What Does it Mean to “Baptize”?

By Tom Hamilton

When we want to know what a certain word means, we have to look at how the word itself is used by the people that speak the language in question. Of course, we could look in a dictionary or lexicon, but these reference works themselves are merely cataloged listings of how the word has actually been used.

Therefore, in regard to a theological word like baptizo — “baptize”, we could look in the standard Greek lexicons, which affirm the word means to “dip, plunge, immerse,” but we should also double-check for ourselves by looking at the actual usage of this word in existing Greek literature. This is especially important for theological terms, because there is always the temptation to bend the meaning of a word to support our own peculiar interpretation or theology.

The truth is to be found in how the word was used itself, whether in classical Greek, the Greek of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT), the Greek literature contemporary with the NT, or the Greek NT itself.

Classical Greek

The literal meaning of baptizo is evident from its common usage in classical Greek, long before there was any biblical connection to the word. The word is used, for example of ships sinking: “Attalus observed one of his own pentere (a type of ship) which had been rammed by an enemy ship and was sinking (lit. ‘was being baptized’) . . .” (Polybius, Histories 16.6.2; see also 1.51.6). In an ancient medical text, one patient’s labored breathing is described in this way: “. . . she breathed like a diver (lit. ‘one who has been baptized’) who has surfaced” (Hippocrates, Epidemics 5.63).

This image of burial, especially in water, came to have figurative uses as well. It is often used to describe the greatest degree of drunkenness, the idea being that one is immersed in wine. For example, in an appeal for more moderate drinking as opposed to the previous day’s excesses, one speaker identifies himself as “one of those who was soaked (lit. ‘baptized’) yesterday” (Plato, Symposium 176b). Similarly, Plato also uses the term to describe a youth being overwhelmed in a philosophical argument, “I, knowing the young man to be going under (lit. ‘being baptized’) and wanting to give him some breathing-space . . .” (Plato, Euthydemus 277d). We read that the rulers of Egypt enjoyed a sufficient income such that “they do not bury (lit. ‘baptize’) the people with property taxes” (Diodorus Siculus, 1.73). Likewise, Plutarch comments that the Roman emperor Galba was hesitant to declare Otho his successor, because he knew him to be “unrestrained and extravagant and buried (lit. ‘baptized’) under a debt of five million (sesterces)” (Plutarch, Galba 21).

Septuagint Greek

In the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT, one finds baptizo used in reference to Naaman. This Gentile had lep- rosy, but was sent word through Elisha’s servant to go and wash in the Jordan River seven times. Although Naaman at first refused to obey these instructions because they were too beneath him, he humbled himself and complied. In accordance with Elisha’s instructions, Naaman “went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan” (2 Kings

5:14). The picture is that of a full bath of the entire body repeated seven times.

Other Greek versions of the Old Testament use baptizo in Job 9:31 (“plunge me into a pit”), Psalm 9:16 (“the nations have sunk in the pit”), Psalm 69:2 (“I sink in deep mire”), Isaiah 21:4 (“lawlessness overwhelms me”), and Jeremiah

38:22 (“your feet are sunk in the mire”).

Contemporary Greek

In the secular Greek literature written at the same time as the NT, we find several examples which objectively demonstrate the real meaning of baptizo. The voluminous writer and Jewish historian Josephus uses the term figuratively to refer to one sinking into a deep sleep, just as we do: “sunken (lit. ‘baptized’) into unconsciousness and a drunken sleep     . . .” (Josephus, Antiquities 10.169). In reference to the crowds of refugees that flocked to Jerusalem during the time of the siege by Rome, Josephus says that they “flooded (lit. ‘baptized’) the city” (Josephus, Jewish War 4.137). In the Jewish War 2.476, Josephus gives a rather graphic account of a certain Simon who took his own life on the battlefield when it became apparent that his cause was lost — “he buried (lit. ‘baptized’) the sword into his own throat.” Finally, we might note Josephus’ account of the drowning of eighteen-year-old Aristobulus upon orders from his father, Herod the Great. In a swimming pool at Jericho, Aristobulus’ “friends” were “weighing him down continuously and keeping him under (lit ‘baptizing’) as if for sport, and they did not let him up to swim until they had completely drowned him” (Josephus, Antiquities 15.55).

New Testament Greek

In the NT we find that the usage of baptizo remains unchanged. It invariably bears the same meaning it did in classical, Septuagint, and contemporary Greek — to dip, plunge, submerge or immerse.

First, we see that its literal meaning is preserved in texts that deal with the ritual washings practiced by the Pharisees. In Luke 11:38 Jesus’ Pharisaic host is shocked that “Jesus was not ceremonially washed (lit. ‘baptized’) before the meal.” In Mark 7:4, Jesus refers to the Pharisees’ traditional practice of “the washing (lit. ‘baptizing’) of cups and pitchers and copper pots.” In both cases, a complete cleansing is envisioned, not the mere sprinkling or pouring of a small amount of water.

In fact, the work of John the Baptist (or “Immerser”) also required more than this small amount of water. We are explicitly told that John was “baptizing in Aenon near Salim because there was much water there” (John 3:23). At the baptism of Jesus by John, we read in Mark 1:9-10 that Jesus went into (eis) and came up out of (ek) the water. The same point is made in Acts 8:38 with Philip and the Ethiopian. Some want to interpret this merely as being a trip to the waterside or a wading in the water. However, the Greek prepositions “into” and “out of” demand that we understand that the baptized persons actually went into and came out of the midst of the water.

The symbolic usage that Paul makes of the word settles the issue. Not just once, but twice, Paul emphasizes that being baptized is like burying a dead body (Rom. 6:3-6; Col. 2:12). Therefore, just as Christ’s corpse was buried and afterwards resurrected, our old dead bodies of sin are buried in baptism and then raised to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). While this affirms that spiritual resurrection takes place after the burial (i.e., baptism), and not before, as most people wrongly teach, the primary point for our present study is that baptism is indeed a burial. Just as pouring a small amount of dirt or sprinkling a few grains of soil over a corpse does not qualify as a burial, so also a few drops of water can never properly be considered an immersion, which is what “baptism” means.

There can be no real doubt or dispute that this is the real meaning and usage of “baptism,” or that the New Testament’s use of this word is intended to require a person to submit themselves to a full bodily immersion in water for the forgiveness of their sins. You can see for yourself from every time period or area of the Greek language, this has always been the usage and meaning for baptizo. Anyone who disagrees can very easily prove his point by offering even one example where this is not the case, but the detractors have yet to be able to find even one example out of its hundreds of occurrences.

With all of this abundantly clear and indisputable evidence, one is made to wonder why there is even any controversy at all over the proper form of baptism. What is the theological axe these folks have to grind who wish to reject the plain meaning of the word? Why must people be like Naaman and refuse to simply do what they are told — be immersed?

Current Usage

I would be the last person on earth to try to convince people that the English word “baptize” only meant “immerse.” This is clearly not the case. Baptism is defined as an action in which water is either sprinkled or poured over someone or the person is immersed in it — immersion is merely one option. Likewise, baptism is defined as a Christian sacrament to symbolize purification and initiation into a religious organization. While I cannot dispute these English definitions of the word, I can affirm that neither definition is applicable to the NT, that is, neither one is what the NT is talking about when it uses the word baptizo.

It is this difference between the meanings of the English word “baptize” and the Greek word baptizo which creates all of the confusion. This confusion can be removed one of two ways.

On the one hand, we could insist that baptizo does, in fact, refer to a Christian sacrament administered by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion, and our English word “baptize” is a perfect translation. One well-known lexicon attempts to settle the issue in this manner, defining baptizo as “to employ water in a religious ceremony designed to symbolize purification and initiation” (Louw & Nida, §53.41). But you can check the usage of the word itself, as we have done in this article, and objectively and honestly determine whether any passage supports this definition. One cannot help but suspect that this is a prime example of theological bias imposing itself upon the text in an utterly arbitrary and baseless manner.

On the other hand, we could acknowledge honestly that our English word “baptize” was created after the ecclesiastical establishment had already adopted several forms of “baptism” which the NT does not mention. When the time came for the first English translations of the Bible to be made, baptizo was forbidden to be translated into its true meaning, “immerse,” because this would explicitly condemn and expose the practices of the ecclesiastical establishment. Instead, baptizo was transliterated, and it was implied that the theological meaning for “baptism” which had developed over the centuries, was intended by the NT wherever baptizo occurred.

It is only because people have been convinced that baptizo has this theological meaning that they can say such things like, “Sprinkling is just another, equally acceptable way of baptizing.” If they said, “Sprinkling is just another, equally acceptable way of immersing!” they would see this statement for the silliness it is.

Let us understand honestly and clearly what the NT is talking about when it speaks of “baptism.