A Series of Answers to Common Questions

Sam Shamoun


Many Christians quote Matthew 28:19 to show that Jesus taught that God is a Trinity. Yet this Trinitarian Baptismal formula cannot be found in any MS of the Gospel of Matthew until the fourth century. Doesn’t this therefore prove that this verse was later inserted into the text of Matthew in order to establish a biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity as well as for the decisions arrived at by the bishops at the Council of Nicaea?


Here is the verse that we will be examining:

"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,"

The question assumes that there are complete copies of Matthew, or copies that contain Matthew 28, which omit this verse prior to the fourth century. It further assumes that this formula is somehow unattested in the writings of the Christians prior to that time as well. In light of this we turn our attention to the extant manuscripts (MSS) of Matthew that were written before or during the fourth century.

The MSS Evidence

It needs to be stated that we simply do not have any extant manuscript (MS) which contains all of Matthew dating prior to the fourth century. Nor do we find any MS prior to this time that contains Matthew 28.

For instance, the listing of the papyri as found in Kurt and Barbara Aland's The Text of the New Testament (2nd Edition, 1995, pp. 96-103) gives a description of the verses contained in each of the 96 papyri. In P 37 Matthew 26:52 seems to be the last verse from Matthew found in the papyri. Philip Comfort and David Barrett, in their book, The Complete Text of the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts (1999, pp. 6 & 13) mention some of the MSS of Matthew. On page 6 they present a list of the various verses from Matthew (with Matthew also ending at 26:52), and on page 13, they say that they were providing only those manuscripts which, "dated from the early second century to the beginning of the fourth (A.D. 100-300)."

In fact, here is a list of Papyri from the second to fourth centuries that contain Matthew:

P 64, c. 200 – Matt. 3, 5, 26
P.104/ P Oxy. (Oxyrhynchus Papyri) 4404, late 2nd Cent. – Matt. 21
P 77/ P.Oxy. 2683, 2nd-3rd Cent. – Matt 23
P 103/ P.Oxy. 4403, 2nd- 3rd Cent. – Matt. 13-14
P 1/ P Oxy., 3rd Cent. – Matt. 1
P 101/ P Oxy. 4401, 3rd Cent. – Matt. 3-4
P 70/ P Oxy. 2384, 3rd Cent. – Matt 2-3, 11-12, 24
P 45, 3rd Cent. - Matt. 20-21, 25
P 53, 3rd Cent. - Matt. 26
P 102/ P Oxy. 4402, 3rd– 4th Cent. – Matt. 4
P 37, 3rd-4th – Matt. 26
P 71/ P Oxy. 2385, 4th Cent. – Matt 19
P 62, 4th Cent. - Matt. 11
P 86, 4th Cent. – Matt. 5
P 35, 4th Cent.(?) – Matt. 25
P 25, late 4th Cent. – Matt. 18-19
P 19/P Oxy. 1170, 4th-5th Cent. – Matt. 10-11
P 21/P Oxy. 1227, 4th-5th Cent.- Matt. 12   (Source)

Thus, we do not find any MS of Matthew which is complete or that contains chapter 28 prior to the fourth century. On what basis, then, can anyone claim that the original Gospel of Matthew did not contain 28:19 when WE HAVE NO COMPLETE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW WHICH HAS CHAPTER 28 prior to the fourth century?

Now someone may interject at this point and claim that since no complete MS exists of Matthew how can we therefore be sure that this Gospel did in fact contain 28:19? This leads us to our second point.

The Patristic Evidence

There is plenty of evidence from the writings of the early Church Fathers, from the disciples of the Apostles and their subsequent successors, that this Trinitarian formula was being used and that it formed part of the Gospel of Matthew. In fact, this command was so well known that many writers alluded to it without naming the specific Gospel from which they were quoting What this shows is that these Christians assumed that their readers were so familiar with this formula, and already knew in which of the four Gospels this instruction could be found, that they didn’t feel the need to specify the source.

Here, we will take a look at a few examples from these early Christian writings, all of which predate the fourth century.

Didache - Teaching of the Twelve Apostles

Here is some historical background regarding the Didache so that the readers can appreciate the importance of this document:

Since it was discovered in a monastery in Constantinople and published by P. Bryennios in 1883, the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles has continued to be one of the most disputed of early Christian texts. It has been depicted by scholars as anything between the original of the Apostolic Decree (c. 50 AD) and a late archaising fiction of the early third century. It bears no date itself, nor does it make reference to any datable external event, yet the picture of the Church which it presents could only be described as primitive, reaching back to the very earliest stages of the Church's order and practice in a way which largely agrees with the picture presented by the NT, while at the same time posing questions for many traditional interpretations of this first period of the Church's life. Fragments of the Didache were found at Oxyrhyncus (P. Oxy 1782) from the fourth century and in coptic translation (P. Lond. Or. 9271) from 3/4th century. Traces of the use of this text, and the high regard it enjoyed, are widespread in the literature of the second and third centuries especially in Syria and Egypt. It was used by the compilator of the Didascalia (C 2/3rd) and the Liber Graduun (C 3/4th), as well as being absorbed in toto by the Apostolic Constitutions (C c. 3/4th, abbreviated as Ca) and partially by various Egyptian and Ethiopian Church Orders, after which it ceased to circulate independently. Athanasius describes it as 'appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of goodness' [Festal Letter 39:7]. Hence a date for the Didache in its present form later than the second century must be considered unlikely, and a date before the end of the first century probable. (Jonathan Draper, Gospel Perspectives, v. 5, p. 269)

He then states in a footnote (op. cit., p. 284), "A new consensus is emerging for a date c. 100 AD." (Source)

This document twice alludes to the Matthean Baptismal formula, serving as an independent witness that this formula was known and in use by the early Church:

Chapter 7. Concerning Baptism. And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before. (Roberts-Donaldson translation; source)

Here is another translation of this same passage:

7:1 But concerning baptism, thus shall ye baptize.
7:2 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.
7:3 But if thou hast not living water, then baptize in other water;
7:4 and if thou art not able in cold, then in warm.
7:5 But if thou hast neither, then pour water on the head thrice in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
7:6 But before the baptism let him that baptizeth and him that is baptized fast, and any others also who are able;
7:7 and thou shalt order him that is baptized to fast a day or two before. (J.B. Lightfoot’s translation; source)

Ignatius of Antioch (ca. AD. 107-112)

Chapter IX.-The Old Testament is Good: the New Testament is Better.

… The priests indeed, and the ministers of the word, are good; but the High Priest is better, to whom the holy of holies has been committed, and who alone has been entrusted with the secrets of God. The ministering powers of God are good. The Comforter is holy, and the Word is holy, the Son of the Father, by whom He made all things, and exercises a providence over them all. This is the Way which leads to the Father, the Rock, the Defence, the Key, the Shepherd, the Sacrifice, the Door of knowledge, through which have entered Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, Moses and all the company of the prophets, and these pillars of the world, the apostles, and the spouse of Christ, on whose account He poured out His own blood, as her marriage portion, that He might redeem her. All these things tend towards the unity of the one and only true God. But the Gospel possesses something transcendent [above the former dispensation], viz. the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, His passion, and the resurrection itself. For those things which the prophets announced, saying, "Until He come for whom it is reserved, and He shall be the expectation of the Gentiles," have been fulfilled in the Gospel, [our Lord saying,] "Go ye and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." All then are good together, the law, the prophets, the apostles, the whole company [of others] that have believed through them: only if we love one another. (Epistle of Ignatius to the Philadelphians; source)

Chapter II.-Unity of the Three Divine Persons.

There is then one God and Father, and not two or three; One who is; and there is no other besides Him, the only true [God]. For "the Lord thy God," saith [the Scripture], "is one Lord." And again, "Hath not one God created us? Have we not all one Father? And there is also one Son, God the Word. For "the only-begotten Son," saith [the Scripture], "who is in the bosom of the Father." And again, "One Lord Jesus Christ." And in another place, "What is His name, or what His Son's name, that we may know? " And there is also one Paraclete. For "there is also," saith [the Scripture], "one Spirit," since "we have been called in one hope of our calling." And again, "We have drunk of one Spirit," with what follows. And it is manifest that all these gifts [possessed by believers] "worketh one and the self-same Spirit." There are not then either three Fathers, or three Sons, or three Paracletes, but one Father, and one Son, and one Paraclete. Wherefore also the Lord, when He sent forth the apostles to make disciples of all nations, commanded them to "baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost," not unto one [person] having three names, nor into three [persons] who became incarnate, but into three possessed of equal honour. (Epistle of Ignatius to the Philippians; source)

Irenaeus (ca. 130-200)

Chapter XVII.-The Apostles Teach that It Was Neither Christ Nor the Saviour, But the Holy Spirit, Who Did Descend Upon Jesus. The Reason for This Descent.

It certainly was in the power of the apostles to declare that Christ descended upon Jesus, or that the so-called superior Saviour [came down] upon the dispensational one, or he who is from the invisible places upon him from the Demiurge; but they neither knew nor said anything of the kind: for, had they known it, they would have also certainly stated it. But what really was the case, that did they record, [namely,] that the Spirit of God as a dove descended upon Him; this Spirit, of whom it was declared by Isaiah, "And the Spirit of God shall rest upon Him," as I have already said. And again: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me." That is the Spirit of whom the Lord declares, "For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you." 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 Ghost." For [God] promised, that in the last times He would pour Him [the Spirit] upon [His] servants and handmaids, that they might prophesy; wherefore He did also descend upon the Son of God, made the Son of man, becoming accustomed in fellowship with Him to dwell in the human race, to rest with human beings, and to dwell in the workmanship of God, working the will of the Father in them, and renewing them from their old habits into the newness of Christ. (Irenaeus Against Heresies Book III; source)

Tertullian (ca. 160-220)

Chapter XX.-Christ First Delivered the Faith. The Apostles Spread It; They Founded Churches as the Depositories Thereof. That Faith, Therefore, is Apostolic, Which Descended from the Apostles, Through Apostolic Churches.

… Accordingly, after one of these had been struck off, He commanded the eleven others, on His departure to the Father, to "go and teach all nations, who were to be baptized into the Father, and into the Son, and into the Holy Ghost." Immediately, therefore, so did the apostles, whom this designation indicates as "the sent." … (Tertullian The Prescription Against Heretics; source)

Chapter VI.-The Angel the Forerunner of the Holy Spirit. Meaning Contained in the Baptismal Formula.

Not that in the waters we obtain the Holy Spirit; but in the water, under (the witness of) the angel, we are cleansed, and prepared for the Holy Spirit. In this case also a type has preceded; for thus was John beforehand the Lord's forerunner, "preparing His ways." Thus, too, does the angel, the witness of baptism, "make the paths straight" for the Holy Spirit, who is about to come upon us, by the washing away of sins, which faith, sealed in (the name of) the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, obtains. For if "in the mouth of three witnesses every word shall stand:" -while, through the benediction, we have the same (three) as witnesses of our faith whom we have as sureties of our salvation too-how much more does the number of the divine names suffice for the assurance of our hope likewise! Moreover, after the pledging both of the attestation of faith and the promise of salvation under "three witnesses," there is added, of necessity, mention of the Church; inasmuch as, wherever there are three, (that is, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,) there is the Church, which is a body of three. (Tertullian On Baptism; source)

Chapter XIII.-Another Objection: Abraham Pleased God Without Being Baptized. Answer Thereto. Old Things Must Give Place to New, and Baptism is Now a Law.

Here, then, those miscreants provoke questions. And so they say, "Baptism is not necessary for them to whom faith is sufficient; for withal, Abraham pleased God by a sacrament of no water, but of faith." But in all cases it is the later things which have a conclusive force, and the subsequent which prevail over the antecedent. Grant that, in days gone by, there was salvation by means of bare faith, before the passion and resurrection of the Lord. But now that faith has been enlarged, and is become a faith which believes in His nativity, passion, and resurrection, there has been an amplification added w the sacrament, viz., the sealing act of baptism; the clothing, in some sense, of the faith which before was bare, and which cannot exist now without its proper law. 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. Accordingly, all thereafter who became believers used to be baptized. Then it was, too, that Paul, when he believed, was baptized; and this is the meaning of the precept which the Lord had given him when smitten with the plague of loss of sight, saying, "Arise, and enter Damascus; there shall be demonstrated to thee what thou oughtest to do," to wit-be baptized, which was the only thing lacking to him. That point excepted, he bad sufficiently learnt and believed "the Nazarene" to be "the Lord, the Son of God." (Ibid.; source)

Victorinus (ca. 270-303)

15. "And His voice as it were the voice of many waters."] The many waters are understood to be many peoples, or the gift of baptism that He sent forth by the apostles, saying: "Go ye, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." (Victorinus Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John; source)

For more on the witness of the early Church please consult this source.

Contradictory or Conciliatory Baptismal Formulas?

Another argument used to prove that the Trinitarian formula is a later insertion is to show from the book of Acts that none of the Apostles ever baptized people into the name of the Triune God. Instead, they baptized individuals in the name of the Lord Jesus:

"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 shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’" Acts 2:38

"But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women… for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." Acts 8:12, 16

These references are used to somehow prove that Matthew 28:19 could not have been part of the original text since why would the Apostles not use this Trinitarian formula if Jesus had indeed given such an instruction?

There are a couple of problems with this assertion. First, the most that the Apostles’ practice of baptizing people in Jesus’ name (as opposed to the Trinity) proves is that Acts and Matthew are in contradiction. These references do very little to support the argument that Matthew didn’t originally contain the baptismal formula. Lest the readers misunderstand the point we are making, we do not believe that these inspired books contradict each other. We are simply illustrating the fact that to claim that since the Apostles baptized in Jesus’ name alone this therefore somehow shows that Matthew 28:19 is a later insertion simply does not follow. It may still be the case that both sets of passages are part of the original documents (which the evidence that we have presented here shows that 28:19 is definitely part of the original text) and that, at best, this only shows that we have contradictory accounts.

Now regarding whether these texts are contradictory, a careful analysis of them will show that this is the furthest thing from the truth. The statements can be easily harmonized with one another. The citations from the book of Acts are not giving us the formula used by the Apostles during the actual act of baptism. Rather, they are simply indicating the authority the Apostles had to perform and proclaim the things they did. In other words, the Apostles’ reference to "the name of the Lord Jesus" simply meant that the resurrected Christ had given them the right to proclaim the Gospel, to perform miracles, and to baptize converts into the Christian community:

"The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!’ And he said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’" Luke 10:17-20

"and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem." Luke 24:47

"Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful to ask alms of those who entered the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s, astounded. And when Peter saw it he addressed the people, ‘Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And his name, by faith in his name, has made this man strong whom you see and know; and the faith which is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.’" Acts 3:1-16

"To him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." Acts 10:43

The expression was the Apostles’ way of invoking the power and authority of the risen Lord to do and say the things they did. It had nothing to do with the words spoken or the formula being used during the actual immersion of the believers into the waters of baptism.

More importantly, even if we were to somehow assume that Acts is referring to the formula used in the act of baptizing converts, this still wouldn’t be a contradiction. Note once again what the texts actually say:

"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," Matthew 28:19

"And he commanded them to be baptized IN THE NAME OF Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days." Acts 10:48

According to the Holy Bible the name of God is Yahweh, which the Greek version of the inspired Hebrew Scriptures rendered as Kyrios or Lord:

"God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, "The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you": this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.’" Exodus 3:15

"And God said to Moses, ‘I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them.’" Exodus 6:2-3

And according to the New Testament Jesus’ name is Yahweh or Lord:

"yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist." 1 Corinthians 8:6

"Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit." 1 Corinthians 12:3

"Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at THE NAME OF Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Philippians 2:9-11

What this basically means is that the name of Jesus that the believers were to be baptized into is the Divine name of God, i.e. Yahweh or Lord, which is the very same name of both the Father and the Holy Spirit:

"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." 2 Corinthians 3:17-18

Thus, baptizing persons into the name of Jesus or into the name of the three Persons essentially comes out to mean the same thing, since the name of all three is Yahweh.

This would also imply that it is Christ’s authority as the sovereign Lord or Yahweh that enables believers to do the things that they do for his immortal glory.

Theological Implications

It is obvious why some would want to cast doubt upon the veracity of Matthew 28:19 since this passage is an explicit testimony to the full Deity and coequality of the three Persons of the Godhead. An examination of the text within its immediate context shows that the Lord Jesus clearly believed and taught that God existed as three distinct and coequal Divine Persons:

"Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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 (onoma tou patros kai tou huiou kai tou hagiou pneumatos), teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’" Matthew 28:16-20

Here, the resurrected Christ is worshiped by his followers, claims to have received universal sovereignty, points to his sharing the one Divine name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit, and states that he is omnipresent since he promises to be with all believers to the very end of the age!

Another interesting point about this text is that it repeats the definite article (Greek tou) before all three of the Divine Persons and applies the conjunction "and" (Greek kai) before the Son and Holy Spirit, which is significant in showing that they are truly distinct from one another. According to a monograph published by Granville Sharp in 1798 regarding the use of the article in the New Testament, one of his rules (specifically the sixth rule) shows that since Matthew 28:19 uses the kai-article construction before the words Father, Son, Holy Spirit, this therefore demonstrates a distinction in their Persons. This fact refutes the claims of Modalists that the three are different manifestations of a singular Person.

Moreover, seeing that the first two nouns (i.e., "the Father," "the Son") definitely refer to Persons, we can safely assume that the third noun (i.e., "the Holy Spirit") also has a Person in view, a fact confirmed elsewhere by Matthew:

"When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you." Matthew 10:19-20

The Holy Spirit speaks through the Apostles, a clear indication of his Personhood and omnipresence. After all, the only way that the Spirit could be with all of the disciples simultaneously so as to assist them during their trials and tribulations is he if were able to be at more than one place at the same time!

Hence, since Matthew 28:19 groups three distinct Persons together under the same Divine name we therefore have very good and strong grounds for thinking that these Persons all exist as the one God.

Noted Bible expositor, the late John Gill, commented on the implications and significance the Trinitarian formula has on the doctrine of the blessed Trinity:

in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost;
by the authority of these three divine persons, who all appeared, and testified their approbation of the administration of this ordinance, at the baptism of Christ: and as they are to be invocated in it, so the persons baptized not only profess faith in each divine person, but are devoted to their service, and worship, and are laid under obligation to obedience to them, Hence a confirmation of the doctrine of the Trinity, there are three persons, but one name, but one God, into which believers are baptized; and a proof of the true deity both of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; and that Christ, as the Son of God, is God; since baptism is administered equally in the name of all three, as a religious ordinance, a part of divine instituted worship, which would never be in the name of a creature. This is the first, and indeed the only, place in which the Trinity of persons is expressed in this order, and in the selfsame words… (Source)

In light of the foregoing, it is not hard to see why anti-Trinitarians would want to simply do away with this text and why this happens to be one of the favorite passages used by Trinitarians in support of their position.

All scriptural quotations taken from the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Holy Bible.

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