It has been a while since I last geeked out over Anglo-Saxon stuff. And so this morning, as I was looking at the readings for Sunday in other languages, I came across a startling line in John 1:25….
And hig áxsodon hine and cwædon tó him, Whí fullast þú, gif þú ne eart Críst, né Elias, né wítega?
One of the most fun things about Old English is how so much of it is recognizable to a careful reader English today even after 1,000 years:
And they asked him and said to him, Why baptizest thou, if thou art not [the] Christ, nor Elijah, nor [the] prophet?
As you compare the Old and the Modern English, you can see almost perfectly word for word how it translates.
Except for one silly little word. But it’s a key word in this verse. The word we today use is “baptize,” which comes from the Greek βαπτιζω with no real changes. This is called a cognate – a word that looks and sounds basically the same in more than one language. Rather than translating “baptize” into English today, we just take the Greek word and add it to our English vocabulary. But in the late 900’s when the books of the Gospel were translated into Anglo-Saxon (what we now call Old English), they decided not to steal the baptism word but instead use a word in English that people already knew and understood. In other words, they decided to translate the word, unlike our modern practice of adopting the original word.
The word that they used, as you may have been able to figure out from the above quotes, is fullast. That’s its 2nd-person conjugation; if you were to look it up in an Old English dictionary you’d find it in the infinitive form fullian. If you’re looking at this word and seeing “full” as its root and thinking it has something to do with that, you’d be correct. Fullian means to fill up, to complete, or to perfect. My Anglo-Saxon dictionary also suggests that there’s an offshoot of this word fulwian which exclusively meant “to baptize,” but that seems to be a different dialect than the West Saxon Gospels from which I’m reading.
So what’s the big deal with translating baptize as fill/complete/perfect? Simply put, the translator(s) thought that this word was the best fit for describing what baptism is. When a person is baptized he is filled, completed, and perfected. Many Protestant Christians today would take issue with this description, so let’s start by taking a look at some other New Testament quotes that have to do with fullness, completion, and perfection.
- There are at least 10 instances of people being filled with the Holy Spirit.
- St. Paul wrote a couple prayers involving Christians being filled with virtues from the Spirit.
- St. Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians has several exhortations to bring our Christian lives to completion.
- Jesus also made a cryptic statement about being completely clean while washing his disciples’ feet.
- Jesus and James both tell us to be perfect like God.
- Yet, St. Paul admits that even he is not yet perfect.
Something I notice as I go through these is that there a tension here between what is already happened, and that which is has not yet happened. Indeed, the already/not yet dialogue in the doctrines of salvation is a constant struggle for the Christian mind to comprehend. We have been filled by God, and we are called to continue to be filled by God. We have been made completely clean from sin, and we are in the process of making God’s work in us complete. We have been made perfect, yet we are not yet perfected.
So when English Christians one thousand years ago decided to translate baptism as fullness, completion, or perfection, they were tackling this already/not yet tension head on. Standing in line with the historic teaching of the Church, they saw baptism as the beginning of the Christian life, the beginning of that already/not yet struggle. Understanding that baptism brings us into the death of Christ and that baptism puts Christ upon us, they made anew the bold biblical assertion that Baptism is the event that first brings us to the fullness of Christ, making us completely clean, and imputing to us the perfect righteousness of Christ.
A lot of us today don’t take our baptisms that seriously. It’s hard for us to look back and say “yes, God took action to save me that day!” It’s hard for us to exclaim (as did Martin Luther) in times of trial and temptation “Baptizatus sum – I have been baptized!” Looks like we still have things to re-learn from our Anglo-Saxon forebears. 🙂