HOW SHOULD WE VIEW BAPTISM
IN THE DIDACHE?
The Didache is a Greek instruction manual with the full
title, The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles through the
Twelve Apostles. Philotheos Bryennios, the Greek Orthodox
metropolitan of Nicomedia, discovered a manuscript of the
Didache (dated 1056) in a Constantinople library in 1873.
Dating the original composition is difficult, with suggestions
ranging from the first to the third century, but probably
it can be dated to the first half of the second century. "It
was probably known to Clement of Alexandria [ca AD 200] and
was considered by Eusebius [ca AD 265-339] to be almost a
canonical NT book" (The New International Dictionary
of the Christian Church, p. 297).
The section of the Didache dealing with baptism (Chapter
7, verses 1-4) is problematic. The text follows:
(1) Concerning baptism, baptize in this
way. After you have spoken all these things, "baptize in the name of the
Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," in
(2) If you do not have running water, baptize [baptizon]
in other water. If you are not able in cold, then in warm.
(3) If you do not have either, pour out
[ekcheo] water three times on the head "in the name
of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
(4) Before the baptism [baptizomenos] the one baptizing
[baptizon] and the one being baptized [baptizomenos] are
to fast, and any others who are able. Command the one being
baptized [baptizomenon] to fast beforehand a day or two.
The following points may be observed:
(1) Since there are many differences between this document
and the actual teaching of the apostles of the Lord (in the
New Testament), we can be confident in concluding that the
writing does not fully represent the true teaching of the
apostles themselves. (Thus the full title is not altogether
correct.) This is so in regard to the chapter dealing with
(2) The document has been dated at the second century, from
AD 100 to AD 150. If it be dated at AD 125, this would be
about 100 years after Christ (AD 30) and about 60 years after
Paul's death (ca. AD 65). This is sufficient time for departures
from sound teaching to occur. (The contemporary writings
of Ignatius also reflect departure from sound teaching.)
(3) Paul warned that after his departure, false teachers
would arise to lead away the disciples from what he had taught
(Acts 20:28-31). Many of the New Testament writings indicate
the presence of false teaching at the time of the apostles
and also reveal that soon thereafter people would turn away
from the truth (2 Tim. 4:2-4; Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Cor. 11:3-5,14-15;
Gal. 1:6-9; Col. 2:4,8; Tit. 3:10-11; Heb. 13:9; 2 Pet. 2:1-22;
1 John 4:1-6; 2 John 9-11).
(4) Much can be gained from a study of the second-century
writings known as the Apostolic Fathers, but we must bear
in mind that not everything they taught was truly "apostolic" (according
to the apostles' teaching--Acts 2:42). There is a wide divergence
between some of what we read in the New Testament writings
and what we read in these writings. (A careful reading of
these documents will reveal this fact to the knowledgeable
student of Scripture.)
(5) Concerning the chapter in the Didache dealing with baptism
(Chapter 7), we should make the following comments. The unknown
writer is aware of Christ's "Great Commission" for
he quotes a part of Matt. 28:19 in his baptismal directives.
As to whether he truly understood the significance of the
words he quotes or whether he simply uses the words as a "formula" to
be spoken at the time of baptism is unknown. (We have a study
available entitled The Significance of the Great Commission
Baptism that deals with this more fully.)
(6) The Didache deviates from Scripture when the writer
directs that baptism be carried out in "running water" (a
river, stream, spring). Surely Scripture does not make this
a requirement for baptism. Presumably on the day of Pentecost,
the crowds were baptized in the pools in Jerusalem, some
of which may not have involved "running water" as
the Jordan River would have provided. Other cases of baptism
in Acts may have involved still and standing water (pools,
cisterns, ponds, lakes, etc.) rather than a stream or river,
as probably was the case with Lydia (Acts 16:13-15). Some
years later, Tertullian (ca AD 200-210) rightfully states
that the place of baptism is of no consequence: "There
is no difference whether one is washed in the sea or in a
pool, in a river or a fountain, in a reservoir or a tub" (On
(7) No directives at all are found in Scripture as to whether
the water used in baptism should be cold or warm. The temperature
of the element is entirely immaterial. Jesus simply commands
baptism without specifying the nature or source of the water
used to carry out the command (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:16; cf.
Acts 2:38-41). All that is specified is that "water" be
used (cf. Acts 8:36-39; 10:47; 1 Pet. 3:20-21).
(8) Verse 3 gives an exception if one cannot "baptize" in
the manner recommended in verses 1-2. "If thou hast
neither, pour water three times on the head." That is,
if one does not have sufficient water to "baptize" the
subject into the threefold name, he should instead have water "poured" on
his head in the threefold name. This is very significant.
The writer is saying that a substitute for baptism is possible--providing
it is done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy
Spirit. In other words, he is not offering a different "form" or "mode" or "action" of
baptism, but a substitute for baptism--that of pouring.
(9) This point is made clearer when we see the terms employed.
A term is used to refer to the action preferred--that the
subject should be "baptized." This is from the
Greek baptizo—to immerse, dip, sink, overwhelm, submerge.
Then, if one cannot be "baptized" (immersed), he
should have water "poured" on his head. This is
an entirely different term in the original. The term in the
text is ekcheon, from ekcheo, meaning "to pour out." Thus,
the writer says that if one cannot be baptized, he should
have water poured upon him. We search in vain in God's Word
for the allowance of such a substitute.
It is possible that the substitution of pouring for baptism
may reflect a Jewish influence, in light of the Jewish practice
of pouring in their rituals.
(10) The Didache also prescribes that there should be fasting
for a day or two before the baptism. Although Paul fasted
(for three days) before his baptism, this was neither required
nor prescribed (Acts 9:9,18; 22:16).
(11) Within a century or two after the Didache was written,
there was widespread false teaching developing in regard
to the act of baptism. Some of these follow:
(a) Baptisms were confined to religious
holidays, such as Easter and Pentecost (the observance
of these and other "holy
days" was foreign to the early Christians).
(b) Infants were "baptized," especially
by the time of Origen (ca. AD 240), and Tertullian (ca.
seems to allude to the growing practice (without approval).
(c) Subjects for baptism had to submit to the act totally
naked, a practice entirely foreign to the New Testament practice
(cf. 1 Tim. 2:9-10).
(d) The "bishop" was required
to perform the act or, at least, be present--thus it could
not be carried out
spontaneously as in New Testament times (cf. Acts 2:38-41;
8:35-39; 16:13-15, 30-34; 22:16; etc.).
(e) Three years waiting time was required before the subject
could receive baptism (cf. Acts 2:38-41; 8:35-39; 10:47-48).
(f) The baptismal water was "blessed"--surely
a forerunner of the Catholic use of "holy water" in
(g) "Sacramental regeneration" developed in which
baptism in and of itself (ex opere operato) was thought to
confer salvation. Thus a significance was attached to the
act of baptism that was not attached to New Testament baptism
was meant to express faith and repentance. The growing practice
of infant "baptism" was joined with this semi-magical
view of baptism.
(h) Various unscriptural accompaniments
to the ritual of baptism developed: the "bishop" exorcised
the candidate to drive out demons; an anointing with the
oil of exorcism;
anointing with the oil of thanksgiving after rising from
baptism; the sign of the cross; baptismal communion given
to the baptized person, including water and milk mixed
(i) For a period of time, baptism was postponed until just
before death in order to prevent post-baptismal sin.
(12) These various innovations and departures did not just
arise in AD 200 or 300 or later, but departures began in
the first century--even before the Didache was composed.
Perhaps Paul's enigmatic reference to baptism for the dead
(1 Cor. 15:29) shows that some had a false view of baptism
in about AD 55 to 57.
(13) It is interesting to note that the first writer to
give a defense of pouring instead of baptism was Cyprian
(AD 240-260). At this time the practice of "clinical
baptism" was discussed, a pouring (or drenching) given
to the sick and infirm if they could not actually be immersed.
Clinical baptism was given to Novatian about A.D. 251, and
the question arose as to whether one could become part of
the clergy if he had only received pouring rather than immersion.
(14) The Greek Orthodox Church (as well as other Eastern
Churches) continues to immerse even infants, whereas the
Western Church (Roman Catholicism) came to accept pouring
as an acceptable practice (approved at the Council of Ravenna,
AD 1311). Most of the Reformation churches inherited certain
baptismal practices from apostate Catholicism (e.g., infant
(15) The baptism taught by Christ and the apostles was a
very simple and ordinary act--one infused with deep and beautiful
meaning. Careful attention should be given to the following
- Acts 2:36-41
- Acts 8:12-13
- Acts 8:35-38
- Acts 10:47-48
- Acts 16:13-15
- Acts 16:30-34
- Acts 18:8
- Acts 19:1-6
- Acts 22:16
- Matthew 28:18-20
- Mark 16:15-16
- Romans 16:15-16
- 1 Corinthians 12:13
- Galatians 3:26-27
- Ephesians 4:5
- Colossians 2:11-13
- 1 Peter 3:20-21
We cannot base our teaching and practice upon uninspired
writings of the second, third, or fourth centuries.
We can legitimately use such writings with profit if they
upon the meaning of the Scriptures. Beyond this we
(You may read with profit Everett Ferguson's Early