Baptism was mostly done out of doors, but sometimes inside, but always by immersion. And clothed.
The special mention of baptism being clothed—and making a special point of it (in case some people thought that it was NOT true)—caught my eye. It told me that the writer was aware of the claims that baptism was indeed performed nude. All the descriptions of baptism from the early church that I had ever read claimed that they were performed nude, if any mention of attire was made at all.So, I thought I'd write the fellow and ask him about him about his documentation for that claim. What follows is my email conversation with the man. Let me say up front that I really appreciated the respectfulness with which he treated me.
I did not mention that I was a naturist because that was not germaine to the conversation at all. This was all about claims made about historical fact and what documentation there was to support it.
I apologize for the length of this blog post, but I didn't want to put all the emails in separate posts. I've tried to format it so that it's easy to follow. The legend is as follows:Blue = My words.
Red = His words.
Black = quotations from external sources
Nude Baptism in the Early Church
The Cases For and Against
I happened upon your article about "Baptism" and I was struck by a statement you made which was contrary to what my research has revealed.
You claimed that early church baptism was performed clothed. Yet this is contrary to the uniform testimony of the early church fathers who wrote of their practices.
You went on to claim that "Another bizarre practice that some claim used to be involved with "Christianity" was nude baptism."
I recognize that the very idea seems "bizarre" to us in our day and age, but if indeed it was the common practice of the time, then it really no more bizarre than taking the bread and cup and utilizing them to remember a very cruel death. It seems to me that the question of how "strange" the practice was must be answered according to the context of the early church practices, rather than in comparison to today's practices and mores.
You also said:
I don't see how you can conclude that simply because a practice is not mentioned in the Bible, that it "demonstrates" that the practice was pagan.
My understanding is that in the Jewish faith, the practice of the mikveh dates back all the way to the OT law where "washing with water" was a Scriptural requirement in many different circumstances. Tradition confirms that the mikveh was prescribed to be performed nude, even to the point of requiring no jewelry, unbraided hair, and clean fingernails. That tradition continues today, for in the modern mikveh, the Jewish believer still must enter into the waters completely nude.
Among other things, conversion to Judaism required the waters of the mikveh. The baptism of John was almost certainly an expression of the mikveh. If so, then it too would have been performed on nude believers. It is not at all surprising that the early church would also adopt a very Jewish ritual practice for the baptismal rite. Therefore, to say that nude baptism is a "pagan" practice is to simply dismiss the reality of the Jewish tradition of the mikveh and its influence on Christian baptism.
In my research, I came across the following quote, and verified its source as from Robert Robinson's work, "The History of Baptism." I have attached screenshots from Mr. Robinson's book which I found on Googlebooks.
This quotation was only one of many that I uncovered in my research. Furthermore, I found a large number of sacred works of art (15+) which represent nude baptisms, including works showing the Lord Jesus being baptized unclothed. These certainly are not inspired or authoritative, but the very idea that so many different artists from different times and traditions would portray baptism as being performed nude is strong confirming evidence that the notion of nude baptism in the early church has its roots in fact. I have included three such images with this email.
If you have evidence that supports your assertions, I would love to see it, for I have no interest in embracing a falsehood as truth. As it stands at this moment, however, I find the documentation that I have uncovered to be more convincing than your claim.
Thank you for your time.
Here are the attachments that I mentioned in the email above (click to see full size):
Very quickly, I received the following response:
Thank you for your prompt reply.
Allow me to respond.
The "early primary sources" I have to offer are as follows:
The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome. If you read down to section 21, you'll see the portion describing the practice. As I understand it, this was written in 217 AD.
Sometime in 400 AD, Theodor eof Mopsuestia wrote concerning baptism. His writings on the topic are found here: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/theodore_of_mopsuestia_lordsprayer_02_text.htm. You will find the instructions in "Chapter IV," 10th and 11th paragraphs.
Another work, The History Of The Christian Church - Vol II Ante-Nicene Christianity AD 100-325 speaks of nude baptism as a matter of simple fact. http://www.archive.org/stream/historyofthechri009648mbp/historyofthechri009648mbp_djvu.txt The mention of it is found on page 248 in section 70, The Celebration of Baptism. While written more recently, it cites several early church writers and sources.
Cyril of Jerusalem wrote in the 4th century AD. In his work, you can find his descriptions of the rite of Baptism and how it was performed. The text can be found here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207.ii.xxiv.html. He assigns tremendous theological significance to baptismal nudity his his writings.
My questions to you are these...
You did not address my point about the mikveh. This article, http://www.sinaibrookline.org/page.php/id/1288 vouches for the fact that the mikveh is still in use to day, and still requires full nudity.
In this article by Ron Mosley of the Arkansas Institute of Holy Land Studies, we read of the clear heritage of Christian Baptism being found in the Jewish mikveh. http://www.haydid.org/ronimmer.htm. If this is true, then it would not at all be unlikely that they would have adopted the requirement of nudity as well. Indeed, it would seem odd if they had not.
I know that these articles about the mikveh are contemporary articles about ancient practices, but I do believe that they are credible sources... at least credible enough to warrant a further search into the matter.
Regarding gnosticism, I would argue that the notion that the body is lewd or indecent and cannot be seen is more akin to gnostic teaching than not. The gnostics taught that the spirit was good and the body was evil. This teaching today is expressed by excessive prudery and an unbiblical definition of "modesty."
Biblical modesty is not at all about making sure that certain parts (utterly undesignated in the Scriptures) must always be covered, but that clothing must not be used to draw attention to oneself, or for self-aggrandizement. This is the clear teaching of 1 Timothy 2:9. 1 Peter 3:3 teaches exactly the same thing. In neither passage is there any emphasis or definition at all on what must be worn.
I have an article that a pastor I know wrote about 1 Timothy 2 that gives a clear exegetical understanding of the passage within the Scriptural context. It exposes how this passage has been traditionally misunderstood and misapplied. I'd be happy to send it to you if you would like. I'm sure he would appreciate a scholarly review.
You said that nude baptism would be contrary to the NT's admonitions against lust and towards modesty. Aside from 1 Timothy 2:9 (which does not have anything to do with requiring clothing), I know of no other NT passage which teaches at all about modesty in our attire. And I know of no passage anywhere in the NT which defines for us what parts of our body are to be covered.
Regarding lust, Jesus certainly taught against lust, but he did not lay the blame at the feet of the woman at all. It is entirely within the man where lust is born. In fact, Jesus' teaching in Mark 7:18-23 clearly teaches that lust and other sexual sins are not the result of what "enters a man" (by mouth or by eye). Nothing outside a man, Jesus taught, can defile the man, but that which comes from within defiles him.
Is there anything that needs to be corrected in these statements?
I look forward to your response.
Thank you for your time.
Here are the attachments that I mentioned in the email above (click to see full size):
Again, his response:
Publicly nudity would seem to be inconsistent with the idea of baptism being a shield, pure, and undefiled.
Notice a record of baptism in the New Testament:
The idea of clothes being removed for baptism is completely foreign to scripture.
The Old Testament clearly condemns viewing the nakedness of various close relatives (Leviticus 18:6-18), hence it makes no sense that new converts to Christianity violated those admonitions in regards to baptism.
Notice that there are parts of the body that are not publicly presentable. Hence, I contend that those who decided to adopt nude baptism were doing so in violation of scripture.
Thank you again for your reply.
Once again, I will respond.
In your first set of quotations, I noted no indication that the mode of baptism included the mention of clothing during the actual baptismal rite.
The reference to baptism abiding "as a shield" is clearly a simile and not a literal reference to a shield. And in truth, baptism (clothed or not) is not about clothing and certainly it is not about a defensive armor. Therefore, that first quote can in no way indicate anything about the mode of baptism.
The second quote seems to me to have no bearing on the issue either.
The third quotation holds forth baptism in purity and without defilement, but that says nothing about the presence or absence of clothing.
In response to that, however, you said, "Publicly nudity would seem to be inconsistent with the idea of baptism being a shield, pure, and undefiled." I would submit to you that your statement only reveals your own bias regarding the nature of the unclad human form, rather than objective truth. Indeed your own words betray the lack of surety of your statement for you said, "would seem." But things which seem to be in our culture today have absolutely no bearing on how things were perceived or the values and practices held in the first century. You said in your first email that you are "not particularly interested in modern third person interpretations." yet in your statement here, are you not depending more on your own perceptions than on historical evidence?
I would assert again that in reality, your statement reflects a very gnostic view of our bodies, for you are assuming that to see the unclad human form will lead to impurity. In other words, you are treating the body as if it is "evil" while maintaining that the spiritual matters are what is really important.
In response to the mikveh, you said, "There is simply NO indication that Jesus and others were nude when baptized. Thus, whatever Jewish traditions were employed by John the Baptist and Jesus' followers simply did not hve removal of clothes."
I would point out that this is faulty logic, for your statement presumes that if something was not overtly mentioned in the Bible, then it did not happen. I'm rather confident that you would never assert that as actually being true, but that is the force of your argument here.
Equally plausible (if not more so) is that if baptisms were always performed without clothing (the mikveh, and Christian baptism), then to overtly mention it would be utterly unnecessary. We bathe without clothing, and baptism is certainly a picture of bathing, among other things.
You then referenced John the Baptist:
John wore camel's hair, which distinguished him from the tunic/robe that most people wore. That is why it is mentioned here. This passage does not lmean that he wore that always wore that outfit while baptizing any more than it means that he always ate locusts and wild honey while baptizing.
In this and every other account you offered in the NT regarding baptism, I will concur than none specifically mention that those being baptized were nude. But by the very same token, none of them declares that they were not unclothed. Therefore, from the Scripture text itself, we can reach no conclusion whatsoever regarding the clothed state of those being baptized. To do anything else amounts to eisegesis.
Leviticus 18 is not speaking about simple nudity. Any attempt to read it that way will leave the honest reader shaking his head about what some of the verses mean. Contextually, it is impossible to avoid the fact that in every case, sexual activity is assumed. In short, the passage defines and forbids incest. As there is no word in Hebrew for "incest," the phrase "uncover the nakedness of..." was used to reference it. When understood this way, the entire passage makes perfect sense. It simply is not a passage teaching about nakedness, it is teaching about incest.
You mentioned "figurative baptism" in Paul's writings and in the book of Acts. Figurative references are just that. They are not intended to teach about physical realities, therefore, you cannot infer from the fact that the disciples were clothed when baptized by the Holy Spirit that they were also clothed during the rite of water baptism.
Regarding 1 Cor. 12:22-24. I have studied the passage carefully. I have noted that the translation of the Greek word aschemon as "unpresentable" is really quite interpretive. The word is much better translated "uncomely" as the KJV translates it. The word simply means that something is not all that pretty to look at. Some people's noses are not all that pretty, but we don't for that reason require them to be covered from view. Furthermore, the word translated "modesty" in your quotation simply does not mean "modesty" as we use it in English. The KJV again translates the word and its context as "our uncomely [parts] have more abundant comeliness." How that could be translated into something meaning "we keep them covered" is something I cannot comprehend nor defend.
Literally, the text says that the parts of our body that we would naturally consider "dishonorable," we treat as highly honored, and those parts that we might naturally consider "ugly" are treated as if they are very beautiful indeed. We do not insist on beautiful things being covered. Therefore, the suggestion that this passage supports keeping certain parts of our body covered is not fidelity to the text, but rather a "modern third person interpretation." Like you, I have no interest in such interpretations.
No sacred art? Touche. Point taken. However, there is art that intentionally portrays Biblical events and themes. If nothing else, they do reflect the thinking, values, theology, and practices of the time and religious heritage from which they came.
Question, where in the OT and NT is there any clear opposition to public nudity? I know that most people claim that its true, but from my examination of the Words of Scripture, I have not found convincing exegetical evidence for that claim. Where do you find it?
In your summarizing remarks, you said again that the Scriptures never even hint at nude baptism, nor the earliest Christian writings. That I would acknowledge. But I would also acknowledge that they do not contradict the claim, either. So from these observations alone, we can draw no firm conclusion.
Also, while it is apt to note that the Greco-Roman churches contained theological and practical compromise, it would be be inappropriate to take that fact as a proof that everything they practiced was therefore false.
In conclusion, I find in your words no historical evidence that clothing was used in early church baptism, nor have I seen you present any concrete evidence that nude baptism had its source in pagan practices.
In contrast, I have seen the writings of the (admittedly compromised, but not entirely false) church leaders from as late as the 5th century AD which described their practices. I have also found evidence that nude baptism has its roots not in pagan practices, but in Jewish ritual cleansing. Finally, I have encountered cultural evidence from the arts that reveals the apparent belief within the church historically that Jesus was in fact baptized without clothing.
Indeed, I do remain unconvinced that your perspective is more historically accurate than mine. Do you have any more evidence that I should consider?
Thanks again for your time.
And while you may say that this is an admonition only against uncovering nakedness directly (or incest as your last email states), I would submit that it was also an admonition against public nudity.
Thus, I contend that public nudity by females, which can incite lust, is prohibited.
Again, you are entitled to your opinion, but you still have failed to cite one scripture, nor actual Christian writer, that condoned nude baptism.
If I may summarize your points, you claimed that public nudity was forbidden because of two reasons:
I point out that neither of these passages say that public nudity is forbidden. Let me take them one at a time to demonstrate why that presumption is logically flawed.
In your closing statements, you have used a logical fallacy to support your conclusion. You have used circular reasoning to invalidate any evidence contrary to the position you already hold. Here's what I mean.
You state that no member of the "true church of God" participated in nude baptism. At the same time, you acknowledge that there is historical evidence that nude baptisms were practiced. But you have no way to know that these were mutually exclusive! In reality, what you have done is to declare Christians who practiced nude baptism as not part of the true church because they practiced nude baptism!
Or to put it more simply, True Christians didn't baptize nude. Those who did so were not true Christians. We know this because true Christians did not baptize nude.
It is circular reasoning and is not proof of anything because your argument is based upon the presumption of that which are trying to prove!
This also allows you to simply disregard any "evidence" to the contrary that might exist by the simply claim, "They were not part of the true church of God." What is the evidence that they were not? They baptized nude, of course. There is, therefore, no evidence that could ever be valid for you. This in spite of the fact that you have not one shred of historical evidence that "the true church" practiced it any differently. In truth, you don't really need any evidence to support your position when any evidence against your position can be so easily dismissed.
Ultimately, you have offered me nothing of substance to invalidate my understanding about nude baptism which I had before I wrote to you.
Think about it.
Thanks for your time and the very respectful interaction.
And his final response.
And my response was that neither the Bible nor writings of actual true Christians supports your contention.
In all due respect, it is you who have misunderstood my writings. I am not using circular reasoning.
To this last email, I have not responded.
So... what's the verdict? Whose evidence and argument was more compelling?
Feel free to comment.