The Pandemic Roots of Infant Baptism

A reaction to the devastation of the Antonine Plague

Baptism of Saint Calixte

THE EARLIEST DEPICTIONS of Christian baptism come from funerary contexts. The present fresco painting from the Catacombs of St. Callistus in Rome depicts John the Baptist administering baptism to Jesus. John pours water over Jesus’s head, and the Holy Spirit is descending in the form of a dove.

The enduring COVID-19 global crisis has demonstrated in plentiful ways that such catastrophic events as pandemics are able to not only shape human history but also alter human behavior. Practically every aspect of our daily lives over the past year or so has been affected, including our personal hygiene practices, social interactions, employment, dining, and travel.

There is plenty of evidence in the history books of large-scale catastrophes, such as pandemics, provoking societal changes beyond the immediate, health-centered issues. One such infamous example is the bubonic plague that ravaged medieval Europe in the mid-14th century. Among other effects, the plague fueled religious radicalism and encouraged Church reform movements. Unsurprisingly, devastating experiences are likely to leave their mark also in the religious sphere of human societies.


THIS SARCOPHAGUS FROM LUNGOTEVERE, now in the National Museum of Rome, dates to the third century C.E. and most likely depicts the baptism of Jesus. Baptismal imagery in the funerary context was intended to remind Christians of their eternal life that they obtained through their own baptism and the sacrificial death of Jesus.

Writing for the Spring 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Franceso Arduini proposes in his article “The Pandemic Origins of Child Baptism” to connect the emergence of infant baptism with the ground-shaking experience of the Antonine Plague. The so-called Antonine Plague, which was probably smallpox, devastated large swaths of the Roman Empire in the late 160s. Arduini cites Christian writers who first mention the baptism of babies to argue that the documented appearance of this new religious practice coincides with, or rather follows, the Antonine Plague. The rationale behind infant baptism was simple: to guarantee salvation for the babies before they could be ripped from their parents’ arms by the merciless disease.

Marcellino and Peter

IN THE WATERS OF THE JORDAN, Jesus is receiving baptism from the hands of John the Baptist, whose figure have not survived on this fourth-century fresco from the Catacombs of St. Marcellino and Peter in Rome.

To learn the details about how infant baptism likely originated in a deadly epidemic, read Franceso Arduini’s “The Pandemic Origins of Child Baptism,” published in the Spring 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.



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The Baptism of Jesus: A story modeled on the binding of Isaac by William R. Stegner
John’s baptism of Jesus appears in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Exegetes have puzzled for centuries over the theological meaning of Jesus’ baptism, particularly as derived from Mark’s account. A new understanding emerges, I believe, when we realize that this baptism story was modeled on the Old Testament account of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac, an episode known to students of the Old Testament as the binding of Isaac.

Classical Corner: The Antonine Plague and the Spread of Christianity by Sarah K. Yeomans
The year was 166 C.E., and the Roman Empire was at the zenith of its power. The triumphant Roman legions, under the command of Emperor Lucius Verrus, returned to Rome victorious after having defeated their Parthian enemies on the eastern border of the Roman Empire. As they marched west toward Rome, they carried with them more than the spoils of plundered Parthian temples; they also carried an epidemic that would ravage the Roman Empire over the course of the next two decades, an event that would inexorably alter the landscape of the Roman world.
Pandemics in Perspective by Sarah K. Yeomans
Many adjectives can describe our current historical reality, which materialized when it became clear that the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) would reach pandemic proportions: Surreal, scary, revelatory, and humbling are all real and appropriate descriptions. Another term that appears frequently in news reports is “unprecedented.” It is certainly understandable that the current crises may feel unprecedented.

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