Does baptizo Always Mean Immersion?

Below are excerpts from “The Reformed Doctrine of Baptism and New Testament Practice” by Dr. Ligon Duncan, Senior Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi. This is in connection to the sermon and Sunday school yesterday. (You can read the whole article here: .)

First of all, the Baptist argues that baptism ought to be by immersion because the meaning of the Greek word for baptize is to immerse. So the argument is to baptize is exactly synonymous with the word, “to immerse.” And therefore, for a Presbyterian to come along and say, well we are going to baptize by sprinkling, is to say, from the Baptist perspective, okay, you are going to immerse by sprinkling. And that makes no sense to the Baptist. If the word baptize means to immerse, then that is the way that it is supposed to be done. And so every reference then to baptism in the New Testament, from the Baptist perspective, is a compounding argument for baptism by immersion. So the argument is that when the Lord said, “Go ye therefore and baptize,” what He meant was “Go ye therefore and immerse.” So the mode was significant and was specified by the usage of the very word, and in popular circles, this argument that baptism means immerse will often be carried out this way. Well, just pick up your Arndt-Gingrich Greek Lexicon and see what the first meaning of baptism is. It is immerse.

But there is an awareness that there are multiple uses of the Greek words, bapto, and baptizo, which are the most common verbal forms of the command to baptize. But the argument is that even in the context of the New Testament, the preferable understanding of those words ought to be to immerse, both contextually and lexically. So what I want to give to you is the skeleton of the argument, which will then enable you I hope to engage more constructively as you discuss.

Now as the New Testament undoubtedly uses the word baptism in reference to many or all of these ritual washings, it appears clear that baptizo cannot mean only immerse when applied to such rituals. Rather, it refers to washing in general, which always involves the idea of removal of disqualification, bringing a person or a thing into a new relationship. The quantity and manner of the water in its application is not prominent. Although in the promise of cleansing in Ezekiel 36:25, the clean water is explicitly referred to as sprinkled.

So baptizo in the Old Testament has the idea of application of a cleansing agent with a view to removing that which disqualifies us from acceptance with God. The mode of applying the cleansing agent varies in each of these baptisms. But the predominant mode is sprinkling or pouring.

Now in further considering the Old Testament background of Christian baptism, we need to look at the word baptizo with regard to how it was used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX).

The standard lexicons recognize that baptizo is an intensive and frequentative form of bapto, the word which means to dip. And so apparently the earliest meaning in the Greek language of bapto is dipping. And from that root, the word came to be used in many connections. It was used when people talked about dying cloth, the materials being immersed in the dye. It was used of tempering iron, since the metal was plunged into the water.

And there are only two places in the Greek translation of the Old Testament where baptizo is used. The first is in Isaiah 21 and the second is in II Kings 5:14. In the first it has to do with Isaiah’s vision of the fall of Babylon, in which he said in Isaiah 21:4, my heart pants and fearfulness baptizes me, or overwhelms me, or horrifies me. It is used in a figurative sense. The second reference is in II Kings 5:14 and it is a description of Naaman’s washing in the Jordan. The common English versions, of course, indicate that he dipped himself seven times and the flesh was restored. The Hebrew uses the word, tabal, which had the idea of dipping though it does not always express mode, and it does not mean total submersion. But the Greek translation uses baptizo.

As we move into the New Testament, looking at passages connected with purification, Hebrews 9 is important. The writer is contrasting water purification and the putting away of sin accomplished by Christ with the Mosaic regulations. Again, at the marriage feast of Cana, there were six stone water pots, each able to hold about 25 gallons. And these were used, John tells us in John 2:6, for Jewish purification rites. There was a ritual of washing your hands before you entered in, before eating, and that ritual purification was done by pouring a quantity of water over the cupped hands and then bringing the water into contact with the surface of the entirety of the hands.

In Mark 7:2ff, we have the incident where the Pharisees are pressing for the disciples’ compliance with that kind of purification, especially in verses 3 and 4. And there is archeological evidence in the first century that Jews in Palestine practicing ceremonial washings in cisterns.

Josephus, the Jewish writer of the first century is useful, because he uses the word fifteen times in his writings. He uses it once to refer to plunging a sword into an enemy, ten times of sinking or drowning, twice in destruction of cities in war, once in intoxication, and once in reference to the purification rituals of Numbers, especially Numbers 19. And these are consistent with the uses of baptizo by the pre-Christian classical writers. He says this of these writers: “These use baptizo, baptize, to describe the sinking of a ship, the drawing or water or wine by dipping one vessel into another, of bathing, in a metaphorical sense of a person being overwhelmed by questions or doubt, in addition to the more general usage of dipping or dying in any matter.” It is in­teresting that in this latter usage, this verb soon ceases to be expressive of mode.

So, the evidence that we have reviewed as we have looked at scriptural and extra-scriptural usages of baptizo, prior and contemporary to the writing of the New Testament, indicates this: baptizo was used for a literal washing with a view to ritual cleansing. It is a washing which brings a change or which represents a change. And in that context, or in a religious context, that means a ritual purification which removes disqualification in the sight of God.

It is interesting to note that the Latin Vulgate, completed by Jerome in the late fourth century – early fifth century translates baptizo by the Latin term, mergo, this being the Latin for immerse or submerge or dip. And our English translators, by transliterating baptizo as “baptize” instead of trying to render it in a strictly English term referring to mode, may have been wiser than anyone else, because they have kept the attention from being on the mode itself. It remains to determine whether baptizo in reference to religious ritual necessarily carries the idea of a literal immersion. But the examples, texturally from looking at the Old Testament, the New Testament, and extra biblical literature, make it clear that you cannot linguistically preclude all reference to non-immersion forms of this washing. So the argumentation that the language of baptizo settles the case just doesn’t do justice to the realities there in the literature, either in the scriptural literature or in the extra-scriptural litera­ture.

Yesterday, I cited the first three passages below as examples of how strange it will be if baptizo was translated as the verb “to immerse.” There are a few other examples below:

Mark 10:38

Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

1 Corinthians 10:1-2

our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea

1 Peter 3:20-21

… in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this…

Mark 1:8

I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 7:4

and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.)

Luke 11:38

The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner.