Baptism as a Politically Subversive Act

Jesus and his followers, both Jews and Gentiles, did not live in a sociopolitical vacuum. They were subjects of an ever-expanding and oppressive empire that conquered and controlled nations. Operating as a political domination system, Rome knew how to keep people in their place and had the means necessary to succeed at the task.

See Also: Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism, A Rite of Resistance (Cascade Books, 2018).

By R. Alan Streett
Senior Research Professor of Biblical Theology
Criswell College, Dallas, Texas
December 2018

The Birth of an Empire

After the assassination of Julius Caesar, and with the Republic in turmoil, a struggle for power ensued between Marc Antony (Caesar’s trusted young lieutenant) and Gaius Octavian (Caesar’s grandnephew and adopted son). In a stroke of genius, Octavian sought support from a neglected and weakened Senate. Emboldened by his deference to them, the Senate gave Octavian their backing and named Antony an “Enemy of the State.” Antony fled for his life. Octavian pursued and finally defeated him in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE.

The good news (euangelion) of his victory moved the masses to proclaim Octavian their savior (soter) who singlehandedly brought “peace and security” to Rome.

In 27 BCE Octavian symbolically returned power to the Senate and took the title princeps, meaning “first among equals.” The Senate, in appreciation of his magnanimity, named him “Augustus” or magnificent one. Despite his apparent self-effacement, he gladly accepted the moniker. Claiming Rome had a manifest destiny to rule the earth on behalf of the gods, Octavian “Augustus” Caesar assumed complete power over all Roman territories.

Rome became an imperial juggernaut. Historians generally agree that Augustus transformed Rome into an “empire” (Latin, imperium) and reigned as its first “emperor” (Latin, imperator). As “king of kings” he ruled over all client kings of conquered countries who, in turn, pledged their total allegiance to Octavian. Any challenge to his rule was considered an act of sedition and punishable by death. He was Lord and master of all. When the Senate bestowed divine status on Julius Caesar posthumously (Divus Iulius), Augustus assumed the title “Son of God.”

Rome as a Domination System

In the Empire only two classes of people existed: ruling elites and the ruled, dominators and the dominated. The latter had no say in governmental decisions. A pyramid-like social structure with the emperor and his cronies at the top and the lowliest and marginalized at the bottom guaranteed that all wealth worked its way upward—the rest lived at a subsistence level. Everyone knew their place in the societal pecking order. The majority kept their heads down in public, submitted to authority, worked from dawn to dusk, paid taxes, kept a low profile, and went about their business. They rarely challenged the official Roman narrative. They formed patron-client relationships and paid homage to Caesar.

Rome utilized forced labor, excessive taxes, land confiscation, social stratification, patronage, political collaborators, civic religion (emperor worship), and military might to exploit and keep people in line.

On behalf of their emperor Roman generals and their troops marched to the edges of the Empire and offered “peace and security” (pax Romana) to any nation that submitted and pledged loyalty to Caesar. Rome invaded, conquered, and enslaved those nations that refused.

An Oath of Allegiance

Caesar required certain individuals as well as nations to make a public vow of faithfulness. This oath of allegiance was called a sacramentum. According to Van Slyke, there are 150 extant references to sacramentum in ancient Roman literature.[1]

Roman dictator Julius Caesar was the first to use sacramentum in a military sense (Caesar, Bell. Gall. 6.1; Bell. Civ. 1.86; 2.28). He described it as a voluntary oath taken by soldiers upon entering the Roman army. 

Livy (ca 59 BCE‒17 CE) likewise noted that sacramentum was used during the Republic era as a soldier’s oath of obedience, administered by a consul, which obligated a soldier to obey his superiors and not to abandon his comrades-in-arms. The verbalized ritual thus served as a covenant or agreement between officers and soldiers, and was a required to serve in the military (Livy, Hist. 22.38). Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE‒43 BCE) wrote that when General Popilius chose to disband one of his Legions, young Cato wanted to continue serving in the army. His father said the general “should swear him into service with a new oath of allegiance,” since his original sacramentum was no longer legally binding (Cicero, Off. 1.11.36). 

According to Roman senator and historian Tacitus (56 CE‒117 CE) sacramentum was defined during the Empire era as the verbal pledge of allegiance a soldier gave to his emperor. Tacitus also spoke of “receiving the sacrament” (sacramentum acciperent) because the oath was being administered to the soldier on behalf of the emperor (Tacitus, Hist. 1.56). Soldiers were generally required to take the sacrament only once during their career, although the object of their oath changed from one Caesar to the next (Tacitus, Ann. 1).[2]

Because a sacramentum was considered sacred and taken in front of witnesses—both humans and deities—it was irrevocable. Those breaking faith faced penalties ranging from shame to death (Livy, Hist. 28.27).

A Counter-Imperial Sacramentum

Christ-followers borrowed the term sacramentum and used it to express their fealty to Christ and his kingdom.

Tertullian (160 CE‒225 CE) identified baptism specifically as the Christian sacramentum and contrasted it to a Roman soldier’s pledge of loyalty to the Emperor and Empire (Tertullian, Bapt. 4.4–5; Idol. 19.2). Just as a soldier upon his oath of allegiance was inducted into Caesar’s army, so a believer was initiated by the sacrament of baptism into God’s kingdom. Each vowed faithful service to his god and kingdom.

Baptism cannot be properly understood apart from locating it within the context of the Roman Empire and in relationship to Roman power.

As the locus and earthly manifestation of God’s restored kingdom, the church in the first century was the very antithesis of the Roman Empire. When Christ-followers submitted to baptism and pledged their allegiance to a kingdom other than Rome and a king other than Caesar, they participated in a politically subversive act. Through the sacramentum of baptism they joined a movement that rejected Rome’s public narrative, ideology, hierarchical social order, and Caesar’s claim to be Lord over all.

From its inception, the Jesus Movement was a threat to the social order of the Empire..

As a sacramentum, baptism was a “boundary crossing ritual,”[3] a proverbial line drawn in the sand. When crossed, it meant breaking formal ties with the past, declaring fealty to another Lord, and accepting a new and alternative identity—that of a Christ-follower. Hence, baptism was a political act of subversion, a rite of resistance against the prevailing power structures that often led to persecution and even death.

Baptism as a Rite of Resistance

The Gospel writers trace the beginning of the Jesus Movement to the ministry of John the Baptizer, whose priestly father was part of the Temple establishment. Breaking with family tradition John donned the garb of a prophet and publicly announced the imminent arrival of God’s reign. The kingdom of God would be restored to Israel and extend outward until it encompassed the world. To prepare for the kingdom, John called on God’s people to: 1) “Repent,” i.e. abandon former allegiances and turn to covenant faithfulness, and 2) “be baptized,” i.e. submit to a sin-cleansing water ritual. Many heeded the call, but Jewish leaders—those forsaking the covenant and walking hand-in-hand with Rome—refused.

When Jesus aligned himself with the coming kingdom by submitting to John’s sacrament of baptism, it triggered a heavenly response. A voice identified Jesus as the “Son of God” and the Spirit descended, empowering Jesus to heal, cast out demons, and speak for God.

As John and Jesus preached a counter-narrative to the State’s official public transcript, they found themselves in direct conflict with State authorities and paid for that stance with their lives.

According to the sanctioned Roman account, Jesus’ death ended his mission. But the Gospel writers present an alternative ending to the story—that Jesus emerged from the grave as he had from the baptismal waters. They claimed that God vindicated Jesus and gave him all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18), i.e. over Caesar, his client kings, and the demonic powers behind the throne.

The Gospel of Matthew chronicles that the resurrected Jesus commanded his loyal apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations” (v19). These were the same nations conquered and controlled by Rome. Their assignment was clear, but it was also controversial. It included calling the converts to adhere to the Mosaic Covenant as explained by Jesus (Matt 5‒7) and summonsing them to make a sacramentum to God and his authorized king: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:20).[4]

In the Lukan account, Jesus instructs his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for God to pour out his Spirit on them before launching out. Imbued with power from on high, they were to spread the good news of kingdom renewal throughout “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).[5] Theirs would be a long-term and arduous assignment. To call on Caesar’s subjects to transfer their allegiance to another by means of a sacramentum meant danger was ahead. Their task was as much political as it was religious.

What price did Jews and Gentiles pay for making a sacramentum to Christ? Although circumstances varied, few if any Christ-followers escaped persecution. For the purposes of this short essay, we will look at three case scenarios—one Jewish and two Gentile.

Jews and the Sacramentum

Upon the arrival of the Spirit, Peter stood on the steps of the Temple and proclaimed to the visiting pilgrims, “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him (Jesus) whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (2:28). He then exhorted them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (v 41).

Cut to the heart they cried out, “What should we do?”

Peter’s answer was clear and unequivocal, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38).

Turning their backs on former allegiances (repentance) and making their sacramentum (baptism) to the one whom Rome and its Jewish collaborators executed as an enemy of the State, they joined the kingdom restoration movement. But at what cost?

Since baptized Jewish-Christ followers were still considered Jews, they likely escaped direct persecution from Roman authorities, based on an agreement with General Pompey in 64 BCE, that Jews had the right to practice their religion as long as they did not seek to proselytize Gentiles. However, Jewish devotees surely faced pushback in the synagogue from fellow non-messianic Jews and possibly from native retainers (Acts 4:1‒4; 7:58‒59; 9:23; 12:1‒5; 13:50; 14:19; 16:19‒24; 17:5‒9).[6]

Gentiles and the Sacramentum

As the good news of the kingdom reached Gentiles, how did their pledge of faith to Christ affect their social and political fortunes?

Unlike Jewish believers associated with the synagogue, Gentiles had no religious protection. New Gentile Christ-followers were forbidden from sharing in cultic meals, worshiping family deities, or making a sacrifice to Caesar. Their sacramentum to a Lord other than Caesar might be viewed as seditious. They stood out like a sore thumb. As a result, they faced ostracism from family and friends, lost client status with their patrons, and were marked as atheists and subversives.

Imagine the adverse reaction to the Philippian jailer after his conversion. As a resident of a Roman colony, he was likely a retired soldier who for years had kept inviolate his sacramentum to Caesar. He had been rewarded with citizenship and a nice government job. What did it mean for him to turn his back on the source of his livelihood and pledge loyalty to an alternative kingdom and embrace a counter-imperial ethic based on neighborly love, egalitarianism, and mercy? One can only imagine what it was like for the jailer and his family to join the kingdom community in Lydia’s home, eat a meal in Jesus’ name and sing praises to the one . . .

                        Who, though he was in the form of God,

                                    did not regard equality with God

                             as something to be exploited [grasped],

                        but emptied himself,

                                    taking the form of a slave,

                                    being born in human likeness.

                                    And being found in human form,

                  he humbled himself and became obedient                                                                                      to the point of death—even death on a cross.   

                          Therefore God also highly exalted him

                                    and gave him the name

                                    that is above every name,

                        so that at the name of Jesus

                                    every knee should bend,

                             in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

                        and every tongue should confess

                                    that Jesus Christ is Lord,

                                    to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:5‒11).

This song contains strong anti-imperial language. Consider the ramifications for the jailer and his family if a fellow citizen saw him worshipping and singing this hymn.[7]

Or take the case of the Gentile Christ-followers dispersed throughout “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” who are addressed in 1 Peter 1:1.

Some scholars suggest First Peter was written as a baptismal homily or a set of instructions offered to newly baptized believers at the time of their admission into church membership. Whether or not this is so, we are certain that the letter is addressed to baptized believers, who after pledging their fidelity to the exalted Lord Jesus, faced persecution and possibly even death (3:13‒17; 4:12‒19). Over twenty times the author mentions they suffered for their faith. Since no national persecution was underway at the time of the writing, one suspects that they faced castigation and torment at the hands of local Gentiles.

For Gentiles to reject local and national deities and align with a religion that had no visible gods was an egregious offense. The writer warns the readers not to renounce their faith when faced with persecution or use inappropriate means to withstand satanic attack. Instead they were to emulate Christ who suffered and died at the hands of Rome (1:19; 2:21–25; 3:18). As they embraced and followed the alternative ethics of God’s kingdom, they fulfilled their baptismal vows.

In the genre of a Testament, the author admonishes his readers that upon his death they must remain faithful to Christ regardless of cost. He reminds them of their baptismal vow and calls it their “pledge (eperotema) to God from a good conscience” (3:15), thus making it synonymous with sacramentum.[8]

To convey the serious danger Gentile Christ-followers in the region faced, we need look no farther than the letter of Pliny the Younger (61‒113 CE) to Emperor Trajan. As governor of Bithynia, Pliny voices his concern over the Jesus Movement, which he calls a “contagion.”

Pliny reports that he interrogated those identified as Christians who “pledge themselves by a sacramentum.” If, after three cross-examinations, they denied Christ, willingly prayed to the Roman gods, and presented a drink offering to the image of Caesar, the recanters were freed. On the other hand, those who persisted in the faith were executed. Roman citizens found guilty were sent to Rome for trial (Pliny, Ep. 10.96).

The Times They Are a Changing

The church in the first century, as the locus and earthly manifestation of God’s reign, was the antithesis of the Roman Empire. When the first Christ-followers submitted to baptism in the name of Jesus they joined a revolution that Rome perceived as a threat to the accepted social order. The earliest believers embraced an egalitarian ethic in which social justice and neighborly love were the hallmarks of the movement. The sacrament of baptism was the first step in radically redefining one’s life in accord with covenantal kingdom principles. To break with the predominant culture and follow Christ was often costly.

With the passing of time the lines became blurred between Church and culture. The meaning of baptism as a counter-imperial sacrament faded from sight. During the age of Constantinian Christianity baptism morphed into a sign of respectability and cultural acceptability.  

The church in the twenty-first century, especially in the West, still suffers from amnesia. It has lost consciousness of baptism as a rite of resistance. It has forgotten its kingdom mandate to embrace and exhibit an alternative ethic in the midst of a culture of domination.

Baptism’s subversive significance has long been muted. It is not uncommon for a newly baptized individual to discover that the church s/he joins is powerful, wealthy, and operates like a Fortune 500 company. The church has exchanged its camel hair for a scarlet robe, and its prophetic voice has ceased as it seeks a place at the table with other powerbrokers.

The time has come for scholars and clerics to reexamine and recapture the original sacramental meaning of baptism as a rite of resistance. We must go back in order the impact the future. The appeal to be baptized must again become a call for a transformed public life that reflects Christ-likeness in the midst of a culture of violence and human oppression.



DeMaris, Richard E. The New Testament in its Ritual World. London: Routledge, 2008.

Reicke, Bo. The Epistles of James, Peter and Jude. The Anchor Bible 37. New York: Doubleday, 1964.

Streett, R. Alan. Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism, a Rite of Resistance. Eugene: Cascade, 2018.

Van Slyke, Daniel G. “The Changing Meanings of Sacramentum: Historical Sketches.” Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal 11.3 (2007).

________.“Sacramentum in Ancient Non-Christian Authors.” Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal 9.2 (2005).



[1] Van Slyke, “Sacramentum in Ancient Non-Christian Authors,” 167.

[2] An exception to this practice occurred only in case of an extreme emergency when masses of soldiers had to be recruited and deployed at a moment’s notice. In such times soldiers either took the oath en masse or skipped it entirely. (Tacitus, Hist. 1.55).

[3] DeMaris, New Testament, 102.

[4] The Trinitarian baptism formula likely reflects the church’s understanding of baptism at the time Matthew was written (ca 86 CE).

[5] The first disciples likely interpreted this to mean they were to take the message of Jesus to Jews scattered throughout the Empire. By the time Luke’s Gospel is distributed (ca 86 CE), the readers understand the command to include Gentiles as well.

[6] A divide between messianic and non-messianic Jews occurred after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE and reached a breaking point in 135 CE.

[7] Many commentators miss the strong anti-imperial language which characterizes this song because they approach it from a theological perspective and give little attention to its socio-historical context. When one considers that the opening phrase “equality with God” was used to describe the Roman emperor, the song becomes a political statement. To Romans, no one deserved the same status as the emperor. According to the hymn, Jesus, unlike Caesar, does not exploit his divine position but chose to live humbly, accepting the status of a slave. Even when facing crucifixion he did not exercise his authority or use force to defeat his adversaries and free himself, but rather trusted God for deliverance. In fact, the song speaks of his death as an act of obedience to God (v 8).


The second stanza begins with the word “therefore,” and shows that because Jesus chose the path of obedient submission, God vindicated and exalted him above his adversaries to the rank of Lord, a position he did not seek (vv 9‒11). To assert that “Jesus is Lord” meant that Caesar was not! This pronouncement was a slap in Rome’s imperial face. The one Rome crucified as a criminal, God ironically gives “a name that is above every name” (v 9).

The hymn goes on to say “every knee” will bow to him and “every tongue” (including those of Caesar and Roman senators, along with Roman and native elites) will confess “Jesus Christ is Lord.”


When the hymn is interpreted in this way, the jailer and his family committed a subversive act against the Empire.

[8] Reicke, Epistles of James, 106–7, 139.

Article Comments

Submitted by John MacDonald on Thu, 12/06/2018 - 10:42


Later gospel writers were quite uncomfortable with Mark's account of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, and so included that pericope in spite of their purposes, which would seem to make it historical.

On the other hand, we have to be careful in applying these criteria here because just because Mark's baptism pericope made later writers uncomfortable, that doesn't mean Mark was uncomfortable with the baptism pericope: Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on). Some see in the Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior. So there isn't really any reason to suppose the historical Jesus was baptized by John.

On the other hand, some have tried to rescue the historicity of the Jesus/John relationship by pointing out John doubts Jesus, but this wouldn't seem to be any more of a guarantee of the historicity of Jesus' relationship with John the Baptist than it would be arguing on analogous grounds that Peter must have denied Jesus just because the story says so, or Thomas must have doubted Jesus, or the disciples actually did doubt what Jesus could do in certain situations when he had just performed a miracle resolving an analogous situation just a little while earlier, etc.

Submitted by John MacDonald on Thu, 12/06/2018 - 11:42


Helms points out the syncretic flavor of Mark is at once evident from his reproduction of a piece of Augustan imperial propaganda: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” closely matches the formula found on a monument erected by the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor (1st century BCE): “Whereas... Providence... has... brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving us Augustus Caesar... who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior..., and whereas... the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) concerning him, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth.” Crossan argues that the choice is between a "Peace through Victory" of Caesar and Rome (Pax Romana), and "Peace through Justice" of Jesus.

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