[forthright] Did Saul Baptize Himself?

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From: Forthright Magazine <forthrightmag@...>
Date: Thu, 21 Sep 2006 16:18:35 -0500
Forthright Magazine
Straight to the Cross

COLUMN: Basic Greek Language Study

Did Saul Baptize Himself?
by Kevin Cauley

In a standard sentence, there is a subject, verb,
and object. The subject is the one who is acting.
The verb is the action. The object is that which
is acted upon. The relationship of the action to
the subject is known as the voice of the verb. In
the Greek language, there are three voices:
active, passive, and middle. The active voice is
where the action in the verb is projected by the
subject onto an object other than the subject
(Spot bit the mailman). When the passive voice is
used, the subject is the object (The mailman was
bitten on Tuesday). When the middle voice is used,
the subject is acting upon himself, who is also
the object (The mailman bit himself). In English
we usually translate the middle voice with the
reflexive pronoun, himself.

The middle voice in Acts 22:16 presents us with an
interesting question. Ananias tells Saul, "And now
why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and
wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the
Lord." The word for "baptized" in this verse is
BAPTISAI. The form is aorist tense, middle voice,
and imperative mood. On this particular form,
Robertson in his "Word Pictures" says that it is
"not passive."/1 The aorist passive form would be
BAPTISQHTW (Acts 2:38). Given the definition of
the middle voice, one might ask, "Was Saul
commanded to baptize himself?"

The "mikvah" was a Jewish ritualistic immersion
practiced in the first century. This involved
immersing oneself in a vat of water for the
purpose of ritualistic cleansing. Mark 7:4 alludes
to this practice. In this ritual, the individual
did, in fact, immerse himself in water. However,
the custom among Christians in the first century
was for baptism to be passive. That's what we find
in Acts 2:38, Acts 8:36, and Acts 10:47,48,
namely, an aorist passive verb. Especially,
however, note Acts 9:18 where the passive voice is
clearly used. This indicates that someone else did
the baptizing other than the person who was being
baptized. So why did Ananias use the middle voice
with Saul?

While in classical Greek the middle voice was
often used to indicate the subject as the direct
object of the verb, in Koine Greek this usage has
faded in favor of the reflexive active./2
Instances of the direct middle in the New
Testament are quite rare, and this would have to
be the kind of middle that is needed for Saul to
have been commanded to baptize himself. The direct
middle is still used in the Koine period in
reference to putting on clothing such as in Acts
12:21, but otherwise has fallen out of usage. So
there's no grammatical reason to think that
Ananias was commanding Saul to baptize himself.

So, what is the significance of the middle voice
in Acts 22:16? About the middle voice Wallace
says, "It may be said that the subject acts 'with
a vested interest.'"/3 Robertson says, "The middle
calls special attention to the subject ... the
subject is acting in relation to himself
somehow."/4 Three types of middle voice
applications may be considered: the causative
middle, the permissive middle, or the indirect

In the causative middle Wallace states, "the
subject has something done for or to himself or
herself. As well, the subject may be the source
behind the action done in his/her behalf."/5 He
then says that this usage is rare. In the
permissive middle, "the subject allows something
to be done for or to himself or herself."/6
Wallace states that the permissive middle is also
rare. In the indirect middle, which Wallace says
is common in the New Testament, "the subject acts
for (or sometimes by) himself or herself, or in
his or her own interest. The subject thus shows a
special interest in the action of the verb."/7

There are good reasons to think that this middle
could be any one of the three. It could be the
causative middle because Saul was the one deciding
whether or not he would submit to baptism. He was
the cause of his own baptism because it was of his
own volition that Ananias baptized him. With such
an understanding, the verb would be translated,
"Cause yourself to be baptized." That would be
consistent with Ananias's previous question and
command, "What are you waiting on? Arise! ..."

The permissive middle also makes sense. This is
the view that Wallace holds. In this regard, the
permissive middle implies consent or permission.
Saul was thus baptized because he allowed Ananias
to baptize him. The verb would be translated,
"Permit yourself to be baptized." Such a view
isn't quite as consistent with Ananias' previous
question and command, however, nor is it
consistent with the imperative mood in the
context. It would be tantamount to Ananias saying,
"You must do this, but only if you want to."

However, this could be an indirect middle in that
Saul's decision to be baptized was for his own
benefit, i.e. the washing away of his sins. That
might be what Ananias was emphasizing. "Be
baptized for yourself." In other words, it was
specifically for Saul's benefit, and no other,
that Ananias commanded him to be baptized. Such a
view doesn't conflict with Ananias' previous
question and command, and meshes quite well with
the command to wash away his sins.

In the Grammar, Robertson says that Acts 22:16 is
the causative or permissive middle./8 He says it
is the causative middle in the "Word Pictures."/9
However, his Baptist prejudice clearly shows
through in his comments on this passage. Thus, his
labeling this as a causative or permissive middle
is suspect. Wallace also says, "The causative
middle is thus an indirect middle or occasionally
a direct middle as well," implying that the
causative is really a subcategory of the indirect
or direct middle./10 So, it is likely not a
causative middle.

Wallace lists this passage as a permissive middle,
but relies heavily upon Robertson's prejudiced
comments. Robertson bases his comments upon the
idea that one would have to translate the indirect
middle here in an instrumental way. However, this
is not necessarily true. The indirect middle could
be translated in a dative way. Wallace says, "with
the indirect middle it is as if the reflexive
pronoun in the dative case had been used." So,
Robertson's prejudiced comments are not
necessarily valid./11

I'm inclined to view this as an indirect middle.
The causative and permissive middles are rare, as
Wallace said, and the indirect middle is common.
Moreover, given what Ananias said would be the
result of being baptized, namely, washing away
Saul's sins, we see a direct benefit for Saul's
being baptized, which is what the indirect middle
is all about. The indirect middle is consistent
with the imperative mood which is used
consistently in the verse. The indirect middle is
also more closely aligned to the basic concept of
the middle voice in Koine Greek. And given the
idea that the indirect middle may be understood as
a dative, I don't see that there would be any
doctrinal reason not to translate it this way. I
just don't see any necessary reason to say that
this is the causative or permissive middle (though
it could be), and, given their rarity, I believe
that that would have to be clearly demonstrated to
conclude that it is.

In that regard, Acts 22:16 should be understood as
follows: "And now, why are you waiting? Arise, and
for your own benefit, be baptized and wash away
your sins, calling upon the name of the Lord."

1/ Robertson, A.T., Word Pictures of the New
Testament, see Acts 22:16 in E-Sword.
2/ Wallace, Daniel B., Greek Grammar Beyond the
Basics, p. 416.
3/ Ibid, p. 415.
4/ Robertson, Grammar, p. 804.
5/ Wallace, Ibid, p.423.
6/ Ibid, p.425.
7/ Ibid, p.419.
8/ Robertson, Grammar, p.808.
9/ Robertson, Supra, n.1.
10/ Wallace, Ibid, p.424
11/ Robertson says, "If APOLOUSAI were an indirect
middle, the idea would be 'wash away your sins by
yourself.' -– also thoroughly unbiblical." He
bases his comments on BAPTISAI largely upon his
beliefs about what APOLOUSAI couldn't mean in this
passage with the understanding that it be
translated as an instrumental. But why couldn't
both BAPTISAI and APOLOUSAI have a dative
connotation? i.e., "Be baptized for yourself and
wash away your sins for yourself?" I don't see any
grammatical reason why it couldn't.

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