Investigating Baptism (2)

Posted on December 4, 2011 by


We continue our study on “baptism” in this installment with a look at the native meaning of the biblical term in its original language. In the last piece, we established two points worth reconsidering again; namely:

  1. Contemporary definitions are not reliable sources for biblical words. The modern dictionary must be placed to the side when considering the ancient and foreign words behind our English Bibles.
  2. Transliterations are not translations, and “baptism” is not a translation at all; instead, it is a transliteration which obscures the meaning of the biblical term(s).

We will continue this line of thought further evaluating the native use of the word “baptism” in its ancient setting.

This aspect of study is important, for it demonstrates that those who seek a justification for other forms of baptism (sprinkling, pouring, head dipping, etc.) are making arguments void of any biblical support.

Consequently, anyone desiring a biblical answer to this question must begin here, at “ground zero”; namely, the lexical evidence.

Lexical Evidence

“Baptism” and its original Greek terms (bapto, baptisma, baptizo, baptismos, baptistes) refer to dipping, immersion, plunging, submerging, and washing. Moreover, when used metaphorically, it suggests the idea of an overwhelming experience.

To establish our claims, we will appeal to a number of language authorities. And at the outset it is important to point out as C.R. Nichol and R.L. Whiteside have:

[T]here is not a recognized standard Greek lexicon in the world which defines the word otherwise.[1]

Eighty-seven years later, the situation has not changed. Consider the following.

Non Christian Use

As a result of archaeological finds in Egypt of what are called “non-literary” papyrus documents, James Moulton and George Milligan spent several years providing a work which showcases the everyday use of the Greek language.

Moulton and Milligan’s work, Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (1914-1924), expands our knowledge of the use of numerous biblical terms as they are used in their native setting. The benefits from this work are tremendous from this vantage point.

Moulton and Milligan point to a papyrus which refers to a boat that has been “submerged” (baptizo).[2] Surely the imagery the ancient author is conveying is that of a boat that sunk under the water – a shipwreck.

Likewise the figurative sense is also found, with reference to being “flooded” or “overwhelmed with calamities” (baptizo).[3] In our figures of speech, we often hear the similar sentiment as being “inundated with problems”.

The root word bapto is likewise included.[4] Examples again demonstrate the use of the term; particularly, in the trade industry of dyeing. Coloring garments by plunging those fabrics into the dye solution is to be understood.

The non-literary evidence, then, sheds light on how people used this word in its native setting. Also, previous to Moulton and Milligan’s work a new lexicon had just been published by Joseph H. Thayer (1889).[5]

Thayer’s work, though, is based upon literary Greek works – the highly stylistic Greek “classics”, versus the common use of the Greek language as the people spoke and wrote in everyday parlance – similar to the Greek vocabulary of the New Testament.

Nevertheless, Thayer’s discussion of this word family[6] is in complete agreement:

[T]o dip repeatedly, to immerge, submerge… to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water… to overwhelm.[7]

In more recent Greek-English lexicons for the study of New Testament words, information such as the above have been incorporated and are far more conclusive studies.

In fact, the celebrated Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature goes on record as well, observing that “baptism” in it native setting was not as “technical” as we think of it in light of biblical usage.[8]

New Testament Use

Despite the indisputable native meaning of “baptism”, it is one of the most remarkably tragic stories in the history of Bible translation that the meaning of this word group is purposely left obscure.

Wayne Jackson summarizes the occurrences of this word group as follows:

[T]he Greek verb bapto, together with its derivatives, occur some 116x in the New Testament, in various verbal and noun forms.[9]

In sum, the statistics are: bapto (4x), baptizo (77x), baptisma (19x), baptismos (4x), and baptistes (12x). In every instance the notion of plunging, dipping, washing, immersion, and submerging are all within appropriate means proper translations – even the metaphorical meaning of an “overwhelming” situation. The latter, however, is based upon context.

In 1525, William Tyndale produced an English translation of the Greek New Testament. In it Tyndale translates baptisma as “immersion”.

It would not be until 1611, when King James I “forbade”, as head of the Church of England (the Anglican Church), “his translators… from using ‘immersion’”. Instead, he “ordered them to use the noncommittal cover-up word ‘baptism’”.[10]

The rationale was based upon the fact that the Church of England (the Anglican Church) practiced sprinkling not immersion; consequently, if the translators of King James were to actually translate baptisma, the erroneous practice of sprinkling would be apparent and viewed unbiblical.

As a result of a concealing the meaning of “baptism” as an immersion in water, and the rise and dominance of the KJV, all major translations since also now transliterate the term to accommodate those who do not practice “immersion”.[11] The results of which have been disastrous.

Moreover, there are many “theologians” who surmise that the actual mode of “baptism” (sprinkling, pouring, head dipping, or immersion) is irrelevant. What matters, according to such individuals, is the heart’s penitent desire to be joined with Christ in “baptism”.

For example, Harry Rimmer responds to a question on whether or not “Romans 6.3-4 and Colossians 2.12 refer to baptism by immersion”. His response is as flakey as his rationalization as to the “mode” of baptism. He writes:

Personally, I do not think it matters just which mode is used if you have a clear conscience toward God. It is the fact of the new life that counts.[12]

Another group writes, “It seems clear to us that immersion is the biblical norm, but that it is not an inflexible norm”.[14] Scarcely do they treat other biblical words and subjects with such reckless abandonment!

Concluding Words

Truth be told, the only way to dismiss the native meaning of “baptism” (baptismos, etc.) as immersion and its subsequent usage in the New Testament documents is through rejection of the evidence and clarity of Scripture through rationalizations. If left solely upon the evidence, immersion is the only option. One must be taught away from this clear meaning, it is too clear to miss with an objective mind.

We will continue this study in next week’s bulletin.


  1. C. R. Nichol and R. L. Whiteside, 1924, Sound Doctrine (Clifton, Tex.: Nichol Publishing), 4:152.
  2. James H. Moulton and George Milligan, 1914-1929, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources (London: Hodder and Stoughton), p. 102.
  3. James H. Moulton and George Milligan, p. 102.
  4. Moulton and Milligan, p. 103.
  5. Joseph H. Thayer, 1889, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1966).
  6. Joseph H. Thayer, pp. 94-95.
  7. Joseph H. Thayer, p. 94.
  8. 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.
  9. Wayne Jackson, 1997-2011, “A History of the ‘Baptism’ Apostasy”
  10. Hugo McCord, 2000, The Everlasting Gospel, 4th edition (Henderson, Tenn.: Freed-Hardeman University Press), p. 698.
  11. Hugo McCord, pp. 698-99. See also Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, 1989, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd edition (New York, N.Y.: United Bible Societies), 53.41.
  12. Harry Rimmer, 1954, That’s a Good Question! (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing), p. 30. Rimmer goes on to add his own exception clause to Paul’s words in the following words: “Instead of being a reference to the manner, technique or form of the ordinance of baptism, this is a strong and impassioned plea for us who have been united to Christ by any form of baptism to make active and real the resurrection power of Jesus as we walk in that newness of life” (33).
  13. Christian Research Institute, “The Mode of Baptism”,