Willis: Jesus, Baptism, and Immersion

This article was originally posted as a note on my Facebook. But I felt it was an important topic that is often discussed in theological discourse. This article concerns the concept of Immersion in regard to Baptism.

There exists within the world people who insist that Immersion—being fully submerged in water—is the only way people are to be baptized. They insist that Immersion is the Biblical method for Baptism. These same people usually reject historical tradition, like that of the Didache (dated 50-100 AD), where multiple methods of Baptism are not only discussed, but permitted and instructed.

These groups and/or individuals insist we only use Scripture to find the proper mode for Baptism. These people would insist that the word βαπτίζω (baptizo) by definition means Immersion. So let us take a look at a few instances of the use of the word βαπτίζω in Scripture and see if the the word is used in a way which only means Immersion. First we are going to take a look at Mark 7:4 in the Greek:

καὶ ἀπὸ ἀγορᾶς, ἐὰν μὴ βαπτίσωνται, οὐκ ἐσθίουσιν· καὶ ἄλλα πολλά ἐστιν ἃ παρέλαβον κρατεῖν, βαπτισμοὺς ποτηρίων καὶ ξεστῶν καὶ χαλκίων καὶ κλινῶν.* 

*(Taken from RP Byzantine Majority Text 2005, Scrivener’s Textus Receptus 1894, Westcott and Hort / NA27 variants, and Stephanus Textus Receptus 1550)

Now, it is important to immediately note that Mark 7:4 is a disputed text. This means that some manuscripts lack the text of Mark 7:4, or lack a portion of the text. Some dispute the longer reading of Mark 7:4, ending in καὶ κλινῶν. Many translations will provide a footnote explaining this. I am of the group that believes the longer reading is authentic, and that the longer reading was actually dropped by later Scribes in favor of a shorter ending and to handle the issue of homoioteleuton. (In textual criticism, it is preferable to see the harder/longer ending as the the original, and assume that later Scribes shortened the text to simplify the reading. Anyone can feel free to take issue with me on this matter as it is a legitimate area of dispute scholastically.) So, taking a look at Mark 7:4 we see it described that the Pharisees conducted many washing rituals. They washed themselves, cups, pitchers, kettles, and couches.

When the text speaks of the Pharisees washing themselves, the word used is βαπτίσωνται (baptisōntai). They wash themselves. But if we are to believe those who insist on Immersion, this means the Pharisees immersed themselves when they come from the marketplace in order to eat. But a wise person would point us back to Mark 7:3, and say it is their hands that are being washed. Ah! Yes. True. But in Mark 7:3, the word is νίψωνται (nipsōntai), which is clearly translated as simply to wash, in some cases to cleanse. So, putting these two verses together tells us the Pharisees are washing themselves before they eat with a specific focus on their hands. In this case, then, there is no insistence on immersion. (Unless one is to say the Pharisees literally dunk their hands in a bowl of water aka immerse their hands to wash them, which is not a practice commonly found in the world.)

So what of the cups, the pitchers, kettles, and couches? Well, the word used there to refer to the application of water to these items is βαπτισμοὺς (baptismous). These items are indeed being washed. But immersed? While it may be possible, even likely, that cups, pitchers, and kettles are being immersed, much in the same way we put dishes in a water filled sink in modern day, it is not likely that couches, those being κλινῶν (klinōn) are being immersed. Why? Well, because we are talking about something similar to these:



Are we to believe these couches were immersed every time the Pharisees wished to eat after coming in from the marketplace? Or anywhere that they would have perhaps contacted things which made them unclean? It is here that someone may argue the text is not talking about the wooden frames, but rather the mats and/or cushions. Sure. (The text does not specify. And κλινῶν can truly mean either the mat/bedding and/or the frame/beir. However, if we look to the text from Mark 4:21 for example, where κλινῶν is also used, we see Jesus refers to in this case κλίνην (klinen) as a bed, a bed which one can put a lamp beneath. Therefore, it is likely that the κλινῶν in Mark 7:4 is referring to the entire structure of the dining couch, not simply the mat.)

What happens when you immerse a pillow or a plush comforter? It get’s sopping wet. And even if you ring it out, it is still soaked. Are we again to assume the Pharisees immersed these? No. Common sense tells us that the κλινῶν —be they beir, mat, or mat & beir—together were not immersed. Instead these items were washed, or wiped down with water in order to cleanse them before eating. This would also make sense in light of the context, because again Mark 7:3 points forward to Mark 7:4 in the use of the words referring to washing, in that it is the application of water for the purpose of making clean.

Let us look to another text, specifically the baptism of the Jailer in Acts 16. Specifically we will look at Acts 16:33:

καὶ παραλαβὼν αὐτοὺς ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ὥρᾳ τῆς νυκτὸς ἔλουσεν ἀπὸ τῶν πληγῶν, καὶ ἐβαπτίσθη αὐτὸς καὶ οἱ αὐτοῦ ἅπαντες παραχρῆμα

First, it is important to note the Jailer is described as having washed the wounds of Paul and Silas. However, the word there is ἔλουσεν (elousen). This word means not only “to wash,” but specifically “to bathe” in order to clean wounds. (Often λούω [louo] means to wash the whole body as seen in Acts 9:37.) But when the Jailer was baptized, he and his whole family, the word there used was ἐβαπτίσθη (ebaptisthē). And here we must ask: Does the text tell us they were immersed? No. Only if we insist that the word itself means immersion, which it does not. Does common sense tell us they were immersed? No. Why? Because they were in the middle of the city, and if some are to be believed, they were already in the Jailer’s home. Where would there have been water deep enough to immerse the whole family?

Ah! Says the wise one! It was within the impluvium—a common feature in Roman homes! There immersion took place! Hmmm… let us look at the impluvium. Actually, let us take a look at an obnoxious number of impluviumi:



Now, can you see someone being immersed in those pools? Nope? Me neither. Here is where the wise one again interjects and says, Ah! But it was not the impluvium, but the piscina! This is another feature found in some Roman homes. So, since the impluvium cannot be used for immersion, then the piscina must be the source!

And I respond with: Really? So this jailer must have been very wealthy since piscina are not found in the majority of Roman homes. Rather, it is a feature typically found in a home containing an impluvium and other features. So, the home must have been truly large. Piscinas, of course, range in size, and could very well have been used for immersion, as they were typically used for bathing, as fish ponds, and/or water sources for the house. A typical Roman soldier made 300 denarii a year.

A typical town house in Rome cost 125,00 denarii (see http://www.the-colosseum.net/history/monete_en.htm and http://ancientcoinsforeducation.org/content/view/79/98/).

A town house would typically contain only an impluvium, not a piscina. If the Jailer from Acts made the same wage as a Roman Soldier, then he would not necessarily be able to afford a town house. So, let us say the Jailer was somehow able to afford a town house. This, again, would only contain an impluvium. Thus making a piscina present unlikely. So, there was no real way the Jailer and his family could have been immersed in water. Instead, we must understand ἐβαπτίσθη (ebaptisthē) to simply be referring to water being applied to the Jailer and his family. It is not immersion.

Now, one could argue that Lydia (Acts 16:11-15), being a seller of purple cloth, could afford a larger Roman home. And thus a piscina was present. And so one could say if the piscina was deep enough that immersion took place there. And that is fine. Immersion is an acceptable method of baptism, thus there is no problem with this. However, the Jailer and his family were not immersed this way as explained above. Therefore, both immersion and the simple application of water are both proper modes of baptism. It should be noted, however, that it was most likely that Lydia was baptized outside of her home by the river.

This river is likely the Krenides River. A quick google image search reveals https://www.google.com/search?q=Krenides+River&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjuh8_vlezOAhWIRyYKHZhzCMwQ_AUICSgC&biw=1280&bih=619#imgrc=_

This river is also called the Angista and the Gangites river. I have been unable to find any sources stating how deep the river is. However, in multiple sources it is called a stream in terms of size. This, along with the images, leads me to conclude the river is not deep enough for a full immersion, and would perhaps come up to the knee at most. So it is unlikely again that Lydia was immersed. And if her household was baptized with her while she was at the river, then they were also unlikely to have been immersed.

Now, before I continue, let us say for the sake of argument that Lydia and her family were immersed in the river. How? Let us say the river was much deeper in the time of Paul. This still does not explain the Jailer, who was not immersed due to lack of a water source. Therefore, it is unlikely that both the Jailer and Lydia were immersed. If Lydia was immersed, the Jailer still was not, and thus we must conclude that both methods of Baptism (immersion and any similar application of water) are permitted.

Finally, we move to the text of Jesus’ Baptism. People point to this text as a proof of immersion. First, we know Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. The site on the Jordan where the baptism took place is most likely Al-Maghtas. Historians also place Jesus’ Baptism between the years 25-28 AD. The Jordan ranges in depth from 3 feet to 10 feet. So, it is sufficiently deep enough to conduct immersion baptism.

However, this does not mean He was immersed. In fact, the earliest imagery we have from catacomb paintings and sarcophagi is that Jesus was not immersed. Rather, John the Baptizer and Jesus stood in the water while John poured water upon Jesus’ head. These images date from 230 AD to 270 AD. But those who reject immersion then cry out and say: Ah! But it says that Jesus came up out of the water! Look to Matthew 3:16! That means immersion!

And I reply: Ah! But do you read Greek? The text from Matthew 3:16 reads thus in Greek: βαπτισθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εὐθὺς ἀνέβη ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕδατος· καὶ ἰδοὺ ἠνεῴχθησαν οἱ οὐρανοί, καὶ εἶδεν πνεῦμα θεοῦ καταβαῖνον ὡσεὶ περιστερὰν ἐρχόμενον ἐπ’ αὐτόν·

In the Greek, Jesus is said to have been Baptized, and He then ἀνέβη (anebē) from the water. What does this mean? It means Jesus walked, or traveled from the water to a place that was not the water. How do I know that? ἀνέβη comes from ἀναβαίνω (anabainó), that is to go up from, to ascend.

We could just as well translate the verse to say “having been baptized, Jesus immediately climbed up out of the water.” (One could also say “…Jesus immediately entered up out of the water,” but the wording is extremely awkward. This can be supported by the use of the exact word, in the exact tense, as found in Luke 19:4.) Additionally, the word is found in many places such as Matthew 14:23, and Luke 9:28, where Jesus ascends aka climbs the mountain.

Also Mark 6:51, where it could also be described that Jesus climbed into a boat. Also John 10:1, though the Greek word used there is ἀναβαίνων (anabainōn). Therefore, nothing in the verse suggests either immersion or pouring of water. Rather it simply states that Jesus got out of the water after being Baptized aka climbed out of the water aka walked from the water to the shore.

In light of all of this, I conclude there is nothing in the Scriptures which demand nor demonstrate immersion. Nor do the Scriptures forbid immersion. Instead, the Scriptures speak to us of Baptism as the application of water and the Word (Ephesians 5:26), wherein the believer is joined to Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11).* *Oh, I forgot to address that.

If immersion is supposed to match Jesus’ burial, then we have selected a weird method. Why? Because Jesus was buried in the side of a hill/mountain. He was not buried in the ground as immersion would indicate. So perhaps if immersion is necessary to replicate Jesus’ burial, perhaps we should push people through a waterfall and into a cave. Addendum Luke 11:38 – ὁ δὲ Φαρισαῖος ἰδὼν ἐθαύμασεν ὅτι οὐ πρῶτον ἐβαπτίσθη πρὸ τοῦ ἀρίστου.

The Pharisee was astonished to see he did not first wash before dinner (ἐβαπτίσθη [ebaptisthē].) In this context, we see the word clearly cannot and should not mean immersion. This word comes from baptizo, and here is not speaking of immersion. Thus we can conclude that immersion is not the specific and necessary meaning of baptizo.

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