Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The verb βαπτω (bapto) means to dip or immerse. It appears a mere three times in the New Testament (in Luke 16:24, John 13:26 and Revelation 19:13 only), at least twice denoting a partial dipping. But our verb is fairly common in the classics and tends to denote a necessarily full immersion: of red hot steel that's being tempered, of clothes being dyed, of a vessel drawing water, of a ship sinking.
Whether our verb means to dip or to immerse is a most pressing question because it's the root of the familiar verb "to baptize." Over the eons many a church group has spent its precious energies debating how baptism is done right and how it might be done wrong so as to void the whole procedure from its magical powers: is it OK to baptize children? Is it OK to re-baptize adults? Should we sprinkle, dip or plunge? What are the eternal ramifications of doing it wrong?
The answer to all this nonsense is of course that there is no magic involved in the beautiful and precious ritual of baptism. You simply cannot do it wrong, just like you simply cannot do a wedding ceremony wrong. And if you figure that the quality of your marriage depends on the quality of your wedding ceremony, then there's no way that you can do it right. So that solves that.
Germ Theory and Holy Water
Long before in the 1890's viruses were discovered, long before the 1850's when Louis Pasteur began to scientifically confirm germ theory (that is the reality of disease carrying microorganisms and bacterial pathogens, in modern times first proposed in 1546 by Girolamo Fracastoro), long before doctor Ignaz Semmelweis saved countless mothers from the often deadly childbed fever by insisting that his colleagues should wash their hands (doctor Semmelweis did this posthumously since in 1865 his unconvinced colleagues committed him to an asylum, where he was soon beaten to death by guards), long before Antonie van Leeuwenhoek perfected the microscope and became the first to visually confirm the existence of microorganisms — long before all that, the ancients had observed a strong positive correlation between washing (faces, hands, food, kitchen utensils) and staying healthy.
The ancients knew that washing with water staved off disease and death. They also knew that soap amplified the power of water (see our article on the Hebrew noun אזוב, 'ezob). But they didn't know how washing worked. They only knew that invisible powers were at work.
The first century BC, author Marcus Terentius Varro asserted that "certain small animals that cannot be seen by the eyes, borne by the air, enter the inside of the body through the mouth and nose and they cause serious diseases" (Rustica 1.XII.2). His contemporary Lucreatius spoke of "seeds" that would sicken a person when he inhaled them or when they landed on his food. Others spoke of miasma or airborne particles of decomposed organisms, whose power was in their foul smell (and easily remedied by some perfume). But the crux of the matter is that all these stances were beliefs, and the proponents of them gathered in schools of thought and religious cults. Often the act of washing attained ritualistic elements, until it was not clear at all which part of the deal actually had the desired effect and which part was mere cosmetic.
By the time of John the Baptist — whose name means Merciful Immerser — the Greco-Roman world was duly obsessed with washing; hence the famous Roman baths and places like Siloam in Jerusalem. But since nobody quite knew how washing precisely worked, people were prone to believe that there was something inherently magical and powerful about water as a substance — quite like modern belief in the never abating power of healing crystals, icons or bloody expletives. That in turn resulted in people sharing the same puddle over and over. Excavations show that people like high priests and royals had their own basement cisterns, chiseled out of the bedrock, in which they dipped themselves at every prescribed turn. That meant that many people exposed themselves to pools of stagnant water in which every sort of filth merrily proliferated, and the greater the dedication to ritualistic washing, the greater one's chance of a whopping disease.
A dog returns to its own vomit
In antiquity wisdom was the domain of an elite that knew how things worked and how to keep society going. And the rest had to do as they were told, without truly understanding exactly what they were doing. That led to a kind of bureaucracy of ritual — folks tapping idols, gesticulating symbols or uttering prescribed responses (like "bless you" when someone sneezes) — and daily life became permeated with acts and deeds that had no visible or logical result. Today we have the Internet and anybody can research anything, but still we take mysterious pills and undergo esoteric treatments when the doctor says so.
John the Baptist was a teacher like any other, and his preoccupation with washing was part of the greater Jewish obsession with wisdom-based survival: which in turn is a practical understanding of the way things work (Hosea 4:6). John's breakthrough was his understanding that water doesn't erase or neutralize contaminations; it merely absorbs it. The person emerges clean but the contaminants are now alive and well in the water, and the water in turn must be flushed like Azazel the scapegoat, to truly get rid of the contaminants. Stagnant water is diseased water, and only flowing water (or in Hebrew idiom: living water) does the trick:
"My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns ... " (Jeremiah 2:13).
In the Bible there is a strong correlation between the hydrological cycle and learning. The noun מורה (moreh) means both rain and teacher, and is closely related to the familiar word Torah. The word for "dry land", namely ארץ ('eres) often refers as much to physical stability as to mental certainty (compare Genesis 8:9 to Matthew 3:16), and the clouds that received Jesus from the individual's sight (Acts 1:9) is probably the same as the cloud of witnesses mentioned in Hebrews 12:1 (also see 1 Thessalonians 4:17).
All this suggests that the ritualistic repeating of the same prayers and creeds (and silly songs on Sunday morning) is precisely the same thing as dipping one's festering rump in a puddle of fermenting blubber, even if this started out as fresh water, many moons ago — "It has happened to them according to the true proverb, 'A dog returns to its own vomit,' and, 'A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire'" (2 Peter 2:22).
There doesn't need to be anything wrong with ritual and tradition, and here at Abarim Publications we often urge people to preserve their crumbling heritages, but the Lord of Life is the Lord of life, and although life is based on a never-changing law (Matthew 5:18), life itself is unpredictable, wild and unregulated. Hence the Psalmist prescribed frequent jam sessions and the singing of new songs (Psalm 33:3) and Jeremiah exclaimed how the Lord's steadfast love never changes whereas his mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). Paul was able to preach the perpetual gospel because his audience was itching for new and entertaining ideas (Acts 17:21). Jesus conveyed God's evergreens in such novel ways that his audience spoke of "a new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him" (Mark 1:27). And the Creator wouldn't be much of a creator if he wouldn't "make all things new" (Revelation 21:5, 1 Corinthians 2:9).
Long before people understood the correlation between health and cleanness, baptizing was a behavioral philosophy that had no immediate effect and had to be believed in. It worked when people washed in living or flowing water but it had the opposite effect when people washed in stagnant water. The obvious difference between the two is that the first is full of currency and kinetic energy, and comes from an obvious natural source (a well or rain or melting snow) and often has a bunch of natural tributaries, whereas the second is not dynamic, has been sitting in the same old cistern or dogmatic portfolio for eons and is ultimately of manmade origin. Since society evolves while the cistern doesn't, society's words and expressions evolve to absorb the increasing disdain that many have for stagnant water. That means that a stagnant religion becomes a source of societal disease as much as a cistern of stagnant water would pollute rather than clean a village.
Today everybody has running water and soap, and ritualistic baptism has no practical value and is solely traditional. That means that the value of Christianity's baptism lies solely in the realm of nostalgia and social bonding, and may be interpreted as broadly and creatively as a Christian wedding ceremony.
Baptism in its broader sense, namely the removal of contaminants by means of exposure to a cleaning agent, can only be obtained when the cleaning agent is continuously refreshed. Using the same hash over and over will inevitably lead to cross contamination, weakness or ultimately death.
What to baptize in
Our Greek verb βαπτω (bapto) means to dip and the derived verb βαπτιζω (baptizo) means to willfully immerse (see below). The latter verb implies total overwhelmment and commitment, but it says nothing about the medium in which the immersee is immersed, and this medium is far from only water. John the Immerser said that while he indeed immersed people in water, Jesus would immerse people in fire and spirit (Luke 3:16), which in turn makes it a mystery why Christianity keeps insisting on water baptism.
Physical water makes a person physically clean on the outside and inside. The obvious connection between drinking water and immersing in water is played with in texts like Matthew 20:22-23, and when Jesus speaks of streams of living water coming from within (John 7:38), he quite blatantly uses urination as a metaphor for mental and social purification. Fire and light are common metaphors for knowledge, and fire is of course as much a cleaning agent as water is. Fire is used to incinerate waste (Exodus 12:10) and purify things that don't burn, like metal and earthenware: "Everything that can withstand fire, you have to pass through fire and it will be clean. Whatever cannot withstand fire you have to pass through the water" (Numbers 31:23). The ancients appear to have known that physical digestion does the same thing as fire (namely release energy by dissolving chemical bonds) and related one's soul to fire and thus to blood (Leviticus 17:11), which in turn helps to explain the Bible's many blood-immersions (1 John 1:7, Revelation 7:14); John the Epistler says that "there are three that testify: spirit, water and blood and these three are as one" (1 John 5:7-8).
Much has been said about the concept of spirit but most will agree that beside everything else, spirit is also that which governs people's social relations and bonds (see for more on this our articles on πνευμα, pneuma, meaning spirit, αγαπη, agape, meaning love, and αγιος, hagios meaning holy). What water does to the body, and what "fire" does to the intellect, spirit does for societies: it removes behavioral infections and interpersonal contaminations, and it strengthens societies the way fire strengthens metal and water strengthens the body. Urination allows the body to shed wastes and impurities, and corresponds to water immersion. Transpiration allows body and mind to divert excess heat and corresponds to fire immersion. Weeping allows the heart to shed grief and corresponds to spirit immersion; this following the "drinking" of spirit, as Paul puts it (1 Corinthians 12:13).
Jesus' famous Great Commission: "... make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them ..." (Matthew 28:19) has led many an enthusiast to plunge foreigners into baptismal fonts but while Jesus didn't specify the medium, John did and the medium is spirit. Jesus also didn't speak of immersing foreigners but nations (compare Psalm 2:1-2 to Haggai 2:7 and Revelation 22:2 and see our article on the noun εθνος, ethnos, meaning nation). Immersing people "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Spirit" does not speak of the authority of the dude who's performing the immersal, but rather the medium in which the dude who undergoes the immersal is immersed (see our article on the word ονομα, onoma, meaning name).
In 1 Corinthians 10:2 Paul speaks of an "immersion in Moses," which simply means being inundated in the words of Moses and the study of his legacy. In the same verse he refers to a cloud into which people were immersed, and a sea, which obviously refers to the column of fire and cloud that guided Israel (Exodus 14:24) and the Sea of Reeds they crossed. Neither of these immersions was physical but rather mental: an immersal in the authority of the cloud and the threat and power of the Sea of Reeds.
In 1 Corinthians 15:29 Paul speaks of those being immersed over the dead, which may be an allusion to the Eleusinian Mysteries (which also clearly echo in Hebrews 6:7). Alternatively, Paul may simply have attempted to differentiate between people who died due to their unwashed-away sins (Ephesians 2:1) and those who were indeed washed yet still died, but will resurrect (Ephesians 5:26, 1 John 1:7). Jesus spoke of an immersal with which he was to be immersed (Matthew 20:22, Luke 12:50), by which he probably meant his imminent immersal into death and the realm of death.
Although our verb βαπτω (bapto) meaning to immerse, is used only three times in the New Testament, from it stem the following important derivatives:
- The above mentioned verb βαπτιζω (baptizo), which is really the same verb as the parent but with more dynamic, deliberate or willful action: to do an immersion, to plunge in. This verb is used in the classics to describe the deliberate sinking of ships, the "inundating" of a city by throngs of people, or a being up to the ears in debt. It's used 80 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, but translators should avoid using the verb "to baptize", since in English that verb doesn't do anything other than refer to a relatively modern religious ritual, namely Christianity's ritual of water baptism. As we describe above, there are quite a few mediums into which one may be immersed, and it's the willful and total immersing that this verb speaks about, not the medium.
At the time when the New Testament was written, this verb referred to the victory over an invisible insidious and merciless killer that lurked in foods and prowled households looking for someone to slay, without reason or explanation. The victory over this hideous threat had been achieved in deep antiquity and although the general gist of the method had been preserved, its effectiveness had abated and folks were once again dying in droves. In the first century it began again to be understood that water does not simply neutralize contaminants but carries them away. Washing has only its life-saving effect when it is done regularly, by full immersion and in living or flowing water.
Since John immersed in water and Jesus in fire and spirit, most of the references to immersal in the New Testament are about immersal in knowledge and social concern. But whatever the medium, the verb clearly speaks of an act that results in a cleansed state. In Acts 22:16 it appears in tandem with the verb απολουω (apolouo), meaning to wash.
On rare occasions, our verb is used to refer to Jewish immersion rituals (Luke 11:38, Mark 7:4), which suggests that the authors of the New Testament used a commonly accepted term to explain that not ritualistic immersion (in stagnant water) leads to cleanness but rather immersion in wisdom and love — likewise, Paul had hijacked terms like Son of God and Savior of the World, which originally were epithets of emperor Augustus, and applied them to Jesus, saying that yes indeed there is such a person, and no it's not the political leader of the world. What Paul did exactly to Crispus, Gaius and the house of Stephanas (1 Corinthians 1:14-16) isn't clear but perhaps he found them with lice and scabs and gave them a good scrub. What is clear is that Christ did not send him to immerse but to preach the gospel (1:17).
In Mark 6:14 this verb's participle is used as alternative for the more common epithet of John: John the Immersing, rather than the Immerser. From our verb in turn derive:
- The noun βαπτισμα (baptisma), meaning immersal; the procedure or concept but not the mere act of the verb. Our noun describes the essence and effect of immersing, as well as the residual condition of that what was immersed. If our noun refers to whatever John was up to, it refers to the whole outfit and complex of his operation, perhaps even including logistics, utilized real estate and so on (whatever John was precisely doing, he had a substantial staff and a nation wide effect, so he was not the lone hermit of folklore). Since learning is closely related to the hydrological cycle (see above), this condition not only results from a physical plunge in flowing water but also from a mental exposure to fresh and original interpretations of perennial truths. This noun is virtually unused in the classics and used 22 times in the New Testament, always in singular form; see full concordance.
- The noun βαπτισμος (baptismos), meaning immersion; the actual doing of what the parent verb describes (not the concept or result; see previous). This word occurs 4 times, always in plural, see full concordance, and refers to a class of Jewish rituals, namely the immersion rules. This noun describes the act of immersing irrespective of the result; the Dip for Dip's sake.
- The noun βαπτιστης (baptistes), meaning immerser, that is: someone engaged in the activity described by parent verb. Since ritual washing comprised a big part of Jewish life, there were probably professional washers, or scholars specialized in the art of washing (and perhaps elaborating associated spells and methods and such).
This word is used 14 times, see full concordance, only as the familiar epithet of John the Baptist, whom everybody in the original audience of the gospel knew as the Merciful Immerser. This Merciful Immerser was not a theologian in the modern sense of the word, but someone who had reinvented the art of washing. He even had disciples on staff and people came from all over the wider region, so John's immersing probably happened on an industrial scale. His immersing was unlike that of the religious elite, who insisted on immersing in stagnant water, and immersed exclusively in flowing water. It's not told by the evangelists but modern understanding of the Jewish immersing habits leaves little doubt that the popularity of the Merciful Immerser was at least partly due to the fact that his customers had an unusually high survival rate, whereas the customers of the religious elite kept keeling over from diseases. That irritated the religious elite then as much as a successful scientific theory irritates the religious elite today, because to the religious elite, religion is more important than either God's truth or the survival of the flock (Matthew 3:7-12).
Since physical cleanness and mental cleanness are obtained by similar mechanisms (namely by frequent and entire exposure to flowing streams of certified freshness), the Merciful Immerser also rephrased the unchanging Word of God in snazzy new imagery (Luke 3:7-14). But where today we wouldn't count John's ministry as theological but rather as hygienic, in the first century AD there was no distinction, and John's immersing was part of the greater Way of being righteous (see Acts 19:4 and 19:9). Likewise many people today believe that the righteousness we have in Christ is theological and religious, but that's not true either. Like John's right way of immersing, so the righteousness we have in Christ has to do with knowledge of the real, physical universe.
The righteousness we have in Christ has to do with our knowledge of physics, biology, zoology, cosmology, sociology, psychology, metallurgy, agriculture, history and so on (Colossians 1:16-17, 2:3). Likewise the New Creation is not a place of endless leisure where saints repose in robes eating grapes, but a real world with real people living real lives and running real economies; it will all be as natural as life is now, except that there won't be death, disease, poverty, coercion, confusion, ignorance, fascism, capitalism and religion (Revelation 21-22).
- Together with the preposition εν (en), meaning in: the verb εμβαπτω (embapto), meaning to dip into. This verb is only used in the scene where Jesus identifies his betrayer, namely as the one who dips-in with him (Matthew 26:23, Mark 14:20 and John 13:26 only). Note that all baptizing with stagnant water begins with the first double dip. Judas not only betrayed Christ, but also personifies the beginning of religious repetition (Matthew 6:7).