Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Is the Trinitarian formula in Matthew 28:19 original?

Someone recently asked me about the authenticity of this verse, and seeing as it ties in with my last post, I thought I would add it to the blog for all to see....

ESV Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

  1. Arguments for the authenticity of this reading:

All of the manuscripts that we have of this verse read,

‘baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’

This includes early manuscripts such as Codex Sinaiticus (4th century), Codex Vaticanus (4th century), Codex Alexandrinus (5th century) and Codex Bezae (5th century).

Not one manuscript has been found with an alternative reading.

In such circumstances, textual critics normally conclude that the reading found is correct.

  1. Arguments against the authenticity of this reading:

Some scholars have argued that the text originally read, ‘make disciples in my name,’ and that the references to baptism and the Father and the Holy Spirit were added later.

This is mainly based on 2 arguments:

Argument 1:

At times Eusebius quotes the great commission, writing “in my name” instead of the Trinitarian Baptismal formula. For example:

‘But the rest of the apostles, who had been incessantly plotted against with a view to their destruction, and had been driven out of the land of Judea, went unto all nations to preach the Gospel, relying upon the power of Christ, who had said to them, “Go ye and make disciples of all the nations in my name.”’

Eusebius H.E. 3.5

Rebuttal to Argument 1:

Eusebius’ writings cannot be considered as weighty as New Testament Codices we posses for the following reasons:

a) The variety of Eusebius:

Unlike the unanimous New Testament manuscripts we have of Matthew 28:19, Eusebius actually quotes it in mainly three different ways:

1. “Go and make disciples of all nations”

2. “Go and make disciples of all nations in my name”

3. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”

b) Eusebius’ reputation of loose citations:

Eusebius is known for loose citations, and for abbreviating sources. (Nolland ‘The Gospel of Matthew’ p.1268). Unlike the scribes who copied Codex Sinaiticus or Vaticanus, Eusebius was not trying to recreate an exact copy of previous manuscripts of the New Testament but was instead trying to write Church history and apologetics which sometimes involved quoting scripture.

c) The lack of Patristic Textual Criticism compared to the NT:

As with other Patristic evidence, when we speak of Eusebius, we are not referring to the original autographs that Eusebius wrote, but to later and slightly differing copies that have been discovered, and compiled to create a text that we believe is close to the original Eusebius wrote. The amount of textual criticism undertaken for Eusebius is not anywhere near the amount of work carried out on the New Testament text. Therefore allusions or quotes of the NT from modern editions of Eusebius cannot be considered as weighty as NT codices themselves.

Interestingly, those who quote Eusebius over NT manuscripts, also argue that when the Trinitarian Baptismal formula is used in Eusebius it is not original but merely a later addition. Even if this were found to be true, it demonstrates an inconsistent use of Textual Criticism.

It would therefore seem that Eusebius’ writings do not provide sufficient evidence to ignore all the New Testament manuscripts we have stating the full Trinitarian baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19.

Argument 2:

The Trinitarian formula in baptism was not practiced by the early church; in the book of Acts baptisms are always carried out in the name of Jesus:

ESV Acts 2:38 And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

ESV Acts 8:16 for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

ESV Acts 10:48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

ESV Acts 19:5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Rebuttal to Argument 2:

a) There is no indication of a liturgical command for Baptism:

Argument 2 is based on the assumption that the so-called ‘Trinitarian Baptismal formula’ was intended by Jesus and Matthew to be a liturgical formula spoken at baptism. If this was the case then it would indeed seem odd if in the book of Acts a liturgical formula of “in the name of the Lord Jesus’ was used in baptism. There are however no examples of any liturgical formula being used in either Matthew or Acts, and it is more likely that Jesus did not intend a specific formula of words to be used, but rather was conveying the meaning of baptism:

b) The meaning of the text:

To be baptized in the ‘name’ (singular) of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, does not necessarily mean to have their three different names spoken at baptism, but rather to come into relationship with, and under the Lordship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The Greek phrase eis ton onoma meaning ‘in the name,’ is found in ancient papyri speaking of making payments into a person’s account (see Moulton & Milligan on ‘onoma’). This indicates that a person is being baptized into the possession of the Father, Son and Spirit.

The fact that ‘name’ (singular) is used instead of ‘names’ (plural) may show us the unity of the three, and suggest that it would not be a problem for someone to merely say “In the name of Jesus” when performing a baptism. The Didache suggests that this was how the early church viewed baptism.

c) Early church usage:

The Didache which is dated around the 1st or 2nd century uses both baptism in the name of Jesus, and baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit synonymously:

Didache 9:5 But let no one eat or drink of this eucharistic thanksgiving, but they that have been baptized into the name of the Lord

Didache 7:1 But concerning baptism, thus shall ye baptize. Having first recited all these things, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living (running) water.

This indicates that the early church had no problem switching between a saying “in the name of Jesus” and “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.

Therefore it would seem unwise to conclude that Matthew’s Trinitarian formula contradicts references to baptism in Acts.


The manuscript evidence is unanimous; the Eusebius quotes are not weighty enough to overthrow these. Arguments that Matthew contradicts Acts both misunderstand the meaning of the formula, and ignore evidence from the Didache. We should let the text stand as it is.