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Translation and Interpretation of Acts 22:16
By Gary F. Zeolla
Acts 22:16 is an important Bible verse, especially to those who believe one has to be baptized to be saved or, more so, that baptism is the means or method by which one is saved. For the purposes of this article both of these slightly different positions will both be called "baptismal regeneration."
But does this verse really support such a position? This article will first look how at the verse is translated in the New King James Version (NKJV) and the Literal translation of the Bible (LITV). It will be asked whether the baptismal regenerationist interpretation of the verse as it is worded in these version is really correct.
Then this article will look at the translation of the verse in this writer's own version, the Analytical-Literal Translation (ALT). The reason for the somewhat unique translation in the ALT will be explained phrase by phrase. Then this differing translation will be looked at for how it affects the interpretation of the verse.
Acts 22:16 in the NKJV and LITV
NKJV: "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord."
LITV: "And now what do you intend? Rising up, be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord."
For the context, in this verse Paul is relating his conversion experience to a gathering of Jews after being arrested in the Temple. After being blinded on the road to Damascus. He was led to Damascus where he met Ananias. Ananias is now telling Paul what he must do.
The translation of the first phrase is somewhat different in these versions but not significant to this discussion. So it will not be discussed in detail. It will just be said that either rendering is possible.
The important section begins with the words "Arise" (NKJV) or "Rising up" (LITV). The Greek word here is a participle. The LITV generally renders participles with the English present participle. It generally does not make a decision on the use or function of the participle. But most versions do make such decisions. There are ten different possible functions of participles in Greek.
These ten functions are listed and explained briefly in the chapter “Grammatical Renderings: Part Four.” They are summarized from A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament by H.E. Dana and Julius Mantey, pp. 226-229.
The NKJV is taking the participle as having an imperatival force. That is to say, it is being used as a command. It is the tenth use listed in the above article and perfectly legitimate. It can be seen in Mark 5:23; 1Pet 2:18; 3:1; Rom 12:9. And a command fits the context here. Ananias is telling Paul what he must do in light of his predicament. The LITV is rendering the participle in the most basic and non-interpretive manner.
The rest of the verse is basically the same in these two versions, with only a couple of insignificant differences. Paul is first told to "be baptized." This statement is an imperative in the Greek, which again is a command. So Paul is first being commanded to "Arise" and now he is being commanded to "be baptized."
Next is the phrase, "wash away your sins." The words "wash away" is a translation of one Greek word, which is also an imperative. So Paul is being given another command. Along with arising and being baptized, he must also wash away his sins.
It is here that baptismal regenerationists think they have support for their beliefs. It is claimed the baptism is the means by which Paul is to wash away his sins. However, there is nothing in the structure and order of the verse to commend this interpretation.
As indicated, there are two imperatives in a row; Paul is being given two (three if you count "Arise") commands. These are separate and distinct commands. In no way can "be baptized" be the means by which the washing away is to be done.
If this were what was meant, the commands would have to be reversed. Moreover, there would have to be some kind of instrumentality. In other words, it would need to read, "wash away your sins by being baptized." But the word order and grammar of the sentence does not even come close to allowing such a translation.
So what Paul is left with are two or three commands. But the last one is rather vague. The meaning of "Arise" is rather obvious. The command, "be baptized" is clearer, assuming one knows what baptism is. But how is Paul to "wash away" his sins?" Since baptism, grammatically, cannot be the means for doing so, what is? Maybe the next phrase will give a clue.
The next phrase is, "calling on the name of the Lord." The word "calling" is again a participle. In this case, both the NKJV and LITV are simply rendering it by an English participle. So neither appears to be making a decision as to the use of the participle in the verse.
Now it is perfectly legitimate to render it as such. It is also possible the versions are taking it as a "circumstantial participle," which is to say, as an additional thought added to the sentence. In this case, it would mean that along with or while arising, being baptized, and washing away his sins, Paul is also to be calling on the Lord.
However, such a rendering makes calling on the Lord almost an afterthought. It sounds like a good thing to do along with everything else, rather than something of vital significance. But since God is the only One who can forgive sin, it seems difficult to understand how calling on His name could be an afterthought.
Acts 22:16 in the ALT
The translation of Acts 22:16 in the ALT helps to clear up some of these difficulties. It reads:
And now, why are you delaying? Having gotten up, get yourself baptized, and get yourself washed [or, purified] [of] your sins, you [or, sins by you] yourself calling on the name of the Lord.’ [cp. Acts 2:21]
As can be seen, this translation differs from both the NKJV and LITV is several ways. Each phrase will be looked at in turn, with an explanation of the translation and how it affects the interpretation.
"And now, why are you delaying?"
This phrase is basically the same as the NKJV's translation. As indicated, either rendering from above is grammatically possible; but this translation better fits the context. Paul needs to stop delaying and take some action to remedy his predicament.
"Having gotten up"
The ALT translates this participle as a participle. The translation differs from the LITV since this is an aorist participle, and the ALT renders this form as indicating the action of the participle precedes the action of the verb. It also differs since it uses a more modern term for describing the action.”
"get yourself baptized"
With this phrase the ALT begins to differ significantly from the NKJV and LITV. The word "yourself." is included as the verb is in the middle voice. Most version do not try to render the Greek middle voice into English as "... English knows no approximate parallel" (Dana and Mantey, p.156). As such, it is difficult to translate.
However, the middle voice is important. It shows there is an emphasis on the subject of the sentence, and that the subject is in some way involved in the action. There are four possible uses for the middle voice. These are outlined in the chapter Grammatical Renderings: Part Two.
The first possibility is the "direct middle." Taking this phrase in this sense would have it rendered, "baptize yourself." Some lexicons do indicate the middle voice of the verb baptizo could be rendered as "dip yourself" (Friberg and Baur). But these lexicons are referring to “dipping” in the sense of bathing not baptism.
In the sense of baptism, this rendering would be rather awkward in practical terms. Another person generally baptizes a person.
Another possibility is the "permissive middle." It would be rendered, "let yourself be baptized." This would possibly fit here. But no lexicon was found which supported such a rendering.
A third use of the middle voice is the "reciprocal middle." But it only applies when two or more people are involved in the action. In this case, Paul is the only one to be baptized. So it wouldn't fit here.
The most common usage of the middle voice is the "indirect middle" (Dana and Mantey, p.160). So by default, if another usage of the middle voice is not clearly indicated by the context, the indirect middle should be used. Moreover, Dana and Mantey specifically indicate the translation of this phrase in this verse should be "get yourself baptized" (p.162). Fritz Rienecker, in his Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, gives the same translation for this verse (p.324). A.T Robertson, in his Word Pictures in the New Testament, gives the translation of “get thyself baptized.”
So with specific grammatical support and following the suggestions of these Greek scholars gives the ALT the above indicated translation, "get yourself baptized."
This translation clearly shows the imperatival nature of the verb. Paul is being given a command. Moreover, the point of the middle voice is, it is Paul himself, and not someone else, who needs to be baptized.
"and get yourself washed [fig., purified] [of] your sins"
The verb in this phrase is also in the middle voice. So once again, "yourself" is included in the translation. Again, the middle voice shows it is Paul himself, not someone else, who needs to have his sins washed away.
Second, is the word "washed." Both the NKJV and LITV have "wash away." But this word is used only one other time in Scripture, in 1Cor 6:11. The verse reads in the NKJV, "And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God."
What is interesting here is, this is now Paul writing to the Corinthians using the same word to describe their experience as the one he was commanded with. More to the point of this discussion, the word is translated as simply "washed" not "washed away." The latter, in fact wouldn't even fit in the context of 1Cor 6:11. The LITV also has "washed."
So with the word only being used twice in Scripture, and since it is first Paul being commanded by this word, then him using the word, it is fitting to translate the word consistently in both instances. Since "washed away" would not fit in 1Cor 6:11, "washed" is used in the ALT for Acts 22:11 and 1Cor 6:11 to show it is the same word being used.
Moreover, the verb in 1Corinthians is significantly also in the middle voice. So again, Paul is using the same phraseology to the Corinthians that was used to him. So in the ALT, the phrase in 1Cor 6:11 is translated, "you* yourselves were washed [or, purified]."
The asterisk after "you" indicates it is plural. Paul is referring to the Corinthians in general. Moreover, the middle voice, again being taken as an indirect middle, puts the emphasis on the Corinthians. It was they themselves, not others, who were washed.
Note also, in both verses, the figurative rendering of "purified" is given. This rendering is included in the ALT as two different lexicons give "purify" as the figurative meaning of the Greek word (Friberg and Louw and Nida). But since it is a figurative and not literal meaning of the word it is bracketed rather than used in the text itself. It does, however, bring out the sense of the passages. The "washing" the Corinthians underwent, and that is Paul is to undergo, purifies of sins.
The last point in this phrase is "[of] your sins" rather than just "your sins." The word "sins" is an accusative, and accusatives are generally rendered without using a preposition preceding it. But “of” is needed given the translation of the verb. So “of” is added in brackets.
So putting the above two phrases together, Paul himself, not someone else, is being commanded to do two things: one is to get himself baptized; the second is to get himself washed (purified) of his sins.
Notice the ALT consistently renders the two middle voice imperatives in a similar manner. More importantly, there are just that, two separate commands. Again, it is simply impossible that the means by which Paul is to get washed of his sins is by being baptized. These are two commands; one cannot be explaining the other. This fact is even clearer with the ALT rendering than that of the NKJV or LITV.
But just how is Paul to get himself washed or "purified" of his sin? With the figurative rendering of "purified," the possibility of baptism being the means of accomplishing this is even more remote. To answer this all-important question requires a look at the last phrase.
"sins, [or, sins by you] yourself calling on the name of the Lord." [cp. Acts 2:21]
Now comes probably the most important phrase of this verse. It is here the difference between the ALT and the NKJV and LITV really becomes apparent.
First off, the word "calling" is a present participle. As with the preceding imperatives, it is also in the middle voice. It is also in the second person. The above two imperatives were also, but in an imperative, the second person is usually assumed. But with a participle it is not necessarily so. Thus, to show both of these points, the ALT uses "you yourself." Again, Ananias is emphasizing it is Paul himself who must call on the Lord.
But more importantly is the function of the participle. Both the NKJV and LITV render it as a simple participle, using the English present participle to translate it. Neither makes a decision as to how the word is being used. This rendering is reflected in the main text of the ALT.
Paul has just been told to get his sins washed away but is left without information as to how to do so. However, there is a function of the participle specifically designed to indicate the means by which something is done. It is called the "instrumental" participle, the sixth function of the participle listed on the above-mentioned Grammatical Renderings page.
Such a use of the participle is seen, for instance, in Acts 16:16: It reads in the NKJV, "Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling."
The words, "by fortune-telling" are a participle in the Greek. Fortune-telling is the means by which the slave girl brought profit to her masters. Similarly, the means by which Paul is to get washed of his sins is "by calling" on the Lord.
In addition, Louw and Nida specifically give a translation of this verse in their Greek-English Lexicon which indicates the instrumental function is being used for the participle. So the alternate [bracketed] rendering of the ALT completes the thought of the verse using a perfectly legitimate function of the participle.
Moreover, if the participle is not to be taken in an instrumental sense, then none of the other nine possible functions of the participle would fit this context. Only two of the other ten would be at all possible.
The first would be to render it as a temporal participle (the second possible listed function). This use indicates a time relation between the particle and main verb of the sentence. The translation would then be, "while calling." The other possibility would circumstantial (the ninth listed function). This usage means the particle is simply adding an additional thought to the sentence. The translation would then be “and call.”
But, again, either of these renderings would still leave the verse "hanging" without any answer as to how Paul is to get washed of his sins. They also still make calling on the Lord sound like an afterthought. So overall, the alternate rendering of the ALT makes the most sense. It is for this reason that this rendering was used as the main text in the first edition of the ALT, with no alternate rendering being given.
However, given the controversial nature of this verse and the uniqueness of this rendering as compared to other versions, for the second edition of the ALT, I thought it best to use the more vague and basic rendering for the main text and to put the more unique rendering in brackets. This does make the text more awkward, but it was the only way to indicate both possibilities. Personally, I believe the alternate rendering is most accurate. But both possibilities are included so that readers can decide for themselves which is most correct.
One minor point, the alternate rendering of the ALT does not include a comma before the final phrase as the NKJV and LITV do. But the original Greek manuscripts had no punctuation marks. So it is a translator’s decision as to where to place them.
And finally, the ALT includes a cross reference to Acts 2:21. The verse reads in the ALT, “And it will be [that] every[one] who himself shall call on the name of [the] LORD will be saved!” And this verse in turn is being quoted from Joel 2:32. So earlier in the Book of Acts and in the Old Testament the idea of calling on the name of the Lord as being the means by which one is saved is seen. Thus the alternate rendering of the ALT fits with the context of the Bible as a whole.
There are a lot of decisions to be made in translating the Bible. One particular danger is allowing ones theology to affect ones translation. I have tried to be extra cautious against doing so. That is why I only included what I personally believe to be the most accurate rendering of this verse as an alternate translation rather than as the main text. This way, I cannot be charged with rendering Acts 22:16 in such a manner as to fit my preconceived bias against the baptismal regenerationist view.
However, it should be noted it that one reason I reject baptismal regeneration is because of the way I believe this verse should be rendered. In other words, it is not my theology affecting my translation decision but my belief in how a verse should best be translated that affects my theology.
In fact, long before I began work on the ALT I indicated my belief that the participle in this verse should be taken in an instrumental sense. This can be seen in my Scripture Workbook in the chapter titled "Questions on Baptism."
Furthermore, the above article should demonstrate that for every phrase in this verse I have specific grammatical reasons for the way the verse is translated but have bent-over backwards to avoid letting my personal theology to affect the translation.
For further details on the translations seen in the ALT, see the Companion Volume to the ALT.
Analytical-Literal Translation of the New Testament of the Holy Bible: Second Edition. Copyright © 1999-20001, 2004 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).
Baur, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. 2nd ed. Trans. and rev. by William Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich and Fredrick W. Danker. Chicago: University of London Press, 1979.
BibleWorks™ for Windows™ Copyright © 1992-1997 Michael S. Bushell. Big Fork, MT: Hermeneutika.
Dana, H.E. and Julius Mantey. A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament. New York: Macmillian, 1955.
Friberg, Timothy and Barbara. Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Copyright © 1994. As found on BibleWorks™ for Windows™.
Green, Jay P. Sr. Literal Translation of the Bible (LITV). LaFayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1976 - 1998.
Hewett, James A. New Testament Greek: A Beginning and Intermediate Grammar. Peabody, MS: Hendrickson Publishers, 1986.
Louw, Johannes and Eugene Nida, eds. Greek-English Lexicon. Second edition, Copyright © 1998 as found on BibleWorks™ for Windows™.
New King James Version (NKJV). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publisher, 1982.
Robertson, A.T. Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament. As found on BibleWorks™ for Windows™.
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The above article was posted on this Web site
February 28, 1999.
It was updated November 7, 2004 to reflect how this verse is rendered in the Second Edition of the ALT.
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