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As Peter spoke the word to Cornelius and his household, they received the Holy Spirit:

Then answered Peter, `The water is any one able to forbid, that these may not be baptized, who the Holy Spirit did receive -- even as also we?' (Acts 10:47 YLT)

μήτι τὸ ὕδωρ δύναται κωλῦσαί τις τοῦ μὴ βαπτισθῆναι τούτους οἵτινες τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον ἔλαβον ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς

Of Peter's question Heinrich Meyer comments, The water is in this animated language conceived as the element offering itself for the baptism.1Similarly Oscar Cullmann notes, Certainly there is here a personification of the water.2

Is it reasonable to say Peter personifies water and if so, what is the significance?


1. Henrich Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament
2. Oscar Cullmann, Baptism in the New Testament, SCM Press LTD., 1964, 9. 74

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  • (1). Is it reasonable to say Peter personifies water ? - Reasonable, yes. (2). Certainly there is here a personification of the water. - Not certainly, but not impossible either. – Lucian Aug 20 '20 at 6:26
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Great question. The English translation by Paton Gloag of Heinrich Meyer’s originally German commentary1 is accurate, so onto the question at hand.

Thayer interprets the phrase in Acts 10:47 likewise, stating,2

τί, followed by τοῦ μή, can anyone hinder the water (which offers itself), that these should not be baptized? Acts 10:47;

LSJ3 states that κωλύω can be used with an accusative of the person to mean “hinder,” so the syntax of Acts 10:47 does not preclude such an interpretation (although it does not demand it).

c. acc. pers., hinder, Th.1.35; τοὺς δρῶντας μοχθηρά Arist.EN1113b26.

In the clause in question in Acts 10:47, the indefinite pronoun τις (“anyone”) is the subject of the verb combination κωλῦσαί δύναται (“can [anyone] forbid”), and τὸ ὕδωρ (“the water”) is declined in the accusative case4 as the direct object of the verb combination κωλῦσαί δύναται.

Regarding the possible personification of “water,” David Michael Stanley wrote,5

It is difficult to explain this astonishing personification of the baptismal water except in terms of Peter’s awareness that the water was the efficacious symbol of the living Spirit.

Footnotes

        1 „Das Wasser ist in der lebhaften Rede als das zur Taufe sich selbst darbietende Element aufgefasst.“
        2 Thayer, p. 366, κωλύω,
        3 LSJ, p. 1017, κωλύω, 4.
        4 Being a neuter-gendered noun, yes, τὸ ὕδωρ is spelled the same declined in the [singular number] nominative and accusative case, but τις is clearly declined in the nominative case and thus the subject of the verb. Therefore, we know that τὸ ὕδωρ is declined in the accusative case, functioning as the direct object.
        5 Stanley, p. 210


References

Stanley, David Michael. Theological Studies. “The New Testament Doctrine of Baptism: An Essay in Biblical Theology.” Vol. 18, Issue 2: 169–215. May 1, 1957.

Wilke, Christian Gottlob. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Being Grimm Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti. Trans. Thayer, Joseph Henry. Ed. Grimm, Carl Ludwig Wilibald. Rev. ed. New York: American Book, 1889.

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No, it was not a personification. Let me parse the Greek.

The subject is any one.
τις (tis)
Interrogative / Indefinite Pronoun - Nominative Masculine Singular

The modal verb is can or able.
δύναται (dynatai)
Verb - Present Indicative Middle - 3rd Person Singular

to forbid is the verb infinitive.
κωλῦσαί (kōlysai)
Verb - Aorist Infinitive Active

The water is not performing any action.
water is the object.
ὕδωρ (hydōr)
Noun - Accusative Neuter Singular

Berean Literal Bible
"Is anyone able to withhold the water to baptize these who have received the Holy Spirit, just as we also have?"

The water is not acting. It is not a personification.

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