RE: Mark 7:4

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Wed May 03 2000 - 09:01:07 EDT

At 7:26 AM -0400 5/3/00, Paul, Doug wrote:
>The figure of being buried with Christ in baptism makes sense if baptism is
>immersion. Certainly I wash the dishes by dipping them in the water.
>Immersion and washing can be the same act.

This is one of those questions that is multi-faceted; it started out as a
relatively simple matter of how the word BAPTISMOS may be applied in the
pericope opening Mark's seventh chapter to refer to such a variety of
washings and just what sort of washings were envisioned in the saying
attributed to Jesus. It sort of "overflowed"--if I may be allowed the pun
(and even if I may not!--in which case, take it as a simple metaphor) into
questions about the form and meaning of Christian ritual baptism, and that,
I think, is where theological assumptions began to enter into the
"equation" of how the words BAPTIZW and BAPTISMOS may legitimately be
understood in the GNT: is it "dunk," "douse," "dabble," or what? I've
argued that the essential sense of the Greek root BAF (beta-alpha-phi) is
"plunge," "flood," or "dip"; there's always a peril in the attempt to
explain usage from etymology, even when there seems little question of what
the authentic etymology is. The notion of "cleansing" seems inherent in the
ritual as practiced by John (and apparently recurrently by the Qumran
community), and from the perspective of religious symbolism there seems
little difference between John's "baptism of repentance" and the procedure
of KAQARSIS practiced by priests of Apollo at Delphi whereby the MIASMA or
"stain/pollution" of a crime (particularly of bloodshed) could be purged by
a regimen of confession and penance (Herakles' DWDEKA PONOI were
prescribed, according to mythic lore, for his involuntary murder of his
wife and children in a fit of madness sent upon him by his wicked witch of
a stepmother). The same idea seems to be involved in the Johannine ritual
of footwashing (John 13) which some interpreters have taken to be the
Johannine replacement for ritual baptism (although others dispute that),
inasmuch as it involves the notion of KAQARSIS (as does also, perhaps, the
"pruning"--KAQAIREI--of the Johannine allegory of the Vine)--so Jesus says,
KAAQAROS hOLOS: KAI hUMEIS KAQAROI ESTE, ...(13:10). At any rate, whatever
the language used, there appears to be always the implication that the
"cleansing," whatever ritual expression it may take, and whether or not one
understands the ritual expression as having efficacy "ex opere operato,"
points to an alteration of the relationship between the one cleansed and

And that's where our interpretations tend to diverge (if they don't
converge, at any rate, then they must diverge). Already Paul was linking
the ritual of baptism with (symbolic?) death and burial with Christ in
expectation of sharing his resurrection (Rom 6:3-4) and Matthew's Jesus
seems to understand his own baptism not so much as a cleansing of his own
sins but as a means of "fulfilling all righteousness" (PLHRWSAI PASAN
DIKAIOSUNHN, Mt 3:15), presumably, as many interpreters understand it, with
reference to his anticipated saving death--and even Mark (which I continue
to think is the earliest gospel) has Jesus alluding to his death as a
baptism also, when he says to James and John, DUNASQE PIEIN TO POTHRION hO
association of baptism with the dying of Jesus and the efficacy of that
dying and with cleansing, in one ritual expression or another, seems to be
common to BAPTIZW and BAPTISMOS except when they are used of other
washings. But our interpretations tend to diverge when we get into the
question of the MODE in which the cleansing water is brought to bear upon
the repentant and cleansed believer: is it "dunking," "dowsing," or
"dabbling"? I don't think we have any business here on B-Greek arguing
about which means is THE proper one simply on the basis of what BAPTIZW and
BAPTISMOS may "literally" mean. "Dunking," "dowsing," and "dabbling" are
going to continue to have their proponents for reasons of their own
conscience. But I do think that the richness of the symbolism of water
cleansing ought not to elude us, however we may differ over the means by
which it is ritually applied. I referred a couple days ago to the notion
that immersion is symbolically a death by dissolution into the primeval
waters of chaos and that re-emergence is a resurrection or the
birth/coming-into-being of a "new creature" or "new creation" (KAINH
KTISIS, 2 Cor 5:17). And these symbolic dimensions reach pretty far; it's
worth noting that one of the preferred themes of artistic representation by
Christians in the Roman catacombs (I think this is true) was the ark
floating above the flood--and the little boat with a cross for a mast that
floats above the waters in the emblem of the World Council of Churches atop
the Greek word OIKOUMENH is indeed a representation of the same idea: it is
simultaneously the ark that bears the redeemed above the eschatological
flood and the little ship on the Sea of Galilee that bears disciples with
their master from the hither shore to the farther shore.

I don't know whether or not this has been a worthwhile exercise, and I know
that it exceeds the ordinary range of our endeavors to get clear about the
meaning of a Greek word used in the GNT or of a text in the GNT, but it
does seem to me that when we come to the words BAPTIZW and BAPTISMOS, we
B-Greekers tend to get hung up (each time, whether annually, or twice a
year) on minutiae about the one appropriate MODUS OPERANDI of baptism or
the sole legitimate interpretation of what baptism means. I keep thinking
that it's a much bigger thing than one that can be so readily delimited
with precision to one MODUS OPERANDI or to one legitimate interpretation of
the meaning.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649

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