Does Mark 7:4 Authorize Sprinkling?

Wayne Jackson
This article addresses a sectarian argument that attempts to justify sprinkling as a substitute for immersion.

In Mark’s Gospel account there is a passage which describes the custom of the Pharisees with reference to cleansing themselves from certain contaminations they believed they might contract from Gentiles. In this latter phrase, the word “washing” is the Greek term baptismous (baptizing). Since the word “tables” is included in the list of things “washed,” would not this be an argument against the idea that “washing” (baptism) must demand the total immersion of an object?

Certainly many of those who have defended the theory that sprinkling is an acceptable form of baptism have attempted to establish their case by such an appeal.

R. C. H. Lenski (a Lutheran), for example, contended:

[A] baptism of couches [tables – KJV] by immersion is impossible; the ritual cleansing was done in some other way. The contention that baptismos and baptizein mean only complete immersion is thus answered (1961, 285).

Presbyterian scholar, Albert Barnes, argued similarly.

To handle this passage in such a superficial fashion was far beneath the ability of gentlemen well known for careful scholarship. But even respected expositors must not be allowed to dismiss a passage in such a caviler manner. The following observations are in order.

The Definition of Baptizo

The Greek word baptizo means to dip, immerse, plunge, sink, drench, overwhelm (Arndt and Gingrich 1967, 131). Unless it can be absolutely demonstrated that the cognate form must have a different meaning in this context, no one has the right to assert otherwise. It certainly is not necessary to draw that conclusion from this text.

The King James Mistranslation

The KJV “tables” is a mistranslation. The Greek word is klinon, from the root kline, a bed, couch, or resting place. The kindred term, klino, simply means to incline, bend, or bow.

Kline can denote an item which is used for sleep, or for reclining at a table for eating (as the custom was among the first-century Jews), or for transporting the infirm. It may thus denote a bed, couch, or pallet (Ibid. 437).

These items came in various sizes and forms, and it is not at all impossible that such an object could have been immersed in the Jewish ceremonial cleansing process.

Historical Testimony

Alfred Edersheim, himself a Jew and an expert in rabbinic literature, described the Pharisaic cleansing ritual:

Earthen vessels that had contracted impurity were to be broken; those of wood, horn, glass, or brass immersed; while, if vessels were bought of Gentiles, they were (as the case might be) to be immersed, put into boiling water, purged with fire, or at least polished (1947, 15; emphasis added).

Manuscript Differences

Finally, the term klinon is not in the better Greek manuscripts. A. T. Robertson thought that its place in the original text was “probably not genuine” (1930, 322). Accordingly, “tables” is not in the text of most of the later versions (ASV, RSV, NIV), but is relegated to a footnote. The NKJV is an exception. The NASB does not even grant the term footnote status.

Clearly, no case for sprinkling as a substitute for immersion can be grounded in this passage.

  • Arndt, William and F. W. Gingrich. 1967. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
  • Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Lenski, R. C. H. 1961. The Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
  • Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. 1. Nashville, TN: Broadman.