In returning to Philemon for two different purposes lately, I’ve been engaged again in the deep study of this absolute gem of a letter. I’ve been reworking my own translation basted on expanded knowledge and senses of the letter as a whole. Below are some translation-oriented matters that have particularly intrigued me in Philemon verses 6-10:
6 – The expression “partnership/fellowship of faith”—which has so many possibilities that it can make your head spin. At issue here are the numerous ways to understand the genitive case of the noun “pistis,” most often translated “faith”—and also the range of meaning of both nouns individually. “Partnership” (koinonia) can also be “fellowship” or even “contribution.” Although financial concepts do appear in this short letter to Philemon, I rather feel the sense here is more strongly tied to joint effort. I am aware, for instance, of the notable greetings and concluding phrases about fellow-workers and fellow-prisoner. The primary sense of the word “koinonia” here is the work together, the partnership.
Although I am intensely aware th ese days of the NT word “pistis,” insofar as I can tell, I did not come to this passage with a prejudice over whether “pistis” implies mental assent, trust, fidelity (or some combination of the three) in this passage. For the present, however, I’ve ended up with the translation “faithful partnership,” which does lean in an atypical direction, along the lines of author Matthew Bates’s suggestions. (See this post on my Subjects of the Kingdom blog for more on Bates’s book Salvation by Allegiance Alone and the translation of πιστις | pistis.)
6 – The beginning of v6. Just before the expression “partnership” and “faith” appears the word “hopos.” The import of this word is a trifle difficult to narrow down. Traditionally, the words “I pray” have been supplied by translators. (One must supply something in order to have the verse make sense in English.) “I pray that …” is not the only possibility, however. “Hopos,” the lead word, is not nearly as common as its cousins “hina” and “hoti,” which head many clauses in Greek, and which usually mean something along the lines of “in order that” or “because.” The question here is whether “hopos” serves more of an adverbial function (how the next thing relates to the former) or a conjunctive one (joining the two in a different way).
In the BDAG lexicon, a conjunctive sub-type is proposed as a possible fit for Philemon 6. In this sub-type, the word “hopos” essentially replaces an understood infinitive. Accepting this possibility, and reaching back to include the main verb in v4, one comes out with
“I thank God …, (v4)
hearing of your love …, (v5)
and I want to ask that….” (v6)
Why not simply stick with the traditional understanding that Paul is continuing his prayer in v6? Well, because I suspect Paul is moving toward asking something of Philemon instead of God here, and he might be intentionally engaging in a bit of ambiguity. Supplying a verb such as “to ask” can leave both possibilities open.
6 – The word “epignosei.” This word can mean knowledge or full knowledge but seems in the context of Philemon to move in the direction of recognition or awareness of “every good thing.” This expression is used twice in the letter—intentionally so, I’m persuaded.
7 – The word “splangxna.” This interesting word is most often translated “heart,” and it is discursively significant within the Philemon document. The thing is, this is a plural word, and it’s exclusively used in the plural in the NT. Clearly, though, it cannot be translated “hearts” in many instances. At issue here in Philemon are both linguistic and psychological concerns, i.e., how the ancients and we understand the source of human emotions. The King James had “bowels,” which does a nice job with the plural but is obviously ill-advised in our age.
Personally, I’m moving away from “heart”—or I want at least to consider something different—because I feel that “heart” has been co-opted, becoming a kind of Christianese slang that could lead a reader down a rabbit trail instead of communicating to us what Paul was communicating to Philemon. I am wondering about translating the plural word splangxna (which, by the way, I understand is diachronically etymologically connected to the English word “spleen”) as “affections.” In Philemon, we would have
- “the affections of the saints have been refreshed through you” (7)
- “I am sending him back to you—the object of my (brotherly) affections” (12)
- “revive my affections in Christ” (20)
At this moment, I like the “affections” option in v7 and v20, but not so much in v12, because it’s hard to make that phrase sound non-homosexual in English these days. If we leave v12 as “heart” while rendering the other instances otherwise, though, the verbal connection is lost in the English translation.
7/8 – The parallel use of the verb “exo.” This verb means “to have” and which appears in two distinct tenses in versus 7 and 8. Regardless of the particular type of of aorist Paul intended in v7, the present participle form of this same verb in v8 seems to indicate some measure of heightened emphasis. In other words, his saying “I have great boldness to command you” is stronger in some way than “I have great joy and consolation” above.
9 – The unusual (to me, at least) sequencing of words ὢν ὡς (ōn hōs). I think this expression is idiomatic. The two words are (1) a being verb and (2) a particle of some kind—a conjunction, or a preposition, or an adverbial particle. Taken together, we might translate “ōn hōs Paulos” simply as “This is I, Paul.” In the mid-range context, Paul appears to be revealing himself, or self-identifying, as an old man and a prisoner—all for the sake of influencing Philemon’s future behavior.
9 – The word “presbutes,” often translated “elder” or “old man.” “Presbutes” is used only twice in Paul’s extant writings. Once in Luke makes a total of three instances in the NT. I wondered whether the RSV rendering “ambassador” might be a viable one in Philemon 9. A cognate of “presbutes” is used in Eph. 6:20, also juxtaposed with the prison (a different word for “chains” there than in Philemon). The range of meaning of “presbutes” in non-NT literature does include “ambassador.” Still, I’m not persuaded that it means “ambassador” here.
10 – A verb that roughly means “to become the father of” How can gennao be translated in a way that comes across both smoothly and meaningfully in English? Is “became my son” (switching the agency from the producer to the one produced, and converting the verb to a passive sense) sufficient to do Paul’s expression justice?