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Christianity has baptism—but Paganism had it first

Was Christianity new?  Was Christianity unique? Let's talk about Pagan baptism.

By the time of Jesus purification with water was already an ancient Pagan sacrament.  Purification—from unclean foods, or acts, or contacts—is an idea so old it fades into pre-history. Pagans purified themselves with fire, incense, blood sacrifice, they even purified themselves with a winnowing fan or sea onions! But the most used, most widespread tool of pagan purification was...water.

Pagan water purification rituals were used in the archaic Near East and are written about in the Old Testament.   Homer mentions the washing of hands before prayer, and the purification of an entire army with water [Iliad, 1.313].

The Greeks even had priests, kathartai, who specialized in purification with water. Mithra's followers celebrated the sacrament of taurobolium—baptism in the blood of a bull, with the result of "Salvation."   Pagans at Gerasa celebrated the Maioumas, rites in which women bathed and were purified in a sacred pool outside town.

New members into the Mysteries of Isis / Osiris began their initiation with a sprinkling of purifying waters brought from the Nile. The result of the baptism and initiation? Salvation

Read the words of the ancients >

"a kind of voluntary death and salvation through divine grace." [Apuleius, Metamorphosis, Book 11, 21],

and "..we shall have salvation" [Firmicus Maternus, The Error of Pagan Religions, 22.1].

The ancient Church Father Tertullian, noting that Pagan baptism preceded the Christian sacrament, describes purifying water's several Pagan uses:
initiation into the mystery religions—i.e. baptism
purifying temples and even cities
washing away sin (!!)

Read Tertullian's words yourself >

"[Non-Christians] ascribe to their idols the imbuing of waters with the self-same efficacy [of purification]. ... For washing is the channel through which they are initiated into some sacred rites--of some notorious Isis or Mithras...

Moreover, by carrying water around, and sprinkling it, they everywhere expiate country-seats, houses, temples, and whole cities: at all events, at the Apollinarian and Eleusinian games they are baptized; and they presume that the effect of their doing that is their regeneration and the remission of the penalties due to their perjuries.

Among the ancients, again, whoever had defiled himself with murder, was wont to go in quest of purifying waters."—I.e. Washing away sin! [Tertullian, On Baptism, Ch 5.]

Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

Church Father Justin Martyr (he lived in the 100s AD) was also worried to explain why the Christian rite was preceded for generations by the Pagan sacrament. The answer, says Justin, was diabolical imitation.

Here's how diabolic imitation works.  Generations before Jesus, the devils knew not just that Jesus was coming, but also that Christians would have baptism.  The devils knew this by reading the Old Testament prophecy.  So, anyway, the devils "caused" the Pagans to have baptism too—generations before Jesus.

Read Justin's words for yourself >

And the devils, indeed, having heard this washing published by the prophet, instigated those who enter their temples, and are about to approach them with libations and burnt-offerings, also to sprinkle themselves; and they cause them [the pagans] also to wash themselves entirely, as they depart [from the sacrifice], before they enter into the shrines in which their images are set. [Justin Martyr, First Apology, Ch 62]

Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

Here's how the Catholic Encyclopedia describes initiation into various mystery religions in the centuries before Christ


"Baptism" in quotation marks because the Catholic Encyclopedia denies it was true baptism—of course!

"These mysteries usually began with the selection of initiandi, their preliminary "baptism", fasting, and (Samothrace) confession." [Paganism, in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI.

POCM quotes modern scholars


The next time you're in Church
ask yourself:"What about what I'm hearing was new and unique with Christianity, and what was already part of other religions in a culture where over and over again new religions were built with old parts?"

Next time you're in church... When they get to the part about the sacrament of baptism, remember the katharti, Maioumas, the initiations of Mithras, Isis, Osiris, and the other mysteries.  Remember the words of Tertullian and Justin Martyr.   Remember demonic imitation. You'll know you're hearing about stuff that predated Christianity by hundreds of years—in a culture where over and over people built new religions out of old parts.


Believing Scholarship
Modern academic orthodoxy denies a link between Pagan baptism and Christian baptism.

Here's an example, from a famous and widely quoted essay, talking about Pagan water purification sacraments, all of which were around before Christianity.

It's a long quote, but it's worth reading >

"We know of an ablution in the ritual of Eleusis; the laurel-wreath oration of Demosthenes speaks of purificatory ablutions in the mystery of Sabazius; the cult of Attis had its taurobolium, and the mystery of Isis knew a sanctifying baptismal bath, as did the mysteries of Dionysus and of Mithras. Upon mature consideration modern scholarship has rejected the ideas that such rites exerted an influence on the baptismal doctrine of the New Testament,"[Hugo Rahner, The Christian Mystery and the Pagan Mysteries, section 3, in The Mysteries; Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, edited by Joseph Campbell]

In other words, back when Christianity started, where it started, among the people who were its earliest converts, you couldn't walk down the street without tripping over a Pagan baptism; but our Christian baptism, that's completely different and unrelated to all the other baptisms.

This is the kind of stuff believing academics write down and pass around. You need to understand that as you sift through the scholarship.



A scholarly and handsome reader Kicks POCM's Ass

Dear Greg,

Read your article on Baptism. Interesting attempt. However, you are neglecting the immediate cultural context of the beginnings of Christianity, in favor of a much broader and less impactful context over an excessively broad period of time.

By the time Jesus Christ roles comes along, Judaism had ceremonial washings since Moses. Beyond this, Jews had known water baptism for quite some time, proselyte baptism was common, the Essenes did full body washings, and John the Baptist had been baptizing in the Jordan.

to which Greg says

Malcolm's facts are correct. First century Jewish splinter sects practiced water baptism as an initiation right. Christian-Jews were not the only Jews to borrow Pagan ideas. This seems to me to confirm the Jewish tendency to borrow, and thus to make POCM's claims even more reasonable.

Did the Christian splinter sect copy the idea of water baptism from the Essene splinter sect? They may have. We don't know. The ultimate source, though, must have been Pagan.

One should remember in such discussions that the Judaism in which Christianity arose was not particularly friendly to paganism. They had already fought off the Hellenizing influence of the Seleucids, and were chafing mightily under the hand of Rome.

Reverend B. M. Metzger makes this same argument about Paul, basically: "No evidence can suggest Jewish borrowing because generally-strict-monotheistic-intolerant-of-syncretism Jews didn't borrow."

Not so fast Malcolm and Brother Bruce. Look, Paul and the other early Christians plainly were not generally-strict-monotheistic-intolerant-of-syncretism Jews—if they had been, they wouldn't have converted to a new religion centered on a walking, talking godman, with mystery-style initiations and sacred meals shared with the godman.

Secondly, plenty of good Jews did copy plenty from Paganism.

Malcolm also seems to suggest the old apologist's saw, that Paganism was unknown to first century Judean Judaism. Dr. J. Z. Smith somewhere in his definitive history of Pagan Origins scholarship, Drudgery Divine replies, as I paraphrase: "Two generations of modern scholarship have proven otherwise."

Based on the New Testament witness and early Christian history, baptism seems to have followed upon the practice of John the Baptizer. Jesus sent his followers out baptizing even before his death. The record of Acts would indicate that Christians practiced baptism upon conversion from the very start. Christianity's early history would also seem to indicate this as having been passed down from the start.

Malcolm repeats an argument dear to big name apologists like Rev. A.D. Nock and Rev. B. M. Metzger: The theory that Christianity borrowed from Paganism is disproven by the New Testament histories of early Christianity, which never mention Christianity borrowing anything.

Trouble is, there is abundant evidence the NT "histories" are not in fact histories, so when and how baptism was adopted is unknown.

But, as Malcolm describes below, even if baptism were adopted early, via John the Dipper, POCM's theory would be perfectly fulfilled.

So, if one is going to establish a source of origin for Christian baptism, it must be from Judaism. However, if one wishes to assert that Judaism picked up ceremonial washings and water baptism from paganism, and assimilated them part of their own sacred rituals and worship (later being passed on into Christianity), that is viable.


Kirk, Malcolm
malcolm.kirk - AT- dexmedia -DOT- com