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Girdlestone's Synonyms of the Old Testament


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Many are the controversies that have gathered around the rite of Baptism. Questions have been raised as to the mode of administration, as to the right age and condition of those to whom it is to be administered, as to the persons who may perform the ordinance, as to the privileges and responsibilities involved in it, as to the exact bearing of the symbol, and as to the nature of the nexus which exists between the sign and the thing signified. Only one of these questions need be discussed here. When our Lord gave orders to his followers to baptize, how would the word which He used be understood? Did it prescribe the exact mode in which the ordinance was to be administered? or had it already arrived at that secondary or technical sense in which undoubtedly it has been largely used in after-times?

Classical authors have been diligently searched by contending parties with the hope of finding some solution of the question. But the more they have been scrutinised, the more clearly has it appeared that the word βαπτίζω has been used with very great latitude, and that it can neither be confined to its primary use of staining or dyeing, nor be restricted to the case of religious or ceremonial acts of cleansing.

The conclusion arrived at by a writer [Mr. R. Robinson, of Cambridge, quoted by Elibu (a Baptist) in his Vindication of the Bible Society.] who was himself a 'Baptist,' that is, one who holds to the practice of immersion, is as follows: -

'The English translators did not translate the word "baptize," and they acted wisely; for there is no one word in the English language which is an exact counterpart of the Greek word, as the New Testament uses it, containing the precise ideas of the Evangelist, neither less nor more. The difficulty, or rather the excellency, of the word is that it contains two ideas, inclusive of the whole doctrine of baptism. "Baptize" is a dyer's word, and signifies to dip so as to colour. Suc has render the word dip give one true idea; but the word stood for two, and one is wanting in this rendering. this defect is in the German Testament, Matthew 3:1 : " in those days came John der Täufer" - John the Dipper; and the Dutch, " in those days came John der Dooper" - John the Dipper. this is the truth, but it is not the whole truth. The Anglo-Sax on Testament adds another idea by naming John le fulluhtere - the fuller; and the Icelandic language translates Baptism, skirn, washing. These convey two ideas, cleansing by washing, but neither do these accurately express the two ideas of the Greek baptize.' [An anonymous writer, quoted in the pamphlet from which this passage is extracted, says, 'To scrape is the action employed when Paganini plays; but surely he would be offended if we were to use that homely word respecting his performance in like manner, I think it would be bad grammar, and bad taste, to say dip instead of baptize.']

as the question under discussion concerns a rite the performance of which has been held essential in all ages of Christianity, it certainly might have been supposed that this is one of the cases in which an examination of the early versions would decide the matter, but the search has led to no definite result. The old Latin version, indeed, rendered βαπτίζω by tingo, to moisten, bathe, dye, or stain; but Jerome adopted baptizo, a Latinised form of the Greek original, feeling, no doubt, that no Latin word could rightly convey its meaning; and from the Latin of Jerome the same word spread, through the influence of the church to which he belonged, into the Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English languages. The Syriac version has a very good word for dipping, but never uses it for baptism, preferring a word which originally signifies to stand, and which was adopted possibly from the position which the catechumen took; when the water was poured over him in the Sclavonic, modern Russ, and kindred languages, a term is used which is connected with 'crossing,' or possibly with 'christening.' in Arabic and Persian, as also in Icelandic, we find words which signify washing or cleansing; and in Anglo-Saxon, as we have seen above, the word is almost the same. Wycliffe used wash and baptize indifferently; thus in Matthew 3:1-17. we read, 'I waishe yhou in watir into pennance, but he that schal come after me is strenger than i, whos scho on y am not worthi to bere, he schal baptise you in the hooly Goost and fire.' The German and kindred languages have been cited in favour of the rendering dip, but it has been shown by Dr. Henders on that there is a slight distinction between the words for dip and baptize in these languages; thus the German word for dip is generally tauchen, but the word for baptize taufen. Moreover, in these languages the preposition following the verb is usually not in, which would be expected if the verb answered to our English dip, but with, showing that the verb is used in a ceremonial rather than an etymological sense, for the administration of a cleansing rite.

It is evident that the versions of the Scriptures will not lead us to any definite conclusion, and we are thrown back once more up on the Bible itself. Although the English word baptize does not occur in the O.T., yet on examining the LXX we find the Greek βαπτίζω used twice in the canonical scriptures, and twice in the Apocrypha in Judith 12:7 we read, 'She washed herself (ἐβαπτίζετο) at the fountain of water.' Apparently this was for ceremonial cleansing in Sirach 34:25 we are told of one who was βαπτίζόμενος ἀπὸ νεκρου̂, i.e. washed or bathed, in order to be cleansed from the ceremonial pollution which arises from contact with a dead body. this was done by sprinkling (Numbers 8:7) in Isaiah 21:4 the prophet says, 'Fearfulness hath affrighted me,' which the LXX renders ἡ ἀνομία μὲ βαπτίζει. Here the word stands for the Hebrew Baath (בעת ), and seems to be used figuratively of one who was flooded, overwhelmed with evil.

The most important passage, however, where the word occurs is in the history of Naaman the Syrian, in 2 Kings 5:14. Elisha had told the Syrian that if he would 'wash' seven times in the Jordan he should be cleansed from the leprosy. Accordingly, he went and 'dipped' (ἐβαπτίσατο) seven times in the river. The Hebrew verb in this passage is thaval (טבל ), to dip. It is the word used of Joseph's coat which was dipped in goat's blood (Genesis 37:31; LXX, μολύνω); of the priest's finger being dipped in blood (Leviticus 4:6; Leviticus 4:17; Leviticus 9:9); of the living bird which was dipped in the blood of the slain bird (Leviticus 14:6); of the finger being dipped in oil (Leviticus 14:16); of hyssop being dipped in water (Numbers 19:18); of the feet of the priests dipped in the brim of the water (Joshua 3:15); of Ruth dipping her morsel in the vinegar (Ruth 2:14); of Jonathan dipping the end of his rod in the honeycomb (1 Samuel 14:27); of Hazael dipping a cloth in water (2 Kings 8:15). We also meet with it in Job 9:30-31, where we read, 'If I wash myself with snow water, and make my hands never so clean, yet shalt thou plunge me in the ditch.'

The meaning of the word thaval in these passages is clear and indubitable; it does not, however, follow that βαπτίζομαιsignifies to dip when adopted by the LXX in 2 Kings 5:14 in none of the passages above cited was the dipping effected for the purpose of washing the object dipped; in some quite the contrary; but in the case of Naaman the order was 'Go, wash,' where the word rachats is used to signify the cleansing of the body (see § 3); hence in this passage the verb thaval was used to express a process identical with the act of washing. Moreover, in none of the other passages is the word βαπτίζω adopted as a rendering of thaval; we always find either βάπτω [The word βάπτω, to dip or tinge, is used only four times in the N. T in Luke 16:24, it refers to the dipping the tip of the finger in water; in John 13:26, it is twice used of the dipping the tip; in Revelation 19:13, we rend of 'a vesture dipped in blood,' but here it would be better to render the words, :stained with blood (βεβαμμένον αἵματι). The Vulgate rendering in this passage is 'vest is aspersa sanguine.'] or παραβάπτω. It may be concluded from this fact that the special word βαπτίζωw as used in the passage under consideration in order to show that Naaman's washing in the river Jordan was to be regarded as partaking of the nature of a symbolical or ceremonial cleansing.

On the whole, the usage of the word βαπτίζω in the LXX cannot be said to decide whether the washing indicated by it must needs take place by a process of dipping (though this process would certainly be most in accordance with the passages referred to), or whether its requirements would be satisfied by having water poured over the person. nor does the N.T. finally decide the matter. The word was used by the Jews in our Lord's time of ceremonial washing, rather than of mere dipping, as will be clearly seen by reference to Mark 7:4 and Luke 11:38, where the baptizing of the person is regarded as a sort of ritual observance; whilst in Mark 7:4; Mark 7:8, the baptism of cups and other vessels is spoken of in the same way.

The 'divers baptisms' (A.V. 'washings') spoken of in Hebrews 9:10, may comprehend such observances as those just referred to, but they rather seem to indicate the various rites of purification which formed part of the Levitical system. These rites were of two kinds; there were those which a man had to perform for himself, and those which others were to administer to him. It would be the last class which would be probably referred to; they were performed by priests or other 'clean' persons, who poured or sprinkled oil, blood, water, or water impregnated with the ashes of a red heifer, up on the persons who were to be purified. The application of the word βαπτισμοί to these rites tends to confirm the view already indicated, that whatever the etymology and primary usage of the term baptize may have been, it had practically come to be used of ceremonial washing in our Lord's time, and that it was not exclusively or necessarily applied to dipping. If the true rendering of the expression βαπτισμω̂ν διδαχη̂ς, in Hebrews 6:2, be not 'the doctrine of baptisms,' as the A. V. has it, but 'cleansings of teaching,' i.e. the purging from old prejudices and superstitions through the teaching of the truth, then we have further confirmatory evidence in the same direction.

The exact mode in which John the Baptist administered the rite is not described in the N.T. The writers seem to take it for granted that such a description was not called for. Those who submitted to it acknowledged there by their sorrow for their past sins, and their determination to live a changed life, and to prepare for the coming of Him who should fulfil the promise made by God to the fathers. A cleansing ordinance would suitably indicate the change of heart and life thus entered upon.

When our Lord was baptized, it was not because He needed cleansing, but in order that He might give a personal sanction to the ordinance, submitting to it with the same humility as He evinced when falling in with other Jewish rites. The descent of the Spirit up on Him immediately afterwards was intended not only to mark that He was 'anointed to preach the gospel,' but also to indicate that it was He who should 'baptize' with the Holy Ghost, which He did when He 'shed forth' the Spirit from on high like floods up on a dry ground. The usage of the word in this connection suggests the symbolical action of sprinkling or effusion rather than of dipping.

The second baptism which our Lord underwent (Matthew 20:22-23; Luke 12:50) was no ceremony, but a solemn reality; He was to be perfected through sufferings, and the waves of trouble which poured up on his soul were signified outwardly by the sweat which was ' as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground' (Luke 22:44).

The usage of the word baptize thus leads to the conclusion that the act of dipping cannot be held as essential to Christian baptism unless it is proved to be so by the additional use of βάπτω, or some such word, as an adjunct or an alternative. This, however, is confessedly not the case. nor does the symbolical teaching connected with the rite suggest any other conclusion than that which we have now arrived at. Baptism is preeminently symbolical of cleansing, whether by the blood of Christ or by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost; and so the ceremonial act is regarded by St. Peter as analogous with 'the putting away of the filth of the flesh' (1 Peter 3:21). When a believer, or the child of a believer, is baptized, we are to understand that, by profession at least, he has become a disciple of Christ, and is one with Him by faith; he dies to sin, in union with the Captain of Salvation; he is buried with Him; he puts on the Lord Jesus Christ, as one puts on armour or clothing; he walks in newness of life; and he is admitted into the society or body of those who are similarly cleansed.

If this, the death unto sin and the new birth unto righteousness by the quickening power of the Spirit through faith in Christ Jesus, be indeed what is set forth in the rite of baptism, and if the word has gradually passed into this technical or ceremonial sense, then the exact mode in which the rite is administered, whether by immersion or effusion, is not a point of primary importance, and may be left open to that discretion which has usually been permitted in non-essentials. Immersion ought not to be rigorously enforced; still less ought it to be rigorously denied. The ceremonial application of clean water to the person, as a symbol of the purifying efficacy of Christ's blood and of the quickening power of the Holy Spirit, and the submission to the ordinance, as a mark of discipleship to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost - these are the gr and points to be observed; whilst the exact mode of administration is a matter of church order and discipline, concerning which there ought to be much forbearance and also considerable latitude for the carrying out of personal conviction; and this is the case, theoretically at least, in the Church of England, as well as in other Churches.

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Bibliography Information
Girdlestone, Robert Baker. Entry for 'Baptism'. Synonyms of the Old Testament.

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Saturday, July 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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