Q: #242. How were people baptized in the Bible?
A: There are 3 methods of baptism that have been practiced over the centuries: immersion, affusion (pouring), and aspersion (sprinkling). Most scholars agree that the method that is practiced in the Bible, and was used during Bible times was immersion. This is based on several things.
First, in (Rom 6:3-6), baptism is portrayed as a way to publicly identify with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.
(Rom 6:3-6) Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized in Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? (4) Therefore, we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we should walk in newness of life. (5) For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: (6) knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. (Also see: Col 2:12)
In relation to immersion, the “old man” mentioned in verse 6 signifies putting away our old, sinful way of life, or “burying” it (verse 4), when we go under the water, and when we come up out of the water, it signifies we are raised alive with Christ, and no longer a slave to sin. This correlation of “burial” with baptism does not seem to fit well at all with affusion or aspersion. (Imagine a real life burial; if you cover a casket with a little bit of dirt, will that bury it?) (See: Lev 15:16 for an Old Testament correlation of “washing” ones whole body.)
Secondly, the Greek word for “baptism” (“baptizo“) also points to immersion. “Baptizo” means to dunk, dip, plunge, submerge, or immerse.
Third, the Bible gives us several examples that seem to show immersion was method used. When Jesus was baptized, he “came up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened” (Mt 3:16)(Mk 1:10). We can also see in (Acts 8:38), Philip and the eunuch went down into the water so that the eunuch could be baptized. In (Jn 3:23), it says John the Baptist was baptizing in Aenon “because there was much water there” (much water wouldn’t seem to be necessary for pouring or sprinkling).
Finally, ruins in Jerusalem also point to immersion. There can still be seen today, all over the city, baptismal pools, with steps leading down to the bottom, that were used to baptize people, almost certainly by immersion.
This does not mean though that affusion and aspersion were never used in Bible times. It appears that both may have been used in certain extreme cases such as when there was a lack of water or someone was bedridden or too ill to be immersed. Again, however, both historical and archaeological evidence points to immersion as the primary method used (although some religions that practice affusion or aspersion disagree with the interpretation of this evidence).
Most sources agree that immersion remained as the primary way to baptize until around the Middle Ages (app. 13th or 14th century), when aspersion became the norm. This coincided with the concept of “original sin” becoming a popular doctrine, first made prominent by Augustine (354-430). This states that Adam and Eve committed the “original sin” in the Garden Of Eden, and as a result, all humans have inherited this sin from them because we are their descendants. In other words, we are innately sinners, because we are born that way. This doctrine gained even more attention when it became a part of a theology called “Calvinism” (named after John Calvin) in the 16th century, and was the basis for one of the Five Points Of Calvinism called “Total Depravity.” As a result of the teaching of “original sin,” it was deemed necessary by several religions to baptize a baby as soon as possible after it was born to “wash away” this “original sin.” Since immersing babies did not work well, aspiration became the norm.
This doctrine of “original sin” is the main reason why nearly every religion now baptizes babies. However, some denominations (often Reformed) tie baptism to circumcision in the Old Testament. Circumcision was to be done to male infants as a sign of God’s covenant relationship with His people in the Old Testament (the Old Covenant), and baptizing infants is a sign of God’s covenant relationship with His people in the New Testament (the New Covenant). In other words, since infants were made a part of the Old Covenant through circumcision, they can also be made a part of the New Covenant through baptism.
However, most who tie circumcision and baptism together as covenants with God, do not believe that being circumcised guaranteed or being baptized guarantees salvation (or being saved). On the other hand, nearly every religion that baptizes babies DOES believe that baptizing them either saves them or plays a part in their salvation.
So, in closing, I believe that immersion is the proper way to be baptized, but I would not go as far as to say that the baptism of those baptized by one of the other two methods is invalid, as long as the baptism comes AFTER a decision (giving away some of my thoughts on what I will address next). Nor do I believe that the method of baptism is something to divide over as Christians, especially since the Bible is silent on this issue. (In my studies on this, I read that many have been martyred in the past over disagreement on the proper method!)
*** Footnote: I was baptized as an infant, and many years later got re-baptized by immersion after I surrendered my life to Christ at a Billy Graham Crusade in 1994. (For more, see My Testimony)