Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


A Greek Word, Signifying Immersion.

§ I.

We do not speak of baptism as theologians; we are but poor men of letters, who shall never enter the sanctuary. The Indians plunge, and have from time immemorial plunged, into the Ganges. Mankind, always guided by their senses, easily imagined that what purified the body likewise purified the soul. In the subterranean apartments under the Egyptian temples there were large tubs for the priests and the initiated.

O nimium faciles qui tristia crimina cæal[Editor: illegible character]

Fluminea tolli posse putatis aqua!

Old Baudier, when he was eighty, made the following comic translation of these lines:

C’est une drôle de maxime,

Qu’une lessive efface un crime.

One can’t but think it somewhat droll,

Pump-water thus should cleanse a soul.

Every sign being of itself indifferent, God vouch-safed to consecrate this custom amongst the Hebrew people. All foreigners that came to settle in Palestine were baptized; they were called domiciliary proselytes.

They were not forced to receive circumcision, but only to embrace the seven precepts of the Noachides, and to sacrifice to no strange god. The proselytes of justice were circumcised and baptized; the female proselytes were also baptized, quite naked, in the presence of three men. The most devout among the Jews went and received baptism from the hands of the prophets most venerated by the people. Hence it was that they flocked to St. John, who baptized in the Jordan.

Jesus Christ Himself, who never baptized any one, deigned to receive baptism from St. John. This custom, which had long been an accessory of the Jewish religion, received new dignity, new value from our Saviour, and became the chief rite, the principal seal of Christianity. However, the first fifteen bishops of Jerusalem were Jews. The Christians of Palestine long continued to circumcise. St. John’s Christians never received baptism from Christ.

Several other Christian societies applied a cautery to the baptized, with a red-hot iron, being determined to the performance of this extraordinary operation by the words of St. John the Baptist, related by St. Luke: “I baptize you with water, but He that cometh after me shall baptize you with fire.”

This was practised by the Seleucians, the Herminians, and some others. The words, “He shall baptize you with fire,” have never been explained. There are several opinions concerning the baptism by fire which is mentioned by St. Luke and St. Matthew. Perhaps the most likely opinion is that it was an allusion to the ancient custom of the devotees to the Syrian goddess, who, after plunging into water, imprinted characters on their bodies with a hot iron. With miserable man all was superstition, but Jesus substituted for these ridiculous superstitions a sacred ceremony — a divine and efficacious symbol.

In the first ages of Christianity nothing was more common than to postpone the receiving of baptism until the last agony. Of this the example of the Emperor Constantine is a very strong proof. St. Andrew had not been baptized when he was made bishop of Milan. The custom of deferring the use of the sacred bath until the hour of death was soon abolished.

Baptism of the Dead.

The dead also were baptized. This is established by the passage of St. Paul to the Corinthians: “If we rise not again what shall they do that receive baptism from the dead?” Here is a point of fact. Either the dead themselves were baptized, or baptism was received in their names, as indulgences have since been received for the deliverance of the souls of friends and relatives out of purgatory.

St. Epiphanius and St. Chrysostom inform us that it was a custom in some Christian societies, and principally among the Marcionites, to put a living man under the dead man’s bed; he was then asked if he would be baptized; the living man answered yes, and the corpse was taken and plunged into a tub of water. This custom was soon condemned. St. Paul mentions it but he does not condemn it; on the contrary he cites it as an invincible argument to prove resurrection.

Baptism by Aspersion.

The Greeks always retained baptism by immersion. The Latins, about the close of the eighth century, having extended their religion into Gaul and Germany and seeing that immersion might be fatal to infants in cold countries, substituted simple aspersion and thus drew upon themselves frequent anathemas from the Greek Church.

St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, was asked if those were really baptized who had only had their bodies sprinkled all over. He answers, in his seventy-sixth letter, that several churches did not believe the sprinkled to be Christians; that, for his own part, he believes that they are so, but that they have infinitely less grace than those who have been thrice dipped, according to custom.

A person was initiated among the Christians as soon as he was dipped; until then he was only a catechumen. To be initiated it was necessary to have sponsors to answer to the Church for the fidelity of the new Christians and that the mysteries should not be divulged. Hence it was that in the first ages the Gentiles had, in general, as little knowledge of the Christian mysteries as the Christians had of the mysteries of Isis and the Eleusinian Ceres.

Cyril of Alexandria, in his writing against the Emperor Julian, expresses himself thus: “I would speak of baptism but that I fear my words would reach them who are not initiated.” At that time there was no worship without its mysteries, its associations, its catechumens, its initiated, and its professed. Each sect required new virtues and recommended to its penitents a new life — “initium novæ vitæ” — whence the word initiation. The initiation of Christians, whether male or female, consisted in their being plunged quite naked into a tub of cold water, to which sign was attached the remission of all their sins. But the difference between Christian baptism and the Greek, Syrian, Egyptian, and Roman ceremonies was the difference between truth and falsehood. Jesus Christ was the High Priest of the new law.

In the second century infants began to be baptized; it was natural that the Christians should desire their children, who would have been damned without this sacrament, to be provided with it. It was at length concluded that they must receive it at the expiration of eight days, because that was the period at which, among the Jews, they were circumcised. In the Greek Church this is still the custom.

Such as died in the first week were damned, according to the most rigorous fathers of the Church. But Peter Chrysologos, in the fifth century, imagined limbo, a sort of mitigated hell, or properly, the border, the outskirt of hell, whither all infants dying without baptism go and where the patriarchs remained until Jesus Christ’s descent into hell. So that the opinion that Jesus Christ descended into limbo, and not into hell, has since then prevailed.

It was agitated whether a Christian in the deserts of Arabia might be baptized with sand, this was answered in the negative. It was asked if rosewater might be used, it was decided that pure water would be necessary but that muddy water might be made use of. It is evident that all this discipline depended on the discretion of the first pastors who established it.

The Anabaptists and some other communions out of the pale have thought that no one should be baptized without a thorough knowledge of the merits of the case. You require, say they, a promise to be of the Christian society, but a child can make no engagement. You give it a sponsor, but this is an abuse of an ancient custom. The precaution was requisite in the first establishment. When strangers, adult men and women, came and presented themselves to be received into the society and share in the alms there was needed a guarantee to answer for their fidelity; it was necessary to make sure of them; they swore they would be Jews, but an infant is in a diametrically opposite case. It has often happened that a child baptized by Greeks at Constantinople has afterwards been circumcised by Turks, a Christian at eight days old and a Mussulman at thirty years, he has betrayed the oaths of his godfather.

This is one reason which the Anabaptists might allege; it would hold good in Turkey, but it has never been admitted in Christian countries where baptism insures a citizen’s condition. We must conform to the rights and laws of our country.

The Greeks re-baptize such of the Latins as pass from one of our Latin communions to the Greek communion. In the last century it was the custom for these catechumens to pronounce the following words: “I spit upon my father and my mother who had me ill baptized.” This custom still exists, and will, perhaps, long continue to exist in the provinces.

Notions of Rigid Unitarians Concerning Baptism.

It is evident to whosoever is willing to reason without prejudice that baptism is neither a mark of grace conferred nor a seal of alliance, but simply a mark of profession.

That baptism is not necessary, neither by necessity of precept, nor by necessity of means.

That it was not instituted by Christ and that it may be omitted by the Christian without his suffering any inconvenience therefrom.

That baptism should be administered neither to children, nor to adults, nor, in general, to any individual whatsoever.

That baptism might be of service in the early infancy of Christianity to those who quitted paganism in order to make their profession of faith public and give an authentic mark of it, but that now it is absolutely useless and altogether indifferent.

§ II.

Baptism, immersion in water, abstersion, purification by water, is of the highest antiquity. To be cleanly was to be pure before the gods. No priest ever dared to approach the altar with a soil upon his body. The natural inclination to transfer to the soul that which appertains to the body led to the belief that lustrations and ablutions took away the stains of the soul as they removed those of the garments and that washing the body washed the soul also. Hence the ancient custom of bathing in the Ganges, the waters of which were thought to be sacred; hence the lustrations so frequent among every people. The Oriental nations, inhabiting hot countries, were the most religiously attached to these customs.

The Jews were obliged to bathe after any pollution — after touching an unclean animal, touching a corpse, and on many other occasions.

When the Jews received among them a stranger converted to their religion they baptized, after circumcising him, and if it was a woman she was simply baptized — that is, dipped in water in the presence of three witnesses. This immersion was reputed to give the persons baptized a new birth, a new life; they became at once Jewish and pure. Children born before this baptism had no share in the inheritance of their brethren, born after them of a regenerated father and mother. So that, with the Jews, to be baptized and to be born again were the same thing, and this idea has remained attached to baptism down to the present day. Thus, when John, the forerunner, began to baptize in the Jordan he did but follow an immemorial usage. The priests of the law did not call him to account for this baptizing as for anything new, but they accused him of arrogating to himself a right which belonged exclusively to them — as Roman Catholic priests would have a right to complain if a layman took upon himself to say mass. John was doing a lawful thing but was doing it unlawfully.

John wished to have disciples, and he had them. He was chief of a sect among the lower orders of the people and it cost him his life. It even appears that Jesus was at first among his disciples, since he was baptized by him in the Jordan, and John sent some of his own party to Him a short time before His death.

The historian Josephus speaks of John but not of Jesus — an incontestable proof that in his time John the Baptist had a greater reputation than He whom he baptized. A great multitude followed him, says that celebrated historian, and the Jews seemed disposed to undertake whatever he should command them.

From this passage it appears that John was not only the chief of a sect, but the chief of a party. Josephus adds that he caused Herod some uneasiness. He did indeed make himself formidable to Herod, who, at length, put him to death, but Jesus meddled with none but the Pharisees. Josephus, therefore, mentions John as a man who had stirred up the Jews against King Herod; as one whose zeal had made him a state criminal, but Jesus, not having approached the court, was unknown to the historian Josephus.

The sect of John the Baptist differed widely in discipline from that of Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles we see that twenty years after the execution of Jesus, Apollos of Alexandria, though become a Christian, knew no baptism but that of John, nor had any idea of the Holy Ghost. Several travellers, and among others Chardin, the most accredited of all, say that in Persia there still are disciples of John, called Sabis, who baptize in his name and acknowledge Jesus as a prophet, but not as a god.

As for Jesus Christ Himself He received baptism but conferred it on no one; His apostles baptized the catechumens, or circumcised them as occasion required; this is evident from the operation of circumcision performed by Paul on his disciple Timothy.

It also appears that when the apostles baptized it was always in the name of Jesus Christ alone. The Acts of the Apostles do not mention any one baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost — whence it may be concluded that the author of the Acts of the Apostles knew nothing of Matthew’s gospel, in which it is said: “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” The Christian religion had not yet received its form. Even the Symbol, which was called the Symbol of the Apostles, was not made until after their time, of this no one has any doubt. In Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians we find a very singular custom which was then introduced — that of baptizing the dead, but the rising Church soon reserved baptism for the living alone; at first none were baptized but adults, and the ceremony was often deferred until the age of fifty, or the last sickness, that the individual might carry with him into the other world the unimpaired virtue of a baptism recently performed.

Now, all children are baptized: none but the Anabaptists reserve this ceremony for the mature age; they plunge their whole bodies into the water. The Quakers, who compose a very numerous society in England and in America, do not use baptism: the reason is that Jesus Christ did not baptize any of His disciples, and their aim is to be Christians only as His disciples were — which occasions a very wide difference between them and other communions.

Addition to the Article “Baptism” by Abbé Nicaise.

The Emperor Julian, the philosopher, in his immortal “Satire on the Cæsars,” puts these words into the mouth of Constantius, son of Constantine: “Whosoever feels himself guilty of rape, murder, plunder, sacrilege, and every most abominable crime, so soon as I have washed him with this water, he shall be clean and pure.”

It was, indeed, this fatal doctrine that occasioned the Christian emperors, and the great men of the empire, to defer their baptism until death. They thought they had found the secret of living criminal and dying virtuous.

How strange an idea — that a pot of water should wash away every crime! Now, all children are baptized because an idea no less absurd supposes them all criminal; they are all saved until they have the use of reason and the power to become guilty! Cut their throats, then, as quickly as possible, to insure their entrance into paradise. This is so just a consequence that there was once a devout sect that went about poisoning and killing all newly-baptized infants. These devout persons reasoned with perfect correctness, saying: “We do these little innocents the greatest possible good; we prevent them from being wicked and unhappy in this life and we give them life eternal.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01