Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries

By Everett Ferguson | Go to book overview

2. Washings for Purification in Greco-Roman Paganism

The use of water as a means of purification is widespread in religions of the world. It was common in the religious activities of Greeks and Romans in the period surrounding the rise of Christianity.1 Sacred sites had fountains or other source of water to be used for the ceremonial cleansing of worshipers and officiants at the sanctuary.


General Usage for Purification

An early reference to a dipping for purification occurs in Herodotus. In explaining that Egyptians considered pigs an unclean animal, he says that “If an Egyptian touched a pig, he went to

the river and dipped himself in his clothes” (Histories 2.47). He further attributed to the Egyptians introduction of the practice, then followed by Greeks, of not entering a temple after intercourse unwashed (2.64).

The washings were so common that they were taken for granted and seldom commented on, and where they were mentioned, often little or no detail was given as to how one performed the ablutions. For example, the rules of purity for those coming to the temple of Athena at Pergamum (after 133 B.C.) stated that “Whoever wishes to visit the temple of the goddess … must complete the required lustrations 25

1. Johannes Leipoldt, Die urchristliche Taufe im Lichte der Religionsgeschichte (Leipzig: Dörffling & Franke, 1928), pp. 38–56, including summaries of the initiation rites of the principal mystery religions (below); Arthur Darby Nock, “Early Gentile Christianity and Its Hellenistic Background,” in A. E. J. Rawlinson, ed., Essays on the Trinity and the Incarnation (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1928), pp. 111–120; reprinted in Zeph Stewart, ed., Arthur Darby Nock: Essays on Religion and the Ancient World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 97–104; Albrecht Oepke, “

(et al.),” in Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), Vol. 1, pp. 530–535; J. Ysebaert, Greek Baptismal Terminology (Nijmegen: Dekker & Van de Vegt, 1962), pp. 12–20.

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