Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Pauline Letters (Conclusion)

The Remaining Pauline Letters

Having examined the key passages in the five Pauline letters where eschatology features most prominently—1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans—it now remains to survey the eschatological references in the remaining letters. I begin with the two letters where Paul’s authorship is undisputed—Galatians and Philippians (Philemon contains no relevant references).

Galatians

Galatians is not so replete with eschatological passages as are the other major Pauline letters. The primary reason for this surely is the single-minded attention Paul gives to the theological and religious-cultural questions surrounding the relationship of believers to the Torah and the Old Covenant. Even so, there is certainly an eschatological aspect to this area of Paul’s thought, as can be glimpsed by a brief survey of the most relevant passages.

Galatians 1:4

The central tenet of Paul’s soteriology was that the sacrificial death of Jesus freed humankind from bondage under the enslaving power of sin. According to this basic view, the world, in the present Age, is under the control of sin and evil. Paul expresses this clearly here when he states that Jesus gave himself “over our sins, so that he might take us out of th(is) evil Age”. Traditional Jewish eschatology drew a dividing line (conceptually) between “this Age” (o( ai)w\n ou!to$) and “the Age (that is) coming” (o( ai)w\n me/llwn). Paul frequently uses the expression “this Age” (Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 1:20; 2:6, 8; 3:18-19; 2 Cor 4:4; also Eph 2:1-2), with the implication that this current Age is especially corrupt and dominated by evil. The Johannine writings express much the same idea, though with different terminology (1 John 5:19, etc). It is a fundamental tenet in eschatological thought that the time in which people are living, being close to the end of the Age (or cycle of Ages), is more widely corrupt and wicked than the times past—indeed, such wickedness is a sign that the end is near.

Galatians 3:22ff; 4:5ff

In parallel with the idea that humankind, in the present Age, is in bondage to sin, Paul also teaches that people are also in bondage under the Law. This juxtaposition of the Law and sin is one of the most controversial aspects of Paul’s thought (discussed at length in the articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”); and yet he expresses the association clearly enough both in Romans and here throughout Galatians. It is stated most precisely as part of the line of argument in chapter 3 (vv. 22ff). The binding power of the Torah is part of the Old Covenant, which is rooted in the present Age, dominated as it is by sin and evil. The coming of Jesus, with his sacrificial, atoning work, ushers in a New Covenant and the beginning of a New Age (i.e. the “Age to come”). But this is a “realized” eschatology—the New Age is experienced now, in the present, only by believers in Christ, and only through the presence of the Spirit, as Paul describes, especially, in 4:5-6ff. The bondage under the “Law” is not limited to Israelites and Jews, but applies universally to all humankind (cf. how Paul presents this in 4:8-11).

Other References

Several other references with eschatological significance may be noted:

Philippians

We may note first the references to the “day of (Jesus) Christ” in Phil 1:6, 10, and 2:16; this is a Christian development of the Old Testament motif of the “day of YHWH”, when He will appear to bring Judgment on a particular nation or people. By the first-century A.D., the idea was thoroughly and profoundly eschatological—i.e. the end-time Judgment on the nations—with God’s presence in the Judgment filled by his Anointed (Messianic) representative. Thus, for early Christians, it was Jesus Christ who will act as Judge, overseeing the Judgment (Acts 17:31, etc); this will take place upon his return to earth at the end-time. For Paul’s use of this idiom (“the day [of Christ]”) elsewhere, cf. 1 Thess 5:2-5; 2 Thess 1:10; 2:2-3; 1 Cor 1:8; 3:13; 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; Rom 2:16, etc. It is typically coupled with the idea of believers being able to present themselves with confidence before Christ at his coming, and so here in the three references in Philippians. The climactic lines of the “Christ-hymn” (2:10-11) similarly allude to the role of the exalted Christ as ruler and judge over all.

The Judgment itself (i.e. the judgment on the wicked) is alluded to in 1:28 and 3:19, emphasizing again how the idea of salvation, for early Christians, was primarily eschatological—that is, we are saved from the coming Judgment. Moreover, for believers, salvation also involves entering (and inheriting) the Kingdom of God (cf. above), which entails the idea of receiving a heavenly reward. Paul’s repeated references to this reward that awaits the faithful believer, is very much reflective of the early Christian eschatology—cf. 3:8ff, 14. A more direct promise and eschatological declaration is found in 2:15 (with echoes of Dan 12:3):

“…that you should come to be without fault and without ‘horns’, offspring [i.e. children] of God without (any) flaw, in the middle of a twisted (Age) of coming-to-be and (those) having been turned throughout, among whom you will shine forth as lights in the world!”

The future resurrection of believers is specifically emphasized in 3:10-11, drawing upon the familiar Pauline motif of believers’ participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus (‘dying and rising with Christ’). The eschatological orientation continues in verses 17-21, warning again of the impending Judgment (v. 19) and the heavenly reward that awaits for those believers who remain faithful (vv. 20-21). This promise of final/future reward is expressed primarily in terms of the resurrection, along with the motif of the ‘heavenly city’ (cf. on Gal 4:26, above):

“For our citizenship [poli/teuma] begins under [i.e. has its existence] in the heavenly (place)s, out of which also we look to receive from (God) a savior—(our) Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed—who will change the shape of the body of our lowliness, (to be) formed together in the body of his honor/splendor [do/ca], according to the (power) working in (him) th(at makes) him to be able even to set all (thing)s in order under him.” (vv. 20-21)

The end-time appearance, or return, of Jesus is clearly indicated here, which will coincide with the resurrection/transformation of our bodies (1 Thess 4:4-17; 1 Cor 15:23ff); it is also alluded to in the short declaration in 4:5b: “The Lord is near [e)ggu/$]”. To be sure, this is another reference to the imminent eschatology of Paul, which he shared with most believers of the time, as I have noted repeatedly; on the use of adverb e)ggu/$ (“near”) to signify this, cf. the earlier article in this series on the imminent eschatology of early Christians.

Colossians and Ephesians

Many critical commentators view both Colossians and Ephesians as pseudonymous. For my part, I accept Colossians as authentically Pauline (on objective grounds), with no real reservations. However, the situation with Ephesians is a bit more complicated, with more questions that could legitimately be raised in terms of the vocabulary, style, etc, of the letter. Even so, the eschatology of Ephesians does not appear to differ markedly from either Colossians or the other undisputed letters. Therefore, all other critical questions (regarding authorship) aside, it is proper to examine the eschatological passages of Ephesians here together with those of Colossians.

The exordium and opening section(s) of Colossians (1:3-29) are full of eschatological references and allusions which reflect other key passages (already discussed) elsewhere in Paul’s letters. As we have seen, the thanksgiving aspect of the exordium allows Paul the opportunity to encourage believers to remain faithful, in light of the promise of the heavenly reward that awaits them. This is emphasized here in 1:5, 12:

“…through the hope th(at is) being stretched out (waiting) for you in the heavenly (place)s” (v. 5)
“…giving (thanks) to the Father for (His) good favor, to the (One) (hav)ing made us fit unto the portion of the lot [klh=ro$, i.e. inheritance] of the holy (one)s in the light” (v. 12)

The end-time (and afterlife) Judgment scene, along with the role of the Anointed Jesus as Judge (cf. above), is likewise alluded to in 1:18, 22:

“…and he [i.e. Jesus] is the head of the body of the (ones) called out [e)kklhsi/a], the (one) who is (himself the) beginning, (the one) produced first [prwto/toko$] out of the dead, (so) that he should come to be (the one) being [i.e. who is] first in all (things).” (v. 18)
“…and now he (has) made (things) different (for you) from (what they were before) [vb a)pokatalla/ssw], in the body of his flesh, through (his) death, to make you (to) stand alongside (him) in his sight, holy and without fault and without (any reason) to call (you) in (to judgment) [a)ne/gklhto$].” (v. 22)

Even though Colossians 1-2 indicates a belief in the pre-existent deity of Jesus, here his position as (heavenly) ruler and judge is expressed more traditionally, in terms of his resurrection and exaltation. Moreover, it is his sacrificial death which enables believers to stand before him in holiness (at the Judgment). These are familiar Pauline themes, as is the idea in 1:26f, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a secret (musth/rion) that has been kept hidden throughout the Ages, until the present time—cf. Rom 16:25; 1 Cor 2:1, 7; and, similarly, with special emphasis, in Eph 3:3-6, 9. This idea is strongly eschatological, i.e. that believers are living at the onset of a New Age, with the implication that the current Age, with all that has gone before, is coming to an end.

Colossians 3:1-4

The most prominent eschatological passage in Colossians is 3:1-4. As in the exordium, Paul ties his exhortation for believers—that they should live in holiness and faithful devotion—to the promise of Jesus’ end-time return. He makes use of the traditional concept of believers being gathered to Jesus, at his return (1 Thess 4:14-18; cp. Mark 13:26-27 par, etc), but deepens the imagery through the theological (and Christological) motif of beliefs being united with Jesus (“in Christ”). Note how this added dimension gives to the traditional eschatology a profound new meaning:

“So, if you were raised together with Yeshua, you must seek the (thing)s above, the (place at) which the Anointed (One) is sitting on (the) giving [i.e. right] (hand) of God—you must set (your) mind (on) the (thing)s above, not (on) the (thing)s upon the earth. For you died away, and your life has been hidden with the Anointed, in God; (and) when the Anointed should shine forth, (he who is) our life, then you also will shine forth with him in honor/splendor.”

It is beautiful indeed how Paul weaves into the idea of Jesus’ return the (baptismal) imagery of believers participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6:3-4 etc, and earlier here in Col 2:11-13, 20). To use the familiar Pauline language, believers are “in Christ”, which means that, in a real sense, we are with him where he is now—at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. So, too, we will be with him when he appears on earth at the end-time. We might even say that we will be meeting ourselves, not in a concrete metaphysical sense, but in terms of a full realization, and fulfillment, of what we are in Christ (for a similar idea, expressed rather differently, cf. 1 John 2:28-3:3).

Additional References in Ephesians

As noted above, Ephesians restates many of the same ideas and points of emphasis in Colossians, and this is also true in terms of the eschatology of the letters. For example, Eph 1:8 more or less says the same as Col 1:5, 12 (cf. above), bringing together the idea of the “hope” (e)lpi/$) that waits for believers in heaven, along with the heavenly reward that we will inherit (as our “lot”, klh=ro$, klhronomi/a). This also is part of the exordium (and thanksgiving) in Ephesians, which resembles that of Colossians in some of its wording and theological expression, such as the emphasis on Christ’s position as ruler and head over all things (1:20-23), including his role in the Judgment at the end of this Age (v. 21, cp. Col 1:18, 22, above). A different sort of emphasis is found in 1:10-12ff, which blends together “realized” and future eschatology, drawing upon the (baptismal) imagery of being “sealed” with the Spirit; this is expressed in unquestionably Pauline terms:

    • In Christ (“in him”) we have already (i.e. now, in the present) obtained our inheritance (vb klhro/w)—v. 11, “realized” eschatology
    • Yet in Christ (“in him”) we still hope for what is to come (v. 12), our “seal” of the Spirit being a promise (and guarantee) of our full inheritance (klhronomi/a)—v. 14, future eschatology
      (cf. also 4:30 where the Spirit-seal is said to be specifically for “the day of loosing from [bondage]”, i.e. the day of Christ and his return)

We may also see an echo of Col 3:1-4 (cf. above) in Eph 2:6-7, where we find the same basic idea of believers being present (now) with Jesus in the heavenly places, with the promise that we will experience this more fully “in the coming Ages”. Admittedly, the eschatological sense of this is not as strong in Ephesians as in Colossians, but it is still clearly discernable. A different way of expressing the (future) realization of our identity in Christ is found in Eph 4:13, with wording that is more distinctive of Ephesians:

“…until we all should meet down (together) into the unity of the trust and the knowledge (we have) about the Son of God, (and so) into (being) a complete man—into the measure of (the) stature of the fullness of the Anointed”

Another image of this completeness of believers in Christ, only to be realized at the end-time, and in the Ages to come, is that of the bride presented to her husband in perfect holiness and purity (5:27, cf. 2 Cor 11:2, and compare Rev 19:7ff).

Two other passages in Ephesians have an eschatological emphasis; both are part of a traditional mode of ethical instruction and exhortation, urging believers to continued faithfulness:

    • 5:5, 8-14—The use of light vs. darkness imagery, along with much of the wording, is quite similar to Paul’s instruction in 1 Thess 5:1-11 (cf. the earlier article on this passage), though perhaps with somewhat less eschatological urgency
    • 6:12-13ff—The characterization of the present Age as evil and wicked, and that it is all the more so as the end draws closer, is common theme in Jewish and Christian eschatology of the period; the urgency of the instruction here implies that believers are about to enter into an especially intense period of distress and persecution (cf. Mark 13:5-13ff par, and throughout the book of Revelation, etc)

2 Timothy (and the Pastoral Letters)

As with Colossians and Ephesians, there are many questions (and doubts) among scholars regarding the authorship of the Pastoral Letters; many critical commentators consider all three letters to be pseudonymous. I am inclined (on entirely objective grounds) to accept 2 Timothy as authentically Pauline; in my view, the style, wording, points of emphasis, not to mention the personal details, all seem to conform fairly closely with what we find in the other (undisputed) letters. By contrast, 1 Timothy contains many words and phrases, etc, which are atypical of Paul, and so the questions regarding authorship are considerably more significant; the situation with the letter to Titus is harder to judge, due to its relative brevity. As it happens, there are many more eschatological references and allusions in 2 Timothy than there are in 1 Timothy or Titus—a fact which would tend to confirm the authenticity of 2 Timothy, and, perhaps, support the idea that 1 Timothy (and Titus) were written later, and/or by someone other than Paul.

Indeed, as I read 2 Timothy closely, I can find little (if anything) to distinguish the eschatology of the letter as being in any way different from that of Paul’s other letters. The language is generally similar, including the expression “that day”, referring to “the day of Christ”, when the exalted Jesus will appear and God will judge the world through him (cf. above). The specific expression “that day”, also found in 2 Thess 1:10 (cp. “the day” in 1 Thess 5:4; Rom 2:16), occurs here in 2 Tim 1:12, 18 and 4:8.

Also thoroughly Pauline is the idea of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a secret hidden away throughout the Ages, but only revealed (to believers) in the present time—2 Tim 1:9-10, and cf. on Col 1:26f above. The language and wording is quite consistent with Paul’s usage elsewhere, as are the references to the future resurrection and the heavenly reward that awaits believers (2 Tim 2:10, 18). The eschatological dimension to the idea of salvation (2:10) is typical of the earliest Christian period, and tends not to be as prominent in later writings. As for the reference to the resurrection in 2:18, the fact that some might say that it “had already come to be” —that is, it had, somehow, already taken place—demonstrates the prevalence of the same imminent eschatology we see elsewhere in Paul’s letters (and throughout most the New Testament); by contrast, toward the end of the first century A.D. (and thereafter), this sort of imminent expectation begins to disappear from early Christianity (cf. below).

The most extensive eschatological passages in 2 Timothy are the sections of (ethical) instruction in 3:1-9ff and 4:1-5. This parallels similar paraenetic passages in the other letters of Paul, only here the instruction is aimed at the minister (Timothy, in the letter), warning him that, as bad as things might be (in the world) at the moment, they will become even worse as the end draws closer (cf. above on Eph 6:12-13ff). Here is how the instruction begins in 3:1:

“And you must know this: that in (the) last days, moments (when things sink) lower will (soon) stand in (on us)…”

The increasing wickedness and lack of faith in the population at large—including among those claiming to be believers—serves as a clear sign that these are the “last days” and that the end-time is near. The description in vv. 2-5 echoes traditional Jewish and early Christian eschatological narratives (cf. Mark 13:5-13 par), which include the presence of divisions and incursions of false teaching among believers. As an instruction for ministers, this warning against false prophets and teachers is especially appropriate (vv. 6-9). So intense will this be, in the time that is soon coming (4:3f), that many in the congregations may no longer wish to listen to sound and reliable teaching, instead turning away to more superficially attractive or exciting words. In these sorts of warnings, with their eschatological context, the idea of the coming Judgment is never far away (4:1).

By comparison with 2 Timothy, there are few eschatological references in 1 Timothy and Titus, and, in those which do occur, there does not seem to be the same sense of urgency or imminence surrounding them. Compare, for example, 1 Timothy 4:1ff, which, on the surface, resembles 2 Tim 3:1ff—describing a time of increasing corruption and wickedness in the world. 2 Tim 3:1 begins “in the last days…”, implying that believers currently are living in the “last days”; in 1 Tim 4:1 the wording is different, referring to things that will happen “in (the) following moments”, i.e. later, sometime after the present moment. This gives to the instruction a somewhat different context; it is more generalized, relating to things the minister must deal with (false/deceptive teaching, etc), but without a specific eschatological context.

There are references to the end-time return of Jesus, in 1 Tim 6:14-15 and Titus 2:13; however, one may detect in both these passages a greater emphasis on believers living in the present Age, with a corresponding lack of emphasis on an imminent expectation of the end. Consider the way this is phrased in Tit 2:12-13:

“…(how) we should live in th(is) Age now, (while) (look)ing toward receiving the happy hope and the shining forth upon (earth) of the splendor of our great God and Savior Yeshua (the) Anointed”

Even more pronounced is the apparent lack of imminence in 1 Tim 6:14-15ff, especially in verses 17-19, which could be taken as implying that our life in the current Age will likely continue for some time. Even the specific reference to Jesus’ return seems to be located more generally at some unspecified future time:

“…you are to keep watch (over) th(is) duty placed on (you) to complete…until the shining forth upon (earth) of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, which (God) will show in (his) own moments/times (to come)…”

As in Titus 2:12-13, verse 17 has the same emphasis on “th(is) Age now”, i.e. present Age (and how we live in it), rather than on the Age to come. The promise of future reward (in heaven) is preserved (v. 19), but without the eschatological immediacy and urgency we find in similar passages elsewhere in the Pauline letters.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Romans (Part 3)

Romans 11

The main body of Romans—the probatio—in which Paul develops and expounds his arguments, concludes (in chaps. 9-11) with an extended discussion on the relationship between Israel and believers in Christ (Jews and Gentiles together) as the people of God (cf. the earlier articles on “Paul’s View of the Law [in Romans]”). This has been central to the letter throughout, but in chapters 9-11 he further expounds one portion specifically: “unto salvation to every one that trusts—to the Jew first and (also) to the Greek“. This section has been referred to as a refutatio—a refutation by Paul of (possible) arguments made especially by Gentiles in Rome with regard to the role and position of Jewish believers (cf. B. Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Romans Eerdmans [2004], pp. 237-9). However, I do not see Paul’s approach here as being appreciably different from the one he takes in earlier in chapters 2-4; there is an interesting symmetry and balance of presentation:

    • Rom 2-4—addressed primarily to Jews, emphasizing that Gentiles are on an equal footing before God with regard to both judgment and salvation
    • Rom 9-11—addressed primarily to Gentiles, emphasizing the (future) salvation of Israelites/Jews and their inclusion into the body of Christ

In between (Rom 5-8) Paul presents a kind of “salvation history”, an exposition of the Gospel message for all human beings—Jews and Gentiles alike. Chapters 9-11 actually have the character of a personal appeal or confession—indeed, this characterizes each of the sections (matching the numbered chapters):

The opening verses of each section, with their personal and moving tone, lead into a presentation of arguments. The main issue at hand is how the Israelite/Jewish people relate to the new Christian identity. As a missionary and representative (apostle) of Christ, Paul saw how many of his fellow Israelites and Jews had been unwilling to accept the Gospel, some even being openly hostile to his missionary work (as narrated repeatedly in the book of Acts, cf. also 1 Thess 2:14-16, etc). Even Jewish believers could be opposed to his presentation of the Gospel, especially his unique view of the Law and his missionary approach to the Gentiles, as seen in Acts 15:1ff and throughout Galatians. At some level, this must have been traumatic for Paul, and difficult to understand—how could so many of God’s elect people, Israel, fail to trust in Christ? While he never really addresses this directly in his other surviving letters, it is clear that he had thought about it a good deal. The result is the wonderful, if somewhat enigmatic, exposition here in Romans 9-11.

Here is an outline of chapters 9 and 10:

    • Romans 9
      • Rom 9:1-5—Paul’s personal address: Israel (“they are Israelites…”, vv. 4-5)
      • Rom 9:6-13—Argument: Not all Israel is the true Israel.
      • Rom 9:14-33—Exposition: Three arguments, each beginning with a rhetorical question.
    • Romans 10
      • Rom 10:1-4—Paul’s personal address: The Law and justice/righteousness (vv. 3-4)
      • Rom 10:5-13—Argument: Justice/righteousness is realized in Christ.
      • Rom 10:14-21—Exposition: The Proclamation of the Gospel, and Israel’s response to it, in three parts:
        • The proclamation of the Gospel (vv. 14-15)
        • Israel’s response to the Gospel—not all have faith (vv. 16-17)
        • Evidence of this in the Scriptures (vv. 18-21, citing Psalm 19:4; Deut 32:21; Isa 65:1-2)

As we consider chapter 11, specifically, in this context, the following observations are especially significant:

    • The first argument (in Rom 9:6-13) of the section as whole, begins with the statement: “for all the (one)s out of Israel—these are not Israel” (v. 6b), i.e. not all Israelites are (the true) Israel.
    • Paul expounds this with the examples of Abraham and Isaac, to emphasize that true sonship and inheritance (of the blessing, etc) comes not from natural birth and ethnicity, but from the promise and favor of God (and God chooses and calls out whomsoever he wishes).
    • This is further applied in relation to the proclamation of the Gospel (the main theme of chapter 10)—Gentiles have responded to the Gospel, trusting in Christ, while many Israelites, God’s elect people, have failed (or refused) to accept Christ.

There is thus a fundamental connection between 9:6b and 10:15a:

“for all the (one)s out of Israel—these are not Israel”
or, “for not all the (one)s out of Israel are Israel” (9:6b)
“but not all (of them) listened under [i.e. obeyed] the good message” (10:15a)

Both use the expression “not all” (ou) pa/nte$), though the syntax of 9:6b makes this more difficult to see in translation. In any case, the implication is clear—only those (Israelites) who accept the Gospel are the true Israel. Now, to continue on with an analysis of chapter 11:

Romans 11:1-12

Paul’s initial address in Rom 11:1-12 contains a central argument (from Scripture), bracketed by two rhetorical questions (introduced with the formula le/gw ou@n, “I relate therefore…”). The central argument (in verses 3-10) draws upon the narrative in 1 Kings 19:9-18, of God’s revelation to Elijah as he sought refuge in a cave on Mount Horeb. Paul refers specifically to verses 10, 14, where Elijah laments to YHWH that he is the only prophet (of YHWH) left who has not been killed, and that the rest of Israel has forsaken the covenant (Rom 11:2b-3); God responds in verse 18 to the effect that there are still seven thousand in Israel who have not “bowed the knee to Baal”. Note how Paul phrases this in Rom 11:4: “I have left down [i.e. left behind] for myself seven thousand…”—the addition of e)mautw=| (“for/to myself”), shifts the meaning slightly from the original context of being spared from death (by the sword) to being chosen by God. We should observe carefully the points that Paul expounds from this passage:

    • Verse 5—he applies the situation in 1 Kings 19:9-18 to his own (current) time: “so then, even now in (this) time, there has come to be a (remainder) left behind [lei=mma] according to (the) gathering out of [i.e. by] (the) favor (of God)”. In verse 4, the verb used is kataleip/w (“leave down, leave behind”); the noun lei=mma is related to lei/pw, indicating something which is left (behind), either in a positive or negative sense. The word lei=mma is typically translated as “remainder” or “remnant”; but here, as indicated above, this remnant is understood as a people gathered out (the noun e)klogh/, from e)kle/gomai, “gather out”), i.e. elected by God, just as Israel herself was chosen as his people.
    • Verse 6—this gathering out is the result of the favor (xa/ri$) of God, and not because of anything the people have done. Here Paul moves away from the Old Testament passage again, which seems to tie the people’s being spared with their particular religious behavior; instead, he emphasizes that the gathering out is no longer (ou)ke/ti, “not yet, not any more”) based on works (“out of works”, e)c e&rgwn). He has already applied this very idea to the example of Abraham in Galatians 3 and Romans 4.
    • Verse 7—only the remnant obtains what Israel seeks after (cf. Rom 9:30-33), the rest were hardened (lit. turned to stone). The metaphor of “hardening the heart” is common in the Old Testament, most famously in the example of Pharaoh in the Exodus narrative, which Paul references in Rom 9:14-18.
    • Verse 12—this verse is transitional, following Paul’s answer to the (second) rhetorical question (in verse 11), and leading into the address of vv. 13-24. He introduces the first of several qal wahomer exclamations, arguing from the lesser to the greater—i.e., if in this lesser/inferior case it is so, then how much more so when…! The contrast is between Israel’s h%tthma (“loss, defeat”), parallel with para/ptwma (“falling alongside [i.e. over the line]”), and their plh/rwma (“filling [up], fullness”). The exact meaning of plh/rwma here is important for the overall flow and force of Paul’s argument; I think it is best to understand it in the sense of a restoration (filling up) of what was lost.

Romans 11:13-24

Romans 11:13-24 is the first of two addresses Paul makes to Gentile believers specifically, with regard to Israel and its salvation (vv. 13-14).

    • Verse 14—”if… I will [i.e. that I might] save some of them”—note Paul’s use of ti/$ (“some of them”)
    • Verses 15-16—Paul applies three more qal wahomer-style arguments, similar to the one in verse 12:
      • Israel’s a)pobolh/ (“casting away from”) and their pro/slhmyi$ (“taking/receiving toward”); it is not entirely clearly whether these should be understood as subjective genitives (their rejection/acceptance of the Gospel) or objective genitives (their rejection/acceptance by God), since either is possible, and they actually represent two aspects of the same situation.
      • The (currently) small number of Israelite believers as the a)pa/rxh (“beginning of [lit. from]”, i.e. the first grain of the harvest) and the (future) full number as the fu/rama (“[mass of] mixed/kneaded [dough]”).
      • This may also refer to the current “remnant” of Israel as the r(i/za (“root”), and those who will follow as the kla/doi (“branches”); though the “root” perhaps should be understood more generally as the true people of God (faithful Israel) extending back to Abraham. The context of vv. 17-24 strongly suggests this latter, wider interpretation.
    • Verses 17ff—in the illustration of the olive tree and its branches, some branches are “broken out” (e)cekla/sqhsan) and others are (currently) being “poked in” (e)nekentri/sqh$); the sense generally is that the new branches from the “wild olive” tree (i.e. Gentiles) take the place of those that were broken off.
    • Verse 20—the branches were broken off specifically for “lack of trust” (a)pisti/a), i.e. a failure (or unwillingness) to trust in Christ. This has to be understood in terms of Rom 9:6; 10:15 (cf. above).
    • Verse 23—similarly the grafting back in of branches broken off depends entirely on “not remaining in [i.e. upon] a lack of trust”—that is, they must come to trust in Christ.

Romans 11:25-32

Romans 11:25-32, the second of the two addresses directed at Gentile believers deals more directly with the question of Israel’s ultimate salvation. Paul now adopts a more decidedly eschatological focus.

    • Verse 25—Israel’s hardness (i.e. their inability/unwillingness to accept the Gospel) lasts until “the fulness of the nations should come in”. The use here of plh/rwma (“filling [up], fullness”) for the nations (Gentiles) is parallel to that in verse 12 for Israel; Paul probably understands it in the sense of the full (or complete) number, measure, etc. It is only then, once the Gentiles have fully come to Christ, that “all Israel will be saved” (v. 26a).
    • Verse 26-27—the Scriptures Paul cites here are important for an understanding of v. 26a; the primary citation is from Isaiah 59:20-21a, along with Isa 27:9—the combination of elements is significant:
      • “the one rescuing” (o( r(uo/meno$)—Christ himself (1 Thess 1:10, etc), or God working through Christ.
      • “he will turn away from Jacob [i.e. Israel] a lack of (proper) fear [a)sebei/a] (of God)”—cf. Rom 1:18; here a)sebei/a (lack of fear/reverence) is synonymous with sin and wickedness in general, but also, specifically, with a lack of trust (a)pisti/a) in Christ. On the idea of Christ turning people from evil (using the verb a)postre/fw), see Acts 3:26.
      • “and this is the (agreement) set through [diaqh/kh] to them alongside [i.e. with] me”—diaqh/kh here in the sense of an agreement (covenant) between two parties (according to the Hebrew tyr!B=), referring to the “new covenant” in Christ and not the old covenant of Sinai and the Torah (cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18). For the principal Old Testament passage relating to the “new covenant”, see Jer 31:31-34.
      • “when I should take away from (them) their sins”—probably an allusion to Isa 27:9, here set in parallel with the citation from Isa 59:21a, i.e. “turning them away from” and “taking away from them”. For the specific association between removal of sin (and its power), through the death of Christ, and the “new covenant”, see Jesus’ words in Mark 14:24 (par Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20).
    • Verses 28-29—the juxtaposition (me\nde/ “on the one hand… on the other hand…”) Paul establishes in verse 28 must be analyzed and treated with great care:
      • me/n (on the one hand)—
        • kata\ to\ eu)agge/lion (“according to the good message”)
          • e)xqroi/ (“[they are] enemies“)
            • di’ u(ma=$ (“through you”, i.e. for your sake)
      • de/ (on the other hand)—
        • kata\ th\n e)klogh/n (“according to the gathering out”)
          • a)gaphtoi/ (“[they are] loved“)
            • dia\ tou\$ pate/ra$ (“through [i.e. because of ] the fathers”)
      • Paul uses this construction to highlight the sense in which they are (currently) hostile to the Gospel—it is for the sake of Gentiles, that they should come to Christ, as Paul describes earlier in vv. 11-24, 25 (cf. also 10:19-21). For more on this difficult teaching, see below.
    • Verse 31—the mercy which will be shown to Israel is the same that has been shown to Gentiles—that is, the sacrificial work of God in Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel, which has the power to make human beings right before God and to free them from the enslaving power of sin.

Romans 11:26 and Pauline Eschatology

Finally, it is left to address specifically the statement in v. 26a: “and thus all Israel will be saved”. There are a number of ways this has been interpreted, which I represent by the following five options:

    1. All Israelites, past and present, will be saved by the mercy and favor of God, but apart from their coming to faith in Christ.
    2. All Israelites, past and present, will be saved collectively through the work of Christ, but in a mysterious way understood only by God, and not necessarily in the sense of “becoming Christians”.
    3. All Israelites alive at the return of Christ will come to faith in him, and will thus be saved.
    4. All of the true Israel will be saved, understood as all Israelites (and Jews) who trust in Christ.
    5. All of the true Israel will be saved, understood as all believers in Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike.

Based on the statement in Rom 9:6 and the olive tree illustration in 11:17-24, Paul certainly would have affirmed the fourth and fifth views above, in the sense that the true Israel is to be identified with believers in Christ (cf. also Rom 2:28-29). However, in Romans 11, and especially in verses 25-32, it would seem that he actually has something like view #3 in mind—namely that, at the end of the age, upon the return of Christ (or shortly before), there would be a widespread conversion of all Israelites and Jews currently living, that together (and/or all at once) they would come to faith in Christ. It is important to remember that, when Paul penned Romans, many, if not most, of the Israelites and Jews of his own generation, who had failed or refused to accept the Gospel, were still living, and he could envision the possibility that they could all still come to faith. As is abundantly clear from his letters (and as pointed out all through this series), Paul, like most early Christians, expected Christ’s return and the end of the current age to occur very soon, presumably within the lifetime of most believers. In this context, Paul’s eschatological hope for Israel here makes good sense. Admittedly, it is rather more difficult to apply to the situation today, where nearly two thousand years have gone by, and many generations of Israelites and Jews have passed away—a situation, I am quite certain, that never would have occurred to Paul. Even so, it is still possible to affirm the belief (or at least the hope) that there will be a widespread conversion of Israel before the return of Christ; and, indeed, may Christians today hold just such a view.

In the previous articles in this series, we saw how the mission to the Gentiles was a fundamental part of the early Christian eschatology, going back to the Gospel tradition (the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, Mark 13:9-11 par, etc). This is not at all incompatible with the imminent eschatology of early Christians, as we have seen, since it was quite possible to envision a (relatively short) period of missionary work in the surrounding nations (i.e. the Roman Empire, or the geographical extent, more or less, of the world as then known) here at the close of the present Age. Paul was well aware of his role in this, and of its eschatological implications. At the time he wrote his letter to the Romans, he may have sensed that this mission work (to the Gentile world) was reaching its climax, nearing its end (15:23-24, 29ff; 16:20, [25-26]), and that a widespread conversion of Israelites and Jews would soon follow. Some of the visions in the book of Revelation may evince a similar idea, of a conversion of Jews to faith in Christ at the end-time (see especially Rev 7:1-8ff, my notes on that passage).

Interestingly, in recent decades, there have been an increasing number of commentators and theologians who would adopt an interpretation along the lines of #1 and 2 above, at least in the sense that Israelites and Jews will be saved by God without having to “convert” or “become Christian”. This may be related to what is called the “Two Covenants” or “Dual Covenant” theory, which I will discuss as part of an upcoming series on the Covenant and People of God concepts.

Most distinctive is Paul’s teaching that Israel’s ‘hardening’ against the Gospel is directly related to the missionary outreach to Gentiles. This reflects historical reality, in that there were Jews who fiercely opposed the early Christian mission, according to Paul’s own testimony and the narrative in the book of Acts. Persecution often fuels the success of a religious movement, galvanizing support and helping to forge a strong and distinctive identity. This may also reflect, at some level, a degree of “cognitive dissonance”—Paul and other Christians were forced to explain the success of the mission among Gentiles throughout Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece and Italy (Rome), while many Jews, who (as the elect people of God) should have been more receptive, did not accept the Gospel. This leads Paul to two different explanations which he brings together in these chapters:

    • Not all Israelites are the true Israel (9:6), and
    • They fell away (i.e. refused to believe) in order to make room for the Gentiles to come to faith
      —this last proposition is most vividly illustrated by the image of the olive tree and the branches (11:17-24)
      • Paul viewed Christianity as the outgrowth of (faithful) Israel stretching back to Abraham (i.e., the “remnant” is the root of the tree)
      • The branches which are faithful and remain in the tree (cf. John 15:1-11) are the early Jewish believers
      • The branches of the wild olive tree are the Gentiles—believers are grafted into the tree of ‘true Israel’
      • The branches which were broken off (i.e., unbelieving Israelites and Jews) may yet come to faith and be grafted back in

Once the full number (or measure) of Gentiles have come to faith, then the unbelieving Israelites and Jews will have the covering removed from their mind (2 Cor 3:14-15) and will come to trust in Christ as well. This, at least, is how Paul appears to have viewed the matter. Fitting it into a particular eschatological framework today is, of course, especially difficult, as indicated by the wide range of interpretive approaches that have been adopted over the years.

Birth of the Messiah: Early Christian Tradition

The final article of this Christmas-season series will examine traditions related to the Birth of Jesus in the late-first and second centuries, insofar as they may reflect earlier or established Jewish tradition regarding the Messiah. This short study will be divided into three sections:

    • Revelation 12 and Early Christian Eschatology
    • The Protevangelium and other early Infancy narratives
    • Justin Martyr & Origen: Second Century Debates with Judaism

Revelation 12 and Early Christian Eschatology

There are only three passages in the New Testament that refer to Jesus’ birth, outside of the Infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. Two of these have already been discussed (Rom 1:3-4 and Gal 4:4-5); the third is the vision of the Woman giving birth in Revelation 12:1-6. I have dealt with this passage in my (ongoing) notes on the book of Revelation (cf. the earlier note). There can be no doubt that, within the context of the visionary narrative, verse 5 refers to the birth, life, and ultimate exaltation to heaven. However, the story-pattern of the vision is wider than this narrow (historical) application. It has legendary, fabulous details common to a number of myths of the time, most notably the tale involving the the Python-serpent, opponent of the god Apollo, which sought to kill his mother Leto (Hyginus, Fabulae 140; Koester, p. 545). Moreover, the brief notice of the child being taken up to heaven does not entirely fit the historical situation of Jesus’ life, which here is compressed to include only the birth and ascension (cp. Justin Martyr First Apology 54.8). This raises the likelihood that an earlier story-pattern has been applied to Jesus, relating to it only those elements of his life which fit the pattern. It is worth considering whether this story-pattern, as adopted in the vision, originally related to the Messiah.

Certainly, Rev 12:1-6 is not simply a story about the birth of Jesus, but of his identity as the Messiah—that is, the Anointed Davidic ruler figure-type. This is especially clear from the wording in verse 5:

“And she produced [e&teken] a male son, who is about to shepherd the nations in [i.e. with] an iron staff. And her offspring [te/knon] was seized/taken (up) toward God and toward His ruling-seat [i.e. throne].”

The words in italics, of course, derive from Psalm 2:9, blended with the Messianic shepherd-imagery taken from passages such as Ezek 34:23. It is possible that Micah 5:2-4 is specifically in mind here, with its combination of elements:

    • The coming forth of God’s chosen ruler (v. 2)
    • The motif of a woman in labor (v. 3)
    • The ruler as a Shepherd who will be great over all the earth (v. 4)

The use of Mic 5:2ff in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2), with its description of Herod’s attempts to kill off a new-born Messiah, certainly seems relevant as well. However, it is by no means clear that a reference to this specific Gospel tradition is intended. The narrative motif of the wicked ruler seeking to kill a chosen (male) child as soon as he is born, is found in many traditional tales and legends worldwide. It is perhaps enough to view the motif here as indicating that the ‘dragon’ wishes to destroy the child before he can exercise his chosen position of rule; the implication being that the ‘dragon’ is already (currently) exercising rule over the nations, or may have the opportunity to do so.

Is it possible that there was a tradition in existence that the Messiah, following his birth, was taken up into heaven, to be kept hidden away until the moment when he should appear at the end-time? There are, in fact, Jewish traditions suggestive of this idea, however their existence as early as the first century A.D. is quite uncertain. The work known as 2 Enoch (or Slavonic Enoch) has been dated to the late-1st century A.D. by some scholars, based on internal considerations; if correct, it would be roughly contemporary with the book of Revelation. Chapters 71-72 describe the birth of Melchizedek—a miraculous (virgin) birth from the wife of Noah’s brother. To save him from the Flood, he is taken up into God’s heavenly paradise by the angel Gabriel; eventually Melchizedek will return to become the head of all priests that are to come, and will return again (in a second form?) at the end-time. While not referred to by the title “Anointed One” (Messiah), Melchizedek certainly has Messianic characteristics and features, as he does in several of the Qumran texts (cf. the article on 11QMelchizedek), blending elements of the Priest-Messiah and Heavenly Deliverer figure-types (cp. his application to Jesus in Hebrews 5-7).

In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is a tradition regarding the birth of the Messiah (in Berakot 5a, cf. also Midrash Rabbah on Lamentations 1.51 [on Lam 1:16]), which I have previously noted. In this story, a Jewish farmer, at the time the Temple is destroyed, learns that the Messiah (Menahem ben Hezekiah) has been born in the “royal city” Bethlehem. He finds the child’s mother, who expresses her wish to kill the infant, blaming him for the suffering that has come on her people. Eventually, the child is rescued from this threat, by “strong winds” (implying a divine/heavenly source , cp. 2 Kings 2:11) that snatched him from his mother’s arms. The implication is that he will be kept (in heaven) until the time he is to be revealed. There is no way of knowing how old this tradition is. To be sure, the setting of the story is the first century (70 A.D.), but whether it is an authentic tradition from this time is doubtful.

The setting of the Talmudic story (the destruction of the Temple) for the birth of the Messiah likely has some bearing on the traditional expression “birth-pains of the Messiah” (j^yv!M*h^ yl@b=j#), referring to the period of suffering and distress which immediately precedes the Messiah’s appearance. The background for this expression is ancient, as the pain of women in childbirth often was used to symbolize suffering, typically in relation to God’s Judgment—Psalm 48:6; Mic 4:9-10; Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17; 42:14; Jer 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 30:6; 48:41; 49:22, 24; 50:43; Rom 8:22; 1 Thess 5:3. It is used notably in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus, in the context of the destruction of the Temple, for the period of distress that precedes Jesus’ end-time appearance and the coming Judgment (Mark 13:8 par; cf. also Luke 23:28-29). The same image of childbirth can also emphasize deliverance from pain/suffering—Mic 4:10; 5:3; Isa 65:23ff; 66:7-9; cf. also John 16:21. Cf. also the childbirth motifs in Isa 7:14 and 66:7, both passages which have been given a Messianic interpretation.

Even more uncertain is the theory that chapters 11-13 of the book of Revelation were influenced by an apocalyptic writing called the Oracle of Hystaspes. This work, in existence by at least the early 2nd century A.D., is Persian—or, at least, it has a Persian setting and provenance—but also appears to contain elements of Jewish apocalyptic. Unfortunately, its contents are only known from the Institutes of Lactantius (book 7) in the early 4th century, and even then only sketchily presented. The similarities between chapters 11 & 13 of Revelation and what Lactantius provides of the Oracle are clear and striking. Like the book of Revelation, it was a fiercely anti-Roman work, directed against the Roman Empire, and expressing the people’s hopes that God would deliver them from its evil control. It is conceivable that the birth of the “great King” who is to come was part of this Oracle, corresponding to Rev 12:1-6, though no mention is made of it by Lactantius, and the connection remains highly speculative.

The Protevangelium and other early Infancy narratives

Following the composition of the Matthean and Lukan Infancy Narratives (c. 70-80 A.D.), similar works narrating the birth (and childhood) of Jesus came to be produced. For the most part, these are imaginative expansions of the earlier (canonical) Gospel narratives, but they also can include separate traditions which have come down from an early period. It is worth considering whether some of these may reflect Jewish traditions regarding the Messiah.

By far, the oldest and most important extra-canonical Infancy Narrative is that of the so-called “Proto-Gospel” (Protevangelium) of James. Composed sometime during the early 2nd century, it contains at least one significant early tradition—that the birth of Jesus took place in a cave on the desolate outskirts of Bethlehem (17:3-18:1). This detail is attested independently by Justin Martyr in the mid-2nd century (Dialogue with Trypho 78.5, cf. also Origen Against Celsus 1.51). The main additions to the Matthean/Lukan narratives in the Protevangelium involve the role of Mary as the virgin who gives birth to Jesus. Indeed, much of what relates to Jesus as the chosen one (and Messiah) of God extends to include the person of Mary as well. Her birth and childhood (chaps. 1-16), in many ways, parallels that of Jesus himself. This tendency within early Christianity is best described as a strengthening or enhancing of the Messianic and Christological traditions. The following points of emphasis may be noted:

    • The sanctification of Mary and her identity as one specially consecrated to God. This is established two ways:
      • Her association with the Temple (7:1-12:1)—this is an important emphasis in the Lukan narrative as well (1:8-11ff; 2:22-24, 25ff, 41-51)
      • Application to Mary of the traditions regarding the birth and childhood of Samuel (1 Sam 1-3), even as they are used to shape the Lukan narrative of Jesus’ birth and childhood; in the Protevangelium, Mary is raised in the Temple under the guardianship of priests, just as Samuel was.
    • Mary’s Davidic lineage—that she is a descendant of David is specified (chap. 10), leaving no question whatever as to Jesus’ Messianic pedigree as being truly from the line of David. There is no trace of this in the Matthean and Lukan narratives, where Jesus’ descent from David is legal, not biological; the genealogies (Matt 1:2-16; Lk 3:23-38) clearly belong to Joseph, not Mary (cf. also Matt 1:20; Lk 2:4). Indeed, the information in Luke 1:5, 36 indicates that Mary was from the tribe of Levi, not Judah. However, Paul’s wording in Romans 1:3 (compared with Gal 4:4), suggests a biological birth from David, and later Christian tradition followed the Protevangelium in making Mary unequivocally a descendant of David. If nothing else, Protevang. 10 shows how important the association with David remained, among early Christians, for confirming that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah.
    • The virginal conception (and birth) of Jesus. The Protevangelium goes considerably further than the Matthean and Lukan narratives in emphasizing that Mary was a virgin (6:1; 7:2; 8:2ff; 9:1ff; 10; 11:2; 13:1-3; 15:2-3; 16; 19:3-20:4). By the time the Protevangelium was written, this had become more of a matter of Christian apologetic (cf. below), than of the (Messianic) interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 so vital to Matthew’s narrative (1:22-23). However, there are still strong echoes of Isa 7:14 as a Messianic prophecy (see esp. the wording in Protevang. 19:3)

Perhaps the most striking scene in the Protevangelium, for modern readers at least, is in 18:2, where Joseph, while walking outside in search of a midwife, sees all of nature momentarily come completely still. This supernatural intervention in the natural order corresponds with the moment of Jesus’ birth, when a theophanous cloud of glory enters the cave and fills it with light (19:2). Such phenomena are fitting to the traditional identification of Jesus as the Messiah, at his birth, following similar signs and wonders marking his Baptism and Resurrection/Exaltation as the moments when he was ‘born’ as the Messiah and Son of God (for more on this, cf. my recent notes).

Second Century Debates with Judaism

A number of the Christian authors from the second and early-third centuries, whose works have survived, are called “Apologists”, as they sought to provide a proper account or defense (a)pologi/a, “apology”) of the faith, in the face of increasing challenges from Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism alike. At least two of these works contain significant discussions regarding the birth of Jesus as the Messiah.

Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho

Justin’s Dialogue, written sometime after 155 A.D., is presented, as the title indicates, as a dialogue (that is, the literary format, used by Plato, etc) between Justin and a Jew named “Trypho”. To whatever extent this “Trypho” represents a real person, we may safely regard the words placed in his mouth as reflecting the view of Jews at the time—their objections to the Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and the way that the Scriptures are interpreted in support of this belief. His Dialogue is a long and rambling work, awkward and unconvincing in detail, but valuable for the light it sheds on Christian thought (and apologetics) in this early period. The question of Jesus’ birth—and, in particular, the application of Isa 7:14 as a Messianic prophecy—is introduced in chapter/section §43, then after leaving it for a while, Justin picks up the subject again at §66. It remains the point of discussion, off and on, through to §78. The question of Isa 7:14 (and Jesus’ birth) is really part of a wider—and more important—debate regarding how the Old Testament Scriptures are to be interpreted, and whether the Christian approach, advocated by Justin, is reasonable and consistent.

Discussions of this sort, between Christians and Jews, had been going on since the original apostolic mission, as we can see from the numerous references in Luke-Acts regarding the importance of demonstrating from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah (Lk 24:27, 45; Acts 5:42; 9:22; 17:2-3, 11; 18:5, 28; 26:22-23). For the earliest (Jewish) Christians, the main sticking point was the suffering and death of Jesus, since that did not at all fit the general portrait(s) regarding the Messiah, and was an obvious impediment for Jews in accepting Jesus. By Justin’s time, this had evolved into a more general apologetic, covering a wide range of Scriptures, adopted by Christians as referring to Jesus, in a way that many (if not most) Jews would find hard to accept. Isaiah 7:14, as a reference to the miraculous (virginal) birth of Jesus, was one such passage, and, here, the extended discussion about it demonstrates that it remained of considerable significance as a Messianic prophecy (about Jesus). In objecting to the Christian use of the passage, “Trypho” raises certain critical points, including how the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ is to be translated (cf. my earlier study), which Justin is not particularly well-equipped to address. Even so, the dialogue between the two remains interesting and enlightening to read, even today.

Origen’s Against Celsus

Origen’s extensive writing Against Celsus remains one of his most popular and widely-read works. Written in the early-mid 3rd century, toward the end of his life, it addresses the arguments of Celsus, who was perhaps the most formidable Greco-Roman intellectual opponent of Christianity in the second century. Origen’s lengthy apologetic response to Celsus’ book The True Account (a)lhqh\$ lo/go$) continues to be of considerable historical interest today, for several reasons. Most significant, for the purposes of this article, is the fact that The True Account, based on Origen’s references to it, was framed as a dialogue between a Christian and a Jew, and thus Celsus cleverly makes use of Jewish objections to Christianity as a starting-point for his own arguments. Some of these objections centered around Jesus’ birth, and the Christian identification of him as the Messiah (an identification which otherwise would have been of little interest to a pagan like Celsus).

Celsus’ work argued against the deity of Jesus, and made use of the (supposed) facts surrounding his birth and life as a bar against the Christian belief in Jesus’ identity as the incarnate (Son of) God. Celsus was relatively well-informed regarding Christian beliefs, and seems to have had some familiarity with Jewish traditions as well. He attacks the virgin birth as something invented by Christians (comparing it with similar details in Greek myths and legends), and the Jew in Celsus’ Dialogue brings up Jesus’ illegitimate birth (from the adulterous union between Mary and a soldier named Pantera), and his years as a lowly day-laborer in Egypt (where he also learned the magic arts), as all quite contrary to the Gospel record, and unworthy of a belief in Jesus’ deity (I. 28-29ff, 32-33, 69); the Gospel genealogies (including Jesus’ Davidic ancestry) are similarly disregarded as Christian inventions (II. 32).

As it happens, the tradition regarding Jesus’ adulterous birth (as the illegitimate son of the soldier Pantera, ben-Pantera) is known from later Jewish sources (Babylonian Talmud Sabbath 104b, Sanhedrin 67a; Tosephta Hullin 2.22-23; Jerusalem Talmud Aboda Zara 40d, Sabbath 14d, etc). Its inclusion in Celsus’ work (written sometime before 180 A.D.) demonstrates that the tradition was in circulation by the mid-2nd century A.D. Tertullian was similarly aware of the charge that Jesus was the son of a prostitute (De Spectaculis 30.6). Cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 535-6.

It is quite possible that this all traces back to the basic historical traditions, recorded in the Gospel Infancy narratives (Matt 1:18-20), of the unusual (and potentially scandalous) circumstances of Jesus’ conception and birth. Almost certainly, these rumors of illegitimacy, which coalesced in the Pantera-tradition, would have been used by Jews at the time as a strong argument against identifying Jesus as the Messiah. While Jewish sources in this period do not say much regarding how the Messiah’s birth might take place (cf. the earlier articles in this series), the details of Jesus’ birth, according to the Pantera tradition, certainly would not be considered worthy of the Messiah. Celsus develops this further to argue that it is also not worthy of one considered to be the Son of God.

In other references to Jesus’ birth, Celsus draws primarily from the Gospel narratives (i.e. the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke). Interestingly, though he attacks the virgin birth, Celsus apparently made no mention of the prophecy in Isa 7:14 (Matt 1:22-23), nor the Jewish critique of the Christian use of it (cf. above). Even so, Origen feels compelled to introduce the subject (I. 34), touching upon the critical question of translating the Hebrew word hm*l=u^ as parqe/no$ (“virgin”), as well as providing a rudimentary (for the time) historical-critical assessment of the passage (I. 35). While the main issue for Origen is a defense of the Christian belief in the virgin birth, his continued emphasis on Isa 7:14, following that of Justin Martyr decades earlier, illustrates the abiding force of that key Scripture as a Messianic prophecy. It also makes vividly clear the uniquely Christian development of the Messianic idea, whereby the birth of Jesus was regarded as, not only the birth of the Messiah, but also the birth of the Son of God.

“Brown, Birth” refers to Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977, 1993).
“Koester” above refers to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

Birth of the Messiah: Qumran and Pseudepigrapha

This series on the theme of the Birth of the Messiah concludes with a pair of articles. The first will examine (in more detail) the passages in Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D. referring in some way to the Messiah’s “birth” as God’s Son. The second will deal with the early Christian evidence, outside of the Matthean/Lukan Infancy narratives, insofar as it may relate to the wider (Jewish) traditions regarding the Messiah. I begin here with the Jewish writings—passages in both the Qumran texts and several other writings of the period. Some of these have been touched upon in the previous articles, but is worth given them a more extensive treatment. The Qumran texts will serve as the starting point.

1Q28a [1QSa]

The text 1QSa [28a] is one of the key Rule documents for the Qumran Community, and should be studied in connection with the more famous Community Rule (1QS). It is referred to as the “Rule of the Congregation”, and also sometimes as the “Messianic Rule”, in light of the passage that is to be discussed here. What survives of this text is comprised of a lengthy fragment in two columns. It is clearly eschatological in orientation, with column 1 beginning “This is the rule of all the congregation of Israel in the final days…”. As such, it is certainly Messianic in significance as well, and not simply because of the wording in 2.11-12 (cf. below). The Community of the Qumran texts saw itself as the true Israel and people of God, the faithful remnant of the last days, and their Messianic expectations were centered around their own Community life and organization. The regulations in 1QSa reflect the organization of the Community, in its ideal form, in preparation for the end-time action by God, to be realized through the mediation and leadership of several different Messianic figures. I discuss these figure-types in the earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”; they include an Anointed Priest in addition to the more familiar Anointed Ruler/Prince from the line of David.

The Qumran Community appear to have expected that it would be joined (and led) by these two Anointed figures (Messiahs), sometimes specified in the Rule texts as “the Anointed (Ones) of Aaron and Israel” (1QS 9:11; CD/QD 12:23-13:1; 14:19; 19:11; 20:1; 1QS 9:11). This is the case in 1QSa as well, though only one figure called “Anointed” (jyvm) is named as such—the “Anointed of Israel”, i.e. the Davidic Ruler. He is mentioned in lines 11-21 of column 2, beginning as follows:

“In a s[it]ting of (the) men of the name, (the) [ones called] (to the) appointed (meeting) for (the) council of the Community, when [God] gives birth to the Anointed (One) with them, the head Priest of all the congregation of Yisra’el will come…” (lines 11-12)

The italicized words in Hebrew are generally recognized as jyvmh [t]a [la] d[yl]wy; however, the reading of the verb form dylwy (“he causes to be born, he gives birth”) has been disputed by some scholars, due to the fragmentary (and faded) condition of the manuscript. Some prefer the restoration iylwy (“he brings/leads”), while dyuwy (something like, “he makes [them] meet at the appointed [place]”) has also been suggested. Probably the majority of commentators, especially those who have (re)examined the original photographs (when the leather was in better condition), today accept the reading dylwy. But what does it mean to say that God “causes the Anointed (One) to be born”?

Certainly, the context does not suggest anything like an actual human birth, such as is described of Jesus in the Gospel Infancy narratives. Instead, the “birth” must be understood in a more symbolic sense, and the best guide for this is Psalm 2:7 (discussed in an earlier article), where the verb dl^y` is similarly used of the “Anointed One” (j^yv!m*, v. 2). In the original context of Psalm 2, this “birth” refers to the inauguration (coronation and/or enthronement) of the Israelite/Judean king. In the Messianic setting of the Qumran texts, this has to be translated in terms of the Anointed One beginning his period of rule (i.e. over the Community). Here, the Messiah (“the Anointed One of Israel“) has a subordinate position to the “head Priest” (2.13-14, 40), which suggests that this is a priestly Messiah (i.e., “the Anointed One of Aaron“). By all accounts, both Messianic figures were human beings (not supernatural/Angelic beings), who were specially appointed by God to serve in those end-time roles of leadership. Their positions reflect a two-fold division of the Community, at least in terms of their end-time assemblies—(1) the “men of the name”, led by the Priest, and (2) the “thousands of Israel”, led by the Davidic ruler, the Anointed One of Israel.

This sense of the Messiah’s “birth”, with its allusion to Psalm 2:7, provides an interesting parallel with the baptism of Jesus in the Gospel Tradition. Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his earthly ministry, just as here the “birth” of the Messiah signifies the beginning of his period of rule over the Community. The divine voice from heaven (Mark 1:11 par) at the baptism alludes to Psalm 2:7, and, indeed, in some manuscripts and versions of Luke 3:22 it is a direct quotation (“You are my Son, today I have caused you to be born”).

4Q246

I have discussed the remarkable Aramaic text in earlier studies (including an article in the “Dead Sea Scrolls Spotlight” feature). According to the scenario in the two columns of the extensive surviving fragment, a king is troubled by a vision he has experienced, and a seer approaches the throne and offers to provide an interpretation similar to that of the vision in Daniel 7 (7:15-18ff): great distress upon the earth, with nations fighting each other, etc. The climactic portion of column I reads:

7 [Then shall arise a king, and he shall be] great upon the earth.
8 [All peoples sh]all make [peace with him]; they shall all serve
9 [him. Son of the gr]eat [king] he shall be called, and by his name he shall be designated
Reconstruction & translation from Fitzmyer (1993/2000) and Zimmerman (1998) [see below]

Column II then begins:

1 Son of God he will be hailed, and Son of the Most High they will call him. …

A major point of dispute among commentators is whether the figure called “Son of God” and “Son of the Most High” is a positive (Messianic) figure, or a negative figure, i.e. a ruler who takes/accepts these divine titles wickedly for himself. The majority of scholarly opinion today favors the Messianic interpretation. Scholars have found very little Jewish evidence (particularly in the pre-Christian period) for titles such as “Son of God” or “Son of the Most High” being used of enemy kings (such as Alexander Balas, Antiochus IV, Roman emperors, etc [cf. Jos. War II.184]), whereas the anointed (Davidic) king is already referred to as God’s “son” in the Old Testament (Psalm 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14). It is in early Christianity, with the development of the “antichrist” concept (partly in reaction to the Roman Imperial cult), that divine names and honors are shown being appropriated or claimed falsely by evil/satanic figures (cf. 2 Thess 2:3-4; Rev 13, 17; and esp. Didache 16:4). Therefore, it is most likely that a ‘Messianic’, divinely favored (or appointed) figure is meant in I.9-II.2ff. The correlation between “Son of God” and “People of God” may be drawing specifically upon the parallel in Daniel 7, where one “like a Son of Man” comes to receive an everlasting rule and kingdom (7:13-14) and the “people of the Most High” receive the sovereignty and kingdom of God (7:27). By the mid-late 1st century A.D., “Son of God” and “Son of Man” are both titles which come to be applied to heavenly Messiah-figures of the end-time who will judge/defeat the nations and restore/deliver Israel (cf. below, and Part 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”).

A Messianic interpretation would also seem to be confirmed by the extraordinary parallels with the Annunciation scene in the Lukan Infancy narrative (1:32, 35):

aura lu hwhl br[ ] “[he will be] great upon the earth” (I.7)
rmaty la yd hlb “Son of God he will be hailed” (II.1)
hnwrqy /wylu rbw “and Son of the Highest he will be called”
<lu twklm htwklm “his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom” (II.5)
ou!to$ e&stai me/ga$ “this (one) will be great” (Luke 1:32)
klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou= “he will be called | Son of God”
kai\ ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai “and Son of the Highest he will be called” (1:35)
kai\ th=$ basilei/a$ au)tou= ou)k e&stai te/lo$ “and of his kingdom there will not be an end” (1:33)

The application of the title “Son of God” to this Messianic figure likely reflects the same general influence of the royal theology (in Psalm 2:7) discussed above; only in this sense can we speak of the Messiah’s “birth” in this text.

4Q369

This highly fragmentary text is almost certainly another apocalyptic work, with similarities to other Jewish pseudepigrapha of the period. An ancient ancestor of Israel (Enosh has been suggested) prophecies the Israelite history, from the earliest period down to the end-time (i.e. the current time of the author/audience). Thus, like all such apocalyptic works, the emphasis is eschatological, presenting the future hopes and expectations (including Messianic expectation) of people as the sure fulfillment of ancient prophecy. The context of the work is established in column 1 of fragment 1, including a genealogy of the ancestors through Enoch. In column 2, it would seem that there is a prophecy of the establishment of the Israelite kingdom (at Jerusalem) and the Davidic line; the language used reflects Judean royal theology, and almost certainly has Messianic significance in such a context:

“…your Name. You allotted his portion to cause your Name to dwell there […] It is the glory of your earthly land. And on it dw[ell your people …] your eye is on it, and your glory will be seen there fo[rever …] to his seed for their generations an eternal possession. And al[l …] and you have made clear to him your good judgments […] in eternal light. And you made him a first-bo[rn] son to you […] like him for a prince and ruler in all your earthly land [… …the] cr[own of the] heavens and the glory of the clouds [you] have set [on him … …] and the angel of your peace among his assembly. And h[e … gave] to him righteous statutes, as a father to [his s]on [… …] his love your soul cleaves to for[ever. …] because by them [you established] your glory […]”
Translation by Craig A. Evans, Qumran-Messianism, p. 147.

It is noteworthy how heavenly/Angelic attributes are combined with the royal/Davidic motifs and traditions, very much suggesting that a Messianic figure is in view. The idea of the Messiah as God’s “first-born son” (rwkb /b) would be a development of the tradition of the faithful (Davidic) king as God’s son in Psalm 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14. The images of “eternal light” and the “glory of the clouds” are vaguely reminiscent of the scene of Jesus’ baptism, as also of his exaltation to heaven; in both contexts Psalm 2:7 was applied to Jesus, identifying him as both the Anointed One (Messiah) and God’s Son. Possibly, the Messianic/ruler figure in 4Q369 1 col. 2 is similarly understood to be “born” as God’s son through a dramatic heavenly manifestation that confirms his kingship.

The remaining fragments of the text (2-4), while tantalizing, are too small for much meaningful interpretation or reconstruction of the work as a whole.

4Q534

Another fascinating (and, unfortunately, highly fragmentary) text is 4Q534, an Aramaic word sometimes called the “Elect of God” text, due to the striking description in lines 8-11 of column 1 of the surviving fragment:

“…he will know the secrets of man. And his wisdom will reach all the peoples. And he will know the secrets of all living things. [And al]l their plans against him will come to nothing, although the opposition of all living things will be great. […] his [p]lans. Because he is the elect of God, his birth and the spirit of his breath […] his [p]lans shall be forever.” (Translation Martinez-Tigchelaar, p. 1071)

It has been suggested that, in the literary context of the work, this is a prophecy of Noah’s birth (the Flood is apparently mentioned in column 2, line 14). The language certainly indicates a special figure, with a status and place in the world that has been established by God. These are characteristics that could apply just as well to a Messianic figure, and it is possible that such an association is intended. The expression “the spirit of his breath” may allude to Isa 11:4, a popular passage that influenced the Messianic Davidic ruler figure-type in Jewish writings of the period. There is a gap in the text presumably where something would have been stated regarding the birth of this person, and conceivably could have read “his birth and the spirit of his breath [are of God]”, or something similar (Evans, Qumran-Messianism, p. 145 [citing J. A. Fitzmyer]). If more of the text had survived, we might be able to determine if there is genuinely Messianic significance to this passage, or if the similarities are coincidental.

There are even fewer references to the Messiah’s “birth” as God’s Son in other Jewish writings in the first centuries B.C./A.D. Indeed, I am only aware of two passages which can reasonably be cited, and neither refers to the Messiah’s birth per se.

Psalms of Solomon 17-18

The 17th and 18th of the so-called Psalms of Solomon represent the earliest depiction of the Messiah (that is, the Davidic rule figure-type) in any detail. These hymns are usually dated to the mid-1st century B.C. (sometime after 63 B.C.). There is no specific mention of the Davidic Messiah as God’s Son, but there are several references, in close proximity, which illustrate how such traditional birth/sonship motifs could come together and be applied within the same Messianic context.

In 17:21, God is called on to “raise up” this king, whose Davidic origins are clear in the reference to him as “the son of David”; he is to be revealed to the world, and to God’s people, in the time known only to God. This manifestation of the Messiah, could, in similar contexts, be referred to as his “birth” (cf. above, on 1QSa 2.11-12). Moreover, an allusion to Psalm 2 follows in verse 23, which suggests that Ps 2:7 (and the Messiah’s “birth”) may also be in mind when referring to his end-time appearance. The Messiah’s unique relationship to God’s people at the end-time is also emphasized in vv. 26ff, with the traditional identification of the faithful ones of God’s people as His “sons” or “children”; this association is made in v. 27b:

“For he [i.e. the Messiah] shall know them, that they all are (the) sons of their God.”

If the faithful ones who obey the Messiah are sons/children of God, then it certainly follows that he is God’s “son” as well. The close (filial) relationship between the Anointed king (Messiah) and God is developed in vv. 31b-34: he is righteous, will be taught by God, will be called Lord and Anointed One (Lord Messiah), and God (the Lord) Himself is the Messiah’s own king.

Psalm 2 is again in view in Ps Sol 18, where the people will be shepherded under the rod of the Messiah (v. 6). This “rod” is also expressed in terms of the discipline shown by a father (God) to his son (Israel); indeed, in v. 4, Israel is described as a “firstborn son, an only child”. Again, if the people can be called God’s (firstborn) son, then surely this applies to their king Messiah as well (cf. above on 4Q369).

2/4 Esdras 13

The writing known as 2 (or 4) Esdras, like many of the surviving Jewish pseudepigrapha, was preserved and edited by Christians, but is ultimately based on Jewish materials. Indeed, the core of this work (chapters 3-14), the portion typically referred to as “4 Ezra”, is thoroughly Jewish and dates from the latter part of the 1st century A.D.—thus making it contemporary with much of the New Testament. The work is apocalyptic, presented as a prophecy of things which are to occur at the end-time. As an eschatological Jewish writing, it thus evinces a strong Messianic orientation, especially of the Davidic ruler figure-type who will appear to deliver God’s people and usher in the Judgment on the nations. In chapter 13, there is a vision of a man arising out of the sea (vv. 5ff); in the explanation of this vision that follows in vv. 25-38, a divine/heavenly voice tells the seer (Ezra) about the coming deliverance. Prior to the coming of the Messiah, there will be a period of intense suffering and distress, including wars among the nations (vv. 30-31); then it is related that:

“when these things come to pass and the signs occur which I showed you before, then my Son will be revealed, whom you saw as a man coming up from the sea.” (v. 32)

According to the Messianic traditions studied above, based primarily on Psalm 2:7, this revealing of God’s Son, his rising up “out of the sea”, could properly be referred to as his “birth”, though that particular wording is not used here. The conflict with the nations and their Judgment certainly corresponds to the traditional Messianic interpretation of Psalm 2. In verses 33-34 it is describes how the nations ultimately gather together with the intent of conquering the Son, but the result is that

“he will stand on the top of Mount Zion. And Zion will come and be made manifest to all people… And he, my Son, will reprove the assembled nations for their ungodliness…and will reproach them to their face with their evil thoughts…and he will destroy them without effort by the law (which was symbolized by the fire)” (vv. 35-37, ellipses mine)

Again the revelation of God’s Son is mentioned in verse 52: “no one on earth can see my Son or those who are with him, except in the time of his day”.

Translations and references above marked “Martínez-Tigchelaar” are to Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, Brill/Eerdmans: 1997-8.
Those marked “Qumran-Messiasm” are to Qumran-Messianism: Studies on the Messianic Expectations in the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. by James H. Charlesworth, Hermann Lichtenberger, and Gerbern S. Oegema (Mohr Siebeck: 1998). “Zimmerman” is the article by Johannes Zimmermann, “Observations on 4Q246 – The ‘Son of God’, pp. 175-190; the article by Craig A. Evans is “Are the ‘Son’ Texts at Qumran ‘Messianic’? Reflections on 4Q369 and Related Scrolls”, pp. 135-153.
“Fitzmyer” refers to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins (Eerdmans: 2000).
The translation of 2/4 Esdras is that of Bruce M. Metzger in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. James H. Charlesworth, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1983).

Supplementary Notes on Baptism

As a supplement to the recently concluded series of daily notes on Baptism (and the bapt- word-group), I thought it worth discussing the mode and form of early Christian baptism. The New Testament writings give no precise directions as to how the ritual was (to be) performed; however, they do contain certain clues which may allow us to reconstruct, at least partially, the ritual as practiced by Christians in the second half of the 1st century A.D.

The Gospels and Acts

To begin with, the dunkings performed by John the Baptist were performed in the Jordan river (and similar water sources, Mark 1:5, 9 par; Jn 3:23). Presumably these would have taken place with the person standing (or kneeling) in the river, along with John, who would have literally “dunked” (vb. bapti/zw) the person down into the water, or, perhaps, taken up water to pour over the person’s head. In the Synoptic account of Jesus’ baptism, it is stated that he “stepped up” (vb a)nabai/nw) out of the water (Mk 1:10 par), clearly indicating that he had previously “stepped down” into the water (i.e. into the river). According to the notice in Mk 1:5 par, those who were dunked gave an account of (i.e. confessed) their sins; presumably, there would have been a corresponding announcement (by John) of the “release” (a&fesi$, i.e. cleansing, forgiveness) of the person’s sin. Assuming the historical accuracy and reliability of all this, these details, taken together, would form the kernal of a ritual (and rudimentary liturgy).

According to the (historical) tradition in John 3:22; 4:1-2, Jesus and his disciples performed similar dunkings, and, almost certainly, the earliest Christian baptisms, as referenced and narrated in the book of Acts, followed the Johannine (i.e. the Baptist’s) pattern. This means that those who were baptized would have been taken to the Jordan (or a similar water-source) and immersed (fully or partially) in the water, with a confession of sin, etc. The main difference was that these early Christian baptisms were performed “in the name of Jesus”, meaning that they involved a confession of trust/faith in Jesus (cf. 22:16), with the corresponding affirmation that this signified that the person now belonged to Jesus (as his follower). This early baptism is perhaps best illustrated in the episode of Philip and the Ethiopian official (8:26-40), which culminates in the official being baptized:

“And as they traveled down the way, they came upon some water, and the eu)nou=xo$ [i.e. the official] said, ‘See, water! What (would) cut me off (from) being dunked [baptisqh=nai]?’ And he urged the vehicle to stand (still), and they both stepped down into the water, Philip and the eu)nou=xo$, and he dunked [e)ba/ptisen] him. And when they stepped up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord…” (vv. 36, 38-39a)

Verse 37 is almost certainly not part of the original text, but reveals the early Christian concern that baptism be tied to a clear profession of faith by the one being dunked:

“And Philip said, ‘If you trust out of your whole heart you are able (to be dunked)’. And giving forth an answer, he said, ‘I trust (that) Yeshua (the) Anointed is the Son of God’.”

It is possible that this addition reflects early baptismal practice (i.e. in the late-first or early-second century). Two other elements were closely connected with baptism in the book of Acts: (1) the laying on of hands (by an apostle or other designated minister), and (2) that the Holy Spirit would come upon the person. In all likelihood each of these were incorporated into the early ritual.

The Pauline Letters

In discussing the passages relating to baptism in Paul’s letters (Rom 6:3-4; 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27-28; 2 Cor 1:22, etc), we explored the possibility that he was drawing upon baptismal traditions of the time—that is, how baptism was practiced c. 50-60 A.D. Given the highly formulaic language, and the basic character of the symbolism, this indeed seems likely. It would mean, then, that Paul’s references give us some idea of the mode and form of the ritual itself. I would note the following points:

    • The symbolism of the believer participating in the death (and burial) of Jesus suggests that a literal dunking (i.e. full or partial immersion) was still being employed
    • The language of putting off an ‘old’ garment, and putting on the ‘new’ (i.e. Christ and/or the Spirit as a garment) suggests that ceremonial clothing was involved in the ritual. This would be in accord with similar initiation rites performed in contemporary ‘mystery cults’, etc. The symbolism is so basic, and natural to the ritual action itself, that it is hard to imagine that Christians would not have applied it to baptism at a very early stage.
    • References to anointing in a baptismal context. This could simply be an extension of references to Jesus as the Anointed One (vb xri/w, noun xristo/$), and to the coming of the Spirit as an anointing (Luke 3:22 par; 4:1ff, 14, 18ff). However, it would be natural enough, and quite expected, if this aspect were symbolized in the ritual through an actual anointing (xri=sma) with oil. We know that Christians in the first century did made ceremonial use of oil for anointing (James 5:14).
    • In all likelihood, ceremonial anointing (if indeed it took place) following baptism was meant to symbolize the presence of the Spirit, which Paul elsewhere refers to with the (parallel) image of sealing (2 Cor 1:22; also Eph 1:13; 4:30). Such language may have been part of the baptismal ritual as early as Paul’s time (cf. below).
    • The wording in 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27-28; Col 2:12, etc, may well reflect early baptismal formulae, such as would have occurred in performance the ritual, part of a basic liturgy. In addition to a confession of trust in Jesus by the person being baptized, there likely would have been a declaration (by the officiating minister[s]) prior to entering the water, and subsequently after the person emerged from the water. However, we can only speculate as to the details.
The Remainder of the New Testament

The only other direct reference to baptism is 1 Peter 3:21 (cf. the previous note). Most of what can be ascertained from the Pauline references (above) likely applies here as well. The use of the noun e)perw/thma could reflect a formal question/answer process as part of the baptism ritual, though this is far from certain. Baptism is presumably referred to in Hebrews 10:22, and also 6:2 (plural baptismoi/, dunkings/washings), but with little indication regarding the ritual itself; however, 6:1 could possibly reflect the sort of (formal) instruction which would precede baptism.

The noun xri=sma (“anointing”) in 1 John 2:20, 27 probably alludes to the baptismal symbolism of the believer’s union with Jesus through the presence of the Spirit—following the core early Christian tradition of the coming of the Spirit as an “anointing”. Similarly, there may be baptismal allusions in the motif of washing (i.e. washing of one’s robe) in the book of Revelation (7:14; 22:14), as also of the white robes that believers wear (3:4-5, 18; 6:11; 7:9ff; 19:14).

It may be possible to reconstruct the first-century baptism ritual, loosely, as follows:

    • The believer descends into the water (i.e. full/partial immersion)
    • This would involve a ceremonial removal of the ‘old’ garment
    • An officiating minister would make declaration regarding the putting away of sin (the old nature), etc
    • The believer makes public profession of faith, probably as part of a simple question/answer liturgy
    • Upon stepping out of the water, there is the ceremonial donning of a ‘new’ garment
    • An officiating minister makes declaration regarding the new life in Christ, etc
    • A ceremonial laying on of hands, and(/or) anointing with oil
    • Symbolic act/announcement to the effect that the believer has been “sealed” with the Spirit, along with an exhortation to live/act in a holy manner (until Jesus’ return)
Other Early Christian Evidence

References to baptism outside of the New Testament, in writings from the late-first and early-second centuries, are not as common or as extensive as one might hope. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 110) makes two contributions to our knowledge of baptism in this period:

    • It is not proper to baptize without a presiding overseer (e)pi/skopo$) for the congregation (or region) being present (Smyrneans 8:2)
    • Ephesians 18:2 provides the earliest evidence for the mystical/symbolic belief that Jesus, in his own baptism, effectively sanctified the waters that are used (everywhere) when believers are baptized; this would become an important part of the baptism ritual in the Eastern (Syrian) churches.

The manual known as the Teaching (Didach¢¡) of the Twelve Apostles gives us the only real description of baptism prior to about 150 A.D. Generally dated to the first half of the 2nd century, but perhaps containing material and traditions from the late-1st century, the section dealing with baptism is in the short chapter 7; the instruction may be summarized as follows:

    • Baptism should be performed with the trinitarian formula “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (cf. Matt 28:19); in spite of that same directive being uttered by Jesus in the Matthean passage, it does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament, nor is there any indication that Christians prior to 70-80 A.D. (i.e. when the Gospel of Matthew was likely written) ever used such a trinitarian formula; Didache 7:1 is the oldest direct evidence for its use.
    • Baptism should be done in “living water”, that is, in the natural running water of a river or stream; this suggests a continuation of at least a partial immersion of the believer (and officiating minister) in the water.
    • The baptism involves the pouring of water over the head of the person, presumably while he/she stood (or kneeled) in the water
    • This pouring should be done three times (i.e. “trine baptism”), corresponding to the trinitarian formula
    • The believer should fast (one or two days) prior to baptism, presumably as a sign of repentance
    • In 9:5 it is further directed that no one should partake in the ritual meal (Lord’ Supper / Eucharist) unless they have first been baptized “in the Lord’s name”.

Other evidence from the mid-second century may be summarized:

    • 2 Clement 6:9 emphasizes the need for the believer to maintain the purity of his/her baptism; presumably this sort of exhortation would have been part of the early ritual itself
    • In this regard, baptism is specifically referred to as a seal (sfragi/$) in 2 Clement 7:6; 8:6 (cf. also Hermas Similitude 8.6.3; 9:16:3ff, etc), i.e. something which must not be broken. This language goes back at least to the time of Paul (cf. above), and would have related to the (ritual) symbolism of anointing.
    • Justin Martyr, in his First Apology (c. 150-155), discusses Christian baptism in chapter 61; his instruction generally matches that of Didache 7 (above), though with greater exposition of the theological and ethical signficance, giving special emphasis to the older aspects of repentance and cleansing (from sin) which were first associated with the dunking/washing ritual (cf. above). He also provides a brief notice in chap. 65 of baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) as it is to take place in the congregational setting.

By the late-2nd and early-3rd centuries, more extensive treatments on baptism were being produced, and which have come down to us—most notably Tertullian’s On Baptism, and the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. These works demonstrate clearly how the older/earlier traditions were developed and given a more precise and authoritative form.

In terms of the visual representation of baptism, the earliest evidence comes from the 3rd and 4th century Roman “catacombs”. The representations generally support the description in Didache 7, of a partial immersion (i.e. standing in water), while an officiating minister pours water over the person’s head. Below are three examples (including a modern reconstruction):

Early depictions of the Baptism of Jesus followed a similar pattern, establishing an artistic template for the scene—both in Western and Eastern tradition—that would last for centuries:

Note on the Baptism of Children

Several of the images above suggest that children are being baptized. We know that by at least the late-2nd century, children were baptized regularly, though there appear to have been some misgivings about baptizing small children (cf. Tertullian On Baptism §18). The question regarding whether young children (and infants) should be baptized, or whether the ritual is best reserved for consenting adults (possibly including older children), has been the subject of longstanding debate and discussion. Many Protestants, in particular, argue strongly in favor of adult “believer’s baptism”, and against infant (or child) baptism. In spite of this, baptism of infants has been the common practice, throughout much of the Christian world, since the 5th century.

As far as the New Testament evidence is concerned, there is no indication that children (especially infants) were ever baptized. Since the original Johannine dunkings, and the corresponding early Christian baptisms that followed, were centered on a conscious profession of faith and repentance from sin, it is unlikely that they were ever performed on children (i.e., those younger than 12 years of age). The only possible evidence for the baptism of children are the notices of entire households being baptized (cf. Acts 16:31; 18:8; 1 Cor 1:16), but it is far from certain that this would have included young children. Supporters of infant baptism today cite parallels with circumcision; to be sure, a parallel is made between circumcision and baptism in Col 2:11-12 (possibly also Rom 4:11), but only insofar as the image of removing the outer skin resembles that of “putting away” the ‘garment’ of the old nature. There is no suggestion of its application to children; moreover, Col 2:11-12 is the only such example of this parallel being drawn.

January 13: Baptism (1 Peter 3:18-22)

The Baptism Ritual: Symbolism and Efficacy

This is the last in a series of daily notes on baptism, commemorating the dates of Jan 6 and 13 and the Baptism of Jesus. One of the most pressing questions for believers in recent times, regarding baptism, has to do with the efficacy of the ritual. As we saw in the previous notes on Paul’s treatment of baptism in his letters, baptism represented the new life believers have and experience in Christ. However, the question is: does baptism symbolize a situation which already exists independently, or does the ritual in some way confer or transmit this new life to the believer?

In technical theological language, this latter idea is referred to as the “operative power” (virtus operativa) of the ritual itself, whereby the ritual (in this case, baptism) serves as a “means of grace” which functions ex opere operato (i.e., by the [proper] performance of the ritual). Christians with a more sacramental orientation tend hold this view, or belief, regarding baptism—that it serves as a vehicle whereby God transmits the saving power of Christ and the Spirit to the believer. By contrast, spiritualist Christians—that is, those who emphasize the inward spiritual aspect of religion over and against the outward form—would utterly reject such a sacramental approach. Many Protestants share this tendency, treating baptism as a symbol of the new life we already possess through trust in Jesus and the presence of the Spirit.

When we turn to the writings of the early Christians, what they say about baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) is ambiguous in this regard. For the most part, the baptism ritual is symbolic, but at times they seem to indicate that the ritual itself is efficacious. The evidence in the New Testament is, in my view, rather less ambiguous, but direct reference to baptism (especially outside of the Gospels and Acts) is scarce enough to make any conclusions on the matter tentative and uncertain. In fact, there is only one passage which addresses the efficacy of baptism directly—1 Peter 3:18-22; it also happens to be the only direct reference to baptism outside of the Pauline letters.

1 Peter 3:18-22

Verses 18-22 form the conclusion of an instructional section of the letter (3:13-22), exhorting believers to live in a faithful and upright manner, even in the face of suffering and persecution. In so doing, believers will be following the example of Jesus himself (v. 18), whose suffering culminated in his death and resurrection. In previous notes, we saw how Paul interpreted the baptism ritual in terms of our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus; and here the author (Peter) seems to have something of the same idea in mind. Part of Jesus’ death (and burial) is said to have involved his proclaiming “to the spirits in (the prison) guard”, i.e., in the realm of death and the dead. This enigmatic tradition has been much discussed; I will not address it here except to say that it relates in some way to the early Christian idea of salvation, of the work of Jesus delivering and freeing humankind (those who respond in trust to him) from the power of sin and death.

As a prototype for these disbelieving “spirits”, the author draws upon the ancient tradition reflected in Gen 6:1-4ff, of the situation on earth at the time of Noah and the great Flood. The widespread wickedness of that time is paralleled with the author’s own time—seen as the period just before the end (4:7)—with the Flood serving as a type for the imminent coming Judgment (cp. Matt 24:37-38 par; 2 Pet 2:5). The people bound by wickedness in the current end-time are no less “dead” than those to whom Jesus preached (in the realm of death); by proclaiming the Gospel to them, they may yet be saved before the coming Judgment (4:1-6). Believers, too, were dead, and have died to sin, only to come alive again in new life through the Spirit (4:6).

This is the context for the reference to baptism in 3:21, couched as it is within the image of the great Flood. The common motif is that of being submerged in water, which explains how the Flood can serve as a parallel to baptism:

“…in (the) days of Noah, (with the) box [i.e. ark] being put down [i.e. built] in preparation, (and) into which a few—that is, eight souls—were saved through water, which also (is) a pattern opposite [i.e. facing] us now—(the) dunking [ba/ptisma] (that) saves—not (as) a putting away of (the) dirt of (the) flesh, but (the answer) of a good sunei/dhsi$ unto God (in response to) what is asked, through the standing up (out of the dead) [i.e. resurrection] of Yeshua (the) Anointed” (vv. 20-21)

The syntax here is complex and difficult, as indicated by the literal (glossed) translation above. The number of parenthetical English words I have used shows how poorly the Greek syntax (and much of the vocabulary) has a corresponding equivalent in English. The portion in bold above is especially important, since it is a direct statement—one may say, the only such statement in the New Testament—regarding what the ritual of baptism actually accomplishes for the believer. It is framed as a contrast, with the negative clause given first:

“not (as) a putting away of (the) dirt of (the) flesh”
ou) sarko\$ a)po/qesi$ r(u/pou

In other words, the water of baptism does not (concretely) wash away the sinfulness (or “dirt, filth”) of the flesh. This is in spite of the longstanding idea of baptism as symbolizing a cleansing from sin, going back to the original Johannine dunkings (Mark 1:5 par; cf. Acts 22:16; 1 Cor 6:11). In more conventional religious language, we may paraphrase 1 Peter here as saying that the ritual of baptism itself does not effect the forgiveness and cleansing of a person from sin. What, then, does baptism accomplish? The author indicates this in the positive statement that follows:

“but (the answer) of a good sunei/dhsi$ unto God (in response to) what is asked”
a)lla\ suneidh/sew$ a)gaqh=$ e)perw/thma ei)$ qeo/n

The Greek is extremely difficult to render into English, as can be seen by the considerable variety in translations. For ease of analysis, it is useful to break down this awkward phrase into two components:

  1. suneidh/sew$ a)gaqh=$. The noun sunei/dhsi$ (syneíd¢sis), which I leave untranslated above, derives from the verb sunei/dw (syneídœ), “see (things) together”, i.e. “see completely”. It refers to a (correct) perception and awareness of how things are, sometimes rendered in English as “consciousness”, or, when emphasizing the moral/ethical aspect of perception, “conscience”. The modifying adjective a)gaqo/$ (“good”), means that one’s awareness and perception is good, or (functions) for the good.
  2. e)perw/thma ei)$ qeo/n. The noun e)perw/thma (eperœ¡t¢ma) stems from the verb e)perwta/w (eperœtáœ), “ask/inquire about”. The noun occurs only here in the New Testament, and only once in the Greek OT (Dan 4:14 Theodotion). However, the evidence from the papyri, for both the noun and verb, shows that it was used in a technical sense, of formal questions and answers made over a contract, etc. In such a setting, the noun can refer to an answer given to a question, in the sense of a confirmation or guarantee (some translations here use “pledge”). This answer is given “unto God” (ei)$ qeo/n), and two specific settings could be in mind: (1) the believer’s response (or ‘pledge’) at the time of baptism, i.e. during the ritual, or (2) in the scene of the Judgment, when the believer stands before God to give answer. Given the strong eschatological context of chaps. 3-4, I am inclined to favor option 2, but it is hard to be certain.

Putting these elements together gives us 1 Peter’s answer as to what the ritual of baptism truly accomplishes. I would perhaps summarize it this way:

By undergoing the baptism ritual, which certainly entailed a public confession of one’s trust in Jesus, such a person demonstrates his/her awareness of how things stand between the believer and God, “for the good” (a)gaqo/$). This perception, confirmed through the ritual, means that the believer will be able to stand before God at the Judgment and give an answer, without fear or doubt. But the believer’s response at baptism (i.e. the confession of faith, etc), also functions as a pledge to God, to remain faithful and live in a holy manner befitting the new life one has in Christ. It is in this sense that a person is saved now, in the present, with the truth of salvation realized even prior to actual moment of the Judgment. The dunking “saves” a person in two respects: (1) as symbol of salvation, following the parallel of the ark, and (2) as sign of the believer’s awareness of what has been achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus (vv. 21b-22), with confidence/certainty that we can stand before God at the Judgment.

January 12: Baptism (1 Cor 12:13; 2 Cor 1:22)

Baptism: Clothed with the Spirit

In these notes on baptism (and the bapt- word-group), I have pointed out the two uniquely Christian aspects of the dunking ritual: (1) being dunked “in the name of Jesus”, and (2) the association between baptism in the Holy Spirit. Both of these were developed by Paul, in each instance giving deeper theological (and Christological) significance to the early Christian understanding of the ritual. In the previous note, we examined how the tradition of baptism “in the name of Jesus” led to a greater emphasis on the believer’s union with Jesus (i.e. being “in Christ”), and, in particular, of a participation in the death (and resurrection) of Jesus.

The association with the Spirit is even older, going back to the early layers of the Gospel Tradition—to the saying of the Baptist (Mark 1:8 par), and the appearance of the Spirit during Jesus’ own Baptism (Mark 1:10 par; John 1:32-33). The historical traditions in the book of Acts show how each of these came to be part of the distinctively Christian dunking ritual. The coming of the Spirit on the first disciples (2:1-4ff) was seen as a fulfillment of the saying in Mk 1:8 par (1:5, 8), an event which would essentially be repeated as individuals and groups came to trust in Jesus, and were baptized, throughout the narratives (on this, cf. the prior note).

To the extent that Paul develops this connection between the Spirit and baptism, it is in terms of the same participatory aspect—i.e. of being “in Christ”, united with him—which we explored in the previous note (on Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:12). The direct evidence for this is relatively slight, but I would highlight two passages in the Corinthian letters—1 Cor 12:13 and 2 Cor 1:22.

1 Corinthians 12:13

The principal theme of 1 Corinthians is the unity of believers in Christ. The thrust and (rhetorical) purpose in the letter is to address the points of division and disunity which have come about in the congregations (1:10-11ff). Interestingly, in the introductory causa, stating his reason for writing, baptism is specifically mentioned as a possible source of division:

“Has the Anointed (One) been separated? Paulus was not put to the stake [i.e. crucified] over you(, was he)? or were you dunked [e)bapti/sqhte] in the name of Paulus?” (v. 13)

Here the meaning of baptism in the name of someone is made clear—it essentially signifies that one belongs to that person: “I am of Paul [i.e. I am Paul’s]…” (v. 12). Even saying “I am of the Anointed (One) [i.e. I am Christ’s]” can be problematic if it results in fostering sectarian division among believers. By the time Paul comes to chapter 12, he has developed the theme of unity extensively, throughout the letter, even as he addresses specific practical issues. One particular image used to illustrate this unity of believers is that of the many different parts that make up a single human body; in 12:12, this image is turned into a direct declaration of Christian identity:

“For accordingly, just as the body is one, and (yet) holds many parts, and all the parts, (while) being many, are one body, so also is the Anointed [i.e. so he is one body]…”

This is a seminal declaration of the doctrine of “the body of Christ”, and its meaning is unmistakable—believers are united together in Christ as parts of a body. And what is the basis of this union? Paul makes this clear in verse 13:

“…for, indeed, in one Spirit we all were dunked [e)bapti/sqhmen] into one body—if Yehudeans {Jews} or if Greeks, if slaves or if free (person)s—and we all were given to drink (from) one Spirit.”

A similar baptismal formula occurs in Galatians 3:27-28 (cf. also Col 3:9-11), which includes the idea of entering into Christ (i.e. putting him on) as a garment:

“For as (many of) you as (have) been dunked [e)bapti/sqhte] into (the) Anointed, you (have) sunk yourselves in (the) Anointed (as a garment). (So) there is in (him) no Yehudean {Jew} and no Greek, in (him) no slave and no free (person), in (him) no male and female—for you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua.”

A comparison of these two statements reveals that being dunked “into Christ” is essentially the same as being dunked “into the Spirit“; similarly, we may say that “sinking into [i.e. putting on] Christ” also means “putting on the Spirit”. If this is understood as happening from without (i.e. by submerging in water), it simultaneously occurs from within, using the image of drinking water. The joining of these two motifs, or aspects, is paralleled by the saying of Jesus in Mark 10:38, where Jesus’ suffering and death is figured both as drinking from a cup and being dunked (in water). Thus, in the Pauline expression of the significance of baptism, we may isolate three distinct, and related, points:

    • The union with Christ, symbolized by the ritual, occurs and is realized through the presence of the Spirit
    • It is the Spirit which effects the reality of our participation in the death (and resurrection) of Jesus
    • This is effected both without and within—i.e. involving the entirety of our person—the imagery of “dunking” blended with that of “drinking”

2 Corinthians 1:22

To this imagery of being clothed by the Spirit, we may add that of being sealed. Like being baptized in the name of Jesus, the motif of the seal (sfragi/$) primarily signifies belonging—i.e. that believers belong to Christ (and to the Spirit). It is in the book of Revelation that this imagery is most prevalent (7:2-8; 9:4, etc), but Paul makes use of it as well. For example, he uses it to characterize his role and position as an apostle (1 Cor 9:2); but the primary context is that of the essential identity of believers, as manifest by the presence of the Spirit (which is also the Spirit of Christ). This is most clearly expressed in 2 Corinthians 1:21-22:

“And the (One) setting us firmly with you in (the) Anointed (One), and (hav)ing anointed us, (is) God—the (One) also (hav)ing sealed [sfragisa/meno$] us and (hav)ing given (us) the pledge of the Spirit in our hearts.”

Here sealing (vb sfragi/zw) is more or less synonymous with anointing (vb xri/w), and it is likely that both reflect the symbolism of the baptism ritual as it was practiced in Paul’s time (and, presumably, in the Pauline congregations); for more on this, cf. below. The noun a)rrabw/n is a transliterated Hebrew word (/obr*u&), which fundamentally refers to a token meant as a guarantee that a person will fulfill an obligation (i.e. make [full] payment, etc). For believers, this means a guarantee (or pledge) of our future salvation (and glory)—i.e., deliverance from the Judgment, resurrection/transformation of the body, and eternal life with God. The Spirit is this pledge, given to those who trust in Christ (the Anointed One), and symbolized in the baptism ritual. Much the same idea, with the same language of sealing, is found in Ephesians 1:13 and 4:30. For other Pauline use of the seal motif, cf. 2 Timothy 2:19, and Romans 4:11 where it refers to circumcision, as an Old Covenant parallel to the baptism ritual for believers in the New Covenant (cf. the previous note on Col 2:12).

On the Baptism Ritual

Many commentators believe that, in passages such as these (discussed above), Paul is drawing upon the baptism ritual as it was practiced by Christians at the time. If so, then it may be possible to reconstruct the rite, at least partially. Based on the Pauline references, and in light of the origins of baptism in the Johannine dunkings (followed by Jesus and his disciples), I would suggest the following rudimentary outline of elements, or components, to the early Christian baptism (c. 50-70 A.D.):

    • A ceremonial action whereby the believer removes his/her (outer) garment and enters the water (full or partial immersion); upon coming out of the water a new garment is given to the person which he/she puts on, symbolizing the new life in Christ.
    • Having emerged from the water, the believer is anointed with oil, symbolizing the anointing or “seal” of the Spirit
    • (This anointing possibly would be accompanied by a ceremonial laying on of hands)
    • Throughout the ritual, a simple liturgy would be followed, including:
      • Confession of faith in Jesus by the believer
      • A declaration by the officiating minister, prior to the person entering the water, and
      • A corresponding declaration, after the person leaves the water, including
      • An exhortation that he/she should live in a manner consistent with the new life (that the baptism symbolizes)

The mode and form of early Christian baptism will be discussed further in a supplemental note.

January 11: Baptism (Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:12)

Baptism: Union with Christ and Participation in His Death

The unique contribution made by Paul to the early Christian understanding of baptism was his emphasis on the believer’s participation in the death (and resurrection) of Jesus. Elsewhere, he makes use of the simple symbolism of washing (vb lou/w), i.e., the earlier/original idea of a cleansing of sin, referring to the waters that (symbolically) wash away a person’s sins—1 Cor 6:11; also Eph 5:26; Titus 3:5. However, when it comes to the distinctly Christian development of the dunking/washing ritual (baptism)—(1) being performed “in the name of Jesus”, and (2) the association with the Holy Spirit (cf. the previous two notes)—Paul gave to these elements of the ritual a greater theological depth and significance. He did this primarily through his emphasis on the participatory aspect; that is to say, baptism symbolized the believer’s union with Jesus Christ, and, with it, a participation in Jesus’ own death.

Romans 6:3-4

This was very much a theological emphasis of Paul’s, even when there was no particular reference to baptism—see, most notably, Galatians 2:19-21 (also 5:24; 6:14). The central idea is that, through trust and union with Jesus, we die to sin (and its power). This goes a step beyond the traditional religious requirement of repenting from one’s sins; it means that the believer in Christ is actually dead to the power of sin. For Paul, it is the sacrificial death of Jesus that accomplishes this, freeing humankind from bondage to sin. This is the central tenet of Pauline soteriology, best and most fully expounded in chapters 5-8 of Romans; and it is in Romans 6:1-11 that Paul draws upon the baptism ritual to illustrate how believers have died to sin (and so must think and act accordingly). The ethical, paraenetic thrust of the passage is clear from the rhetorical question posed in verse 1 (“Shall we remain upon sin…?”), and which Paul answers himself in verse 2: “May it not come to be so! We, the (one)s who died away to sin, how shall we yet live in it?”. This leads to the argument based on the significance of Christian baptism:

“Or, are you without knowledge that, we, as (many) as were dunked [e)bapti/sqhmen] into (the) Anointed Yeshua, we were dunked into his death? So we were buried together with him through the dunking [ba/ptisma] into the death, (so) that, just as (the) Anointed (One) was raised out of the dead through the honor/splendor of the Father, so also we should walk about in newness of life.” (vv. 3-4)

The concluding exhortation in v. 4 is part of the ethical instruction Paul is giving in these verses, but it, in turn, is based on a key theological and Christological point: we should “walk in newness of life” because we are united with both Jesus’ death and his resurrection:

“For if we have come to be planted together in the likeness of his death, (it cannot be) other (that that) we will also be (in the likeness) of his standing up (out of the dead)…. And, if we died away with (the) Anointed, we trust that we also will live together with him, having seen [i.e. known] that (the) Anointed (One), (hav)ing been raised out of the dead, does not die away any longer, (and) Death no longer acts as Lord (over) him.” (vv. 5, 8-9)

This idea of baptism symbolizing our participation in Jesus’ death and resurrection does not appear to be part of the earliest Christian understanding of the dunking ritual (based on the evidence in the book of Acts, as discussed in the previous notes). How, then, did Paul come to emphasize and develop this particular aspect? Several factors seem to be involved. First, it is a natural development of the ritual action—i.e., stepping down into the water represents death, while emerging again indicates the beginning of new life. And, even though this symbolic dimension was, it seems, not part of either the Johannine dunkings or the earliest Christian baptisms, it is known from contemporary initiation rituals (in the mystery cults, etc). Tertullian specifically notes the similarities (On Baptism 5.1), and, indeed, it is to be expected that early Christians (and perhaps as early as Paul) would come to interpret baptism in a corresponding way.

Second, the ritual meal (the Lord’s Supper) specifically signified a participation of believers in Jesus’ death, and it would be natural for the baptism ritual to take on a similar significance. Unfortunately, we have precious little detail in the New Testament on how the earliest Christians viewed the Lord’s Supper, but the Gospel tradition, attested in multiple sources (Mark 14:22-25 par; 1 Cor 12:23-26ff; cf. also John 6:51-58), suggests that the ritual would have carried this meaning from the earliest times.

Third, it is a natural development of the fundamental belief that believers are united with Jesus. This union means that we are also joined with him in his death, and all that was accomplished in it. Note how Paul has developed the traditional idea of being baptized “into [ei)$] the name of Jesus” (cf. the earlier note), and the expression which would have signified that a person belonged to Jesus, as his trusting follower. Now, however, in Rom 6:3, Paul speaks simply of being baptized “into [ei)$] the Anointed Yeshua” —that is, into the person of Jesus himself. This is essentially equivalent with idea of being “in [e)n] Christ”, an expression (and theological statement) used repeatedly by Paul (8:1-2; 12:5; 1 Cor 1:30, et al), including here at the close of the passage (v. 11).

Finally, though sometimes overlooked, we have the Gospel tradition of the saying of Jesus whereby he refers to his suffering and death as a “dunking” (i.e. baptism, ba/ptisma); there are two ‘versions’ of this saying:

“Are you able to drink (of) the (same) drinking cup that I drink (from)? or to be dunked [baptisqh=nai] (with) the (same) dunking [ba/ptisma] that I am dunked [bapti/zomai]?…” (Mark 10:38f)
“And I hold a dunking [ba/ptisma] (that I am) to be dunked [baptisqh=nai] (with), and I am held (tight) together until the (time when) it should be completed!” (Luke 12:50)

The Markan version, with its pairing of the cup and the “dunking”, effectively establishes both Christian rituals—Lord’s Supper and Baptism—as being fundamentally tied to the disciple’s participation in Jesus death.

Colossians 2:12

The participatory aspect of baptism is stated again in Colossians 2:12, and in similar ethical, exhortational context—cf. verse 6: “So, as you received the Anointed Yeshua, the Lord, alongside, you must walk about in him [e)n au)tw=|]…”. This is the familiar Pauline idea of being “in Christ”, and is repeated in verses 10-11:

“…and you are in him [e)n au)tw=|] having been made full, (in the one) who is the head of all chief (rule) and authority, in whom [e)n w!|] also you were cut around [i.e. circumcised]—a cutting round [i.e. circumcision] done without hands, in the sinking out (away) from the body of the flesh, in the cutting round of (the) Anointed—”

The statement regarding baptism follows:

“(hav)ing been buried together with him in the dunking [ba/ptisma], in whom [e)n w!|] also you were raised together, through the trust (you have) of the (power) of God working in (it), the (One hav)ing raised him out of the dead” (v. 12)

This is precisely the same dying and rising with Christ theme expressed in Rom 6:3-4, stated more concisely in context of the framing concept of being “in Christ”. What is notable here is the way that Paul (accepting the genuine authorship of Colossians) blends baptism together with the motif of circumcision, suggesting that the ritual dunking holds a similar place for believers (in the New Covenant) as circumcision did for Israel (in the Old Covenant). This is the only place in the New Testament where such a parallel is drawn; however, the comparison here is perhaps better understood in terms of the nature and significance of the ritual action—that is, of cutting away the flesh. It very much fits the Pauline idea of the believer as a new creation, having set aside the old nature of things that had been in bondage under sin; indeed, this is the aspect Paul emphasizes here, when he refers to the ‘putting off’ (lit. sinking out away from, a)pe/kdusi$) the “body of the flesh”, as a snake would shed its skin. The same point is made in verse 13, uniting even more closely the motifs of baptism and circumcision:

“and you, being dead [in] the (moment)s of falling alongside, and in the (outer) edge of enclosure of the flesh, he (has) made you alive together with him, (hav)ing shown favor to you…”

I have translated the noun a)krobusti/a quite literally as “(outer) edge of enclosure”, rendered more commonly (and correctly) as “foreskin” (i.e. of the male genital organ). The paraptw/mata are the failings or sins (lit. “[moment]s of falling alongside”) of the believer, especially those committed while still under bondage to the power of sin. The “foreskin” signifies the outermost part of this old condition, and thus that which is most dead. Through trust in Jesus, and symbolized by the baptism ritual, this ‘old nature’ is cut off and put away—the believer dies to the old and comes alive again to the new.

This symbolic dimension of baptism is more frequently expressed with clothing imagery—i.e., of removing an old garment and “putting on” one that is new. This will be discussed in the next daily note, as we explore Paul’s understanding of the role of the Spirit in the baptism ritual.

January 10: Baptism (Acts 1:5; 2:38; 8:15-16; 10:47)

Baptism and the Holy Spirit

As discussed in the previous note, there were two key aspects of early Christian baptism which marked a significant development over the earlier ritual dunkings performed by John the Baptist. The first of these was that baptism took place “in the name of Jesus” (cf. the previous note), meaning primarily that the believer “called upon Jesus”, confessing faith in him, while being dunked. The second aspect was an association with the Holy Spirit. There were three factors which brought about this close connection between baptism and the Spirit:

    • The motif of cleansing—in Old Testament tradition, the Spirit of God, being associated with images of both water and fire, as well as the idea of God’s holiness, was naturally related to the cleansing of people from sin and impurity.
    • The saying of John the Baptist (Mk 1:8 par): “I dunked you in water, but he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit”.
    • The descent of the Spirit on Jesus’ at his Baptism (Mk 1:10 par; John 1:32-33)

Of these three, the second is the one that is emphasized in the book of Acts. Let us briefly consider four key references:

Acts 1:5

“(for it is) that Yohanan dunked [e)ba/ptisen] in water, but you will be dunked [baptisqh/sesqe] in (the) holy Spirit after not many (of) these days.”

This statement (by Jesus), which concludes the introduction/prologue of Acts (vv. 1-5), appears to be an adaptation of the original saying by the Baptist (Mk 1:4 par), interpreted by Jesus (and the author of Acts) so that it refers to something that will soon happen to the disciples. It is fulfilled when the Spirit comes upon them as they gather together on the day of Pentecost (2:1-4ff, cf. also 1:8; Luke 24:49). This same event is essentially repeated for other believers and groups who come to faith thereafter, throughout the narrative. The coming of the Spirit, where it is noted in the different missionary episodes, is typically connected with the ritual dunking (baptism) that takes place upon confession of trust in Jesus as the Messiah. There are four such notices—2:38; 8:15-16; 10:44-47 (par 11:5-16); 19:5-6.

Acts 2:38

At the conclusion of Peter’s Pentecost speech, the command to repent and be dunked (baptized) is connected directly with the promise of the coming of the Spirit, repeating the earlier phenomenon experienced by Peter and the other disciples (vv. 1-4ff):

“…You must change your mind(set) [i.e. repent] and must be dunked [baptisqh/tw], each (one) of you, upon the name of Yeshua (the) Anointed, unto (the) release of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit.”

In verse 41, it is said that around three thousand people there in Jerusalem came to faith in Jesus, and were dunked (baptized); there is no mention of the coming of the Spirit, though, in light of Peter’s statement, we may assume that it took place. The Spirit was specifically referred to as something promised (by a message from God, e)paggeli/a) to the people of Israel, through the Prophets, etc, and as a fulfillment of the very covenant(s) made with their ancestors. The use of the noun e)paggeli/a was especially frequent by Paul in his letters, sometimes specified in a similar way as referring to the Spirit (Gal 3:14ff); on this usage elsewhere in Luke-Acts, cf. Lk 24:49; Acts 1:4; 2:33; 13:32.

Acts 8:15-16

Interestingly, in the episode at Samaria, people were baptized “in the name of Jesus”, but did not receive the gift of the Spirit until subsequently, when apostles (Peter and John) prayed and layed hands upon them (vv. 14-17). This curious separation of baptism and receiving the Spirit has been variously explained. It could conceivably be intended to emphasize the specific authority 0f the apostles; but, if so, the scene with Simon that follows (vv. 18ff) warns against a superstitious view regarding such personal authority. From a literary standpoint, the purpose could be seen as connecting (and legitimizing) the new mission (outside of Judea) with the earlier Jerusalem Community that had been the focus of the narrative in chapters 1-7. Paul similarly receives the Spirit after hands are laid on him (by Ananias, 9:17, prior to baptism), but otherwise there is little in the New Testament that would make the coming of the Spirit dependent upon the laying on of hands (cf. also on 19:5-6, below).

Acts 10:44-47

In the Cornelius episode, the people also receive the Spirit prior to being baptized, but not through the laying on of hands—the Spirit “falls” on them as Peter was speaking (v. 44). This is the first time in the book of Acts that Gentiles come to trust in Jesus, and Peter’s Jewish-Christian companions are amazed that “the gift of the holy Spirit has also been poured out upon (those of) the nations” (v. 45). Here, the presence of the Spirit takes priority over the ritual dunking (baptism); note how Peter states this in verse 47:

“It is not (possible, is it, for) anyone to cut off these (people) (so that they are) not to be dunked, th(ese) who received the holy Spirit even as we did?”

Clearly, they are to be regarded as part of the Christian Community because they received the Spirit, not because they were baptized. To be sure, baptism follows naturally, but the essential identity of the believer is not dependent on the ritual.

Acts 19:5-6

The final passage to be considered is the episode at Ephesus involving an encounter between Paul and Jewish Christians(?) who had been followers of John the Baptist (19:1-7). A distinction is made between John’s ministry and belonging to the Christian Community as a believer in Jesus (as the Messiah), and this involves a similar contrast between Christian baptism and the earlier dunkings performed by John (and his disciples). It necessitates that a believer who had received a Johannine baptism be baptized again (i.e. rebaptism), this time in the name of Jesus (v. 5, cf. the previous note). Once this happens, the Spirit comes upon them:

“and (with) Paul’s setting his hands upon them, the holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with (other) tongues and foretold [i.e. prophesied].” (v. 6)

This is one of the last references to baptism in the book of Acts (the only other being in 22:16), and it effectively brings together all of the key motifs and associations:

    • The development of the early Christian ritual from the dunkings performed by John, with a corresponding contrast between the Johannine and Christian forms
    • Baptism taking place “in the name of Jesus”
    • The role of laying on of hands, especially when done by a leading or designated apostle
    • The connection with the coming of the Spirit, and the various (miraculous) phenomena that result from it

Having now surveyed the main evidence in the Gospels and Acts, we now turn to the letters of Paul, to see how certain theological and Christological aspects of early Christian baptism were to develop. The next note will explore the distinctive Pauline emphasis on baptism as representing the believer’s participation in the death of Christ (Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:12).

January 9: Baptism (Acts 2:38 etc)

Baptism in the Name of Jesus

Having considered the command by Jesus to disciples to baptize in the “Great Commission at the close of the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 28:18-20, cf. the previous note), it is worth looking a bit more closely at the references to baptism being performed “in the name of Jesus”, as this represents a unique early Christian development of the dunking/washing ritual. There are five such references in the book of Acts—2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16.

The Name

Ancient Near Eastern cultures treated names and naming in a quite different manner than modern Western society. The name had a dynamic, magical quality, effectively embodying the character and essence of the person. This was all the more true with regard to religious belief—to “call upon” or to invoke the name of a deity was fundamental to ancient religious practice and identity (Gen 4:26b, etc). The invocation and use of a divine name also had to be done with great care—there was considerable power involved, and danger if handled improperly; this is the situation which underlies the famous command regarding the name of YHWH/Yahweh (Exod 20:7; Deut 5:11). In addition to its use in religious ritual, the divine name would be invoked in oaths, treaties and other agreements—both for the purpose of guaranteeing truthfulness and fidelity, and also to bind the oath or agreement, etc, under the power of the god. There would be divine blessing for the one who fulfills and agreement, but divine curse or punishment for the one who violates it. Indeed, there was believed to be theurgic power and efficacy in the name, which could be invoked over just about any area of daily life.

The Name of Jesus

For early Christians, it was specifically the name of Yeshua (Jesus) which was central to religious belief and practice. Already in the earliest layers of Christian tradition, the belief in Jesus’ deity—as the Son of God who is now seated in glory at the right hand of God the Father (YHWH)—was well-established. All aspects of Christian religious life took place according to the name of Jesus. This is expressed clearly in the book of Acts; note the following examples:

In the Gospels, there are number of sayings and teachings by Jesus where he refers to “my name”—Mark 9:37-39; 13:6 pars; [16:17]; Matthew 18:20; also Luke 24:47. Especially significant is the teaching in the Discourses of John, cf. Jn 14:13-14, 26; 15:16, 21; 16:23-26; also 3:18. The emphasis there is on believers requesting of God the Father in Jesus’ name. Also important is the related idea that Jesus himself has come—i.e. speaks, works and acts—in the name of the Father (Jn 5:43; 10:3, 25; 12:28; 17:6, 11-12, 26; cf. also Mk 9:37; 11:9 pars; Matt 23:39 par).

Baptism in Jesus’ Name

The central, intiatory act of baptism, marking one’s conversion and entry into the Community of believers, in the early Christian period was performed specifically “in the name of Jesus”. Given the religious importance and significance of this (divine) name (cf. above), this is hardly surprising. However, it is important to note that is especially prominent in the earlier Christian tradition (as recorded in the book of Acts), and is less commonly attested in later periods. Here are the key passages, where baptism is said to be:

    • Acts 2:38—”upon [e)pi/] the name of Yeshua into/unto a change-of-mind [i.e. repentance]” (Note: some MSS read “in” [e)n] instead of “upon”). This follows precisely the formula in Luke 24:47.
    • Acts 8:16—”into [ei)$] the name of the Lord Yeshua”, after which they receive the Holy Spirit (v. 17)
    • Acts 10:48—”in [e)n] the name of Yeshua (the) Anointed”, after having received the Spirit prior (vv. 44ff)
    • Acts 19:5—”into [ei)$] the name of the Lord Yeshua”, parallel to believers trusting in(to) [ei)$] Jesus (v. 4)
    • Cf. also 1 Cor 1:13, 15—”into the name of…”

Acts 2:38; 19:5; 22:16

We can see how this detail expands the meaning of baptism by considering three of the references in Acts. In each instance, we find a distinct development from the earlier/original context of the dunkings performed by John. First, consider the wording by Peter in 2:38:

“You must change your mind(set) [i.e. repent, metanoh/sate] and be dunked [baptisqh/tw], each (one) of you, upon the name of Yeshua (the) Anointed, unto (the) release of your sins…”

If we were to omit the italicized phrase, the wording would be virtually identical to the description of John’s baptisms in Mark 1:4 par. The dunking/baptism signified a “release” (a&fesi$) of sins, when accompanied by repentance (lit. a “change of mind”). How this would would function, in the new early Christian setting, is indicated by the prescriptive language in 22:16:

“And now, (for) what [i.e. why] are you (waiting) about to (act)? Standing up, you must be dunked [ba/ptisai] and wash your sins (away) from (you), calling upon his name.”

Here, it is expected that the believer would “call upon Jesus [i.e. his name]” while he/she was being dunked in the water, providing one of the only indications in the New Testament of how the early ritual would have been performed. Also, more clearly expressed is how the dunking effects the “release” (or putting away) of sins—the water “washes away” a person’s sins, bringing cleansing. Thus, in its basic form and significance, early Christian baptism differed little from the baptisms by John; this helps to explain the narrative detail in Acts 19:1-7, where baptism serves to distinguish believers in Jesus Christ from the followers of John. There are in fact two key points of difference: (1) that baptism is performed “in the name of Jesus”, and (2) that it involves the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. The second point is what is being emphasized in 19:2-6 (and will be discussed in the next daily note); however, the first is also and important part of the contrast that the narrative establishes:

“And Paul said, ‘Yohanan dunked with a dunking [ba/ptisma] of a change-of-mind [i.e. repentance], saying to the people that they should trust in the (one) coming after him—that is, in Yeshua’. And (hav)ing heard (this), they were dunked in the name of Yeshua.” (vv. 4-5)

Thus, the dunking still signifies a repentance and cleansing from sin, but now it is joined with a confession of one’s trust (pi/sti$) in Jesus as the Messiah. The point of the contrast between Jesus and John is Messianic, with the key title “the one coming” (o( e)rxo/meno$, cf. my earlier note) being applied to Jesus, not John.

The early Christian Development

These references in Acts demonstrate how important the name of Jesus was to the early Christian understanding of baptism, and that it fundamentally signified belief in [ei)$] Jesus. Matthew 28:19 uses the same idiom of baptism “into [ei)$] the name of…”. It was also said of John’s baptism that it was “into [ei)$] a change-of mind [i.e. repentance]” (Matt 3:11, cf. Lk 24:47; Acts 2:38), where the preposition ei)$ indicates purpose or result. Elsewhere in Gospel tradition, John’s baptizing is described as being “of [i.e. for, leading to] repentance” and “into [ei)$] release [i.e. forgiveness]” (Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3; Acts 13:24; 19:4), i.e. for the purpose of (and resulting in) the forgiveness of sins. There are two key aspects of the use of ei)$ (“into”) with regard to baptism:

    1. It reflects trust/faith in(to) JesusMatt 18:6 par; Acts 10:43; 19:4-5; 20:21; 24:24; 26:18. The idiom is especially frequent in the Gospel of John: Jn 2:11; 3:16, 18, 36; 4:39; 6:29, 40; 7:31, 38-39; 8:30; 9:35-36; 10:42; 11:25-26, 45, 48; 12:36-37, 44, 46; 14:1, 12; 16:9; 17:20. The parallel use of e)n (“in”) at Jn 3:15; 8:31 strongly suggests that the expressions “trust in” and “trust into” are virtually equivalent (cf. Mk 1:15; Acts 18:8). Also generally synonymous is the phrase “trust upon [e)pi] (the Lord) Jesus”, cf. Acts 3:16; 9:42; 11:17; 16:31.
    2. It signifies entrance into the Community and spiritual/symbolic union with Jesus. This theme is developed considerably by Paul in several of his letters, where we find the phrase “dunked/baptized into (the) Anointed {Christ}”. The key verse is Galatians 3:27—”as many of you (as) have been dunked into (the) Anointed, you have sunk in(to the) Anointed [i.e. put him on as a garment]”. The emphasis is no longer on the name of Jesus, even though Paul still uses this language (cf. 1 Cor 1:2, 10ff; 5:4; 6:11; Col 3:17; 2 Thess 1:12; 3:6, etc); rather, it is on the person of Christ. In Romans 6:3-4, baptism is interpreted as symbolizing the believer’s participation in the death (and resurrection) of Jesus (cf. Col 2:12). Cf. also 1 Cor 10:2; 12:13—the latter reference specifically emphasizing baptism into one body (the Community as the body of Christ) and in one Spirit (Eph 4:4-5).

On the first point, early Christians were careful to ensure that the baptism ritual was tied to a confession of faith in Jesus; this explains the interpolation at Acts 8:36, with verse 37 being added by copyists (and preserved in a number of manuscripts and versions) to avoid any misunderstanding. The second point is more closely related to association of baptism with the Holy Spirit, and it is this aspect of the ritual that we will examine in the next note.