In this essay, the writer will use ‘The Didache’ as a torchlight to show Christian life, practice and thought at the time and place it was written, with a specific focus on the ritual of baptism.
The Didache, also titled “The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles, through the Twelve Apostles”, was written in Greek in 1056 but was discovered in the library at Constantinople in 1873. The date of its original work, its authorship and provenance are unknown. The work may have originated either in Alexandria, Antioch, or Syria. Amongst its seminal teachings, the Didache lists the following baptism instructions (Staniforth 1968: 225-231):
The procedure for baptizing is as follows. After rehearsing all the preliminaries, immerse in running water ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’. If no running water is available, immerse in ordinary water. This should be cold if possible; otherwise warm. If neither is practicable, then sprinkle water three times on the head ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’. Both baptizer and baptized ought to fast before the baptism, as well as any others who can do so; but the candidate himself should be told to keep a fast for a day or two beforehand (ibid).
The baptism ritual is rooted in the New and Old Testaments. In the New Testament, baptism was first performed by John the Baptist by immersion in the river Jordan. This was a call to repentance, forgiveness of sins, moral purification, and cleansing (Mark 1:4-5). The Didache is silent on repentance and the symbolic death into Christ. The New Testament record also shows that baptism was done spontaneously without prior preparations of fasting, body anointing, and other preparations discussed below. Jesus Christ also commanded his disciples to make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the Triune God (Matt. 28:18-20), also promising that anyone who believed on him and was baptised would be saved (Mark 16.16). On the other hand, Chidester (2000: 68) explains that in the Old Testament times, water purification rituals were known, especially in the regions of Persia, and Babylonia. Ancient Israel also practiced water rituals to purify various conditions of impurity, defilement, and sin (Num. 19:1-22). This involved either washing or sprinkling.
There seems to be missing details of baptism practices from the Didache account, some of which this writer found in the writings of Hippolytus. He was a Christian leader in Rome c170-235. These detailed accounts will help to shed more light on the Didache community‘s Christian life and practice. In the paragraphs below, Chidester (2000:68-72) provides Hippolytus’ detailed account of baptism, on which I have added my views where necessary.
The initiates were given catechism lessons for about three years, during which period the candidates’ character investigations were carried out and supporting references obtained. These preparations clearly show how seriously the Christian community viewed baptism. Excellent moral character was a critical criteria for all candidates.
A few days preceding baptism, the candidates were isolated from the community and exorcised by the senior church leaders in order to ensure purity. As demon possession is widely reported in the New Testament, and I can therefore reasonably surmise that this phenomenon existed in the Didache community as well. Exorcism was probably seen as expelling the devil.
In the Old Testament, fasting was the means to demonstrate a humble heart and repentant spirit, like on the Day of Atonement (Lev.16:29-31). In the Didache, the candidate, the baptiser and other people from the community were commanded to fast. I think this was probably to demonstrate the severity and solemn nature of baptism, a profound…