Barry Newman's Blog

February 6, 2010

Biblical Baptism Revisited (part XI)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 2:55 am

Matthew 28: 19 – Problems in Understanding the Text as a reference to a Baptismal Water Ceremony (continued)

4.  There is something odd about the command, if it refers to the necessity of a water ceremony, in that the actual command is for those early disciples to do the baptising rather than for the new disciples to have themselves baptised.  While there are commands in the Acts of the Apostles for people to be baptised, these commands are made by the early disciples and not by the Lord Jesus himself. Of course, it could be argued that implicit in the command of Jesus for the apostles to baptise is the command that people should have themselves baptised.  However the fact remains that though John the baptiser is said to have preached a baptism of repentance (Mark 1: 4, Luke 3: 3) [and proclaimed “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3: 2)], there is no record of Jesus ever commanding people to be baptised.  True, during his ministry, his disciples baptised, though he probably did not (John 3: 22; 4: 1, 2).  What Jesus proclaims however, is, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4: 17); “The kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1: 14).  There is no direct word from Jesus commanding that people should undergo a water ceremony.  This is certainly odd, if the water ceremony is indeed obligatory.

5. It might be argued that given the prevalence, as we understand it, of personal washing in the Jewish world in the 1st century, the “natural” understanding of Matthew 28: 19 would be to see it as a command relating to a water ceremony.  The actual water ceremony of the Acts of the Apostles, however, was distinctly different to these personal washings, washings which sometimes did amount to a complete immersion.  a) Unlike, the ordinary Jewish washing procedures, and indeed Jewish proselyte “baptisms”, the water ceremony of baptism as practised in the Acts of the Apostles (and also by John the baptiser and the disciples of Jesus) was not self administered.  One was baptised by the hands of another. b) Whereas the personal washings were regarded as cleansings from defilement or possible defilement, either actual or ceremonial, the baptism of believers, as portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles was not so regarded.  They did not cleanse from bodily defilement and they did not in themselves bring about any form of cleansing.  Indeed up until the end of the 1st century A.D. only a couple or so of the approximately 100 known usages of “baptizo” outside of the New Testament, involve the notion of cleansing.  “Baptizo” carries with it the fundamental idea of “immersion” rather than cleansing. c) As far as the Greek language is concerned, “baptizo” is the word used in the New Testament for the ceremony, but “baptizo” is rarely used of Jewish washings in the 1st century[1] . See below where there are two examples of it being so used in the New Testament. Normally other words, such as “louo”, a word which conveys the fundamental idea of washing, are used. The word “baptizo” generally has a type of intensity or seriousness about it lacking in those other words.  In the world outside of the New Testament “baptizo” was often associated with drowning, sinking, something being immersed for some time, intoxication, or ideas such as being overwhelmed by the likes of taxes, debts or sorrow. Water ceremony baptism was of a very important nature, bespeaking of something very significant not evident in the common Jewish washings. d) Water ceremony baptism was a one off ceremony.  The washings were repeated and for some, specific types of washings occurred daily or even more often.  A “natural” understanding of “baptising” in Matthew 28: 19 in the sense argued above did not exist.


[1] In the 2nd century Justin Martyr used the words “baptizo” and “baptisma” of Jewish washings and this practice seems to have developed over time.  See Ferguson, op. cit., pp. 250, 266-275

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