It is called “the Great Commission”, is cited as a proof of the Trinity, and is a standard verse used in many a sermon:
Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. (Matthew 28:19-20)
But as I said in Original Christianity Did Everything in the Name of Jesus [Christ], the verse is an oddity because it is the sole verse in the bible that directly says to do anything in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit whereas there are many verses that direct believers to baptize, and in fact, do everything, in the name of Jesus Christ.
Matthew 28:19-20 makes a number of points:
- The disciples are charged to go to the nations
- Disciples are to make disciples everywhere they go
- New disciples are to be baptized
- The baptism is to be made in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
- Disciples are to be taught the things that Jesus taught
- Jesus is with the believers until the end of the world
What is disputed is whether Jesus said points three to six at this time. Now there are other places where it says that new believers are to be washed (baptized) but in Jesus’ name only, that disciples are to be taught what the Lord says, and that Jesus would be with the believers until the end. So what is especially being questioned here is whether Jesus charged that new believers were to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The “baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is next seen in Ignatius’s Epistle of Ignatius to the Philippians. [i] Ignatius was reputed to have sat on the lap of the Savior, although the Epistle was written in the next century, some time after the death of the original Apostles.
Then it takes another half century to see another reference to this command and reference to it being carried out (See 01.3.2.1 Justin Martyr Itemizes 2nd Century Baptism and Worship Practices That He Says Were Handed down From Christ’s Post Resurrection Instruction). Justin says that Lord instructed the disciples to follow the practice as outlined in Matthew 28:19 and that is what was done until his time.
So what is the story about this verse? Is it a forgery? If you look at an Interlinear you will not see any variations to this verse listed that give us strong proof to conclude that the command to baptize this way was forged. So most scholars don’t even discuss possible alternatives to this verse because they say there is no textual evidence to the contrary.
However, that is not exactly true. Writers for quite some time have been addressing the fact that there are early church writers that refer to this verse without the “baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” wording including Eusebius, Justin Martyr, and others. In fact, there is an article on this available on the Internet written by Frederic C. Conybeare in 1901! [ii] Conybeare, unfortunately, is almost ridiculed for his attempts to address this matter by Orthodox theologians. Actually, when I think about it though, it doesn’t seem uncommon for theologians to belittle other writers when they offer opposing viewpoints so maybe it should just be considered part of the territory.
In Conybeare’s article, he documents that Eusebius referred to Matthew 28:19 twenty-four times without using “baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” One criticism of his work is that people refer to parts of verses all the time. Obviously using just part of a verse does not automatically mean that the rest of the verse does not exist. But, the problem with that criticism is that Eusebius quotes the gospel of Matthew 28:19 with the words before and after “baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and instead of the Trinitarian wording it has “in my name”: “Go and make disciples of all nations in my name , teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Another wording Eusebius uses is:
These citations using the wording “Go and make disciples of all nations in my name” definitely suggest that there were earlier manuscripts of Matthew 28:19 with this wording.
And Conybeare’s argument seems to have more validity when you consider the oddity of Matthew 28:19 giving a command to use wording that is contrary to the wording used in Acts and other places in the New Testament.
There is more to this problem. There are a number of places where it describes Jesus post-resurrection words to his followers including in:
- Matthew 28:16-20
- Mark 16:15-18
- Luke 24:44-49
- Acts 1:4-8
Admittedly all these sections do not automatically refer to the same time and place although it looks probable that Luke and Acts appear to be records of the same event.
The problem I mentioned is that only Matthew and Mark mention baptism. So, if Mark’s words are legitimate then it would be ratification that at least Jesus did talk about baptism:
He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that disbelieveth shall be condemned. (Mark 16:16)
But, this verse also does not appear in a lot of the texts. (See Examples of Scribal Forgeries in the Bible.) Now we see that the only two post-resurrection places in the New Testament where it says that Jesus talked about baptism have indications of forgery. So it does appear more likely that some scribe(s) added some verbiage to Matthew and Mark promoting the importance of baptism also adding the supposedly theologically superior wording found in Matthew.
Lastly, we have the issue of biblical interpretation based on verses that are different than other verses. The general rule is that it is bad interpretation to take one or a few verses and elevate them above many clear verses on a subject. But that is what appears to have been done. The Roman Catholics took this verse, and later references such as Ignatius and Justin Martyr’s references as discussed above, and made a doctrine out of it. In the process, they appear to ignore the teaching and example in the rest of the book of the New Testament. (Catholics promote the concept that not all things are in the scripture and allow for some authority in the Church Fathers’ writings thus giving them a status that, though not quite equal to scripture, can be compared to that of scripture. This is one of the issues of the Reformation.) Also I have heard Catholic teaching that there is no difference between “in the name of Jesus Christ” and “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
So, summing up we have this verse, Matthew 28:19, that has no variations in existing manuscripts, but has the following issues:
- Matthew 28:19 is referenced by Eusebius (and others) twenty odd times without the part about being baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit; instead the references use the words “in my name.”
- The only other somewhat parallel scripture talking about baptism, Mark 16:16, is suspect that it ever was a part of Mark’s gospel.
- The command to baptize in the manner of Matthew 28:19 is never carried out in scripture.
- The Eusebius version “Go ye, and make disciples of all nations in my name” is carried out in scripture.
- This verse became the standard of the Catholic Church because they say that not all things the Lord taught are in scripture and perhaps this is one of those examples. This verse, and not the biblical standard (of using the name of Jesus Christ) apparently became the standard from the second century on to the Reformation.
At this point there almost certainly will not be any changes to the text of Matthew 28:19 without the discovery of more manuscript evidence that shows alternate wording, but after looking at the evidence the legitimacy of Matthew 28:19 as it is currently listed appears far less certain.
[i] The Epistle of Ignatius to the Philippians, Chapter II.—Unity of the three divine persons, available at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.v.xvii.ii.html
[ii] http://www.godglorified.com/Conybeare%201901.pdf This GodGlorified site has a very interesting page showing the pros and cons whether baptism should be included in Matthew 28:19
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