silent spectators in the pews.  Furthermore, as we have seen in previous posts, numerous women can be cited who likely played prominent roles in Paul’s churches, including Chloe (see 1:11), who probably hosted a Corinthian house-church.  Thus, any attempt to construe this passage as barring women from leadership roles within the Church are dubious indeed.


Furthermore, it is not clear that the symbol of “authority” (evxousi,an) constituted by the head-covering is to be taken as a token of the wife’s subordination to an authoritative husband.  Such coverings performed a set of specific symbolic functions in the context of the Roman world.  Anthony Thiselton explains,

It is beyond doubt that in Roman society a hood (or perhaps a veil) was what a married woman was expected to wear in public as a mark of respectability.  In the context of public worship, a married woman without a hood or veil was, in effect, inviting men to “size her up” as a woman who might be willing to be propositioned and “available.”  (1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary, p. 173)

In the Roman world a veil functioned more or less as a wedding band functions in our own world.   A married woman was to distinguish herself from an unmarried woman by wearing a veil. 

This historical observation also helps to shed light on the nature of the “authority” (evxousi,an) that the veil symbolized.  In chapter 7 of the same letter, we find that sexual indescretion has become a serious problem in Corinthth and that Paul prescribes committed, sexually active monogamy as the remedy (7:4, 9).  For chastity’s sake, Paul demands that married couples be sexually active, invoking the idea that spouses have obligations (ovfeilh.n) to one another, including conjugal rights.  He goes on to say, 


For the wife does not have authority over (evxousia,zei) her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over (evxousia,zei) his own body, but the wife does. (7:4)

Augustus' wife Livia (50 BCE-29 CE) wearing a veil. The sculpture dates from the 1st century CE and is in Museum of Roman Civilization. Credit: Barbara McManus, 1982

Augustus' wife Livia (50 BCE-29 CE) wearing a veil. The sculpture dates from the 1st century CE and is in Museum of Roman Civilization. Credit: Barbara McManus, 1982

We see here that in Paul’s way of thinking it is not the case that the husband simply has authority over a submissive wife.  Rather, both partners of the marriage have authority over one another.  Thus, when Paul tells the Corinthians in chapter 11 that “a wife ought to have a symbol of authority (evxousi,an) on her head,” he should not be taken as implying that marriage is to be a hierarchical arrangement.  Marital authority, the authority symbolized by a wife’s veil in 1 Corinthians 11, is mutual and shared, according to Paul.  The veil symbolizes no more than the woman’s being in a relationship of mutual obligation with her husband.

I think we get confirmation in seeing the veil’s symbolized “authority” as mutual in the fact that Paul immediately goes on in chapter 11 to underline the mutual interdependence of the sexes and the common dependence of both sexes on their Creator:

11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 

  The husband mustn’t forget that he owes his life and the continuation of his line to women.  Neither spouse can forget that the wife ultimately owes her existence and allegiance to God alone.

In my next post I will consider how Paul’s reasoning in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 fits with his assertions in his letter to the Galatians that “there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” and that all that matters is “new creation.”  But to summarize our conclusions thus far concerning 1 Corinthians 7 and 11, we have seen that Paul’s directive for married Corinthian women to wear veils does not entail a subordinate role for women in the Church.  Married women were to wear the veil while they led prayer and prophesied in public worship as a symbol of marital fidelity, the very same fidelity to which their husbands were bound.  In short, we have found that even here, in what initially seemed to be perhaps the most misogynistic of Pauline texts, those who would bar women from the ministry or relegate them to marital servility do not have the support of Paul the Apostle.


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In my last post I sided with those NT scholars who argue that the key Pauline texts that curtail the preaching ministries of gifted women are not actually Pauline texts at all.  1 Timothy 2:11-15, with its demand that women neither teach nor have authority over men, is part of a corpus of letters written pseudonymously in Paul’s name several decades after the Apostle’s death.  In the case of 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, we have a scribal gloss inserted to square the policy of that letter with that of 1 Timothy!  In short, these texts tell us less about Paul’s understanding of gender roles than they tell us about the attitudes towards gender that emerged and came to predominate amongst second and third generation Christians.  To get a bead on what Paul actually thought about gender we are on much firmer ground if we go to the undisputed epistles.  There we find a picture very different from what we looked at in the last post.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he addresses a group churches in the Southern part of the Roman province of Galatia. 

The Temple of Augustus and Livia in Vienne, late 1st century BCE

The Temple of Augustus and Livia in Vienne, late 1st century BCE

Several of the cities in which these churches were situated, namely Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra, were Roman colonies.  Roman colonies were typically homes for retired Roman military and were places of intense patriotic and, indeed, religious devotion to Rome and to Caesar.  Archaeological evidence has shown that there was a temple devoted to the cult of Caesar Augustus in Antioch dating as far back as 2/1 BCE.  At least in this city, and likely elsewhere in Southern Galatia, Caesar-worship was a common fixture in Galatian religious and social life

While Jews enjoyed the state sanctioned protected status of being a religio licita, which permitted them to forego participation in the imperial cult, the Galatian christians were generally Gentile converts and, as such, did not share this protected status with their Jewish brethren.  Thus, the gentile Galatian Christians were under immense social pressure from without the Church to either participate in the imperial cult or to become Jews by being circumcized and keeping the Torah (see Gal 6:12).  Furthermore, an influential group of Jewish Christians, apparently based in Jerusalem and associated with James the brother of Jesus (2:12), were also pressuring the Galatian churches to maintain distinctions between Jews and Gentiles.

For the Apostle Paul, to continue to treat these distinctions as sacrosanct was a betrayal of the very gospel of Christ.  He argues that the Torah (or the “Law”) has run its course, its power being terminated and its curse exhausted in the death of the Messiah.  Thus, for Paul, to be united with Christ in His death and new, resurrected life is to have died through the Torah to the Torah such that its commands and distinctions no longer hold sway over you.  Instead, to the Christian, being united to Christ in His death and resurrection, means such distinctions matter not, what matters is the eschatological reality of the Spirit that fulfills and goes beyond the Torah, the “new creation.”

It is within this context that Paul writes,

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

paul2It is jarring here that Paul is not content to simply strike through distinctions between Jews and Gentiles.  Rather, in his mind the gospel has implications reaching far beyond Jew-Gentile relations within the Church.  Rather, he says the gospel delegitimates a deeply entrenched economic and societal structure, namely slavery, and, for our purposes most importantly, gender distinctions.

We have to keep in mind that this is no hyperbolic throw-away line for Paul.  For him, the stakes here are as high as they get and each step of the argument of which 3:28 is the conclusion has been taken with the utmost deliberateness.  Nor is he articulating some sort of pie-in-the-sky ideal.  For Paul, the abolition of these distinctions have practical implications for the Church in the here and now.  In fact, the practical outworkings of the gospel are probably Paul’s chief concern as he is deeply concerned, not about what some of the Galatians think or say, but about what they are about to do, namely, be circumcised. 

Indeed, it must always be born in mind that for Paul, Peter’s decision to break off table-fellowship with Gentiles was out of step with the truth of the gospel (2:14).  The gospel entails not merely the guarantee of forgiveness of sins and a happy hereafter, but rather the radical rearrangement of our present world, the living out of what it means to be crucified to the old world and participants in the “new creation” that is presently dawning in the crucified and resurrected Christ.

women4Paul does not elaborate here on the practical implications of there being  “neither male nor female” amongst those who are one in Christ Jesus, but we can safely assume that there were some such implications.  As it was pointed out in the previous post, women clearly prophesied and publicly prayed in Paul’s churches (see 1 Cor 11:4-5).  Women apparently played key roles in Paul’s ministry (see especially the numerous women listed in Rom 16).  Some of them were the hosts and patrons of house churches (e.g., Prisca, Rom 16:3-5; Chloe, 1 Cor 1:11; ).  One, Junia, was notable amongst the apostles and was perhaps even an apostle herself (Rom 16:7).  Given this rather wide-angle picture of Paul’s ministry, it is difficult to believe that he would have pushed for an ecclesiastical glass-ceiling for Spiritually gifted women.  Indeed, much to the chagrin of the writer of 1 Timothy and of some later anonymous scribe, it seems highly likely that Paul allowed women to teach and have authority over men.

As I have already said, to begin to wrestle with Paul on questions of gender will require us to rethink nearly everything.  When we engage Paul on this matter we find ourselves confronted with a gospel of cosmic proportions, one that frees us from the present evil aeon (1:4), that crucifies the old world to us and us to the old world and ushers in a radically new creation (6:14-15) that abolishes the distinctions characteristic of the old world, including those pertaining to gender.  In short, at least as far as Paul is concerned, to treat questions of gender as peripheral is a grave mistake.  For Paul, matters of gender roles are as tightly bound up with the very heart of the gospel as are matters pertaining to the purpose of the Torah, justification, Jew-Gentile relations, and the cross itself.

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The Apostle Paul is both maligned by feminists as a misogynist extraordinaire and hailed by traditionalists as a champion of hard-and-fast gender roles.  Both of these interpretations of the Apostle to the Gentiles rest on but a handful of hotly disputed and, as we will see, highly questionable texts.  On the other hand, there are many who would suggest that Paul had a much more egalitarian approach to matters of gender than we have heretofore realized. Indeed, it has been suggested that in Paul feminists should find an apostolic ally rather than an adversary.  Over the next few weeks, I will try to work through these nettlesome issues but, as we will see, seriously raising the question of Paul’s stance on gender necessarily raises questions about the very character of the Bible, the nature of humanity and the enterprise of theology, and these questions, in turn, raise further questions still.  Like the Mandelbrot Set, the closer we examine the matter, the more complexity we will discover.

In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth we read the following:

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1 Corinthians 14:33b-35)

These verses have been loudly and triumphalistically trumpeted by male chauvinists and equally loudly and roundly denounced by feminists.  However, while it may at first appear perfectly clear that Paul here places a universal gag order on women within churches and that readers need only to decide whether to follow or to part with Paul on this matter, I would suggest that the attentive reader of his letter should, at this point, be quite puzzled.  For in chapter 11 of the same letter Paul gives women some guidelines concerning their attire precisely for times when they speak in the church:

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5but every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head- it is the same as if her head were shaven. (1 Corinthians 11:4-5)

This apparent inconsistency within the letter cries out for an explanation, and one isn’t far to find.

With respect to 14:34-35, the verses demanding women’s silence in church, several ancient manuscripts of the letter set the verses at the very end of the chapter, after verse 40, rather than in the place they are normally thought to belong (D F G 88* Ambrosiaster Sedulius Scotus).  The 6th-century Codex Fuldensis, which contains a Latin translation of the New Testament, has a scribal siglum following verse 33 directing readers to the lower margin of the page where the text of verses 36-40 is provided, perhaps indicating that they are not to be read in church as part of the lectionary.  These irregularities with the placement of these verses have led many scholars, not least Gordon Fee, to conclude that they were not originally in the letter and are not authentically Pauline.

In addition to the inconsistency between chapters 11 and 14 and the textual considerations, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has shown that women clearly played an active role in Paul’s mission and churches (Acts 18:18-28; Rom 16:1-2, 3-4, 7; Phil 4:2-3) and most likely participated in the preaching and teaching.  Finally, as Richard Hays points out, nowhere else in 1 Corinthians does Paul appeal to the universal practice of “the churches” (a phrase that smacks of late-1st, early-2nd century proto-catholicism) and “the unqualified appeal to ‘the Law’…is–to say the least–uncharacteristic of Paul’s way of appealing to Scripture as a source of behavioral norms.”

scribeIn short, it seems highly unlikely that verses 34-35 and their mandate for the hushing of women were actually written by Paul.  As Hays and others have suggested, in all likelihood, these verses were added by scribes/interpreters in the 2nd or 3rd century in order to square 1 Corinthians with the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

And at this point some of you will be thinking, “Yeah, what about 1 Timothy 2?  Didn’t Paul write that?  Can’t we say, based on that text alone, that Paul required the silence of women in church?”  The text in question reads:

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing- if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Timothy 2:11-15)

Here, it would seem, is a clear instance of Paul demanding the universal silencing of women within the churches.  Arguments suggesting that the passage addresses only a unique, local situation and does not have the church at large in view are ultimately unpersuasive.  The commands of verses 11-12 are justified by appeals to the created order (v. 13) and the events within the Garden of Eden (v. 14), not to the local circumstances of Timothy’s church.  So clearly here Paul calls for the ecclesiastical cowing of women.

That is, of course, if Paul wrote 1 Timothy.  And that’s quite a big ‘if’.  The evidence stacked against Paul’s authorship of 1 Timothy and the other Pastoral Epistles is considerable.  Some would say it is nigh unto insurmountable.  Kenton Sparks helpfully summarizes the lines of evidence as follows:

  1. We know from 2 Thess 2:2 and from numerous extant examples (3 Corinthians; Epistle to the Laodiceans; Letters to Seneca) that early Christians composed letters in Paul’s name.
  2. Furthermore, in the pastoral epistles, of which 1 Timothy is one, terms like “faith,” “truth” and “savior” take on senses unattested in Paul’s undisputed letters.  In other words, the vocabulary is uncharacteristic of Paul.
  3. P46, a collection of Paul’s letters dating to ca. 200 CE, omits the Pastorals and Tatian (c. 120-180 CE) partially rejects them.
  4. The Pastorals evince a hierarchical church structure unattested in Paul’s undisputed epistles and more characteristic of second generation Christianity.

All of this suggests that the Pastoral Epistles, including 1 Timothy, are probably pseudonymous letters composed several decades after Paul’s death.  There, are of course, counter arguments, but they tend to be quite weak.  Donald Guthrie is just flat wrong to suggest that we have no examples of pseudo-Pauline letters (see 1 above) and Carson, Moo and Morris are wrong to suggest that the Church never accepted such pseudonymous letters (the Epistle to the Laodiceans is a good example.  Whether Churches accepted pseudonymous letters knowingly is another matter).  At the end of the day, the weight of evidence suggests that the Apostle Paul did not write 1 Timothy.

So, what are we to make of this?  First, it seems that the key texts used for barring women from preaching, teaching and holding leadership positions within the Church have turned out not to be authentically Pauline.  Allegations against Paul of being misogynistic may need to be dropped.  Allegations against female pastors of being un-biblical may need to be dropped as well.  Second, it is clear from the foregoing discussion that rethinking Paul’s stance on women will have far reaching implications.  Even an initial foray into this question necessarily raises questions about the very nature of Scripture.  What are we to make of the problematic passing down of the Bible, wherein scribes occasionally edited and glossed over difficult passages?  How are we to think about the Bible’s inclusion of pseudonymous texts?  Are such texts any less authoritative?  If not, why not?  If so, how so?  But we have only scratched the surface of our initial question and I suspect that seriously rethinking Paul on gender will likely lead us to rethink just about everything.

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The following Gospel texts are from the conclusions of Jesus’ Parable of the Wicked Tenants.  Compare them and ask yourself the question, Who said “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others”?

Matthew 21:39-41  “… 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.  40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Mark 12:1-11  “…8 And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.  9 What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.  10 Have you not read this Scripture: “‘ The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;  11 this was he Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

Luke 20:9-16   “…15 And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?  16 He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!”

According to Matthew’s Gospel the crowd says it and according to Mark and Luke Jesus does.  In addition to that variation, the careful reader notices others as well.  Christians often perceive these variations as threatening the reliability of the Bible, but 4evangelists-smperhaps they need not be so.

For some time now the so-called (now quite old) New Quest for the Historical Jesus and many figures within the Jesus Seminar have argued that the Gospels relay sayings and stories that were grossly distorted through a sort of “telephone game” mode of transmission.  Supposedly, with each communication of a story about or saying of Jesus from one community to another the story underwent change, such that within a few re-tellings the story or saying being told hardly resembles what Jesus really said or did.  Against this thesis James D.G. Dunn and Richard Bauckham have both recently proposed that the discrepancies amongst the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) evince a pattern that suggests that they derive largely from well-controlled, orally transmitted testimony and, at least according to Bauckham, largely eyewitness testimony at that.  The upshot of of this thesis, if it is correct, is that, whatever the discrepancies may mean for our idea of Biblical inspiration, they can indicate that the Gospels’ portraits of Jesus is a generally reliable one.

Bauckham’s thesis is the bolder one.  He draws on the work of Kenneth Bailey who outlines several ways in which traditions are passed along orally:

  • informal uncontrolled oral tradition or “rumor tradition,” which is basically what one sees enacted in the “telephone game” and in high-school gossip.  Here stories and sayings are extremely vulnerable to gross distortion and exaggeration.
  • informal controlled oral tradition, which is when a community constrains the amount and the sort of variation that can be introduced in a given re-telling of a story, saying or tradition.  Here stories can be subject to creative liberties within certain parameters, but will generally retain their integrity over time.
  • formal controlled oral tradition, which is when officially designated authorities constrain the sort and amount of variation that can be introduced into the re-telling of  a story, saying or tradition.

Whereas Bailey argued only that the Synoptic Gospels record informal controlled oral tradition, Richard Bauckham does him one better and argues that the Synoptics were written while eyewitnesses to the events surrounding Jesus still lived and that they authoritatively constrained the transmission of stories about and sayings of Jesus within the early Church.  Therefore, in the Synoptics give us a cocktail of both formal and informal controlled tradition.  Thus, the variations between the Synoptic Gospels should give evidence of being products of the vicissitudes of individual and cultural memory.  On this hypothesis, a discrepancy between the Gospels (such as, Who exactly said what?–precisely the sort of thing most vulnerable to individual memory), paradoxically, can actually count in favor of the Gospels’ general historical trustworthiness

I would suspect that to the degree that Jesus (rather than an inerrant Bible) occupies the center of our faith, the work of scholars such as Dunn and Bauckham (and N.T. Wright and Fr. John Meyer and many others, for that matter) will be encouraging to classically orthodox Christians.

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To wrap up this discussion of baptism, I return to the set of problems that sent me on this exploration in the first place: Should individual Christians be willing to compromise their baptismal preferences for the sake of fellowship with and the mission of local churches?  If so, how flexible can we legitimately be on these matters?

I have tried to show in Parts 1 and 2 of this mini-series that, in all likelihood, there was no single apostolic protocol for baptism and, if there was, it does not match any of the baptismal practices on offer within the Church today.  The most probable explanation for why our current evidence for earliest Christian baptismal practices is messy  and complicated is that the historical reality on the ground (or in the water, as it were) was messy and complicated.  InBaptismal font the apostolic period, the Church’s practice and understanding of baptism was evolving from being a Jewish ritual ablution to being a Christian sacrament.  That evolutionary process, like all such processes, probably gave birth to a multiplicity of theological and practical variations, only the “fittest” of which survived.

Now, this picture of baptism’s history seriously problematizes our tendency to want to treat our specific, preferred baptismal practices and theologies (whether we be paedo- or credo-baptists) as rigidly normative for everyone else.  Nobody, no not one, can boast of either an uncomplicated continuity nor a perfect symmatry between their baptismal practice and that of the apostolic generation.

Furthermore, to return to my evolutionary metaphor, as with species of flora and fauna, so also the ability to flourish that constitutes a tradition’s “fitness” for survival depends entirely upon the environment wherein that tradition finds itself.  Just as a species’ fitness for survival depends upon environmental conditions (e.g., climate, sustenance, mates [if needed], etc.), so, perhaps, it is with traditions like baptismal practices.  Perhaps there are environmental conditions to which churchesand individual Christians should adapt their baptismal practices.

For instance, it is (or at least used to be) recognized that the American “Bible-Belt” displays the phenomenon of so-called “cultural Christianity,” a sort of highly-popularized, lowest-common-denominator piety, typically marked out by a handful of seemingly arbitrarily selected dogmas (e.g., biblical literalism, a borderline-Docetic and thoroughly Caucasian Christology) and taboos (e.g., don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t swear, don’t date girls that do, etc.).  In such an environment, perhaps paedo-baptism could be a theological liability.  Perhaps paedo-baptism’s (supposed) proclivity for producing people who believe themselves to be proper Christians simply because a minister splashed some water over them once merely exacerbates the problems inherent in a context rife with “cultural Christianity.”  But, then again, perhaps it is not paedo-baptism per se that exacerbates the situation.

On the other hand, it is often observed that deepy engrained in American culture is a profoundly self-centered, self-motivated individualism that affects everything from how we dress to why we go to school to how we envision salvation.  This inveterate American individualism breeds narcissism both inside and outside the Church, undermines the edification of the community of the Church, the Body of Christ, and diverts resources that ought to go towards mercy, outreach and missions to instead go to endless building funds, sound-systems, and retreats.  Perhaps in this unhealthily individualistic context credo- or “believer’s” baptism, with it’s concomitant (over?) emphasis on my “testimony,” my “conversion,” my “decision,” and my new walk with the Lord, exacerbates the situation, inadvertantly diminishing the importance of the family and isolating Christians from both the living community and the historic Tradition of the Church.  But, then again, perhaps it is not credo-baptism per se that does this.

I do not presume to say which, if either, baptismal practice will best serve the circumstances wherein the Church currently finds herself.  But I would suggest that these sorts of practical, pastoral questions should probably Baptism-christplay a greater role in personal and communal deliberations on baptismal theology and practice.  However, these sorts of questions do not admit of cut-and-dried answers.  Whatever conclusions one reaches must be adhered to provisionally and humbly.  At any rate, bearing these things in mind allows Christians to maintain Paul’s prioritization of evangelism and unity over the particulars of baptism (see 1 Cor 1:10-17) and to exercise a sort of healthy ecumenical versatility as they decide where, how and with whom to worship and serve.

So to return to my initial questions: Should individual Christians be willing to compromise their baptismal preferences for the sake of fellowship with and the mission of local churches?  If so, how flexible can we legitimately be on these matters?  I’ve given my two-cents worth.  What do you think?

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To recap, in my last post I argued that earliest Christian baptism must be understood in the context of other Early Jewish washings in general and is best understood as a development of Jewish proselyte baptism in particular.  Thus, early Christians probably generally followed the normal Jewish baptismal protocol: When the head of a household converted, he and his whole household (wives, children, infants, and slaves) would all be baptized but children who were subsequently born into the household would not require the baptismal bath.  In short, neither modern-day Baptists nor modern-day paedo-baptists (e.g., Methodists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, etc.) practice baptism precisely the way Christians did during the time of the apostles.  If that precis has left you completely disoriented and confused, read my argument in the last post before continuing with this one…or just stop reading altogether and go on about your business.

 So, picking up where we left off…

3. Thus, a sort of paedo-baptism was probably practiced from the very start of Christianity, although it likely was not the only early Christian approach to baptism nor does it exactly match the subsequent Christian practice of paedo-baptism. As I mentioned in a comment on the last post, there is perhaps some textual evidence of diversity in Christian baptismal practices in the apostolic period.  While most of the NT gives a pretty clear picture of baptism as a singular initiatory rite, in Hebrews 6:2 we find that part of the elementary word of Christ is “instruction about washings/baptisms (baptismw/n, plural!)” (compare with Heb 9:10). Some have noticed definite affinities between the focuses of Hebrews and some of the hot-topics of the Dead Sea Scrolls (angelology, Melchizedek, priestly concerns, etc.). Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the author and intended audience of Hebrews were Essene Christians! If that’s the case, perhaps we have evidence here of an early Christian community wherein members did, in fact, undergo multiple “baptisms,” as did members of the Qumran community and the Pharisees (Luke 11:38).

4. As there was probably no uniform baptismal practice, there was almost certainly no uniform theology of baptismal significance in early Christianity.  However, it needs to be noted that the NT’s language

ca. 4th-5th century, cruciform baptismal font

ca. 4th-5th century, cruciform baptismal font

concerning baptism is disconcertingly high for many Evangelical Protestants who want baptism to be a symbol and nothing more.  For Paul it is precisely in our baptism, not our initial moment of faith, that we are united to Christ in his death and resurrection (e.g., Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:27).  Nevertheless, for Paul, baptism, in some sense, takes a back-seat to the preaching of the gospel (1 Cor 1:17).

On the other hand, we read in 1 Peter 3:21-22, “Baptism… now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ….”  Likewise, John’s reference to being “born of water and the Spirit” as a precondition of entry into the kingdom of God (3:5) is probably best understood as a reference to baptism.

I suspect that for churches that shared the Pauline belief that baptism united the believer with Christ and somehow transformed the believer’s heart (Rom 6:4, 17-18) it was only natural to connect baptism with the circumcision of the heart (Rom 2:29).  From there it is but a theological hop, skip and a jump to patterning Christian baptismal practice after the Jewish rite of circumcision and, ergo, baptizing children born to Christian parents.

That not all ancient churches would take this hop, skip and jump should be obvious.  Nevertheless, we have here the makings of an explanation for how Origen, writing in the early 3rd century, could assume paedo-baptism to be a practice passed down from the apostles and why Tertullian should feel the need to argue against the (apparently widespread) practice.  The fact that the practice was not explicitlyordained by any NT text helps to explain why in many cases the evidence from Christian children’s gravestones indicates that children were often baptized strictly in cases of emergency and why many in the 4th century, though Christians, postponed baptism until either ordination (e.g., Ambrose of Milan) or death (e.g., Gregory of Nazianzus, Constantine) seemed immanent.  The theological interconnection between the Spirit, baptism and circumcision helps explain why at least some of these baptismal procrastinators (e.g., Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus) would go on to exhort parents to baptize their children without delay. 

My point is that paedo-baptism as it came to be practiced within the ancient and medieval church was an understandable and probably legitimate development of apostolic baptismal practices and theologies, not that it was the only legitimate development of the apostolic practices and doctrine.  In short, the messiness of the baptismal practices and theologies of the apostolic period begat the messiness of the baptismal practices and theologies of the patristic period, but, nevertheless, therein lay the seeds of what would eventually become the Church’s predominant practice: paedo-baptism.  Now, whether those seeds should have been allowed to germinate is another matter….

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The other week I was having coffee with a new-found friend from the Baptist church I have been attending recently.  Like myself, she is a closet paedo-baptist but, nevertheless, in order to join the church, she gladly submitted to undergoing “believer’s” (ana!)baptism.  For whatever reason this revelation set me to h’rumphing and shifting uneasily in my seat.  Of course, people who have been baptized as infants are frequently (re)baptized by Baptist churches.  That comes as no surprise.  What caught me off-guard, I think, was the realization that some folks who were being (re)baptized had not discounted their christening as illegitmate nor bought into the theology of credo- (or “believers'”) baptism.

As I’ve said before, The Summit is a vibrant, healthy, happening church, and so, in some ways, I suppose I should not be surprised that folks who resonate with the church’s ethos and mission but not necessarily with their baptismal theology, would submit to the latter in order to participate in the former.  And on further reflection, it seems to me that there is something profoundly right about subordinating one’s personal sacramental preferences to the interests of community and mission.

In other words, I don’t think baptismal practice is a hill to die on and for the following reasons: 1) I suspect that, historically speaking, the baptismal practices of Apostolic Christianity were most likely incongruous with the chief baptismal practices on offer today.  2) The practice and theology of baptism underwent processes of development from the time of Jesus through the Reformation and beyond, in response to various practical and theological stimuli.  3) Because of the character of baptism’s history, perhaps the most pressing questions for how churches should practice this sacrament are practical and pastoral in nature.

As for the historical questions, I have several thoughts:

1.  Early Christian Baptism probably arose out of Jewish ritual washings, the function of which was to provide ritual purity.  It is commonly believed that such washings were primarily associated with the Israelite cultus (see e.g., Ex 30:19-21; 40:12; Lev 6:27, etc.).  However, as Shaye Cohen has pointed out, the Torah’s regulations concerning ritual purity pertain not only to the Tabernacle but to the entire Israelite camp, i.e., to the entirety of Israel (Lev 13:46; Num 5:1-4).  Understood thus, the Pharisees insistence upon applying purity to the whole of Jewish existence seems not pedantic or supererogatory but altogether natural.   

Such washings were part of both initiation into and daily life in the Qumran community (see especially, The Community Rule [1 QS III.1-10]).  Washings were also part of the daily life of the Pharisees (e.g., Luke 11:38).  We know that Rabbinic Judaism practiced proselyte baptism, having Gentile proselytes be baptised as part of initiation into the people of God.  The function of such baptisms was to remove the uncleanness that Gentiles necessarily had on account of their pre-conversion diets (see Lev 11).

A mikvah bath at Herodian from ca. 1st century BCE

A mikvah bath at Herodian from ca. 1st century BCE

While, it is often dangerous to assume that practices and ideas of Rabbinic Judaism extend back into the Second Temple period, I think we are probably safe to think that proselyte baptism was commonly practiced by Jews of that time, particularly the Pharisees.  First, there is some textual evidence that this practice may extend as far back as the 2nd century BCE (namely, the Greek Version of the Testament of Levi 14:6 protests Jews using “unlawful purifications” to legitimate marriages to unclean Gentile women).  Furthermore, it is hard to imagine how Pharisees could initiate Gentiles into the Jewish community, into the “camp” without some sort of initiatory ablution (again, think Lev 11).

Thus, it is only natural to place Christian baptism on the map of Jewish ritual washings and more specifically to connect it with Jewish proselyte baptism.  But in addition to the initial plausibility of Christian Baptism arising from this matrix, there are a few other clues that seem to indicate that we’re on the right track in linking these practices.  First, the language of baptism is associated with Jewish ritual washings in a few NT texts.  For instance, Luke 11:38, “The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash (evbapti,sqh [aor. ind. pass of bapti,zw]) before dinner.”  In John 3:25-26, furthermore, it is precisely in the context of a discussion about purity that the subject of Jesus’ baptismal activity comes up. 

Second, there is an intriguing parallel between 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, where Paul says Israel was “baptised into Moses” via the Exodus and later rabbinic discussions of proselyte baptism that explain the practice by recourse to the Exodus (b Ker 9a).  Is it too much to suppose that both Paul and the Rabbis drew this point from a common background of Pharisaic baptismal theology?

2. Early Christian Baptism probably followed the patterns of Jewish proselyte baptism.  Jewish proselyte baptism was typically administered to whole households (wives, slaves, children and infants included) upon the conversion of the head of the household.  However, children who were subsequently born into these households were not baptised (e.g., b. Yeb 78a, ‘If a non-Israelite during her pregnancy becomes a proselyte, then her child does not need the baptismal bath.” etc.) because they were born into clean/pure families and had contracted no ritual impurity.  As for early Christian baptism, not only do we see the language of household baptism being used in the NT (Acts 16:30-34; 1 Cor 1:16) but we also see Paul using the language of ritual purity with respect to children born into mixed marriages (1 Cor 7:14).

However, I say “probably followed the patterns (plural) of Jewish proselyte baptism” because I suspect that there was a variety baptismal practices in early Judaism and, likely, a variety of baptismal practices in early Christianity.  I say this because the Mishnah witnesses an ongoing debate concerning baptismal practice into the Rabbinic period and also because there was diversity in baptismal practices amongst the churches of the 2nd and 3rd centuries (although, the fact remains that paedobaptism seems to have been an accepted practice across all three continents).

More coming soon…

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