We are considering Michael Shank’s book Muscle and a Shovel.
Shank gets into a discussion with another friend about Acts 2:38.
I’m going to cut short the long litany of Baptist vs. Church of Christ baptism arguments at this point because most readers have heard them all and, I’m sure, don’t care to hear more of the same arguments once again.
Shank runs into a Methodist and finds that they pour, sprinkle, or immerse, depending on the individual or circumstance. Randall is upset by this, explaining that the Methodist minister is ignorant of his Greek. Randall insists that baptizo means “immerse” only.
Baptidzo means to submerge, to immerse completely or to fully go under the surface.
(Kindle Locations 3310-3312).
A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG) is the most respected dictionary of New Testament Greek. It says,
1. wash ceremonially for purpose of purification, wash, purify, of a broad range of repeated ritual washing rooted in Israelite tradition …
2. to use water in a rite for purpose of renewing or establishing a relationship w. God, plunge, dip, wash, baptize. The transliteration ‘baptize’ signifies the ceremonial character that NT narratives accord such cleansing, but the need of qualifying statements or contextual coloring in the documents indicates that the term b. was not nearly so technical as the transliteration suggests.
Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament is also a very well respected Greek dictionary. It says —
1. properly, to dip repeatedly, to immer[s]e, submerge (of vessels sunk … ).
2. to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water; in the middle and the 1 aorist passive to wash oneself, bathe
And so “immerse” is not the only possible meaning of baptizo. For example,
(Mar 7:1-4 ESV) Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash [Greek: baptize]. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing [baptizing] of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.)
How did the Pharisees wash their hands? Well, they had strict rules.
The washing was accomplished by pouring water on the hands, and this fact excludes all suggestions of immersing the hands from Mark’s reference in verse 3. The evangelist correctly specifies that a handful of water was required. The position of the hand was cupped, with the fingers flexed to allow the water to pass between them so as to reach all parts of the hand. By cupping the hand the entire hand could be washed with a very small quantity of water. A distinction was maintained between this type of washing, sprinkling, and bathing or the immersion of the hands up to the joint of the fingers, and apparently it is this third category of ablutions to which reference is made in verse 4 in connection with food purchased in the marketplace.
William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 246–247.
And as to the dining couches —
That these couches were immersed in every instance of ceremonial washing, can be thought probable, or even possible, only by those who are under the necessity of holding that this Greek word not only means to dip or plunge, originally, but, unlike every other word transferred to a religious use, is always used in that exclusive and invariable sense, without modification or exception; to those who have no purpose to attain by such a paradox, the place before us will afford, if not conclusive evidence, at least a strong presumption, that beds (to say no more) might be baptized without immersion.
John Peter Lange, Philip Schaff, and William G. T. Shedd, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Mark (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 65.
And so, “baptize” clearly can mean “wash” and perhaps even “pour.” Obviously, the couches weren’t immersed! And honesty keeps me from pretending otherwise.
But it seems, to me, that Christian baptism was immersion. I mean, you can’t really translate Acts 2:38 as “Repent and be poured everyone of you …” (But “washed” would work.) New Testament water baptism was likely patterned after the Jewish washings in mikvahs — except that no one could baptize himself whereas mikvah washing was a purely one-person operation. And the mikvahs were used for an immersion.
In Acts 2, Peter preached, I believe but cannot prove, at the Temple — because crowds that big could not gather at many places in Jerusalem — and I don’t think God could have resisted the symbolism. And the Temple was surrounded by pools and mikvahs for ceremonial washings — and so immersion would have been entirely natural in that setting. After all, 3000 people had to be baptized in one day. The vicinity of the Temple had to water needed to do that.
This would have been the natural interpretation in a culture and location where immersion was routinely practiced as a ceremonial cleansing.
On the other hand, the Greek Orthodox baptize through a dipping process (three times!), and the Greek dictionaries are clear that baptizo can also mean “dip.” My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a great movie with a baptismal scene you should watch.
In short, let’s not be quite so insistent about immersion being the only meaning allowed in the Greek. The dictionary doesn’t get you there. And that means that we can’t insist that new converts should know that baptizo means immerse and only immerse.
Nonetheless I believe immersion to have been the First Century practice. It’s just not an obvious conclusion unless you have access to quite a lot more information than a dictionary.
In chapter 18, Randall explains how the Catholics corrupted the translation of baptizo to avoid “immerse” so that they could keep sprinkling. And this is a favorite argument in the Churches of Christ, although it’s easily shown to be untrue.
Tyndale’s English translation — the first English translation other than Wyclif’s from centuries earlier (and forgotten by the time of Tyndale) — was made on the run from Catholic authorities, courageously in opposition to Catholic decrees. Tyndale’s translation, from 1534, of the very familiar Matthew 3:11 is as follows:
I baptise you in water in toke of repentaunce: but he that cometh after me is myghtier then I whose shues I am not worthy to beare. He shall baptise you with the holy gost and with fyre:
And so William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for making his translation, used “baptise” — surely not because this would help the Catholic Church sprinkle! The Catholic Church had issued a death warrant for him!
The King James Version was heavily based on Tyndale’s brilliant work, by a committee of scholars from the Church of England, a church founded by King Henry VIII in opposition to the Catholic Church. And King James, who followed
was the son of Henry, was also a Protestant, and no friend of the Pope.
Transliteration of the word allowed the Catholic doctrine of sprinkling and pouring to remain intact because the word baptize was so vague. It was a strange, almost esoteric word; therefore, religious people accepted the false idea (promoted by Catholicism) that the word baptize could mean to sprinkle, to pour over or to immerse. Most importantly, the word baptize wouldn’t directly oppose the sprinkling and pouring doctrine advocated by the Catholic Church.
(Kindle Locations 3326-3336).
This is an argument borrowed from the age of anti-Catholic bigotry (not that Randall is necessarily bigoted against Catholics). I mean, notice how often the point is made that this is wrong because it’s Catholic. (And the chapter is filled with such language.) It would be closer to the truth to replace “Catholic” with “Anglican” — and the Anglicans sprinkle, too, but “Catholic” was preferred — despite being contrary to history — surely because it helped persuade readers that the translation was corrupted by those terrible Catholics.
Much more importantly, even if the Church of England wished to preserve sprinkling (which is surely true), “baptize” had been in the English language nearly 300 years earlier than even Tyndale’s translation, at the least. The Merriam-Webster dictionary traces “baptize” to Middle English and finds it in use among English speakers as early as the 13th Century (1200’s) — 300 years before Tyndale and 400 years before the King James Version.
The Canterbury Tales were written by Chaucer at the end of the 13th Century, and its “Second Nun’s Tale” makes repeated mention of baptism. (Clever of those Catholics to sneak that transliteration into the English language so early, in case someone might make an illegal translation.)
And obviously those English families who wished to have their babies baptized in whatever church held the throne at the time needed a word for “baptize.” Do we really think that English peasants went to the local parish priest and requested “immersion” for their babies? And I’ve yet to see evidence that they used any word other than “baptize.” Tyndale had to use the word the people of England used, or else he would not have been understood.
In short, Randall’s argument is wrong, and it wasn’t hard and didn’t take long to disprove its veracity. You just have to be willing to check.