Does Archaeology Prove that Baptism May Be Administered by Sprinkling?

By Wayne Jackson

Those who practice ritualistic “sprinkling” as a substitute for water immersion, commonly allege that “baptism,” from the very commencement of the Christian age, was implemented either by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling. They claim that ancient literary references, together with modern archaeological discoveries, support this diversity. Will this assertion stand up under the test of critical scholarship?

First, it must be noted that the expression “baptismal sprinkling” is an oxymoron. The original term baptizo meant to “dip, submerge, immerse.” The Greek historian Polybius (cir. 203-123 B.C.) used the word to describe a sinking ship (1.51.6). In the Greek version of the Old Testament (Septuagint), the cognate form, bapto, clearly is distinguished from the terms “sprinkle” (rhantizo), and “pour” (cheo) (see Leviticus 14:15-16).

To speak of “baptismal sprinkling,” therefore, would be the equivalent of talking about a “walking swim.” The verbs represent entirely different actions.

Second, there is not a solitary passage in the New Testament that lends any support to the idea that the act called “baptism” by the New Testament writers, was administered by the sprinkling or pouring of water upon a person’s head. The theological connection between “baptism,” and the burial and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12), negates the notion that the rite may be performed by sprinkling or pouring.

The celebrated Lutheran historian, John Mosheim, declared that “baptism was administered in this [the first] century, without public assemblies, in places appointed and prepared for that purpose, and was performed by an immersion of the whole body in the baptismal font” (p. 35).

It is not surprising, therefore, that evidence for this doctrinal aberration should be sought beyond the confines of sacred literature. Let us approach this brief study from two angles.

Literary History

The careful student of history does not hesitate to acknowledge that a digression from the biblical pattern of baptism came fairly early in the post-apostolic period. The first historical reference to a departure from immersion is in a document known as the Didache (cir. A.D. 120-160). It sanctions pouring water upon the head — as an emergency measure (7).

The first defense of sprinkling was offered by Cyprian (cir. A.D. 200-258), a writer in Carthage, who allowed sprinkling as a substitute for immersion, but only when “necessity compels” — as in the case of acute sickness (Epistle lxxv).

The first specifically documented case of sprinkling involved a man by the name of Novatian (cir. A.D. 250), who lived in Rome. Novatian was believed to be at the point of death, and so was sprinkled in his sick bed. However, the case was very unusual.

Eusebius of Caesarea (cir. A.D. 263-339), known as the father of church history, described the incident. He wrote that Novatian thereafter was restricted from being appointed as a church officer. Why was this? Because it was not deemed “lawful” that one administered “baptism” by “aspersion, as he was, should be promoted to the order of the clergy” (Ecclesiastical History, VI.XLIII). For a more complete discussion of this case, see McClintock & Strong (pp. 209-210).

Even when the church already had become deeply engulfed in various elements of apostasy, the Council of Nemours (A.D. 1284) “limited sprinkling to cases of necessity.” Thomas Aquinas (cir. A.D. 1225-1274), one of the most prominent Catholic theologians, acknowledged that immersion was the “safer” mode, though he allowed sprinkling or pouring. In was not until the Council of Ravenna (A.D. 1311) that sprinkling officially was made an option for administering “baptism” (Schaff, p. 201).

The literary records of antiquity afford no comfort to the advocates of the sprinkling and pouring ritual.

Archaeological Evidence

Much has been made over the past century of the archaeological evidence that purportedly demonstrates that sprinkling was an accepted practice in the primitive church. Charles Bennett’s work particularly has been cited frequently in this effort (pp. 395-408).

Professor Bennett, a Methodist scholar, contended that “a large measure of Christian liberty [was] allowed in the Church, by which the mode of baptism could be readily adjusted to the particular circumstances” (p. 407). Bennett’s conclusion was based upon certain discoveries, principally frescos (paintings done on fresh plaster) in the ancient catacombs (underground tunnels) near the city of Rome.

An evaluation of that evidence, however, demonstrates that it falls far short of the coveted case. Here are some of the basic facts.

(1) The oldest examples that Bennett introduced (pictured in his book) are classified simply as “pre-Constantine”; they reach back, he says, “in all probability, to the second century” (p. 402). More recent studies of the catacombs (e.g., Paul Sytger’s work) “seem to indicate that the oldest Christian catacombs go back to about A.D. 150” (Free/Vos, p. 290).

However, as we have shown already, there is no dispute about the fact that the digression of pouring and sprinkling dates at least to the middle of the second century (Didache, 7). But that is not New Testament evidence. Moreover, one must remind himself that even in the age of the apostles, indications of apostasy already were being manifested (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:1ff; esp. v. 7).

(2) Even in those earliest scenes (depicted in Bennett’s volume), there is considerable diversity of opinion as to what the images represent. In not a single instance is there any concrete evidence of sprinkling or pouring. The graphics simply show the alleged candidate standing out in the water (either unclothed or partially clothed), while another person is nearby on the shore.

Professor Cobern, citing Schaff, even says that "the very oldest picture represents the new convert as ‘coming up after immersion from the river which reaches over his knees’. . . " (p. 400). Schaff, a pedobaptist, goes on to suggest (based upon the reference in the Didache that the immersion may have been supplemented by the pouring of water. But his statement is mere speculation; the artwork itself provides no suggestion of that.

(3) Perhaps the oldest and best preserved representation of the “baptism” of Christ (which depicts John pouring water upon the Lord’s head) is a mosaic from a baptismal font in Ravenna, known as San Giovanni. But this artistic representation dates only to the mid-5th century A.D., far removed from the apostolic period.

Even Professor Bennett confesses that this mosaic also contains a symbol of the Jordan “river-god,” thus has a heathen mixture (p. 404). It can hardly be representative of genuine Christianity.

(4) In an article published two decades ago, Dr. George E. Rice, associate professor of New Testament, Andrews University Theological Seminary, argued the case that the archaeological evidence overwhelmingly testifies to immersion as the usual mode of baptism during the first ten to fourteen centuries of the Christian era (Rice). This fact really is beyond dispute.

Conclusion

The claim that the discoveries within the Roman catacombs provide evidence for the practice of sprinkling or pouring, as a form of “baptism,” is borne more of desire than evidence. The distinguished R.C. Foster has summed up the matter poignantly.

“The catacomb evidence has been the subject of much controversy. De Rossi tried to use the inscriptions and pictures to establish the teachings and claims of the Roman Catholic Church. He was vigorously answered by the archaeologist Schultze. Various attempts have been made by pedobaptists to use the catacomb pictures as proof that the original action was sprinkling or pouring. But the very fact that the catacomb pictures are filled with heathen figures and conceptions intermingled with the Christian, show that the simple faith had already begun to be corrupted, and that too much weight can not be attached to pictures which combine the Good Shepherd with flying genii, heads of the seasons, doves, peacocks, vases, fruits and flowers” (p. 22).

There simply is no proof, biblical or otherwise, that the original Christians — under the leadership of inspired men — practiced sprinkling as a form of baptism. Sprinkling is a digression from the New Testament pattern and ought to be abandoned by those who are interested doing God’s will correctly.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Bennett, Charles W. (1890), Christian Archaeology (New York: Hunt & Eaton).
  • Cobern, Camden M. (1921), The New Archaeological Discoveries (New York: Funk & Wagnalls).
  • Eusebius (1955 ed.), Ecclesiastical History (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House).
  • Foster, R.C. (1971), Studies in the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House).
  • Free, Jack & Vos Howard (1992), Archaeology and Bible History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
  • McClintock, John & Strong, James (1970 ed), Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), Vol VII.
  • Mosheim, John Lawrence (1959 ed.), Ecclesiastical History (Rosemead,CA: Old Paths Book Club), Vol 2.
  • Rice, George E. (1981), “Baptism in the Early Church,” Ministry (March).
  • Schaff, Philip, et al. (1894), _Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (New York: Funk & Wagnalls), Vol I.
Small f26f621c f6aa 4d2b 853d 24e53c812a17

About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.