Someone asked a good question after my sermon today on the Baptism of Jesus:
Why wasn’t Jesus baptised as an infant?
Jesus, of course, was Jewish. There was (and is) no baptism ceremony for children in the Jewish tradition. There is interesting archaeology at the site of the Qumran Community, an unorthodox sect which flourished around Jesus’ time who created the Dead Sea Scrolls. Their ‘monastery’ apparently had baths for ritual purposes- some kind of purification ritual, the details of which are now lost to us. It has been speculated that John the Baptist was a member of, or was influenced by, the Qumran Community. And it may be that other religious sects of the day had something like the ritual of baptism. Apparently there was also something like a ritual of baptism for Gentiles converting to Judaism. And there are many references to rituals of washing in the Old Testament.
But it is from John the Baptiser that Christianity picked up the practice. Matthew 28.19 has Jesus instituting the sacrament by commanding his followers to carry it out, but he doesn’t seem to have baptised anyone himself. St Paul makes the earliest mention of baptism in the Christian church (Romans 6.4; 1 Corinthians 6.11), but he’s writing about the significance of a rite which already existed in the church. In the Acts of the Apostles there are stories of people converting to Christianity and being baptised, such as the story of the Ethiopian eunuch at Acts 8.26-40.
Obviously the first converts to Christianity were adults. Acts 16.33 mentions Paul’s jailer, and how ‘he and all his family were baptised at once’, which might have included his children (see also Mark 10.13-16). Certainly Christians practised the baptism of their own children early on in church history.
The ceremony in Judaism by which male children were (and are) dedicated as members of the Covenant people was circumcision of male infants at eight days old (still, of course, practices and known nowadays as the Bris). Jesus’ circumcision is mentioned in Luke 2.21, where he is also formally named. In many ways, this is the equivalent to Christian infant baptism, a ceremony of dedicating children to God and naming them, aspects which we have brought into the Christian baptismal ceremony for children.