Like the Lord’s Supper, the baptism of Christians was an ordinance commanded by Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19-20). He did not explicitly describe how baptism was to be done, other than in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
Method of baptism
John 3:23 seems to suggest that John the Baptist was baptizing by immersion, since he chose the location “because there was much water there.”
“And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.”
Although none of the Christian baptisms recorded in Acts (2:38-41; 9:17-18; 22:12-16; 10:44-48; 16:32-34) clearly describe the method of baptism, there is one example that specifically states that both the person being baptized, and the baptizer, “went down into the water” (Acts 8:38-39). This suggests, but does not necessarily prove, baptism by immersion.
Ancient catacombs and ruins associated with early Christians often contain art. Subjects include John the Baptist pouring water over Jesus in baptism. According to a guide to ancient symbols, “John is often depicted baptizing Christ with water poured from a scallop shell. The shell has become a common symbol of baptism.” Furthermore, according to a scholarly Catholic source:
“Much of the earliest Christian artwork depicts baptism, but not baptism by immersion! If the recipient… is in a river, he is always shown standing in the river while water is poured over his head from a cup or shell. Tile mosaics in ancient churches, paintings in the catacombs, designs on ordinary household objects like cups and spoons, engravings on marble—it is always baptism by pouring. Baptisteries in early cemeteries are clear witnesses to baptisms by infusion. The entire record of the early Church--as shown in the New Testament, in other writings, and in monumental evidence--indicates the mode of baptism was not restricted to immersion.
Other archaeological evidence confirms the same thing. An early Christian baptistery was found in a church in Jesus hometown of Nazareth, yet this baptistery, which dates from the second century, was too small and narrow in which to immerse a person” (Catholic Answers, San Diego, 2002).
Umberto Fasola of The Christian Catacombs of Rome indicates that their catacombs show Christians being baptized in the nude. He assumes this indicates their baptism was by full immersion, and that this method “showed the fullness of Pauline theology…; they must put off the old person and put on the new.”
However, a study of early Christian baptismals by Professor M.M. Ninan states, “In every case the baptismal fonts were shallow pools where only the candidates feet were immersed. These were certainly unsuitable for total immersion as is practiced today. Even in the squatting mode, immersion could not be accomplished. Water was certainly poured on people from an overhead stream or from a pitcher held by the person baptizing.”
Verses such as Romans 6:4-5 and Colossians 2:12 compare the Christian’s baptism to the death and resurrection of Christ. In many modern people’s minds, immersion seems to better mirror this picture, than does sprinkling or washing, and it is therefore preferred or required.
However, as Bible scholar Matthew G. Easton explains:
“The words ‘baptize’ and ‘baptism’ are simply Greek words transferred into English [transliterations]. This was necessarily done by the translators of the Scriptures, for no literal translation could properly express all that is implied in them.
The mode of baptism can in no way be determined from the Greek word rendered ‘baptize.’ Some Baptists say that it means ‘to dip,’ and nothing else. That is an incorrect view of the meaning of the word. It means both (1) to dip a thing into an element or liquid, and (2) to put an element or liquid over or on it. Nothing, therefore, as to the mode of baptism can be concluded from the mere word used. The word has a wide latitude of meaning, not only in the New Testament, but also in the Septuagint Version of the Old Testament, where it is used of the ablutions and baptisms required by the Mosaic law. These were effected by immersion, and by affusion and sprinkling; and the same word, ‘washings’ (Hebrews 9:10, 13, 19, 21) or ‘baptisms,’ designates them all.”
Mark 7:4 uses same Greek word “baptizo” (baptism) when referring to the washing practice of the Pharisees. “When they come from the market, except they wash [baptizo], they eat not.” It seems unlikely that the Pharisees immersed their entire bodies in water before eating, every time they passed through the marketplace. It is more likely that this baptism is a symbolic, ceremonial washing, probably involving just the hands. This is also likely the case in Luke 11:38 where the Pharisee disapproved of Jesus for not baptizing himself [baptizo] (i.e., washing) before dinner.
A 1st century Christian document called the Didache shows early Christians believing that immersion was not required in Christian baptisms:
But concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: having first recited all these precepts, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water; but if thou hast not running water, baptize in some other water, and if thou canst not baptize in cold, in warm water; but if thou hast neither, pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
—(Didache 7:1-3, as translated by Charles H. Hoole. The Didache is purported to have been written by the apostles, but this cannot be proven. Emphasis added.)
We quote this document not to point out any right or wrong way to administer a baptism, but only to show that even in the early church, baptisms were approached with pragmatism—and at least some Christians acknowledged that immersion was preferable, but not mandatory. It is also seen that the word baptism (Greek: baptizo) was not synonymous with immersion at the time the New Testament was written.
Jesus told his disciples that “John baptized [Greek: baptizo] with water, but you will be baptized [baptizo] with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4-5, NASB). How did the Holy Spirit come upon them? He rested on each one of them as a tongue of fire (Acts 2:3). The disciples were not immersed in flames. At this time, Peter pointed out that Joel’s prophecy was fulfilled: “I will pour out my spirit” (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28). Thus, the true biblical meaning of the word baptizo (baptism) includes pouring.
As Matthew G. Easton points out:
“The gospel and its ordinances are designed for the whole world, and it cannot be supposed that a form for the administration of baptism would have been prescribed which would in any place (as in a tropical country or in polar regions) or under any circumstances be inapplicable or injurious or impossible.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the two symbolical ordinances of the New Testament. The Supper represents the work of Christ, and Baptism the work of the Spirit. As in the Supper a small amount of bread and wine used in this ordinance exhibits in symbol the great work of Christ, so in Baptism the work of the Holy Spirit is fully seen in the water poured or sprinkled on the person in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. That which is essential in baptism is only “washing with water,” no mode being specified and none being necessary or essential to the symbolism of the ordinance.
The apostles of our Lord were baptized with the Holy Ghost (Matthew 3:11) by his coming upon them (Acts 1:8). The fire also with which they were baptized sat upon them. The extraordinary event of Pentecost was explained by Peter as a fulfillment of the ancient promise that the Spirit would be poured out in the last days (2:17). He uses also with the same reference the expression shed forth as descriptive of the baptism of the Spirit (33). In the Pentecostal baptism ‘the apostles were not dipped into the Spirit, nor plunged into the Spirit; but the Spirit was shed forth, poured out, fell on them (11:15), came upon them, sat on them.’ That was a real and true baptism. We are warranted from such language to conclude that in like manner when water is poured out, falls, comes upon or rests upon a person when this ordinance is administered, that person is baptized.”