Translating Baptism

At the recent meeting of the Christianity Seminar during the annual meeting of the AAR/SBL, baptism and eucharist were taken up. In a series of blogs, I will be reporting on various aspects of those discussions that may be of interest the followers of the Westar Blog. I am not trying to summarize the papers, the discussions, or the votes. (The papers are available here).

One of the first issues was the translation and meaning of the Greek word baptizō. This word is normally translated “to baptize” or in the nominal form “baptism.” But this is not really a translation, i.e., the meaning is not translated into a comparable word in the target language, but a transliteration, i.e., the letters were simply brought over from one language to another. In this case the Greek letters were transposed into Latin producing baptiso and subsequently into other Western languages, for example, English as to baptize and French baptiser.

Why transliteration and not translation? Probably because the everyday meaning of the term was no longer primarily operative. By the time of the Latin transliteration “baptism” described not washing in an everyday way, but had become a ritual act of the Christian church. Thus, the transliteration blocks its everyday meaning, making it a technical, ritual, liturgical and theological term.

Transliterating rather than translating is operative with several important early Christian words.

Baptizo baptize washing

Eucharisto eucharist thanksgiving

Christos Christ anointed

Christianos Christian anointed ones

Euaggelion evangelize to announce good news

Transliteration has important implications for our understanding of the early Jesus movements. Transliteration empties out the everyday content of a word and changes it into a technical theological term that can be filled with a new and different content. Then that new content is read back, projected back, unto the earlier period, implying that the later technical theological phenomenon was present in the earlier period or there from the beginning.

Hal Taussig in his paper “Washing Dogma Off Baptismal Practices in the First Two Centuries” explains the meaning of the Greek word

The ancient Greek word, “baptism” (baptizo, baptisma) has the common meanings of “bathing,” “washing,” “immersing,” or “thoroughly dipping.” As a word in Greek, it is an ordinary word, used to describe ordinary washing and bathing of both objects and people. By and large ordinary usage does not refer to some kind of ritual, but simply a thorough and fairly intense washing/bathing. This ordinary word is a bit more dramatic meaning of another common word (bapto). Bapto means “washing;” “baptizo” means a more thorough washing, and as such a bathing.

He suggests that instead of John the Baptizer it should be John the Bather.

Stephen Patterson pointedly asked in his paper “Baptism: A Pre-History” what can it possibility mean at the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel to command the disciples to “baptize” all (Matt 28:19) since during the gospel narrative Jesus has not baptized anyone? It works by projecting back a later notion that hides the disjunction. The reader assumes that Jesus is telling the disciples to go out and baptize non-believers with the sacrament of Christian baptism.

Once the historical imagination restores to the early Jesus movements the notion of washing and bathing rather than “Baptism” the Christian sacrament, then the discussions of Taussig and Patterson become very provocative and enlightening.

Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and historical-jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.

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