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HOW IS BAPTISM DEFINED
BY GREEK DICTIONARIES?

We must remember that "baptize" is an untranslated word. The Greek term baptizo was simply brought into the English, without translation. The final "o" (omega) was dropped and the English "e" was added to give us the English verb "baptize." In the case of the Greek baptisma, the final "a" (alpha) was dropped to give us the English noun "baptism." Therefore, instead of trying to discover the meaning of the English terms—"baptize" and "baptism"—we need to discover the meaning of the Greek terms baptizo and baptisma (and the related baptismos).

Just as a modern English dictionary defines English words according to contemporary usage in the English-speaking world, so a dictionary or "lexicon" of the Greek language of ancient times will define the Greek term according to its usage at that time in history. We are concerned about the meaning of the Greek term baptizo at the time of Christ when He commanded his disciples to "baptize" all nations (Matt. 28:19).

How do standard and generally reliable lexicons define this important Greek term? This is an important question since a very few unreasonable anti-immersionists make certain startling affirmations, such as the following: "Baptizo in various forms is used 112 times in the New Testament, always meaning ‘pouring’" (E.J. Berkey, The Bible Mode of Baptism, p. 15). A Lutheran writer also makes this incredible assertion: "Neither John’s nor any other baptism mentioned in the New Testament was administered by immersion" (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of The Acts of the Apostles, p. 112. In saying this, he conflicts with Luther himself who at first was a strong proponent of infant dipping.) Is there any possibility that such statements can be consistently maintained? Is there any linguistic evidence that would lead to these utterly extreme assertions? This shows the importance of careful word studies, particularly using contemporary, unbiased, and reliable Greek lexicons.

It is important that we consult the better, more reliable, and more contemporary lexicons in our study of this term as well as other Greek terms. A.T. Robertson makes this point: "When one quotes an antiquated and partisan lexicon in favor of sprinkling, he should be sure to give the date. No modern Greek lexicons give any other meaning for baptizo than dip. . . . A man today who argues that baptizo means to sprinkle or pour throws suspicion on his scholarship and is on the defensive" (Modern Scholarship and the Form of Baptism, p. 4). With this caution in mind, notice these quotations from a variety of Greek lexicons:

  • Baptizo: "To make a thing dipped or dyed. To immerse for a religious purpose" (A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament, E.W. Bullinger).
  • Baptizo: "Dip, immerse, mid. Dip oneself, wash (in non-Christian lit. also ‘plunge, sink, drench, overwhelm. . . .’)" (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Arndt and Gingrich, p. 131).
  • Baptizo: "immersion, submersion" (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Grimm-Thayer, p. 94).
  • Baptizo: "to dip, immerse, sink" (Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, Abbott-Smith, p. 74).
  • Baptizo: "dip, plunge" (A Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell & Scott, p. 305).
  • Baptizo: "consisting of the process of immersion, submersion and emergence (from bapto, to dip)" (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words).
  • Baptizo: "immerse, sumberge. The peculiar N.T. and Christian use of the word to denote immersion, submersion for a religious purpose" (Biblico-Theological Lexicon of the New Testament Greek, Cremer).
  • Baptizo: "to dip, immerse; to cleanse or purify by washing" (The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, Perschbacher, p. 66).
  • Baptizo: "to dip, to immerse, to sink. . . . There is no evidence that Luke or Paul and the other writers of the New Testament put upon this verb meanings not recognized by the Greeks" (Greek and English Lexicon, Sophocles).

This is sufficient for us to see that there is little controversy as to the meaning of the term baptizo as found in the Koine (common) Greek language of the first century. The standard Greek lexicons reveal that the term means to dip, to immerse, to plunge, to sink, to submerge, to overwhelm, and other synonyms. In one of the references, the result of the immersion is given—to purify through washing.

We must qualify the definition above by Vine. He says that the Greek baptisma consists of "the process of immersion, submersion, and emergence." Strictly speaking, to baptize means to dip, immerse, plunge, submerge, sink, or overwhelm without reference to what occurs subsequent to this action. Conant clarifies this point:

The word immerse, as well as its synonyms immerge, etc., expresses the full import of the Greek word baptizein. The idea of emersion is not included in the meaning of the Greek word. It means, simply, to put into or under water (or other substance), without determining whether the object immersed sinks to the bottom, or floats in the liquid, or is immediately taken out. This is determined, not by the word itself, but by the nature of the case, and by the design of the act in each particular case. A living being, put under water without intending to drown him, is of course to be immediately withdrawn from it; and this is to be understood, wherever the word is used with reference to such a case (Thomas Jefferson Conant, The Meaning and Use of Baptizein, pp. 106-107).

As we discover that the Greek words bapto and baptizo do have a meaning that was well known, we need to begin to break the language barrier and see this matter from the perspective of the Greek-speaker and Greek-writer. F.H. Chase explains this point:

In English we translate the Greek word baptizein. When we use the word "baptize" we think at once and we think only of the religious rite. Apart from that rite the word has no meaning for us. It is simply and solely a religious technical term. But the Aramaic Christian when he used the Aramaic word, and the Greek Christian when he used the Greek word, would never in this particular application of the term lose sight of its primary and proper signification "to immerse," "to plunge in or into" ("The Lord’s Command to Baptize," The Journal of Theological Studies, July, 1905, p. 503).

Chase then asks us to think of how the Greek baptizo was translated in the early versions of Scripture:

In their versions of the New Testament the Syriac and the Egyptian Christians translated the word baptizein. Latin-speaking Christians, though like ourselves they commonly transliterated it (baptizare), yet sometimes . . . used as its equivalent the Latin verb tingere. What if we dare to follow their example and, instead of transliterating it, venture to translate it—Baptizontes autous eis to onoma, "immersing them into the Name"? So surely a Greek-speaking Christian would understand the words. He would regard the divine Name as the element, so to speak, into which the baptized is plunged. Thus the outward rite is seen to be an immediate parable of a great spiritual reality (Ibid.).

Therefore, we must cross the language barrier and seek to understand the word "baptize" as the Greek-speaker would understand baptizo. Our examination of standard Greek dictionaries reveals that there is no mystery about the meaning of the Greek terms baptizo and baptisma even though there may be denominational objections to this practice today.

Richard Hollerman