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Baptism in Josephus

Posted by on Jan 11, 2008 in ordinances/sacraments | 7 comments

This is my third post in a series on baptism. Primarily, my concern is to determine the various meanings of the Greek verb βαπτίζω (baptizō), and how those meanings may be used in the New Testament. In this post, I’ll examine the use of βαπτίζω (baptizō) in the writings of Titus Flavius Josephus.

Josephus (37 AD – sometime after 100 AD) was a Hebrew priest from Jerusalem. He fought the Romans in the war of 66-73 AD. However, he was taken prisoner early in the conflict. As with Philo, Josephus lived at about the same time as the New Testament authors, he was also a Jew, and he also wrote in Koine Greek.

Josephus used the Greek verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) about 13 times in his writings, and he used the term in many different contexts. One of these uses is similar to the verb “dip” in the LXX:

When, therefore, any persons were defiled by a dead body, they put a little of these ashes into spring water, with hyssop, and, dipping (baptizing) part of these ashes in it, they sprinkled them with it, both on the third day and on the seventh, and after that they were clean. (Antiquities 4:81)

Also, he uses the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) with regard to ships sinking:

[F]or as our ship sank (was baptized) in the Adriatic Sea, we that were in it, being about six hundred in number… (Autobiography 1:15; cf. Antiquities 9:212, War 2:556, War 3:368)

Furthermore, he uses the verb to mean “drown”:

And for such as were drowning (being baptized) in the sea, if they lifted their heads up above the water, they were either killed by arrows, or caught by the vessels (War 3:527; cf. Antiquities 15:55, War 1:437, War 3:423)

Interestingly, there is one passage where Josephus uses the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) to mean both “sink” and “drown” simultaneously:

[W]hen they ventured to come near the Romans, they became sufferers themselves before they could do any harm to the other, and were drowned (baptized), they and their ships together. (War 3:525)

In each of the examples above, water – or some type of liquid – is specifically indicated as the medium of “baptism”. However, in the following examples, the word does not seem to carry the meaning of being immersed in liquid:

[W]hen Ishmael saw him in that case, and that he was drowned (baptized) in his cups to the degree of insensibility, and fallen asleep, he rose up suddenly, with his ten friends, and slew Gedaliah. (Antiquities 10:169)

[W]hen he had gone over all his family, he stood upon their bodies to be seen by all, and stretching out his right hand, that his action might be observed by all, he sheathed (baptized) his entire sword into his own bowels. (War 2:476)

[T]hese very men, besides the seditions they raised, were otherwise the direct cause of the city’s destruction (baptized the city) also. (War 4:137)

In the first of these last three examples, being baptized in his cups seems to be an idiom for being drunk – similar to Philo’s usage in Contempl. 1:46. Perhaps the last two usages of βαπτίζω (baptizō) are the most interesting. In War 2:476, the verb seems to mean “bury to the hilt”, while in War 4:137, the word conveys a similar meaning to the one found in the LXX of Isaiah 21:4: “overwhelm” or perhaps “cover”.

Thus, it seems that in the LXX, in Philo, and in Josephus, the Greek verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) is very similar to the English verbs “immerse” or “plunge”. While they certainly can indicate being covered with water, they can also be used in other contexts. The context is very important to understand the “medium” into which someone is “immersed” or “plunged”.

A student can be “immersed” in a swimming pool, but the same student can also be “immersed” in her studies. A boy can be plunged into the sea, but he can also be plunged into despair. A person can immerse themselves in a tub of water, but that same person can also immerse themselves in the Spanish language.

As we begin to consider how the New Testament authors used the Greek verb βαπτίζω (baptizō), we must recognize the importance of context in understanding the meaning of the verb. The verb does not always mean “to submerge under water”.

In the next installment in the series, we’ll examine baptism in the New Testament passages where water is obviously in the context.


Baptism Series
1. Baptism in the LXX
2. Baptism in Philo
3. Baptism in Josephus
4. Water Baptism in the New Testament
5. Other Baptism in the New Testament
6. Ambiguous Baptism in the New Testament


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 1-11-2008

    Well, I am going to be interested in reading the next installment.

    I am also going to be very interested to hear your conclusion on the word and the context.

  2. 1-11-2008

    This is fascinating. Thanks for taking the plunge into this topic! ;^)

  3. 1-12-2008

    Jeff and Mary,

    Thanks for the comments. This has been a very interesting study for me as well.


  4. 1-12-2008

    I love it. But how can a baptist talk this way? :)

  5. 1-12-2008


    Thanks for the comment. The verb baptizo is used in the NT to indicate immersing people in water. I’m not questioning this at all. However, I think there are many instances in the NT where baptizo is not associated with water at all. I think if we can recognize this, we can better understand Scripture.


  6. 1-12-2008

    It is used to describe a practice that involves water to symbolize an amazing gift of grace, but we do not know if each instance of baptism in the bible involves complete immersion. Nothing demonstrates that clearly at all. In fact, the act of baptism itself really isn’t described.

  7. 1-26-2008

    why was Josephus never mentioned in the Talmud?