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1 Peter 3:21 has been called ‘the nearest approach to a definition of 'baptism that the NT affords’, yet the key phrase συνειδήσεως ἀγαθῆς ἐπερώτημα εἰς θεόν is notoriously ambiguous and thus open to divergent interpretations. This article considers under-utilized comparative material from the early Christian tradition to shed light on the passage. Five sources are investigated: the early baptismal catechesis known as the Two Ways tradition; the interpretations of the verse put forward by Basil of Caesarea, ps.-Didymus the Blind, and Cyril of Alexandria; and finally the translation of the verse in the Syriac Peshitta version. Several of these texts associate the ἐπερώτημα of 1 Peter with the ὁμολογία of the baptizand, a conjunction of terms that, as has long been noted, also occurs in legal contracts in the papyri. Moreover, the evidence of these early sources supports a subjective reading of the genitive in the Petrine verse, and also demonstrates some diversity with respect to the content of the ‘pledge’, with some authors highlighting moral commitment and others emphasizing correct belief. Hence, the view of baptism as a formal contract with subsequent binding force on the parties involved remains constant from 1 Peter through these later sources, and represents 1 Peter’s contribution to early Christian baptismal theology.


Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry

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Journal Article

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