baptism of couches.—mark 7:4
IN Carson’s polemical enginery we find this canon: “When a thing is proved by sufficient evidence, no objection from difficulties can be admitted as decisive, except they involve an impossibility.” And he brings this canon to bear against the idea of a supposed peculiar difficulty in the immersing of couches (rendered in our version “washing of tables,” or “beds,” as in the margin). Some have gone so far as to speak of the “impossibility” of the thing; but this has never been and never can be proved. Professor Shedd (quoting in Lange’s “Commentary,” from Professor J. A. Alexander) ventures only to say that this passage affords, “if not conclusive evidence, at least a strong presumption, that beds (to say’ no more) might be baptized without immersion.” So, under the shelter of Carson’s canon, we need not, as yet, feel greatly disturbed.
The word here used for couches sometimes refers to beds for sleeping, &c., which—often being but mats, quilts, or very light mattresses—could be easily carried about in one’s arms for quite a distance (Matt. 9:2–6; also Luke 5:18; Acts 5:15). De Wette, in the passage before us, regards these klinai as being beds in general. In the latest edition of Tischendorf the word is omitted altogether, and it will probably be omitted in our forthcoming revised version.1 We shall here, however, treat it as genuine; and, since the other vessels mentioned in the verse refer to eating utensils, we shall regard these klinai as referring to the couches on which people reclined for eating. There were generally three of them around a table (hence called triclinia); and each of them commonly was large enough for the occupancy of two, three, or more persons. These couches, according to Dr. John Lightfoot, the great rabbinical scholar, were rendered unclean by persons affected with leprosy, bloody issue, &c. The records do not state how often these were baptized; but it would seem that the occasions for this thorough cleansing were quite unfrequent. Heaton says, “It is incredible that the Jews should immerse their couches before each meal; “and we agree with him. Nor is any intimation of such frequency given in the gospel narrative. Still the scrupulosity of excessive Pharisaism would doubtless lead them to perform “incredibilities” and seeming impossibilities. In our ignorance of the construction of these couches we may suppose that they consisted of a frame-work, with its different coverings. Perhaps the klinē proper—consisting of a light and easily portable mat or coverlet, on which, with the aid of pillows, men were accustomed to recline for eating—itself constituted the principal covering, and this alone may have been baptized. Dr. Kitto goes so far as “to suggest that not the bed itself, but its covering, was washed.” This, we think, would be hardly enough to satisfy Pharisaic scrupulosity. According to the custom of the later Jews, even the whole frame-work had to be taken in pieces and dipped. Mark has not told us how these superstitious Pharisees accomplished their couch-dipping; he simply states that they baptized their couches,—i.e., immersed them in water: and no fancied difficulty connected with the operation should allow us to depart from the usual and established import of that word. Certainly these coaches might have been so constructed, that, if they could not be baptized whole, they might yet be taken to pieces, and so baptized. The Rabbi Maimonides says that “every vessel of wood which is made for the use of man, as a table or bed, receives defilement.… And these were washed by covering them in water.” He further says, “A bed that is wholly defiled, if a man dip it part by part, it is pure. If he dips the bed in the pool, although the feet are plunged in the thick clay at the bottom of the pool, it is clean.’ ” Dr. Dale “declines the offered intervention of a bedscrew to get them” (these couches) “to the dipping.” Perhaps, however, this instrument was not needed; but, if it were, excessive Pharisaism, so sternly rebuked by the Saviour, might gladly make use of it.
Clement of Alexandria, in his “Strōmata,” or Miscellanies (bk. iv. chap. 22), has, by Dr. Dale and some others, been supposed to refer to these couch-baptizings when he says, “This is a custom of the Jews that they should be often baptized (epi koitē) upon bed,”—an example, we believe, which is not noticed in Conant’s “Baptizein.” President Beecher renders this latter phrase, “baptized often upon their couches”! This, I doubt not, would be going far beyond any tradition ever received from the elders. Knowing that water-baptism, to the mind of Clement, as of the church fathers in general, involved an “intusposition” in water, we cannot believe that the Jews were often baptized “on their couches,” or that Clement intended to convey any such idea. They might thus be baptized upon “bed,” if bed be regarded as used euphemistically for sexual commerce (as in Rom. 9:10), or for “chambering,” or lewdness (as in Rom. 13:13). For such cases the Levitical rites provided ablutions, and it is to these that Clement evidently refers (see Lev. 15). Indeed, Clement interprets himself in another passage, where he explicitly affirms that “divine providence, through the Lord, does not now, as formerly, command to be baptized from the conjugal bed.” The phrase “upon bed” would then mean either on account of or after bed (post concubitum), as it is rendered in the Latin version of Clement’s works by Archbishop Potter of England, author of the once well-known “Antiquities of Greece.” With this accords the rendering which is given to this passage (by Rev. William Wilson of Musselburgh) in Clark’s “Ante-Nicene Christian Library;” to wit, “It was a custom of the Jews to wash frequently after being in bed.” We do not read of any customary baptizing or quasi-baptizing of persons on beds or couches, literally speaking, till we reach that period in early Christian history when baptism came to be regarded as indispensable to salvation (“Nemo adscendit in regnum cœlorum nisi per sacramentum baptismatis,” Ambrose), and “clinic baptisms,” so called, came into vogue. Then the sick and dying, if unbaptized, were frequently affused on their beds: and this “divine compend” or abridgment of baptism would in such a case, of necessity, and through special divine “indulgence,” answer for baptism, and insure their eternal salvation; though, in case of recovery, they were precluded from the office of the ministry.1
It would seem, however, that Athanasius, “the father of orthodoxy,” did not think much of these “clinic baptisms;” for, when asked his opinion on the common practice of death-bed baptisms, he replied, “An angel once said to my great predecessor, ‘Peter’ (a former bishop of Alexandria), ‘why do you send me those sacks (wind-bags) carefully sealed up, with nothing whatever inside?’ ” Yet not all the clinic or bed baptisms were by pouring; for where immersion was possible, as Dr. Brenner says (p. 15), “even clinics were immersed.” “For thirteen hundred years,” says this Roman-Catholic writer (p. 306), “was baptism generally and regularly an immersion of the person under water, and only in extraordinary cases a sprinkling or pouring with water: the latter was, moreover, disputed as a mode of baptism, nay, even: forbidden.” (See the German original in Conant’s “Baptizein,” p. 141.) Similar also is the testimony of Dean Stanley in his. “History of the Eastern Church” (p. 117): “There can be no question that the original form of baptism—the very meaning of the word—was complete immersion in the deep baptismal waters, and that, for at least four centuries, any other form was either unknown, or regarded, unless in the case of dangerous illness, as an exceptional, almost a monstrous case. To this form the Eastern Church still rigidly adheres; and the most illustrious and venerable portion of it, that of the Byzantine Empire, absolutely repudiates and ignores any other mode of administration as essentially invalid.” We conclude, therefore, that the customary baptizing of the Jews “upon bed,” spoken of by Clement, has no reference to any thing like these necessitous extraordinary Christian “clinic baptisms,” nor to the baptism of couches spoken of by Mark, but to something of an entirely different nature from either. Yet let us listen to President Beecher: “Our credulity has been sorely taxed by the demand to believe that couches were habitually (?) immersed by the Jews; yes, by all the Jews. Shall we go one step farther, and affirm that it was their custom frequently to be immersed upon their couches? Shall we believe that they had baptisteries below their couches, and an apparatus of ropes and pulleys for elevating and depressing men, couches and all? and that they were in the habit of doing this frequently in the course of one meal?” What a piling-up of difficulties is here!—enough, surely, to tax anybody’s credulity; and yet Beecher’s interpretation of Clement is followed by Dale and Stearns, even as they followed his more wonderful interpretation of Cyril, “baptized by the ashes of a heifer”!
Another false representation of Carson by Hutchings may here be noticed. Carson remarks on Mark 7:4, “Though it were proved that the couches could not be immersed” (so capitalized by Hutchings and Stearns), “I would not yield an inch of the ground I have occupied.” But he goes on to say, “There is no absolute necessity to suppose that the klinai were the couches at table.” He says they might have been beds such as one could take up from the street, and carry to his house (Matt. 9:6). And, on the fourth page preceding this quotation, he lays down the canon which heads this chapter: “No objection from difficulties can be admitted as decisive, except they involve an impossibility.” Carson was nobody’s fool; and yet Hutchings would make him say, “Such is the meaning of the word, even if it be impossible”! (See “Mode of Baptism,” p. 204.) Should such aspersion as this be cast upon the dead? and is this ad captandum style of argument naturally promotive of that “Christian union” for which this author so tenderly pleads?
Ford, D. B. (1879). Studies on the Baptismal Question (pp. 174–178). Boston; New York: H. A. Young & Co; Ward & Drummond.
1 “It is omitted,” says Professor Abbot, “by Tischendorf in his last critical edition, and by Westcott and Hort; retained by Lachmann, Tregelles, Alford, Weiss, and the commentators generally. They suppose it to have been omitted by accident. On the other side, it is to be said that the authorities which omit it—B. L., the Codex Sinaiticus, and the Codex San Gallensis—are just those which generally preserve the true reading in this Gospel. Volkmar adopts Hitzig’s conjecture of klibanōn, ‘earthen pans’ or ‘pots,’ for klinōn.” Professor George R. Noyes, who in his translation follows the Greek text of Tischendorf, renders the baptizo of Mark 7:4, “unless they bathe;” and the baptismous, &c., of the same verse, “the dipping of cups and pitchers, and brazen vessels.” Professor Riddle, in Schaff’s Popular Commentary, likewise omits “couches” from his version.
1 We may well feel a little hurt that Dr. Dale should speak of our “impoverished condition as without any baptism,” when we, just to save ourselves from drowning, adopt the “compend” dipping for baptism. To some one who said in Dr. Johnson’s hearing that he must live, the doctor replied that he saw no necessity for it. And perhaps Dr. Dale does not deem the preservation of our lives a thing of necessity! But will Presbyterians hereafter admit us, though unbaptized, to church-fellowship and communion?