When did the Philippian Jailer believe? – Some thoughts concerning language and logic.


The account of the conversion of the Philippian Jailer is found in Acts Ch. 16. The particular verses that I will be considering here are verses 31-34.

I have recently been in dialogue with a thoughtful and gracious fellow “blogger” who has expressed the view, in support of his larger thesis that baptism is necessary for salvation, that the Philippian Jailer did not actually believe “successfully” until after his baptism.

There are two statements in particular where he expresses this view:

“The belief was not established until he was baptised”


“. . baptism occurred before the jailer and the family were stated as having successfully believed in God and been saved”.

The second of these statements is the fuller one, and, I think, broadly encompasses the first, and is the one I will be “working with” in this post.

Now, in this post, I do not want to enter into the debate about baptism and salvation -although I feel that the rather “committed” view of the correspondent does not seem  readily to fit the account of Cornelius in Acts 10:1 to 11:18.  I  do think however, that, Scripturally, baptism is required of believers, and so all Christians should be baptised, and as soon as reasonably possible – if they have not already done so.

I do recognise however, that if baptism really did precede an established or successful belief in the case of the Philippian jailer and his “house”, then the inference might be drawn, given this temporal precedence, that there was a causal association between the two events. Of course, this would only be an inference – after all, my grandmother was born before the First World War, but there would need to be more data before a causal relationship could be definitively established!

However, leaving aside this “bigger picture”, I wish simply to investigate the statement –

“. . baptism occurred before the jailer and the family were stated as having successfully believed in God and been saved”

– in the light of logic and the Scriptural data.

I believe this statement, well-intentioned as it is, cannot, as it stands, be analysed in terms of  strict logic because it does not, in my current thinking anyway, actually meet the requirements for an analysable proposition – despite appearances to the contrary!

How can I claim such an apparently unlikely thing?!

Well . . . .

Acts 16:33-34 says, (in literal translation):

v.33: “And having taken them in that hour of the night he washed [them] from the stripes; and was baptised he with his all immediately.”

v.34: “And having brought them into house his he laid a table [for them], and exulted with all [his] house, having believed in God”.

Now, this is two verses in Scripture, and consists, like all texts, of a sequence of words presented in order. Thus for example, the word “exulted” occurs before the word “having believed”, and not vice versa.

Now, as Christians, we believe that these two verses accurately describe events that actually took place, historically, in a chronological sequence, in Philippi all those years ago.

The question I now wish to ask is, what is the relationship between the order of words on the page of Scripture and the chronological order of historical events in Philippi? Are they of necessity in the same order? Is that how language and history always work?

The answer to these questions is no! Consider an example,

“Fred spent a week in hospital having been injured in a car accident”.

In the sequencing of words on the page, the “week in hospital” occurs before the car accident, but in chronological, historical terms, the week in hospital comes after the car accident!

The expression “having been injured” is, grammatically, a participle of antecedent action. This means that the clause in which it occurs refers back to a time before the main clause  (the one about the week in hospital) even though spatially, i.e.  in the sentence, it occurs afterwards,

So, when referring to words on a page, the word “before” refers to spatial location in a spatial sequence. When referring to events in time, the word before refers to temporal location in a temporal sequence.

In fact, we have an example of just this non-correspondence of spatial and chronological order in Acts 16:34: the jailer rejoiced having believed in God.

In terms of words on the page, the rejoicing is stated before the believing is stated. But, in chronological order, the rejoicing “event” follows the believing “event”: he rejoiced after he believed!

Now this explains my difficulty with the sentence,

“. . baptism occurred before the jailer and the family were stated as having successfully believed in God and been saved”

The word “before” occurs in this sentence, but the expression preceding the word “before” is referring to a historical event in time (“baptism occurred”), but, the expression afterwards (“the prisoner and the family were stated as having successfully believed God and been saved”) refers to the physical, spatial location of that statement in the sequence of statements in Scripture.

This sentence or proposition is therefore not properly analysable since we do not know whether to interpret “before” in its spatial or in its temporal sense: we have a temporal expression before and a spatial one afterwards! It’s a bit like saying, “As an early riser, I usually get up before chapter 3 of Great Expectations!”

The reason why, in English, it is possible to make non-analysable statements like this is that the single English word “before” has a plurality of meanings – two of them being spatial (i.e. something is located in space before something else) and temporal (an event in time occurs before another event in time.) If we had two different words in English for these two separate meanings, I don’t think it would be so easy to construct statements, such as the one I am looking at in this article,  where the two different meanings are inappropriately “fused together”.

Well, how could the statement be amended?

One possibility is to say something like,

“The statement about baptism occurs before the statement about believing (in Acts 16:33-34)”

This is clearly a properly formed and true statement, but, it does not, as we have seen, unambiguously address the temporal relationship of the two events, and  we are really interested in this temporal relationship.

OK, suppose we were to say,

“The Philippian jailer and his household were baptised before they successfully believed in God”.

This is a properly formed and analysable statement. But is it true?

Well, let’s look at what scripture actually says. The word for “having believed” occurs in the linked clauses,

“and he exulted with all his house having believed in God”.

It is the word pepisteukos – it is a perfect participle of antecedent action. It therefore tells us that the believing occurred at some time before the “exulting”: the believing came first in time, and then the exulting followed later. We can reasonably infer a casual connection here, although that is not a necessary part of the argument I am suggesting at this point.

All we know in the case of perfect participles of antecedent action is that the event referred to occurred before the event in the related main clause. It does not, I believe, tell us how long before, though I welcome correction on this important point.

The blogger whom I referred to earlier would, I know, like to narrow this down, and say,  or perhaps even insist, that the believing occurred after the baptism and before the exulting. But, in my view, I suggest there appears to be no way of demonstrating this – it therefore, to me, remains plausible, but not provable. From the context, it would be reasonable to infer that the believing occurred some time after the event described in v. 31 – since presumably, Paul would not enjoin the jailer to carry out an action which had already taken place, but, beyond that, I do not think there is any totally objective, “presupposition-free” way of determining precisely when the believing event took place.

I have however, carried out a structural/chiastic analysis of Acts 16:31-34 which strongly points to 1) the Philippian jailer’s belief occurring in consequence of Paul and Silas speaking the word of the Lord to him (described in v.32), and 2) the various good actions of the jailer, described in verses 33 and 34 following as a result of that belief. This analysis can be found in the “chiastic and other structures” section of the website.

If what I have said is correct, it does demonstrate that ensuring propositions are properly formed can play a significant part in our reasoning with regard to Scripture.

Please let me know whether you agree with all this! I’ll gladly retract any or all of it if required!

Categories: Language and Logic

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