Baptism – Transliteration, Translation and Meaning

Before getting into a broader discussion of Christian baptism I want to talk about what the word baptism means from a first century perspective. I know this topic can be an emotionally charged one so I hope you read my thoughts here realizing they are said as humbly and as biblically as I know how to say them.

Transliteration:
There are several words in the English New Testament that aren’t translated. Instead, translators chose to transliterate them. That means they spell the word in English like it sounds in Greek rather than translate it to its English equivalent. These words include: Amen (English – truly), apostle (English – one who is sent), angel (English – a messenger, sometimes human and sometimes non-human), blaspheme (English – to speak evil of or revile), satan (English – one who opposes), Baptism (English – to immerse) and several more.

That begs the question, why would a translator get to a word and decide not to translate it and instead just spell it in English? There can be many reasons for this. In some instances the word had already come into the receptor language (in this case English) so that even though the Greek was retained through transliteration, people already knew what the word meant (satan, for instance). In the case of baptism the best explanation I can find is that translating it “to immerse” had political and religious ramifications in the days of the early English translations. They avoided raising those issues by retaining the Greek baptizo. In other words, when the religious practice of the day is pouring and sprinkling it has less ramifications to transliterate the word into “baptism” than it does to actually translate it “immerse.” If they had put immerse in every instance of baptizo (verb) or baptismos (noun) in the New Testament they ran the risk of people questioning their current religious practice and they feared what might result. That, at least, is the take that many people have on why baptism was not translated. I am trying to find a legitimate reference who says that is the case but cannot come up with it. I have looked at Ferguson’s new book on baptism but he doesn’t cover transliteration as he is more interested in the practice itself rather than what English translators did with it 1500 years later.

Translation & Meaning:
Baptizo primarily means to immerse. It can also be translated: to dip, wash, or plunge (BDAG, 164). In all instances the result is full immersion. In Everett Ferguson’s recent tome on baptism, Baptism in the early church, he spends over 10 pages citing extra biblical examples of the Greek use of baptizo. Here is his conclusion,

“Baptizo meant to dip, usually through submerging, but it also meant to overwhelm and so could be used whether the object was placed in an element (which was more common) or was overwhelmed by it (often in the metaphorical usages)…Pouring and sprinkling were distinct actions that were represented by different verbs and this usage too continued in Christian sources. When the latter speak of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit or the sprinkling of blood, they do not use baptize for these actions.” (Ferguson, 59)

It is really a shame translators muddied up the water (pun intended) on this word and made it just as easy today to understand it as something that it did not originate as in the early church. So it is completely accurate to read baptism as “immerse” when reading the New Testament because immerse is more specific to the actual practice of the early church and the original meaning of the word itself. This is also why the Restoration movement has pushed for full immersion, water baptism. That is actually a redundant way to say it…it is saying we do the immersion, immersion.

I welcome anyone who has counter points to the immersion conclusion to express their thoughts here and engage in loving dialog on that issue.

 

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

14 Responses to Baptism – Transliteration, Translation and Meaning

  1. I have heard it said (but I do not have documentation) that King James instructed the translators to retain baptize and its cognates instead of translating them because he did not want to encourage the more radical reformers. Of course, English translations earlier than the King James Version had previously followed the same practice, as do nearly all more modern translations. It is interesting that even the Latin Vulgate transliterates baptism. I believe Jerome made this translation at about the same time that baptismal practice was changing (in the West, it never did in the East) from immersion to pouring or sprinkling.

    Jerry

    • mattdabbs says:

      I will do a little more looking to see if anyone cites anything on this much repeated but much less often cited take on the matter. Interesting on the Vulgate. I hadn’t thought of that.

      • Tim Archer says:

        The preface to the original KJV says something about this. (are we going to arouse the KJV-only folks again)

        OK, here it is:
        Lastly, we have on the one side avoided the scrupulosity of the Puritans, who leave the old Ecclesiastical words, and betake them to other, as when they put WASHING for BAPTISM, and CONGREGATION instead of CHURCH: as also on the other side we have shunned the obscurity of the Papists, in their AZIMES, TUNIKE, RATIONAL, HOLOCAUSTS, PRAEPUCE, PASCHE, and a number of such like, whereof their late Translation is full…

        Grace and peace,
        Tim

  2. conniewalden says:

    It’s obvious in the scriptures that people were immersed and not sprinkles, starting with Jesus. Being baptized in not a painful or hard thing, but for some reason, people think it is. Jesus said to do it, but for some reason, even that is not enough. They don’t want to go down into the water and have their past sins washed away for some reason. They want to do it their way.They sprinkle their babies who do not know or understand the gospel and that way they get it out of the way when the child is young. The child grows up not really knowing the truth about how to be saved.

    In the Bible, people heard the gospel, they believed it, then they were baptized, Thanks for sharing. Connie
    http://7thandvine.wordpress.com/

    • mattdabbs says:

      Thanks Connie…we have a pension for taking simple things and making them more complicated than they really are. It is very, very simple if you just take it at face value.

  3. mokus says:

    I don’t see why there can’t be divers means (within bounds) for Christian immersion. Of course we are being immersed into Christ, and while that should mean that we are immersed under water, why can’t it be sprinkling or pouring? Were not the Israelites baptized into Moses and the cloud and the sea? Was this only the adults?

    What I find strange in all talks about this baptism is our inability to attenuate our preoccupation with our modern notions of an individual that must know what salvation means before any act is efficacious… Our eyes fall from what God is doing and what it really means to go from one realm to another.

    • mattdabbs says:

      Mokus, I am going to reflect on that in the next post. I welcome your comments. I would ask you, though, how there would be divers means of immersion. Immersion means to fully submerge. So how else would you do it other than to plunge (another suitable translation of baptizo) someone under water? Once you say it is immersion you are saying it is not pouring or sprinkling be the very definition of the words themselves.

      To your last point, if I baptized a non-believing adult would they be saved? Are you saying people don’t even have to know what is going on at all for God to work through it? I don’t believe we have to have a perfect understanding of baptism for God to work in it and through it. I have learned much about baptism since I was baptized years ago. I do think people need to have faith.

      • mokus says:

        Matt, Thanks for the good questions.
        Though we often wish it were not so, words rarely have one sense. And we use language this way all the time. If you tell someone that you’re going to ‘run down to the store’, people aren’t surprised when they see you in a car. I doubt many think that ‘run’ would somehow exclude ‘driving’. Beyond this, I’m not sure we’re straight on what the reference is in Christian baptism. Read Paul’s analogy in 1 Cor. 10:2—what is the reference to immersion here? What is the focus of being immersed?

        “To your last point, if I baptized a non-believing adult would they be saved?” I don’t know, what happens when we baptize someone with severe mentally disabilities? Otherwise, what we often call ‘non-believers’ are really believers in something else—and so of course they are not saved when we through them into water. Of course we must believe and have faith—the question is what constitutes belief and faith.

        Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it is correct to say that since we don’t have perfect knowledge, therefore no knowledge is acceptable. This is absolutely false. I just don’t see the how the order of when we come to a knowledge of the gospel and when we are baptized—depending on life circumstances—makes a necessary difference in the efficacy of this grace (gift) that the church has been commissioned to dispense.

        The early church had numerous debates over doctrine—think of all the Christological disputes and the fights over Gnosticism. But can anyone name a dispute over the mode of baptism? I can’t.

    • mattdabbs says:

      Mokus, thanks for your thoughtful response. Let me share a few thoughts and see what you think. I appreciate the dialog.

      “Though we often wish it were not so, words rarely have one sense. And we use language this way all the time. If you tell someone that you’re going to ‘run down to the store’, people aren’t surprised when they see you in a car. I doubt many think that ‘run’ would somehow exclude ‘driving’. Beyond this, I’m not sure we’re straight on what the reference is in Christian baptism. Read Paul’s analogy in 1 Cor. 10:2—what is the reference to immersion here? What is the focus of being immersed?”

      – No one doubts that meanings change over time. “Gay” no longer means what it used to, for instance. There are so many examples. Baptism has come to mean immerse, sprinkle or pour. But if you do a study of Greek, its usage in the New Testament and in contemporary Koine Greek literature baptism comes down to a range of meanings that include: dip, plunge, immerse (in the physical/literal sense) or overwhelm (in the metaphorical sense). When the apostles baptized people they didn’t do it metaphorically. Now read 1 Cor 10:2 in light of the range of meanings for baptizo and you will see that there is no problem here. Also, read 1 Cor 10:2 in light of pouring or sprinkling and see if it makes any more or less sense than it would if you read it as they were immersed/overwhelmed, etc in the sea and in the cloud. Also, you can do a word search and try to cherry pick the most loosely connected verse you can find in the NT to make the point saying maybe immersion isn’t it but to do so you have to pass over dozens of obvious examples where immersion was practiced. We have to be fair about that. Not saying you are being unfair, I am just saying that we can’t just pass over all the verses that don’t prove our point, especially when they vastly outnumber the verses that we think support our argument. I would go so far as to say there are zero verses in the NT that support sprinkling or pouring. Are those practices sinful? Who knows. Are they biblical? No.

      “To your last point, if I baptized a non-believing adult would they be saved?” I don’t know, what happens when we baptize someone with severe mentally disabilities? Otherwise, what we often call ‘non-believers’ are really believers in something else—and so of course they are not saved when we through them into water. Of course we must believe and have faith—the question is what constitutes belief and faith.

      – I don’t think it is a fair analogy to go from unbelief to what happens with someone with mental disabilities who does want to follow God. Apples and oranges there.

      “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it is correct to say that since we don’t have perfect knowledge, therefore no knowledge is acceptable. This is absolutely false. I just don’t see the how the order of when we come to a knowledge of the gospel and when we are baptized—depending on life circumstances—makes a necessary difference in the efficacy of this grace (gift) that the church has been commissioned to dispense.

      – I agree with your first point there entirely. I think we, in Churches of Christ, have adopted a very strict order of things and I don’t know that God really sees it that way. Some verses say we are saved when we believe (Eph 1:13). Other talk about baptism saving us (1 Peter 3:21). I don’t think we need to rip it all apart and miss the point that God is looking for us to respond in all the ways he mentions and not just look for the bare minimum passing grade of faith…that is probably not a good way to say it…I don’t want to imply works based salvation. But sometimes I talk with people who act like they want to figure out the bare minimum they need to do to respond and I don’t think that is what God is looking for when it comes to faith.

      “The early church had numerous debates over doctrine—think of all the Christological disputes and the fights over Gnosticism. But can anyone name a dispute over the mode of baptism? I can’t.”

      – Is it possible that they had no doctrinal disputes over baptism in the early/first century church because they had a uniform practice of immersion? That is historically accurate, by the way. Also, when they said baptize, in their language, they were saying immerse, plunge, dip or overwhelm. The very word excludes pour or sprinkle. So they didn’t even have a debate on this because of the very meaning of the word.

      Sorry for such a lengthy response…I know it is a lot to consider. I appreciate your patience and kind response.

  4. K. Rex Butts says:

    I wish our English translations would translate these words rather than transliterate. If that was the case, it just might change the way Western Christianity reads the BIble.

    Unfortunately, none of the translation committees have asked me to join them in their efforts🙂.

  5. douglas Mangum says:

    I am currently in a conversation on this topic and the article was of great interest. Thanks Matt!
    I must say though that the idea of baptism in all its forms is less about water and more about dedication and commitment. We as followers of Christ need to lose our lives to gain life. We must immerse ourselves in our faith and as was said not be minimalist. Full and total surrender to Gods will not our own will. John stated he was here to baptize with water but that another would baptize with Fire/Holy spirit. So immersing oneself is fundamentally sound but not just for baptism it does not stop there. Maybe the sprinkling and pouring, came about because of those areas where water was not accessable or prevalent. I would disapprove of the fact that those wishing to commit to Christ would be excluded because there was not enough water for them to be immersed. Or that God would put a barrier of water in place to keep those seeking his love from being dedicated. Baptism is an outward sign of commitment to belonging to the family of God and should never be a sticking point as to who God loves or who loves God. Just my view!

  6. Tim Foster says:

    How much of a commitment are we asking someone to make if we lower the barrier for him? Go with him and find enough water to immerse him. We are not superstitious. Do we think someone will suffer God’s wrath in the meantime if water is not at hand? The unique circumstances in which we each come to acknowledge Jesus are not unknown to Him. The effort or sacrifice, though salvation is not by works, to go out of our way to satisfy His command is our faith in action.

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