Tucked away at the end of the Gospel of Matthew is the great commission. It reads, “Therefore, go, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit” (Mat 28.19). Oftentimes modalists and unitarians question the validity of this verse because of its trinitarian flavor. Typically, the questioner makes the point that we do not have manuscripts of Matthew 28.19 before a.d 325 when the church ratified the Trinitarian creed at Nicea and that they were all corrupted at that time. Furthermore, they refer to Eusebius, the famous church historian, because he quotes an alternative version of Matthew 28.19 (i.e. “Go and make disciples of all the nations in my name”) in his writings. Although it certainly wouldn’t ruin my day if Matthew 28.19 turned out to be spurious, I am wary of textual arguments motivated by theology. As a result, I want to lay out for you the reasons why every handwritten and printed Greek text contains the full version of Matthew 28.19.
Even though there is absolutely no textual variation whatsoever for Matthew 28.19 in the manuscripts, some allege these manuscripts are ALL wrong and a corruption entered into the picture during or after the Council of Nicea in a.d. 325 when the Trinity became accepted. There are two points to keep in mind here: firstly, the Trinity was not codified until a.d. 381 (the Council of Nicea in a.d. 325 merely decided that Jesus was God while leaving the Holy Spirit out of the equation); secondly, there are a number of Greek papyri dating from the third century. Sadly, these earlier manuscripts, like most manuscripts, are only accessible to those with special access to the museums where they are stored. I wish CSNTM published these on their website, but they don’t. However, if there was an early manuscript with even a slight variation, Bruce Metzger’s UBS 4th edition or his Commentary on the GNT would note it. For the sake of argument let’s assume there really are no manuscripts before a.d. 325 that contain Matthew 28. Where does that leave us? We still have thousands of manuscripts, some of which date back to the fourth century (like Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus). These manuscripts contain the standard reading of Matthew 28.19. This is significant because these differ from one another in many places, so it is not like Constantine or whoever forcibly standardized all the New Testament manuscripts in a.d. 325. Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that later manuscripts are copied from earlier ones. Thus, a later, or even medieval manuscript, could preserve a very early reading. Again, we have no evidence of an alternative version of Matthew 28.19 in any of these manuscripts.
For the shorter reading hypothesis to be correct, someone would have had to destroy all of the manuscripts containing the “original” version of Matthew 28.19 and replace them with new ones with the longer reading. This is quite a conspiracy theory that requires a level of control that did not exist at that time. Fourth century Christianity was a mess organizationally, which is why the century was chock full of controversies and councils. If there was a strong pope figure in the fourth century this theory might be possible, but he would still lack the power and thoroughness to ensure that every last scrap of the original Matthew 28.19 was destroyed. We know this because a Roman emperor once tried to do something similar—a man named Diocletian. In the early fourth century he fiercely persecuted Christianity and tried to collect and destroy all of the New Testament manuscripts, which is why we do not have many from before the fourth century. But even the Great Diocletian who had the full power of the Roman government behind him could not accomplish this task. Thus, the hypothesis that some sect within Christianity succeeded in tweaking all the manuscripts is untenable.
Early Quotes by Christian Authors
Even if we cannot find or access early manuscripts before the fourth century to see if they contain Matthew 28.19, we can still consult the many Christian authors who lived in the second and third centuries to see how they cited it. Below is a list of a few quotations.
Didache (a.d. 60-150) chapter 7.1-4
“Now about baptism: this is how to baptize. Give public instruction on all these points, and then baptize in running water, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. If you do not have running water, batpize in some other. If you cannot in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, then pour water on the head three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Before baptism, moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast, and any others who can. And you must tell the one being baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand.”
First Apology by Justin Martyr (a.d. 155) chapter 61
“…Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are born again, for they then receive washing in water in the name of God the Father and Master of all, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. For Christ also said, ‘Except you are born again, you will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.’…”
Against Heresies by Irenaeus (a.d. 180) book 3 chapter 17.1
“…And again, giving to the disciples the power of regeneration into God, he said to them, ‘Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’…”
On Baptism by Tertullian (a.d. 198) chapter 13
“For the law of baptizing has been imposed, and the formula prescribed: ‘Go,’ He saith, ‘teach the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ The comparison with this law of that definition, ‘Unless a man have been reborn of water and Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of the heavens,’ has tied faith to the necessity of baptism.”
The Apostolic Tradition by Hippolytus (a.d. 200-235) chapter 21.12-18
“And when he who is baptized goes down into the water, he who baptizes him, putting his hand on him, shall say thus: Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty? And he who is being baptized shall say: I believe. Then holding his hand placed on his head, he shall baptize him once. And then he shall say: Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again on the third day, alive from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sat at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead? And when he says: I believe, he is baptized again. And again he shall say: Do you believe in holy spirit, and the holy church, and the resurrection of the flesh? He who is being baptized shall say accordingly: I believe, and so he is baptized a third time.”
Epistle to Magnus by Cyprian (a.d. 250) chapter 7
“…But if any one objects, by way of saying that Novatian holds the same law which the universal church holds, baptizes with the same symbol with which we baptize, knows the same God and Father, the same Christ the Son, the same Holy Spirit, and that for this reason he may claim the power of baptizing, namely, that he seems not to differ from us in the baptismal interrogatory; let any one that thinks that this may be objected, know first of all, that there is not one law of the creed…”
The traditional reading of Matthew 28.19 was alive and well before a.d. 325 and people knew about it. Furthermore, I have not found any controversy over the authenticity of this text anywhere. This is mounting up to be a really solid case: not only do ALL extant Greek manuscripts with Matthew 28.19 in them contain the traditional reading, but all of the church fathers in the second and third century that quote or allude to it use the traditional version. Suddenly the case from Eusebius’ quotations does not seem so impressive. Even so, let’s consider Eusebius’ statements to better understand what is happening.
Eusebius of Caesarea
The theory goes that Eusebius quoted a shortened version of Matthew 28.19 before the council of Nicea in a.d. 325 and then quoted the longer, more Trinitarian, version thereafter. This allegedly proves that the church decided to change the Bible to give more credence to the Trinity theory. I find this hypothesis unconvincing for four reasons. First of all, Eusebius was not a Trinitarian; he was an Arian. In fact, Eusebius of Caesarea had written a letter to Alexander, the bishop who excommunicated Arius, demanding he restore Arius. Furthermore, Eusebius called a council in the early 320s at which the gathered bishops vindicated Arius and drafted another letter pressuring Alexander to reinstate him. Lastly, Eusebius found himself deposed by a council in Antioch shortly before the one at Nicea for supporting Arius. Now it is true that Eusebius signed the Nicene Creed in a.d. 325, but historians generally chalk that up to compromise rather than a sudden change of heart. (If he hadn’t signed the creed he would have lost his job as bishop of Caesarea, lost his influence in the debate, and lost his position as one of the emperor’s advisors.) So, Eusebius is not some super Trinitarian defender like Athanasius, but actually quite the opposite. He felt uncomfortable with the Nicene Creed and even wrote a kind of damage control letter home to Caesarea explaining how they were going to understand the new formula. His well-known anti-Nicene position is probably why he is today not known as Saint Eusebius.
Another reason I find the theory that the Council of Nicea changed the Bible unconvincing is that it would have given the anti-Nicene party potent ammunition in the sixty year battle that followed. To my knowledge, the subordinationists never accused the Nicenes of changing the text of Scripture, a charge they surely would have capitalized on if they could have. Rather the battle centered on the meaning of Scripture and arguments based on reason. Thirdly, even if the Nicene sect wanted to change Scripture, they had no mechanism to make that a reality. As I’ve already mentioned, the required organization and hierarchy simply did not exist yet. Lastly, Eusebius quoted the shorter version of Matthew 28.19 after Nicea as well (see In Praise of Constantine 16.8, written in a.d. 336).
So if the conspiracy theory—that the “evil” Eusebius twisted Scripture to inject a Trinitarian dogma—is not true, why did Eusebius so often quote this shorter version? Ancient people did not look up every verse they quoted as they were writing something. It was more common to memorize Scriptures and pull from memory. Ancient texts did not have spaces between words nor did they have chapters much less paragraphs. As a result, it would have been very time consuming to look something up, making authors more likely to quote from memory than try to find something that they were fairly confident they knew. However, sometimes one’s memory can conflate multiple passages together. To this issue George Beasley-Murray addresses the following:
“F. C. Conybeare, in an oft cited article, examined the citations of the text in Eusebius and concluded that Eusebius did not know the longer form of the text until the Council of Nicea, when the Trinitarian doctrine became established. …The real difficulty [with his view] is to determine whether we have any right to speak of a ‘Eusebian reading.’ E. Riggenbach, in a lengthy reply to Conybeare’s article, showed that Eusebius exercised considerable freedom in quoting the Matthaean text, as is evidenced in the fact that the text appears in various forms, even in one and the same work; after Nicea Eusebius cites the commission in both longer and shorter forms; while (in Riggenbach’s view) in the letter written by Eusebius in 325, during the Council of Nicea, the manner in which he cites the common form of the text suggests that he had been familiar with it for a long time.” (George Raymond Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1973), p. 81)
One can easily see how someone’s memory could blur together bits from one verse and another when recalling a verse. I’ve done this and a good number of the textual variants in the gospels are due to scribes remembering a bit from another gospel and injecting it when it was not originally there. But, just because Eusebius habitually misquoted Matthew 28.19, does not mean he did not know the full version as well. Everett Ferguson is helpful here:
“An examination of Eusebius’ references where the baptismal command was omitted shows that it was superfluous to the context (for in every case the emphasis was on the universality of Christ’s teaching in contrast to previous religious and civil law), and consideration of Eusebius’ method of citing Scripture (omitting phrases he counted irrelevant and blending phrases from other passages he counted pertinent) deprives the argument for a shorter text of any validity.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2009), p. 134.)
So, we can more easily account for the Eusebian tendency to quote the shorter version on these grounds rather than positing a conspiracy wherein the church fathers altered the text of Scripture. To entertain the idea of changing Scripture because one Christian misquoted a text centuries later would require a much more solid basis than what we have. Methodologically this wouldn’t work anyway. Should scholars start combing through early Christian authors and correcting the manuscripts based on quotations? This would be like going to a Christian bookstore and throwing out all the Bibles and then piecing together a “more accurate” text based on quotes from Christian authors!
Contradiction with Acts?
One last supporting reason some use to cast doubt on Matthew 28.19 as we have it relates to baptismal practices in the book of Acts. If Matthew 28.19 is accurate then Jesus commanded his followers to baptize “in the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit.” However, throughout the book of Acts, when baptisms occur, they never mention this formulaic expression. Here are some examples:
Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy spirit.
Acts 8:16 For it [the holy spirit] had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Acts 10:47-48 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the holy spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.
Acts 19:5-6 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the holy spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying.
Allegedly these texts contradict Matthew 28.19. But, is there another way to understand them apart from changing what the Bible says? Ferguson provides two other options that are well worth considering:
The phrases in Acts may not, however, reflect alternative formulas in the administration of baptism or alternative understandings of the meaning of the act. In some cases the description in Acts may mean a baptism administered on a confession of Jesus as Lord and Christ (cf. Acts 22:16), or it may be a general characterization of the baptism as related to Jesus and not a formula pronounced at the baptism. In the later history the only formula regularly attested as pronounced by the administrator includes the triune name, but in Matthew it too may be descriptive rather than formulaic. If Matthew 28:19 is not a formula, then there is no necessary contradiction to the description “in the name of the Lord” in Acts and Paul. (Ferguson, p. 136).
So Ferguson suggests that Acts describes what happened, “they were baptized into the name of Jesus,” whereas Matthew describes what words were said, “baptized in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit” or that Matthew 28.19 is not formulaic at all. Another possibility is that Acts describes the confession of the convert whereas Matthew tells us what the baptizer said. It could also be that in the context of Judea, Christians baptized new people in the name of the Lord Jesus because Jews and God-fearers already had an adequate understanding of God and the holy spirit. However, when going out among the nations as in Matthew 28.19, one needs to also explain who God is (cf. Acts 17) and what the holy spirit is (cf. Acts 19). One final idea is that the “name” in Matthew 28.19 is not literal, but the agenda or cause of the father, son, and holy spirit. However we work out the seeming contradiction, our difficulty here does not warrant changing what Scripture says to read more smoothly.
Text -> Exegesis -> Theology
The text is primary; it is the foundation. We do not change what Scripture says on the basis of our exegesis or theology, rather we accept it as a starting point. This is why textual critics develop objective rules to help them figure out which readings are more accurate. They do not want their theological biases to inform their choices. For a good window into how this process happens see Metzger’s Commentary on the Greek New Testament or the NET Study Bible. We are fortunate today to live in a time when the New Testament text is over 99% established based on centuries of discoveries, cataloging, and comparisons.
This brings me to the second step: exegesis. This word basically means to explain what the text means. The idea is that we read out (ex) from Scripture rather than into it. Preachers exegete verses every Sunday when they describe what they mean. Although what the text actually means and what we think it means are hopefully identical, we cannot allow ourselves to be so arrogant as to say we never err in understanding what something says.
Now we move to the pinnacle of our work: theology. One’s theology does not depend on the exegesis of a single text, but on what many different verses say together. This is the most complex level of understanding and it is the most prone to error for all of us. However, so long as we keep everything in order—text then exegesis then theology—we will end up with more accurate theology. For example, if rather than reading what a verse says and interpreting it within its context (exegesis) I cherry pick it to support my theology, I will likely end up with wrong doctrine. Additionally, I cannot allow my theology to change the text of Scripture. Just because I do not believe the Trinity is true does not give me the right to rid the Bible of a verse like Matthew 28.19. To do so is to go in the wrong direction.