In part 1 of this little series on middle voice and βαπτίζω, we laid out the main lines of investigation. Both Thecla and Paul have a time when their baptism is described using the middle voice: Paul recounts it as such and it is a possibility for Thecla, as the verb form is ambiguous but context seems to favor a middle. We also noted that there are difficulties trying to untie the significance of voice in the verb βαπτίζω, not just because the role of the Greek middle voice is complicated to begin with, but also because the word βαπτίζω is complicated. It has a dedicated cultic usage in Christian writers which, for modern readers, largely excludes a reflexive meaning as an obvious understanding. However, we pulled some evidence from the Septuagint that a cultic-neutral usage of βαπτίζω in the middle voice can be translated as a reflexive in English. This does not mean that it is best described as a reflexive in Greek, though. I closed by noting that the passages cited from Acts of Paul and Thecla, Acts, and the Septuagint, all shared one thing in common: none of them mention an external agent in the text. Borrowing from Mathewson’s recent work on voice, this lack of an external agent is the core feature of the Greek middle—the event is viewed as “self-caused” (the causality for the event is “within” the verb rather than attributable to some other element; for example “the boat sailed”, in English).

In this post, I want to look at some other evidence gathered from a few Koine writers about the usage of the middle voice of βαπτίζω to see if they shed light on whether it is best to understand it as reflexive or not. At the outset, we can note that the middle voice forms of this verb are not entirely common, but they do exist.

Hippolytus (AD 170 – 235)

The first witness here appears in the writings of a certain Hippolytus (AD 170 – 235). Naturally, he postdates the NT, though is from right around the same times as the Acts of Paul and Thecla would have originated. This puts Hippolytus as a prime witness for the question of middle voice and baptism in this time period.

The Acts of Paul was likely composed AD 150-200. The Acts of Paul and Thecla is a subsection of this larger work which circulated independently. For a brief introduction, check this out.

In his work Against All Heresies, Hippolytus discusses the heretical teaching of a certain Elchasai. Of interest here is the instruction on baptism, in which middle voice imperatives pop up on a few occasions (Translations here are from J.H. MacMahon. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.), unless otherwise noted).[1]

  • 9.15.1-2 βαπτισάσθω ἐκ δευτέρου ἐν ὀνόματι τοῦ μεγάλου καὶ ὑψίστου θεοῦ καὶ ἐν ὀνόματι <τοῦ> υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ, <τοῦ> μεγάλου βασιλέως, <καὶ> καθαρισάσθω καὶ ἁγνευσάτω
  • (chp 10) let him be baptized a second time in the name of the Great and Most High God, and in the name of His Son, the Mighty King. And by baptism let him be purified and cleansed

And again,

  • 9.15.4-5 ἐν αὐτῇ τῇ ὥρᾳ δραμέτω σὺν παντὶ τῷ φορέματι <αὐτοῦ> καὶ καταβὰς εἰς ποταμὸν ἢ εἰς πηγήν, ὅπου ἐὰν ᾖ τόπος βαθύς, βαπτισάσθω <σὺν> παντὶ τῷ φορέματι αὐτοῦ, καὶ προσευξάσθω τῷ μεγάλῳ καὶ ὑψίστῳ θεῷ ἐν καρδίας πίστει.
  • (chp 10) in the same hour let such a one run with all their wearing apparel, and go down to a river or to a fountain wherever there is a deep spot.  Let (him or her) be dipped with all their wearing apparel, and offer supplication to the Great and Most High God in faith of heart

And again,

  • 9.15.6 ταῦτα οὖν εἰπὼν βαπτισάσθω <πάλιν> σὺν παντὶ τῷ φορέματι αὐτοῦ ἐν ὀνόματι τοῦ μεγάλου καὶ ὑψίστου θεοῦ».
  • (chp 10) Having uttered, therefore, these words, let such a one be baptized with the entire of his wearing apparel in the name of the Mighty and Most High God.

The context of these passages indicates that the cultic act of baptism is in view, so Hippolytus is talking about the same thing as Paul and as Thecla. Part of the heresy under discussion is this act of “second baptism.” In terms of causality, it is evident in all three passages that there is no external agent present. This does not mean that there is not an assumed “baptizer,” so cannot be taken as proof positive that the middle is reflexive here: “let him/her baptize himself a second time.” The point under dispute by Hippolytus in this passage is not the way in which baptism is administered, but “second baptism” (as well as some other stuff not relevant here). Thus, he is not specifically arguing about self-baptism vs. being baptized by another. There is one possible clue in the passage that Elchasai’s heretical baptismal practice involved normal baptism:

  • Τὸ μὲν οὖν <δεύτερον> βάπτισμα τοῖς ἀπ’ αὐτ(οῦ) (γενομ)ένοις οὕτως παραδίδωσι, τοιάδε λέγων τοῖς ἀπατωμένοις·
  • To those, then, that have been orally instructed by him, he dispenses baptism in this manner, addressing to his dupes some such words as the following.

παραδίδωμι usually means something more like “taught (a doctrine), passed on (teaching/practice/story),” rather than how the translator has handled it here as “dispensed (baptism).” Assuming he is on the right track, the entire discussion of second baptism would be prefaced by the notion that Elchasai is the one who baptizes his followers. This seems a sensible assumption, in any case. This would suggest that the middle in these above passages is not reflexive, since there would be an external agent–Elchasai.

We can’t, though, make too much of this, as the textual tradition is not clear. A further passage occurring right in the midst of this discussion also complicates things:

  • 9.15.3 [καὶ] βαπτίσθητε ἐκ δευτέρου σὺν τοῖς ἐνδύμασιν <ὑμῶν ἐν ὀνόματι τοῦ μεγάλου καὶ ὑψίστου θεοῦ>
  • (chp 10)  and be baptized a second time along with your garments, shall peace be yours, and your portion with the just

Here, a passive imperative of βαπτίζω pops up without any obvious distinction in meaning from the middle voice imperatives around it. This does not mean there is no distinction, but there is no profound difference between the two voice forms which context here makes clear.

Hippolytus’ evidence is not entirely clear regarding what, if anything, distinguishes the middle and passive imperatives. Assuming the texts we have are accurate, there are three instances with a middle imperative, βαπτισάσθω, and one with a passive imperative, βαπτίσθητε. Perhaps the fact that all three middle forms are 3rd person imperatives is significant. At the least, we can see that in Hippolytus’ writings a middle form of βαπτίζω is at home in a context where no agent is (immediately) in view. The entire context seems to imply the person in question is receiving baptism at the hands of someone else, rather than administering baptism upon themself. On this reading, there is an external agent present in the context which can easily be recovered to serve as the implied agent in a passive construction. If the assumption that Elchasai is the baptizer in his teaching about baptism is correct, then the variation between middle and passive could be significant and intentional.

A different line of evidence emerges in the writings of a later Church Father, John Chrysostom. Here we are able to directly interrogate the question of what a reflexive meaning of βαπτίζω would look like.

Other Evidence: βαπτίζω with a reflexive pronoun

One way to look at how the middle voice works in the verb βαπτίζω, especially as it relates to the semantic notion of reflexivity, is to search around to see if it ever occurs with a reflexive pronoun. The most common way to communicate a reflexive idea in Koine Greek (and even before that)—“I do X to myself”—is to use an active voice verb and a reflexive pronoun.[2] Following this line of investigation, I searched the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae for instances where βαπτίζω occurs in close proximity to some form of the reflexive pronoun. After filtering out instances where there are clause or phrase boundaries which indicate the verb and reflexive pronoun are not working together, It turns out that this usage does pop up in a few places. The most helpful of these will be an example from John Chrysostom (347-407). While later than ideal for serving as evidence of the voice system in the NT, he is still a Koine Greek writer and has left significant literary remains which allow us to look at his usage of βαπτίζω more broadly.

John Chrysostom (AD 347 – 407)

The best passage for the question at hand occurs in Chrysostom’s discussion of the baptism of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Here, speaking in the voice of John the Baptist, Chrysostom says:

  • Εἰ θέλεις βαπτισθῆναι, ἑαυτὸν βάπτισον. Οὐκ ἐκτείνω τὰς χεῖρας·[3]
  • If you wish to be baptized, baptize yourself! I am not going to reach forth my hands (to baptize you).

Context is important. As Chrysostom presents things, the Baptist’s remark here is not about whether Jesus should be baptized, but is aimed at excusing himself from involvement. The Baptist is attempting to remove himself from the action of baptism. In other words, the question here is very much about the agency of the act of baptism: “who is going to be the direct cause (the agent) of Jesus’ baptism, John or Jesus?” Jesus has put the agency on John the Baptist by coming to him for baptism. John the Baptist, in Chrysostom’s words, says that Jesus should be both the agent and recipient of the act of baptism. He does not want to/deserve to be involved. When Chrysostom has the need to communicate reflexivity here—Jesus as both the agent and recipient of the act of baptism—he does not turn to the middle voice (though this verb has middle imperatives which are used), rather he turns to the normal pattern of an active voice verb with a reflexive pronoun. This indicates that, for Chrysostom at least, the middle voice of βαπτίζω was not reflexive in meaning. It was something other than reflexive. Since Chrysostom uses active and passive voice forms as well, and in line with common voice patterns we see in the NT, we can say with reasonable confidence that this something differed from active and from passive meanings.[4]

Now, this is one passage and is later than we would like it to be for NT Greek questions.[5] What we see, though, is that the instances where Chrysostom uses a middle voice indicative are nicely accounted for by the notion of a lack of external agent/cause in the text. For example, consider this passage:[6]

  • Ποῖον οὖν ἐβαπτίσατο; Οὔτε τὸ Ἰουδαϊκὸν, οὔτε τὸ ἡμέτερον, ἀλλὰ τὸ Ἰωάννου.
  • In what manner, therefore, was he baptized? Not the Jewish way, nor our way, but John’s way.

Adopting Mathewson’s notion of agency/causality, we can easily explain this sort of usage of the middle as indicating that the subject, Jesus, is not the agent nor is there any external agent present in the text. The verbal notion of “baptism” took place within the medium of Jesus, but he is not presented as causing it. In short, what is significant here is the fact that Jesus was baptized, not by whom.

If Chrysostom represents a general continuity in voice usage with the NT on this point—and it is not crazy to suggest he does—then we see evidence that βαπτίζω behaves like most verbs:

  • active voice — conveys the subject is the Agent/causes the action of the verb
  • middle voice — subject is involved in and affected by the action, but not causally responsible
  • passive voice — subject is affected by the action with a clear external agent which is causally responsible
  • reflexive — the subject performs the action of the verb upon himself/herself/itself

The first three are shown by morphological voice distinctions. The last one does not have a dedicated form; rather, it is part of syntax, with an active voice indicating the subject is the agent and a reflexive pronoun indicating the subject is also recipient of the action.

Assorted Other (and late?) Evidence for Reflexive use of βαπτίζω

Alongside Chrysostom, there are at least two other places where we see a form of βαπτίζω used with a reflexive pronoun. This at least confirms that the usage was broader than one individual and made sense to other writers. The problem with these pieces of evidence, though, is that one is late (AD 900-1000) and the other is in a collection of scholia, thus having an uncertain date. I include the following two here for the sake of interest.

Discussing the passage in Acts of Paul and Thecla which triggered this whole series of blog posts, we have one late entry, from a certain Arethas (AD 9-10). This is too late to weigh as serious evidence, but it is interesting nonetheless:

  • ὅτι καὶ Θέκλα ἡ Παύλου μαθήτρια οὐχ ἑαυτὴν μόνον ἐβάπτισεν, ἀλλά γε δὴ καὶ ἄλλους.[7]
  • for also Thecla, the disciple of Paul, did not baptize herself alone, but also others.

Arethas was familiar with the story of Paul and Thecla, including her unique baptism. Of course, we can’t know whether he was familiar with a version like the one we read that had an ambiguous middle-passive voice form, but his rendering suggests that was the case. What is clear is that Arethas presents the situation with Thecla as the agent of her own baptism. We can’t weigh much on this data point, given that Arethas is well into the Byzantine Greek period and any handling of this evidence requires a much greater knowledge of Byzantine Greek than I possess. The text is interesting, though, by virtue of being a commentary of sorts on the very text that spawned this investigation.

Second, we find a passage in a certain Scholion in Aratum (scholia are basically commentaries). This scholion was written on a work of a certain Aratus, a 4th century BC poet. It is thus possible that this passage even predates Koine Greek, but at least that it is a good exemplar of Koine. The following line appears in a section describing the swimming and bathing habits of crows or ravens (the bird names could also refer to certain sea birds, but their precise identity is not relevant for now):

  • πολλάκις δὲ καὶ ἐν ποταμῷ ἀπὸ κεφαλῆς ἕως ἄκρων τῶν ὤμων ἐβάπτισεν ἑαυτήν·[8]
  • Oftentimes in the river it dips/bathes/”baptizes” itself from head to shoulders

This passage is most interesting because it has zero cultic connotations whatsoever. When the scholiast wrote this, apparently the proper way to use βαπτίζω to indicate a reflexive action was to use an active form with a reflexive pronoun. Unfortunately, we have no idea when this was written (or at least I have no idea; maybe someone, somewhere has a reasonable guess). If it could be dated within the Koine period, it would be quite valuable evidence supporting that the middle voice of βαπτίζω tended not to be used in a reflexive sense.

And on to the final post…

This post has already become quite long. In the next post, I will wrap up this discussion of the middle voice and self-baptism, tying together the different lines of evidence and considering what it means for how the middle voice works, how it works with βαπτίζω in particular, and what significance that has for understanding Thecla and Paul.


[1] Translations here are from J.H. MacMahon. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.), unless otherwise noted.

[2] Smyth, sec. 1723 writes “instead of the direct middle the active voice with the reflexive pronoun is usually employed; often of difficult and unnatural actions.” A.T. Robertson, in his usual perceptive manner, points out that framing the issue as the active + reflexive pronoun standing in for the middle is not necessary and may be misleading (pg. 802). I think he has hit upon a key point in noting that reflexivity is not inherent to the middle voice, thus we should not simply equate the active + reflexive pronoun with the middle voice. They cover different ground and only overlap in a few areas.

[3] From JOANNES CHRYSOSTOMUS, In sanctam theophaniam seu baptismum Christi [Sp.]. {2062.136}, Vol 50, page 806, line 58.

[4] Whether we count three or two distinct voices in the Koine Greek verbal system, we still have to account for the usage of the distinct morphological forms.

[5] There is another passage in Chyrsostom’s homilies on Hebrews that could be relevant (JOANNES CHRYSOSTOMUS, In epistulam ad Hebraeos (homiliae 1-34). {2062.168}. Volume 63, page 70, line 29): Ὁ τοίνυν δεύτερον ἑαυτὸν βαπτίζων, πάλιν αὐτὸν σταυροῖ (“Now whoever baptizes himself a second time, he crucifies him again”). However, the presence of ἐαυτόν is judged a secondary insertion not fitting the context by the translator, thus I will ignore this passage. See the translations in Philip Schaff’s Ante-Niceane Fathers collection here.

[6] JOANNES CHRYSOSTOMUS, De baptismo Christi. {2062.029}, Vol. 49, page 367, line 51-53.

[7] ARETHAS, Scripta minora (praecipue e cod. Mosq. Hist. Mus. gr. 315). {2130.033}. AD 9-10.

[8] SCHOLIA IN ARATUM, Scholia in Aratum (scholia vetera). {5013.001}, scholion 951, line 10-11.