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.

January 8: Baptism (John 3:22-23; 4:1-3; Matt 28:19)

Baptism by Jesus and his Disciples

Having considered the ministry of John the Baptist as the principal source of the early Christian practice of baptism (cf. the previous note), we must now look at how this developed in the Gospel Tradition. This could be examined in terms of the specific tradition regarding Jesus’ own baptism, or the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus; I have discussed those aspects at length in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” (Division 1), and here will simply note the evidence for the continuation of the practice of ritual dunking/washing (i.e. baptism) as performed by Jesus and his disciples. The evidence for this is slight, but important.

John 3:22-23; 4:1-3

The Gospel of John contains the tradition that Jesus and his digsciples performed dunkings/washings (baptisms), apparently continuing the practice from John’s ministry:

“With [i.e. after] these (thing)s, Yeshua and his learners [i.e. disciples] came into the Yehudean {Judean} land, and there he wore through (a path) with them and performed dunkings [e)ba/tpizen]. And Yohanan also was (there) dunking [bapti/zwn] (people) in Aynon near Salim, (in) that [i.e. because] many waters were there, and (people) came to be alongside and were dunked [e)bapti/zonto]” (3:22-23)

“So when Yeshua knew that the Perushis {Pharisees} heard that ‘Yeshua makes and dunks [bapti/zei] more learners [i.e. disciples] than Yohanan’ —yet, indeed, Yeshua did not perform dunkings [e)ba/tpizen], but (only) his learners—he left Yehudah and went (away) from (there) again into the Galîl.” (4:1-3)

These are the only references in the Gospels which state that Jesus’ disciples performed baptisms during the period of his ministry. The use of the imperfect tense in 3:22 and 4:2 indicates that this was regular activity, done repeatedly. One may only guess as to why there is no other mention of this (and none in the Synoptic Gospels); it may be part of a general tendency among early Christians to separate themselves from followers of John the Baptist. Something of this rivalry is indicated in these very passages (cf. also Acts 18:25; 19:1-7), and is almost certainly related to the strong emphasis in chapters 1-3 on the contrast between John and Jesus, making clear the superiority of Jesus and his identity as the Messiah (1:6-9, 15, 19-27, 29-34, 35-37). This is very much the focus here in 3:22-36, where the historical notice in vv. 22-23 leads into the testimony of John (on his place in relation to Jesus, vv. 25-30), and the Christological exposition that follows (vv. 31-36).

Given this concern over subordinating John (and his ministry) to Jesus—something also seen, to a lesser extent, in the Synoptic Tradition—the detail that Jesus’ disciples continued to perform similar baptisms may be trusted as authentic (on entirely objective grounds). It is not the sort of thing that early Christians would be inclined to invent. That Jesus’ disciples would continue dunking people in the manner of John is not surprising, considering that, according to Jn 1:35ff, at least two of Jesus’ first disciples (Andrew being one) had previously been followers of John. Many critical commentators would go further that this, claiming that Jesus himself had begun as John’s disciple. In point of fact, from a theological standpoint, there is nothing at all unacceptable about this theory, though doubtless the idea will make many Christians uncomfortable. If Jesus had been a disciple of John, it was preparatory to the beginning of his own ministry, which also marks the start of the core Gospel narrative, in which we see John ‘passing the mantle’ over to Jesus.

Apart from the aforementioned critical theory, there are certain key similarities between the ministry of Jesus (especially in its beginnings) and that of John:

    • An emphasis on the need for repentance in light of the coming kingdom of God (and the Judgment)—Mark 1:4, 15 par, etc; Matt 3:7-8ff par; indeed, Matthew has John and Jesus declaring the same message (3:2; 4:17)
    • Both tended to frequent desert/wilderness locations
    • They both quickly gained popularity, drawing crowds around them
    • They each were similarly identified as Messianic figures, especially the Anointed Prophet according to the pattern of Elijah (cf. Parts 23 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”)

Given these basic similarities, there is every reason to think that the baptisms performed by Jesus and his disciples had the same religious and symbolic significance as those performed by John—that is, they symbolized the washing/cleansing from sin, when accompanied by confession and repentance.

Matthew 28:19

The only other Gospel reference to the disciples baptizing is in the “Great Commission” that closes the Gospel of Matthew (28:18-20). While this passage is unique to Matthew, it corresponds roughly to similar post-resurrection commission scenes in Luke (24:44-49) and John (20:21-23), as well as in the Markan ‘Long Ending’ ([16:14-18]). The central statement in the Matthean commission is verse 19 (cp. [Mk 16:16]):

“So (then), traveling (out) you must make all the nations (to be) learners [i.e. disciples], dunking [bapti/zonte$] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”

Many critical commentators are inclined to doubt or question the authenticity of the trinitarian formula here, regarding it instead as a reflection of early Christian belief (rather than Jesus’ own words at the time). I discuss this, along with other critical issues, in an earlier set of notes on Matt 28:18-20 and Lk 24:44-49 (Notes 1, 2, 3, 4). To repeat here several arguments in favor of authenticity (on objective grounds):

    • The instruction regarding baptism itself, as well as most of Matt 28:18-20 in context, is fully compatible with the sayings and teaching of the historical Jesus, based on an entirely objective analysis of the Gospel Tradition. For a number of examples and references illustrating this, cf. the aforementioned notes.
    • The common elements and parallels between the various post-resurrection Commission passages in the Gospels, which surely represent separate strands of tradition (given their differences), strongly suggest an underlying historical core.
    • Luke 24:47-49 provides independent attestation for the inclusion of a baptismal ‘formula’ as part of the Commission, which is also associated with the Holy Spirit (Lk 24:49; Acts 2:38) and the Father. The other points of similarity between Lk 24:47-49 and Matt 28:18-20 were noted earlier.

On the contrary, one must, I think, be willing to admit that:

    • Many of the parallels and similarities cited (in the earlier note) are relatively loose, and could be said to be outweighed by the significant differences in detail. On the basis of traditional-conservative desire to harmonize, it would actually prove quite difficult to piece together all of these details (and separate Commission passages) into a genuinely convincing whole (judged honestly and objectively).
    • Assuming that Matt 28:19 is authentic, it is most strange that there really is no evidence for it (or its influence) anywhere else in the New Testament. By all accounts, based on the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, early believers were only ever baptized “in the name of Jesus” (to be discussed in the next daily note). If the apostles and early Christians were following Jesus’ example and instruction (as presumably they would be), then it is likely that Jesus’ original saying would have been something along the lines of: “baptizing them in my name…” (cf. Lk 24:47 / Acts 2:38)
    • The earliest attestation for the saying/instruction of Matt 28:19 is found in Didache 7:1, 3, which is typically dated from the early 2nd (or late 1st) century A.D. A fair date for the traditions in the Didache might be c. 70-80 A.D., which likely coincides with the completed form of the Gospel of Matthew. The trinitarian form (and formula) of baptism is attested in the second and third centuries, but, as far as we know, not earlier than c. 70 A.D.

In the next note, I will explore this idea of being baptized in the name of Jesus, which represents a distinctive early Christian development of baptism itself.

January 7: Baptism (Mark 1:4-5)

For those of you have been following by daily notes on the Book of Revelation, I have interrupted them for these Christmas-season themed notes; the notes on Revelation will continue on Jan 14.

In the Eastern Church, January 6 (Epiphany/Theophany) was originally the date commemorating the birth of Jesus; however, as the Western date of Dec 25 was gradually adopted, Jan 6 came to commemorate the baptism of Jesus instead. In the West, the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13) is the traditional day for celebrating the baptism. With these two dates in mind, during the week of January 7-13, I will be presenting a series of daily notes on the subject of baptism—how it was understood and practiced by early Christians. These notes will also serve as a word study on the bapt– word-group in Greek.

Background

The verb bapti/zw (baptízœ) is an intensive form of ba/ptw (báptœ), “dip”, as in a liquid. The simple verb occurs only four times in the New Testament (Luke 16:24; John 13:26 [twice]; Revelation 19:13). As an intensive form, bapti/zw thus means “plunge, submerge, dunk”. The masculine noun baptismo/$ (baptismós) and the neuter ba/ptisma (báptisma) are derived from bapt(iz)w, and refer to the act (and/or result) of “dipping” or “dunking”, while the related noun baptisth/$ (baptist¢¡s) is “dunker, one who dunks”. All of these have come down to us in English as transliterations (baptize, baptism, baptist), and, as a result, the original meaning of the words has largely been lost for English-speakers and readers of the New Testament. Whatever else one may want to say about the accepted or proper mode of Christian baptism, there can be no doubt that the verb bapti/zw signifies being submerged or immersed (“dunked”) in water.

The verb bapti/zw is common enough, but is quite rare in the Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX), occurring just four times, most notably in 2 Kings 5:14, where it refers to Naaman washing/cleansing himself by going down seven times into the river Jordan. There is a similar idea of ritual washing in Sirach 34:25[30], while in Jdt 12:7 it refers to Judith’s bathing, in preparation for her climactic meeting with Holofernes. The verb is also rare, for example, in the works of Philo, and does not appear to have been especially significant in Hellenistic Judaism. Bapt(iz)w typically would translate the Hebrew lb^f* I (‰¹»al), with a similar meaning (“dip”) that also connotes washing or bathing, including in a ritual context. The Greek occurs several times in the early papyri, including the context of ceremonial washing (P. London 121 441), but also figuratively, in the sense of a person being overwhelmed and “submerged” by troubles, etc (P. Par 47 13, cf. Isaiah 21:4 LXX).

The noun baptismo/$ (“dipping, dunking”) is rare in Greek (e.g., Plutarch Moralia II.166a [On Superstition]), and does not occur at all in the LXX, and only once in Josephus (Antiquites 18.117, of John the Baptist, cf. below). The neuter ba/ptisma appears to be a uniquely Christian word, with no contemporary occurrences outside of the New Testament and early Christian literature. Ba/ptisma is the much more common word in the New Testament for dipping/dunking (i.e. baptism), occurring 19 times as opposed to 4 for baptismo/$. The specific Christian rite is properly referred to as ba/ptisma, while baptismo/$ is used more generally for ritual washing/bathing (Mark 7:4; Heb 6:2; 9:10); only in Col 2:12 is baptismo/$ unquestionably used for Christian baptism. The corresponding Hebrew term is hl*yb!f= (from lbf I, cf. above), which was used for the (later) Jewish ritual washing/bathing (“baptism”) of Gentile converts.

As for the noun baptisth/$ (“dipper, dunker, one who dunks”), it is used almost exclusively as a title for John the Baptist (cf. below), and is scarcely to be found outside of the early Christian writings.

John the Baptist (Mark 1:4-5 par)

Of the 77 occurrences of the verb bapti/zw (“dunk, submerge”) in the New Testament, 32 are used of Yohanan the Dunker (John the Baptist) and his ministry, which is recorded, in some detail, in all four Gospels, and is also referenced in the book of Acts. By all accounts, it is to be regarded as the principal basis for the tradition of Christian baptism. It is not clear whether there were other contemporary (or earlier) “dunking” movements, or if it was original and unique to John; the lack of contemporary evidence for similar movements suggests the latter. However, some scholars claim that the tradition of Jewish “proselyte baptism”, i.e. the ritual washing/bathing of Gentile converts, pre-dates the mid-first century A.D. The evidence for this is slight indeed, based largely on several questionable passages (e.g., Testament of Levi 14:6; Epictetus Dissertations 2.9.19).

Far more relevant, at least in terms of being a parallel to early Christian baptism, is the tradition of ritual washing/bathing practiced by the Qumran Community. According to certain key documents, the Community (of the Qumran texts) practiced ritual washings, which symbolized cleansing/purification from sin and entry/participation in the community (cf. 1QS 3:3ff; 5:13-14). This may also be confirmed by the excavations of the Khirbet Qumrân site, which includes cisterns and (apparently) miqw¹°ôt (pools/baths) for ritual washing. As such, it provides a distinct parallel with early Christian baptism, which is related in turn to the earlier baptism practiced by John. There is also an interesting juxtaposition of cleansing by water and the Holy Spirit (and fire) in 1QS 4:20-21, as we see expressed by John in Matt 3:11 / Lk 3:16.

With the discovery of the Qumran texts (Dead Sea scrolls), a number of scholars have theorized that John the Baptist may have been influenced by the beliefs and teachings of that Community, perhaps even that he had belonged to it for a time. I discuss this hypothesis in an earlier article.

John’s ministry is best (and most clearly) summarized in Mark 1:4-5:

“Yohanan [the] (one) dunking [bapti/zwn] came to be in the desolate (land), and (was) proclaiming a dunking [ba/ptisma] of a change-of-mind unto the release of sins. And all the Yehudean area [i.e. all Judea] and all the Yerushalaimis [i.e. people of Jerusalem] traveled out toward him and were dunked [ebapti/zonto] under him in the Yarden river, giving out an account together of their sins.”

Matthew and Luke more or less reproduce this same summary (Matt 3:5-6; Lk 3:3, 21a), but include additional examples of John’s preaching (Matt 3:7-10, 12; Lk 3:7-14, 17). What the description in Mk 1:4-5 par emphasizes is that the dunking in the Jordan river was meant to symbolize a cleansing from sin—that is, a washing away of sin (a “release” a&fesi$) that was connected with the person’s confession (of sin) and attitude of repentance (meta/noia, “change of mind[set]”). Given the obvious parallels between John and Elijah, it is quite possible that his practice of having people go into the Jordan is a direct imitation of the command given to Naaman by Elisha (2 Kings 5:10-14, cf. above).

The core Synoptic tradition regarding John the Baptist’s ministry has several key components in common:

    • The citation of Isa 40:3, identifying John as a prophetic herald preparing the way for the end-time visitation of God (through His Messiah) and the coming Judgment (Mk 1:3ff par)
    • The (Messianic) saying regarding “the one (who is) coming”, with the contrast between dunking in water and dunking in the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:7-8 par)
    • The tradition of Jesus being baptized by John, with the descent of the Spirit and the heavenly voice declaring Jesus to be God’s Son (Mk 1:9-11 par)

These elements are also found in the Gospel of John (1:19-34), though presented very differently. The Johannine tradition also sets the contrast between Jesus and John more sharply, emphasizing the superiority of Jesus and his identity as the Messiah (vv. 6-9, 15, 20-21, 25, 29ff, 35; 3:25-30ff; cp. Luke 3:15ff; Matt 3:14f). I have discussed the tradition of Jesus’ Baptism, and the relationship between Jesus and John, at length as part of the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”. On the independent account of John the Baptist in Josephus’ Antiquities, cf. my earlier note.

Two details in the early Gospel tradition would greatly influence the significance of baptism as it would develop among early Christians, and so should be kept in mind as we continue through these notes:

    • The baptism of Jesus himself, as an imitative pattern for believers, participating in his divine life (and sonship), and
    • The association of baptism with the Holy Spirit, by way of the saying in Mk 1:8 par and the specific detail in the baptism narrative (Mk 1:10 par; Jn 1:32-33).

January 6: Galatians 3:27; 1 John 3:2

Believers as the “sons of God”, continued

In this short study on the “birth” of Believers as the sons/children of God, I have presented this in terms of Christian experience, as a process made up of four ‘stages’. The first two were discussed in the previous note, each with a representative Scripture verse; the last two will be examined today.

    1. Pre-existent sonship (predestination/election as sons)
    2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus
    3. Sonship recognized/symbolized in the ritual of Baptism
    4. Sonship realized through resurrection/exaltation
3. Sonship symbolized in Baptism (Galatians 3:26-27ff)

In the conceptual framework I have adopted, the baptism of believers corresponds, appropriately enough, with the baptism of Jesus (cf. the chiastic outline in the previous note). As Jesus was declared God’s Son at the Baptism, so the sonship of believers is recognized (and symbolized) in the ritual of baptism.

References to baptism are surprisingly rare in the New Testament, outside of the Gospels and Acts. Indeed, Paul is the only author to deal with subject (apart from 1 Peter 3:21), and he appears to have developed a distinctive interpretation of the ritual. Drawing upon a common early tradition, he has infused baptism with a deeper theological (and Christological) meaning. There were two factors which led to the association between baptism and the identity of believers as sons of God. The first of these, as noted above, is the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ own baptism. All four Gospels include the tradition of the heavenly voice (of God) declaring Jesus to be his Son. While there is some textual uncertainty regarding this declaration in John (1:34, v.l.), the Synoptic tradition is relatively fixed (Mark 1:11 par). As discussed in an earlier note, the heavenly declaration almost certainly alludes to Psalm 2:7 (in Luke 3:22 v.l. it is a direct citation), and, as such, has definite Messianic significance, though, as we have seen, Christians also came to understand the title “Son of God” (and the statement in Psalm 2:7 itself) in a deeper sense, in terms of the pre-existent deity of Christ.

The second factor involves the significance of the ritual act, as it developed among the earliest believers. From the original idea of cleansing (from sin), baptism came to represent the essential identity of the believer in Christ. This was patterned along the lines of the Lord’s Supper, as presented in the early (Gospel) tradition—as a participation in the death of Jesus, symbolically imitating his own sacrificial act. By going into the water, one dies (symbolically), participating in Jesus’ death; and, in emerging again from the water, our new life in Christ is symbolized—a “rebirth” effected by the same divine power (the Spirit) that raised Jesus from the dead. No one emphasized or expressed this participatory aspect more than Paul. It is clearly and powerfully stated in Romans 6:3-5:

“…are you without knowledge that we, as (many of us) as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed Yeshua, we were dunked into his death? Then we were buried together with him through th(is) dunking into the death, (so) that, just as (the) Anointed (One) was raised out of the dead through the honor/splendor [do/ca] of the Father, (so) also we should walk about in newness of life. For if we have come to be planted together in the likeness of his death, (then) also will we be (in the likeness) of (his) standing up (out of the dead)…”

The same idea is expressed, more concisely, in Colossians 2:12, which better captures the essence of the ritual act:

“…(hav)ing been buried together with him in the dunking [i.e. baptism], in which also you rose together, through the trust (you have) of God’s working in (it), the (One hav)ing raised him out of the dead”

In Galatians, this participatory language also occurs at several points, not always in the context of baptism (see especially 2:19-21). The theme of baptism is introduced at 3:27, directly following the declaration in verse 26 regarding the identity of believers as sons of God (cf. the discussion in the previous note). The entirety of chapter 3 (indeed, all of chaps. 3-4) deals with this question of Christian identity—i.e., believers in Christ as the people of God, heirs to the covenantal promises originally given to Abraham (and Israel). The true identity of humankind as the sons of God comes through trust in Jesus, along with the presence of the Spirit—both of which are represented in the baptism ritual. Here is how Paul concludes his discussion in chapter 3:

“For all of you are sons of God through the trust (you have) in (the) Anointed Yeshua, for as (many) of you as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed, you sunk yourselves into (the) Anointed (as a garment). (And) there is in (him) no Yehudean {Jew} and no Greek, there is in (him) no slave and no free (person), there is in (him) no male and female—for you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua! And if you are of the Anointed (One), then you are the seed of Abraham, (the one)s receiving (his) lot, according to (the) message [i.e. promise] (of God) upon (it).” (vv. 26-29)

This same sort of ritual language and imagery is used by Paul in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:10-11 (cp. Eph 4:24). His use of the image of ‘putting on a garment’, with the verb e)ndu/w (literally “sink in”, i.e. into the garment), is even more widespread. It is typically used in the middle voice, that is, of believers reflexively putting on Christ (as a garment). The ‘garment’ signifies the participatory union we have with Jesus (the Son), but also the new life (and new way of life) that this union brings. It is the baptism ritual that symbolizes this new life, but it still must be realized by believers, in the present, each day. Thus, Paul uses the idiom in an ethical context, urging believers to live and walk in this newness of life, which means walking according to the guidance of the Spirit. For the verb e)ndu/w in this context, cf. 1 Thess 5:8; Romans 13:12-14; Col 3:9-12 (cp. 2:11-12); Eph 6:11, 14; and, for similar instruction specifically referring to the Spirit’s guidance, note Rom 8:4-5ff; Gal 5:16-18, 25; 6:8. That the baptismal ‘garment’ is essentially to be identified with the Spirit is clear from 1 Cor 12:13.

In 1 Cor 15:53f and 2 Cor 5:3 the verb e)ndu/w and image of putting on the (new) garment is used in an eschatological context, referring to the resurrection and future glory of believers. It is this (final) aspect of the sonship of believers that I discuss briefly below.

4. Sonship realized through Resurrection/Exaltation (1 John 3:2)

It is in Romans 8:18-25 that Paul addresses the identity of believers as the “sons of God”, as it is finally realized at the end-time, in the resurrection. I have discussed this passage earlier, as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, and will not repeat that study here. Instead, I turn to 1 John 3:1-3, for an expression of this eschatological aspect.

The principal thrust of First John has to do with the identity of those who are true believers in Christ. This is defined by the great dual-command of (a) trust in Jesus and (b) love for one’s fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example (3:23-24). For the author of the letter, sin is understood primarily as violating the dual-command. The section 2:28-3:10 deals with the relationship between sin and the believer; no true believer can sin in the sense of transgressing the dual-command, only false believers will sin this way. He warns of the false believers who do not have a proper trust or belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and also do not show love (since they have separated from the Community of believers). And, in common with the Johannine theology, the true believers are identified as children of God, using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), i.e. “the ones having come to be born out of God”. This is the language used in 2:29 (also 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), while the plural noun te/kna (“offspring, children”) occurs in 3:1-2, 10; 5:2; in the Gospel, note 1:12-13; 3:3-8. In the Johannine writings, te/kna is preferred over ui(oi/ (“sons”, except Jn 12:36 “sons of light”), with the noun ui(o/$ reserved for Jesus as the only “Son”.

The section 2:28-3:10 is given an eschatological setting, referring to the end-time coming of Jesus, in 2:28. The author clearly believed that he and his readers were living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18), and would likely live to see the return of Jesus. The false view of Jesus is called antichrist (a)nti/xristo$, “against the Anointed”) and is a sure indication that the end is near. Thus, in 3:1-3, the identity of believers as sons/children of God has both a present and future aspect, with the future soon to be realized:

“You must see what (sort of) love the Father has given to us, that we would be called (the) offspring of God [te/kna qeou=], and (so) we are. Through [i.e. because of] this, the world does not know us, (in) that [i.e. because] it did not know Him. Loved (one)s, we are now (the) offspring of God, and yet it has not been made to shine forth what we will be. We have seen that, when it should (indeed) be made to shine forth, we will be like Him, (in) that we will look with (open) eyes (seeing) Him even as He is. And (so) every (one) holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that (one) is pure.”

The key eschatological statement is verse 2 (in bold). There are four different dimensions to the believers’ identity as the “offspring of God”, and they generally correspond with the four ‘stages’ outlined in this study:

    • “we would be called” —the love and intention God has for us [Election/Predestination]
    • “we are” —our essential identity and reality as believers [Trust in Jesus]
    • “we are now” —our identity in the present, realized in the Christian life [Symbolized by Baptism, etc]
    • “we will be” —our identity fulfilled at the end-time coming of Jesus [Resurrection/Exaltation]

The syntax of vv. 1-3 poses certain problems, as the referent for the 3rd person singular verbal subject and pronoun is not always clear. Does “he/him” refer to God the Father (the immediate subject in v. 1) or to Jesus (his return, the subject in 2:28). Moreover, the verb fanerwqh=| is unclear—is the subject “what we will be”, or does it refer to the appearance of Jesus? The former is to be preferred as more natural to the syntax, and also to the point the author is making; it should be read “when it should be made to shine forth…”. As to the identity of “he/him”, in my view, it is God the Father in vv. 1-2, but then switches (back) to Jesus in v. 3. The hope of believers is “upon him”, that is, upon the return of Jesus (2:28), and the demonstrative pronoun e)kei=no$ (“that one”) refers back to Jesus. In between, 2:29-3:2, the focus is on God the Father, and our (believers’) relation to Him as His offspring. Admittedly, the syntax is a bit confusing; it requires careful attention to the nuance of the author’s line of argument.

This eschatological dimension of sonship is not that unusual; it relates to the traditional Jewish idea of the righteous as “sons of God”, an identity that will only be fully realized in the blessed afterlife, after having passed through the Judgment—e.g., Wisdom 5:5; Philo On the Confusion of Tongues §147; cp. Matt 5:9; 2 Cor 6:18. We also have the eschatological image of the faithful ones being gathered together, at the end-time, as “sons of God” (Psalms of Solomon 17:28-30; cp. John 11:52). The blessed future life for the righteous involves the vision of God, i.e. seeing God Himself, and it is this experience which fully transforms the righteous (believers) into sons/children of God who resemble their Father (cf. Matt 5:8; 1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor 3:18; in Jewish tradition, e.g., Philo On Abraham §§57-59; Pesiqta Rabbati 46b [11.7]; Midrash on Psalm 149 [270a]). Cf. R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 30 (1982), p. 425, and the discussion throughout pp. 378-435.

Ultimately, however, for believers, this transformation is based on our union with Jesus (the Son), through the Spirit. This builds on the familiar idea that our identity as God’s sons/children stems from Jesus’ own Sonship. Paul recognizes this throughout his discussions on the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-23ff, 45-49; 2 Cor 4:14; Phil 3:20-21, etc), but most notably in Romans 8:18-25ff, and the climactic statement in verse 29:

“…that the (one)s whom He knew before(hand) He also marked out before(hand) together in (the) shape of the image of His Son, unto his being (the) first-produced [i.e. firstborn] among many brothers

Thus, we are to become truly God’s sons, brothers to Jesus as His Son. Much the same idea is to be found in Hebrews 2:10:

“For it was fitting for Him, through whom all (thing)s (have their purpose), and through whom all (thing)s (came to be), (in) leading many sons into honor/splendor [do/ca], (was) to make complete the chief leader of their salvation through sufferings.”

In 1 John 3:1-3, this relationship is indicated by the outer references to Jesus (2:28, 3:3) which frame the inner references to God the Father. Our sonship derives from Jesus’ own sonship, and our exaltation is similarly based on Jesus’ own exaltation. When he returns, this final aspect of our identity as sons of God will be realized.

January 5: Ephesians 1:5; Galatians 3:26

Believers as the “Sons of God”

Having examined the development of the early Christian belief regarding Jesus as the Son of God (and his “birth” as the Son), it is now time, in these Christmas season notes, to consider the second part of the paradigm—the identity of believers as the sons (or children) of God. If the first part was studied in terms of the Gospel message, the second part will be explored in terms of Christian experience. That is to say, how do we, as believers, come to experience our identity as children of God? Even as the Christology of the New Testament developed, progressively, through revelation and contemplation, so the experience of the believer in Christ is also a process. This process may be defined in four ‘stages’, which mirror those of the Christological development:

    • Jesus as the Son of God through his resurrection and exaltation
      • Recognized as Son from the point of his Baptism
        • Called the Son of God from the very time of his Birth
          • His pre-existent deity as the eternal Son
          • Our predestination/election as Sons of God
        • Our spiritual birth as God’s Children, through trust in Jesus
      • The symbolic recognition of this Sonship in the Baptism ritual
    • The final realization as Sons of God in our resurrection (and exaltation)

It is in the Johannine Writings (the Gospel and 1 John) that the central themes (the innermost pair above) of Jesus’ pre-existent deity and the pre-existent election of believers is most prominent. This was already discussed in the previous note, in considering John 1:12-14, where both themes are combined, using the same image of birth/sonship. However, in the Johannine writings, only Jesus is ever called “Son” (ui(o/$); for believers, the plural te/kna (“offspring, children”) is used instead—1:12; 11:52; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2. The plural ui(oi/ (“sons”) is used in Jn 12:36, in the specific expression “sons of light” (ui(oi\ fwto/$, also Lk 16:8, and by Paul in 1 Thess 5:5). That particular expression draws on the earlier ethical-religious idea of the righteous—i.e., the faithful ones of Israel—as God’s sons. This language is part of Israelite and Jewish wisdom traditions (e.g., Wisdom 2:13, 18; 5:5; Sirach 4:10), and is used by Jesus in his teaching (Matt 5:9, 45 [par Lk 6:35]; 13:38; Luke 16:8, etc).

Outside of the Johannine writings, it is Paul who makes most use of the birth/sonship theme, applying it to believers on numerous occasions. He also is influenced by Old Testament tradition, for example, in the way he cites Hosea 1:10 in Rom 9:26, i.e., of faithful Israelites as “sons of the living God” —he applies this specifically to the “remnant” of Israel that has trusted in Jesus (v. 27). Thus, the divine sonship of believers is tied directly to faith in Jesus (the Son). This is very much the emphasis in the Gospel and letters of John as well—believers are called the “children” (te/kna) of God, and are identified as ones “having come to be born” (perfect participle of genna/w) out of God, because they/we trust in Jesus as God’s Son. This will be discussed further below.

If we keep in mind the four ‘stages’ indicated above, the first two will be dealt with in this note, focusing on two representative verses:

    1. Pre-existent sonship (predestination/election as sons)
    2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus
    3. Sonship recognized/symbolized in the ritual of Baptism
    4. Sonship realized through resurrection/exaltation
1. Pre-existent Sonship (Ephesians 1:5)

The idea of believers’ pre-existent sonship—that is, of our election/predestination as the sons/children of God—is most clearly stated in Ephesians 1:4-5:

“…even as He gathered us out in him [i.e. in Christ] before the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world, (for) us to be holy and without flaw (there) in His sight, in love, (hav)ing marked us out before(hand) unto (our) placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a], through Yeshua (the) Anointed, unto Him, according to the good consideration of His will.”

Many critical commentators would question or dispute the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, but this passage very much reflects Paul’s genuine thought. In particular, he utilizes the key word ui(oqesi/a, meaning the placing (from the verb ti/qhmi) of someone as a son (ui(o/$); indeed, he is the only New Testament author to use this noun (Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal 4:5). In English, it is typically translated “adoption”, but this obscures the important etymological tie with the word son (ui(o/$). A comparison with Romans 8:14-16 is instructive:

“For as (many) as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God [ui(oi\ qeou=]. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery again, into fear, but (rather) you received the Spirit of placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a], in which we cry out: ‘Abba, Father!’ For the Spirit it(self) gives witness together with our spirit that we are children of God [te/kna qeou=].”

Paul’s syntax here indicates that he has in mind the sonship of believers primarily in terms of our receiving the Spirit, and that this occurred at the point when we came to trust in Jesus (cf. below). However, as he makes clear in vv. 29-30, this is part of a process which begins with the election/predestination of believers:

“(For it is) that the (ones) whom He knew before(hand), He also marked out before(hand) (in the) shape together of the image of His Son, unto his [i.e. Jesus’] being the first-formed among many brothers…”

Thus, clearly, believers are predestined by God to be His sons, though this is defined entirely in terms of Jesus’ own Sonship. On the application of the verbs proginw/skw (“know before[hand]”) and proori/zw (“mark out before[hand]”) to believers, cf. also 1 Cor 2:7; Rom 11:2; Eph 1:5, 11.

The language and imagery Paul uses in Gal 4:4-6 is similar to that of Rom 8:14-16:

“But when the fullness of time came, God sent out from (Him) His Son…(so) that he would purchase out the (one)s under the Law, (so) that we would receive from (Him) the placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a]. And, (in) that [i.e. because] you are sons, God sent out from (Him) the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!'”

It is by the Spirit that we receive sonship, and yet, even before this, believers already have the identity as sons (“because we are sons…”). This confirms again that, for Paul, the sonship of believers is comprehensive, and part of a process that is prior even to our coming to faith.

2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus (Gal 3:26)

It hardly needs to be pointed out the centrality of trust in Jesus for the identity of believers (as sons/children of God). This is clear enough from the passages we have already considered (above), but it is worth noting several verses where this association is made explicit. I begin with Galatians 3:26:

“For you all are sons of God through the trust in (the) Anointed Yeshua.”

It is hard to imagine a more concise and direct statement. One might, however, clarify something of the context for this statement—it has to do, again, with the traditional idea of Israel (esp. the faithful Israelites) as the sons/children of God. Fundamentally, this is based on the ancient covenant concept, as applied within the Israelite religious setting. In both Galatians and Romans, Paul radically re-interprets the covenant idea; actually this reflects a process of interpretation that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching, but Paul develops it in a unique way, making the religious identity of God’s people depend entirely on trust in Jesus. This necessitated a complete break from the earlier covenant, introduced in the time of Abraham, and for which the Law (Torah) represented the binding terms. Through Jesus there is a new agreement, and the Torah is no longer binding for believers; instead, it is trust in Jesus, along with the presence of the Spirit, which binds people to God (as His sons/children).

This explains the parallel between Gal 3:26 and the earlier statement in verse 7: “Therefore you must know that the (one)s (who are born) out of trust [i.e. in Jesus], these are the sons of Abraham”. I have filled in the expression oi( e)k pi/stew$ (“the [one]s out of trust”) with the idea of being born, as this relates to being a “son”. The proper point of reference is verse 2, where the focus is on receiving the Spirit—Paul asks the Galatians whether they received it “out of works of the Law” (i.e., by observing the Torah) or “out of the hearing of trust” (i.e., trusting in the Gospel message they heard). These two themes—receiving the Spirit and being born (as sons)—are combined most effectively in the Gospel of John, especially in the famous discourse with Nicodemus, 3:3-8. That coming to be born “out of the Spirit” is also defined in terms of trust in Jesus is clear enough from what follows in vv. 11-15ff. It is also expressed definitively in the prologue (1:12-13), as we saw in the previous note. It is worth comparing Jn 1:12 with Rom 8:14 (cf. above):

“But as (many) as received him, to them, to the (one)s trusting in his name, he gave the ability to become the children of God” (Jn 1:12)
“For as (many) as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14)

January 3: John 1:12-13, 14

John 1:12-13, 14

The prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18) is probably the most famous and distinctive exposition of the divine pre-existence of Jesus, and of his identity as the Son of God, anywhere in the New Testament. This familiarity belies the complexity of the passage, both from a literary and theological standpoint. Most commentators have note the poetic, hymnic character of the prologue (most of it), and many consider it to have been a Jewish-Christian hymn which the author adapted. If so, then the substance of the prologue pre-dates the Johannine Gospel itself, which is generally regarded as the latest of the four Gospels (c. 90 A.D.), though containing many earlier traditions.

The prologue differs from the Gospel proper in a number of ways, with the poetic verses (and strophes) distinguished from the several prose statements (by the Gospel writer). The main additions by the author would seem to be the two statements regarding John the Baptist (vv. 6-9, 15), which function as comments, likely in response to adherents of the Baptist who viewed him as the Messiah, etc, instead of Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospel tradition is there such a pronounced contrast between John and Jesus (1:19-34; 3:22-30ff), with the Gospel declaring the superiority of Jesus in no uncertain terms.

Verses 13 and 17-18 are probably also explanatory statements by the Gospel writer that have been added to the earlier hymn; these statements enhance the theological and Christological dimension of the poem. If, indeed, the bulk of the prologue represents a pre-existing hymn, or poem, it would seem to reflect Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom traditions that have been applied to the person of Jesus Christ. In this regard, it is similar in style and tone with two other Christological ‘hymns’ in the New Testament—Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4 (cf. the previous note)—and may have been written at about the same time (c. 60-70). In his now-classic Commentary on the Gospel of John, Raymond E. Brown, following the work of earlier scholars, divides the poetic prologue into four parts or strophes (pp. 3-4), which I have further annotated here:

    • Strophe 1 (vv. 1-2)—Pre-existence: The Son (as the Word) with God in eternity
    • Strophe 2 (vv. 3-5)—Creation by the Word of God, which is also the Light
    • Strophe 3 (vv. 10-12a)—Response of humankind to the Word/Light
    • Strophe 4 (vv. 14, 16)—The presence of the incarnate Word with humankind (believers)

According to this sequence, the third strophe (vv. 10-12a) describes the entry of the Word (lo/go$) into the world (ko/smo$). While this alludes to the incarnation of Christ, it is not limited to that historical phenomenon. Rather, the orientation is wider, reflecting traditions regarding the presence of God’s Wisdom in the world; in particular, verses 10-11 draw upon the theme of Wisdom seeking a place among human beings on earth and finding none (cf. 1 Enoch 42:2). Since Jesus is the eternal Word/Wisdom of God, this traditional language and imagery is entirely appropriate:

“He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, and (yet) the world did not know him. Unto his own (thing)s he came, and his own (people) did not receive him alongside.” (vv. 10-11)

Only a few (the wise) accept Wisdom, even as only the righteous few accept the Word of God. Within the Johannine writings, this is understood in terms of what we would call election—that is, there are those who belong to God, chosen by Him, and it is they who are able to accept the Truth. Those who belong to God the Father, and who accept His truth, will be drawn to Jesus the Son, and will accept him (cf. 3:20-21; 18:37, etc). This theology underlies the statement in v. 12a:

“But as (many) as received him, he gave to them the e)cousi/a to become offspring of God”

The Word gives to the elect (i.e. those who receive him) the ability to become the offspring, or children, of God. Again, this is only realized within the Gospel context of the ministry of Jesus and the presence/work of the Spirit. The noun e)cousi/a, difficult to translate in English, refers (literally) to something which comes out of a person’s being, i.e., something one is able to do. To give e)cousi/a thus means giving someone the ability to do something, often in the sense of authority given by a superior to one who is subordinate. Verse 12b-13, which may represent an explanatory comment by the Gospel writer, expounds the idea of believers as the children (or offspring, te/kna, lit. those produced) of God:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one)s who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, came to be (born).”

This is a uniquely Johannine way of describing believers (“the ones trusting”), using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”). In the First Letter, the verb occurs 10 times, always (with just one exception) in the special sense of believers being born out of God; especially important is the articular (perfect) participle, used to define the identity of the believer— “the (one) having come to be born out of God” (3:9; 5:1, 4, 18). Only with the aorist participle in 5:1 is it used of Jesus, as the one born out of God (i.e., the Son); that peculiar usage is presumably meant to emphasize Jesus’ Sonship as the basis for our own (as children of God). The main Gospel passage expressing this is Jn 3:3-8, where the verb occurs 8 times. Here, coming to be born “out of God” (e)k tou= qeou=) is defined two-fold as being born “from above” (a&nwqen, v. 3) and “out of the Spirit” (e)k tou= pneu/mato$, vv. 6, 8). Being born “out of the Spirit” is contrasted with an ordinary human birth (“out of water”); there is a similar (three-fold) contrast with being born “out of God” in 1:13:

    • “not out of blood [pl. bloods]” —in the Semitic idiom, the plural usually refers to “acts of blood(shed)”, but here it may indicate the more general physiological idea of “actions involving (the) blood” (i.e., menstruation, etc)
    • “not out of the will of the flesh” —the will of the flesh signifies primarily the sexual drive
    • “not out of the will of man” —i.e., the intention and activity of the parent(s)

These three, taken together, refer to the ordinary (physical/biological) birth of human beings; this is very different from the spiritual birth of believers as sons/children of God. Interestingly, the only time in the Gospel when the verb genna/w is used of Jesus (in 18:37) it generally refers to his birth as human being; this is also the sense of what follows in 1:14 (using the related verb gi/nomai):

“And the Word came to be [e)ge/neto] flesh and put down (his) tent among us, and we looked (closely) at his splendor—(the) splendor as (the) only (one) coming to be [monogenh/$] (from) alongside (the) Father, full of favor and truth.”

This is the climactic moment of the Prologue (the poem), describing the incarnation of the eternal Word, i.e. his birth as a human being. This birth is implied by the specific wording, especially the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), from which also the compound adjective monogenh/$ is essentially derived. The adjective is notoriously difficult to translate in English; literally, it means “only (one) coming to be”, and, while it can refer to an only child, it more properly denotes something like “one of a kind”. Here, it refers to the incarnate Word (Jesus) as the unique Son (ui(o/$) of God. Indeed, in the Johannine writings, ui(o/$ is never used of believers; it is reserved for the one Son (Jesus), and, instead, the plural te/kna (“offspring, children”) is used when referring to believers as the sons/children of God.

The Johannine Prologue, especially with the concluding verses 14-18, represents the pinnacle of the expression of early Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God, blending the doctrines of divine pre-existence and incarnation together in the most powerful way, within the matrix of Jewish Wisdom tradition (cp. 1:14 with Sirach 24:8ff). It is also most remarkable how the Gospel writer, in developing and expounding his traditional material, combines the idea of believers as the sons/children of God with that of Jesus as the unique Son. This is very much a Johannine emphasis (in both the Gospel and Letters), but one also shared by Paul (in his Letters), indicating that it was a part of a natural development in early Christian thought. It is this that we will explore further in the next note—how early Christians understood believers in Christ to be born as “sons of God”.

* * * * * * *

The reference to the birth of believers in 1:12-13 was apparently confusing, and/or problematic, for many readers and copyists. Some early witnesses (primarily Latin) read the singular in v. 13 instead of the plural, beginning with the relative pronoun (o%$) and including the form of the verb genna/w; thus vv. 12b-13 would be translated as follows:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one) who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, came to be (born).”

The entire relative clause would then refer back to the subject of “his name”, rather than to “the ones trusting”, that is, to the birth of Jesus, rather than the spiritual birth of believers. The distinction was not lost on Tertullian, who accepted the singular as original, and accused Gnostics of altering the text to eliminate the idea of Jesus’ miraculous birth, replacing it with their own ‘spiritual’ birth (as gnostics), cf. On the Flesh of Christ 19. Tertullian, however, is almost certainly mistaken on this textual point, the reading with the singular being instead an example of an “orthodox corruption” (cf. B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture [Oxford: 1993], pp. 26-27). To be sure, it is understandable how the variant reading might come to be reasonably well-establish, offering as it does support for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, and perhaps, at the same time, reflecting a certain unease among the orthodox regarding the identification of believers as the sons/children of God. I have discussed this in more detail in earlier notes.