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The verb Baptize in Josephus’ writings

Posted by on Jul 25, 2012 in ordinances/sacraments, scripture | 5 comments

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


Examining the Verb “Baptize” Series:

  1. The verb Baptize in the Old Testament (LXX)
  2. The verb Baptize in Philo’s writings
  3. The verb Baptize in Josephus’ writings
  4. The verb Baptize in a context with water in the New Testament
  5. The verb Baptize in a context WITHOUT water in the New Testament
  6. The verb Baptize in ambiguous contexts 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. 7-25-2012

    Alan: Thanks for the coverage of Baptize in the LXX, Philo, Josephus, etc. It has been interesting and helpful. I happen to have a copy of the LXX and have made use of it in my ministry a few times. One of the most interesting has been to consider that the LXX used parthenos for almah, which makes it plain that the meaning of virgin in Isa.7:14 was accepted long before the controversy over Jesus’ birth. I am reminded of the gentleman who burned the Bible back in the early fifties in Rocky Mount. The papers tried to present him as a tear haired radical, but the Rev. Martin Luther Hux who had been converted under Mordecai Fowler Ham (the same Evangelist who won Billy Graham) was a graduate of Wake Forest College. He knew what he was doing. He was protesting the translation of almah as young woman by the RSV. Brother Hux was an a-millenialist which suggests that he was probably rather studious. The fact that you would take the time to research the use of baptizo in the various writings you have covered gives me hope for the future. If only we had folks to do that with our Baptist documents, church records, etc. There is a wealth of information, inspiration, etc. in those records, records of the great acts of God. Listen to this quote from the records of the Mt. Pisgah Baptist church (the church which sent forth the first missionary to China, Matthew T. Yates) for April 22, 1865: “The four years of bloody war between the north and the South cap. sic), have closed, to the defeat of the South, & as Christians we will still say, let the will of the Lord be done.”

  2. 7-26-2012

    Thank you for this series. I’ve been looking into this stuff a little bit recently, so your word studies are helpful. I don’t know if you’re interested or not, but there are some helpful word studies in the appendix of Hal Brunson’s The Rickety Bridge and the Broken Mirror. (You can check them out for free on google books). I’m not sure if I’m sold on his thesis, but he definitely seems to have done his homework

  3. 7-26-2012


    To be honest, I was slightly confused by your comment, especially with the part about parthenos and almah in the middle. I do hope you and others find this study valuable. I know that it’s been helpful for me.


    I’m glad that this series is helpful for you. I’m not familiar with that book, and, as far as I know, I’ve never read a word study on the Greek term βαπτίζω (baptizo). I’m sure it would be very helpful also.


  4. 7-26-2012

    Alan: I guess I was trying to show how the study of words and how they are used in documents, etc., can be so helpful to the ministry of God’s people. Parthenos and Almah were suggestive and illustrative along the same lines as baptizo being by dipping.But I am very tired these days. Put my wife in the hospital this past friday..and go a rehab center today to meet her where she is to be transferred shortly after noon. Preached this past Sun, and last night, and am to preach again this Sun…and burned the midnight oil on the two sermons thus far. So I might be a little cloudy. Sorry about that.

  5. 7-26-2012


    Thanks for the explanation. It sounds like you’ve had a busy week.