Baptism: Sprinkling or Dunking?

Bible-nerd alert. Just as a fair warning, this is going to get geeky.

Understanding baptism is crucial for all Jesus-followers. But, I’ve often wondered if the way we baptize followers of Jesus really matters–since wise people, that I greatly respect, disagree.

Do the biblical stories of being baptized in rivers mean that we should fully immerse people? (Matt. 3, Acts 8:36) How did the Apostles baptize? There are a plethora of ways to tackle this question, and many have. But here, I’d like to show you something on the level of Greek vocabulary–baptism from a linguistic perspective.

We know that the New Testament authors read and referenced old Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible. So, I’ve looked into the old Greek as I’ve pondered baptism to see what words shaped the NT authors’ conception of baptism.

When describing baptism, the NT authors could have used the verb βάπτω (báptō) (which shows up 17x in old Greek scriptures). Here’re are three examples:

Exodus 12:22: And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dipping from the blood by the door, you shall also touch the lintel and on both doorposts, from the blood that is by the door.

Leviticus 4:6: And the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times with his finger before the Lord in front of the holy veil. 

Ruth 2:14: And Boaz said to her, “It is already time to eat. Come here, and eat some of the bread, and dip your morsel in the wine vinegar.” 

The rest of the 14 examples also carry the idea of dipping or plunging into.

Instead of using βάπτω when talking about baptism, the NT authors employ a similar verb, βαπτίζω (baptizó). This verb only appears 4x times in the old Greek (only two of which are canonical OT books). Here they are:

2 Kings 5:14: And Naiman went down and immersed himself in the Jordan seven times, according to the word of Elisaie, and his flesh returned like the flesh of a small child, and he was cleansed. 

Sirach 34:30: When one bathes due to a corpse and when one touches it again what did he gain by his washing? 

Judith 12:7: And Olophernes ordered the bodyguards not to hinder her. And she remained in the camp for three days, and she went out each night into the ravine of Baityloua and bathed at the spring of water.

Isaiah 20:4: My heart wanders, and lawlessness overwhelms me; my soul has turned to fear. 

So, what? I’d suggest that if the NT authors wanted to convey a method of baptism that involved dipping, they had the vocabulary for it. However, the fact is that they chose against it, and used a much less common verb (only showing up 4x in their Greek translations of scripture). If you read over the old Greek occurrences, and then the 76 times that βαπτίζω appears in the NT, the overwhelming picture seems to be one of plunging, immersing, saturating, and submerging.

I’m not claiming that this short examination proves definitively any one side. But I do think that this is evidence that adds weight to the Baptist tradition of holding to baptism by immersion.

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