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).

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