Someone called to my attention a footnote on Luke 11:38 in the New American Standard Bible.  A Pharisee was surprised that Jesus had not washed before eating a meal.  The NASB has expanded the translation to read “ceremonially washed” and added in the footnote that it is “literally baptized.”

     A check of the Greek text shows that the word is EBAPTISTHĒ, an aorist passive form of the verb BAPTIZŌ.  This raises a question: is baptism only an immersion, and does it involve the whole body, or can it mean simply to wash or apply water to some part of the body? You can see what implications that might have for the doctrine of Christian baptism. We cannot change what the text actually says, but we must make sure it is translated correctly if our doctrine is to be valid and defensible.


     According to standard lexicons the root meaning of BAPT is immerse, dip, wash, cleanse.  It can be a literal or figurative immersion, dipping, etc.  But how can it be distinguished as an immersion rather than simply washing or cleansing? The distinction is clear in the Greek text, not by the verb form, but by the inflected form of the noun. Greek nouns are classified as male, female, or neuter. These are not gender associations such as would be the case in English where nouns are names of persons, places, or things but only persons or animals are assigned male or female gender. This makes it awkward for English speakers, but not for others who speak a language with gender-classed nouns, such as Spanish, French, and many more. Noting the gender assignment of words is critically important for understanding the Greek text.

     Notice, in the case of baptism, that the feminine form – BAPTISMA – is primarily an immersion. This is the form used in all references to the baptism administered by John and also what we can term Christian baptism (see for example Mark 1:4, Luke 7:29, Acts 1:22, Acts 19:3, Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12,1 Peter 3:21) and to the figurative baptism mentioned in Matthew 21:25 and Mark 10:38. Whether it is literal or figurative, the feminine form is an immersion.  Nothing less than complete immersion satisfies the meaning.

     But the noun also appears in masculine form – BAPTISMOS – which means washing or cleansing, dipping implied but not necessarily included. Examples of the masculine form of the word can be found in the washing of cups, pots, vessels, and tables (Mark 7:4), the washing of nets (Mark 7:8), the doctrine of baptisms (plural, Hebrews 6:2), and various washings commanded of the Jews in the Old Testament (Hebrews 9:10).

     There are other words for wash which do not imply immersion, though they do not exclude it. The most common of these is LOUŌ – bathe, wash or cleanse, with what is to be washed specified as face, hands, body part or the whole (Hebrews 10:22). APOLOUŌ – means wash off, wash away (Acts 22:16). We get our word ablution from this. But even “taking a bath” or “washing the body” does not imply or require immersion. Notice that both BAPTIZŌ and APOLOUŌ appear in Acts 22:16 where Paul was told to “be baptized and wash away your sins…”

     The baptism of Acts 22:16 is immersion and the figurative washing away of sins is in apposition to baptism, a result included in and therefore inseparable from the baptism, not a separate action.  One may wash or cleanse any item by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion; but the washing away of sins requires the immersion commanded by the Lord (Matthew 28:19).

     The traditions of the Jews (not commands of God in scripture, but acts prescribed by Jewish lawyers and religious teachers) included ritual or ceremonial washing and cleansing. Washing the hands, not the whole body but just the hands, before eating was one of these “traditions of the elders” (see Matthew 15:2-9 and 20, Mark 7:3).

     The reference in Luke 11:38 is to the ceremonial ritual, and not to a literal cleansing. Why then is BAPTIZŌ not translated “baptize” in this place?  Because the washing in view here was a traditional one, done in a special way as prescribed by rabbinic tradition (note Matthew 15:1-2 and Mar 7:2-3).  It was not simply washing dirt from the hands, but rather a ceremonial ritual cleansing that had nothing to do with dirt.  The translator uses wash rather than baptize here, because it is only the hands, not the body, which were to be dipped or washed.  It could be confusing to say “why was he not baptized before he ate?”  The question is, “Why did he not wash his hands?”  The fact that the verb BAPTIZŌ is used in Luke 11:38 merely indicates that the washing was a ritual dipping of the hands in water.


     We may sometimes use the word figuratively: to be immersed in thought, to be covered up in work or duties, to be overwhelmed by pain, fear, etc. The baptism of suffering is alluded to in Mark 10:38, Luke 12:50, and Matthew 20:22 where Jesus is referring to the particular ordeal He was facing, an immersion in suffering that would end in His death.

     John the Baptist alludes to a baptism of fire and a baptism of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11).  Being baptized into Moses in the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:4) means being committed or pledged to and somehow identified with Moses as leader.  There is a necessary connotation of the same in being baptized into Christ (Galatians 3:27), into the death of Christ (Romans 6:3), into the body or church of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13), and of or into the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11, Acts 1:5).

        An important note: baptize and baptism are not religious words. They are ordinary words that are transliterated rather than translated in common English versions of scripture. Both words can be given a religious application, but in every proper use both the subject and the element must be specified, or at least understood by necessary implication and inference. So, one can immerse an item or object, or one’s hands or the whole body. But what is being immersed must be specified.

     Immersion is not limited to one certain element.  One can immerse or bury a person or a thing into many elements – water, oil, milk, sand, or even soil. Both the subject and the element must be specified. When the context indicates it refers to Christian baptism, the baptism of one who is to be saved, washed from sin, identified with Christ and placed into his spiritual body the church, it is not always necessary to specify the subject or the element. Sometimes the subject and element are specified when it is obviously Christian baptism, as for example in Acts 8:36 and Acts 10:47 where water is the particular element for immersing the persons obeying the Lord’s requirement and command. This allows us to infer water as the element in any and all references to baptism in obedience to Christ, as for example in Acts 8:12-13 and 18:8.

     Since most readers of the New Testament do not read or understand Greek we sometimes have to trust the translator to indicate whether it is immersion or a mere washing, whether it has any reference to becoming a Christian, and whether it is literal or figurative. We could wish the translators were consistent, but sometimes they are not. In the KJV of Hebrews 6:2 and 9:10, why is the same word rendered “baptisms” in 6:2 and “washings” in 9:10?  Sometimes the footnote or cross reference is confusing rather than helpful, as in the present example from the NASB of Luke 11:38.

     One thing we should have learned from this study is the need to know both the form of the word (in this case masculine or feminine nouns) and the context so that we do not allow translators or theological manipulators to tell us that the baptism (immersion) required for becoming a Christian can be accomplished by a mere washing (by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion of some body part) such as one would give to objects for a non-spiritual cleansing.

     We have not touched here on the purposes for the baptism commanded by Christ and the apostles, but that is a different topic for a different essay.