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Greek “Baptism” in Plato and the Old Testament

April 30, 2014

The English word baptism comes from early English Bible translators attempting to carry over the sounds of a Greek word using the English alphabet. Here is an example:


Or perhaps the English Bible translators were just copying from the Latin Bible translators. It is not always clear how to translate Greek into Latin, after all. And in matters of the church, one might do well not to change the letters too much. Here is the Vulgate version of the passage given in English above:


There are just four Old Testament occurrences of the Greek word getting transliterated baptism in the New Testament. Before we even get to them, however, let’s look at the two occurrences of this same Greek word in Plato’s dialogues.

Here’s from The Symposium (176b) translated respectively by Benjamin Jowett (1871) and by Harold N. Fowler (1925):

I entirely agree, said Aristophanes, that we should, by all means, avoid hard drinking, for I was myself one of those who were yesterday drowned in drink [βεβαπτισμένων].

On this Aristophanes observed: “Now that, Pausanias, is a good suggestion of yours, that we make a point of consulting our comfort in our cups: for I myself am one of those who got such a soaking [βεβαπτισμένων] yesterday.”

And here’s from The Euthydemus (277c-d) translated respectively by Benjamin Jowett (1914) and by W. R. M. Lamb (1967):

Euthydemus was proceeding to give the youth a third fall; but I new that he was in deep water [βαπτιζόμενον], and therefore, as I wanted to give him a respite lest he should be disheartened, I said to him consolingly

Euthydemus was proceeding to press the youth for the third fall, when I, perceiving the lad was going under [βαπτιζόμενον], and wishing to give him some breathing-space lest he should shame us by losing heart, encouraged him…

Now, here’s the Greek Old Testament. This is from 4 Kings 5:14, Sirach 34:25, Isaiah 21:4, and Judith 12:7. The translations are from Lancelot Brenton (1800s).  As I did above, I’ll include the Greek. Also, I’ll include the Latin the Vulgate uses. And I’ll also include the English for the Greek that the New English Septuagint Translation translators use for the four passages, respectively translated by Paul D. McLean, Benjamin G. Wright, Moisés Silva, and Cameron Boyd-Taylor (2007).

So Naiman went down and dipped himself [ἐβαπτίσατο] [lavit] [immersed himself ] seven times in Jordan according to the word of Elisaie: and his flesh returned to him as the flesh of a little child and he was cleansed.

If a man washes [βαπτιζόμενος] [baptizatur] [bathes] after touching a dead body, and touches it again, what has he gained by his washing?

My heart wanders and transgression overwhelms [βαπτίζει] [stupefecerunt] [overwhelms] me; my soul is occupied with fear.

So Holofernes commanded his guards not to hinder her. And she remained in the camp for three days, and went out each night to the valley of Bethulia, and bathed [ἐβαπτίζετο] [baptizabat] [bathed] at the spring in the camp.

It would be strange to use baptize to translate Plato’s Greek. It would be strange to say that Naiman or Judith or Isaiah’s transgression or a man touching a corpse got “baptized.” But for the ecclesiastical stakes, there’s baptism.



5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2014 9:38 am

    The mystery began when the apostle asked the bishop and the deacon to help administer the baptismal sacrament to the pastor, while the angels watched along.

  2. May 1, 2014 9:58 am

    Right, Jay! 🙂 Then the antinomian evangelists opened the Bible to Ecclesiasticus for the methodists to challenge the orthodoxy of the presbyterians in light of the hermeneutic of their eschatology. (And in walked Sarah Palin, saying, “Well, if I were in charge, they would know that εικονικό πνιγμό is how we’d baptize terrorists.” And she added, saying, “If guns were good enough for Christ Jesus, they’re good enough for me.”)

  3. Jay permalink
    May 2, 2014 10:49 am



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