Written January/February 2007. Some links broken. Comments added at the end of the post.

It’s always a pleasure discussing something with Aaron from his corner of the internet – he is a gracious conversation partner and willing to consider the other side. In a recent post of his I thought he had proved me wrong when I made an over-confident statement in the comment section of his post on baptism. However, while my statement was over-confident, I’m not sure Aaron’s answer proves everything he says it does.

The statement I made was this: “…anywhere in the Bible (OT and NT) where anything called baptism is actually described, it involves either pouring or sprinkling.” In reply to this, Aaron pointed to the Septuagint (LXX – the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, including the Apocrypha) account of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:14 (see Aaron’s post for the LXX reference) where the Hebrew word tabal (to dip, to immerse) is translated baptizo. Now, strictly speaking, this is not a description of baptism, but I think it a fair example of where something referred to as “baptism” in Scripture could involve immersion. I had not considered this Scripture and I have little excuse considering how easy it is to find! I invite Aaron (and anyone else) to correct me again if I make similar over-confident remarks in the future!

However, while I agree 2 Kings 5:14 can be taken as an example of baptizo being used of immersion, I do not agree that it shows that baptizo and bapto (a related Greek word used to translate tabal) were considered equivalent, as Aaron seems to suggest.

Why? Because we see tabal being translated fourteen times as bapto andonly once as baptizo in 2 Kings 5:14. (The one remaining occurance of tabal in Gen 37:31 is translated moluno).

When translators use different words to translate one word from the original language, it usually means the translators want to bring out a different shade of meaning that is suggested by the context in which they find that word.  It is very rare that one word in any language corresponds exactly and in every way to another word in a different language. This is recognised even in projects that strive for the closest word-for-word translation possible (which, as I understand it, does not describe the LXX).

So, in 2 Kings 5:14 it is reasonable to ask why the translators would choose to use baptizo instead of bapto. What is it about the context of 2 Kings 5:14 that makes baptizo preferable?  What meaning is given to it in the LXX?

Baptizo is used three other times in the LXX: one is a figurative use speaking of being overwhelmed by horror (Isaiah 21:4), one is found in Judith 12:7:

Then Holofernes commanded his guard that they should not stay her: thus she abode in the camp three days, and went out in the night into the valley of Bethulia, and washed herself in a fountain of water by the camp.

and the last is found in Ecclesiasticus 34:30 (the reference in this linked version):

He that washeth himself after touching the dead, if he toucheth him again, what doth his washing avail? [see Numbers 19 – esp. vv16-20]

The two literal uses of baptizo refer to ceremonial washing – neither of which involved immersion (the fact that Judith was watched by guards and washed in a fountain surely speaks against immersion, quite apart from the OT Law not requiring immersion).  By contrast, none of the 15 other examples where tabal is used in the LXX refer to ceremonial washing (the cleansing in Num 19:18 is acheived by sprinkling, not by the dipping).

In 2 Kings 5:9-14, however, what Elisha tells Naaman to do is to undergo ceremonial washing. “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”  (See also Judith 12:9). It would seem, therefore, that in the mind of the translator the important point to get across was not how the washing was done, but that the washing was ceremonial.

This raises, then, an interesting question. Translators will often consciously lose one meaning in translation in order to keep another. It is obvious that when tabal is used that dipping is in mind, but the context of 2 Kings 5:14 refers to ceremonial washing. Did the translator, in an effort to emphasise the ceremonial washing in the passage, use baptizo knowing it would not automatically communicate the mode? Remember, the only two other instances in the LXX where baptizo is used non-figuratively do not involve immersion, and the use of baptizo in Ecclesiasticus shows that the word was used of at least one ceremonial washing in the Law and so reasonably could be used of all the others (most of which, if not all, were not immersion). This is confirmed in Heb 6:1-2 where the writer of Hebrews refers to OT ceremonial washings as baptisms (baptismos). (See also Hebrews 9:10).  So, the question is: What would a reader of the LXX who did not know or refer to the Hebrew Scriptures understand by the word baptizo in 2 Kings 5:14? Considering that the other non-figurative uses of baptizo in the LXX (both explicit – Judith and Ecclesiasticus – and implicit – reference to OT washings) were not immersion, it is more than likely that they would not have understood Naaman to have immersed himself. In fact, 2 Kings 5:11 implies that the leprosy was only in one specific part of his body, so even in Hebrew it is possible that tabal refers to Naaman dipping only one part of his body in the Jordan!

So what am I saying? I am not saying that 2 Kings 5:14 cannot refer to immersion. It is clear from usage outside of the LXX that baptizo can include immersion. I am saying that baptizo does not have to mean immersion in this context. Even if baptizo does mean immersion in 2 Kings 5:14, it seems far more likely that the primary meaning baptizo has in 2 Kings 5:14 is ceremonial washing and was used not because it is equivalent to bapto (though there is definitely overlap) but because baptizo communicates something that bapto does not.

Oh yes…another post is coming…

·  Jo March 2, 2009 at 8:44 am

Hey guys,

i stumbled on your blog while researching ???????’s historical use. An interesting comment I read in William Hamilton’s “Compend of Baptism” observed that a word’s meaning (formal definition) is most accurately determined through studying its actual/historical usage (Hamilton 21). If you check out his or James Gilchrist Lawson’s “Did Jesus Command Immersion” you’ll find a wealth of classical, LXX, NT and Church Father examples to aid in your pursuit of Truth :)

As a teaser, Lawson at one point inserts various possible meanings (i.e. dip, wash, pour)for ??????? in various historical examples with rather telling results (Lawson 99ff). . .

ali Post authorMarch 2, 2009 at 9:33 am

Hi Jo,

Thanks for your comment. The majority of the links in these posts seem to have collapsed for some reason. I’ve fixed them now if you’re interested.

I agree that finding the meaning of the word involves looking at the context in which it is used. That is what I was trying to do in this post and those that follow. My conclusions differ from James Gilchrist Lawson for that very reason! Luke 11:38 and Mark 7:3-4 are two biblical examples.

I have also looked up historical usage of baptizo. Maybe if I get time I’ll check out Lawson’s examples.

Jo March 5, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Hi Ali,
Thanks for the response. It has been rather fascinating reading arguments on both sides of the baptizo question. Admittedly, my bias has prompted reading commentaries mostly from the immersion view . . . :)

In regards to Mark 7:3-4 (translated “they cleanse themselves” NASB) the meaning “immerse” is not unlikely, especially when you consider the previous verse. “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; (4) and when they come in from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse (baptize) themselves . . .” Verse four seems to build on verse three, going from a cleansing “with the fist” to a more complete action. Seeing them both as an incomplete cleansing makes verse 4 redundant.

Luke 11:38 seems to refer to the same practice of bathing (note that both times the Pharisees are the ones concerned about cleanliness suggesting that both instances refer to the same practice).

The non-immersion side has good arguments for most of their proposals, though, so how would they address the two passages?

Ali March 5, 2009 at 9:07 pm

Hi Jo,
I wouldn’t consider myself a great representative of the “non-immersion side” – most of my arguments come from my own study…though no doubt it’s all just things I’ve read that came back to me disguised as my own ideas!

So, this is how I would answer:

In Mark 7:3-4, I think you have a good point. I do not read Greek fluently, so I may be missing something, but as you say, it reads naturally that the “baptising” after returning from the market would be more than washing hands.

However, if you read on to the end of verse 4, it says:

And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing [baptising] of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.

[Note, I’m a New Zealander living in Australia – neither country spells baptising with a ‘z’.]

Now, it’s possible to imagine the washing of everything in that list being done by immersion, except the dining couch. Of course, the dining couch is not included in some manuscripts, but to be included at all, it must have been understood that a dining couch could be baptised, and it is very doubtful it would have been immersed.

Adding to that, John 2:6 talks about “six stone water jars there [at a wedding] for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.” That’s pretty big, but is it reasonable to assume that every wedding guest that arrived immersed themselves in one of the 6 jars to purify themselves? I think the Western concept of taking a bath biases our thinking here. Even today in Asian countries or other parts of the world, taking a bath means pouring water over oneself. So, even if Mark 7:4 means something more than hand washing, I cannot conceive of it as soaking in water. I believe it would be the normal bathing which consisted of pouring water over oneself, or, to use the Greek, baptising oneself.

If you are not convinced, then look again at Luke 11:38. Did Jesus come in from the market? Perhaps so. But then was he expected to get into the water jars that no doubt existed at the Pharisee’s house? It doesn’t make sense to me.

Now, these were not the verses that convinced me to look harder at the mode of baptism. What started it for me was the fact that the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” was described not as immersion, but as the pouring of the Spirit upon people.

The second thing that sealed my interest was the two instances of “baptism” in Hebrews, especially Heb 9:10 that refers specifically to OT Laws. Nothing in those Laws speaks about immersion, and some of them specifically speak of sprinkling.

Does that help?

Jo March 16, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Hi Ali,

Good points; it really is fascinating to look at the evidence/data available to study on just one aspect of God’s redemption story. cool stuff :)

On Mark 7:3-4 the manuscript evidence is pretty good for “and dining couches” (Alexandrinus for one). Based on context, Mark is illustrating the extent to which some observed purification, some going so far as baptising their couches (especially if the note was added for emphasis by a later scribe, Alexandrinus is from the 4th century). The list thus progresses from the reasonable cups and pots to copper vessels and finally to dining couches. On a closing note, I was reading Vines and realized the root in the second use is from baptismos, a relative of baptidzo used specifically of the ceremonially washing of articles and not the baptism of people :). The same root (baptismos) is used in Heb. 6:2 and 9:10.

(Mark 7:3-4 reads: “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash (nipto, used of washing a part of the body) their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash (baptidzo). And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing (baptismos) of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.”)

On John 2:6, we’re only told the vessels were used for ritual purification (baptidzo/baptism are not mentioned). These could have been used merely for washing hands or feet or, if they had a connection to baptism/immersion, poured into a larger vessel (I’ve never looked into Jewish purification practices, but will look for info, especially if I can find an English version of the Yadim! :)

I keep thinking of when Jesus was washing the apostles feet,

” . . . Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you (speaking of Judas)” (John 13:9-10).

It seems that Peter had already taken a “whole-body” bath and needed only his feet, dusty from the walk, cleaned. Guests coming to a wedding party, it would seem, would have taken similar steps in preparation.

As to Luke 11:38 it does seem unreasonable of the Pharisee to expect Jesus’ full immersion before eating. However, it must be remembered that the Pharisees, striving to fulfill every requirement of the law, built up a barricade of extra laws that kept them from even possibly committing an offense — in others words, they went above and beyond the Law’s requirements. Thus, if one fully immersed themselves they could in no way fall short of the required pre-meal hand-washing. Perhaps being a Rabbi it was assumed Jesus would follow these same regulations. However, I really need to spend some time studying Jewish purification before I can more than theorize :)

On Heb. 9:10 I’m not sure what you mean? Speaking of the inadequacy of the old covenant in sanctifying our souls it says the old covenant deals . . . “only with food and drink and various washings (baptismos), regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.” Is the other use 6:2?

I’ve got to finish a project, though it is pretty much sacrilege to not to even touch on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is a really good point. I should have time in a couple days though and will come back to it :)Meanwhile, what are your thoughts?

many blessings,

Ali March 16, 2009 at 11:31 pm

G’day Jo,

On Mark 7:3-4 the manuscript evidence is pretty good for “and dining couches”.

Really? My UBS Greek NT only gives it a C! I suppose it might have been revised in a later edition. Mine is the 4th. What are you using?

I don’t think you should make too much of the difference between baptismos and baptizo. For one, the first is a noun, the second a verb. Some people have pitted baptismos against baptisma, but there is Colossians 2:12 to get around.

Yes, Heb 6:2 and 9:10 are the references. Both of them connect the word “baptism” with OT ritual washing. I understand Heb 6:2 to especially connect OT washings with the NT rite of baptism. Note the context. The writer of Hebrews is relating the OT Scriptures to NT revelation in Christ, as does the Septuagint uses of the word “baptism”.

With regard to Peter’s and Jesus’ conversation, I agree that washing your whole body could involve immersion, though I don’t think Peter was referring to that – Jesus was the one referring to a bath and that could be immersion or pouring…but was Jesus referring to baptism per se? I don’t know for sure.

I’ll be interested in what you turn up as you keep looking into this, though. You are causing me to go back and look things up again. I’m always up for a rethink!

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