Following along with my recent thinking about voice, I want to discuss an interesting passage I noted in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. In 34.3, we find the following:

  • καὶ ἔβαλεν ἑαυτὴν λέγουσα Ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ὑστέρᾳ ἡμέρᾳ βαπτίζομαι.
  • And (Thecla) threw herself (into the water), saying “In the name of Jesus Christ βαπτίζομαι on my last day.”

What caught my eye here is how to understand the form βαπτίζομαι. It is formally ambiguous, being either middle or passive since there is no morphological voice distinction in the present imperfective verb forms.[1] A further important piece of information from the context is relevant. At this point, Thecla, the heroine of our tale, is by herself in the arena facing certain death. She is undertaking an action of self-devotion to Jesus. That she is acting alone and with regards to herself is clear in the ἔβαλεν ἑαυτὴν “she threw herself (into the water)” which appears at the beginning of the verse.

As noted in a prior post, most verbs form a reflexive notion using an active voice + reflexive pronoun. βαπτίζω, being a verb that can be used for washing, falls within the set of verbs where the verbal semantics render the middle voice form of the verb to have a reflexive meaning (verbs of grooming such as λύομαι, “I wash myself”). In principle, it is possible that βαπτίζομαι in this text is reflexive: “I baptize myself in the name of Jesus Christ on my last day.” So, the question here is, how to understand the verbal voice associated with the lexeme βαπτίζω.

This question takes on something of a more specific interest to those interested in NT Greek when we further consider that in Acts the middle voice pops up in one of Paul’s discussions of his baptism. Acts 22.16 reads:

  • καὶ νῦν τί μέλλεις; ἀναστὰς βάπτισαι καὶ ἀπόλουσαι τὰς ἁμαρτίας σου ἐπικαλεσάμενος τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ.
  • And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name. (NIV)

The NIV rendering here is representative. Paul is recounting when Ananias came to visit him in Damascus after he had been struck blind. God heals him through Ananias, who then tells him to “get up, βάπτισαι, and wash your sins away…” As you may recognize, the imperative βάπτισαι, is an aorist middle imperative. So, does Ananias tell Paul here to “go baptize yourself”? This is one possible nuance of the middle (though restricted to only a few types of verbs). Or, does he indicate that Paul is somehow involved in/benefits from the action in a special way (an indirect reflexive use of the middle voice?

When we look elsewhere in Acts, we do not get this question immediately answered as nowhere are we clearly told who baptized Paul, if anyone else.

In Acts 9.18 we are told καὶ ἀναστὰς ἐβαπτίσθη “and getting up, he was baptized,” but there is no agent clearly given. The most logical inference from the context is that Ananias baptizes Paul, but this is just inference.

Aiming to sidestep all the myriad usual debates about baptism, these two texts are an interesting entry point into thinking about voice and how it relates to a core Christian practice: baptism.

Clearing the ground: Some observations

Before digging into some different texts and working through the way that βαπτίζω is used in different voices, some ground clearing is in order. A significant part of the difficulty in discussing voice in the verb βαπτίζω is that this verb comes to have very specific cultic significance in Christian writers. Indeed, this cultic connotation is so strong that we to this day continue to use the transliteration “baptize” rather than an English equivalent denoting the meaning of the Greek word. This technical sense becomes a problem because it conditions us in what we expect the Greek verb to mean, and thus in what attempted translations of the Greek we will accept as allowable.

There are extensive debates on the meaning of the word βαπτίζω, because of its cultic significance and the subsequent debates among Christian groups about the proper mode of baptism. Because of these debates, it is probably impossible to opt for a translation other than “baptize” in a Bible translation which intends to have readership in any but a niche audience. For an informed discussion of the meaning of βαπτίζω in the NT and Second Temple context, see I. Howard Marshall, “The Meaning of the Verb ‘Baptize,’” in Dimensions of Baptism: Biblical and Theological Studies, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Anthony R. Cross, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 234 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 8–24.

For example, in most contexts “he baptized himself” does not sound legitimate to a Christian reader (or any reader familiar with the cultic act of baptism). We would expect such a meaning to occur with special indications in the text and not just as a normal voice variation in the verb. Because this sounds wrong based on our theological practice, it makes it more difficult to think whether it is a valid understanding of the text. Since the core question I want to think about here with regard to the middle voice of βαπτίζω is whether it is reflexive or not, this reactionary rejection of a possibility is a problem.

It is possible that the middle voice of βαπτίζω was used with a reflexive notion (other verbs of washing can be so used, so it fits within the general lexical categories of verbs where a reflexive middle pops up, though this does not demand that its middle is reflexive). We at least can’t rule that possibility out at the beginning. Beside the pure possibility, there is some reasonable evidence of middle forms of βαπτίζω carrying a reflexive sense. So we have to do some work trying to understand how the verb functions within the logic of the Greek language while trying to keep our theologically freighted understanding of the subsequent meaning of the word out of the investigation as much as possible at the beginning.

This difficulty relating to the technical and cultic nature of the verb βαπτίζω is not unique for us alone. In Ancient Greek writing it was used with a general meaning of “bathe,” so Christian writers likely existed in a context where the verb βαπτίζω had a non- or less-technical meaning outside of Christian circles and a very technical cultic meaning within Christian circles. It is possible that the voice variations in the verb differed in significance depending on which context the verb was used in. This is all speculative but meant to get us thinking about the issue in a complicated way (because it is complicated).

In this post we will look at a couple examples from the Septuagint (LXX) where a middle form of βαπτίζω is used. This will serve as a sort of sounding board to help us in the next post look more specifically at the use of the verb in Christian cultic contexts.

Notes on Acts of Paul and Thecla

Acts of Paul and Thecla 34.3, again, reads:

  • καὶ ἔβαλεν ἑαυτὴν λέγουσα Ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ὑστέρᾳ ἡμέρᾳ βαπτίζομαι.
  • And she threw herself (into the water) saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ I am baptized/I baptize myself(?) on my last day.”

The cultic significance of the act is clear: Thecla is making an act of Christian devotion in the face of her certain death (from which God miraculously delivers her). Here we are faced with the difficulty of rendering the passage into English. There are, though, uses of the verb βαπτίζω in the middle voice which do not foist upon us the difficulty of “baptize” having cultic implications which make us reticent to see the middle voice as reflexive in meaning.

For instance, In Judith 12.7, there is little impetus to consider βαπτίζω as having particular cultic significance:

  • καὶ παρέμεινεν ἐν τῇ παρεμβολῇ ἡμέρας τρεῖς· καὶ ἐξεπορεύετο κατὰ νύκτα εἰς τὴν φάραγγα Βαιτυλουα καὶ ἐβαπτίζετο ἐν τῇ παρεμβολῇ ἐπὶ τῆς πηγῆς τοῦ ὕδατος·
  • And she remained in the camp for three days, and she went out each night into the ravine of Baitylou and bathed at the spring of water  (NETS translation; note, this does not render the ἐν τῇ παρεμβολῇ phrase, which is of no consequence)

While the notion of purity and Judith washing herself of association with the Gentiles certainly belongs here, there would be little reason to translate this text as “she baptized herself” as the cultic act of baptism is not at stake. “To bathe” can be considered sitting uneasily between a reflexive action like “wash myself” and an action carried out which affects the agent (when you “bathe” you are the one who gets “bathed”).

A second passage from the LXX is similar. In 2 Kings 5.14 we read:

  • καὶ κατέβη Ναιμαν καὶ ἐβαπτίσατο ἐν τῷ Ιορδάνῃ ἑπτάκι κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμα Ελισαιε, καὶ ἐπέστρεψεν ἡ σὰρξ αὐτοῦ ὡς σὰρξ παιδαρίου μικροῦ, καὶ ἐκαθαρίσθη.
  • And Naiman went down and immersed himself in the Jordan seven times, according to the word of Elisaie, and his flesh returned like the flesh of a small child, and he was cleansed.” (NETS translation).[2]

No one will likely quibble with the translation “immersed himself” here, as a direct reflexive understanding in English. Clearly this does not have a cultic act in view. The difficulty when we get into the NT and the early church writings is that “to baptize” takes on a technical sense that adds further complexity to the discussion.

Summary and forward glancing

These two passages from the LXX present what we could call a cultic-neutral use of the middle voice of βαπτίζω. In both these instances, a direct reflexive translation would work well in English (though certainly not demanded)—whether we choose “bathe” or “immerse” makes no difference. There are a few things to note, though, beyond how acceptable we feel a reflexive notion may be in English. After all, the question we are after is how to best understand how the Greek middle voice works, not how to best translate it into English (while these questions are obviously related, they are quite distinct and need to be kept distinct).

In the common description of the middle voice as a subject acting somehow in their own interest, these uses of middle voice from the LXX fit the bill. This does not answer whether they should be reflexive or not (though the semantic domain of bathing lends itself to reflexivity).

On Mathewson’s discussion of the voice system in Greek, we would focus rather on where causality lies in the action. As βαπτίζω is in the middle voice in both these texts, it is not marked for direct causality—the subject is not the agent. Further, that it is in the middle voice means it is not marked for external causality—there is no agent in the action that can be added with a “by so and so” phrase. The middle voice indicates that

“causality arises within the S + V complex, with the subject being in some way involved in and affected by the action (internal causality).”

David L. Mathewson, Voice and Mood: A Linguistic Approach, Essentials of Biblical Greek Grammar (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 36.

To my view, what this causality approach helpfully points out is something that all four of the texts we have touched briefly on share in common: they all lack an external agent. Whether we ultimately end up with a reflexive understanding of the middle voice of βαπτίζω, we can start with noting that its middle voice is normal. That is, what is going on in Acts of Paul and Thecla and in Paul’s discussion of his baptism appears to fit within a pattern in the use of βαπτίζω (and the middle voice more generally): there is no agent external to the action who is viewed as responsible for the action; the action is “internally-caused.” This suggests that the question of “who baptized Paul” or “who baptized Thecla” is looking at the wrong thing. The Greek middle voice explicitly does not answer that question. Whether we are talking about ‘bathing’ or ‘baptizing,’ the middle of βαπτίζω appears to follow the normal expectation of having no external agent in view.

With this in mind, the next post will take up the task of looking at the usage of βαπτίζω in a little broader frame to try to figure out how the voice system for this verb functioned within its cultic meaning.

[1] Assuming Koine Greek has a two-voice system, as many have recently argued, changes the question from “what voice is it” to “what semantic area of the middle-passive voice” does this action reside in? Either way, the question on how to understand it stays pretty much the same.

[2] This story is retold in MENOLOGII ANONYMI BYZANTINI, a 10th century Hagiography, as follows:

ἦλθεν οὖν ἐκεῖνος ἐν ἵππῳ καὶ ἅρματι καὶ ἔστη ἐπὶ θύραις Ἐλισσαιέ. ὁ δὲ πρὸς αὐτὸν ἄγγελον ἔστειλε λέγων· «Πορευθεὶς βάπτισαι ἑπτάκις ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ, καὶ ἐπιστρέψει σου ἡ σὰρξ καὶ καθαρισθήσῃ». ἐθυμώθη δὲ Νεεμὰν καὶ εἶπεν· «Ἰδοὺ δὴ ἔλεγον, ὅτι ἐξελεύσεται πρός με καὶ ἐπικαλέσεται κύριον τὸν Θεὸν καὶ ἐπιθήσει τὴν χεῖρα τούτου ἐπὶ τὸν τόπον, καὶ ἀποσυναχθήσεται τὸ λεπρόν. οὐχὶ ἀγαθοὶ Ἀρβανᾶ καὶ Φαρβᾶ ποταμοὶ Δαμασκοῦ ὑπὲρ τὸν Ἰορδάνην; οὐχὶ πορευθεὶς ἐν αὐτοῖς λούσομαι καὶ καθαρισθήσομαι;» καὶ ἀπῆλθεν ἐν θυμῷ. οἱ παῖδες οὖν αὐτοῦ λέγουσι πρὸς αὐτόν· «Εἰ μέγαν λόγον ἐλάλησεν ὁ προφήτης, οὐκ ἂν ἐποίησας; ὅτι δὲ εἶπέ σοι ‹Πορευθεὶς λοῦσαι καὶ καθαρίσθητι›, οὐ ποιήσεις αὐτό;» κατέβη οὖν καὶ ἐβαπτίσατο ἑπτάκις ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ.

Note that in this retelling, the middle imperative βάπτισαι appears instead of λοῦσαι which appears in the LXX (5.10). This may be a textual variant, or influenced by ἐβαπτίσατο which occurs in 5.14. I include this story mainly because I found it and it was interesting and I like reading things in Greek I have never read before.