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According to St. John Chrysostom in his Baptismal Instruction 11.28:

After stripping you of your robe, the priest leads you down into the flowing waters. But why naked? He reminds you of your former nakedness, when you were in paradise and not ashamed.

When did this practice originate? It doesn’t seem to be in the Didache. Further, when did it end?

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When did the practice of naked baptism begin and when did it fall out of fashion?

No one can say with any certitudes, but it seems probably around the beginning of the 5th century or the early years of the 400s.

This is more a question of looking for clues in order to find a possible timeline of events to resolve this issue. No historical evidence will point to an exact date as to when such a practice ended.

One the the greatest clues and even this one is somewhat shrouded in mystery: the institution in the Early Church of some women as deaconesses.

Being naked for the reception of the sacrament of baptism was a real thing in the Early Church.

It originated probably through the influence of the Jewish Mikveh which is a ritual bathing being performed in the state of nudity.

For the first 400 years in the Church, baptism was a nude practice. This was the pattern of the Jewish mikveh ritual before it was a Christian rite. Bathing outdoors was commonplace, so this was not offensive as it would be today. To quote Lightfoot in “Horae Hebraicae Talmuducae,” he acknowledges that: “Every person baptized must dip his whole body, now stripped and made naked, at one dipping. And wheresoever in the Law washing of the body is mentioned, it means nothing else than the washing of the whole body.”

Robert Robinson wrote a 580 page book called “The History of Baptism” in 1817. In it he speaks of Jesus’ nakedness when he washed his disciples feet:

In regard to the nakedness of Jesus just now observed, it should be recollected, that, however shocking it may appear to English manners, and how rude and indecent soever it would be justly reckoned her to imitate the custom of introducing naked into publick company, yet in the ancient eastern world it was far otherwise, and at this day all over Italy, in places sacred and profane, statues, pictures, vases, and books exhibit such sights, and nobody is offended.

Furthermore, the symbolism of the sacrament takes on a richer meaning when it is practiced as it was intended.

Cyril of Jerusalem (313–386) brings significance to the naked portion of this ceremony in this way: “You put off your clothes, which is an emblem of putting off the old man with his deeds; and being thus divested, you stood naked, imitating Christ, that was naked upon the cross, who by his nakedness spoiled principalities and powers, publicly triumphing over them in the cross.” He adds, “‘Immediately, then, upon entering, you removed your tunics. Having stripped, you were naked. … Marvellous! You were naked in the sight of all, and were not ashamed.'”

Of the Bishop of Jerusalem’s reliable account, William Tefler says, “Part of this heritage was no doubt a tradition of doctrine, and in particular of norms of baptismal catechizes. For all the freshness with which Cyril handles his matter, in catechetical lecturing, we may judge that he is guided by church tradition, when we note how impervious he is to the contemporary theological disturbances.”

Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 400) later added, “Adam was naked at the beginning, and unashamed. This is why your clothing must be taken off as baptism restores right relation to God.” He also said, “You draw near to the holy baptism and before all you take off your garments. As in the beginning when Adam was naked and was in nothing ashamed of himself…”

St. Hippolytus, presbyter of Rome (c. 215), said that total nudity was required. The rule ordered, “let no one go down to the water having any alien object with them,” and directs women to remove even their jewelry and the combs from their hair.” And also these instructions:

“When they come to the water, the water shall be pure and flowing… Then they shall take off all their clothes. The children shall be baptized first. … After this, the men will be baptized. Finally, the women, after they have unbound their hair and removed their jewelry. No one shall take any foreign object with themselves down into the water…. Then, after these things, the bishop passes each of them on nude to the elder who stands at the water. They shall stand in the water naked. A deacon, likewise, will go down with them into the water.”

After being immersed three separate times,

“when they have come up out of the water, they shall be anointed by the elder with the Oil of Thanksgiving, saying, ‘I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.’ And so each one drying himself with a towel they shall now put on their clothes, and after let them be together in the assembly.”

John the Deacon, writing around AD500, notices something similar. “They are commanded to go in naked, even down to their feet, so that [they may show that] they have put off the earthly garments of mortality. The church has ordained these things for many years with watchful care, even though the old books may not reveal traces of them.”

Baptism and Nudity

Now in the Early Church there existed female deacons called deaconesses (”ministers”).

One of the main roles of deaconesses was to assist in the baptisms of women!

Jacobite author Yahya ibn Jarir, writing from Persia in the third quarter of the eleventh century, wrote: “In antiquity deaconesses were ordained; their function was to be concerned with adult women and prevent their being uncovered in the presence of the bishop. However, as the practice of religion became more extensive and the decision was made to begin administering baptism to infants, this function of deaconesses was abolished.”

The existence and ordination of deaconesses in the early church is evident. Their tasks—assisting at the baptism of women, teaching, and caring for people— are also clear. Yet, they disappeared.

Three factors seem to have contributed to the demise of the female diaconate. First, infant baptism replaced adult baptism, making the assistance of a female at the baptism of adult women unnecessary. Second, the sacrifice of the Mass, which gave to the priest the power of converting bread and wine into the very body and blood of Jesus, shaped the understanding of clergy and laity and removed lay people—male and female—from ministry. Further, the rise of monasticism, with the institution of nunneries and the insistence on celibacy, changed the focus of church work for women.

While deaconesses appear in the Eastern Church until the twelfth or thirteenth century, in the West their end came much earlier. British monk Pelagius (c. 420) wrote that the female diaconate was an institution fallen into disuse in the West, though remaining in the East.

The ministry of the deaconess through history - Part one of two

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  • It's interesting that Lutheran churches still have deaconesses, though they are consecrated rather than ordained.
    – Traildude
    Feb 26 at 21:30

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