A topic of much debate in Christendom (sadly) is baptism. The method or mode, the purpose, the people doing the baptizing, all of these are discussed at length. Is it immersion? It is sprinkling? Is it for infants or believers above the age of accountability? This article will not address any of these issues. What is never spoken about, hardly, is the fact that baptisms in the early church were performed in the nude. Is this is a shock to you? Keep reading…
At my own church, there is a sign by the baptistry that expresses the need for a robe to be worn over one’s clothes. This, especially for the females, will be the most modest approach and will not cause others to stumble in their thinking (is the general, though faulty, idea behind this). Church is not the place for a wet T-shirt contest, I get that! That would certainly not be appropriate. However, when I saw this sign, I immediately wondered how those in the church would react if they knew that ancient baptisms were performed devoid of any coverings at all! Candidates for baptism would strip off all of their clothes and jewelry to enter the waters naked and unashamed, and in mixed company. It was not scandalous like it would be today. It was just the way it was.
At some point prudery took over, and the art that portrayed these true facts about baptism got censored. See the tragic defacing of these historical pieces:
This should be proof enough that this was indeed the practice. However, should you need more convincing, you’re at the right place!
For the first 400 years in the Church, baptism was a nude practice. This was the pattern of the Jewish mikveh ritual before it was a Christian rite. Bathing outdoors was commonplace, so this was not offensive as it would be today. To quote Lightfoot in “Horae Hebraicae Talmuducae,” he acknowledges that: “Every person baptized must dip his whole body, now stripped and made naked, at one dipping. And wheresoever in the Law washing of the body is mentioned, it means nothing else than the washing of the whole body.”1
Robert Robinson wrote a 580 page book called “The History of Baptism” in 1817. In it he speaks of Jesus’ nakedness when he washed his disciples feet:
In regard to the nakedness of Jesus just now observed, it should be recollected, that, however shocking it may appear to English manners, and how rude and indecent soever it would be justly reckoned her to imitate the custom of introducing naked into publick company, yet in the ancient eastern world it was far otherwise, and at this day all over Italy, in places sacred and profane, statues, pictures, vases, and books exhibit such sights, and nobody is offended.2
He goes on to say:
Let it be observed, next, that the primitive Christians baptized naked. Nothing is easier than to give proof of this by quotations from the authentick writings of the men who administered baptism, and who certainly know in what way they themselves performed it. There is no ancient historical fact better authenticated than this. The evidence doth not go on the meaning of the single word naked; for then a reader might suspect allegory; but on many facts reported, and many reasons assigned for the practice.3
Furthermore, the symbolism of the sacrament takes on a richer meaning when it is practiced as it was intended.
Cyril of Jerusalem (313–386) brings significance to the naked portion of this ceremony in this way: “You put off your clothes, which is an emblem of putting off the old man with his deeds; and being thus divested, you stood naked, imitating Christ, that was naked upon the cross, who by his nakedness spoiled principalities and powers, publicly triumphing over them in the cross.” He adds, “‘Immediately, then, upon entering, you removed your tunics. Having stripped, you were naked. … Marvellous! You were naked in the sight of all, and were not ashamed.'”4
Of the Bishop of Jerusalem’s reliable account, William Tefler says, “Part of this heritage was no doubt a tradition of doctrine, and in particular of norms of baptismal catechizes. For all the freshness with which Cyril handles his matter, in catechetical lecturing, we may judge that he is guided by church tradition, when we note how impervious he is to the contemporary theological disturbances.”5
Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 400) later added, “Adam was naked at the beginning, and unashamed. This is why your clothing must be taken off as baptism restores right relation to God.” He also said, “You draw near to the holy baptism and before all you take off your garments. As in the beginning when Adam was naked and was in nothing ashamed of himself…”6
St. Hippolytus, presbyter of Rome (c. 215), said that total nudity was required. The rule ordered, “let no one go down to the water having any alien object with them,” and directs women to remove even their jewelry and the combs from their hair.” And also these instructions:
“When they come to the water, the water shall be pure and flowing… Then they shall take off all their clothes. The children shall be baptized first. … After this, the men will be baptized. Finally, the women, after they have unbound their hair and removed their jewelry. No one shall take any foreign object with themselves down into the water…. Then, after these things, the bishop passes each of them on nude to the elder who stands at the water. They shall stand in the water naked. A deacon, likewise, will go down with them into the water.”
After being immersed three separate times,
“when they have come up out of the water, they shall be anointed by the elder with the Oil of Thanksgiving, saying, ‘I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.’ And so each one drying himself with a towel they shall now put on their clothes, and after let them be together in the assembly.”7
John the Deacon, writing around AD500, notices something similar. “They are commanded to go in naked, even down to their feet, so that [they may show that] they have put off the earthly garments of mortality. The church has ordained these things for many years with watchful care, even though the old books may not reveal traces of them.”8
Michael P. Wilson suggests that, “We should resist any suggestion that nakedness is being employed lightly. It is a costly word to express a costly truth. The saints of God shall, on the last day, be unashamed before their God as were Adam and Eve prior to the Fall. At baptism, though we do not completely and immediately escape the ravages of sin, we do at least enter into the secure promise of God. Further, just as at the eucharist we enact a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, so too, in naked baptism, we enact in a symbolic washing from head to foot a foretaste of the restoration of the innocence, shamelessness and joy that is only for those who find themselves in the presence of God and without sin.”9
Why have modern scholars ignored this evidence? Why did the pendulum swing so far in the other prudish direction? The influence of Plato and Gnosticism, especially with the desert fathers may have something to do with it. However, that is a topic for another blog post.
In a brilliant book Meeting at the River, part allegory and part autobiography, David Hatton depicts a scene of a group of people of all ages having a baptism service at the river’s edge which then results in bathing and skinny dipping, without a shred of indecency. An elder from the group, the ancient in this vision, comes over to the protagonist who is observing all of this in disbelief. Much of the book is their conversation, which includes these key sentences:
“We came here today to find if you are ready to be healed.” “Healed?” “Delivered from the wall dividing your mind for so long,” he explained. “On one side is a false ‘knowledge,’ a gnosis present since childhood. It tells you that the naked body is an object of indecency and sexual lust. Ever since you arrived here, that portion of your mind resists what has been displayed before your eyes. You were raised to reject it by the obscene view of God’s image learned in your upbringing. This false view of the body has been passed from one generation to the next with a zeal that rivals devotion to Christ Himself. It is the womb from which even more defiling imaginations are conceived and given birth.
“On the other side of that wall, your mind sees these unclothed families in the same way you observe nakedness in caring for mothers or for the sick. Your dismay at watching our baptism ritual came from the defiled side of your thinking. But the side informed by your long years of working with the naked body [as a labor and delivery nurse] began to wish this scene to be just as it seemed—a time of innocent fellowship. Only one of these two perceptions is true, and you already know which one it is.”
…These precious fleshly bodies of your brothers and sisters in Christ are just what they are, and nothing more. Only deceitful imaginations paint them otherwise.10
Whereas a nude baptism in any given church today would prove scandalous, it is not because the bodies are lewd or obscene in and of themselves. It is because our minds are. I had a friend recently say to me, “Isn’t it interesting how the Renewed Mind shows you that thinking on the beauty of the human body is “pure, true, noble, admirable, and excellent?” I’d have to agree with him. Having lived most of my life where the sight of a nude baptism would be a cause for stumbling and bring on all sort of impure thoughts, I never want to go back to that way of thinking! Now, to witness such a nude baptism ceremony would be a joy, because of the joyous occasion of baptism and the purity of heart on display. Nothing more. Nothing less.
1 “Baptism,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, I,1., p. 415.
2 Robert Robinson, The History of Baptism (From the Press of Lincoln & Edmands, 1817), p. 93.
3 Ibid., p. 94.
4 Bettenson, Henry, ed., The Later Christian Fathers: A Selection from the Writings of the Fathers from St. Cyril of Jerusalem to St. Leo the Great. (London: Oxford University Press) p. 42-44.
5 Cyril of Jerusalem, Saint,” Encyclopedia Britannica Micropedia (15th Ed.). I, 3., p. 61.
6 Quoted in Carnal Knowing—Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West, Margaret R. Miles, Beacon Press, Boston, 1989, p. 33-34.
7 Dix, Rev. Gregory, ed., The Treatise on The Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, Bishop and Martyr. (Ridgefield, Connecticut: Morehouse Publishing) p.33-38.
8 Quoted in Carnal Knowing—Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West, Margaret R. Miles, Beacon Press, Boston, 1989, p. 33-34.
9 Michael P. Wilson, “Nakedness, Bodiliness and the New Creation.” https://cnfellowship.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/wilson-2006-modern-believing-2002-reworked.pdf.
10 David L. Hatton, Meeting at the River – A Tale of Naked Truth (David L. Hatton; 2nd edition (August 8, 2013), p. 50