Theology Thursday - A 3rd Century Baptismal Liturgy

The book Apostolic Tradition is a Christian text which dates from the 3rd century A.D. It’s traditionally attributed to a man named Hippolytus, though the work may well be an edited compilation. It describes liturgical practices from the 3rd century, so it’s a very interesting time-capsule of early church practice. One translator cautioned that, just because liturgy reads a certain way in Apostolic Tradition, we shouldn’t blindly assume this reflected actual practice; this document could be compiled musings of several armchair liturgists, after all!1

Here, in this excerpt, we see what Apostolic Tradition had to say about the ordinance of baptism. There is some very interesting context to this account (paragraphs 15 – 19) that space will not permit me to provide.

Of those who will receive baptism:2

When those who are to receive baptism are chosen their lives should be examined; whether they lived uprightly as catechumens, whether they honored the widows, whether they visited the sick, whether they were thorough in performing good works; and if those who brought them bear witness that they have acted thus, so they should hear the Gospel. 

From the time they are set apart a hand is laid on them daily whilst they are exorcized. When the day of their baptism draws near the bishop should exorcise each of them so that he may be sure that they are pure. If there is one of them who is not good or is not pure he should be put to one side, because he has not heard the word in faith. For it is impossible that the alien spirit should remain with him.

Those who have been set apart for baptism should be instructed to bathe themselves and wash on the fifth day of the week. And if a woman is in the manner of women she should be put aside and should receive baptism another day.

Those who are to be baptized should fast on the day of preparation for the Sabbath. On the Sabbath those who are to be baptized are gathered at the will of the bishop in one place. They shall be instructed to pray and to bend the knee. And when he lays his hand on them he shall exorcize them of every foreign spirit and they shall flee away from them and shall not return to them. And when he has finished exorcizing them he should blow on their faces; and when he has sealed their forehead, their ears and their noses he should make them stand up. They should spend the entire night in vigil, hearing readings and receiving instruction.

Those who are to be baptized should not bring anything with them, except what they bring for the eucharist. For it is fitting that those who are made worthy should bring an offering on that occasion.

On the handing over of holy baptism:3

Now at the time when the cock crows they shall first pray over the water. The water should be flowing into the tank or be poured down into it. It should be so if there is no necessity, but if there is continuous and sudden necessity use any water you can find. And they should take off their clothes.

You are to baptize the little ones first. All those who are able to speak for themselves should speak. With regard to those who cannot speak for themselves their parents, or somebody who belongs to their family, should speak.

Then baptize the grown men and finally the women, after they have let down their hair and laid down the gold and silver ornaments which they have on them. Nobody should take any alien object down into the water. And at the time determined for baptism the bishop shall give thanks over the oil and put it into a vessel and call it the oil of thanksgiving. And he shall take other oil and perform the exorcism over it and call it the oil of exorcism.

And a deacon brings the oil of exorcism and places himself on the left hand of the presbyter, and another deacon takes the oil of thanksgiving and stands on the right hand of the presbyter. And when the presbyter takes hold of each of those who are to be baptized he should bid him renounce saying: “I renounce you Satan, and all your service and all your works.”

And when he has renounced all this he should anoint him with the oil of exorcism saying to him: “Let all evil spirits depart far from you.”

Then he should hand him over to the bishop or the presbyter who stands at the water to baptize; and they should stand in the water naked. And a deacon likewise should go down with him into the water.

When the one being baptized goes down into the waters the one who baptizes, placing a hand on him, should say thus: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”

And he who is being baptized should reply: “I believe.”

Let him baptize him once immediately, having his hand placed upon his head.And after this he should say: “Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and Mary the virgin and was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was dead [and buried] and rose on the third day alive from the dead and ascended in the heavens and sits at the right hand of the Father and will come to judge the living and the dead?”

And when he has said, “I believe,” he is baptized again.

And again he should say: “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the holy church and the resurrection of the flesh?”

And he who is being baptized should say: “I believe.” And so he should be baptized a third time.

And afterwards, when he has come up from the water, he is anointed by the presbyter with that sanctified oil, saying: “I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.”

And afterwards, each drying himself, they shall dress themselves, and afterwards let them go into the church. And the bishop, laying his hand on them invokes, saying:

“Lord God, you have made them worthy to deserve the remission of sins through the laver of regeneration: make them worthy to be filled with the Holy Spirit, send your grace upon them that they may serve you in accordance with your will; for to you is glory, to the Father and the Son with the Holy Spirit in the holy church both now and to the ages of the ages. Amen.”

After this, pouring the sanctified oil from his hand and putting it on his head he shall say: “I anoint you with holy oil in God the Father Almighty and Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit.” And signing him on the forehead he shall give him the kiss and say: “The Lord be with you.”

And he who has been signed shall say: “And with your spirit.” And thus he shall do to each. And thenceforth they shall pray with all the people; they shall not pray with the people until they have performed all these things. And after they have prayed they should give the kiss of peace.

And then let the oblation be brought at once by the deacons to the bishop, and let him give thanks over the bread as the antitype of the body of Christ; and the cup mixed with wine on account of the likeness of the blood which was shed for all who have put their faith in him.

At the same time milk and honey mixed in fulfillment of the promise which was to the fathers, which stated “a land flowing with milk and honey,” which Christ gave as his flesh, through which those who believe are nourished just like little children, the serenity of his word making sweet the bitterness of the heart. And water is offered as a sign of the washing, so that the inner person, which is made up of the soul, should receive the same as the body.

And the bishop should give an address concerning all these things to those who receive.

Breaking the bread, and handing fragments to each he shall say: “Heavenly bread in Christ Jesus.”

And the one who receives shall reply: “Amen.”

The presbyters, and if there are not enough the deacons also, shall hold the cups; they should stand in good order [and with reverence]. First the one who holds the water, second the one with milk, third the one with the wine.

And they who partake shall taste of each cup three times, as he who gives says: “In God the Father Almighty.”

And the one who receives shall say: “Amen.”

“And in the Lord Jesus Christ.” And he shall say: “Amen.”

“And in the Holy Spirit and the holy church.” And he shall say: “Amen.”

And thus let it be done to each.

And when these things are done, let each hurry to do good works, to please God and to live properly, being devoted to the church, putting into action what he has learnt and progressing in piety.

We have handed over to you in brief these things about holy baptism and the holy offering, since you have already been instructed about the resurrection of the flesh and the other things according to the Scriptures. But if anything else should be said, the bishop shall say it privately to those who have received. Unbelievers must not get to know it, unless they first receive. This is the white stone of which John said: “A new name is written on it, which nobody knows except him who receives.”


1 “It would be naïve in the extreme to read Apostolic Tradition as a simple description of Roman liturgy in the early third century,” (Alistair Stewart-Sykes with Hippolytus of Rome, On the Apostolic Tradition, ed. John Behr, Popular Patristics Series, Number 22 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), Introduction X, 50.

2 Ibid, 105 – 106 (para. 20).

3 Ibid, pgs. 110 – 114 (para. 21).  

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Ed Vasicek's picture

Interesting read indeed.  You can see here the attempt to make Christianity mechanical, controllable, with every detail addressed (as in Rabbinic Judaism).  Thus the roots of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are already in place, in one sense (mechanical, controllable, everything prescribed), yet very different (triple dip immersion, for example).

Amazing emphasis on repeated exorcisms, almost like some versions of Pentecostalism and deliverance ministries.  So different from the NT example, believe and then be quickly immersed.

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Andrew K's picture

I understood the RCC baptismal practice to be essentially an exorcism. This would seem to be its roots, then.

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