January 7: Baptism (Mark 1:4-5)

For those of you have been following by daily notes on the Book of Revelation, I have interrupted them for these Christmas-season themed notes; the notes on Revelation will continue on Jan 14.

In the Eastern Church, January 6 (Epiphany/Theophany) was originally the date commemorating the birth of Jesus; however, as the Western date of Dec 25 was gradually adopted, Jan 6 came to commemorate the baptism of Jesus instead. In the West, the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13) is the traditional day for celebrating the baptism. With these two dates in mind, during the week of January 7-13, I will be presenting a series of daily notes on the subject of baptism—how it was understood and practiced by early Christians. These notes will also serve as a word study on the bapt– word-group in Greek.


The verb bapti/zw (baptízœ) is an intensive form of ba/ptw (báptœ), “dip”, as in a liquid. The simple verb occurs only four times in the New Testament (Luke 16:24; John 13:26 [twice]; Revelation 19:13). As an intensive form, bapti/zw thus means “plunge, submerge, dunk”. The masculine noun baptismo/$ (baptismós) and the neuter ba/ptisma (báptisma) are derived from bapt(iz)w, and refer to the act (and/or result) of “dipping” or “dunking”, while the related noun baptisth/$ (baptist¢¡s) is “dunker, one who dunks”. All of these have come down to us in English as transliterations (baptize, baptism, baptist), and, as a result, the original meaning of the words has largely been lost for English-speakers and readers of the New Testament. Whatever else one may want to say about the accepted or proper mode of Christian baptism, there can be no doubt that the verb bapti/zw signifies being submerged or immersed (“dunked”) in water.

The verb bapti/zw is common enough, but is quite rare in the Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX), occurring just four times, most notably in 2 Kings 5:14, where it refers to Naaman washing/cleansing himself by going down seven times into the river Jordan. There is a similar idea of ritual washing in Sirach 34:25[30], while in Jdt 12:7 it refers to Judith’s bathing, in preparation for her climactic meeting with Holofernes. The verb is also rare, for example, in the works of Philo, and does not appear to have been especially significant in Hellenistic Judaism. Bapt(iz)w typically would translate the Hebrew lb^f* I (‰¹»al), with a similar meaning (“dip”) that also connotes washing or bathing, including in a ritual context. The Greek occurs several times in the early papyri, including the context of ceremonial washing (P. London 121 441), but also figuratively, in the sense of a person being overwhelmed and “submerged” by troubles, etc (P. Par 47 13, cf. Isaiah 21:4 LXX).

The noun baptismo/$ (“dipping, dunking”) is rare in Greek (e.g., Plutarch Moralia II.166a [On Superstition]), and does not occur at all in the LXX, and only once in Josephus (Antiquites 18.117, of John the Baptist, cf. below). The neuter ba/ptisma appears to be a uniquely Christian word, with no contemporary occurrences outside of the New Testament and early Christian literature. Ba/ptisma is the much more common word in the New Testament for dipping/dunking (i.e. baptism), occurring 19 times as opposed to 4 for baptismo/$. The specific Christian rite is properly referred to as ba/ptisma, while baptismo/$ is used more generally for ritual washing/bathing (Mark 7:4; Heb 6:2; 9:10); only in Col 2:12 is baptismo/$ unquestionably used for Christian baptism. The corresponding Hebrew term is hl*yb!f= (from lbf I, cf. above), which was used for the (later) Jewish ritual washing/bathing (“baptism”) of Gentile converts.

As for the noun baptisth/$ (“dipper, dunker, one who dunks”), it is used almost exclusively as a title for John the Baptist (cf. below), and is scarcely to be found outside of the early Christian writings.

John the Baptist (Mark 1:4-5 par)

Of the 77 occurrences of the verb bapti/zw (“dunk, submerge”) in the New Testament, 32 are used of Yohanan the Dunker (John the Baptist) and his ministry, which is recorded, in some detail, in all four Gospels, and is also referenced in the book of Acts. By all accounts, it is to be regarded as the principal basis for the tradition of Christian baptism. It is not clear whether there were other contemporary (or earlier) “dunking” movements, or if it was original and unique to John; the lack of contemporary evidence for similar movements suggests the latter. However, some scholars claim that the tradition of Jewish “proselyte baptism”, i.e. the ritual washing/bathing of Gentile converts, pre-dates the mid-first century A.D. The evidence for this is slight indeed, based largely on several questionable passages (e.g., Testament of Levi 14:6; Epictetus Dissertations 2.9.19).

Far more relevant, at least in terms of being a parallel to early Christian baptism, is the tradition of ritual washing/bathing practiced by the Qumran Community. According to certain key documents, the Community (of the Qumran texts) practiced ritual washings, which symbolized cleansing/purification from sin and entry/participation in the community (cf. 1QS 3:3ff; 5:13-14). This may also be confirmed by the excavations of the Khirbet Qumrân site, which includes cisterns and (apparently) miqw¹°ôt (pools/baths) for ritual washing. As such, it provides a distinct parallel with early Christian baptism, which is related in turn to the earlier baptism practiced by John. There is also an interesting juxtaposition of cleansing by water and the Holy Spirit (and fire) in 1QS 4:20-21, as we see expressed by John in Matt 3:11 / Lk 3:16.

With the discovery of the Qumran texts (Dead Sea scrolls), a number of scholars have theorized that John the Baptist may have been influenced by the beliefs and teachings of that Community, perhaps even that he had belonged to it for a time. I discuss this hypothesis in an earlier article.

John’s ministry is best (and most clearly) summarized in Mark 1:4-5:

“Yohanan [the] (one) dunking [bapti/zwn] came to be in the desolate (land), and (was) proclaiming a dunking [ba/ptisma] of a change-of-mind unto the release of sins. And all the Yehudean area [i.e. all Judea] and all the Yerushalaimis [i.e. people of Jerusalem] traveled out toward him and were dunked [ebapti/zonto] under him in the Yarden river, giving out an account together of their sins.”

Matthew and Luke more or less reproduce this same summary (Matt 3:5-6; Lk 3:3, 21a), but include additional examples of John’s preaching (Matt 3:7-10, 12; Lk 3:7-14, 17). What the description in Mk 1:4-5 par emphasizes is that the dunking in the Jordan river was meant to symbolize a cleansing from sin—that is, a washing away of sin (a “release” a&fesi$) that was connected with the person’s confession (of sin) and attitude of repentance (meta/noia, “change of mind[set]”). Given the obvious parallels between John and Elijah, it is quite possible that his practice of having people go into the Jordan is a direct imitation of the command given to Naaman by Elisha (2 Kings 5:10-14, cf. above).

The core Synoptic tradition regarding John the Baptist’s ministry has several key components in common:

    • The citation of Isa 40:3, identifying John as a prophetic herald preparing the way for the end-time visitation of God (through His Messiah) and the coming Judgment (Mk 1:3ff par)
    • The (Messianic) saying regarding “the one (who is) coming”, with the contrast between dunking in water and dunking in the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:7-8 par)
    • The tradition of Jesus being baptized by John, with the descent of the Spirit and the heavenly voice declaring Jesus to be God’s Son (Mk 1:9-11 par)

These elements are also found in the Gospel of John (1:19-34), though presented very differently. The Johannine tradition also sets the contrast between Jesus and John more sharply, emphasizing the superiority of Jesus and his identity as the Messiah (vv. 6-9, 15, 20-21, 25, 29ff, 35; 3:25-30ff; cp. Luke 3:15ff; Matt 3:14f). I have discussed the tradition of Jesus’ Baptism, and the relationship between Jesus and John, at length as part of the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”. On the independent account of John the Baptist in Josephus’ Antiquities, cf. my earlier note.

Two details in the early Gospel tradition would greatly influence the significance of baptism as it would develop among early Christians, and so should be kept in mind as we continue through these notes:

    • The baptism of Jesus himself, as an imitative pattern for believers, participating in his divine life (and sonship), and
    • The association of baptism with the Holy Spirit, by way of the saying in Mk 1:8 par and the specific detail in the baptism narrative (Mk 1:10 par; Jn 1:32-33).

January 6: Galatians 3:27; 1 John 3:2

Believers as the “sons of God”, continued

In this short study on the “birth” of Believers as the sons/children of God, I have presented this in terms of Christian experience, as a process made up of four ‘stages’. The first two were discussed in the previous note, each with a representative Scripture verse; the last two will be examined today.

    1. Pre-existent sonship (predestination/election as sons)
    2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus
    3. Sonship recognized/symbolized in the ritual of Baptism
    4. Sonship realized through resurrection/exaltation
3. Sonship symbolized in Baptism (Galatians 3:26-27ff)

In the conceptual framework I have adopted, the baptism of believers corresponds, appropriately enough, with the baptism of Jesus (cf. the chiastic outline in the previous note). As Jesus was declared God’s Son at the Baptism, so the sonship of believers is recognized (and symbolized) in the ritual of baptism.

References to baptism are surprisingly rare in the New Testament, outside of the Gospels and Acts. Indeed, Paul is the only author to deal with subject (apart from 1 Peter 3:21), and he appears to have developed a distinctive interpretation of the ritual. Drawing upon a common early tradition, he has infused baptism with a deeper theological (and Christological) meaning. There were two factors which led to the association between baptism and the identity of believers as sons of God. The first of these, as noted above, is the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ own baptism. All four Gospels include the tradition of the heavenly voice (of God) declaring Jesus to be his Son. While there is some textual uncertainty regarding this declaration in John (1:34, v.l.), the Synoptic tradition is relatively fixed (Mark 1:11 par). As discussed in an earlier note, the heavenly declaration almost certainly alludes to Psalm 2:7 (in Luke 3:22 v.l. it is a direct citation), and, as such, has definite Messianic significance, though, as we have seen, Christians also came to understand the title “Son of God” (and the statement in Psalm 2:7 itself) in a deeper sense, in terms of the pre-existent deity of Christ.

The second factor involves the significance of the ritual act, as it developed among the earliest believers. From the original idea of cleansing (from sin), baptism came to represent the essential identity of the believer in Christ. This was patterned along the lines of the Lord’s Supper, as presented in the early (Gospel) tradition—as a participation in the death of Jesus, symbolically imitating his own sacrificial act. By going into the water, one dies (symbolically), participating in Jesus’ death; and, in emerging again from the water, our new life in Christ is symbolized—a “rebirth” effected by the same divine power (the Spirit) that raised Jesus from the dead. No one emphasized or expressed this participatory aspect more than Paul. It is clearly and powerfully stated in Romans 6:3-5:

“…are you without knowledge that we, as (many of us) as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed Yeshua, we were dunked into his death? Then we were buried together with him through th(is) dunking into the death, (so) that, just as (the) Anointed (One) was raised out of the dead through the honor/splendor [do/ca] of the Father, (so) also we should walk about in newness of life. For if we have come to be planted together in the likeness of his death, (then) also will we be (in the likeness) of (his) standing up (out of the dead)…”

The same idea is expressed, more concisely, in Colossians 2:12, which better captures the essence of the ritual act:

“…(hav)ing been buried together with him in the dunking [i.e. baptism], in which also you rose together, through the trust (you have) of God’s working in (it), the (One hav)ing raised him out of the dead”

In Galatians, this participatory language also occurs at several points, not always in the context of baptism (see especially 2:19-21). The theme of baptism is introduced at 3:27, directly following the declaration in verse 26 regarding the identity of believers as sons of God (cf. the discussion in the previous note). The entirety of chapter 3 (indeed, all of chaps. 3-4) deals with this question of Christian identity—i.e., believers in Christ as the people of God, heirs to the covenantal promises originally given to Abraham (and Israel). The true identity of humankind as the sons of God comes through trust in Jesus, along with the presence of the Spirit—both of which are represented in the baptism ritual. Here is how Paul concludes his discussion in chapter 3:

“For all of you are sons of God through the trust (you have) in (the) Anointed Yeshua, for as (many) of you as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed, you sunk yourselves into (the) Anointed (as a garment). (And) there is in (him) no Yehudean {Jew} and no Greek, there is in (him) no slave and no free (person), there is in (him) no male and female—for you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua! And if you are of the Anointed (One), then you are the seed of Abraham, (the one)s receiving (his) lot, according to (the) message [i.e. promise] (of God) upon (it).” (vv. 26-29)

This same sort of ritual language and imagery is used by Paul in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:10-11 (cp. Eph 4:24). His use of the image of ‘putting on a garment’, with the verb e)ndu/w (literally “sink in”, i.e. into the garment), is even more widespread. It is typically used in the middle voice, that is, of believers reflexively putting on Christ (as a garment). The ‘garment’ signifies the participatory union we have with Jesus (the Son), but also the new life (and new way of life) that this union brings. It is the baptism ritual that symbolizes this new life, but it still must be realized by believers, in the present, each day. Thus, Paul uses the idiom in an ethical context, urging believers to live and walk in this newness of life, which means walking according to the guidance of the Spirit. For the verb e)ndu/w in this context, cf. 1 Thess 5:8; Romans 13:12-14; Col 3:9-12 (cp. 2:11-12); Eph 6:11, 14; and, for similar instruction specifically referring to the Spirit’s guidance, note Rom 8:4-5ff; Gal 5:16-18, 25; 6:8. That the baptismal ‘garment’ is essentially to be identified with the Spirit is clear from 1 Cor 12:13.

In 1 Cor 15:53f and 2 Cor 5:3 the verb e)ndu/w and image of putting on the (new) garment is used in an eschatological context, referring to the resurrection and future glory of believers. It is this (final) aspect of the sonship of believers that I discuss briefly below.

4. Sonship realized through Resurrection/Exaltation (1 John 3:2)

It is in Romans 8:18-25 that Paul addresses the identity of believers as the “sons of God”, as it is finally realized at the end-time, in the resurrection. I have discussed this passage earlier, as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, and will not repeat that study here. Instead, I turn to 1 John 3:1-3, for an expression of this eschatological aspect.

The principal thrust of First John has to do with the identity of those who are true believers in Christ. This is defined by the great dual-command of (a) trust in Jesus and (b) love for one’s fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example (3:23-24). For the author of the letter, sin is understood primarily as violating the dual-command. The section 2:28-3:10 deals with the relationship between sin and the believer; no true believer can sin in the sense of transgressing the dual-command, only false believers will sin this way. He warns of the false believers who do not have a proper trust or belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and also do not show love (since they have separated from the Community of believers). And, in common with the Johannine theology, the true believers are identified as children of God, using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), i.e. “the ones having come to be born out of God”. This is the language used in 2:29 (also 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), while the plural noun te/kna (“offspring, children”) occurs in 3:1-2, 10; 5:2; in the Gospel, note 1:12-13; 3:3-8. In the Johannine writings, te/kna is preferred over ui(oi/ (“sons”, except Jn 12:36 “sons of light”), with the noun ui(o/$ reserved for Jesus as the only “Son”.

The section 2:28-3:10 is given an eschatological setting, referring to the end-time coming of Jesus, in 2:28. The author clearly believed that he and his readers were living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18), and would likely live to see the return of Jesus. The false view of Jesus is called antichrist (a)nti/xristo$, “against the Anointed”) and is a sure indication that the end is near. Thus, in 3:1-3, the identity of believers as sons/children of God has both a present and future aspect, with the future soon to be realized:

“You must see what (sort of) love the Father has given to us, that we would be called (the) offspring of God [te/kna qeou=], and (so) we are. Through [i.e. because of] this, the world does not know us, (in) that [i.e. because] it did not know Him. Loved (one)s, we are now (the) offspring of God, and yet it has not been made to shine forth what we will be. We have seen that, when it should (indeed) be made to shine forth, we will be like Him, (in) that we will look with (open) eyes (seeing) Him even as He is. And (so) every (one) holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that (one) is pure.”

The key eschatological statement is verse 2 (in bold). There are four different dimensions to the believers’ identity as the “offspring of God”, and they generally correspond with the four ‘stages’ outlined in this study:

    • “we would be called” —the love and intention God has for us [Election/Predestination]
    • “we are” —our essential identity and reality as believers [Trust in Jesus]
    • “we are now” —our identity in the present, realized in the Christian life [Symbolized by Baptism, etc]
    • “we will be” —our identity fulfilled at the end-time coming of Jesus [Resurrection/Exaltation]

The syntax of vv. 1-3 poses certain problems, as the referent for the 3rd person singular verbal subject and pronoun is not always clear. Does “he/him” refer to God the Father (the immediate subject in v. 1) or to Jesus (his return, the subject in 2:28). Moreover, the verb fanerwqh=| is unclear—is the subject “what we will be”, or does it refer to the appearance of Jesus? The former is to be preferred as more natural to the syntax, and also to the point the author is making; it should be read “when it should be made to shine forth…”. As to the identity of “he/him”, in my view, it is God the Father in vv. 1-2, but then switches (back) to Jesus in v. 3. The hope of believers is “upon him”, that is, upon the return of Jesus (2:28), and the demonstrative pronoun e)kei=no$ (“that one”) refers back to Jesus. In between, 2:29-3:2, the focus is on God the Father, and our (believers’) relation to Him as His offspring. Admittedly, the syntax is a bit confusing; it requires careful attention to the nuance of the author’s line of argument.

This eschatological dimension of sonship is not that unusual; it relates to the traditional Jewish idea of the righteous as “sons of God”, an identity that will only be fully realized in the blessed afterlife, after having passed through the Judgment—e.g., Wisdom 5:5; Philo On the Confusion of Tongues §147; cp. Matt 5:9; 2 Cor 6:18. We also have the eschatological image of the faithful ones being gathered together, at the end-time, as “sons of God” (Psalms of Solomon 17:28-30; cp. John 11:52). The blessed future life for the righteous involves the vision of God, i.e. seeing God Himself, and it is this experience which fully transforms the righteous (believers) into sons/children of God who resemble their Father (cf. Matt 5:8; 1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor 3:18; in Jewish tradition, e.g., Philo On Abraham §§57-59; Pesiqta Rabbati 46b [11.7]; Midrash on Psalm 149 [270a]). Cf. R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 30 (1982), p. 425, and the discussion throughout pp. 378-435.

Ultimately, however, for believers, this transformation is based on our union with Jesus (the Son), through the Spirit. This builds on the familiar idea that our identity as God’s sons/children stems from Jesus’ own Sonship. Paul recognizes this throughout his discussions on the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-23ff, 45-49; 2 Cor 4:14; Phil 3:20-21, etc), but most notably in Romans 8:18-25ff, and the climactic statement in verse 29:

“…that the (one)s whom He knew before(hand) He also marked out before(hand) together in (the) shape of the image of His Son, unto his being (the) first-produced [i.e. firstborn] among many brothers

Thus, we are to become truly God’s sons, brothers to Jesus as His Son. Much the same idea is to be found in Hebrews 2:10:

“For it was fitting for Him, through whom all (thing)s (have their purpose), and through whom all (thing)s (came to be), (in) leading many sons into honor/splendor [do/ca], (was) to make complete the chief leader of their salvation through sufferings.”

In 1 John 3:1-3, this relationship is indicated by the outer references to Jesus (2:28, 3:3) which frame the inner references to God the Father. Our sonship derives from Jesus’ own sonship, and our exaltation is similarly based on Jesus’ own exaltation. When he returns, this final aspect of our identity as sons of God will be realized.