Words are important, and the meaning of words is perhaps more important. Mark Twain is quoted as once saying, “as you can’t rely on people’s judgment, it is better to be plain about your meanings”.
What words we use and what meaning we give them will chart the direction of our lives. The inspired author James speaks to the affects of word choice in his letter when he writes that the tongue can set “on fire the entire course of life” (Jas. 3.6 ESV).
Word choice and meaning will affect our understanding of God’s word, and the manner in which we obey Him. This is most certainly true about baptism and its importance in receiving the salvation offered by God.
Biblical Words are Different
To begin this study, it is important to realize that biblical words and terms must be treated differently from our common use of the English language.
Not in terms of how words work; words work essentially the same in most languages. Biblical words at times need additional investigation in order to appreciate the use and meaning of the word in question.
The reason for this extended approach when dealing with biblical words is found in the linguistic origin of the Bible. The Bible did not drop out of heaven in Elizabethan English in 1611, only to be modernized as the English language continues to develop.
Linguistically, the Bible was written by inspired authors who spoke and wrote in Hebrew and Aramaic (e.g. Old Testament), and in Koine Greek (e.g. New Testament).
Consequently, biblical words must not be understood through modern or contemporary definitions. Instead, we must first understand their meaning and usage in their ancient setting.
The words of Jack P. Lewis are worth contemplating at this point:
In the ultimate analysis every significant Biblical question is to be solved on the basis of what a writer meant by a Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic expression.
Especially is this true with the term that is the focus of our study: baptism.
The Origin of a Word
For some it is quite a shock to learn that the word “baptism” is not a translation at all. In fact, it is a transliteration. These terms some elaboration, so let us briefly explore these two terms for a moment.
Translating is the process of taking word-meanings from one language (i.e. native language) and placing them into a new language (i.e. receptor language) by using words having corresponding meanings. It answers the question, “How would we say that in our language?”
On the other hand, transliterating does not transfer word-meanings at all; instead, it passes along the phonetical resemblance (i.e. same sounds) of the native word into a “new” word for the receptor language.
This often leads to the creation of words previously unknown to the new language. This is done quite often particularly with regards to place-names (e.g. Jerusalem, Hebron, Samaria, etc.) and proper names (e.g. Israel, Jacob, Abraham, etc.).
Transliterating can be very helpful, and in an ever increasingly internationally aware society, transliterations are quite common and even necessary for ease of communication and travel.
A problem emerges, however, when a word which ought to be translated is not; but instead, its meaning is left into obscurity through the use of transliteration. Such is the case with the biblical term “baptism”.
In the appendix to his translation of the New Testament, Hugo McCord justifies his elimination of the word “baptism” for this reason:
“[B]aptism” only anglicizes the Greek word baptisma, using English letters to replace Greek letters, and does not tell what the word means.
Unfortunately, as McCord observes, groups like the American Bible Society (ABS) would rather “accommodate sectarian views” than translate “baptism”.
Consequently, by admission of the ABS, the English word “baptism” does not provide any informative value for understanding the usage and meaning of the biblical term. In fact, they prefer the obscurity in order to prevent ruling out other modes of baptism.
It is truly tragic to see men give in to theological peer pressure, instead of trusting in God, Whose word they are translating. Instead of providing the “sense” of the Word (Neh. 8.8), they prefer to torture the Word to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3.15-16). The history of this apostasy has been well documented.
We have established the principle that we must appeal to the meaning and usage of biblical terms by their use in their setting and native language. Contemporary definitions are not reliable sources.
We have also made the claim that “baptism” is not a translation; but, in truth it is a transliteration of the Greek term baptisma and others in this word family (bapto, baptizo, baptismos, and baptistes). At this point, then, we turn to the evidence for the meaning of “baptism” (Grk. baptismos).
The word family for “baptism” goes back to the root word, bapto, which means “to dip”. In his popular dictionary of biblical words, W. E. Vine makes this connection.
Vine further elaborates stating stating that bapto:
was used among the Greeks to signify the dyeing of a garment, or the drawing of water by dipping a vessel into another, etc.
This is its native, ancient root meaning. This fact is indisputable among Greek lexicographers – students of Greek words.
The ideas of immersion, submerging, dipping, plunging, and washing are all reasonable translations of the biblical word family of “baptism”.
John is “the one who immerses”, instead of “the Baptist”. Peter told the masses on the day of Pentecost to “be dipped” for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2.38). As we can see, “baptism” is not so technical a term as the transliteration suggests.
To be Continued…
In the next installments we will continue to give attention to the issue of the meaning of “baptism”. We will also examine NT passages, and early church history confirming that the apostolic practice of “baptism” is immersion. Then we will consider the implications of this study.
- Lewis, Jack P., 1979, “Inspiration and Authority of the Bible,” Alternative 5.2 (Spring): p. 6.
- McCord, Hugo, 2000, The Everlasting Gospel, 4th edition (Henderson, Tenn.: Freed-Hardeman University Press), p. 698.
- McCord, pp. 698-99.
- Jackson, Wayne, 1997-2011, “A History of the ‘Baptism’ Apostasy”, ChristianCourier.com.
- Vine, William E., et. al, 1986, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, Tenn.; Nelson), 2:50.
- Vine, William E., et. al, 2.50.
- Nichol, C. R., and R. L. Whiteside, 1924, Sound Doctrine (Clifton, Tex.: Nichol Publishing), 4:151-52. Nichol and Whiteside write, “We could quote a great many Greek Lexicons, but why should we, since there is not a recognized standard Greek lexicon in the world which defines the word otherwise.”
- Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Ardnt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, 2001, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature, 3rd edition (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press), p. 164.