God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: The Original Baptism

From the About page comes a question about baptism, the essence of which is the observation that the words we now translate “baptize,” “baptism,” “[John the] Baptist,” etc. were actually ordinary words in Greek, like our “wash” in English. They were not technical religious terms like the English “baptize,” and the Greek words did not mean what the modern English “baptize” does.

So perhaps instead of “baptism” we should translate “washing.”

But it’s a little more complicated than that.

Greek Baptism

The Greek word for “baptize” is baptizo.

We know from passages like Mark 7:4 that the word can mean simply “wash”: “[The Pharisees and Jews] do not eat after returning from the marketplace unless they have washed [baptizo] … [Other traditions include] the washing [baptismos] of [various eating vessels].”

We see similar evidence in Luke 11:38: “The Pharisee was amazed to see that [Jesus] didn’t wash [baptizo] before the meal.”

We also see the verb in the OT, once in II Kings 5:14, where it’s the Greek translation of the Hebrew taval (“dip” or “immerse”), and once in Isaiah 21:4, where the word seems out of context.

Equally, we find the verb baptizo in non-Biblical Greek texts — more on this below. In those contexts, too, the verb seems to be a general one.

From all of these sources, it’s clear that baptizo is a common verb, and the specialized “baptize” in English misrepresents the original Greek.

“Baptize” in English

If “baptize” in English is a misrepresentation, the obvious question is: what is the right translation?

Reasonable options are “wash,” “dip,” “rinse,” “plunge,” “clean,” etc.

But deciding among these is particularly difficult.

In this context, one of the most widely cited sources on the Internet is a recipe by the 2nd-century BC writer Nicander. Do a quick search on “baptism,” and both his name and recipe will come up immediately, with language along the lines of the following: “A clear example that shows the meaning of baptizo is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 B.C. It is a recipe for making pickles. Nicander says that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be ‘dipped’ (bapto) into boiling water and then ‘baptized’ (baptizo) in the vinegar solution.”

Then the question becomes how the (related) Greek word bapto is different than baptizo. The answer is usually that bapto is temporary while baptizo produces a permanent change.

But this approach is problematic.

First, Nicander wrote many decades before the NT was written. The meaning of the words could well have changed over that time.

Secondly, we only know about Nicander’s recipe because Athenaeus — writing hundreds of years later — quotes it in book 4 of his Deipnosophists (133D).* Athenaeus may have gotten the words wrong.

Thirdly, Nicander wrote in hexameter. For all we know, he chose bapto versus baptizo to make the meter work, or for other poetic reasons.

Finally, even ignoring the span of several hundred years, we expect words to cover a range of meanings. For example, we have an expression in English “[go for a] dip in the pool,” which means to swim. It can refer to completely immersing the body in water. Yet we do not want to conclude that “dip the chicken cutlet in the flour” necessarily means that the cutlet ends up completely submersed. (Also, “submerse” isn’t what happens with “flour.” I know.)

These four kinds of problems impact other ways we might learn the exact nuance of baptizo.

For example, the exact text of Mark 7:4 is in doubt. We don’t know for sure what taval means in II Kings. And so forth.

So even though the matter is of some theological importance, we can not definitively narrow down the meaning enough to decide unequivocally on an English verb.

Some Current Solutions

So what do common translations do?

For Mark 7:4, which represents one of the cases of ordinary washing, translations range from “wash” to “immerse” to — based on a different textual understanding — “purify.” (The NJB’s “they never eat without first sprinkling themselves,” seems particularly unfortunate to me.)

Translations generally agree on “wash” for Luke 11:38.

In Hebrews 9:10A, we find “washings” (KJV, ESV, etc.), “ritual washing(s)” (NAB, NLT), “ceremonial washings” (NIV), and “baptisms” (NRSV).

But almost every translation then uses only the specialized “baptize” for other cases of baptizo, misleading the English reader.

The Impact

Matthew 3:6 (equally, Mark 1:5) is a good example. The NRSV reads, “[people of the region] were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” Like most translations, the NRSV thus gives the reader the (wrong) impression that a specialized action, baptism, is connected to an extension of an ordinary one: confession. (This is not the modern notion of ritual confession.)

But a reader of the original Greek would understand something closer to, “they were submersed in the Jordan river as they confessed their sins.”

Or to think of it another way, the original text connects two worldly actions — washing and recognition — while the English translation “baptize” wrongly suggests one specifically religious action and only one worldly one.

Acts 22:16 similarly demonstrates. The NRSV reads, “…Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.”

Paul is connecting two worldly actions — washing [baptizo] and cleansing [apolouo] — with conversion. The English translation, again, substitutes a specifically religious action. (The verb apolouo is complicated and interesting in its own right.)

We see the same thing in Hebrews 6:2. The Greek lists four worldly things that take on heightened importance as part of Christ’s fundamental teaching: washing, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. Yet standard English translations (e.g., “baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment,” NRSV) leave the reader wrongly thinking that the first item in the list is different than the other three. Almost as wrong would be, “washing, epithesis, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.”

Summary

So the questioner on the About page is correct. The original Greek baptizo is not a technical term the way “baptize” is in English, and it’s usually a mistake to use a technical term to translate a non-technical one.

Yet as early at the Vulgate, it was recognized that there was something special about baptism.

So what do you think: Should the translation reflect the original point or later tradition?





(*)Gulick in Volume II of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Deipnosophists translates:

But they also ate as an appetizer turnips done in vinegar and mustard, as Nicander plainly shows in the second book of the Georgics; for he says:

“…the turnip roots, you cut in thin slices, gently cleaning away the undried outer skin, and after drying them in the sun a little, either dip [bapto] a quantity of them in boiling water and soak them in strong brine; or again, put equal parts of white must and vinegar in a jar together, then plunge [baptizo] the slices in it, having dried them off with salt.”

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August 24, 2010 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

28 Comments »

  1. Is there no allusion to the mikvah?

    It’s interesting that Willis Barnstone renders Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτιστής as “Yohann the Dipper” (not “John the Baptist”) and has for βαπτίζω the English “to immerse.” These translations allow for the possibility of mikvah or of now-Christian baptisms without getting too technically religious by tradition or terminology.

    Richmond Lattimore does variously translate the Greek word to show religious contexts. For the Odyssey he has this:

    “As when a man who works as a blacksmith plunges [βάπτῃ] a screaming great ax blade or plane into cold water, treating it for temper, since this is the way steel is made strong, even so Cyclops’ eye sizzled about the beam of the olive.”(9.391-394)

    For the gospel of John he has this:

    “It is the one for whom I will dip [βάψω] a crust and give it to him. So he took a crust and dipped [ἐμβάψας] it and gave it to Judas the son of Simon Iscariot.” (13.26)

    But earlier for the gospel of John he has:

    “to baptize with water” for βαπτίζειν ἐν ὕδατι (1.33).

    Comment by jkgayle | August 24, 2010 | Reply

  2. Thanks for this post. This has been no small matter of controversy through the ages.

    Of late I have come to associate the ritual act with Mikveh. There is a good write up in Wikipedia here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikveh

    Ordinary usages might have the sense of “plunged into running water” or “rinsed under running water.” Perhaps even “showered” or “rinsed off.”

    Comment by WoundedEgo | August 24, 2010 | Reply

    • I almost forgot to mention this, and it might be relevant…

      I had a Caribbean friend (when I was living in Costa Rica). He spoke a broken English, and somehow in conversation I asked if he was going to take a shower that night (I have NO idea how that came up in our conversation!) and he seemed uncomfortable with the word “shower” and he clarified… “Yes, tonight I’ll put some water on my body.”

      Maybe it is as simple as that?

      Comment by WoundedEgo | August 24, 2010 | Reply

  3. I think your “About” thing isn’t the same… where do I post a new issue? I’m curious about the word “testimony” in:

    Exodus 25:22 And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.

    Also, is he “above” or “upon” the seat? Isn’t he seated on the seat?

    And “cherubims”?

    Obviously, “ark” should be “chest” or “box”, yes?

    Thanks.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | August 24, 2010 | Reply

  4. Obviously in translation it is impossible to convey all the connotations of the original. My opinion would be that since native English speakers use the word ‘baptize’ to refer to what the Greek refers to—a ritual act of cleansing—then that is the ideal word for the translation. No contemporary Christian group I am aware of uses any other word. So I feel it is a false accuracy that would substitute another word.

    Comment by John | August 24, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks for weighing in, John.

      My opinion would be that since native English speakers use the word “baptize” to refer to what the Greek refers to — a ritual act of cleansing…

      But do they? I think that English speakers only use “baptize” in religious contexts, and, come to think of it, only in Christian religious contexts. (A Jewish mikvah isn’t a place of baptism in English.)

      But the Greek was considerably more general.

      Comment by Joel H. | August 25, 2010 | Reply

      • I don’t want to put words in John’s mouth, Joel, but perhaps what he alludes to is John the Baptist’s unique place in the history of the Christian sacrament: he comes from a long line of persons who (as you note) “do” the Greek verb in one context or another–persons who dip, or immerse, or ritually clean; and even he does not do what is now meant in English by “baptize,” for as he himself, he baptizes only with water, whereas henceforth baptism shall be with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

        So John the Baptist straddles two worlds: pre-Christian, when the Greek verb may be translated with any number of words, having more or less spirituality in connotation, depending on context; and Christian, when the Greek verb must be translated as either “baptize” or something else, depending on whether it refers to the special act that English signifies by “baptism.”

        So what can translators do with him? Saying that John is a “Baptist” who “baptizes” is a sort of compromise, but it’s really the only solution under the circs.

        Comment by Keith | August 25, 2010

  5. My own church (in Japan) has what I consider to be an unhealthy focus on baptism, as do many evangelical churches, and I think a misreading of those passages in Acts and Hebrews may to be blame. Christianese didn’t exist yet when Paul began writing his letters, and words like “baptizo” need to be translated as a first-century Greek would understand it, not according to the esoteric ritualistic meaning that 21st-century Christians have attached to it.

    In Japanese, the word “baputesuma” is used, a direct borrowing from Portuguese, which in turn was just borrowing the Greek word without explanation as English translators have done. I think Japanese has another verb (abiru) that would match the range of meanings of baptizo better than the English words you suggested.

    Comment by Paul D. | August 24, 2010 | Reply

  6. I’m a fan of using “immerse” throughout, but there are other good options I guess.

    I think “baptise” is very much a concrete thing in English – to use it metaphorically doesn’t come easy. Substituting “immerse” for “baptise” in a passage like Romans 6 leads to a very different vibe and range of interpretations. Now whether that passage is using ἐβαπτίσθημεν metaphorically or not is another question that needs careful thought, but translating it only using “baptised” does us a disservice.

    Comment by Dannii Willis | August 25, 2010 | Reply

  7. Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post, Joel.

    I think it’s very hard to say exactly when the word starts to become a technical term, and I think a case could be made that it’s already happening in the New Testament, which might suggest that the typical translation’s usage is not too far off the beam.

    Comment by Doug Chaplin | August 25, 2010 | Reply

    • I think that’s a great way of phrasing the question: When did “baptize” become a technical term?

      We see one clue from the Vulgate, which is already using baptizare. On one hand, that makes it seems like it was a technical term. On the other hand, though, we find that technical Latin term even when it doesn’t seem to make sense, as in Mark 7:4 (baptismata calicum, — “baptizing” cups). So we have to wonder if we’re seeing a reflection of culture or of mechanical translation.

      What evidence do you see that’s it’s a technical term in the NT?

      Comment by Joel H. | August 26, 2010 | Reply

      • ISTM that it is a technical term in places, but a Jewish one.

        Act 19:3
        So Paul 1 said, “Into what then were you baptized?” “Into John’s baptism,” they replied.

        Note that Paul links this word with Jesus’ death to sin:

        Rom 6:3
        Or do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

        Now, this is fascinating, because Jesus was not buried, was he? He wasn’t covered with dirt. He was laid on a bench in a cave with a rock on the door, was he not?

        So what adjustment should we make to the word “buried” if any?

        As I understand Jewish practice, Jews would place the dead in an above ground tomb until the flesh rotted away, and then place their bones in a portable receptacle (urn?).

        And what of “graves?” I mean, when Matthew records that the graves were opened by the earthquake and the zombies emerged, were they:

        * recently expired “saints” that popped out of above-ground tombs with their flesh intact ala Jesus?

        * bones that were reincarnated from ossuaries?

        * bodies in some stare(s) of decomposition that popped out of the ground?

        Comment by WoundedEgo | August 26, 2010

    • Re:
      ” that technical Latin term even when it doesn’t seem to make sense, as in Mark 7:4 (baptismata calicum, — “baptizing” cups).”

      It makes sense to an Orthodox Jew (I am not one, but I know some) — newly purchased dishware has to be mikvahed, too, at least in some sects.

      Comment by Kate Gladstone | February 5, 2011 | Reply

  8. We also have to take into account that the usage in a particular gospel might never have occured to Paul or Hebrews. People use words according to their own frame of reference.

    It’s complicated.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | August 25, 2010 | Reply

  9. Joel, a very thought provoking post. We do over-emphasize baptism.Translators of the NRSV may be a little biased in this.

    Heb. 9:10 and Matt. 3:6 – Then how far should we go in retranslating all passages with washing in place of baptism?

    Comment by Kevin Sam | August 25, 2010 | Reply

    • My citations were just examples. I think we should re-examine every case of baptizo.

      Comment by Joel H. | August 26, 2010 | Reply

  10. I have often wondered if a lot of the problems with translating the Bible come from the tremendous impact that the Bible has had on the English language. Usage changes the words that are used, and Biblical language has been so heavily used (the Bible has been such an important tool for spreading literacy, for instance) that much of its language has, I think, simply collapsed under the weight of that one book.

    With most words, if you find the word in a text and you aren’t sure what it means, you can look at usage elsewhere in the language for clues. With English words that are important in the Bible(“baptize,” “sin,” “Lord,” “God,” “Christ,” “salvation,” “Heaven,” “Hell,” “soul,” etc.) you can’t do that because occurrence in the text simply outweighs all other usage.

    If the Greek “baptizo” had been translated as “submerse” from the beginning–or if it were adopted now and became the accepted standard for a few centuries–wouldn’t “submerse” come to have the same technical meaning that “baptize” does today? “Submerse” would start out as a faithful and accurate translation, but after a while it will become incorrect usage for anyone to talk of submersing pickles, just as today it would be incorrect to talk of baptizing them. The technical meaning of the _act_ of baptism is so ingrained in our culture that when _any_ word is wedded to that act, the act will subsume the entire meaning of the word long before the word has had a chance to shed any light on the act.

    Words wriggle and escape when you try to pin them down. We see this happen in other areas too–anywhere that there is interplay between common usage and technical jargon. Look at how “cretin” became “mentally retarded” became “developmentally delayed,” each term abandoned by clinicians as it came into common use as a playground insult. It poses a real problem for anyone trying to rely on Scripture as a source of religious Truth.

    Comment by Peter Bishop | September 2, 2010 | Reply

    • Interesting point Peter. The process you describe is probably what happened to baptizo in Greek. But even if that did happen to “submerse”, at least it would still be an English word and would have a non-religious history, which is not the case for a transliterated word.

      Comment by Dannii | September 2, 2010 | Reply

    • Your point makes sense to me, Peter.

      According to http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=submerge, “submerge” dates from about the time of the KJV (not the first English version, I know, but it’s an amusing coincidence), and was built from Latin parts, so that, in one sense, it was simply “transliterated,” like baptize.

      The thing is, vocabularies seldom have one-to-one correspondences. “Baptize” has one technical use and few others, whereas the Greek word is generic, with many uses. What is a translator to do, but to use “wash” or “plunge” most of the time, and the technical term when the plunge results in a manifestation of the Holy Spirit? Surely, the original Greek authors were themselves conscious that the plunge of baptism was not, spiritually speaking, like other plunges; if they used the same word for it, it argues a poverty of vocabulary in Greek, not an error in the English translation.

      Comment by Keith | September 3, 2010 | Reply

  11. As a site note, isn’t it true that the Geneva Bible used ‘washing’ for ‘baptizein’?

    Comment by John | September 3, 2010 | Reply

  12. […] over at God Didn’t Say That Peter Bishop made an insightful comment: If the Greek “baptizo” had been translated as “submerse” from the beginning–or if it […]

    Pingback by In which the jargon takes over « Better Bibles Blog | September 16, 2010 | Reply

  13. Thanks for the interesting post. I would like to question your assertion that the use of baptizo in Mark 7 and Luke 11 simply mean “wash”. The meaning, even in these examples is substantially different the English “wash”. In English “to wash” is an act done to remove dirt from the body, often for health reasons.

    My understanding is that these NT examples are the same physical action as we understand in English (to combine something with water in some way), but that there is, also an element of religious and social change which has happened in the washing. Religious – because the item will be declared “clean/holy” or “fit for a certain purpose” once washed/baptised, and social, because other people would see it as such and would therefore agree that the person or item was now “clean” in the religious sense.

    So I don’t see such a big distinction between the meanings of baptise (as in John’s baptism) or “baptising” cups etc in Mark 7. What happens when we are baptised, we are declared “clean” (in the religous sense).

    I think it makes much more sense to use an English word like “wash” or “cleanse” instead of baptise, in all or most instances in the NT. Doesn’t that make much more sense of Mark 1:8 “I have washed you with water, but he will wash you with the Holy Spirit” ?

    Comment by Donna | September 24, 2010 | Reply

  14. Since raising this discussion, I have spent some time pondering the issue (or rather, pondering the text about the issue) and have a new perspective. I commented on this on another list:

    http://michaelsheiser.com/TheNakedBible/2009/09/the-biblical-teaching-on-baptism-part-1/#comment-3140

    The Cliff Notes version of the above is that different writers used it for different purposes, so it really isn’t a single “thing” at all.

    I hope you’ll read it and agree.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | September 24, 2010 | Reply

  15. […] Q&A: The Original Baptism […]

    Pingback by The Year in Review « God Didn't Say That | December 31, 2010 | Reply

  16. Found this interesting. Caused me to ask if my theology of baptism is based on scriptural teaching re it’s meaning or trying to make a non technical word say more than it says

    Comment by Bob Orr | August 29, 2012 | Reply

  17. If Baptizo, or the variations thereof used in scripture, do not mean to “submerge” “plunge” or in some way completely immerse in water (whch is the element one is to be immersed into according to scripture Acts 10:47-48) if Baptizo does not mean this, then WHY STOP THE CHARIOT? read Acts 8:26-39.

    if Sprinkling was sufficient, why stop the chariot?
    if Pouring a small amount was sufficient, why stop the chariot?
    if Prayer was sufficient, why stop the chariot?

    notice that as they traveled, while learning about Jesus, the Eunich saw water and asked about baptism. this forces us to conclude that water and baptism are inseperable. and notice Phillips response, he did NOT say, “what do you mean water? you dont need water, just say a prayer like this…”; he did NOT say “you dont need to go down into that water we can just use this drinking water you have and that will suffice, or take this jug of water and pour it over you and you will be saved”

    you see, the bible uses plain speech that anyone that understands how to read can understand. never did God require a college degree or some doctor to understand it.
    he wrote to the simple and the wise can learn from that, but if he had wrote to the “wise” the simple would never learn.

    so instead of spreading doubt and intentionally mudding the water, why not use your intelect to help people come to a better understanding of the simple truths of Scripture.

    Comment by Concerned Christian | October 11, 2014 | Reply

  18. Pardon me if I missed
    This but when I read
    Colossians 2:12 it mentions ” buried”.
    If we’ve been planted in the likeness of his death. Seems to fit together as beneath.

    Comment by David | August 9, 2016 | Reply


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