Thursday, March 6, 2008

Green On Infant Baptism Pt. 2

"2. The Whole Family Was Baptised When Proselytes Came Over into Judaism

When a family came over into Judaism from some pagan background, three things took place. The head of the family offered sacrifices. The males in the family were circumcised. And everybody—but everybody—was baptised. They sat in a bath and baptised themselves, ‘washing away Gentile impurities’. Proselyte baptism was pre-Christian. The Pharisees, we are told, ‘travel over land and sea to win a single convert’ (Matt. 23:15). And there is no doubt that proselyte baptism influenced Christian baptism, despite the enormous differences between the two. The language the rabbis used of the newly baptised proselyte is most instructive. He is ‘like a newborn child’, ‘a new creation’, ‘raised from the dead’, ‘born anew’. His ‘sins are forgiven him’. He is now ‘holy for the Lord’. Professor Jeremias, who goes into fascinating detail on this matter in his book Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, concludes a careful comparison of the language used in proselyte and in Christian baptisms by observing:

It is worthy of notice that in these correspondences we have not merely individual points of contact, but that the whole terminology of Jewish conversion theology connected with proselyte baptism recurs in the theology of primitive Christian baptism. Chance coincidence is wholly inconceivable; the only possible conclusion is that the rites are related as parent to child (p. 36).

He goes on to show that not merely in the language used, but in the actions enjoined there is a very close link between proselyte baptism and Christian baptism. In both cases, immersion was preferred, sin was confessed if the person was old enough, and even rituals like women letting down the hair and laying aside ornaments were practised in Christian and in proselyte baptism alike. This should not surprise us. The only model the earliest Christians had for baptismal practice was proselyte baptism, with which they would have been quite familiar. This being so, would it not have been unthinkable for them to have excluded children from baptism? The tiniest children went through the proselyte bath, even sometimes on the day of their birth. Indeed children were admitted to baptism even when only one parent joined Judaism. It is hard to suppose that infants were debarred from Christian baptism which plainly owed so much to proselyte baptism.

The Jewish people rated the family very highly. Both in the case of circumcision and proselyte baptism the place of the whole family is significantly high. It was deeply rooted in their religious life. It would have taken a clear command from Jesus to have stopped it. No such command can be found.

Normally I suspect arguments from silence. But when Jesus, the fulfiller of Judaism, came to a people who for thousands of years had been admitting Jewish children into the covenant at the express command of God to Abraham, their founding father, and when for a long time they had been admitting the children of Gentile converts by baptising them along with all the rest of the family—then the argument from silence becomes rather formidable. Is it conceivable that if Jesus had meant to change this age-old procedure he would not have given some slight indication that from henceforth children were to be treated differently? Should he not have said in the Great Commission, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, but make sure that you baptise only adult believers in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’?"

Michael Green, Baptism: Its Purpose, Practice and Power, 47 (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 1987).

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