A Note on a Footnote in Mt 28:20

Last Sunday as I was preparing to teach GD I noticed an odd footnote associated with the word “teaching” in Mt 28:20.  This verse is part of a larger passage, the Great Commission of the First Gospel.  The speaker is the resurrected Jesus and the occasion is his departure.  This is the text in the AV:

19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsover I have command you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

This is one of the most theologically dense passages in the entire Gospel so I was not surprised to find various footnotes.  But I was surprised to find this particular footnote, associated with the second occurrence of the word “teaching” in v. 20:

The Greek text suggest this would be post-baptismal teaching.

Weird, eh?  That’s definitely not an answer to any of the first ten or so questions that spring to mind when reading the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel!  So what gives?

Now I am not sure I have all the parts to this puzzle but I have turned up a few interesting things.  These points suggest that the author of that footnote is carrying on an intertextual dialogue in a larger debate over missionary efforts in the Protestant world.

Notice that the verb “to teach” occurs twice in this passage.  The second occurrence reflects a translation of dida,skontej which is the usual word translated “teaching.” The Greek behind the first word, however, is maqhteu,sate which is transitive and should be translated as “make disciples.” So a better translation reads:

19Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatever I have commanded you:

Now I have always understood that this injunction was leveled on Christians regardless of the era in which they live but I have learned that this is not universal.  In fact, at the end of the 18th century the marjority opinion seems to have been that it was not a binding command.  The name associated with the sea change in this state of mind is William Carey.   When he spoke on this subject at a meeting of Baptist ministers in 1787, the presiding officer, Dr. John Ryland, is reported to have said “Young man, sit down; when God is pleased to convert the heathen nations he will do it without your help or mine.”  Some years later, however,  Dr. Rylands became one of Carey’s supporters.

Another facet of this debate over missionary work in the Protestant world apparently has (had) to do with what exactly was required to “make disciples.”  Specifically, the questions posed had to do with whether the person being evangelized had to be joined to a local church or if the Commission was fulfilled by lesser efforts such as street preaching, the distribution of tracts, or an accepted invitation to prayer.  This seems to be at least part of what stands behind the Protestant terms “churched” and “unchurched.”

So it would appear that the author of that footnote has taken a position in the Protestant debate.  The Commission to make disciples is fulfilled by baptism, which joins a proselyte to a local church, and then by a period of post-baptismal instruction in which the new member is taught the demands of discipleship by the leaders of his or her local church.

And that, FWIW, seems to be what is behind the odd footnote associated with the word “teaching” in Mt 28:20.  If you can fill in more of the details, however, please do so!

8 Replies to “A Note on a Footnote in Mt 28:20”

  1. Nice post, Mogs. Do you think it is possible that you are giving the author of said footnote too much credit? Like maybe they were simply making an observation on the order of the commandments to teach, baptize, then teach some more?

  2. This makes me think that the footnote was more likely to have come from some other source, not an invention of BRM’s or some LDS correlation committee—is that your sense?

  3. I could, of course, be overreading the footnote. It’s the common reading fault of exegetes. But I don’t really think so.

    Two points: First, if the footnote were not there, I’d never have thought about the distinction it makes until I settled in for some formal exegesis. Did you? Second, the fact that the footnote argues from the Greek text suggests that there’s some sort of debate about it among those that can read Greek. That, in turn, points to an origin outside of LDS circles.

    As for as it’s origin, I dunno. My thought is that Elder McConkie (or somebody) knew of the debate and thought it important enough to take a stand on. (And I’m not really disagreeing.) When I next get into the lieberry, I might check a few other English versions and see what, if any, notes are found in other translations.

  4. I had the same reaction as lxxluthor; it looked to me like a coordination of participles thing. Interesting post, though.

  5. Thanks, Justin!

    It is, indeed, a matter of how to read the participles. Myself, I would have read “baptizing” and “teaching” as adverbial, that is, the means by which disciples are made, and left it at that.

    There are many such constructions that do not receive a clarifying footnote. This one, which does, is also a matter of some debate among Protestants. So the evidence is strictly circumstantial but it seems unusual to me that this one gets so much attention. I’ve never, in all my BIC days, heard a Mormon question the temporal relationship of those participles.

  6. I looked through my set of commentaries by Elder McConkie and found nothing on this point. Same result when I checked the CES manual. I checked other LDS commentaries, but I didn’t find any discussion of the Greek in this passage.

    Richard L. Anderson’s following comment in Understanding Paul (1983) was the closest I could find:

    “Christ taught that membership in his Church was necessary for eternal salvation. He charged the apostles to baptize all believers in all nations and then follow up by ‘teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you’ (Matt. 28:19-20). Conversion and baptism only begin the Lord’s program of continued teaching. And no one has authority to alter his command to convert and teach by defining the first as essential to salvation without the second. The true gospel requires the decision for Christ and also the commitment to discipleship of Christ under his authorized servants. In other words, the true gospel requires the true church. And Ephesians joins with 1 Corinthians to indicate what divine organization the Church must have” (i>Understanding Paul, 276).

  7. Hm, yes, that sounds like the same sort of argument, and particularly so in phrases such as “the decision for Christ.” Very interesting, though, that it’s in a book on Paul — maybe because we still lack a first-class commentary dedicated to any single Gospel? It was also one of Paul’s themes, although he didn’t couch it in the same terms as Matthew did.

    Thanks, Justin.

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