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The Ceremonial Washing of Baptism

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We receive a lot of good questions about The Voice translation through this website and our facebook page.  Recently, we received a question from a fellow named Nathan who asked why we used the phrase “the ceremonial washing of baptism” where most Bibles simply have “baptism.”  Here is part of our response to him.

 Dear Nathan,

Let me suggest you take a look at The Story of The Voice (Thomas Nelson, 2013), a brief book which describes our translation philosophy, mission and an explanation of some of our translation decisions.  Perhaps that will explain things more fully. 

Briefly, our goal was to get people who have never read or do not regularly read the Bible started reading.  Many people don’t read the Bible because they find it hard and confusing.  We did this translation for them.  Our goal was not to replace anyone’s favorite translation. If you have a treasured translation, by all means read that.  But there is a growing number of people (hundreds of millions in the USA alone) who do not read the Bible for various reasons.  We wanted to give them a Bible they would understand in order to get them started reading the Bible and hopefully hearing the Voice of the Good Shepherd.baptism-top

As to the question you raised about how we translated the Greek word “baptizein” (verb most often translated “to baptize”) and “baptismata” (noun most often translated “baptism”).  We made a strategic decision in translating The Voice not to simply transliterate key words; we translated them.  For example, the transliteration of the Greek word “baptizein” is “baptize” (simply taking the Greek letters and putting them into a Latin alphabet); but the translation of “baptizein” is “to immerse or dip in water” (taking the meaning of the word from Greek to English).  So transliteration replicates the sound of a word; translation gets at the meaning of a word. Many key words in most Bible translations have simply been transliterated (e.g., Christ, angels, baptism, apostle, etc).  In order to communicate well with new readers we thought it was important to translate.  

Now back to “baptizein” and “baptizmata”.  When people who don’t know anything about the Scriptures read “baptism,” what do they understand?  It is confusing because some Christians immerse, some dip, some pour.  And whom do they immerse, dip or pour?  Sometimes children.  Sometimes teenagers.  Sometimes adults.  And why do they do it?  As a sign of prevenient grace, or as a sacrament to signify their chosenness by God, or to mark a person’s profession of faith.  So there is a lot of imprecision in the word “baptism” for people who know little to nothing of Christian tradition.  So what do we do as translators?

Well we went back to the original context.  The antecedent to Christian baptism is likely the immersion practices of second temple Jews like John the Baptist (John the Immerser).  Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of these immersion pools over the last 200 years.  It is so important that there is a tractate on immersion pools in the Mishnah.  Essentially, the purpose of these immersions involved washing or cleansing.  But the washing was not hygienic—people then knew nothing of germs–it was “ceremonial” or “ritual.”  By this is meant an action taken simply because God required it.  mikvaIf you read the OT carefully, then you realize how often God required people to wash or cleanse themselves and other things.  This is why they built all of these immersion pools around synagogues, the temple and other holy sites. Again, we’ve uncovered hundreds and we have only unearthed about 20% of the archaeological sites. So when we translated “baptizein” and its cognates we rendered it “the ceremonial washing of baptism” or “the ritual cleaning of baptism.”  The point of this translation was to help readers understand the context. Namely, baptism is a washing or cleansing which God required and is done not for and by man but for and by God.  In baptism God acts to cleanse, wash and purify.  Now there is more to the theology of baptism than this (identification with the crucified and risen Jesus, for example) but I don’t think there is less.  If you are a veteran Bible reader, then you probably know all of this.  But most people know little to nothing of this.  We did The Voice to help them. 

I hope after reading this you will understand how seriously we took the original context as well as the context of our modern audience.  That is why we call this a “contextually equivalent” translation.  I assure you it would have been much easier just to do what every Bible translation in English has done before.  But does that help modern readers who are not used to reading the Bible, read it for all its worth?  These decisions were intentional and a number of scholars, pastors, and editors thought through them before we went to print. 

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. Andreas Petofi. says:

    Baptism should be translated as IMMERSION in Bibles.

  2. Immersion is a good translation of the Greek noun. I suppose “immerse” would be a good translation for the Greek verb. The problem, of course, is what sense do people take from that. I’m not talking about veteran Bible readers who know the origin, history, and theology. I’m talking about a new Bible reader. Things can be immersed on accident or on purpose. When a ship sinks it is “baptizein”. Things can be immersed in water for cleaning or for dying cloth. In this translation we thought it helpful to help provide some historical, theological context.

  3. To be immersed in the good news of Jesus Christ is no accident; it is a way of life.

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