Barry Newman's Blog

October 26, 2010

A brief interlude – a comment about “baptism”

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 10:19 pm

Some time ago I produced two blog series on Baptism.  In those I argued that in the Classical/Hellenistic world, the verb “baptizo” had very little to do with any ceremony and that it was sometimes used metaphorically both within and beyond the N.T. On the basis of this evidence and by appealing to other textual matters of the N.T., I concluded that “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” in Matthew 28: 19 could be understood metaphorically.  If so understood, the instruction Jesus gave would have the sense of “immersing, engulfing” those to be made disciples in all that pertains to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – that is, being thoroughly taught about them and being brought under that one name, that one authority.  In the context of Matthew 28: 19, 20, that is what being made a disciple would fundamentally appear to mean anyway.

Recently a counter argument was brought to my attention. It went something like this: before Matthew’s Gospel was written, the idea that baptism was understood as a water ceremony was well established.  When his Gospel was written, Matthew must have used the word with this sense in mind. 

It is true, and well recognised, as indicated in the earlier blog series, that from the time of John the Baptiser, the word “to baptise” did come to be associated with a water ceremony, but not exclusively so.  It is also true that the early believers would have become very familiar with the use of the water ceremony. However, the word “baptizo” was also still being used metaphorically in the Greek speaking world at large. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel would have realised this and would have recognised that it would still be possible to understand his words metaphorically.  We don’t know how much the writer was aware of any other N.T. writings that were circulating at the time he wrote his Gospel but anyone familiar with some of Paul’s letters would have been aware of his metaphorical usage of “baptizo” and its related nouns (see 1 Cor. 10: 2 and arguably a number of other texts including 1 Cor. 15: 29). Furthermore it was also being used metaphorically by other Gospel writers in recording the words of Jesus (see Mark 10: 38, 39 and Luke 12: 50). Both Paul’s letters and Mark’s Gospel (upon which Matthew’s appears to be partly dependent) and perhaps Luke’s Gospel were probably around before Matthew’s Gospel.  Additionally, the writer of Matthew’s Gospel would surely have been aware that when people were baptised in the very early days they were baptised in the name of Jesus Christ or the Lord Jesus (see Acts 2: 38, 8: 16, 10: 48, 19: 5) not in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Consequently he surely would have realised that his use of the name of the triune God was not consonant with the practice of the water ceremony in those early days.  Finally, Matthew’s Gospel itself uses the verb metaphorically when John the Baptiser refers to Jesus who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire.  

Rather than concluding that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel had to use “baptizo” in 28: 19 in the sense of a water ceremony, the evidence indicates that he may have used it metaphorically.

Justin Martyr in his Apologia 1, written about 150- 155 AD, well after Matthew’s Gospel was circulating, in his reference to water baptism being in the name of the Father … and in the name of Jesus Christ … and in the name of the Holy Spirit, outlines a practice that would seem to be based on an understanding that the text in Matthew is a reference to water baptism. The Didache (possibly written much earlier than the Apologia 1, though much later dates are also postulated), probably supports a similar understanding. On the other hand, the apocryphal “Acts of Peter”, and Hermas’ the “Shepherd”, written about the same time as the Apologia 1 or earlier, given their reference to ceremonial baptisms being conducted simply in the name of the Lord (similar to the references in the Acts of the Apostles), may indicate that a different understanding was held in their case.

However, whatever we think the text of Matthew means, our primary arguments surely should be rooted in the language of the textual material itself and not in the writings of those who wrote about practices which may have had the text in mind.

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