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.
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.
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.”
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.”