On the Authenticity of the Great Commission

Looking over the whole Lead thread on CWOB, this brief aside from Donald Schell jumped out at me:

I will note that ‘The Great Commission’ a poorly attested addition and arguably late addition to Matthew’s Gospel

Ok—let’s talk about this. I’ve seen this kind of thing in several places and it is begging for some informed discussion.

Basically, the bibles that we read from in church are “eclectic texts”. What does this mean? It means that they are translated from a base Greek text that has been compiled from literally thousands of manuscripts by hundreds of scholars who have been at work on this process for about a hundred and fifty years. The goal of this eclectic text is to recover the earliest possible form of the text; to read the books of the New Testament in the state in which they left the authors’ pens—or, at least, the best that we can do towards that.

Our evidence consists of three major bodies of Greek texts and two additional categories. We have three types of Greek biblical texts determined by style of writing and materials which is roughly correlated to age: papyri, uncials, and miniscules.

Papyri tend to be the oldest. That is, we have papyrus fragments of the New Testament that date anywhere from the 7th century (fairly late) to roughly the year 200 (the celebrated papyrus P46). The problem is that the papyri tend to be fragmentary meaning that we only have bits and pieces. P46, for instance, only has parts of the Pauline Letters. Most contain only a few verses. So—they’re old, but very spotty.

Uncials get their name from their letters—all uppercase. Many papyri (particularly the earlier ones) are written in these letters two but the key difference between the two is material: the uncial manuscripts were written on parchment (prepared skin) rather than papyrus (early fiber paper). As a result, the uncials preserved a heck of a lot better than the papyrus. Uncials containing large sections of the Bible were big projects and expensive to produce in Antiquity—we only get them after the legalization of Christianity. Thus, our best, most trustworthy, and most extensive witnesses to the NT text are the big early uncials. There’s a handful of them that are considered the primo references often referred to as the Great Uncials.

Then we have the miniscules. They’re called this because they’re written in lower case characters and they tend to be later than the uncials.

The two other categories are early translations from the Greek into other languages, and citations from the Church Fathers. The latter will become quite important in a moment so file that away…

A whole bunch of Germans (other people too—but mostly Germans) have dedicated their scholarly lives to going through all of the little bits and manuscripts and have sorted them based on the quality of their readings. The best manuscripts are those with the most careful and accurate scribes and that give us a faithful reproduction of the text. Because of their work, we can rank the various manuscripts and sources on how well they represent the earliest recoverable text by specific books. The best are referred to as the “First-Order Witnesses” and these are the places where we go when we want to see what a text said.

Basic procedure for assembling an eclectic text, therefore, is to start with the major first-order witness uncials, create the text where they agree, then supplement from any papyri that are earlier than the actual base uncials in question. Miniscules provide minor evidence.

Going back to original claim on the authenticity of Matthew 28:19 let’s be very clear: There are no first-order witnesses that omit any part of this verse as we are familiar with it. None. One of the major later unicals (D) adds in a “now” that also appears in early pre-Vulgate Latin versions and two uncials (B and D) have a slightly different form of the participle “baptizing”, but  nothing is missing. There are no surviving papyri of Matthew earlier than the Great Uncials that contain this verse. Remember, the papyri are fragmentary—we don’t have an old one that covers this section.

So—where is this claim coming from if there is no hint of it whatsoever in the actual manuscript evidence? A dude named Conybeare noticed that when the early Church Father Eusebius of Caesarea (died 340) cited this verse—and he did it a couple of times—that he consistently cited it in a different form: “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all the nations in my name”. No mention of baptism or of the Triune formula. The argument goes that since Eusebius was writing before the Great Uncials were written, and since Eusebius was relying on the great text-critical work of Origen, he may be referring to an earlier form of the text than the Great Uncials.

Thus, one Father may have recourse to an earlier form. However, nobody else writes it that way and, by way of counter-example, we have Tertullian (died 220 or so) citing the usual form of the verse in his treatise On Baptism (Ch. 13).

The problem with this argument is that there is no way that it can be disproven. We can establish that Tertullian writing around the year 200 in North Africa knew the standard text but that doesn’t rule out Conybeare’s suggestion.

The big problem, as I see it, is that Conybeare’s suggestion (also forwarded by Kirsopp Lake and other contemporaries) rests entirely on a textual paradigm of citation. That is, the assumption is that Eusebius is looking up every passage and copying it word-for-word from an older and possibly unique text that also happens to be better than all of the surviving ones. Rather than, say, writing it from memory in the form he likes it best…

I’ve noted in my other research that Eusebius’s version of the Beatitudes actually was different from the received version—he flips Matt 5:4 and 5. So does Origen, the Great Uncial D, and some of the Latin, Syriac, and Boharic translations. Note that—here there was a material change and it leaves a number of footprints in the tradition…

Furthermore, the Eusebius theory fits handily into a philosophical construct favored by certain modern folks. That is, some people believe that the Church only gradually came to think of a Trinity and therefore they view any mention of the Trinity with suspicion and call it a late addition to the text whether there’s any textual warrant for it or not.

The claim, again, is this:

I will note that ‘The Great Commission’ a poorly attested addition and arguably late addition to Matthew’s Gospel

The evidence is this:

  • The verse appears as received in all of the first-order witness that contain it.
  • One Church Father, Eusebius writing in the early 300s, writes it differently
  • Other earlier Church Fathers don’t write it differently
  • In other cases where Eusebius was looking at a genuinely different text we see signs of that change in other text traditions

On the strength of the actual evidence, then, we’ve got to conclude that, contra the starting claim, the Great Commission in its familiar form is very well attested textually and there is only one hint read through a particular philosophical construct to the contrary.

QED: Not buyin’ it.

24 thoughts on “On the Authenticity of the Great Commission

  1. A K M Adam

    I’ll back you up 100% on this, Derek. And, sadly, that sort of argument just calls Schell’s judgment into question, and makes his other arguments look worse; if they were sound, he wouldn’t need to resort to scraping the barrel’s bottom for this shabby point (or perhaps he can’t tell the difference between an exceptionally weak possibility and a weighty consideration).

  2. Jonathan

    I don’t know if he’s up-to-date on Biblical scholarship, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he isn’t. I certainly know I’m not up-to-date although I’m not clueless, and the only commentary I’d previously heard on that passage held Fr. Schell’s position, so I’d put my money on ignorance rather than intentional misdirection.

  3. Derek Olsen

    I do think that wider ignorance is an issue here. The default teaching seems to be that Trinitarian clauses must be “late” interpolations with primary reference to the infamous Coda in 1 John 5:7-8. Since there is manuscript evidence for an interpolation there, it has become carte blanche to see it everywhere.

    Of course, as one who focuses on the history of the interpretation of the text, it’s always interesting to me to see things like these referred to as “late”—whether it was written in the autograph text or not, these sorts of clauses are significant early interpretations that were adopted and subsequently read and interpreted over many centuries of Christian worship and practice. Dismissing them as “late” and ignoring them henceforth seems to misrepresent (however slightly) our common conversation of faith…

  4. aredstatemystic

    Thanks for this and for your other CWOB writings. I’m with you!

    Reading the CWOB conversations on the Cafe and other places are very disheartening to me; it seems as if many are in an effort to iconoclast their way through our Church until we start growing again. And I can’t help but wonder if we’re losing our soul in the process . . .

  5. Christopher

    Given the orality of cultures in most of our histories, and that quotation of scripture texts often was by memory in many of the Fathers, and of both of these (scripture and patristics) in later divines (Hooker, Andrewes, etc.), it seems a stretch to me that one source omitting something would lead to a determination that the Trinitarian/baptismal portions could be definitively determined as being interpolations. How often do we today even, well me anyway, paraphrase a passage of scripture, patristics, or liturgies in the midst of writing? It fact such a way of engaging texts from memory is a part of solid formation…

    Thanks for adding your chops to what seems fairly standard practice in my reading of such texts and as I have observed the practice of memory as in theological writing.

  6. C. Wingate

    Hmmm…. Since I’m preaching on the Ethiopian eunuch in five weeks, I wonder if I can slip some anti-CWoB in there…. I’m already dreading looking through more modern commentaries and seeing how many of them are going to talk about how it;s all about Inclusion. and bets on how many deem it a “just-so” story explaining Christianity in Ethiopia?

  7. MadPriest

    In my opinion, the important question here is: “Is the Great Commission, in any form, a saying of Jesus or a construct of the early Church?” I don’t know the answer, of course, although it does come across as very churchy. Not that a cult origin would invalidate the Commission, but knowing the source would give useful context for both our understanding of it and its application.

  8. Derek Olsen

    Good question, MadPriest. In fact, I think this is a good enough question that it deserves a post of its own.

    The simple answer is that, in a certain sense, the entirety of all four Gospels (and Paul’s letters and all the other letters) are “constructs of the early Church”. We have no evidence or access that does not come through the channel of the Early Church.

    The other question with which we have to balance it is this: by what mode of God’s revelation did we receive this—did it come out of the mouth of God incarnate (Jesus) or did it come through the agency of the Holy Spirit? And does one mode or the other make it more or less valid?

    And—heading off onto a tangent from that last thought—I must say, one of the things that makes me look oddly at some uber-liberal Episcopalians is their tendency to instantly dismiss the agency of the Holy Spirit in the legislation and witness of the early and medieval church but to absolutely insist on its presence in the legislation and witness of their own church…

  9. MadPriest

    Yes. I have a literal belief in the Nicene and Apostles creeds, but I know they are, at most, a late summation of the beliefs of the Church. But it would be helpful to know where the Great Commission came from as it would give us a clue as to its motivation. For example, are we baptising into the Church?

    There is no Trinitarian reference in the Commission as it does not mention the oneness of the three persons of the Godhead. What we actually have is reference to three “actors” who can also be found in the synoptic gospels and letters of Paul, and we can’t get much further back in time than that.

  10. Derek Olsen

    Ok, MP—I’ve got to take issue with your use of “late” here; because the Apostles’ Creed isn’t late to the degree that it’s a present witness to the faith of the Church in Rome in the second century. Likewise the Nicene Creed was a present witness to the how the bishops gathered at Nicea understood the boundaries of the faith.

    The question, then, is the degree of continuity and fidelity between the faith of the Church at these two points and the faith of the Church that produced the New Testament with the message proclaimed by Jesus and continued by the Spirit. Personally, I see a high degree of correspondence between these four points.

    I’m not really sure what you mean by “are we baptising into the Church?” because I’m not entirely clear on what you’re proposing alternatives to be. At the risk of going on a total tangent that has nothing to do with the question that you’re really asking, let me say a little more about how I see the relationship between the text, Jesus, and the early Church.

    Baptism is Baptism into the Church which is also the mystical Body of Christ which continues to be guided by the Living Jesus. Yes, humans screw it up in all sorts of interesting ways and, as history shows us repeatedly, institutions are fascinatingly effective at concentrating and perpetuating sin on a communal level. But the point that I’ve got to keep going back to is that there is no real difference between baptism into the Church and baptism into the continuity of Jesus’ life & spirit.

    To put it another way… As a biblical scholar, I’m a literary guy, not a history guy. The historical-critical folk, the whole history of the discipline before the mid-twentieth century, they focused on historical questions like what *really* happened and what communities had to have existed to produce whichever hypothetical documents. It’s these guys and their methods that ask the question: did this saying come from Jesus or the Early Church. (Not a put down or anything, just a different approach.) Thinking theologically, I tend to see these folks heading in an Arian direction because of their interest in the material/materialistic aspects and answers that they go looking for. As a literary guy, I’m much more interested in looking for meaning in the text [ETA: canonical text as we have received it] and looking at the history of interp to see how other people have found/made meaning in the text to help us in our execution of the same theological task. Thinking theologically, my tendency is to head to the docetic side; I’m so interested in the thoughts that the historical questions risk fading into the background. What keeps me from docetism (I hope) is an insistence on the historical, material presence of the Sacramental Christ in the Eucharist and in the Church. We have no direct access to the historical Jesus. What we do have access to is the literary (canonical) Jesus narrated in the Gospels and considered in the Epistles and also the sacramental Jesus embodied in our communities, nourished by the sacramental presence. Thus any attempt to look for a “historical Jesus” that throws out these two data clusters at the start is bound to fail and to find something that is skewed from the church’s perspective.

    (Yeah, I’m pretty sure that went in a different direction from where you were but there it is…) :-)

  11. MadPriest

    Oh, I don’t really pay much attention to theology after Constantine so the creeds are well late in my parlance.

    If the Great Commission came directly from Christ then the nature of the baptism referred to would be constricted by how we know Christ understood baptism. If the Great Commission was entirely the construct of the early Church then we can extend the meaning of baptism to include its role in the initiation processes of the churches. If the Commission was added to scripture late in the second century we could consider extending the meaning of baptism to include initiation into the Church (at least as understood by the redactor). Christ’s baptism was about repentance. The Church’s baptism is also about repentance, but it includes references to membership of an institution not specifically mentioned by Christ. In my opinion all are valid. All I am saying is that it would be helpful to know the context of the original commandment.

  12. Derek Olsen

    Ok—I see where you’re going now.

    The way I’d answer it, then, is that we’re not able to get at how Jesus thought about Baptism. Certainly the gospels and Acts emphasize that it bears continuity with John’s baptism but Paul, Acts, and Matthew are all quite clear that it involves not just repentance but incorporation into a community that is both mystical—in that one receives a share in Jesus’s own Holy Spirit—and social. (I’m thinking particularly of the believers Paul runs in to in Acts who have received the Baptism of John but not of Jesus—Luke is clearly saying that there’s a fundamental continuity between the two but is also saying that they are quite distinct.)

  13. MadPriest

    Yes, I agree. I also wish that the Church was the equivalent of that mystical body. But it blatantly is not exactly, and the letters and revelation of the New Testament show that it never has been. I think that there is a sizeable element of ecclesiastical understanding of baptism within the episcopal churches, at least, that baptism is connected to joining the earthly body we call the Church. This manifests itself in ex-communication and the like. It may be that the different baptisms Paul encounters are proof of the denominational disputes of a worldly body rather than proof of there being a difference between Christ’s understanding of baptism and John’s. I cannot think of any saying of Christ in the synoptic gospels that indicate that Jesus believed in anything different to a popular Jewish understanding of baptism. But I’m no Biblical scholar, so please do correct me if I am just being forgetful here.

  14. bls

    Jesus seemed to think baptism was important enough to undergo it himself before beginning his ministry – yes? Wouldn’t this by itself have had some sort of effect on the thinking of the early church?

  15. Derek Olsen

    Well…you’re opening up a couple of complicated cans of worms here. The first is around the “popular Jewish understanding of baptism.” The problem is that we’re not actually clear on what this was! There are remarkably few sources that speak in a straight-forward way concerning the practices within the variety of Late Second Temple Judaisms. We can comb through Philo, Josephus, the Dead Sea corpus, the gospels themselves (!), but all of these have enough of an agenda and a spin that they require a counter-spin to pull them together and try to fit them with the archaeological leavings that we think ought to be around the right time period.

    Did John’s baptism fall within the norms of the time? Well—our sources on John’s baptism are the gospels themselves and a passage from Josephus…if you’re of the group that doesn’t believe that the section was an insertion by later Christian scribes.

    As a result, the very notion of “a popular Jewish understanding of baptism” is problematic and the way that it gets answered tends to be prejudiced by the way you understand the baptisms of John and of Jesus.

    The other can of worms is about the question that we put to the Synoptic Gospels. We can’t just ask “any saying of Christ in the synoptic gospels that indicate that Jesus believed in anything different…” simpliciter since that’s not a question that the Synoptic Gospels would have formulated or are trying to answer. (And I’ll note in passing that we’ve already put both philosophical and methodological constraints on the project by restricting our questioning to the Synoptics apart from John and the Epistles.) Instead the question has to be something more like this: “Do the Synoptic Gospels preserve anything that might be an inadvertent admission that Jesus taught something about baptism and its significance that was not taught by the Early Church but was (or wasn’t) held by late Second Temple Jewish traditions?” Now we have to get into the whole dodgy subject of not just parsing out what is “Jesus” and what is “Early Church” but then also looking at motivation, meaning, and misunderstanding. Can one attempt it? Well, certain scholars have made this sort of task their life’s work and have created a whole cottage industry around it. You’ll also not be surprised to discover that these are the sorts of scholars for whom I have very little patience. I’d ask if we should attempt it and whether the pay-off is worth the amount of philosophical and methodological baggage that inevitably accompanies these sorts of reconstructions.

    Bottom line—the few literary leavings that we have give us amazingly little in the way of solid historical data to go on. Given a lack of data that means we have to resort to philosophical and sociological models to fill in the (abundant) gaps and argue that the data provides evidence that supports on model over and against the others. The result is what you get from the “historical Jesus” quests of the past couple of decades which basically comes down to a fight about which model best incorporates the increasing scant amount of data that people are willing to grant is historical.

    Hence—I’m a literary guy. :-D

  16. Derek Olsen

    (And the reason why I say “philosophical and methodological” like it’s a bad thing is because classically these are the means by which scholars smuggle in their own assumptions, prejudices, and agendas. There’s no way around these, of course, which is why scholars should be as transparent as possible about what their philosophies, assumptions, prejudices, etc. actually are.)

  17. Vicki McGrath


    Here is another thought about what Jesus might have understood/meant about baptism, and I realize that the Jesus Seminar folks would give no credence to this but: Matthew 28:18-20 comes in an experience of the disciples with the resurrected Jesus. My general approach to Jesus’ own consciousness of his divine nature was that it was something that became clearer over time, coming to complete fullness in the resurrection. This is something I’ve thought a lot about because it’s something my parishioners often ask me – sort of ‘what did Jesus know and when did he know it?’ Isn’t it possible that Jesus’ understanding of baptism post-resurrection was fuller and deeper than what he had understood and experienced at his own baptism by John B.? In the light and power of the resurrection, all of life takes on new meaning, including religious rites and symbols as they had been previously known. I know there is no way to prove this, but it makes sense to me.

    Vicki McGrath+

  18. bls

    Well, Derek: Jesus’ baptism was a little…..different than “popular Jewish understanding of baptism,” too. No?

    I mean, I’m fairly sure nobody ever expected doves/Holy Spirits to show up at the mikvah. And then, for the bather to get “driven out into the wilderness” to fast for 40 days and nights.


  19. bls

    (Robert Farrrar Capon – sometimes calls events in the Gospels “enacted parables.”

    Perhaps we can consider baptism/Holy Spirit appearance/wilderness event to be one of these?)

  20. C. Wingate

    Well, it seems to me that we’ve developed a modernist subculture of restorationism which uses this kind Jeffersonian excision as a means of subverting doctrinal points which can’t be talked away from the text itself. So you say, “well, the apostles never foresaw this doctrine which is a late edition, so I can just dismiss you by talking about Constantine and institutionalism and never mind that I’m abusing that institution’s authority to have it ‘teach’ something which historically it has emphatically rejected.”

  21. T Cleophus Abney

    To me Matt 28:19 does not agree with the actions of the early church and the trinity is the major stumbling block to Jews accepting Jesus as the messiah. Romans 1:16 and 2:10 speak to the “Jew first then the Greek or Gentile” so why is Matt:19 in their way? Also in the gospel of John Jesus directs “asking in his name” six times. The early church both baptized and healed in the name of Jesus Christ with no mention of the trinity.
    Could not the enemies of Jesus Christ easily added Matt28:19 to the end of Matthew to purposely discourage Jews from accepting Jesus? They would have more finances and easy access to corrupt Matthew’s gospel in print and destroy the true writings. Stop and think who would benefit the most from this corruption.
    Jesus was a Jew and he came to the Jews first then us. It is hard for me to believe Jesus would he put this great stumbling block of the trinity in the way of his people the Jews.

  22. G Dunn

    Actually Eusebius mentions a short version of the Great Commission eighteen times without the Trinity Formulation and 3 times after Nicea WITH the formulation. But at least one of the previous times the name of JESUS ONLY was emphasized.

    But the main reason why the Trin Formulation is not valid is that the other gospels REDUCE Jesus’ own Commission to emphasize the Holy Spirit rather than any new so-called name of God.

    Mark 16
    15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
    16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
    17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
    18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
    19 So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.
    20 And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.

    Luke 24
    46 And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day:
    47 And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

    Jn 20
    21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.
    22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:
    23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

    Since these gospels were at one time self-autonomous and self-contained, you who affirm the Great Commission having this oddball addition of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” — now the two titles of OTHER entities now called “God” — have a basic problemo.

    The other gospel writers had a forgetful moment. Jesus tells them the new singular “name” of God, and they FORGET to mention in their own gospel how important in the baptism rite this is.

    Okaydokay? The other main problem is also mentioned as a primary source: in the canon text of Acts. 4 TIMES the baptism event is said to have been “in the name of Jesus.” And NONE of any baptism event was said to be done in any oddball “name” of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

    This was the impetus for the Great Pentecostal Split in 1914 by the way.

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