How did a Pharisee baptize a couch or table in Mark 7:4?

How did a Pharisee baptize a couch or table in Mark 7:4?               By Jack Kettler

In this study, the application of washings or baptisms will be considered.  

“And, coming from the market-place, if they [Pharisees] do not baptize themselves, they do not eat; and many other things there are that they received to hold, baptisms of cups, and pots, and brazen vessels, and couches.” (Mark 7:4 Young’s Literal Translation)

In a previous study, the readers learned that the Greek βαπτίζω‎ could be translated as “dip, plunge, dyed, bathed, wetted or immersed” in Scripture. Regarding the Mark 7:4 text, is it even reasonable to believe the Pharisees baptized themselves or an eating couch by immersion?  

James W. Dale and others write: 

“37. James W. Dale argues in his monumental four-volume work on baptism (Classic Baptism Judaic Baptism, Johannic Baptism, and Christic and Patristic Baptism) that baptizo, does not mean “to dip” (that is, “to put into [and to remove from]”) but rather “to put together so as to remain together,” with its import “in nowise governed by, or dependent upon, any form of act” (Classic Baptism [1867; reprint, Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1989], 126). He shows that the word in classical Greek means a variety of things, including to plunge, to drown, to steep, to bewilder, to dip, to tinge, to pour, to sprinkle, and to dye! He concludes by saying:

Baptism is a myriad-sided word, adjusting itself to the most diverse cases. Agamemnon was baptized; Bacchus was baptized; Cupid was baptized; Cleinias was baptized; Alexander was baptized; Panthia was baptized; Otho was baptized; Charicles was baptized; and a host of others were baptized, each differing from the other in the nature or the mode of their baptism, or both.

A blind man could more readily select any demanded color from the spectrum, or a child could more readily thread the Cretan labyrinth, than could “the seven wise men of Greece” declare the nature, or mode, of any given baptism by the naked help of baptizo. (353–54)

Therefore, Jay Adams in his foreword to Dale’s Classic Baptism rightly declares that “water baptism is an appropriate ‘uniting ordinance’ that permanently introduces Christians to the visible Church, just as Spirit baptism permanently unites Christians with the invisible Church.

While it may sometimes mean “to dip,” there are several New Testament contexts where it must mean simply “to wash,” with no specific mode of washing indicated. For example, ebaptisthe, hardly means “was immersed” in Luke 11:38, where we are informed that a certain Pharisee, “noticing that Jesus did not first wash [literally “was not baptized”] before the meal, was surprised.” Surely this Pharisee did not expect Jesus (note that Jesus the person is the subject of the verbal action and not simply Jesus’ hands) to be immersed in water before every meal! Surely his surprise was provoked by Jesus not ritually washing his hands before eating, in keeping with the ceremony referred to in Matthew 15:2 and Mark 7:3-4, most probably by having water poured over them (see the practice alluded to in 2 Kgs. 3:11 and Luke 7:44).

Speaking of Mark 7:3-4, in verse 4 we read: ‘And [when they come] from the marketplace, except they ceremonially wash [baptisontai, literally ‘baptize themselves’] they do not eat.” Surely again, baptisontai, cannot mean that “the Pharisees and all the Jews” immersed themselves every time they returned home from the market.” (1)

From Barnes’ Notes on the Bible:

“Market – This word means either the place where provisions were sold, or the place where men were convened for any purpose. Here it probably means the former.

Except they wash – In the original, “Except they baptize.” In this place it does not mean to immerse the whole body, but only the hands. There is no evidence that the Jews washed their “whole bodies” every time they came from market. It is probable that they often washed with the use of a very small quantity of water.

The washing of cups – In the Greek, “the baptism of cups.”

Cups – drinking vessels. Those used at their meals.

Pots – Measures of “liquids.” Vessels made of wood, used to hold wine, vinegar, etc.

brazen vessels – Vessels made of brass, used in cooking or otherwise. These, if much polluted, were commonly passed through the fire: if slightly polluted they were washed. Earthen vessels, if defiled, were usually broken.

Tables – This word means, in the original, “beds or couches.” It refers not to the “tables” on which they ate, but to the “couches” on which they reclined at their meals. See the notes at Matthew 23:6. These were supposed to be defiled when any unclean or polluted person had reclined on them, and they deemed it necessary to purify them with water. The word “baptism” is here used – in the original, “the baptism of tables;” but, since it cannot be supposed that “couches” were entirely “immersed” in water, the word “baptism” here must denote some other application of water, by sprinkling or otherwise, and shows that the term is used in the sense of washing in any way. If the word is used here, as is clear it is, to denote anything except entire immersion, it may be elsewhere, and baptism is lawfully performed, therefore, without immersing the whole body in water.” (2) (Underlining and bolding emphasis mine)

Barnes notes that baptism cannot possibly mean immersion in the above examples.

From Vincent’s Word Studies:

“Wash themselves (βαπτίσωνται)

Two of the most important manuscripts, however, read ῥαντίσωνται, sprinkled themselves. See Rev., in margin. This reading is adopted by Westcott and Herr. The American Revisers insist on bathe, instead of wash, already used as a translation of νίψωνται (Mark 7:3). The scope of this work does not admit of our going into the endless controversy to which this word has given rise. It will be sufficient to give the principal facts concerning its meaning and usage.

In classical Greek the primary meaning is to merse. Thus Polybius (i., 51, 6), describing a naval battle of the Romans and Carthaginians, says, “They sank (ἐβάπτιζον) many of the ships.” Josephus (“Jewish War,” 4., 3, 3), says of the crowds which flocked into Jerusalem at the time of the siege, “They overwhelmed (ἐβάπτισαν) the city.” In a metaphorical sense Plato uses it of drunkenness: drowned in drink (βεβαπτισμένοι, “Symposium,” 176); of a youth overwhelmed (βαπτιζόμενον) with the argument of his adversary (“Euthydemus,” 277).

“In the Septuagint the verb occurs four times: Isaiah 21:4, Terror hath frighted me. Septuagint, Iniquity baptizes me (βπτίζε); 2 Kings 5:15, of Naaman’s dipping himself in Jordan (ἐβαπτίσατο); Judith 12:7, Judith washing herself (ἐβαπτίζετο) at the fountain; Sirach 31:25, being baptized (βαπτιζόμενος) from a dead body.”

The New Testament use of the word to denote submersion for a religious purpose, may be traced back to the Levitical washings. See Leviticus 11:32 (of vessels); Leviticus 11:40 (of clothes); Numbers 8:6, Numbers 8:7 (sprinkling with purifying water); Exodus 30:19, Exodus 30:21 (of washing hands and feet). The word appears to have been at that time the technical term for such washings (compare Luke 11:38; Hebrews 9:10; Mark 7:4), and could not therefore have been limited to the meaning immerse. Thus, the washing of pots and vessels for ceremonial purification could not have been by plunging them in water, which would have rendered impure the whole body of purifying water. The word may be taken in the sense of washing or sprinkling.

The Teaching of the Apostles” (see on Matthew 10:10) throws light on the elastic interpretation of the term, in its directions for baptism. “Baptize – in living (i.e., running) water. But if thou hast not living water, baptize in other water; and if thou canst not in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, pour water upon the head thrice into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Chap. VII.).

Pots (ξεστῶν)

Another of Mark’s Latin words, adapted from the Latin sextarius, a pint measure. Wyc., cruets. Tynd., cruses.

Brazen vessels (χαλκίων)

More literally, copper.

Tables (κλινῶν)

Omitted in some of the best manuscripts and texts, and by Rev. The A. V. is a mistranslation, the word meaning couches. If this belongs in the text, we certainly cannot explain βαπτισμοὺς as immersion.” (3)

As seen from Vincent’s argument above, the ceremonial purification rite could not have been immersion because of the contamination of the water source used for the ritual.

In addition, “And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece” (John 2:6). The waterpots may have held approximately ten gallons each. Even so, the passage from John clarifies that the Jews did not have enough water in the waterpots to immerse numerous individuals and couches.


“But Jesus said unto them, Ye know not what ye ask: can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38)

Was Jesus talking about baptism with water in this passage? No, Jesus is talking about His crucifixion on the cross, not water baptism.

Hebrew roots of baptism; the consecration of the high priest:

“And Aaron and his sons thou shalt bring unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and shalt wash them with water.” (Exodus 29:4) 

Does the translation of רָחַץ rawchats wash necessitate immersion? For example, a sponge bath can be understood as being washed.  

In closing:

In early church history, the Didache meaning “Teaching,” is a Christian manual compiled before 300AD, which dealt with baptism (Chapter 7, verses 1-3) addresses baptism.

The manuscript says:

    “(1) Concerning baptism, baptize in this way. After you have spoken all these things, “baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” in running water.”

    “(2) If you do not have running water, baptize [baptizon] in other water. If you are not able in cold, then in warm.”

    “(3) If you do not have either, pour out [ekcheo] water three times on the head “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The Didache proves that alternate forms of baptism existed in the early Church and this, for one thing, means that the Roman Catholic Church did not invent sprinkling or pouring. The Didache predates Leo the Great: AD 440-461, debatably the first fully functional Pope in the Roman Church.

The optimal way, according to Didache, was to baptize in “running water,” which may indicate a river, stream, or spring; the running water has the baptismal benefit of metaphorically speaking, purifying and washing away impurities as the water flows.

As an aside, Eastern Orthodox Christianity baptizes by immersion. However, pouring or sprinkling is allowed in life-or-death emergencies, such as in hospitals.  

Something for other immersionists to consider. Possible solutions:

For the strict immersionist, there is a dilemma. What about emergencies, where immersion is not possible if the aspirant cannot be immersed because of being bedridden or connected to electrical monitoring probes in the ICU?

Pour or sprinkle water on the aspirant’s head three times or Splotch the candidate’s forehead with water three times.

These instructions are based upon the first-century document called the Didache, which allows special applications in emergencies.

A dilemma for strict immersionists:

“And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” (1 Corinthians 10:2)

Who would argue that those baptized in the Corinthian passage are to be understood as immersion? The only ones that were immersed were Pharaoh and his army. The children of Israel were either wetted like Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4:33 or, more likely, sprinkled with drops of water from the cloud.

    “The New is in the Old contained; The Old is by the New explained” – St. Augustine. 

Utilizing this interpretive principle, one can ascertain: 

Pouring magnifies the outpouring of the Holy Spirit:

Baptism by pouring symbolizes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13).

Baptism by sprinkling magnifies the cleansing blood of Christ:

Similarly, baptism by sprinkling symbolizes the cleansing of the blood of Christ that was sprinkled, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22); “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and a sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied” (1 Peter !;2).  and “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you (Ezekiel 36:25).

As seen from the above citations, “baptism,” and its variations do not always mean “to dip” or “to immerse.” Examples from the Greek Scriptures of the Old Testament show this. Isaiah 21:4, for example, in the Septuagint, reads, “lawlessness overwhelms me.” In Daniel 4:33, “dew from heaven,” is translated as “drenched” or “wet.”

Moreover, just because βαπτίζω does not in translation mean sprinkling does not invalidate the intended parallel of sprinkling and baptism seen in the Scriptures. The Scriptures in Hebrews 9:19, 12:24, Leviticus 14:7, and Numbers 19:18 make the connection between sprinkling and baptism as functional parallels. Thus, baptism parallels and symbolizes the sprinkling of water and blood seen in the Old Testament. Therefore, the literal translation of the various forms of baptisms is superseded by the types and shadows of the Old Testament that are joined together by the New Testament, which becomes the governing hermeneutic of interpretation. Thus, the Scriptures are the best interpreter of Scripture.

And finally:

Westminster Confession of 1646: Of Baptism Chapter XXVIII. Of Baptism

“I. Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, (Mat 28:19); not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church, (1Co 12:13); but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, (Rom 4:11; Col 2:11-12); of his ingrafting into Christ, (Gal 3:27; Rom 6:5); of regeneration, (Tts 3:5); of remission of sins, (Mar 1:4); and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life, (Rom 6:3-4). Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world, (Mat 28:19-20).

II. The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water, wherewith the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by a minister of the Gospel, lawfully called thereunto, (Mat 3:11; Jhn 1:33; Mat 28:19-20).

III. Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person, (Hbr 9:10, 19-22; Act 2:41; Act 16:33; Mar 7:4).

IV. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, (Mar 16:15-16; Act 8:37-38); but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized, (Gen 17:7, 9; Gal 3:9, 14; Col 2:11-12; Act 2:38-39; Rom 4:11-12; 1Co 7:14; Mat 28:19; Mar 10:13-16; Luk 18:15).

V. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, (Luk 7:30; Exd 4:24-26); yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it, (Rom 4:11; Act 10:2, 4, 22, 31, 45, 47); or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated, (Act 8:13, 23).

VI. The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered, (Jhn 3:5, 8); yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time, (Gal 3:27; Tts 3:5; Eph 5:25-26; Act 2:38, 41).

VII. The sacrament of Baptism is but once to be administered unto any person, (Tts 3:5).”

For more study:

In the 19th century, Dr. James W. Dale, a Presbyterian minister, embarked on a scholarly project that proved to be the most exhaustive study ever undertaken on the word “baptism.” Aiming at a contextual understanding of the work, Dr. Dale meticulously examined its use in a wide range of historical documents, and his analysis is a masterpiece of lexicographical scholarship. Dr. Dale published his findings in four volumes. Available via Amazon or resellers

1.      Classic Baptism: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of the Word Baptizo as Determined by the Usage of Classical Greek Writers

2.      Judaic Baptism: Baptizo: An Inquiry into the Meaning of the Word As Determined by the Usage of Jewish and Patristic Writers  

3.      Johannic Baptism: An Inquiry into the Meaning of the Word as Determined by the Usage of The Holy Scriptures

4.      Christic Baptism and Patristic Baptism: An Inquiry into the Meaning of the Word As Determined by the Usage of the Holy Scriptures and Patristic Writings

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)


1.      James W. Dale, and others as cited by Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology Of The Christian Faith, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1998), Pages 923-935.

2.      Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Mark, Vol. 1 p. 577.

3.      Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies In The New Testament, Mark, Vol. 1, (Mclean, Virginia, Macdonald Publishing Company), p. 199.

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of books defending the Reformed Faith. Books can be ordered online at www. Jack Kettler .com

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