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Baptism and Bible Translation
By Gary F. Zeolla
The first part of Matthew 3:11 reads "I indeed baptize you with water" in the King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV), and in many other Bible versions. This rendering is consistent with baptism by pouring or sprinkling, although it wouldn't rule out immersion. But is "baptize with" the best way to translate these two words? Each will be looked at in turn.
The Greek word rendered "baptize" is baptizo. So "baptize" is not really a translation at all; it is a transliteration of the Greek letters into English ones. So if one were to actually translate this word, what would be the best translation?
Following are lexical details on this word from several Greek lexicons I have found particularly helpful:
to employ water in a religious ceremony designed to symbolize purification and initiation on the basis of repentance—“to baptize." [A note is added that refers to the Didache], According to the Didache (early second century) different forms of baptism were practiced in the early church, but with evident preference given to immersion.[i]
dip, immerse, mid[dle voice] dip oneself, wash (in non-Christian lit[erature] also plunge, sink, drench, overwhelm). [The Didache is also mentioned,] where baptism by pouring is allowed in cases of necessity.[ii]
to baptize, originally to dip under.[iii]
Verb used in the NT, usually translated by its English derivative, “baptize.” ... The Jews baptized persons or things (Mark 7:4, the cognate noun baptismos, “washings”).... Cf. the cognate verb bapto, “dip, immerse,” and the noun baptisma, “baptism."[iv]
1) to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk) 2) to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water, to wash one's self, bathe 3) to overwhelm.[v]
Strictly, dip, immerse in water; mid[dle voice] dip oneself, wash; pred[ominantly] of the use of water in a relig[ious] and symbolic sense in the NT…. [vi]
I also checked the more lengthy discussions in Kittle's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament and Colin Brown's Dictionary of New Testament Theology. The information in these volumes is similar to the above. So every lexicon I checked supports the idea of “to dip” or “to immerse” as being the basic meaning of baptizo.
So if one is going to actually translate this word, the only rendering that really makes sense is “immerse.” There really is no other possible translation. The only way to avoid this rendering is to simply transliterate rather than to translate it.
The Greek word translated "with” in the above versions is ev. Following is some basic lexical data on this word:
Very frequent with a considerable variety of meaning, “in, on, at, within, among, with, by, by means of."[vii]
prep[osition]. with dat[ive]. in, on, at; near, by, before; among, within; by, with; into; to, for (rarely); … with inf[itive. during, while, as ….[viii]
Root meaning: “within.” In composition, “within, in..." Resultant meanings: (1) With the locative case; “in, on, at, within, among.” ... (2) With the instrumental case; “with, by means of."[ix]
The primary idea is within, in, withinness, denoting static position or time, but the many and varied uses can only be determined by context. The chief categories of usage are as follows: (1) of place; (a) denoting a position within boundaries in, within (JN 8.20) …. (a) denoting means or instrument by, with.[x]
So the word ev can have a wide variety of meanings. The lexical information was much longer than what was quoted for the last two lexicons above, but what has been quoted is most relevant to this discussion.
That said, the first two lexicons quoted above give “in” as the first possible meaning for a reason: as the last two indicate, “within” or “in” is the basic idea of the word.
Moreover, en appears 2782 times in the Greek New Testament. Of these, it is translated as “in” 1874 times in the KJV. Meanwhile, it is translated as “with” only 134 times.[xi] So 67% of the time ev is translated as “in” whereas only 5% of the time is translated as “with.”
So the only reason not to translate it as “in” in Matthew 3:11 would be if there was a clear contextual reason for translating it otherwise. So the basic question is, is the word, in the context of baptism, being used in a “locative” sense indicating the location of the one being baptized ("in water") or in an instrumental sense, indicating the instrument used to baptize ("with water")?
The answer to this question could very well depend on ones theology. However, there is no reason why it could not be locative. Or to put it another way, there is no reason why it has to be instrumental. Using “in” would fit the context just as well as “with.”
Putting all of the above together, the basic meaning of the word ev is “in.” It is translated as such two-thirds of the times it appears, while only rarely being translated as “with.” Furthermore, the word “in” fits the context just as well as “with.” So overall, the evidence favors translating it as “in.” The burden of proof is on the one who claims it must be translated as “with.”
So why not "immerse in?"
So if the verb means "immerse” and the preposition mean “in", why is not the phrase translated as “immerse in?” First off, there have been translations over the centuries which have used “immerse in” or at least “baptize in.” Consider the following:
"I baptize you in water" (1526 & 1534 Tyndale's Bible)
"I baptize you in water" (1537 Matthew's Bible)
"I baptize you in water" (1539 Great Bible)
"I baptize you in water" (1568 Bishops' Bible)
"I indeed immerse you in water" (1842 Bernard's Bible).
"I indeed am immersing you in water" (Rotherham's Emphasized Bible).
"I indeed baptize you in water" (1901 American Standard Version). [xii]
"I indeed immerse you in water" (1961 Wuest’s Expanded Translation).[xiii]
"I indeed baptize you in water" (1998 Green's Literal Translation).[xiv]
So “in” has been used in major and “minor” Bible versions both ancient and modern. But translations which use “immerse” are generally "minor" one-person translations, and this one person is probably of Baptist persuasion. So the translator would naturally use “immerse” in the translation.
However, by doing so, such translations open themselves up to the charge that the theological basis of the translator is infiltrating the text. Moreover, such translations generally are not circulated very much. Of the versions using “immerse,” how many has the reader actually heard of before now? Christians who do not believe in baptism would not use such a version, and Christian bookstores would probably not sell it or at least not promote it very much so as not to offend their customers who do not believe in baptism by immersion.
The Analytical-Literal Translation
The lexical data definitely does favor “immerse in, and initially, such a translation was used in the Analytical-Literal Translation (ALT). However, I later changed it to “baptize in” for the following reasons:
1. I did not want the translation of one word to hurt the reputation of the ALT as being a "bias" translation. But I did keep "immerse" as an alternate translation. It is seen the first time verb baptizo and the noun batisma occurs in a book. I've used the same pattern throughout. When what I believe is the best translation differs from the traditional translation and it affects an interpretation in my favor, then I'm using the traditional translation in the text, and the "new" translation as an alternate (See for example John 15:2).
2. As indicated above, people who do not believe in baptism by immersion would not read a version that uses “immerse” in its text and stores might not sale or promote it. My concern is not with the “sales” of the ALT, but I do believe the ALT will be very helpful to many in their Bible studies. And I didn’t want people to miss this help due to the translation of one word.
3. Although it was stated above that “baptism” is a transliteration, there are other Greek words that are only transliterated in the ALT, such as measurement and monetary units, proper names, and words that have been brought into English with very little change, such as angel, camel, and zealot. And the word "baptism" is similar to these in that it *is* an English word with an English definition. But the debate, of course, is if the English definition fully captures the meaning of the Greek word. But with the alternative translation being included, I do think the ALT presents both possibilities.
4. To make it clear that "baptism" is transliterated from the Greek word, after the first occurrence of "baptize" (Matt 3:6) is the following, [or, immersed, Gr. baptizo, and throughout book].
5. There were many who pleaded with me to keep “immerse” in the text, but I just as many pleaded with me not to use “immerse.” No solution is perfect. The best is to give both possible renderings. The only real debate is which should be in the text and which should be bracketed. Some might want "immerse" in the text, but at least the ALT is going beyond most other versions in giving "immerse" as an alternative translation.
6. A full footnote discussing the translation would help. That's not possible with the set-up for the ALT, but that is why this article is posted on this site. I will be referring people to these Background Pages for the ALT in the introductory pages to the hardcopy ALT.
Translation of en
An exception to point number one above is when the lexical data overwhelming favors an interpretation in my favor and consistently in translation requires me to use the favorable rendering. I wanted to be unbiased, but I’m not going to bend over backwards to do so causing the translation to be much less accurate. So the word ev is translated as “in” in Matthew 3:11 and elsewhere when used in reference to baptism.
My reasoning is as follows, when it came to translating prepositions, I decided to limit, as much as possible, my translation for each preposition to a very limited number of basic translations. I would only use an alternate translation when the context clearly required it. For en there really is only one basic translation, “in.” So this translation is used throughout the ALT unless the context clearly requires another rendering.
However, since the word can mean “with,” in order to show the possibility, the alternative translation of “with” is given. It is seen the first time the phrase “baptize in” occurs in a book. For Matthew this is 3:11.
The pattern seen for these two words is what was used throughout the ALT. When a word had two possible translations, and one translation favors one theological viewpoint, and the other favors a different theological viewpoint, the ALT generally gives both—one in the text and one in brackets as an alternative translation. Which rendering is used in the text and which in brackets was decided on a case-by-case basis.
So putting the above together, the translation of Matthew 3:11 in the ALT reads:
"I indeed baptize you* in water [or, with water] to [or, because of] repentance. But the One coming after me is mightier [than] I, of whom I am not worthy to carry His sandals, He will baptize you* in [or, with] [the] Holy Spirit,"
For further details on the translations seen in the ALT, see the Companion Volume to the ALT.
[i] Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida, eds, Greek-English Lexicon, Vol. II, New York: United Bible Societies, 1988, pp. 537,538.
[ii] Walter Baur, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. Trans. and rev. by William Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich and Fredrick W. Danker. Chicago: University of London Press, 1979, p.131.
[iii] Fritz Rienecker. A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament. Trans. and ed. by Cleon Rogers. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980., p.7.
[iv] Arthur L. Farstad, et.al. The NKJV Greek-English Interlinear New Testament. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994, p.119.
[v] Strong’s Greek/ Hebrew Dictionary. Copied from BibleWorks™ for Windows™. Copyright © 1992-1997 Michael S. Bushell. Big Fork, MT: Hermeneutika.
[vi] Timothy and Barbara Friberg. Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Copyright © 1994. Copied from BibleWorks™ for Windows™.
[vii] J.P. Green and Maurice A. Robinson. A Concise Lexicon of the Biblical Languages, Peabody, MS: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987, p. 45.
[viii] Barclay M. Newman, Jr. A Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Copyright © 1971 by United Bible Societies and 1993 by Deutsche Biblelgesellschaft (German Bible Society), Sttugart. Copied from BibleWorks™ for Windows™.
[ix] H.E Dana. and Julius Mantey. A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament. New York: Macmillian, 1955, p.105.
[x] Friberg, already cited.
[xi] According to Strong’s Greek/ Hebrew Dictionary on BibleWorks™ for Windows™. Other renderings are “by” 141 times, “among” 117 times, “at” 112 times, “on” 46 times, “through” 37, and miscellaneous other renderings, 321 times.
[xii] Quoted in Rick Norris. Baptism in Matthew 3:11 and Bible Translations, 1998.
[xiii] Kenneth Wuest. The New Testament: An Expanded Translation. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1961.
[xiv] Jay P. Green, Sr. Literal Translation of the Bible. LaFayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1976 - 1998.
Analytical-Literal Translation: Baptism and Bible
Translation: Second Edition.
Copyright © 1999, 2001, 2004 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).
Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light
The above article was posted on this Web site
January 30, 1999.
It was updated October 27, 2004.
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