As we mix and mingle with Orthodox Christians in Egypt, it is not irregular to discover items in the faith that do not square exactly with what we were taught in Protestant circles in America. This week, while at an end of year conference for the Coptic Bible Institute I have been attending, I learned that Jesus baptized the twelve disciples.
This probably isn’t a make-or-break point of theology, but John 4:1-2 appears to say the opposite:
The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.
The point came up in a discussion of John 13, where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. When Peter protests, Jesus states he must do this for Peter to have a share with him. Peter then swings to the opposite pendulum:
Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!
But Jesus rebutted:
A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean…
The key point to the story is what does the ‘bath’ connote? According to Orthodox theology, it is baptism, by immersion, which makes one pure before God.
Protestants, by comparison, tend to believe that baptism is only a pictorial representation of one’s new identity as a Christian. As one descends into the water, he mirrors Jesus’ death, and when he comes out, he mirrors his resurrection. It is not the water that makes one pure, it is the faith expressed in Jesus which leads one to obey his command to be baptized.
This is not the site to build systematic theology, but it should be noted that Protestant explanation, though justifiable logically and Biblically, does not fit well with Jesus’ simile of a ‘bath’. Nor does it account well for this verse, from Acts 22:16, where the just-converted Paul is told:
Now, what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away.
Before one leans toward Orthodox opinion, however, we must return to the washing of Peter’s feet. The ‘bath’, for them, is baptism, and through it Peter became clean. But when? The gospels give no indication of Jesus ever baptizing. Many of his disciples were baptized first by John, but both Orthodox and Protestants agree this was a baptism of repentance from sin, in preparation for Jesus’ ministry, of whom John said would baptize with the Holy Spirit.
I am certainly not acquainted well with the details of Orthodox baptismal theology, but I learned that the traditions of the church state that Jesus did indeed baptize the twelve disciples. Jesus instructed his disciples to baptize, initiating them in a rite which they were to pass on to others. Logically then, Jesus must have baptized them, inaugurating the movement. Besides, it is baptism that makes one clean, and the disciples needed to be clean in order eventually to multiply the church.
Perhaps the verse quoted above, in which Jesus did not baptize, does not read absolutely. It could be that the Pharisees believed Jesus baptized this great number of followers, but that they were wrong about the multitude, even if right about the twelve. I don’t think it reads naturally that way, but it is possible.
The larger issue seems that Jesus himself defines what made the disciples clean only a short while later. In John 15:3 he states:
You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.
Again, perhaps there is a puzzle in determining what this ‘word’ is, but it does not seem to be the baptismal ‘bath’. If anything, it would seem to align better with Protestant thought that it is faith in the word of Jesus that grants an individual salvation, making him clean before God.
Granted, this is only a very superficial treatment of a deep and often debated theological point. There are other sections of the Bible that can be marshaled in defense of baptismal purification, but on my first look, it does not seem to ground well in the story of Peter and the washing of feet, nor in the discipleship experience of the twelve.
Protestants tend to dismiss tradition too easily. Yet without second level study, I wonder if the tradition of Jesus baptizing the twelve was necessary to backtrack a developed theology of baptismal purification into the ministry of Jesus. Then again, just because a story isn’t told in the Bible does not mean it did not happen. John makes this clear at the end of his gospel:
Jesus did many other things as well. If everyone one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
Besides, who would know better about these non-recorded acts than ‘tradition’, preserved and passed down through the community of the church?
Those who have studied well on either side of the issue are invited to state their case in the comments of this post. For the rest, and perhaps especially for them, we do well to take care our developed views do not dictate understandings upon the written text. It is there to speak to us, not for us to speak through it.
For those outside the traditions of the Bible, the point is much the same. We cannot live life without adopting overarching explanations for our experiences. These explanations may well be right; we should take confidence in our best efforts to understand. We should teach what we learn, so the other may benefit. Yet humility must triumph, lest knowledge become cemented, along with the ‘other’, defined in opposition.
Humility is a chief point of the story. Jesus, the one who had the greatest claim on overarching explanations, stooped to serve those who knew less. Yet it takes humility also to be served; this is a trait Peter had in short supply. Eager to prove he had the situation figured out, he nearly rejected the one who could teach him the most, oddly enough, in deference to him.
Yet it was this interplay which gave us the story in the first place. As we live our messy lives one with the other, as long as we hold on to our togetherness, we will learn. So doing, we will teach others.
Along the way, may we all become clean, even as we disagree as to how this happens.