Barry Newman's Blog

March 7, 2012

Baptising in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (part XXI)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 11:11 pm

Baptizo” – meaning in Matthew 28: 19?

Approaching nearer to our goal, this section refers to three nouns related to the verb, “baptizo” and the verb itself as they are found outside of the New Testament and as they are found in Matthew’s Gospel in particular.

The word “baptises” is found only once outside of the New Testament before approximately the beginning of the 2nd century A.D.  It is the term that Josephus uses of John the “Baptist”.  He describes him as the “immerser”! The New Testament uses the same term.  In Matthew’s Gospel it is found seven times (3: 1; 11: 11, 12; 14: 2, 8; 16: 14; 17: 13) and in the New Testament as a whole, 12 times, on each occasion it also refers to this same John.  He is the “baptises”, the “baptiser” – the “immerser” in water.  “Baptistes” is of course derived from “baptizo”.

The noun “baptisma” is found only twice outside of the New Testament before about the beginning of the 2nd century A.D.  In one instance it is used by Plutarch as one item in a list of what he refers to as “superstitions”. In the other it is used by Josephus to relate to the baptisms carried out by John the baptiser. It is also derived from “baptizo”. In Matthew’s Gospel it is found twice (3: 7; 21: 25).  Both instances refer to John’s baptism – the immersion that he carried out.  It is found a total of 20 times in the New Testament. Of these 20 instances, 13 are clearly references to the baptisms carried out by John the baptiser. Three refer to the sufferings of Jesus at his death. The other four are to be found in Romans 6: 4, Ephesians 4: 5, Colossians 2: 12 and 1 Peter 3: 21.

The third noun derived from “baptizo” is “baptismos”.  It occurs three times in the New Testament (Mark 7: 4, Hebrews 6: 2, 9: 10), and it is not found outside of the New Testament at least up to about the beginning of the 2ndcentury.  All three references relate to “immersions” which are associated with ritual washings. Mark 7: 3, 4 amounts to an editorial comment on such procedures carried out by “the Pharisees and all Jews” on themselves and for certain utensils.

The word “baptizo”, the verb, is found about 100 times outside of the New Testament before approximately the beginning of the 2nd century A.D.  Except for one or two occasions it is simply used without any reference to a regular rite with the sense of “immersing”, “engulfing” or something similar. About one third of the time its usage is metaphorical or abstract in some sense rather than literal. See later. The word occurs 7 times in Matthew’s Gospel (3: 6, 7, 11, 13, 14 and 16; 28: 29) and 76 times in the New Testament as a whole.  Twice the reference is to ritual washings (Mark 7: 4 [see above], Luke 11: 38) presumably involving “immersions” –  see below. One could note that verses 2 and 3 prior to Mark 7: 4 employ the verb, “nipto” – a word used when a part of the body is washed.  In this case the reference is to “hands” being unwashed in v. 2 and washed in v. 3.

A few more comments about “baptizo” as it is found in the Greek literature external to the New Testament: I have maintained that basically “baptizo” carries with it the sense of “immersion”.  Even where the entity immersed later emerges from the medium into which it was immersed, the focus of “baptizo” is not even partly on that emergence but on the immersion itslef.

This does not mean however that “immerse” or even something similar is always a suitable translation.  Up until at least the beginning of the 2nd century A.D. when a person dies by immersion in water, that is, drowns, the verb “baptizo” is sufficient in itself to indicate this.  No other verb is appealed to.  Hence the translation “drown” would seem to be appropriate.  The same situation occurs when a ship is sunk.  The verb “baptizo” is sufficient to indicate that the ship has “gone down” and the translation, “sink” would seem to be appropriate.  The words “drown” and sink” carry with them the notion of immersion.

On the other hand, sometimes the “immersion” is carried out with a view to washing, but, simply to refer to “wash” in a translation would be to neglect that “immersion” was involved, rather than, for example, a simple dipping or superficial washing.  “Wash” may imply “immerse” but it may not. There are only about four examples from the 100 or so available up until about the beginning of the 2nd century where “baptizo” is associated with washing.  In each case however, it seems plausible to assume that “baptizo” is used to indicate that the “washing” involved a (thorough) immersion.  The example of  IV Kings 5: 14 in the LXX is interesting.  Here Naaman immerses himself seven times in the river Jordan.  However in the preceding verses 10, 12 and 13, the word, “louo” (wash) is referred to.  He washes by immersing himself.

Where “baptizo” is used metaphorically, “immerse” may be a suitable translation, understood metaphorically, but other words also come to kind.  A person who is understood to be “immersed” in many words, may be almost overcome by them being confused by them.  Being “immersed” in iniquity is somehow being overwhelmed by it. Someone who is considered to be “immersed” in debt is engulfed in debt being thoroughly surrounded by debt.  One who is intoxicated by the drinking of too much wine, being now “immersed” as a result, is typically “drowning” in drink.  A person who is “immersed” in sorrow is hardly able to survive the sorrow, being almost overwhelmed by it.

Focussing on Matthew’s Gospel alone and putting aside 28: 19 for the moment, all usages of “baptizo” except where it occurs in 3: 11 refer to the activity of John.  He “baptized”, he “immersed” in water.  And all of these instances are found together in the one chapter – chapter 3.  The exception for this chapter is the reference by John to the one who would come after him, “baptising”, “immersing” in (en) the Holy Spirit and fire (3: 11).   “Baptizo”, in this instance, is used metaphorically.  A metaphorical usage is to be found in the other Gospels, not only with respect to the same matter (Mark 1: 8; Luke 3: 16; John 1: 33) but also in the way that Jesus speaks about his suffering (Mark 10: 38, 39; Luke 12: 50)[1].

What then of Matthew 28: 19?  Considering Matthew’s Gospel alone, we are presented with three situations in which “baptizo” is used: John’s activity, “immersing” in a literal sense; the activity of Jesus, “immersing” in the Holy Spirit and fire, – a metaphorical usage; the activity to be carried out by the disciples of Jesus as referred to in Matthew 28: 19.  How is this last usage to be understood?  Given that Matthew has one situation where a literal usage is evident and another where a metaphorical usage is evident, one cannot rule out on the basis of internal reference alone, that the usage is metaphorical or that it is literal.


[1] Schnabel, ibid.,  as well as arguing for “baptizo having the general sense of “immersion” recognises that it may have a metaphorical sense in the New Testament more commonly than normally thought.  Additionally he comments on the use of “baptizo” for Jewish immersion rites and refers to the nouns, “baptismos” and “baptisma” in so doing. On the basis of the paucity of evidence available, it is very difficult to say very much at all about “baptizo” and its association with Jewish immersion rites during the New Testament period.

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