Note of the Day – May 30

Matthew 28:18-20 (concluded)

In yesterday’s note I looked at the specific phrase “baptizing them into the name of [ei)$ to\ o&noma tou=]…”; today, I will proceed to examine the trinitarian phrase which follows: “…of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit“. Given the emphasis on baptism in the name of Jesus in the earliest Christian period (cf. the previous note), and based on the other sayings preserved in the Gospels, we might expect Jesus to have said simply, “…baptizing them into my name“. Many critical commentators consider the apparent trinitarian construct here to be a somewhat later formula retrojected into the words of the historical Jesus. This possibility will be addressed briefly after an examination of each portion of the three-fold phrase.

“of the Father” [tou= patro\$]

That Jesus would reference the Father in his final words to his disciples is hardly unusual, since God as Father was a central element of his teaching, as recorded throughout the Gospel Tradition. The idea, of course, is ancient, going back to Old Testament and Israelite tradition (Ex 4:22; Deut 32:6; Ps 89:26; Isa 1:2; 63:16; 64:8; Hos 11:1; Jer 3:19; 31:9; Mal 2:10, etc), and even earlier—virtually a universal religious concept. Jesus makes frequent use of the title “Father”—both in his own address to God, and in instruction to his followers—too many to list here, there being nearly 200 occurrences in the Gospels. Perhaps the most famous and well-known instance is to found in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9 / Lk 11:2), a passage which specifically refers to the Father’s name. There are an especially high number of references to the Father in Matthew—notably in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7, cf. 5:16, 45, 48; 6:1, etc), but elsewhere through the Gospel as well (Matt 10:20, 29, 33; 12:50; 13:43; 15:13; 16:17, 27, et al). An even more distinctive (and frequent) use of “(my) Father” is found in the Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John (more than 100 references), including several sayings which specifically relate to the name of the Father:

  • John 5:43; 10:3, 25—Jesus claims to have come in the Father’s name, working (miracles, etc) in His name; cf. also Jn 12:13 par
  • John 12:28—Jesus asks the Father to make His name honored/esteemed (i.e. glorified) through the Son
  • John 17—In the great prayer that concludes the Discourses of chaps. 13-17, Jesus declares that he has manifested and made known the Father’s name to his disciples (vv. 6, 26), and prays that they continue to be kept/guarded in His name (vv. 11-12)

There are also sayings which express the other side of the reciprocal relationship between Father and Son, where Jesus instructs his followers that, when they pray and bring petition to the Father, they should specifically make the request “in my name”—cf. John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23—the idea being that Jesus will be working/acting on their behalf with the Father. For indication of a similar relationship between Father and Son (Jesus) in the Synoptic Gospels, cf. Matt 11:25-27 par; Mark 13:32 par; 14:36. Especially significant are the sayings which connect Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John (cf. below).

References to God as Father are rather less frequent in the remainder of the New Testament. Paul often sets “God the Father” parallel with “the Lord Jesus Christ” as a basic creedal construction (Rom 1:7; 15:6; 1 Cor 1:3; 8:6; 2 Cor 1:2-3; 11:31; Gal 1:3f; Phil 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; 3:11, 13; 2 Thess 1:1-2; 2:16; Philem 3; Col 1:3; 3:17; also Eph 1:2-3, 17; 5:20; 6:23, etc); and there are several other passages which reflect basic theological or Christological formulae (e.g., 1 Pet 1:2-3; Jude 1; Rev 1:6; and cf. throughout 1 John). However, with regard to the baptism formula in Matt 28:19, it is worth noting that: (a) there is virtually no reference to the name of the Father in the New Testament outside of the sayings by Jesus referenced above, and (b) there is no evidence that early believers were ever baptized “in the name of the Father”.

On the first point, from the traditional Israelite/Jewish point of view, the name of God the Father was YHWH/Yahweh, which, as Christianity spread among Greek-speakers, was typically expressed by the title “Lord” (Ku/rio$). Gradually, this title was applied more and more to Jesus, and its distinctive association with YHWH was largely lost to believers in the Greco-Roman world. As we have already seen, it was the name of Jesus that was of primary importance for early believers.

“of the Son” [tou= ui(ou=]

Every relevant passage in the New Testament refers to baptism in the name of Jesus (cf. the discussion in the previous note). Now, early Christians would automatically understand that being baptized into Jesus (or into his name) meant the same as being baptized into the Son; however, if we accept the authenticity of Matt 28:19, it is worth considering precisely what Jesus would have meant here by “Son”.

In the (Synoptic) Gospels, Jesus never uses the title “Son of God” of himself (only in Jn 3:18; 5:25; 9:35 v.l.; 10:36; 11:4)—it is applied to him by others (also Jn 1:34, 49; 11:27; 19:7), though there is no indication that he ever denied or contradicted its use (cf. Mark 14:62 for a relatively clear affirmation; cp. Matt 26:64; Lk 22:67-70). In the sayings of the Synoptic Tradition, Jesus typically refers to himself by the Semitic expression “Son of Man”, which at times may be partially synonymous with “Anointed One” (Messiah), and, in certain passages, serves to identify Jesus as God’s heavenly representative (cf. Dan 7:13-14) who will appear at the end-time; but it always has a distinct range of meaning from “Son of God”. At best, there is an association between Jesus as “Son of Man” and “Son of God” in the juxtaposition of Mk 14:61-62a and 14:62b (par); which can also be inferred in the vision of Stephen in Acts 7:56. The “Son of Man” sayings in the Gospel of John are unique in that they express (or assume) the idea of Jesus’ pre-existent deity—i.e., he is the Son who has come down from the Father (as the Son of Man); following his death and exaltation (glorification), he will return to the Father in heaven (Jn 1:51; 3:13-14; 6:27, 62; 8:28; 12:23, 34; 13:31). Elsewhere in John, Jesus simply refers to himself as “the Son”, usually in the context of his relationship to the Father (cf. above)—Jn 3:16-17, 35-36; 5:19-27; 6:40; 8:36-38; 14:13; 17:1; note also 1:14.

If Matt 28:19 is interpreted as a Christian formula, then it need not mean anything more than that the specific words “in the name of the Son”, etc, are to be recited in the performance of baptism (cf. below). Even so, it is worth noting, that this formula is never used elsewhere in the New Testament—believers are baptized “in the name of Jesus”, but never “in the name of the Son“. Indeed the very expression “name of the Son” is extremely rare, occurring only in the Johannine tradition—Jn 3:18; 1 Jn 3:23; 5:13, and cf. also Jn 20:31—where the emphasis is entirely on faith/trust in the name of the Son.

“of the holy Spirit” [tou= a(gi/ou pneu/mato$]

There is a clear association of the Spirit with the rite of baptism in early Christian tradition, as indicated in the book of Acts (cf. Acts 2:38-41; 8:12-17; 9:17-18; 10:44-48; 11:15-17; 19:2-6), where believers receive the Holy Spirit as an event parallel to, and coordinate with, the symbolic act of baptism. This clearly is understood as a fulfillment of the prediction uttered by John the Baptist (and/or Jesus himself) that, just as John baptized in water, so Jesus would baptize believers in the Holy Spirit (cf. the earlier note on Mark 1:8 par; Jn 1:26, 31, 33; Acts 1:5; 11:16). According to this parallel, the Spirit is symbolized by water, which is a relatively common motif in the Old Testament (cf. Joel 2:28ff, cited in Acts 2:17-18, 33—the Spirit “poured out” like water). Elsewhere in the New Testament (in Paul’s letters), the regular idiom is baptism into Christ—his death, his body, his name, etc. Paul generally does not associate the Spirit specifically with baptism, though the idea is certainly implied (cf. Rom 6:4; Gal 3:27); only in 1 Cor 12:13 is this made explicit—”for in one Spirit we are all dunked [i.e. baptized] into one Body”. Note the chiastic parallel in the syntax of the phrase:

  • in [e)n] one Spirit (i.e. the Holy Spirit)
    —we are all dunked/baptized
  • into [ei)$] one Body (i.e. the person of Jesus Christ, symbolized by the Community)

This effectively results in a two-fold baptismal ‘formula’, which could easily be supplemented by the (proto-)Trinitarian syntax in the earlier verses 4-6:

  • the same Spirit (v. 4)
  • the same Lord [i.e. Jesus, the Son] (v. 5)
  • the same God [i.e. the Father] (v. 6)

Again, as in the case of “the Father” and “the Son” (cf. above), believers in the New Testament are never baptized “in the name of the Holy Spirit”; indeed, the expression “name of the (holy) Spirit” never occurs outside of Matt 28:19. At best, there are several passages in which the Spirit is associated specifically with “the name of Jesus“—Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 6:11; 1 Pet 4:14; and, most notably, John 14:26. Of these, only Acts 2:38 has the context of baptism, but Jn 14:26 is certainly more relevant to a ‘trinitarian’ formulation: “…the holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my [i.e. the Son’s] name“. This verse will be discussed, along with the other Spirit/Paraclete references (Jn 14:16; 15:26; 16:7), in an upcoming note.

The Didache 7

A study of Matt 28:19 cannot be complete without consideration of the similar formula in Didache 7:1, part of a brief instruction in chapter 7 regarding baptism. Verse 1 reads:

“…having said all these things before(hand) [i.e. informed/instructed the believer], ‘dunk [i.e. baptize] into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit’ in living [i.e. fresh, running] water”

The portion in single quotes is virtually identical with the formula in Matthew; only the form of the verb is different, as befitting the context. The main critical question is: Does the Didache simply quote Matthew 28:19, or does it preserve a separate version of the instruction, transmitted independently? If the latter, does this come down as an authentic saying from Jesus, or as an (apostolic) tradition? Unfortunately, the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers (c. 90-150) often do not give specific citations, so it can be difficult to know for certain if the authors are citing from a written Gospel (e.g. Matthew) or have preserved sayings of Jesus and Gospel traditions independently. The date assigned for the Didache (“Teaching [of the Twelve Apostles]”) has ranged from very early (1st century) to very late (3rd-4th century); most (critical) commentators today would place it in the first half of the 2nd century, with the possibility that it preserves teaching and tradition from the late 1st century (c. 70-100 A.D.). What is important to note, is that already by this time (c. 80-110 A.D.?), the passage corresponding to Matt 28:19 has come to be treated as a fixed formula. The Didache indicates that it would be recited as part of the baptism ritual, as the three-fold act mentioned in 7:3 demonstrates. A similar practice is attested in the second and third centuries (Justin, First Apology 61; Tertullian, Against Praxeas 26; Apostolic Constitutions 8:47 [canon 50]). As we have noted above, this contrasts with early Christian tradition recorded in the New Testament, where believers were, it would seem, only baptized “in the name of Jesus”. The traditions recorded in the book of Acts, if authentic, date from c. 30-60 (with the book itself completed some time after 70 A.D.), making them considerably earlier than the earliest date usually given for the Didache.

A final comment on the authenticity of Matt 28:19 must wait until we have considered the other post-resurrection Commission passages in the Gospels, especially that in Luke 24:45-49, which I will do in the next daily note.

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