In Post 1 of this series, I outlined the basic issues of a couple interesting uses of a middle voice form of βαπτίζω, one in Acts of Paul and Thecla and one in the more familiar book Acts. The main take away from post one was the need to take into consideration the complexities of the lexeme βαπτίζω, as it has both a distinct cultic use (the act of baptism) and a generic use (to wash/bathe): the former defaults to involving two parties, the later appears to default to a reflexive like notion of “wash myself.”
In post 2, I pulled in some evidence from Hippolytus and John Chrysostom, two Church Fathers. Hippolytus was contemporary with Acts of Paul and Thecla, but his testimony was not entirely enlightening. The main piece that is helpful is—assuming the extant texts are good—it appears that there is not a major difference for Hippolytus between the passive and middle voice. These both can be used in a context which assumes that there is both a baptizer and someone being baptized. In other words, the middle voice does not appear reflexive.
The evidence from John Chrysostom is later than desirable for arguing about the value of the voices in earlier Koine, but he leaves enough evidence to demonstrate that his general usage of βαπτίζω with the different voices appears to be in line with how it is used in earlier texts. Chrysostom is helpful in that he gives us a clear example where the reflexive meaning “baptize yourself” is conveyed not through a middle voice imperative (the form we have in Acts 22.16), but through an active voice imperative and a reflexive pronoun. This suggests that, for Chrysostom, the middle voice of βαπτίζω is not to be understood as reflexive, at least regularly. Other instances where he uses the middle voice confirm this. Chrysostom can describe Jesus’ baptism using a middle voice. There is no question that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, so we know that Chrysostom is not using the middle reflexively. Rather, it appears he uses the middle voice to describe situations where the subject is involved in the action but is not presented as causally responsible and there is not an external agent in view. Sometimes we have to render this idea a few different ways in English—“he was baptized” being one of them—but that does not mean that the voice variation in Greek is meaningless or arbitrary.
Aside from Chrysostom, we found one other instance in an non-datable scholion (commentary on a prior Greek literary work) were the reflexive notion of “wash oneself” came not through the middle voice, but through an active voice verb and a reflexive pronoun.
Let us now process this evidence, and add a couple further lines of thought to it.
First, the evidence cited above leans pretty strongly away from understanding the middle voice of βαπτίζω when used cultically as a reflexive action—“baptize yourself!” or “I baptize myself.” The evidence suggests that if someone wanted to say “baptize yourself” the most clear way to do that would be to use an active voice verb + reflexive pronoun, not a middle voice. That is as far as the cited evidence obviously takes us, on the assumption that the later evidence shows valid trajectories in the voice system of the language.
Now for some development through logical arguments.
First, baptism was a centrally important reality in early Christianity, both in NT times and after. Since this is the case, and since a technical vocabulary developed around baptism, we are in a position to make a few assumptions.
It is very unlikely that the main sense of the middle voice is “baptize oneself.” If this were the case, it would be somewhat surprising to find in Hippolytus the interchange between middle and passive imperatives without any obvious context clues that the actual act of baptism the heretic Elchasai has in mind has changed. If middle voice means “baptize oneself” and passive means “be baptized,” then variation between them can’t really be that free without making communication really confusing to people hearing/reading it. We would expect some sort of contextual signalling when switching between these voices, but don’t get any in the above mentioned work of Hippolytus.
We can also note that the subsequent interpretive tradition of Acts 22.16 does not blink an eye at the passage. There is not a lot of interaction with and use of the passage in extant texts. There are some 6 or so different instances it pops up in a Thesaurus Linguae Graecae search for βάπτισαι καὶ ἀπόλουσαι, the two imperatives which Ananias gives to Paul. Of these 6, half of them are (1) the NT text or (2) commentaries/sermons on the NT text where the passage in question is simply a citation of the NT text. So, there is not a lot of usage. What is striking, though, is that when the Church Fathers do cite it or discuss it, they do not give any attention to the fact that it is a middle voice. They talk about the importance of baptism in Jesus’ name, how this passage indicates the divinity of Christ, and in the anonymous text Dialogue of Timothy and Aquilla (possibly as early as 2nd century AD, though some argue as late as the 6th century, so unfortunately not terribly precise) the climax involves the Christian telling the Jew that he should believe in Jesus and go get baptized. But no one seems to think it is an odd way to talk about the normal practice of baptism, which involves two people, not one person baptizing him/herself.
The passage from Dialogue of Timothy and Aquilla proves highly illustrative of how the middle voice of βαπτίζω is not a reflexive (or, stated in as cautious a way as possible; that the early Church Fathers did not read it as a reflexive). Here I will quote a passage at the culmination of the work Dialogue of Timothy and Aquilla:1]
ὁ Χριστιανὸς εἶπεν· εἰ πιστεύεις ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς δυνάμεώς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ἰσχύος σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς συνέσεώς σου, ἀναστὰς βάπτισαι καὶ ἀπόλουσαι τὰς ἁμαρτίας σου, (8) ἐπικαλεσάμενος τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ (57.7)
The Christian said: “If you believe with all your heart and with all your strength and with all your might and with all your understanding, rise, get yourself baptized and wash away your sins.”
Later in the narrative, after the Jew decides to follow Jesus, we see this passage:
καὶ ἐβάπτισεν αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ Πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ Υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ Ἁγίου Πνεύματος, μετονομάσας αὐτὸν Θεόγνωστον· (57.17)
And he baptized him [the Jew] in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, changing his name to Theognostos (“God-knower”).
For this author, then, the middle voice imperative has no reflexive implication at all. The Jew does not go out and “baptize himself” when he believes, but understands that to mean the normal process of getting baptized by, in this case, a bishop. If this text hailed from the early end of its proposed date range, it would be a cinching piece of evidence. As it is, it well exemplifies the broader pattern of understanding among the Church Fathers that the middle voice of βαπτίζω in this passage was not reflexive at all. In fact, it does not seem like anyone ever thought it was reflexive, or if they did, they didn’t both to write about it.
In line with these observations, and the data discussed above, I propose that in the verb βαπτίζω, this is the main breakdown of the voice system, along with a generic translation:
- active = baptize (someone)
- passive = be baptized
- middle = get yourself baptized
- active + reflexive = baptize yourself (not actually a voice, but added to show how reflexives appear to fit in the system)
Regarding this passage in Acts, I will now pull in the conclusion of Stanley Porter, who briefly discussed this passage in Acts 22.16. His conclusion is driven almost entirely by a broader discussion of voice and by the narrative of Acts, to which my broader investigation of the use of βαπτίζω adds a complementing conclusion:
“Concerning Acts 22.16 and βάπτισαι, to ask the question of who does the baptizing is, I believe, to ask the wrong question in this particular instance. On the basis of parallel passages, especially Acts 9.18, it appears that Ananias was probably the one who baptized Paul. This makes more sense than the alternative, especially when the alternative is so highly disputed. However, that issue is really beside the point. The formulation in Acts 22.16 with the middle voice form of the verb does not grammaticalize that perspective. The use of the middle here seems to indicate that Ananias does not tell Paul to baptize someone else (that would require the active voice), nor does he tell him to be baptized by someone (that would require the passive voice form), but he does tell him to be involved in the baptismal process, with Paul the subject of the verb. The action of baptism is internal to the process itself, rather than an action acted upon another or being caused by someone or something external to the process. Whether someone else was actually involved in the process by Paul is not something that can be decided by the use of the middle voice form, and to ask it to do so is to ask the wrong question of the Greek middle.”Stanley E. Porter, “Did Paul Baptize Himself? A Problem of the Greek Voice System,” 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), 108–9.
I would further add that the narrative of Acts elsewhere gives us evidence that Paul was, in fact, baptized by someone else, though the answer to who that was is never given. In Acts 9.18, the narrator tells us
καὶ ἀναστὰς ἐβαπτίσθη
“and getting up, he was baptized.”
While there is clearly no agent given, the passive voice implies an external agent responsible for the action. This is normally the case in βαπτίζω, as can easily be seen by peeking around at different usage. The most logical inference from the context is that Ananias baptizes Paul, but this is just inference. What is clear is that Paul was baptized by someone else, not himself. So, assuming Acts is an internally consistent and coherent work, we have a variety of reasons to conclude that Acts 22.16 should not be understood in a reflexive sense. The middle there is communicating something else entirely.
And back to Thecla…
This whole line of research was kicked off from reading Acts of Paul and Thecla, so I want to take what we have seen from looking elsewhere and go back to that text.
The passage from Acts of Paul and Thecla is not so easy to untangle, because the form βαπτίζομαι is formally ambiguous with regard to voice (or, as I still tend to prefer, it is middle-passive). If we accept that it should be read as passive, then there is an implied agent of the baptism, most likely God or Jesus. This may seem a bit presumptuous for Thecla to say, “On this my last day I am being baptized (by God),” but it is a possible way to construe the grammar.
If we take it as middle—which is my inclination, as well as the inclination of many others—then our little foray into βαπτίζω has some implications for how we understand it. Lampe’s Patristic Greek Lexicon has this to say about the passage:
“use of the [middle] indicates self-baptism in case of Thecla [ὑστέρᾳ ἡμέρᾳ βαπτίζομαι]; but this case recognized as exceptional and highly irregular…in standard formula…verb is probably passive.”
I have suggested that the middle of βαπτίζω when used in cultic contexts does not default to reflexive meaning. While there are contexts where it appears that a middle of βαπτίζω can be appropriately translated into English as a reflexive, that does not mean that that was its actual function in the logic of the Greek verbal system (and/or, the examples I have found from the LXX do not have the cultic use in view, so they are relevant but are not perfectly analogous to what we have in this passage). Within the cultic use of βαπτίζω, the reflexive nuance appears to be carried as in most Greek verbs—an active voice verb form + reflexive pronoun.
The middle voice, as used here in Acts of Paul and Thecla, appears rather to be neutral/non-commital about the presence of another involved in the process. Instead, it presents the action of baptism as internal to the process, that is, “baptizing” happens “within” the subject, so to speak, but this does not imply that the subject performs the action upon itself. Remember the analogy from English “the boat sails”? The subject is not the agent, but is involved in the action. Things get more complicated than this, but it seems like a solid place to start.
So what is Thecla saying? I suggest she is, so to speak, presenting herself for baptism and leaving it undecided/unmentioned/unclear who it is who will be baptizing her. The obvious reason is that there is no one else there. On this reading, she puts the emphasis on her baptism, ignoring the lack of anyone else there. I would translate this passage,
“on this my last day I am getting myself baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”
On such a reading, the emphasis would be Thecla’s faith that this act of throwing herself into the water (an active voice + reflexive pronoun in the text) will be constituted as a baptism, presumably in that God himself will preside over her baptism such that she “gets herself baptized.”
Suggestions of meanings such as “get oneself baptized” have a long history in grammars. Blass, Debrunner, and Funk give βαπτίζω as example in both middle and passive formulations of a meaning of the sort “to allow oneself to be…” (German sich lassen) (sec. 314, 317).
There is more that could be said about the middle voice, the use of βαπτίζω, and its functions across the entire voice system. In fact, there are actually not many middle indicatives of βαπτίζω in extant Greek literature, so examining all of them would not be too laborious (collecting them all, though, would be a pain in the butt). Here I have sought to investigate the use of the middle in Acts and Acts of Paul and Thecla primarily through the lens of the recent work on voice by Mathewson, along with the earlier work of Porter on the issue. I find that it gives helpful insight into considering how this verb functions within the logic of the Greek verbal system. As I keep exploring Mathewson’s work, and other works on middle voice, I expect it will yield further fruit on dealing with the difficult Greek middle voice.
 Text from R.G. Robertson, The Dialogue of Timothy and Aquila: A Critical Text, Introduction to the Manuscript Evidence, and an Inquiry into the Sources and Literary Relationships, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University (Diss.), 1986: i-cxxix.