In a standard sentence, there is a subject, verb, and object. The subject is the one who is acting. The verb is the action. The object is that which is acted upon. The relationship of the action to the subject is known as the voice of the verb. In the Greek language, there are three voices: active, passive, and middle. The active voice is where the action in the verb is projected by the subject onto an object other than the subject (Spot bit the mailman). When the passive voice is used, the subject is the object (The mailman was bitten on Tuesday). When the middle voice is used, the subject is acting upon himself, who is also the object (The mailman bit himself). In English we usually translate the middle voice with the reflexive pronoun, himself.
The middle voice in Acts 22:16 presents us with an interesting question. Ananias tells Saul, “And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” The word for “baptized” in this verse is BAPTISAI. The form is aorist tense, middle voice, and imperative mood. On this particular form, Robertson in his “Word Pictures” says that it is “not passive.”/1 The aorist passive form would be BAPTISQHTW (Acts 2:38). Given the definition of the middle voice, one might ask, “Was Saul commanded to baptize himself?”
The “mikvah” was a Jewish ritualistic immersion practiced in the first century. This involved immersing oneself in a vat of water for the purpose of ritualistic cleansing. Mark 7:4 alludes to this practice. In this ritual, the individual did, in fact, immerse himself in water. However, the custom among Christians in the first century was for baptism to be passive. That’s what we find in Acts 2:38, Acts 8:36, and Acts 10:47,48, namely, an aorist passive verb. Especially, however, note Acts 9:18 where the passive voice is clearly used. This indicates that someone else did the baptizing other than the person who was being baptized. So why did Ananias use the middle voice with Saul?
While in classical Greek the middle voice was often used to indicate the subject as the direct object of the verb, in Koine Greek this usage has faded in favor of the reflexive active./2 Instances of the direct middle in the New Testament are quite rare, and this would have to be the kind of middle that is needed for Saul to have been commanded to baptize himself. The direct middle is still used in the Koine period in reference to putting on clothing such as in Acts 12:21, but otherwise has fallen out of usage. So there’s no grammatical reason to think that Ananias was commanding Saul to baptize himself.
So, what is the significance of the middle voice in Acts 22:16? About the middle voice Wallace says, “It may be said that the subject acts ‘with a vested interest.'”/3 Robertson says, “The middle calls special attention to the subject … the subject is acting in relation to himself somehow.”/4 Three types of middle voice applications may be considered: the causative middle, the permissive middle, or the indirect middle.
In the causative middle Wallace states, “the subject has something done for or to himself or herself. As well, the subject may be the source behind the action done in his/her behalf.”/5 He then says that this usage is rare. In the permissive middle, “the subject allows something to be done for or to himself or herself.”/6 Wallace states that the permissive middle is also rare. In the indirect middle, which Wallace says is common in the New Testament, “the subject acts for (or sometimes by) himself or herself, or in his or her own interest. The subject thus shows a special interest in the action of the verb.”/7
There are good reasons to think that this middle could be any one of the three. It could be the causative middle because Saul was the one deciding whether or not he would submit to baptism. He was the cause of his own baptism because it was of his own volition that Ananias baptized him. With such an understanding, the verb would be translated, “Cause yourself to be baptized.” That would be consistent with Ananias’s previous question and command, “What are you waiting on? Arise! …”
The permissive middle also makes sense. This is the view that Wallace holds. In this regard, the permissive middle implies consent or permission. Saul was thus baptized because he allowed Ananias to baptize him. The verb would be translated, “Permit yourself to be baptized.” Such a view isn’t quite as consistent with Ananias’ previous question and command, however, nor is it consistent with the imperative mood in the context. It would be tantamount to Ananias saying, “You must do this, but only if you want to.”
However, this could be an indirect middle in that Saul’s decision to be baptized was for his own benefit, i.e. the washing away of his sins. That might be what Ananias was emphasizing. “Be baptized for yourself.” In other words, it was specifically for Saul’s benefit, and no other, that Ananias commanded him to be baptized. Such a view doesn’t conflict with Ananias’ previous question and command, and meshes quite well with the command to wash away his sins.
In the Grammar, Robertson says that Acts 22:16 is the causative or permissive middle./8 He says it is the causative middle in the “Word Pictures.”/9 However, his Baptist prejudice clearly shows through in his comments on this passage. Thus, his labeling this as a causative or permissive middle is suspect. Wallace also says, “The causative middle is thus an indirect middle or occasionally a direct middle as well,” implying that the causative is really a subcategory of the indirect or direct middle./10 So, it is likely not a causative middle.
Wallace lists this passage as a permissive middle, but relies heavily upon Robertson’s prejudiced comments. Robertson bases his comments upon the idea that one would have to translate the indirect middle here in an instrumental way. However, this is not necessarily true. The indirect middle could be translated in a dative way. Wallace says, “with the indirect middle it is as if the reflexive pronoun in the dative case had been used.” So, Robertson’s prejudiced comments are not necessarily valid./11
I’m inclined to view this as an indirect middle. The causative and permissive middles are rare, as Wallace said, and the indirect middle is common. Moreover, given what Ananias said would be the result of being baptized, namely, washing away Saul’s sins, we see a direct benefit for Saul’s being baptized, which is what the indirect middle is all about. The indirect middle is consistent with the imperative mood which is used consistently in the verse. The indirect middle is also more closely aligned to the basic concept of the middle voice in Koine Greek. And given the idea that the indirect middle may be understood as a dative, I don’t see that there would be any doctrinal reason not to translate it this way. I just don’t see any necessary reason to say that this is the causative or permissive middle (though it could be), and, given their rarity, I believe that that would have to be clearly demonstrated to conclude that it is.
In that regard, Acts 22:16 should be understood as follows: “And now, why are you waiting? Arise, and for your own benefit, be baptized and wash away your sins, calling upon the name of the Lord.”
1/ Robertson, A.T., Word Pictures of the New Testament, see Acts 22:16 in E-Sword.
2/ Wallace, Daniel B., Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 416.
3/ Ibid, p. 415.
4/ Robertson, Grammar, p. 804.
5/ Wallace, Ibid, p.423.
6/ Ibid, p.425.
7/ Ibid, p.419.
8/ Robertson, Grammar, p.808.
9/ Robertson, Supra, n.1.
10/ Wallace, Ibid, p.424
11/ Robertson says, “If APOLOUSAI were an indirect middle, the idea would be ‘wash away your sins by yourself.’ -? also thoroughly unbiblical.” He bases his comments on BAPTISAI largely upon his beliefs about what APOLOUSAI couldn’t mean in this passage with the understanding that it be translated as an instrumental. But why couldn’t both BAPTISAI and APOLOUSAI have a dative connotation? i.e., “Be baptized for yourself and wash away your sins for yourself?” I don’t see any grammatical reason why it couldn’t.
How should the middle voice in Acts 22:16 be understood?