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Baptism of Neophytes by Masaccio, 15th century, Brancacci Chapel, Florence.

In Christianity, baptism (from the Greek noun baptisma; itself derived from baptismos, ritual washing) is for the majority the rite of admission, almost invariably with the use of water, into the Christian Church generally and also membership of a particular church tradition. Baptism has been called a sacrament and an ordinance of Jesus Christ.

In some traditions, baptism is also called christening,[4][5] but for others the word “christening” is reserved for the baptism of infants.

The New Testament reports that Jesus himself was baptized.[7] The usual form of baptism among the earliest Christians was for the candidate to be immersed totally (submersion) or partially (standing or kneeling in water while water was poured on him or her). While John the Baptist’s use of a deep river for his baptism suggests immersion, pictorial and archaeological evidence of Christian baptism from the 3rd century onward indicates that a normal form was to have the candidate stand in water while water was poured over the upper body. Other common forms of baptism now in use include pouring water three times on the forehead.

Martyrdom was identified early in Church history as “baptism by blood”, enabling martyrs who had not been baptized by water to be saved. Later, the Catholic Church identified a baptism of desire, by which those preparing for baptism who die before actually receiving the sacrament are considered saved. As evidenced also in the common Christian practice of infant baptism, baptism was universally seen by Christians as in some sense necessary for salvation, until Huldrych Zwingli in the 16th century denied its necessity.

Today, some Christians, particularly Quakers and the Salvation Army, do not see baptism as necessary, and do not practice the rite. Among those that do, differences can be found in the manner and mode of baptizing and in the understanding of the significance of the rite. Most Christians baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (following the Great Commission), but some baptize in Jesus’ name only. Most Christians baptize infants; many others hold that only believer’s baptism is true baptism. Some insist on submersion or at least partial immersion of the person who is baptized, others consider that any form of washing by water, as long as the water flows on the head, is sufficient.

“Baptism” has also been used to refer to any ceremony, trial, or experience by which a person is initiated, purified, or given a name – see Other initiation ceremonies.


  • 1 Etymology
  • 2 New Testament meaning of the related Greek nouns and verbs
    • 2.1 Meaning of the Greek verb baptizein
    • 2.2 Other meanings of the verb baptizein
    • 2.3 Derived nouns
  • 3 History
    • 3.1 Background in Jewish ritual
    • 3.2 John the Baptist
    • 3.3 Early Christianity
    • 3.4 Early Middle Ages
    • 3.5 Middle Ages
    • 3.6 Reformation
  • 4 Mode and manner
    • 4.1 Aspersion
    • 4.2 Affusion
    • 4.3 Immersion
    • 4.4 Submersion
    • 4.5 Apparel
  • 5 Meaning and effects
    • 5.1 Christian traditions
    • 5.2 Ecumenical statements
    • 5.3 Validity considerations by some churches
    • 5.4 Recognition by other denominations
    • 5.5 Officiator
  • 6 Other traditions
    • 6.1 Anabaptist
    • 6.2 Baptist
    • 6.3 Churches of Christ
    • 6.4 Reformed and Covenant theology view
    • 6.5 Catholic
    • 6.6 Jehovah’s Witnesses
    • 6.7 Mormonism
  • 7 Non-practitioners
    • 7.1 Quakers
    • 7.2 Salvation Army
    • 7.3 Hyperdispensationalism
  • 8 Comparative summary
  • 9 Other initiation ceremonies
    • 9.1 Mystery religion initiation rites
    • 9.2 Mandaeanism
    • 9.3 Gnostic Catholicism and Thelema
    • 9.4 Baptism of objects
    • 9.5 “Debaptism”
  • 10 See also
    • 10.1 Related articles and subjects
    • 10.2 People and ritual objects
  • 11 Notes
  • 12 Further reading
  • 13 External links


The English word “baptism” is derived indirectly through Latin from the neuter Greek concept noun baptisma (Greek βάπτισμα, “washing-ism”), which is a neologism in the New Testament derived from the masculine Greek noun baptismos (βαπτισμός) which is a term for ritual washing in Greek language texts of Hellenistic Judaism during the Second Temple period, such as the Septuagint. Both of these nouns are nouns derived from baptizein (βαπτίζω, “I wash” transitive verb) which is used in Jewish texts for ritual washing, and in the New Testament both for ritual washing and also for the apparently new rite of baptisma. The Greek verb root bpt in turn is hypothetically traced to a reconstructed Indo-European root *gwabh- or *gwebh- in the suffixed zero-grade form *gwəbh-yo- The Greek words are used in a great variety of meanings.

New Testament meaning of the related Greek nouns and verbs

Catacombs of San Callisto: baptism in a 3rd-century painting

The New Testament contains four related words; two verbs and two nouns:

  • baptein – to wash something
  • baptizein – to wash, often a person in a ritual context
  • baptismos – Jewish ritual washing
  • baptisma – the new Christian rite

As Christians of different traditions dispute whether total immersion (submersion) is necessary for baptism, the precise meaning of the Greek noun baptisma in the New Testament has become important for discussion.

Meaning of the Greek verb baptizein

The Greek-English Lexicon of Liddell and Scott gives the primary meaning of the verb baptizein (1st Person βαπτίζω baptizô), from which the English verb “baptize” is derived, as “dip, plunge”, and indicates that the dipping or plunging need not be complete, as when a sword is plunged into a throat or into a foetus or when wine is drawn by dipping a cup in the bowl; for New Testament usage it gives two meanings: “baptize”, with which it associates the Septuagint mention of Naaman dipping himself in the Jordan River, and “perform ablutions”, as in Luke 11:38.

Although the Greek verb baptizein does not exclusively mean dip, plunge or immerse (it is used with literal and figurative meanings such as “sink”, “disable”, “overwhelm”, “go under”, “overborne”, “draw from a bowl”), lexical sources typically cite this as a meaning of the word in both the Septuagint[40][41][46] and the New Testament.[47]

Other meanings of the verb baptizein

Representation of baptism in early Christian art.

Two passages in the New Testament indicate that the verb baptizein when applied to washing in a context unrelated to Christian baptism, did not always indicate submersion. The first is Luke 11:38[48] which tells how a Pharisee, at whose house Jesus ate, “was astonished to see that he did not first wash (ἐβαπτίσθη, aorist passive of βαπτίζω—literally, “be baptized”) before dinner.” This is the passage that Liddell and Scott cites as an instance of the use of βαπτίζω to mean perform ablutions. Jesus’ omission of this action is similar to that of his disciples: “Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash (νίπτω) not their hands when they eat bread.”[Mt 15:1–2] The other New Testament passage pointed to is: “The Pharisees…do not eat unless they wash (νίπτω, the ordinary word for washing) their hands thoroughly, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they wash themselves (literally, “baptize themselves”—βαπτίσωνται, passive or middle voice of βαπτίζω)”.[Mk 7:3–4]

Scholars of various denominations[49][50][51] claim that these two passages show that invited guests, or people returning from market, would not be expected to immerse themselves (“baptize themselves”) totally in water but only to practise the partial immersion of dipping their hands in water or to pour water over them, as is the only form admitted by present Jewish custom.[52] However, in the first of the two passages, it is actually the hands that are specifically identified as “washed” (Mark 7:3), not the entire person, who is simply described as having washed (Mark 7:4–5). Accordingly, standard lexicography identifies the meaning of βαπτίζω here as ‘immerse’.[53] The Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon (1996) cites the other passage (Luke 11:38) as an instance of the use of the verb baptizein to mean “perform ablutions”, not ‘baptize’.[54] References to the cleaning of vessels which use βαπτίζω also refer to immersion.[55]

The lexicographical works of Zodhiates and Balz & Schneider likewise say that in the second of these two cases, Mark 7:4, the verb baptizein means that, after coming from the market, the Pharisees only immersed their hands in collected water.[56] They understand the meaning of βαπτίζω to be the same as βάπτω, to dip or immerse,[57][58][59] a verb used of the partial dipping of a morsel held in the hand into wine or of a finger into spilled blood.[60]

A possible additional use of the verb baptizein to relate to ritual washing is suggested by Peter Leithart (2007) who suggests that Paul’s phrase “Else what shall they do who are baptized for the dead?”[61] relates to Jewish ritual washing.[62]

Derived nouns

Two nouns derived from the verb baptizo (βαπτίζω) appear in the New Testament: the masculine noun baptismos (βαπτισμός) and the neuter noun baptisma (βάπτισμα):

  • baptismos (βαπτισμός) refers in Mark 7:4 to a water-rite for the purpose of purification, washing, cleansing, of dishes;[63][64] in the same verse and in Hebrews 9:10 to Levitical cleansings of vessels or of the body;[65] and in Hebrews 6:2 perhaps also to baptism, though there it may possibly refer to washing an inanimate object.[64] According to Spiros Zodhiates when referring merely to the cleansing of utensils baptismos (βαπτισμός) is equated with rhantismos (ῥαντισμός, “sprinkling”), found only in Hebrews 12:24 and 1Peter 1:2, a noun used to indicate the symbolic cleansing by the Old Testament priest.[66]
  • baptisma (βάπτισμα), which is a neologism appearing to originate in the New Testament, and probably should not be confused with the earlier Jewish concept of baptismos (βαπτισμός),[66] Later this is found only in writings by Christians.[63] In the New Testament, it appears at least 21 times:
  • 13 times with regard to the rite practised by John the Baptist;[67]
  • 3 times with reference to the specific Christian rite[68] (4 times if account is taken of its use in some manuscripts of Colossians 2:12, where, however, it is most likely to have been changed from the original baptismos than vice versa);[69]
  • 5 times in a metaphorical sense.[70]
  • Manuscript variation: In Colossians 2:12, some manuscripts have neuter noun baptisma (βάπτισμα), but some have masculine noun baptismos (βαπτισμός), and this is the reading given in modern critical editions of the New Testament.[71] If this reading is correct, then this the only New Testament instance in which baptismos (βαπτισμός) is clearly used of Christian baptism, rather than of a generic washing, unless the opinion of some is correct that Hebrews 6:2 may also refer to Christian baptism.[64]
  • The feminine noun baptisis,[72] along with the masculine noun baptismos[73] both occur in Josephus’ Antiquities (J. AJ 18.5.2) relating to the murder of John the Baptist by Herod.[74][75] This feminine form is not used elsewhere by Josephus, nor in the New Testament.[76]


Main article: History of Baptism

Background in Jewish ritual

Main article: Mikvah

Although the term “baptism” is not used to describe the Jewish rituals, the purification rites in Jewish laws and tradition, called mikvah, have some similarity to baptism, and the two have been linked.[77][78] In the Jewish Bible and other Jewish texts, immersion in water for ritual purification was established for restoration to a condition of “ritual purity” in specific circumstances. For example, Jews who (according to the Law of Moses) became ritually defiled by contact with a corpse had to use the mikvah before being allowed to participate in the Holy Temple. Immersion is required for converts to Judaism as part of their conversion. Immersion in the mikvah represents a change in status in regards to purification, restoration, and qualification for full religious participation in the life of the community, ensuring that the cleansed person will not impose uncleanness on property or its owners (Num. 19 and Babylonian Talmud, TractateChagigah, p. 12). This change of status by the mikvah could be obtained repeatedly, while Christian baptism, like circumcision, is, in the general view of Christians, unique and not repeatable.[79]

During the Second Temple period the Greek noun baptismos was used to refer to ritual washing in Hellenistic Judaism.

John the Baptist

John the Baptist adopted baptismal immersion as the central sacrament in his messianic movement,[80] seen as a forerunner of Christianity.

Early Christianity

Main article: Baptism in early Christianity

This section requires expansion.

Baptism has been part of Christianity from the start, as shown by the many mentions in the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles. Christians consider Jesus to have instituted the sacrament of baptism. How explicit Jesus’ intentions were and whether he envisioned a continuing, organized Church is a matter of dispute among scholars.[21]

Early Middle Ages

Infant baptism became common, alongside the developing theology of original sin, displacing the earlier common practice of delaying baptism until the deathbed.[19] Against Pelagius, Augustine insisted that baptism was necessary for salvation even for virtuous people and for children.

Baptism of Augustine of Hippo as represented in a sculptural group in Troyes cathedral (1549)

Middle Ages

Baptism of Augustine of Hippo as represented in a sculptural group in Troyes cathedral (1549)

In 895, the provincial Council of Tribur commented on the traditional teaching that that the triple immersion in baptism was an imitation of Christ for the three days he spent in the tomb, and the rising from the water an imitation of the resurrection of Jesus.[81] The linking of the baptismal immersion in and rising from the water with the burial and resurrection of Jesus arguably goes back to Saint Paul,[82] and the linking of the triple immersion with the three days in the tomb is found in Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313-386) and Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-after 394).[83]

The 12th century saw the meaning of the word “sacrament” narrowed down and restricted to seven rites, among them that of baptism, while other symbolic rites came to be called “sacramentals”.[84]

In the period between the 12th and the 14th centuries, affusion became the usual manner of administering baptism in Western Europe, though immersion continued to be found in some places even as late as the 16th century.[85] Throughout the Middle Ages, there was therefore considerable variation in the kind of facility required for baptism, from the baptismal pool large enough to immerse several adults simultaneously of the 13th century Baptistery at Pisa, to the half-metre deep basin in the 6th century baptistery of the old Cologne Cathedral.[86]

Both East and West considered washing with water and the Trinitarian baptismal formula necessary for administering the rite. Scholasticism referred to these two elements as the matter and the form of the sacrament, employing terms taken from the then prevailing Aristotelian philosophy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, while teaching the necessity of both elements, nowhere uses these philosophical terms when speaking of any of the sacraments.[87]


Main article: Lutheranism#Baptism

In the 16th century, Martin Luther considered baptism to be a sacrament. For the Lutherans, baptism is a “means of grace” through which God creates and strengthens “saving faith” as the “washing of regeneration”[Titus 3:5] in which infants and adults are reborn.[Jn 3:3–7] Since the creation of faith is exclusively God’s work, it does not depend on the actions of the one baptized, whether infant or adult. Even though baptized infants cannot articulate that faith, Lutherans believe that it is present all the same.[88] Because it is faith alone that receives these divine gifts, Lutherans confess that baptism “works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.”[89] In the special section on infant baptism in his Large Catechism, Luther argues that infant baptism is God-pleasing because persons so baptized were reborn and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.[90]

Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli differed with the Lutherans by denying sacramental status of baptism. Zwingli identified baptism and the Lord’s supper as sacraments, but in the sense of an initiatory ceremony.[21] His understanding of these sacraments as symbolic differentiated him from Luther.

Awaiting submersion baptism in the Jordan river

Anabaptists (a word that means “rebaptizers”) rejected so thoroughly the tradition maintained by Lutherans as well as Catholics that they denied the validity of baptism outside their group. They “rebaptized” converts on the grounds that one cannot be baptized without wishing it, and an infant, who does not understand what happens in a baptism ceremony and who has no knowledge of the concepts of Christianity, is not really baptized. They saw as non-biblical the baptism of infants, who cannot confess their faith and who, not having yet committed any sins, are not in the same need of salvation. Anabaptists and other Baptist groups do not consider that they rebaptize those who have been baptized as infants, since, in their view, infant baptism is without effect. The Amish, Restoration churches (Churches of Christ/ Christian Church), Hutterites, Baptists, Mennonites and other groups descend from this tradition. Pentecostal, charismatic and most non-denominational churches share this view as well.[91]

Mode and manner

Baptism of a child by affusion

A Christian baptism is administered in one of the following forms, performing the action either once or thrice:[92][93]


Main article: Aspersion

Aspersion is the sprinkling of water on the head.


Baptism of a child by affusion