Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity – Interview

From Volume 1, Issue 3, 2017

Journey to the the first century church as we talk with Robin Jensen on her book, “Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity”. Robin shares her research on the art, history and cultural significance of baptismal fonts in the first century Christian church.

EOF: Let’s start with the basics. Perhaps you could tell the readers a little bit about the book and whom should be its primary readers.

JENSEN: This is a book that I think was written for a pretty broad audience, although I have to say it may stretch some people a little further than others and initially I had intended it to be a kind of book that was more devotional and catechetical. I think I got myself going on it and I got deeper and deeper into the subject and it just kept opening up to me as I was writing and so I poured an awful lot into it. I hope that people read it and if they suddenly need to stop and take a breather, they will read it in small bits. It was simply a question of my falling in love with the topic as I was working on it. So, it just b

ecame a lot denser than I had first meant it to be.

By “dense” do you mean that there’s a lot of information?

There is a lot of information and there’s a lot of footnotes and some of that is just for more scholarly readers; I wanted them to be able to find the texts that I was referring to and I think as I was working on these themes that the book addresses, they all became my very favorites. So, I couldn’t really simplify. It kept getting more and more complicated as I went. That was just how it came out. I suppose that as I wrote, I learned so much; I never expected to find as much as I did and it was just so stunning to me.

What was it that initially led you to study baptismal imagery?

It started because many, many years ago when I was a graduate student, I was working on early Christian art; catacomb paintings, for example (people probably know about those), and I was seeing something that I wasn’t the first person to sight, by any means, but had sort of fallen out of favor. I was beginning to see in the choices people made of the images they used to decorate their tombs in Rome (these were all decorations, right, this is what people painted in the catacombs and those are burial places), I kept seeing sacramental imagery. Not obviously sacramental imagery, but the same images kept appearing over and over again: the woman at the well, the healing of the paralytic, people sitting around a table having a meal, and I was trying to account for why certain figures or images just kept reappearing and these were the popular ones. I had to calculate that this had something to do with death because we are in a tomb setting and I said, “You know, I think a lot of this is not sacramental.” But I could read almost 80% of these as referring to baptism. I come from a sacramental tradition, so that somehow also affects the way I see things, I think, and I began to think about the ways that baptism is the symbolic movement from death to rebirth.

That got me to thinking that it is perfectly reasonable to put that on your tomb as an assurance of rebirth and new life and then I began to look at other sorts of images. Then I got very interested in typology; I think that comes through in the book. How stories, not just the New Testament stories, but stories even from what we call the Old Testament or sometimes called the Hebrew Scriptures or the First Testament are, from Christian points of view, ways of alluding to those things that will have great meaning for them in their Christian story; in their journey through the Christian faith and into the faith. So, that just sort of emerged out of that, coming at it from Christian art and I began to then think about the spaces in which people were baptized. I moved out of the tomb and into the baptistry or into the baptismal font and I began to think about what actually took place in the ritual and how it then carried some of those same ideas forward. I began to teach people. I became a teacher in a seminary before I moved to Vanderbilt. I began to try to explain to those folks who were preparing to be ministers; people who would administer baptism, and it never failed to be just eye-opening for them. I began to realize the power of this ritual, which in many ways has been forgotten or lost in modern times. When people see newborn children baptized and it is sort of a welcome point. It’s like, “Wow, this is great, we are christening the baby.” And everybody loves the pretty baby and we get a little drop of water and we sing a song and light a candle or give a flower, and that’s kind of the end of it and then we all go out for a nice brunch afterward. I’m not trying to undermine the importance of that, but I think that we have really lost so much of what this ritual could be and does mean. That’s not simply because we baptize infants; I think it’s that we haven’t really attempted to understand the significance of these sacraments and what they meant in their own time and if we could Others will say, “Well, you know, in my tradition it really is a big deal and we take people to the river and we do plunge them.” recover some of that. Getting back to your question about who would be a good reader for this book; I hope that people who undergo baptism, who administer baptism, who observe them will also think about ways they might enrich the whole ritual and the whole sacrament in their lives, and then relive it every Sunday and every Easter; on Pentecost, if they want. So that’s it in kind of a nutshell.

I agree with you, especially in reference to the welcoming babies into the fold, as it were, through baptism. Which you do, but a lot of people do lose a lot if they don’t understand the history of baptism. For example, that in the first few centuries there was some pretty strong debate on whether infants were or were not to be baptized.

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