HOUSMAIL HM#135 - Is Matthew 28:19 Authentic? March 2012
In our current English translations, Mathew 28:19 says that Baptism is to be performed
“in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’”
In contrast, baptisms recorded in the Acts of the Apostles are performed, variously, in the name of “Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38) or “the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:48) or “the Lord” (Acts 10:48) or “the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5)
(In passing we note that in a couple of other places, the Apostle Paul refers to “baptizing into Christ”. (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27) It should be noted carefully that this is not the same thing as “baptizing in the name of”. When a baptizer says “In the name of Jesus”, it means that he is claiming to perform the baptism, acting as an agent on behalf of Jesus. On the other hand when someone is “baptized into Christ” it means that he (or she) is entering into a corporate relationship with Jesus. That distinction, though valid, does not affect this current discussion about the authenticity of the passage in Matthew.)
Mainstream Christians see this passage in Matthew as an (alleged) “proof” of the doctrine of the Trinity. On the other hand, some Unitarians are embarrassed by its presence and wish it wasn’t there at all. Of course neither is correct. Unitarians need not be embarrassed. Rather they need to come to grips with its real meaning in a way which HARMONISES with other Scriptures. And Trinitarians have got it just plain wrong! There are plenty of other Scriptures which make it clear that the Bible does NOT support the Trinity. Matthew 28:19 must not be used to contradict them.
For many there is a second problem of a rather more serious nature. There are quite a few writers who claim that the “baptismal formula” in Matthew 28:19 is a spurious addition to the original text, and that it is wrong to use these words when conducting a baptism. They insist that the only correct words to be used during a baptism MUST be one of the several variations quoted above from “The Acts of the Apostles”. Some even go so far as to claim it is a SIN to use the words from Matthew, and that anyone so baptized is not really baptized at all! ……. And MUST be rebaptised …… using the correct words!!
That also is a serious misuse of the Scriptures. Mere outward forms can conceal an unrepentant heart! God looks deep into our hearts, to see what lies hidden behind those outward forms! He is much MORE concerned with the state of the heart of the person being baptized. And from a practical point of view, I fail to see how that can be affected by what any third party might say when he baptizes us!
After all, the several references in Acts are not universally consistent in the form of words they use. I suspect that the reference in Matthew is simply another more expansive variation in the way of saying the same thing! E.g. That the baptizer is acting – not under his own authority – but on behalf of a third party. The essential difference is that Matthew sees fit to remind us of something that is taken for granted in Acts – that at all times, Jesus speaks and acts under authority DELEGATED to him by his Father, and in same power of the Holy Spirit by which ALL God’s works are done. (Matthew 28:18; John 4:34; 5:19; 8:28; 14:10-11, 28; 17:4)
THE MANUSCRIPT EVIDENCE
The New Testament manuscripts are universally consistent. There is NOT ONE which contains an alternative reading of Matthew 28:19! And if the NT manuscripts are unanimous, there can be no possible SCRIPTURAL justification for any claim that it is not original.
One of the main (so called) justifications for the claim that the verse is spurious refers us to Eusebius, a 4th century Church writer and historian. It is claimed that in a number of places in his writings, Eusebius refers to this verse without including the words , “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
However this is not the whole story! It would seem much more likely, that in those places Eusebius is actually paraphrasing Matthew. There is also another place in his writings where Eusebius DOES quote the traditional phrase, from Mathew 28:19,verbatim!! (See his Letter to the People of His Diocese 3 [A.D. 323]).
OTHER EARLY WRITERS
There are other writers MUCH EARLIER than Eusebius, and much earlier than any NT Greek Manuscript, who quote the baptismal formula in the same words as Matthew. These include:
Justin Martyr (c. 100–165)
1st Apology Chapter LXI.—Christian baptism.
Irenaeus (c. 130–200)
Against Heresies Book 3 Chapter XVII:1
Tertullian, c. 200 AD
On Baptism, Chapter XIII
and in Against Praxeas, chapter 2
Hippolytus (170-236 AD)
Fragments: Part II.-Dogmatical and Historical.--Against the Heresy of One Noetus
Origen [A.D. 248]. 5:8
The Seventh Council of Carthage Under Cyprian
Gregory Thaumaturgus (205-265 AD)
A Sectional Confession of Faith, XIII
Victorinus (ca. 270-303)
Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John; First chapter
Tatian the Syrian (c. A.D. 170-175).
The Diatesseron Section LV
The Didache (mid to late 1st century)
1. There are a number of other early Christian writers, who predate Eusebius by as much as a couple of centuries, who all use the "Baptismal formula" in its Biblical form – “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” And there is no Greek NT manuscript which does not include it in that form.
This strongly suggests that it is much more likely to be authentic in Matthew 28:19 than not. And this means that we need to deal with it as it is, rather than try to find SPECULATIVE reasons to reject it.
And that means that it must not be read as contradicting the verbal variations in the Baptismal formula found in Acts. We must therefore deal with it in a way which HARMONISES with those readings from Acts.
2. A baptism is NOT made effective by any particular choice of words by the baptizer. It is ALL about what is in the heart of the person being baptized. (1 Pet. 3:21)
Indeed if we think that it is the precise words used by the baptizer that make a baptism effective, we are bordering dangerously close on WHITE MAGIC!! Remember what Moses said about that? (Deut. 18:10-12) And what they did about that at Corinth? (Acts 19:19)
I dare to suggest that neither particular form of words is essential. It would be quite possible to use alternative words to convey the same message – that the baptizer is acting as a stand-in for Jesus – who in turn, was acting under his Father’s authority. Indeed, perhaps we could even leave them out altogether – and concentrate more on what is supposed to be happening in the heart of the person being baptized.
If we must use a “baptismal formula” at all, it shouldn’t really matter whether the person doing the baptizing claims the authority of the (collective) “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, or just “Jesus”. They do effectively mean the same thing! It is quite futile to argue that one should take preference over the other. Jesus never claimed to be acting solely on his own authority. He made it quite plain that he was acting FOR his Father, with complete authority from his Father to do so. And when we act “in the name of Jesus”, it is implicit that the Father is the primary source of any authority delegated to us by Jesus.