Barry Newman's Blog

September 18, 2011

Baptised on behalf of the Dead (part III)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 11:12 pm

The Usage of “Baptizo” in the ancient Greek speaking World

A detailed analysis was carried out on the usage of “baptizo” outside of the New Testament by examining all known instances prior to 1st century BC and all known instances between 1st century BC and 1st century AD (that is over about 200 years).  There were 99 occurrences in all. An examination of the parts of speech involved revealed no significant difference between usage prior to 1st century BC and usage between 1st century BC and 1st century AD.  The contexts in which “baptizo” occurred were not all that dissimilar for the two periods and the underlying meaning appeared to be the same.[1]  The most common context was that of men drowning and ships sinking in a watery medium.  There was however a number of other entities immersed or submerged in a fluid medium which medium was almost always, but not exclusively, water.  Examples of these entities are: pieces of turnip, part of a fishing spear, seaweed, a bird’s nest, a javelin and military equipment. Something like, “immersion” or “submersion” seems to be the underlying idea in these instances.

Of special note is that of the 99 cases only one or two seemed to refer to a religious rite.  One instance involved purification from a dead body and the other involved a woman who may have been purifying herself.

Of importance for the present discussion however is the recognition that, in a significant number of instances, the immersion or envelopment was not in a literal fluid medium.  The usage involved could be described as somewhat abstract in character rather than simply physical. The 99 instances were consequently analysed to determine the extent to which abstract usage occurred. The categorisation utilised, recognised one type of physical usage and three different types of abstraction. Table 1 gives the percentages for  a literal physical usage (LP), an abstract usage involving a reference to a fluid medium by way of simile or metaphor (AFM), an abstract metaphorical usage involving alcoholic stupor (AAS) and an abstract metaphorical usage with no allusion to a fluid medium (AM-F).  Total abstract usage (A) was also determined.  The analysis considered the periods “Prior to 1st century BC” and “1st century BC to 1st century AD” separately and together.


Time Period













Prior to

1st century BC













1st century BC to

1st century AD


























Table 1

Types of usage of “baptizo” for the time periods “Prior to 1st century BC” and “1st century BC to 1st century AD”

The percentage distribution between the various categories was somewhat similar for the two periods involved.[2]  Overall an abstract usage is evident in 30% of all instances, with that percentage being somewhat higher for the period “1st century BC to 1st century AD” compared to the period “Prior to 1st century BC”.  Examples of an abstract usage involving a reference to a fluid medium by way of simile or metaphor are: being overcome with difficulties likened to being cast into a bog, people being swamped by affairs should struggle to find a safe haven, and disastrous matters can swamp a person like a ship capsizing. The main idea that seemed to be behind those abstract metaphorical usages involving alcoholic stupor was that the person or person were being befuddled by, that is, “drowning in?” or “being swamped by?” their drink.  Examples of an abstract metaphorical usage with no allusion to a fluid medium are, being overwhelmed in verbal engagements, enveloped by (“immersed in”) iniquity, robber barons causing a city to be overwhelmed (“sunk”?), people being overwhelmed by (“drowning in”?) excessive taxes,  the mind being enveloped by (“submerged in”) disasters, and being engulfed in debt.

Where, in the cases of a literal physical usage of “baptizo”, a suitable translation could often involve, “immerse” or “submerge” (resulting in some cases in drowning or sinking), in those instances where an abstract usage by way of simile or metaphor was involved, a word, something like, “overwhelm”, “engulf” or “envelop” might often be considered more suitable.  However even in these latter cases, “immerse” or “submerge” might still be thought adequate in some instances. It is then not a little intriguing that with respect to the New Testament, English translations, in general, persist with the word, “baptise”, wherever “baptizo” is found – a transliteration, even when a clear metaphorical usage is involved – as in the reference to the sufferings of Jesus “engulfing” him or as in the reference to the promised “envelopment” by the Holy Spirit.  But well before English translations, the writers of the Latin Vulgate had decided to do much the same. They universally used a coined word, “baptiso” rather than, “immergo”, “summergo” or other possibilities in their rendering of the text – another example of transliteration rather than translation.

Keeping in mind the not uncommon abstract usage of “baptizo” in the ancient Greek speaking world, attention is now focussed on the 1 Corinthian 15: 29 text.[3] There are other texts of the New Testament that should also be examined afresh but this is the only one under present consideration.

 [1] One might expect that over the long period of time studied there might have been some changes as to the use of the word.  There may well have been but no trends were evident. Perhaps the relatively small number of instances and the even smaller number of authors involved makes such detection difficult.

[2] The similarity in percentage distributions of instances within the categories for the two time periods involved, as with other observations, provides no evidence suggesting that over that time period, the word, “baptizo” underwent significant changes in usage.

[3] Garland, A.E. in his commentary, 1 Corinthians, (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2003), discusses three possible ways of understanding this text (pp. 716-719), all of which appeal to a literal water baptism.  Later, in several notes (p. 723) he refers to a number of further possibilities but considers them to be less plausible than those he outlined earlier.  In a preamble to these notes he refers to the “tweaking (of) the meaning of the verb ‘baptize’” as one aspect of other explanatory attempts.

In his note 1, in outlining some other positions he writes, “The term ‘baptism’ is explained as a metaphorical reference to martyrdom.  It refers to a baptism in blood or being drowned in suffering … rather than water baptism.”  In this same note he cites White, J.R. (“Baptized on Account of the dead: The Meaning of 1 Corinthians 15: 29 in Its Context”, Journal of Biblical Literature, 116, 1997, pp. 487-499) and Murphy-O’Connor, J. (“Baptized for the Dead” (1 Cor. xv, 29), A Corinthian Slogan”, Revue biblique, 88, 1981, pp. 532-543).  White believes that the baptism is literal water baptism but that the sufferings of Paul are being alluded to metaphorically in his reference to “the dead”.  His understanding of the text is, “Otherwise what will they do who are being baptized on account of the dead (that is the dead; figuratively speaking; that is, the apostles)?  For if truly dead persons are not raised at all why at all are people being baptized on account of them (that is, the apostles)?” White, rightly so, recognises that the notion of suffering in verse 29 links that verse with what Paul writes in vv. 30-32.  On the other hand Murphy-O’Connor believes that both “being baptised” and “the dead” are metaphorical, understanding the baptism to refer to being destroyed and the dead to be an allusion to “those who for the spirituals … were not worth bothering about”.  His rendering of the text is, “What will they do who are being destroyed [i.e., the apostles] on account of (the resurrection of) the dead?”.  Contrary to Murphy-O’Connor, it should be noted that in ancient Greek,  “baptizowhile sometimes referring to people drowning, in itself does not have the sense of “destroy”. The sense is “immerse”, “engulf” or even metaphorically “overwhelm” etc.

Garland’s reference to “tweaking” is perhaps a reflection of a lack of understanding of the extent to which “baptizo” is used metaphorically in the ancient Greek speaking world and so perhaps for that reason he fails to see much value in considering “baptizo” in a metaphorical light!

It should be noted that he discusses vv. 30-32 (pp. 719-722) as though they were somewhat isolated from v. 29.


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