Excursus on βαπτισμῶν in Hebrews 6:2

[In September of 2014, as I was translating a passage from Hebrews 6, I chose to write an excursus on verse two, pertaining to the specific Greek word βαπτισμῶν. For the past month, I’ve been translating the book of Hebrews, thus revisiting my work from years ago. I have posted each completed chapter here on my website, and I’ve decided to post this excursus here as well. LGO, March 1, 2017]

For people accustomed to reading only an English translation, the meaning of Hebrews 6:2 can very easily be obscured. There are two basic complicating factors here. One has to do with the actual word used in the text, often (unfortunately) translated “baptisms,” and the other has to do with matters of textual criticism, which is not an easy subject for the average English reader to wrap his mind around. So bear with me on this.

Okay, first issue: the Greek word behind the English rendering “baptisms” here in Hebrews 6:2 is baptismōn [βαπτισμῶν], the masculine plural genitive case form of the noun baptismos [βαπτισμός].

(For nearly five centuries, a dozen or more English Bible versions have unfortunately used this “baptisms” rendering, beginning with Tyndale’s New Testament [1525] and used as late as the NET Bible [2005]. In the last century and a quarter, a few English versions have either “ablutions” [Revised Standard Version] or “washings”: Darby’s translation, New American Standard Bible, David Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible, Holman Christian Standard Bible, English Standard Version.)

Now, it is obvious that the English rendering “baptisms” is not even a translation of the meaning of the term. It is simply a transliteration, a word created in one language (in this case, of course, English) by approximating the letters of a term from another language (Greek). Simply compare baptismos and baptisms, and you can see what I mean. So this rendering, a transliteration, is not even accurate (I’ll get to that in a minute), but it also obscures what the Greek term actually meant.

So what did the Greek noun baptismos mean? Simple: dipping, and then by extension, ablution, ceremonial washing. Now if you’ve ever heard a sermon on the subject of baptism (there’s that unfortunate transliteration again), you’re probably saying to yourself, “Wait a minute, I wasn’t expecting that definition. That doesn’t sound like the definition I’ve heard before about baptism.”

Well, you’re right. The transliteration baptism found in many other verses in our standard English translations is usually a rendering for another Greek noun, baptisma [βάπτισμα], which means immersion, submersion. So the underlying Greek noun for “baptisms” here in Hebrews 6:2 is a different noun from what people usually associate with “baptism.”

(Man, I wish we could just get rid of the transliterations baptism and baptize. They create so much confusion. But church tradition and bad doctrine have saddled us with these terms for nearly 500 years now, going all the way back to William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament. By the time New Testament translation was first taking place, the church/religious tradition of substituting a sprinkling ritual for Biblical Christian immersion was already centuries old. So English translation work, instead of challenging this substitution/bad doctrine with accurate translation, acquiesced to tradition and the ecclesiastical powers of the time, and chose these transliterations instead of translating their literal meanings. Things would be so much simpler and clearer if these obscuring substitutions were rejected in favor of the true meanings of Biblical terms. Okay, rant over.)

So, looking at the noun baptismos in Hebrews 6:2 again, the word means ablutions or washings. Often definitions add to the word washings words like ritual or ceremonial. So this noun actually conveys a different idea here than does the rendering “baptisms” in so many of English versions. And this noun is rarely found in the Greek NT. Baptismos is found in just four verses of the Greek NT: twice in Hebrews (here and in 9:10) and twice in Mark’s Gospel (7:4, 8). And even as I say that, I have to explain it, which brings me to the next issue impacting this verse, a matter of textual criticism.

To be clear, there is no text critical issue in Hebrews 6:2 itself. The Greek manuscripts unambiguously support the presence of baptismōn in this verse. But the occurrence of baptismos in other verses, and one verse in particular, can potentially have an impact on what the noun is said to mean, which of course could affect its meaning in the verse before us.

Textual critics are generally in agreement that baptismos is found just four times in the NT, but they are not all agreed on the four verse locations I just mentioned. Some maintain that it is not found in Mark 7:8, but a fourth occurrence is found in Colossians 2:12. Now, I’ll get to why this even matters in a minute, but first let’s take a look at these two verses where the presence of baptismos is disputed.

Mark 7:8. Let’s start by looking at this verse, first in the New King James Version, which of course reflects the form of the original KJV. Then I will follow that with the New International Version, which follows suit with most English translations of the 20th century on.

NKJV  Mark 7:8 “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.”

NIV  Mark 7:8 “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”

Okay, obviously, the NIV (and most translations since 1881) have omitted the second clause of the verse, and it’s that second clause that contains the word baptismos. The translators were simply following the form of the Greek text edited by certain textual critics, from Westcott and Hort (1881) to most critics on down to today. These critics omitted the second clause because they did not find it in certain manuscript copies, which they value more than others.

Specifically, the shorter version of the verse in Greek is found in about a dozen or so Greek manuscripts (P45, א, B, L, W, Δ, 0274, 124, f1[=1, 118, 1582], 205, 2427). Now, a dozen manuscripts are certainly worthy of investigation, but let’s put this in perspective. According to missionary and textual critic Wilbur N. Pickering, in his notes on this verse in his New Testament translation, less than 2% of the Greek manuscripts omit the clause.

One such textual critic advocating adopting this minority reading was Bruce M. Metzger. In his A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Second Edition): A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (Fourth Revised Edition), Metzger said that the second clause of Mark 7:8

…is absent from the oldest and best witnesses, is doubtless a scribal addition, derived from verse 4.

That entire statement is based on assumptions Metzger made, based on his estimation of certain manuscripts and textual transmission traditions and on rules made by men about assessing such text critical issues in the Greek NT. But Metzger is hardly alone in this; most modern textual critics generally take the same attitude in dismissing the second clause and adopting the shorter reading.

Colossians 2:12. With this verse, it is not necessary to compare different English versions. Almost all of them in the first clause of the verse read “…buried with Him in baptism…” (The only exception to this I found was David Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible: “…you were buried along with him by being immersed…”)

The controversy here, besides the unfortunate use of the transliteration “baptism” again, lies in which Greek word underlies that transliteration, actually and accurately translated as “immersion.” According to the same modern textual critics and their edited text of choice, the word is baptismō [βαπτισμῷ], the masculine dative singular form of the noun baptismos. And we’ve already seen that this word is used of ceremonial washings, not Christian immersion. However, those that maintain baptismos is found here in Colossians 2:12 maintain that it must also be a synonym for the noun baptisma, which does refer to immersion.

But not so fast. Is baptismō indeed the correct reading in this verse, or is it the reading preferred by modern critics of a particular mindset about the text of the Greek NT? That reading is found in just a little more than a half dozen manuscripts. Specifically, P46, B, D, G, 1739, 1881, 2127 are listed as witnesses to this reading.

Another is often listed, אc, but we need to understand what these symbols mean. The symbol א refers to a fourth century AD manuscript otherwise known as Codex Sinaiticus, copied somewhere between 330 and 360 AD. However, the superscript letter c (אc) means “corrected.” In other words, the reading baptismō was a supposed “correction” written into the manuscript by a later hand. In the original text of Colossians 2:12 in Sinaiticus, the reading is not baptismō, but baptismati [βαπτίσματι], the dative neuter singular form of the noun baptisma. And as we have already noted, baptisma is the usual noun meaning immersion that our English versions typically render “baptism.”

And besides the original text of the Sinaiticus manuscript, baptismati is the word found in the overwhelming majority of Greek manuscripts containing Colossians 2:12. So why do these modern critics prefer the minority reading? Basically for two reasons. One, they place so much importance on the older manuscripts (papyri fragments, א or Codex Sinaiticus, and B, or Codex Vaticanus), that if one or more of these has a given reading, they figure it must be the original reading. Quite often a reading has been adopted on the strength of just two or three witnesses.

A second reason for preferring minority readings is often precisely because they are minority readings. As odd as that sounds, that’s their logic. I appeal to Bruce Metzger again to illustrate this point, using his very commentary on the reading baptismō in Colossians 2:12.

A majority of the Committee [the editorial committee responsible for the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, of which Metzger was a part] preferred βαπτισμῷ because, being the less usual term for Christian baptism in the ancient church…copyists were more likely to alter it to βαπτίσματι than vice versa.

By the way, the assertion that baptismō is “the less usual term for Christian baptism” is presumptuous. It presupposes that baptismō was ever used as a synonym for baptisma, immersion. If the reading is not original to the reading in this verse, then there is no reference in all the Greek NT where baptismō is used in such a way. Metzger used a bit of circular reasoning here.

And that’s the point of all this information concerning textual criticism. As I said earlier, the meaning of baptismos applies to the ceremonial washings so integral to life under Mosaic law, and not to Christian immersion. Since scant evidence and assumptions are the reason it is even considered as original in Colossians 2:12, we need not seriously consider it as also a synonym for baptisma (immersion), and therefore that meaning is not under consideration in Hebrews 6:2. My translation of that first clause of verse 2 into English is “of the teaching about washings,” which is also how a number of standard English Bible versions have rendered it.

And this brings us back around to the reason for this excursus, namely, addressing the meaning of the text of Hebrews 6:2, which has been obscured by the issues addressed above. And in addition to the aforementioned issues of translation and textual criticism, another obscuring factor is reading the text anachronistically and eisegetically.

In other words, this verse and what it has to teach us is too often read without regard for its correct historical time frame and context, and doing that tends to lead to reading into the verse what is true of our time and culture, but not theirs. In the modern context of 21st century Gentile Christians, and with the unfortunate non-translation rendering “baptisms,” this verse is typically seen as referring to immersion in water and in the Holy Spirit. While those two topics are valid points for discussion in Christian circles, they don’t reflect what is meant in Hebrews 6:2.

So, to whom was the book of Hebrews written, and when? While the matter of the date of Hebrews is a subject for another article, it is easily established that the book was written in the first century AD, most probably before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Furthermore, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews was writing to…wait for it…the Hebrews. Jews in the first century AD. More specifically, the first generation of Jewish believers in Yeshua as the Messiah. And to them, “the teaching about washings” meant something different to them. A clue to this is seen in a passage we’ve already looked at: Mark 7.

In the opening verses of that passage, we are told about certain of the Lord’s disciples that ate with unwashed, “ceremonially unclean” hands. We are also told that the Pharisees and teachers of the Law present saw this and challenged Jesus about it. Several times in this passage, we are told that this was in violation, not of the Mosaic Law, but of the “traditions of the elders.”

I’ll resist the temptation to do an exposition of this passage. Suffice it to say for the purposes of our present discussion that this is a reference to the kind of “washings” required of the Jews of the day. As I pointed out previously, the Greek term here in Hebrews 6:2, baptismōn, refers to just this kind of “washing,” and not to being immersed into Christ. And culturally and contextually this Pharisaical requirement ceremonial cleansing for holiness was more of an issue to the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews. I therefore submit that this is the issue that the writer of Hebrews was addressing.