The Communal Aspect of Baptism

I should begin by pointing out that this post is in addition to a few notes that Jacob P. Breeze has already posted on his blog. There, Jacob asks if insights from archeology might inform our understandings of baptism? I have been wondering the same thing. Now, I’m no excavator of ancient ruins but I am an exegete of texts and ancient culture. That said, I am well aware that it was not uncommon in the ancient world for persons to be buried together. In fact, when one tours the ancient world, they see this practice all over the place--I did!

While I disagree with James Tabor and the whole Jesus family sarcophagus / tomb, it does go without saying that people were buried together—even entire families. The problem with Tabor is that we have a detailed description of Jesus’ burial and Tabor’s theory does not line up. Anyways…

I’ve included some photos from antiquity here that show communal burial. There first one is from the city called Necropolis. I actually walked into the tomb in this picture. There were slabs/shelves that held the bodies. 10 or more bodies could have been easily stored in this tomb.

This next picture is of a tumulus (a hill/mound that contains tombs/coffins). In fact, this is the tumulus of Philip, Alexander the Great’s dad. In these tumuli, families were often buried together—we might compare it to a family graveyard today.

In this photo, you see some sarcophagi, coffin-like boxes that held single or multiple bodies. Many of these have been uncovered in Sardis—that’s where this photo is from.

One thing that this suggests is that in the ancient world, the idea of communal burial did exist (it still does today, too). Thus, when Paul talks about “all” believers being buried with Christ and thus, all believers sharing in His death, he could very well have this image in mind. Indeed, baptism is not and never was meant to be taken as a solely individual event. (Not least because those being baptized were already sharing in Christ’s death.)

Furthermore, baptism was seen by the Early Church as the event whereby the baptizee was initiated into the Church / Body of Christ. It was also in this event where one began to enter into a saving relationship with the Triune God, receiving forgiveness of sins, the indwelling of the Spirit and spiritual gifts. In our individualist culture, we would all do well to keep this in mind. Indeed, baptism is, in its own right, a communal event, just as salvation is a communal gift.

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