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The verb Baptize in Philo’s writings

Posted by on Jul 24, 2012 in ordinances/sacraments, scripture | 5 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 (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 Philo of Alexandria.

Philo of Alexandria (20 BC – 50 AD) was a Hellenistic Jew living in Alexandria in Egypt. He shared 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 (baptizo), 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 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 (baptizo) 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 (baptizo) 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 (baptizo) carries the idea of submerging under the water. However, we cannot conclude that βαπτίζω (baptizo) 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 (baptizo).

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


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. 7-24-2012

    Then would it be accurate to say that we were baptized into Christ, and His Spirit; completely immersed, filled, inundated, and overwhelmed?

  2. 7-24-2012

    Instead of looking at the verb baptizo in regards to other early writers, I prefer to look at it in the context of the New Testament. Jesus was baptized in water (Matthew 3:13-17). In the book of Acts there are repeated references to baptism, all within the context of water (Acts 2:41; Acts 8:36; Acts 10:47 to name a few). I Peter 3:21 likens baptism to the flood and how the water washed away the sins. I find it interesting that the only people discussing “baptism” in reference to water and its necessity are older, established “scholars”. The Bible isn’t meant to be difficult to understand, that is the timelessness of it. So, those who are knew to the faith read about baptism and realize it is something that is important. Too bad so many people are determined to argue and hold on to their traditions as opposed to reading the scripture.

  3. 7-24-2012


    I think that’s definitely part of the New Testament use of the verb “baptize.” I’ll get to that later in the week.


    Thank you for your comment. I think you are misunderstanding my purpose in writing this series. My “tradition” is baptist, and I do practice water baptism by immersion. However, there are instances in the NT in which the verb “baptize” does not refer to water at all. Studying how the verb “baptize” is used in different writings can help us understand what it means in the NT, because the NT authors used common words, not new words. Stick with me through this series, and hopefully you’ll see what I’m talking about.


  4. 7-24-2012

    Alan, I look forward to reading the rest of your series on baptism. I have come to distrust BDAG (the standand Greek lexicon), which you reference in Part 1 of your series. Generally, I find it imposes back on the original Greek the Christianized meaning of words rather than provide the meaning of those words as they would have been understood under the general vernacular of the day. I therefore applaud you for also looking at some of the common uses of baptizo when the NT was written.

    In my prior studies, I concluded that the primary idea of baptizo is to become totally identified with something. Kittel’s and other authoritative sources seem to support this view.

    For example, a very common use of baptizo in the 1st century was to dye a cloth – thus giving it a new identity as becomes one with the color of the dye. Likewise, baptizo was commonly used to describe a ship sinking – it became totally identified with the water as it became immersed in the water. Even the ritual meaning of baptize can only be fully understood in this sense – the initiation (total identification) of a new convert into whatever the sect was about.

    In the NT, water baptism is total identification with Christ in the death and burial of our old self and then resurrection into newness of life. The baptism of the Holy Spirit likewise is total identification with the Holy Spirit (not to be confused with receiving the Holy Spirit). In another use of the word, the Great Commission tells us to bring cultures (ethne) into total identification with the Father, and with the Son, and with the Holy Spirit.

    Anyway, those are my feeble contributions to your series. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Again, I look forward to reading more.

  5. 7-24-2012


    I agree with BDAG. I usually begin with BDAG, but then study the word in its various contexts. That’s what I’m doing with this series as well.

    I definitely agree that we find our identity completely in Christ, but I’m not sure that is wrapped up in the meaning of the verb baptizo. However, the verb baptizo could point to that identity immersion in certain contexts.