Barry Newman's Blog

September 1, 2009

Biblical Baptism (part I)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 5:41 am

Here is the second in my series of three papers. See introduction here.

Biblical Baptism
I was christened, rather than baptised, from my parents’ point of view, in an Anglican church when 3 months old.  At the time neither of my parents were genuine followers of the Lord Jesus.  I began to recognise who he is when a young boy. As a teenager I sometimes attended a Baptist church, witnessed people my own age being baptised by immersion in a pool and wondered if I needed to be baptised by this method.  Later, in my twenties, I attended a Church of Christ church in the United States for about a year and recognised the considerable importance that particular church placed on being baptised as an adult by immersion.  I wondered if, upon returning to Australia, I should be baptised by immersion, so that there would never be a problem about whether or not I had been baptised properly.

Baptism – the Reformers and the Early Fathers
During the reformation period, the nature and importance of baptism was often the subject of very serious debate. Some people, who wished to be baptised as adults, having been baptised as infants, were drowned by those who thought that a second baptism was a heinous crime.  One idea which prevailed at the time was that in order to become members of what was conceived as the Church children needed to be baptised as soon as practicable.  Interestingly, in the early prayer books of the English church children had to be immersed unless they were ill.

In our search for the truth about baptism, it will not help us very much to consider what the Early Fathers, those who wrote in the early centuries after the New Testament, thought about baptism.  They made assertions, often without much reference to the Bible, about who could baptise people and how baptisms should be conducted and they debated about whether people could be baptised a second time.  The Bible itself must be allowed to tell us the truth about baptism without our simply believing what the Early Fathers claimed.

The New Testament and Baptism
What is Biblical baptism?  What does the Bible have to say about it? Or more precisely, what do we find in the New Testament about baptism given that the Old Testament is not concerned with the matter?  To answer that question we will first need to examine how the Greek words that lie behind our English words “to baptise” and “baptism” were used in the ordinary world, the world outside of the New Testament.  Indeed our main concern will be with the verb, “to baptise” since the main noun is very rarely found prior to or during the first century.

“To baptise” and” baptism” in Greek Literature
In English we have not translated the Greek word, we have transliterated it.  That is, we have created an English word that sounds like the Greek word.   The Greek verb is “baptizw” (baptizw), translated “I baptise”.  In Greek literature it is an ordinary word, having no technical significance.  There seems to be some type of intensity about it – the circumstances being dramatic, serious, demanding or by nature complete or thorough. It has the general sense of “immerse” or “engulf” and often refers to the sinking of ships or the drowning of humans.  The immersion often takes place in water but it can be mud, fire or other substances.  Sometimes the item, for example, a person or a spear, is only partially immersed. Sometimes the verb is used metaphorically or abstractly, having a meaning such as, “overwhelmed.”  Intoxicated people can be immersed, drowning in their drink as it were. A person can be overwhelmed with grief, verbal argument or debt.  The intensity of the word needs to be kept in mind when attempting to understand any text in which the word occurs.



  1. A good article, Barry. It is interesting how, when translators transliterate some words those words are far more likely to take on a meaning never intended by the author.

    And yet, translators are not consistent when the translation ‘baptise’ doesn’t make sense. For example, Isaiah 21:4; LXX is translated ‘lawlessness overwhelms me’; but the transliteration would be ‘lawlessness baptises me’

    Looking forward to further posts!

    Comment by Philip Griffin — September 2, 2009 @ 6:00 am | Reply

    • Philip, Thanks for the comment. The only other ocurrence of the verb in the O. T. part of the LXX is when Naaman “dunks” himself in the river Jordan 7 times (2 Kings 5: 14) – that’s no ceremonial water baptism either. (Besides, he “dunks” hilmself and is not “dunked” by another)! There are two additional occurrences in the LXX and one is ceremonial and the other may be but again they are not ceremonial water baptisms in the N.T. sense.

      Comment by barrynewman — September 2, 2009 @ 8:31 am | Reply

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