Thursday, June 19, 2008

Were the First Christian Baptisms Done Nude?

It seems likely. Since Christ was almost certainly crucified naked, and since early Christians saw baptism as symbolic death and rebirth, it is quite probable that at least some Christians were baptized naked. Notes Reformed theologian Rousas J. Rushdoony:

"This same aspect, rebirth, led to an interesting custom which survived for some centuries as basic to baptism, namely, baptism, usually by immersion, in the nude... The emphasis on death and rebirth led to a stress on immersion as symbolically representative of this fact. Men were born naked; hence, they were reborn naked in baptism. No works of the unregenerate man could be carried into heaven; therefore, the candidate symbolically stripped himself of all clothing to indicate that he had nothing save God's grace. There were two baptistries thus in churches for some generations, since men and women were baptized separately....This practice of naked baptism indicates how seriously the Biblical symbolism was taken by the early church."

The notion is not without its skeptics, however. According to Lurie Guy in the June 2003 issue of
the Journal of Religious History:

"Baptism was understood as a radical life-changing act in the early church. Its radical nature was reflected by it being administered to candidates, male and female, who were apparently naked. The issue of nakedness must, however, be re-examined in view of the fact that baptism was normally administered by male clergy and Judeo-Christian modesty would not likely allow a religious practice where female nakedness was exposed to male gaze. This makes it unlikely that male clergy did in fact baptize naked women. The article notes that the term gymnos, used for nakedness, had a much wider usage than its English equivalent and might simply point to divestiture of outer garments only."

Yet the artwork of the earliest Christian catacombs clearly depicts nude Christians being ritually immersed in water, and nudity as a whole has been a recurrent them in Christian art. The idea must have come from somewhere. And though many of these later depictions equate nakedness with the Old Testament theme of shame, the same divestiture can have precisely the opposite connotation: the innocence of the first humans in Eden.

Since the early church emphasized Christ's stark reversal of human ills- sin to sanctity, death to life, old man to new, sinful flesh to spiritual body- the early Christian communities would have gravitated toward precisely the sort of simple, dramatic symbolism that naked baptism would have provided. Their Judaic aversion to nudity in the sight of others would only have been present only to the degree to which it was not overcome by the Hellinizing aspects of Roman rule, and baptism divided by sex would have ameliorated the most obvious concerns.

Moreover, given the multiplicity of practices amidst the early Christianities, and the difficulties in uniting the separate communities of faith of diverse practices, it does seem likely that some, if not most, of the first Christians were baptized without under- or overgarments.

And to think, the great Christian debate about Baptism came to be how much water was involved.

1 comment:

Matt said...

As one pastor friend I know said, there is really no credible argument against the historical fact that baptisms were originally performed nude.

One historical work (there are many!) which makes no bones about can be found on Google Books: It is The History of Baptism by Robert Robinson and David Benedict. (throughout the book, but particularly notable is page 94)

Here is a link directly to the page I'm referencing:

http://books.google.com/books?id=ldFJAAAAMAAJ&printsec=titlepage&source=gbs_summary_r&cad=0#PPA94,M1

You can see in this document that indeed women were also baptized naked.

One of the things this clearly shows is that our sense of propriety within the church regarding the nude human form has changed dramatically over the years. Most people assume that public nudity of any kind is expressly forbidden in the Bible, yet history shows the for centuries after Christ, nudity was actually required for one of the central sacraments of the Christian faith... and that nudity took place in the context of worship!