Baptism – Transliteration, Translation and Meaning

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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.

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.


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