By Stanley L. Morris

In previous articles ("Polluted Bibles?" January, 1989 and "The Worst Verse in the Bible" March, 1989) we have examined together various aspects of Bible translating. This article will explore how one establishes the proper choice of words in the translation process.

Is The Dictionary The Authority?

Among our folk, there is little doubt that the Greek word, baptizo (and other related forms), should be translated "immerse." I am not trying to prove that to any of us. However, the real question is: How does a lexicographer go about writing his dictionary? Is he the authority, or does he derive meanings from other sources? Is it only a matter of opinion, or can semantic flavors be determined in a precise manner? Can we be dogmatic about such things? What if an "authoritative" Greek dictionary did not give "immerse" as one of the valid meanings of baptizo, does that mean that "immerse" is not valid? What is an informed Bible student to think?

Therefore, I propose that we use baptizo as a term to demonstrate correct methodology. Knowing how to translate baptizo is important in its own right because it has been consistently transliterated (and therefore, mistranslated) instead of properly translated. This has led to false practices (viz, sprinkling or christening, pouring or effusion), leaving the impression that people may have optional forms of "baptism." I have even seen tracts written by our brethren which claimed that the "one baptism" of Eph. 4:5 could only refer to "immersion" and not to "sprinkling" or "pouring." Think about that. If correctly translated in the first place ("one immersion'') a well-intentioned brother would not feel the need to make such an argument. That passage is not referring to mode, because modality is linguistically inherent in the root meaning of the word! It is talking about something else.

The Nature of Meaning

What constitutes "meaning" anyway? I think I can demonstrate that rather easily. Suppose I asked you for the meaning of "stone"? What does "stone" mean? You would be right to say, "Well, it depends on how one uses the term." Do you see? Context is everything. You need to see what comes before "stone" and what comes afterward:

the stone (a noun)
will stone (a verb)
stone deaf (an adjective)

As you can see, there is a great difference in the meanings above. Did the additional words cause the meaning of "stone" to change, or was the meaning for "stone" nebulous in your mind to begin with, when I asked you the question? Here is another illustration for different meanings of the same word:

1. His nose is running.
2. That machine is running.
3. The man is running.

Do you see how very different even the "same" word with the same part of speech (verb) can be? To be sure, there is some similarity in meaning in the examples above (viz, GENERAL MOVEMENT), but I maintain that the verb in no. 1 (RUN-l) is actually closer, in semantic space, to the meaning of FLOW than to the meanings of RUN-2 or RUN-3! The sense of RUN-2 is more closely related to another cluster of meanings (OPERATE). And, the referent of RUN-3 has more in common with MOTION OF LEGS (walking, skipping, hopping, jumping, etc.) than either RUN-1 or RUN-2. It is a fundamental assumption that meaning is always determined by the immediate context, not by preconceived definitions which are supposedly derived from carefully-constructed etymological roots.

Do we really consciously think of the history of words? Consider these examples: "good-bye" (God be with you); "Thursday" (Day of Thor, the god of thunder); "Thou," "thee," "thy," and "thine" were not special reverent terms, should not be today. These words were originally used in intimate conversations between equals, and by adults or nobility while addressing children or inferiors. When addressing nobility or people above them socially, speakers of Early Modern English often used the polite "you," and if they ever did use "thou," it could have been a sign of contempt! (C. B. Martin & C. M. Rulon, The English Language: Yesterday and Today, p. 35).

Adjacent words limit the possible meanings. When that range of possibilities becomes narrowed sufficiently, then you can know what I "meant" (i.e. what was intended to be communicated). So, meanings are really not definitions rendered by an authoritative, Webster-like individual, but typical combinatorial probabilities which native speakers "sense" are properly associated.

Ancient Meanings

Since none of us are native speakers of ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek (the original Biblical languages), we must work very hard to decipher every context within the Biblical corpus, and a few of us must go beyond the pale of the Bible to additional contexts of these languages to learn all possible secular meanings. Sometimes this is a very difficult task because: (1) There are only one, two, or three instances in all known literature; (2) There is no supporting archeological evidence, or we cannot be certain of the original cultural context, (3) The usages are separated by huge gaps of time, and the meaning may have changed from one period of time to another. So, how do we go about knowing what baptizo meant and, consequently, how should it be translated in a given instance?

First, when was the first time the word was ever used in the Golden Age of the Greek language, i.e. at the time of Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc.? Concerning the literal meaning, Pindar (born in 522 B.C.) compared himself to the cork of a fisherman's net, floating at the top of the water, i.e. it was "un-baptized" (Pythic Odes, II. 79-80). Aristotle (384 B.C.) spoke of a sand bar which was not submerged (BAPTIZED) by the tide but was overflowed during flood tide (Wonderful Reports, 136). Concerning the ritualistic meaning, although there were sacral baths among the Eleusinian mystery cults and in some Egyptian religions, this technical meaning of baptizo was rare in ancient times. However, the idea of purification was predominant even in non-Biblical contexts. Compare Mark 7:4 and Luke 11:38.

Second, we should look at every occurrence in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Translation (often called the LXX), which is an early Greek "understanding" of equivalent Hebrew terms. But you say, "What does this have to do with 'baptism'?" Remember, we are not supposed to approach any text with preconceived notions. I know that "baptism" per se is not found in the Old Testament, but valuable related contexts are! For example, do you think that the Naaman example (2 Kings 5:1-19) could be instructive? See also bapto, the root verb, in Leviticus 4:6, 11:32, Joshua 3:15; and Judges 2:14.

Third, what about intertestamental literature, e.g. the Apocrypha, the Pseudipigrapha, etc.? Cf. Judith 12:7 and Sirach 34:25. At some time prior to the first century, baptizo came to be associated with the immersion of converts (proselytes) into the Jewish faith, like an Old Testament rite of purification, but there was no thought of death and regeneration (cf. Romans 6:4-6). Polybius (born in 205 B.C.), writing about a naval battle between the Romans and the Carthaginians, described vessels which sank down into the deep until they were "baptized" (submerged), History, book 1, chap. 51, 6. The Greek historian, Strabo (born in 60 B.C.), wrote about a military campaign of Alexander the Great where his men marched for a whole day along a narrow beach "baptized" (submerged) up to the waist (Geography, book XIV. chapter 3:9).

Fourth, what are all the instances found in the New Testament? There are 4 instances of bapto (Lk. 16:24; Jn. 13:26; Rev. 19:13); 77 occurrences of the verb baptizo; 19 appearances of the noun form, baptisma (a special coined term which is not found outside the N.T.); and 4 of another noun, baptismos; and. 12 adjectival words, baptistees, a nickname for John. If we are only considering the nature of the action, i.e. immersion, the clear proof is found in a burial (Rom: 6:3,4), "being entombed together (Col. 2:12); much water was needed near Aenon (John 3:23); Jesus came "up out of" the water (Matt. 3:16); both Philip and the Ethiopian man "went down" into the water (Acts 8:38); most interpreters believe baptism was a cleansing bath cf. Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 5:26; Heb. 10:22; and, typologically, a plunging (covering) when Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:4). It is synonymous with being enclothed within Christ (Gal. 3:27).

Fifth, what about contemporary, first-century Greek writers? Josephus also called John baptistees (Antiquities 18, 116). He uses baptismos, the act of immersion (Blass, grammer, p. 62), in Antiquities 18, 5.2. Josephus also tells about a drowned boy (Antiquities 15, 3.3) who was held (ducked) under water by other boys. He spoke of Jonah's boat as about to be "baptized" (submerged), in Antiquities 9, 10.2. Plutarch (born about 50 A.D.)described heavy, crane-like, arms of siege engines falling into the sea and becoming submerged (Life of Marcellus 15). Epictetus (born about 50 A.D.) depicted the example of a sinking ("baptized") ship (Moral Discourses, Fragment XI). Both Diodonas the Sicilian (Historical Library 1:73) and Plutarch (Life of Galba, XII) used the expression "baptized (overwhelmed) with debts, taxes." cf. Jesus' similar usage in Mark 10:38. Philo spoke of being completely overwhelmed (baptized) in a state of intoxication (On a Contemplative Life).

Sixth, what about any of the Patristic writers or post-New Testament Greek authors? The Greek philospher, Plotinus (born m 205 A.D.) talked about being covered (baptized) by diseases (Ennead I. Book IV; On Happiness, sec. 9). Tertullian (De baptismo iii-v) thought that the Holy Spirit made his home in the water after the invocation of God. Clement of Alexandria explained drowsiness as like being plunged (baptized) by drunkenness into sleep (Paedag. 2:2). Porphyry (born in 233 A.D.) relates an ordeal concerning the Lake of Probation in India whereby a guilty person was immersed up to the neck (Cantabr. 1655, p. 282). Heimerius (born in 315 A.D.) describes a painting which portrayed the ancient battle of Marathon where Cynaegirus was shown grasping a Persian ship with his hands and plunging (baptizo) it into the ocean (Oration 10.2). Chrysostom (born in 347 A.D.) described King David as being overwhelmed (baptized) with ten thousand worries (Discourses, II., on Prayer). Again, writing about the sufferings of Job, he said: "Such as was Job, neither baptizomenos (overwhelmed) by poverty, nor elated by riches." (On Ps. 48:17).

Summary And Conclusions

From the hundreds of known appearances in ancient times, the ground-idea expressed by forms of baptizo is to "put into or under water (or some other penetrable substance) in such a way as to immerse or submerge. "This act is always expressed in the literal application of the word, and is the basis of its metaphorical uses. Instances were drawn from writers in almost every area of literature and science; from poets, rhetoricians, philosophers, critics, historians, geographers; from writers on animal husbandry, on medicine, on natural history, on grammar, on theology; from almost every form and style of composition; from authors of various nations and religions - pagan, Jewish, and "Christian" - over several centuries. Baptizo retained its central meaning without change from the earliest age of Greek literature for the next two thousand years! The burden of proof is upon someone else to find a single occurrence where the word has any other meaning!! So, there is NO example in any portion of all Greek literature where baptizo (or its related forms) signifies a partial application of water by effusion or sprinkling.

(NOTE: For the most exhaustive list of historical usages see T. J. Conant's THE MEANING AND USE OF BAPTIZEIN which was originally written in 1860. It is a famous, indispensable, reference tool for your personal library. Mr. Conant (1802-1891), a prominent Baptist biblical scholar and philologist, compiled this most impressive work in his battle against, translators who were playing down the true meaning of baptizo. He was a member of the American Revision Committee which edited the landmark English Revised Version of 1881, leading directly to what later came to be known as the American Standard Version (1901). He also labored on the American Bible Union (Baptist) translation which did (for a time) contain the word "immerse." You simply MUST buy a copy for yourself. It was out of print for more than 100 years, but, fortunately, has recently been reprinted by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49501).

Concerning the manner of translating baptizo properly, Conant says: "The obligation to translate this word rests on something more than grounds of philological correctness. There is, indeed, no reason of sufficient weight to justify, in any case, a departure from the simple rule of giving a faithful and intelligible rendering of the inspired word. No other rule can be recognized as right or safe. On the ground alone, were there no other, that the Greek word means "to immerse," is the translator bound so to render it...Any author, purposely mistranslated or obscured, is falsified by his translator. Just so far as this is done, the translation is a literary forgery; for it conceals while it professes to exhibit what the author has said, or it represents him as saying that which he did not say. When applied to the Word of God, the rule is one of paramount force." (p. 187).