“Philology is the eye of the needle through which every theological camel must enter the heaven of theology.” A theology of baptism must begin with the meaning and usage of baptizō in the Septuagint (LXX – Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament done appx. 250 B.C.) and Greek New Testament, and then expand into the broader context of contemporary usage both sacred and secular.
lbf in the Old Testament
Koehler and Baumgartner designate the meaning of the Hebrew lbf as “to dip something into; to dive or plunge.” Elmer Martens assigns the meaning of “immerse.”
From the usage of this word in the Hebrew Old Testament, and especially from its use in II Kings 5:14 of Naaman immersing himself in the Jordan, it is evident that the word is never used for anything other than immersion.
In his significant but often overlooked study, Greek Baptismal Terminology, Ysebaert explains how lbf along with baptizein as used for Jewish ritual washing as an immersion may be traced back to the story of Naaman in II Kings 5. The words indicate purification in its outward aspect as an immersion and do not carry the meaning of washing (except when that washing is done by immersion) or sprinkling.
Jewish Ablutions in the Old Testament and 2nd Temple Period
As noted by Ysebaert, in Mark 7:4 and Hebrews 9:10, baptismos follows the Jewish usage of the verb form and indicates the cleansing of both the body and vessels by immersion. When baptizein and baptismos are used for the cleansing of vessels (as, for example, Mk 7:4, Lev 6:28), one might draw the erroneous conclusion that the idea of immersion has been lost. Much is made of this in paedobaptist arguments against immersion. However, this overlooks the common household practice of cleaning vessels by immersing them in water, a procedure not uncommon in both the Old Testament (Lev 11:32) and the Mishna.
Jewish Proselyte Baptism
This subject has received considerable attention from scholars. Some have sought for the antecedents of Christian baptism in the rite of Jewish proselyte baptism. Although the question of exactly when Jewish Proselyte Baptism began is a matter of ongoing debate, what is now generally agreed upon is that Jewish proselyte baptism was done by immersion.
The Baptism of John the Baptist
Jewish purification rites were called baptismoi whereas John’s baptism and Christian baptism in the NT are referred to by the noun baptisma. What was the nature of John’s baptism and what relationship did it have to Christian baptism?
Two significant studies on John the Baptist have appeared in recent years: Robert Webb’s John the Baptizer and Prophet (1991) and Joan Taylor, The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism (1997). With respect to the mode of baptism, Webb concluded “John’s baptism was an immersion. . . .” Taylor concluded that the evidence is clear that John’s baptism was by immersion. John immersed Jesus in the Jordan, and Jesus, along with this disciples, taught baptism by immersion.
Nathan Söderblom, cited by D. A. Carson in Exegetical Fallacies, 27.
L. Koehler and W. Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, trans. and ed. by M. E. J. Richardson (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 368; Elmer Martens, “lbf,” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol. 2, ed. by Willem VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 337.
J. Ysebaert, Greek Baptismal Terminology: Its Origins and Early Development, Graecitas Christianorum Primaeva 1, in Studia Ad Sermonum Graecum Pertinentia Edenda Curant Christine Mohrmann Et J. G. A. Ross. J. (Nijmegen: Dekker & Van De Vegt N. V., 1962), 27-39.
G. R. Beasley-Murray concurred (New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, “Baptidzo,” 144).
Robert Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Socio-Historical Study, in JSNTSS 62 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), 214.