Barry Newman's Blog

February 16, 2012

Baptising in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (part XV)

Filed under: Baptism — barrynewman @ 7:06 pm

The water “baptism” practice

Before proceeding any further I thought it appropriate to “take a breather”, to some extent, and to do so by examining the origins and nature of the practice of water baptism especially as revealed in the New Testament.

The practice of water baptism in the New Testament has a short history.  John the baptiser seems to have begun a unique practice of baptism (Matt. 3:1-6; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:1-3; John 1:26-28).  He claims that the reason behind his coming, baptising with water, is so that “the lamb of God” “might be revealed to Israel” and that God (“the one”) had sent him “to baptise with water” (John 1:31,33). Given his prophetic character, perhaps baptism is to be understood as an enacted sign, somewhat along the lines of the enacted signs of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 4:1-5: 4; 12:1-11; 24:15-27) and Hosea (Hosea 1:2-9).  He may have seen himself as involved in fulfilling something like, Ezek. 36: 25 – “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean.” Indeed he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1: 4) and the notion of “the forgiveness of sins” probably carried with it the notion of “cleansing”.  And Paul, in recounting his personal experience, referred to Ananias saying, “Be baptised, and wash away your sins” (Acts 22: 16).  In John 3: 25 there is a reference to the disciples of John discussing with a Jew the matter of “purification” and this might indicate that what John was doing entailed a certain notion of purifying. However, what the Jew understood by purifying probably had little to do with how John’s disciples saw the matter of “forgiveness” or even “the washing away of sin”. Yet in spite of these references to “cleansing”, it should be realised that, “baptizo” is very rarely directly associated with “cleansing” in the Classical/Hellenistic literature before or at this time. The imagery of being immersed in water bringing about one’s death,  should not be ignored as another contender  for what was being symbolised, with coming out of the water being associated with a new life – a new approach to how to live, having repented of the old way of life.  Indeed given that “baptizo” in the Greek world was not uncommonly associated with death by drowning this may have been the main point of the symbolism.  John may have adopted a custom associated with Jewish proselyte baptisms but the date at which such baptisms occurred is uncertain and they may have had their beginnings some time after John’s ministry. Furthermore, Jewish proselyte baptisms were self administered rather than by another.

Sometime after John began baptising, the disciples of Jesus and perhaps Jesus himself began to baptise (John 3:22; 4:2).  That great crowds became familiar with what both John and the disciples of Jesus were doing is well attested. (Matt. 3:5-6; Mark 1:5; Luke 3:7; John 3:26).  Though to our ears an exaggeration, Mark records that, “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him (John)” (Mark 1:5).  At one time it appeared that Jesus, or his disciples were baptising even more disciples than John (John 4:1). Presumably, by the time of the apostolic period, by whatever means, water baptism had become a very well known practice in their part of the world.  Thus the command of Peter to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2: 38) can be understood as a reference to the necessity of repentance to be followed by a custom having considerable precedence.  The references in Acts to Peter and then others baptising indicate that the practice was becoming very well established, though unlike the situation with John, it now revolved around the person of Jesus.  That it had become a common practice is also suggested by what happened in the case of the Ethiopian Eunuch. When he came to understand who Jesus was he immediately asked whether he could be baptised as soon as he came across some water (Acts 8: 36).  He was returning from Jerusalem where presumably he had heard about or witnessed people being baptised.

It began with the water baptisms of John the baptiser, continued with the baptisms carried out by the disciples of Jesus during his ministry and then became a common practice for new believers in the apostolic period, as is evident in the Acts of the Apostles.

It is not clear to what extent the disciples of Jesus were baptised.  Simon Peter was a disciple of John the baptiser and he became a disciple of Jesus (John 1: 35 – 42).  John, the writer of the Gospel was possibly the other disciple mention alongside of Peter.  Both, being disciples of John the baptiser, the had probably been baptised by him.  Had Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother been baptised by John?  Had Philip and Nathaniel (Bartholomew?) been baptised by John (John 1: 43-51)?  There is no evidence that other disciples, like Matthew, were baptised by anyone.  Though it became the accepted practice for new disciples to be baptised, it is not clear that water baptism assumed the status of a ceremony that had to be performed of necessity.

Aside from the idea put forward here that the water baptismal practice became customary, I do not think that this section is all that relevant in attempting to understand Matthew 28: 19.

However the idea being suggested that the practice became customary is important when considering whether or not undergoing a water baptismal ceremony is mandatory or not and whether or not there is such a mandatory command in the Matthew 28: 19 text.  If the practice came to be seen as customary, though important, rather than mandatory, it weakens the idea that Matthew 28: 19 must be seen and was seen as a mandatory statement concerning the water baptismal practice.  Of course, in the final analysis, Matthew 28: 19 must stand independently of whether or not the practice became customary.  One could argue that the text makes it mandatory whether it became customary or not.

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