Barry Newman's Blog

January 19, 2010

Biblical Baptism Revisited (part II)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 10:10 am

“Baptizo” in the New Testament – Metaphorical Usage

It would seem that a Greek speaker reading the New Testament would be astonished at “baptizo” being predominantly used in association with a ceremony, that of water baptism.  However, he or she would not be astonished if they thought it was used in other ways independently of that ceremony, either in a literal or metaphorical sense.  The perceived difficulty of the 1 Corinthians 15: 29 text with its reference to “being baptised on behalf of the dead” – as commonly translated, disappears when one recognises the metaphorical usage of “baptizo.”  The text could then be translated, “being overwhelmed for the sake of[1] the dead”, recognising at the same time that for Paul use of the words, “the dead” could be a way of referring to the living who have immortality written into their existence.  Such an understanding fits well with the rest of the passage where Paul refers to his suffering as a preacher.  As part of his argument that there is a resurrection of the dead, Paul in effect is saying, “Why would one suffer so much for proclaiming the gospel to ‘the dead’ if in the end ‘the dead’ simply die and there is no resurrection?”  Paul does not have to say, “I am about to use “baptizo” metaphorically.” He is simply using “baptizo” as an ordinary word and in a not uncommon manner. 

One of our problems in our reading of English translations of the New Testament is that the Greek words “baptizo” and “baptisma” are not translated.  They are simply transliterated.[2]  As a consequence and because we so commonly associate “baptise” and “baptism” with a water ceremony, we are pressured into seeing that ceremony almost at every occurrence of the words “baptise” and “baptism”.  And yet it is clear that Jesus himself uses the words metaphorically when he refers to his death and his suffering (e.g. Mark 10: 38, 39) and that John the baptiser uses the verb metaphorically when referring to “being immersed in the Spirit” (e.g. Matthew 3: 11).  I have previously argued while appealing to Robinson and Knox that Paul uses the words metaphorically when referring to “being immersed in Christ Jesus” and “being immersed in the death of Jesus” (Romans 6: 3) and in other places in his letters.


[1] Two of the possible translations for the Greek preposition “huper” are “on behalf of” and “for the sake of”.

[2] Translations in a number of languages other than English, including the ancient Latin Vulgate, suffer from the same type of problem.

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2 Comments »

  1. Hi Barry, Thanks for posting your thoughts. I have had a great difficulty in trying to express the problem created by the assumptive meaning of baptism in the New Testament. I am still trying to validate this in a scriptural manner. I have been told that I am the only one who sees this in this way and I have no diplomas to give authority to my thinking. At the least I now know I am not alone. Thanks again, Hermann

    Comment by Hermann — January 29, 2010 @ 10:32 pm | Reply

    • Hi Hermann, I think things are beginning to change. I have had very positive comments from a number of people with and without academic backgrounds, and some of them are from the older generation, which initially surprised me. In all fairness to those who see a water ceremony almost whenever they see a text with the word, “baptise” or “baptism”, (i)they are immersed in a tradition which historically and currently holds to a high view of a ceremonies (even though historically there is no single clear linkage between the developments in thought that occurred and no single position held universally possibly at any time from the third century or earlier), (ii) they have the difficulty of recognising that they are dealing with a transliteration not a translation (the same problem occurs in a number of languages including the ancient and very influential Latin Vulgate)and (iii) they have not been helped by the paucity of studies on how the Greek words were used at the time of the N.T. Besides as we all know, it is always difficult to admit that we may have understood something incorrectly, particulalry when we have held a view for a long period of time and have made our view public. For me, it was basically the nature of the gospel which made me seriously question my understanding of these ceremonies and their grounding or otherwise in Scripture. The grace of God as revealed in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, as Paul wrote about it to the Gentile world, does not seem to give the importance to ceremonies that we tend to. It was as though I once believed the earth to be flat, then it became apparent that there was some very persuasuve evidence that the earth was round and that there was a good underlying principle which suggested exactly this!

      Comment by barrynewman — February 6, 2010 @ 8:40 am | Reply


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