Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich and Danker list the following meanings for baptizō: “dip, immerse, dip oneself, wash.” The word is used in non-Christian literature to mean “plunge, sink, drench, overwhelm.” Three major uses are listed: (1) of Jewish ritual washings – Mark 7:4; Luke 11:38. (We have shown that both of these usages indicate washing by immersing in water.) (2) In the special sense of “baptize” – of John the Baptist, of Christian baptism, and (3) in the figurative sense related to the idea of Christian baptism.

There are at least 10 metaphorical uses of baptizein in the NT. Six times the word is used for the pouring out of the Spirit and fire (Mt. 3:11, Mk. 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:26 ff.; Acts 1:5, 11:16). Once it is used for the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites (I Cor. 10:2). Three times it is used for the concept of death, once for Christ (Mark 10:38), once for James and John (Luke 12:50), and for the Corinthians in I Cor. 15:29. The following uses of baptisma (translated “baptism”) occur: (1) thirteen times of John’s baptism (Matt. 3:7, etc.), (2) four times of Christian baptism (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12; Eph. 4:5 and I Pet. 3:21), and (3) three times of baptism figuratively for Jesus’ death (Mark 10:38, etc.). The following uses of baptismos (translated “dipping” or “baptism”) occur: (1) of washing of dishes (Mark 7:4, 8); (2) of ritual washings (Heb. 9:10; Heb. 6:2).[1]

Louw and Nida recognize three major semantic categories for the word baptizō: (1) to wash (possibly in some contexts by dipping into water) with the purpose of purification; (2) to baptize in the sense of “to employ water in a religious ceremony designed to symbolize purification and initiation. . . ;” and (3) to cause religious experience, a figurative extension of the term.

After noting most translators employ a transliterated form of the Greek word (which they themselves have done), they state in some languages this would be “inappropriate, especially if another term or expression has already been employed and is widely accepted by groups practicing various types or forms of baptism.”[2]

This is an egregious example of lexical prejudice that ignores the clear evidence that baptizō means “to immerse” in terms of mode. Liddell and Scott give the meaning “to dip in or under water.” In the first edition of Liddell and Scott’s lexicon, the seventh meaning of baptizō was listed as “to pour upon,” but with no example in classical Greek cited in support.

It is significant to note that this meaning was deleted in the second edition and his been absent in each subsequent edition. Furthermore, Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon contains no example of baptizō being used for sprinkling or pouring. In fact, in ancient Greek, Septuagint Greek and first century A. D. Greek, the word consistently meant “to dip, dunk or immerse.”

It is a simple linguistic fact that rantizō “to sprinkle” and eccheō, “to pour,” both occur in the NT, but never in connection with baptism. From a linguistic perspective, an inadequate diachronic analysis of baptizein has contributed to the confusion surrounding the meaning and use of this word.

If, as established by Ysebaert, baptizein originally carried its Jewish meaning of “to immerse,” did the word ever come to mean “to sprinkle” or “to wash”? Since vessels were washed by being immersed, Mark 7:4 cannot be used as a proof text to support the meaning of “wash.” Nor can help be sought from Luke 11:38 since Jewish ritual washing meant dipping the hands in water, and as Ysebeart argued, this “merely indicates that the verb was becoming more technical.”[3] The cognates apoluein and loutron are used only in rare cases for the concept of cleansing from sin and are not synonymous with baptizein.[4] Thus, the word baptizein retains its Jewish meaning of “immerse” in the New Testament and there is no evidence that its meaning ever changed into that of “wash.”

The question of whether baptizein has become a technical term in the New Testament without reference to mode need not detain us here. If the mode is inherently bound up in the meaning and usage of the term, as demonstrated above, then the chronology of when the term became a technical term for baptism is moot.[5]

Etymologically, baptizō clearly means “immerse.” However, meaning cannot be determined by etymology alone. The usage of a term must be carefully studied to determine its meaning. When this is done with baptizein, the term unquestionably means “immerse.”[6] Paedobaptists argue that the secular usage of baptizō cannot determine its meaning in the New Testament. While it is certainly true that lexicography alone cannot determine meaning or usage, the lexicon cannot be ignored or minimized as is often the case with paedobaptists.

[1]A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, revised and edited by Frederick Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000 , 131-32. See also Liddell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 146. For the usage of baptizein among Greek papyri, see Moulton and Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and other Non-literary Sources (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1930), 102-03; Milligan, Selections from the Greek Papyri (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910), 22, where the metaphorical use of baptizein in the “Letter of Apollonius” (“we are immersed in trouble”) is similar to the language of Mark 10:38. Baptizein is used 77 times in the Greek New Testament; baptisma is used 19 times; baptismos is used four times and baptistēs occurs 12 times (Philip Clapp, Barbara Friberg and Timothy Friberg, eds., Analytical Concordance of the Greek New Testament, vol. 1, Lexical Focus [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991], 327-28). See also G. R. Beasley-Murray, “Baptism, Wash,” NIDNTT, vol. 1, 144-150; J. H. Moulton & W. F. Howard, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, vol. II (1929), 408; and Ysebaert, Greek Baptismal Terminology.

[2]Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, vol. 2 (New York: United Bible Societies), 536-38.

[3]Greek Baptismal Terminology, 41.

[4]Ibid. 42, 62-63.

[5]Oepke, TDNT, vol. 1, 529-546, considers the term to have reached technical status in the New Testament. Ysebaert, Greek Baptismal Terminology, 37, disagrees. See discussion in Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 45-46 in relation to the phrase “baptism in the Spirit” in I Cor. 12:13.

[6]Significant works proving this from both secular and sacred usage of the term in Classical and Koine Greek include Alexander Carson, Baptism in Its Mode and Subjects (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1848) and Thomas J. Conant, The Meaning and Use of Baptizein (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1977 reprint of the American Bible Union edition, 1860). J. L. Dagg, Church Order: a Treatise (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1871, 21-37, collates these according to semantic domains in tables for ease of study.