There is an email being forwarded around that claims that there is a baptismal font deep inside the Basilica of St. Paul that was used for the purposes of baptism for the dead. Here is the text of the original email:
This photo was taken by Kevin Barton, grandson of Keith Barton, a Stake Patriarch, when Kevin was on his mission to Italy in 2001. These pictures were taken in Rome at St. Paul’s Cathedral which is centuries old. Kevin found a chained off area of the Cathedral, which he shouldn’t have entered but did, and discovered this old unused, I’m sure for hundreds of years, baptismal font with a mosaic inscription above it indicating it was used for baptisms for the dead.. There are probably more old Cathedrals in Italy (If they haven’t been remodeled) that still have these closed off fonts that were used centuries ago.. I wonder why they stopped ? This is truly profound and amazing..1
Included in the email are a couple very blurry/grainy photos showing the wall inscription and the nearby baptismal font, with labels overlaid showing the purported translation and correlation. These photos are shown here on the right (click to enlarge).
On the surface this sounds really exciting for LDS temple studies! Here we might have ancient evidence for baptism for the dead, mysteriously hidden from public view. But not so fast. Let’s do the requisite research.
After a bit of Googling it is revealed that this is simply the baptistry found on the lower level of St. Paul Outside the Walls (Basilica of St. Paul), in Rome, Italy, which is relatively open to the public, since others have visited there and taken photos (see below). The inscription has nothing to do with baptism for the dead at all.
Here are some notes from a friend of some returned missionaries who also visited the baptismal font on their tour of the basilica (without the mystery of passing beyond chained off areas):
A couple who are friends of mine returned from their mission to Italy last year. They had occasion to visit the Cathedral of St. Paul in Rome. As they toured that beautiful edifice they noticed in the lower floor of the building there is a baptismal font. Above the font there is an inscription that reads: Latin: “CUM BAPTISM VM IN MORTEM”…..when interpreted it means, “Else why do we baptize for the dead?” This fount was used for many years…the water line is still visible on the walls.2
They too believed this baptismal font was used for baptism for the dead, because of the inscription on the wall above the font (incorrectly transcribed and incorrectly translated above). But what does the inscription actually say? Does it paraphrase 1 Corinthians 15:29 as they thought?
Another photo of this inscription at the Basilica of St. Paul can be found on page twenty-three of this traveler’s photobook, shown here on the right.3 This photo shows a bit more of the same inscription: “CVM ILLO PER BAPTISMVM IN MORTEM.” This gives us a bit more to go on.
After few more searches and we might infer the rest of the inscription: “CONSEPVLTI ENIM SVMVS CVM ILLO PER BAPTISMVM IN MORTEM.”4
It turns out that this is Latin from Romans 6:4: “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death:” This verse, of course, is not talking about baptism for the dead, but baptism as symbolic of death, and the death of Christ. The rest of the scripture, which can be found on another wall of the baptistry, reads, “that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (see the second photo below). On another wall of the same baptistry the preceding verse 3 can also be found: “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” (see the third photo below). Paul in chapter six of his epistle to the Romans wrote of baptism as a similitude of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a perfect scripture selection to adorn the walls of the baptistry at St. Paul.
Here are some much clearer photos of the same baptistry at St. Paul Outside the Walls:
So, probably not as mysterious and closely tied to baptism for the dead as the email suggests. Now, if the inscription had quoted 1 Corinthians 15:29 in Latin, it would have been a bit more interesting. The Latin Vulgate of this scripture reads, “Alioquin quid facient qui baptizantur pro mortuis, si omnino mortui non resurgunt? ut quid et baptizantur pro illis?” Keep a lookout for this inscription! Note that these inscriptions usually show U’s as V’s.
I am doubtful that this entire room was a font that was filled with water like a swimming pool, as suggested by the returned missionaries (with a “water line still visible on the walls”). It seems to me that the area is simply a lowered region of the room, again, symbolic of burial, being low in the ground and located on the lower level of the basilica. This is the same reason our baptismal fonts are located in the basement of our temples. In this baptistry at St. Paul, the photos clearly show a small covered baptismal basin, like a sink, in the center of the room.
Unfortunately, this baptistry is not as exciting a find as we might think, albeit beautifully designed and lined with marble, and the email that is circulating is a faith promoting rumor, an urban legend. There is evidence for the practice of baptism for the dead, but it won’t be found in this baptistry.Notes: