Friday, November 30, 2012

RBB12: Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries

Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Eerdmans, 2009) is a monumental monograph by Everett Ferguson, one in which the author has “attempted to be as complete as possible on the first three centuries” and “progressively less so on the fourth and fifth centuries (where the sources are more abundant) yet still … full enough for the work to be representatively comprehensive.” (p. xix) In practice, this decision results in almost thousand pages of detailed study of early Christian literature about baptism and, most importantly, a chance for the reader to get familiar with the primary sources and form one's own opinion about the matter. The trajectory Ferguson himself puts forward sees early Christian baptism rooted in its Jewish antecedents (cue in John the Baptist here as a mediator), and as a direct consequence of the historical fact of Jesus' own baptism and even his command to baptize in the Gospel of Matthew 28.19. The parallels between early Christian baptism and pagan washings are deemed less important—though explicated by some early Christians (such as Justin) the reasons for the drawn parallels, according to Ferguson, were foremost apologetical. 

This is the first point of disagreement between my own reading of the sources and Ferguson's. He himself notes that Judaism of I CE “saw considerable influence from Hellenism” (p. 60) and, consequently, I would be less hasty to downplay the interaction between the Greco-Roman washings and emergent Christianity, in contrast with the various purification rites in Judaism. Bearing in mind Simo Parpola's maxim that (paraphrasing) “in the grand scheme of history, all the Mediterranean religious traditions appear as variants of each other”, the fact that most early Christians adopted a water-based rite of initiation is contextualized most effectively when we keep in mind that every other religious tradition of the day had water-based rites of their own. After all, as Ferguson notes, “The washings [in the religious activities of Greeks and Romans] were so common that they were taken for granted and seldom commented on, and where they were mentioned, often little or no detail was given as to how one performed the ablutions” (p. 25). To be sure, there were differences. Most pagan washings were preliminary purifications in nature, and the idea of initiation into a cult by plunging in water is harder to come by: the only likely contenders were the cult of Cotyto in which the worshippers were known as the Baptae, and the Jewish practice of proselyte baptising, though both points are debatable.

Another point of divergence in our readings appears when Ferguson considers that he has found unity in the early Christian thought-world, namely, that baptism refers almost unanimously to the remission of sins and the receiving of the Holy Spirit. As far as I can see, however, this “unity” works only on a rather abstract level i.e. even if some early Christians used these same words (or same conceptual ideas), the use for which they put them varied considerably. For one example, though many employed the idea of forgiveness of sins, some considered that baptism forgave only those sins that were committed before this ritual act (and, like Hermas, allowed only one chance of repentance), while others disagreed. As I see it, the diversity of early Christian thought regarding baptism becomes diminished in Ferguson's treatise because of its format of taking each Christian (writing) on its own under scrutiny, whereas a thematic layout (like Räisänen's) exposes the diversity much more forcefully.

But enough of Ferguson for, as I stated in the beginning, this is a monograph that gives the reader a chance to follow the author's line of thought by its extensive use of primary sources themselves. As such, it is an essential tool for dealing with questions regarding early Christian baptism—and what does baptism has to do with the study of Clement's Letter to Theodore again?

As is now well known, Morton Smith did not initially consider Clement's letter or the story of Jesus and the youth as a baptismal text, but this interpretation was suggested to him by Cyril C. Richardson at the beginning of the 1960s—Richardson himself retracted this notion by the time of Smith's Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (1973). For the most recent debate, nevertheless, a baptismal reading of Clement's Letter to Theodore has been most useful for Peter Jeffery, as it allows him to argue that the letter does not fit in the context of its purported time frame, namely that the “great mysteries” as a reference to Paschal baptism and the liturgical details in the story of Jesus and the young man are anachronistic for II CE (The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery, 2007). Scott G. Brown has countered these notions by moving the Markan extract to I CE (as part of the Gospel of Mark) and detaching “great mysteries” from baptism by citing Clementine passages where the two are kept separated (“An Essay Review of The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled”, 2007). Subsequent writings from both authors have continued to hammer on along these same lines. In light of Ferguson's treatise it looks useful to me to consider once again these two questions: What does Clement mean by “great mysteries”, and where does the story of Jesus and the young man really belong?

Clement's Letter to Theodore speaks of two Markan Gospels. The first one was composed in Rome for the catechumens, and the second in Alexandria for “those who were being perfected” and who were also “being initiated into the great mysteries”. The core question here seems to be whether we have two levels of catechumens, all of whom are eventually going to be baptised (Jeffery), or catechumens going to be baptised and other, already baptised Christians who are continuing their studies into further esoteric truths regarding God and Christ (Brown). For Brown's favour we can count the fact that Clement distinguishes baptism from “greater mysteries” in a number of places, including Strom., though it is conceivable (if not plausible) that in Strom. the words “the mystery of the seal, in which God is really believed” may refer to baptism as a mystery. At the same time it has to be noted that Clement's use of the word catechesis and related words is somewhat ambiguous. On one hand he thinks that the new catechumens (νεοκατηχήτος) are “carnal”, those who are “not yet purified” (Paed., but in another passage the new catechumens are the ones who receive wisdom teaching (Strom. Then again, in Paed. the “carnal” are “recent catechumens” (νεωστὶ κατηχουμένους) i.e. those who have just been baptised. Ferguson suggests that Clement might have used catechesis not as a specific technical term but as as a referral to various stages of instruction on the path to baptism (pp. 315-316). Given the ambiguousness, Brown's depiction of a postbaptismal “purely metaphorical initiation” (p. 14 of the “Essay Review”) is certainly a possibility—examples of early Christians shunning ritual acts with material components are not exactly hard to come by (see, for instance, Irenaeus' description in Adversus Haereses 1.21.2-3).

Another possibility is for Clement to have known an actual ritual for those already baptised, advanced Christians for whom the Mystic Gospel of Mark was meant for. If we step a bit ahead in time, we find from Origen a clear indication that the Alexandrian catechesis in his time (early III CE) had two stages:
Privately they [the Christians] form one class of those who are taking the lead and are receiving admission but have not yet received the symbol [σύμβολον] of complete purification. They form another class of those who according to their ability are presenting themselves with the purpose of wanting nothing other than the things approved by Christians.” (Contra Celsum 3.51; translation by E. Ferguson p. 419 in Baptism in the Early Church)
In his Homilies on Joshua, Origen explicates this distinction further:
When you are reckoned among the number of catechumens and have undertaken to submit to the precepts of the church … you daily devote yourself to hearing the law of God … But if you also have entered the mystic font of baptism and in the presence of the priestly and Levitical order have been instructed by those venerable and magnificent sacraments, which are known to those who are permitted to know those things, then … you will enter the land of promise.” (Homilies on Joshua 4.1; translation by Barbara J. Bruce pp. 52-53 in Origen: Homilies on Joshua)
As Ferguson interprets this passage, “The earlier stage of instruction concentrated on moral matters and simple faith as opposed to idolatry; more advanced instruction had to do with deeper things of doctrine and the sacraments” (p. 420), maintaining further that "as one came nearer the time of baptism, there was revealed the wisdom of divine things, especially the divinity of Christ" (p. 420). There is, however, another intriguing possibility: that Origen knew two distinct rites of initiation, water baptism (for the simple) and baptism of the Holy Spirit (for the spiritual), as Joseph Trigg argued in 1982 (“A Fresh Look at Origen's Understanding of Baptism”, Studia Patristica 17 (1982): 959-965). Even if there were no two rites of baptism for Origen (as he criticises other Christians for doing just that in his Commentary on Ephesians 4.5), the ambiguity in the texts of both Clement and Origen leaves open the possibility that their version of Christianity had distinct options available for those who wanted to continue onwards from their baptism.

What, then, of the themes of death and resurrection in the story of Jesus and the young man? Are those not, as Jeffery has argued, anachronistic baptismal motives for II CE? Since I have not really decided above to what Clement refers to by his “great mysteries”, I will for the argument's sake assume that Jeffery is about right and the story of Jesus and the young man was used in the ritual of baptism (or some kind of “second baptism” for advanced Christians). The challenge of anachronism, however, largely disappears because of two things. First, I find there is a categorical confusion between the story of Jesus and the young man as such and Clement's use of the story. In most cases I prefer the more straight-forward theoretical models, and for reading texts I quite like Richard Rorty's notion that all anybody can ever do with texts is use them. Case in point in early Christianity is Paul, who illustrates in his Epistle to the Romans how someone can interpret a passage as a complete opposite compared to its meaning (Romans 10.8; “meaning”, obviously, refers here to the meaning an average historian would assign to the original passage in the Book of Deuteronomy). The proper question to ask, consequently, is not what the Mystic Gospel of Mark says but what use Clement made of the Mystic Gospel of Mark i.e. in the end every text is capable of depicting only (or up to) what its reader decides to read is as depicting. As Clement's Letter to Theodore breaks off just as Clement was about to explain his take on the story, we do not really know just how tortured Clement's exegesis might have been, provided he even wanted to make this story fit for a baptismal setting (which we, to reiterate, do not know).

Second, even if we still assume for argument's sake that Clement read the story of Jesus and the youth as fit for baptism with all its death and resurrection imagery, how much of a problem does that really pose? Origen, in any case, associated baptism with being buried with Christ in his Commentary on Matthew 15.23, and even more so in his Commentary on Romans 5.8.2-13 (see Ferguson, pp. 410-417, for numerous other examples). Tertuallian notes that the Pasch is the best time for baptism along with the Pentecost (On Baptism 19.1-2), both of which connect Tertullian's baptism with the death and resurrection of Christ (see Ferguson, pp. 325-350, for a more in-depth analysis). Both of these authors are witnesses for III CE practices, but Ferguson raises the old attribution of the so-called Apostolic Tradition to Hippolytus (II CE), and argues on the basis of its similarities with Tertuallian's writings that “the activities described there were rather widespread in the Christian world” (p. 340), and we might interpret certain liturgical hints contained therein as referring to the baptism at the Pasch (Easter) even though the Apostolic Tradition does not give that placement explicitly.
Now, the above might seem like a weak justification, and Jeffery might still be right in saying that no “second-century father” did use the themes of death and resurrection regarding baptism, but a “second-century father” is not a hard-coded limit of II CE Christians. One might be inclined to bring Menander to bear witness here, as according to Irenaeus he taught that in baptism “his disciples obtain the resurrection by being baptized into him, and can die no more, but remain in the possession of immortal youth” (Adversus Haereses 1.23.5). But a less ambiguous example—and Alexandrian, no less—is Theodotus, of whom we know because Clement preserved quotations from him in his Excerpta ex Theodoto. He is a prominent example of a II CE Christian who connected death and resurrection motifs with baptism:
Therefore baptism is called death and an end of the old life when we take leave of the evil principalities, but it is also called life according to Christ, of which he is sole Lord. But the power of the transformation of him who is baptised does not concern the body but the soul, for he who comes up [out of the water] is unchanged. From the moment when he comes up from baptism he is called a servant of God even by the unclean spirits”. (Excerpta ex Theodoto 76.1-77.3)
Later on Clement quotes Theodotus' ideas on regeneration (one of the baptismal themes he shares with Clement):
He whom the Mother generates is led into death and into the world, but he whom Christ regenerates is transferred to life into the Ogdoad. And they die to the world but live to God, that death may be loosed by death and corruption by resurrection.” (Excerpta ex Theodoto 80.1-2)
Similar traditions (in the Valentinian trajectory) continue in the Gospel of Philip as well (as discussed by Ferguson on p. 287). Jeffery has, in fact, commented on these passages in his second reply to Brown's “Essay Review” ( by noting that they depict “an abstract, astrological victory of life over death ” where they present an “escape from the physical world, not burial and resurrection of the body” (p. 7 n. 27). While that statement is, of course, quite right, it dismisses Theodotus' use of death and resurrection imagery too casually. Theodotus certainly had a different mythological body of beliefs to colour his Christianity compared to Paul, but he still draws from a bunch of early Christian conceptions including Paul's “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” in Rom. 6.3-5 (and there is no reason why Theodotus would not have known Paul, who was a favourite among the so-called Gnostic Christians). Obviously, if Clement were to utilize these same themes the end result would differ from “an abstract astrological victory”, which might not fit into Clement's worldview. But no one expects Theodotus to be of the same mind as Paul and Clement! An analogous case would be the use of the theme of illumination/enlightenment that, for instance, both Justin and the author of the Trimorphic Protennoia make use of even though the end result is, of course, not the same.

In summary, the tentative conclusion I have arrived at this point is that the charges of anachronisms regarding Clement's Letter to Theodore read as a baptismal text are far from indisputable, as the available data is both voluminous and ambiguous. There are too many unknowns. Clement might not have been consistent in his use of mystery language. He might or he might not have read the story of Jesus and the young man as a baptismal text—we do not know since Clement's Letter to Theodore breaks off before his exposition. Furthermore, I do not think we can state categorically that baptism theology of II CE had no use for the themes of death and resurrection as the excerpts from Theodotus illustrate. On the whole, we do not even know much about Alexandrian Christianity in II CE. It is plausible that the scarcity of information is partly explained by the practice of disciplina arcani that could have been in effect in the Alexandrian church in both Clement and Origen's time (for the latter, see Ferguson p. 423).


  1. Thank you for writing this blog, Timo, I always enjoy reading it.
    I wonder, do you by any chance know whether Morton Smith left any sort of inscription on his gravestone, if he was buried?

  2. The number of literary co incidences between the “Secret Mark” fragments and stories in the canonical gospels and in Hebrew Matthew make it very unlikely that Morton Smith forged the text. In retrospect it is obvious he made an important discovery and did not fully understand its significance.

    A link to an essay showing the literary parallels between “Secret Mark” and other texts is shown below. There are links to downloadable PDF tables which set forth the parallel texts.

  3. Here are essays by another writer showing additional parallels between the “Secret Mark” fragment and other texts including text related to the Diatessaron. One thing that is certain is that the “Secret Mark” fragment is related to texts that Morton Smith, working in the 1950′s, would not have been aware of. It is unlikely that Morton Smith was a genius forger who was a generation ahead of his era’s scholarship, who was able to mimic Clement’s writing style, produce a text pastiche referring to texts that were not well known in his era and set it down in an authentic 18th c. handwriting style.
    The simpler conclusion is that “Secret Mark” is authentic and belongs to a rather large family of related texts.

    David Blocker