the weblog of Alan Knox

Baptism in Philo

Posted by on Jan 9, 2008 in ordinances/sacraments | 4 comments

This is the second 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. Although I originally planned to publish the posts in this series every two or three days, I decided to publish this one today because it works better with the timing of the remaining posts. In this post, I’ll examine the use of βαπτίζω (baptizō) in the writings of Philo of Alexandria.

Philo of Alexandria (20 BC – 50 AD) was a Hellenistic Jew living in Alexandria in Egypt. He had several similarities with the authors of the New Testament: he was their contemporary – living at about the same time, he was a Jew, and he wrote in the common Greek dialect of the day. So, studying Philo can help us understand some of the words used in the New Testament.

In Philo’s five uses of the Greek verb βαπτίζω (baptizō), the one that comes the closest to the idea of water baptism is the following:

It would be easier to sink (baptize) a bladder which was full of wind, than to compel any virtuous man whatever, against his will, to commit any action which he had never intended. (Prob. 1:97)

In that in this parable, which is a quotation from Zeno, the air-filled bladder is being sunk in water. Although water is not specifically mentioned, it does seem obvious from the context.

The other four uses of βαπτίζω (baptizō) in Philo’s writings appear more closely related to the translation “overwhelm” or perhaps “overpower” as found in the LXX in Isaiah 21:4. In this first example, while the context suggests water as the medium for baptism, the context also indicates that the water is being used figuratively, so the idea of “baptism” should be considered figurative as well:

[S]o he crosses over the river of the objects affecting the outward senses, which wash over and threaten to submerge (baptize) the soul by the impetuosity of the passions… (Leg. 3:18)

The remaining examples are below:

[I]t is better to be made an eunuch than to be hurried into wickedness by the fury of the illicit passions: for all these things, as they overwhelm (baptize) the soul in pernicious calamities, are deservedly followed by extreme punishments. (Det. 1:176)

Moreover, he also enacts laws for the whole of Egypt, that they should honor them, and pay taxes and tribute to them every year as to their kings; for he commands them to take a fifth part of the corn, that is to say, to store up in the treasury abundant materials and nourishment for the five outward senses, in order that each of them might rejoice while filling itself unrestrainedly with suitable food, and that it might weigh down and overwhelm (baptize) the mind with the multitude of things which were thus brought upon it; for during the banquet of the outer senses, the mind is laboring under a famine, as, on the contrary, when the outward senses are fasting, the mind is feasting. (Mig. 1:204)

And I know some persons who, when they are completely filled with wine, before they are wholly overpowered (baptized) by it, begin to prepare a drinking party for the next day by a kind of subscription and picnic contribution, conceiving a great part of their present delight to consist in the hope of future drunkenness; (Contempl. 1:46)

In each of these last four examples, physical water is not in view in the context. Instead, the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) means something like “overwhelm” or “overpower”. Again, context is very important in understanding the meaning of the verb.

It does seem clear, however, that when water is in context, the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) carries the idea of submerging under the water. However, we cannot conclude that βαπτίζω (baptizō) ALWAYS means immerse or wash in water. As we have seen both in the LXX and in Philo, sometimes water is not in view at all when the author uses the verb βαπτίζω (baptizō).

Next, we’ll look at Josephus’ use of the Greek verb βαπτίζω (baptizō) in his writings.


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. 1-9-2008

    I have always seen baptism as to emerse with water. Or to dunk. Cover. Your post has given me a very interesting perspective into baptism. The illustrations you use are wonderful.
    I want you to know that I will be visiting this blog on a regular basis. I would love for you to check out mine anytime and add to any discussion going on.
    I pray that God will bless you this year.

  2. 1-9-2008


    One of the ideas that I’m considering is that in some contexts, “baptism” has nothing to do with water at all. I look forward to discussing this further with you and others.


  3. 1-10-2008

    I have always read baptizo as “immerse.” But, that never led me to conclude immerse as people think of – in water. And your posts appear to affirm that thinking even if that is not the intent. The Greeks used the word just as we do in English: to describe things such as immersing oneself into one’s studies. To be engrossed. To become completely involved. Like the pig at breakfast, as compared to the chicken, we need to be immersed into Jesus. We need to immerse the world in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit by our love, words, deeds, etc. Given the fact that the word is often symbolic and given the fact we believe that baptism is symbolic, I frankly am befuddled by a systematic and religious demand that baptism be done in one ritualistic way – complete immersion under water. The symbol of following Jesus and being completely involved in following Him seems tobe the key, especially if one is to affirm that baptism is not salvific.

    Anyway … my two cents…

    Bryan Riley

  4. 1-10-2008


    I agree. As I finish up this series, I’ll look at a couple of passages that do not seem to be about water baptism at all.