Barry Newman's Blog

September 2, 2009

Biblical Baptism (part II)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 12:44 am

“To baptise” and “baptism” in the New Testament

Understanding the verb, “to baptise” and the noun, “baptism” as used in the New Testament is not a simple matter.  It is not only that in English we have simply transliterated the Greek words, without translating them, the same happened in ancient times in the Latin language. The so-called Jerome’s Bible, the Latin Vulgate of the early 5th century exhibits a similar feature. It has the word “baptizo”, for the verb, rather than one of the ordinary Latin words, “immergo” or “summergo” and uses the word, “baptisma” for the noun.  For centuries, the Latin Vulgate was the dominant translation in the Western world and undoubtedly has had a profound influence on theological understanding.

In the New Testament, the verb, which occurs about 75 times, is used both literally and metaphorically. When used literally it almost always refers to a ceremonial baptism. This is its dominant usage. John the Baptiser, the disciples of Jesus during his ministry (John 4: 1, 2) and the apostles and others, after the ascension of Jesus, baptised people. (While John is known as John the Baptist, the Greek word that is used of him, “baptistes”, describes him as one who does a lot of immersing. That is why he can be referred to as John the Baptiser.) The verb is also used twice to refer to washing procedures which were not baptismal (Mark 7: 4, Luke 11: 38).  In Mark the reference is to “the Pharisees and all the Jews” when coming from the market place, “washing” themselves before they ate.  In Luke, reference is made to a Pharisee that is surprised because Jesus “did not wash” before coming to a dinner to which the Pharisee had invited him. This comment may suggest that before a formal meal, such a washing was the normal undertaking.  In both cases it is seems likely that the washing was of a formal kind.  Furthermore, given the overriding sense of “baptizw”, the washing procedure may well have involved a full immersion. 

The verb is used metaphorically when Jesus speaks of himself and his disciples being immersed in suffering (Mark 10: 38, 39), when John the Baptiser refers to Jesus immersing people with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matt. 3: 11) and when Paul writes of preachers like himself being overwhelmed in suffering (1 Cor. 15: 29). Traditionally this last passage has been thought to refer to a literal water baptism and its meaning and relevance difficult to comprehend. The problem is solved once it is recognised that “baptizo” can have a metaphorical usage. The text, which is in the context of the subject of resurrection and Paul’s suffering for the Gospel, can be understood as follows, “What is the point of people being overwhelmed, suffering so much, for the sake of those who have mortality written into them, if in the end they simply die, that is, if there is no resurrection?”

In the first century, an ordinary Greek speaking person perusing the New Testament documents for the first time would not have been surprised to find the verb being used both literally and metaphorically. However, he may well have been surprised to discover that its predominant usage was with respect to a water ceremony, although “ceremony” is probably too grandiose a word.

What applies to the verb “baptizo” almost certainly applies to the noun “baptisma”. The noun is only found in Greek literature twice outside of the New Testament by New Testament times and one of its usages appears to relate to John the Baptiser. It occurs about 20 times in the New Testament and almost always in association either directly or indirectly with the verb, “baptizo”. There is another noun, “baptismos”, but it occurs only three or four times in the New Testament and is not known outside of the New Testament prior to New Testament times. It may be that it means “a thorough wash”.

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