Group self-designations in scripture

What do we call ourselves?  Labels given to groups of humans may be mindless or revealing or something in between:

  • customers
  • employees
  • citizens
  • parishioners
  • members (i.e. of a club or a church)
  • audience or spectators
  • . . .

Along these lines, Dr. Larry Hurtado has taken note of the use of the substantive adjectival plural “saints” ( ̔άγιοι |  hagioi ) in early Christian literature.  A distinguished student of early Christianity, Hurtado finds the use of the term intriguing, in part because it was only rarely used as a self-designation for God’s people in the LXX (Greek “Old Testament”), whereas a spike in usage is found in Christian literature.  Hurtado finds two outgrowths—one based somewhat in grammar, and the other, in historical culture:

(1) The definite article, the hagioi, represents a particular claim, an exclusivity.  . . .   the term is a clear piece of evidence of a discrete group-mentality, an expression of a distinctive group-identity.

(2)  . . . The NT writers use a term that rather clearly derives from Jewish usage; but their use of the term shows a distinctive preference for it and a distinctive application of it to designate themselves.

– Larry Hurtado

You can read Hurtado’s complete post here.  After reading it, I posed the following question to him:

I found this observation helpful and also intriguing.  Having recently returned to study of the Galatian letter, and having just laid out its introduction side-by-side with that of other presumed-early, extant letters, I note dative ekklesia language without hagiois in the Gal and Thess letters, both ekklesia and hagiois in the Corinthian letters and Roman letters (although ekklesia is only in ch. 16), and an apparent preference for the hagiois language in the later Eph, Philipp, and Col letters.

Could you comment on any possible development of group self-identification terminology during the 50s, i.e., could we assert that there might have been a move toward the hagiois language as the movement progressed during that decade and beyond?  (Or perhaps I am making something out of nothing here.)

Hurtado’s reply indicated that he did not see the data as supporting my proposal, even countering that the term “saints” as a self-designation seems to drop out over time.  Yet I wonder if he passed over my emphasis on the decade of the 50s.  (I had tried to be both succinct and emphatic, not presuming on much of this scholar’s time, but there’s only so much one can do to format a comment on a blog.)  Perhaps Hurtado was responding more broadly, i.e., thinking through a century or more after Jesus and Paul.  The linguistic data to which I have access actually does suggest an increased use of the plural “saints” during the time of composition of the Pauline letters and epistles, which is roughly a 15-year period from 48 to 62 CE.  More specifically, the earliest two or three letters do not use the term much, and the last letters have the highest incidence, considering overall length.  Aided by my software, I count 86 instances of the plural hagiois.¹  At least 18 are negligible, used in senses that are not self-designations for Christ-ian disciples.  Of the remainder, there are

  1. No uses in Galatians, and only 2 in the Thessalonian letters (presumed to have been written 48-49)
  2. 20 in Romans, 1Cor, and 2Cor (presumed 51-57)
  3. 21 in Eph, Col, Php, and Phm (presumed 60-62)
  4. 4 in Acts, 2 in Hebrews, 2 in 1Peter, 2 in Jude
  5. 14 in Revelation

Not always do the plurals show up in English translations, e.g., Eph. 1:4 and 1Pet 1, and some of the above-referenced instances do not appear to be substantival (i.e., not used as noun-like designations).  Still, I wonder whether they might have carried designatory force in a passage such as Ephesians 1.  In other words, when Paul says God chose us to be “holy ones,” the plural word “holy” has an attributive adjectival function, but in this weighty Pauline communication, perhaps there was an intrinsic sense of self-designation of the Ephesian Christians.  The Revelation uses would be an interesting study in themselves, since that document draws from apocalyptic literature of the Hebrew Bible.  Most often, at a glance, I think Christ-following saints are the referents, but some of the Revelation instances mix long-past Jewish prophets with saints and apostles.

Related self-designations in the same time period include “church(es),” “Christians,” and “disciples.”   Much has been made over the first two—perhaps too much—and the last one particularly interestsme.  As for “church,” there are quite a few uses in Pauline literature, including the earliest letters.  [Caveat lector:  this next thought will be highly speculative.]  I wonder whether that (possible) early preference indicates attention or even deference to the synagogues in the Diaspora.  In other words, since Paul appears to have been in the habit of going to Jewish synagogues first, and since the earliest Christians were Jews, perhaps the earliest, most natural flow of “self-designations” was from “synagogue” to “church.”  [Again, that was highly speculative and probably makes more of the relationship between synagogue and church than should be made.]

Back to “saints.”  It should be said here that the Roman Catholic use of the term “saints” flies in the face of the NT use—which is neither (a) honorific nor (b) related to human achievement.  It continues to be necessary to clarify the intended meaning of “saints” in conversation with thoughtful Roman Catholics, since the historical meaning in that institution appears irrevocably slanted.  Even news reports, TV, and movies appear thoughtlessly to attach the Catholic meaning to the term “saint,” whether it’s heard in the singular or plural.

The Pauline use of the term—by all appearances egalitarian, not exceptional or honorific—does appear to rise during the 15 years we know that he was actively corresponding with churches.  All we have is certain pieces of literature, not an exhaustive sense of what the disciples were calling themselves, so any conclusions should be reached with caution.  Also, it’s not that saints were no longer thought of as believers or disciples or called-out ones in churches; the point I want to make is that “saints” might represent a development in Paul’s thinking about the people groups to whom he was bearing the message of Christ.  If in fact “saints” became more of a frequent self-designation during the decade or so before Paul’s death, that fact would not necessarily mean we should use an English approximation for “saints” more often today.  It does however mean we might do well to pursue the word-concept of “holy ones” in the first century, thereby enriching our understanding of who we are in God’s eyes.  More important than what we call ourselves, of course, is who we are and what we do about it.

¹ Of the Pauline references, fewer than half are found in the dative case.  Some datives, but not all, can be translated with the English indirect object, e.g., “I’m writing this letter (direct object) to the saints (indirect object) in Chicagoland.”  At first blush, I would think this fact alone is not indicative of the sense.  In other words, if Paul were to write, “The saints at Indianapolis greet you,” that would be the nominative case, and it would still be the type of “group self-designation” Hurtado discussed.

Chronological proximity

I would suggest it is probably not a coincidence that the earliest events in (a chronologue of Paul’s life) are spoken of in Galatians almost without exception, and the next earliest in 1 Thessalonians.  Paul’s letters are topical and tend to refer to events of the recent past.  All other things being equal, this point rather strongly to the earliness of Galatians as well as the earliness of 1 Thessalonians.

– Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles:  A Socio- Rhetorical Commentary (1998), 449

I can count on the fingers of one hand (with two or three fingers cut off) the number of known atheistic (as opposed to agnostic) readers of my blog.  Ever.  If by chance today is the day that an atheist pops in here, I want to stress the historicity being referred to by Witherington, a top-shelf scholar.

More significantly here, I suppose:  any believer who wants to rest in the fluffy comfort of a “personal” faith without knowledge ought at least to pay attention periodically to some of the historicity upon which a rational, real faith can rest.  There are always matters and concepts to “accept by faith,” but some of us do relish the use of our left brains in the faith realm.

(In the above statement, I’m intending “faith” to stand apart from “religion,” which is quite another ball of wax.)

Philemon — personal translations

In the course of this month’s focus on scripture, I have not been very balanced.  I have treated one relatively unimportant topic with far too many words, have treated a very important set of topics with even more words, and haven’t gotten to some other aspects of scripture at all.  One of the beauties of blogging is that I can set the timetable, so this scripture focus doesn’t have to be over with the passing of February.  On the other hand, it’s probably time to move into other areas.  I appreciate any attention readers have been able to give to these thoughts about scripture, Bibles, context, translations, and more.

I have shared some of my own translation work in 1Corinthians.  I am finding that the exercise (drill? work? practice?) of translation carries with it more power to get me closer to the text than any other activity I have experienced to date.  Therein lies the primary value, I suspect — it is very personal for me.  There’s probably no better way to bring this blogmonth to a close than to share such a personal translation of a very personal letter.

One or more questions might come up. . . .

Q:  Why translate this yourself when dozens of English versions are available at the click of a mouse? 
A:  Because this process has been one important part of my learning what Paul was saying in this letter.  Translating has gotten me in touch with the original and has helped me comprehend not only the text, but also the subtext.

Q:  Why are there no “verse” numbers below? 
A:  That is no inadvertent omission.  I simply didn’t want to insert any unnecessary distractions from the flow of this marvelous letter; and after all, there were no verse numbers in the original letter.

Q:  I don’t see my favorite verse in here!  You wouldn’t have left something out of the translation, would you?
A:  Of course I wouldn’t have intentionally left anything out.  It just might not look the same as you’ve heard or read it before.  My translation certainly isn’t the only possible one, but it is better than many, and I hope you’ll consider my renderings, asking questions if you have any.

Q:  Why did you choose Philemon?  Is this like choosing “Jesus wept” when asked to memorize a verse, because it’s short?
A:  Yes!  (Also, I have come to love this letter.  I feel a great attachment to it and its exegesis.)

Q:  Why are there two versions?  Do you disagree with yourself?  🙂
A:  In the first case, I followed more of a word-for-word approach, although no one-to-one correspondence is possible, and I still allowed myself latitude.  I prefer the second — the “Expansive Paraphrase” — in most cases.  Please don’t view the first as the better or more “literal” translation.  The second is also a translation, and it is a deeper representation of the original, in my estimation.

Q:  You included a lot of commentary and notes under your translations of 1Cor 4:1-5.  Not that I read all that, but I wonder why you don’t have that sort of material here.
A:  Good question.  The answer is that my process was much different with Philemon.  Although I was often working with the Greek during the past several years of contact with Philemon, I did not research lexicons or other Greek resource materials in the same way.  Given that Philemon is so short, I felt I had a good sense of the overall message, and I worked with the shape and structure of the text more than the tenses, moods, and declensions, etc., of individual words and phrases.  I acknowledge that another type of translation — more informed by the types of work I did with 1Cor 4:1-5 — would be different and possibly “better.”  I don’t imagine my own expansive paraphrase would change much, and all the general senses would remain intact.

Q:  I notice some interesting links in your translations.  Where do they come from?
A:  Philemon is indisputably structured as a chiasm — which means “reverse parallelism” is built in to the language and the flow of thought.  I have tried to reflect some of these parallel constructions in my translations.  For more detail, see this really poorly formatted, but chock-full blog from a few years ago, or this nice-looking layout on another site.

The translations below are works-in-progress and were last revised about three months ago.

I. Relatively LiteralFrom:   Paul prisoner of Christ Jesus and Timothy the brotherTo:      Our co-worker Philemon, whom I truly love, Apphia the sister, Archippus our fellow-soldier, and the church at your house

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.



I always thank my God when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and your faith toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.  I pray that your faith-partnership may become activated as you perceive your every good thing for Christ.  I have truly come to have a great deal of joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.



Therefore, although I am bold enough in Christ to give you an imperative, I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.  This is I, Paul—an old man, and now also Jesus Christ’s prisoner.

I’m now appealing to you for my child—whom I produced, in a manner of speaking, while in prison-bonds—Onesimus . . . the one formerly useless to you, but now indeed full of use, both to you and to me.



I am sending this one, who is my own heart, back to you (although I was wanting to keep him with me) — so that he, figuratively in your place, might be of service to me during my imprisonment for the gospel.  However, I chose to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good thing might not be something in which you felt forced, but rather did by your own decision.


Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—as a brother whom you truly love—very much loved by me, but how much more can he now be loved by you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.




If, then, you consider me your partner, let him come to you as if it were I coming to you.


And if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to my account.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it . . . ignoring that you owe me even your own self! Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord!   Refresh my heart in Christ.


Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be given to you.

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

II. Expansive Paraphrase (Dynamic Equivalent)To our co-worker Philemon, whom I truly love, sister Apphia; Archippus the soldier we’ve “fought” with, and the church at your house; from Paul—a prisoner—and Timothy.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


I perpetually thank my God when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of both your love and your faith toward both the Lord Jesus and all the saints.  I pray that your faith-partnership gets up and acts on its convictions, as you come to perceive your every good thing (remember those words!) for Christ.  I speak genuinely when I say that I’ve experienced a lot of joy and encouragement because of your love, and the saints’ hearts have been refreshed through you, my brother.



Therefore, although I have the Christ-given authority to obligate you, I would much rather speak to you out of love, out of relationship.  To set the stage, if you’ll allow me a little leeway here to sound “pathetic” as I describe my side of our relationship . . . I’m self-identifying now as an old man—and now also Jesus Christ’s prisoner, don’t forget. . . .


I’m now appealing to you for my child—the one I spiritually fathered while in prison-chains . . . the one who was obviously not beneficial to you, but who is now positively beneficial, to you and to me.  Yes, you’ve assumed correctly—I’m talking about none other than Onesimus.


I’m sending this man—and please understand that he’s so close to me now that I consider him my very heart—back to you (although I was wanting to keep him with me).  And why was I of two minds, wishing he could stay?  So that he—taking your place, as it were—might serve me during my imprisonment for the gospel’s sake.  I’m consciously avoiding taking any unilateral action, though, and this is why:  so that any choice you make for a good thing would be something you did because you chose to do it—not out of a sense of obligation.


Maybe, just maybe, you could think of Onesimus’s escape as having a more important purpose, ending in a new, overall reality.  Why, then, might all this have happened? So that you might have him back in a lasting sense, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—as a brother you sincerely love.  Of course I love him dearly, but how much more can you now love him as a dear brother, both in terms of the human relationship and in the Christian sense.


So, if you consider me your partner, and I know you do, the obvious baseline here is that you welcome Onesimus in the same way you would welcome me if I walked up to your house.

And if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, put it on my account.   I, Paul, am writing this myself:   I’ll take care of the bill (and may I remind you that you owe me everything). 🙂   I’m going a step further than the obvious here, and I know that you know that.  Philemon, let me experience “beneficial” from you in the Lord!  Refresh “my heart” in Christ. (Get me?)

I’m sure you will not only defer to the obvious message; you’ll also see the rationale and the love involved in taking the subsequent step.

One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, because I’m hoping through your prayers to be “given” to you. (See how “paybacks” work?)

Epaphras, my co-prisoner in Christ Jesus, says hello, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my co-workers.  May the Lord Jesus Christ’s grace be with your spirit.


© 2010-2014 Brian Casey.  All rights reserved.  Any sincere, reasonable request to use one or both of these translations, in whole or in part, is hereby granted!

1Cor 4:1 — dialoguing with Paul

An obviously hypothetical, personal, interactive dialogue with Paul about his use of the word ὑπηρέτας | hupēretas in 1Cor 4:1. . . .

Me:  Hi, Paul.  Nice to see you.  Haven’t met up in a while.

Paul:  You, too.  And it’s OK.  We’re both busy.

Me:  [smiles embarrasedly]

Paul:  And don’t give me that “your work is so much more important than mine” stuff.  We are both doing things for the Lord.

Me:  I’ll try.  So, I have this question. . . .

Paul:  Shoot.

Me:  Do you remember writing to the Corinthians about your role, and Apollos’s, and theirs?  It was in a context of sort-of sizing things up and assessing things.

Paul:  I think I remember what you mean, yes.  Crispus & Gaius & Co. needed to know more about what I was doing and why, and how it all was working under Christ.

Me:  You used the word hupēretas.

Paul:  Hmm.  An uncommon word.  I think I remember.  What about it?

Me:  Well, I’m trying to figure out what it meant, and then to translate it for a new English version.

Paul:  [furrows] English.  I hear that’s a difficult language!

Me:  Yep.  And the language has a lot of influence and circulation, so I want to do a good job, no matter how far this little translated passage goes. . . .  I’ve been back and forth on this one word, changing it to this and that, trying to satisfy multiple people and goals.  Some people — good people with good goals and more devotion than I have — seem to think it’s all about using the best, most well-attested lexicons to make a translation choice.  I get that, but in considering this text and this particular word, it gets a little squirrel-y.

Paul:  What’s a squirrel?

Me:  Oh, sorry.  It’s just a figure of speech.

[We interrupt this non-scheduled, hypothetical conversation for a non-commercial, instructive message. . . .

The “squirrel” thing came out as I wrote, without thinking.  I actually laughed out loud — not only at the possibility of talking about a squirrel with Paul, but also, about how this ended up being an illustration of the whole “figure of speech” thing.  I hadn’t mentioned squirrels in this post, or in this series, or in this month-long focus on scripture, or in the whole 6-7 years of blogging.  (Relate those, respectively, to this small 4:1-5 text block in 1Corinthians, the sub-context of chapters 3-6ish, the whole letter, or the whole New Testament.)  But the squirrel image might still be used, and it might still communicate something.  One might have to research what a squirrel was, which subspecies were in the author’s experiences, and how the cognate adjective “squirrel-y” might relate.

The mention of squirrels was a completely serendipitous thing here.  But a beautiful thing it was, since part of the problem in translating hupēretas has been the fact that the word is used only this once in Paul’s letters, so it’s impossible to conclude with any finality what he meant by the word.  And now, back to our conversation.]

Me:  Apparently, the word can have all sorts of nuanced meanings, all relating to working for an authority figure like a king or a master helmsman.

Paul:  In this case, working for our Lord Christ!

Me:  Yes!  And I’m trying to figure out how to communicate the idea in English, without direct knowledge of what was in your head as you wrote for God’s kingdom back then.  I figured, why not use an image that emanates from the literal components?  When there’s not much to go on, and/or when lexicons emphasize different things, maybe this kind of paraphrase can be useful.  Or can it?

One of my chief instructors believes etymology is pretty low on the totem pole as you translate.  I’m still thinking that through and recently read something about Hebrew’s being more subject (more so than Greek) to this kind of meaning-based-on-semantic-development process.  On the other hand, I wonder if, sometimes, factors other than word usage — like poetic effect and etymology — might be helpful in getting the sense of the original.  Along with the context, of course.  Anyway, I don’t meant to bore you, but I got pretty overwrought about this.  No one has any idea what all this did to me internally, although I showed a trifle of my feelings in a couple of things I wrote, all the while trying to be a part of a group effort.

All I wanted to do was use one likely, or possible, or whatever, image that could have been in your mind as I said in English what I think you were saying, overall, in Greek.  The word “servants” is inadequate since two other, common Greek words are translated “servants” in a whole covey of English versions.  The New English Bible from, like, 50 years ago has “underlings,” and that at least makes one notice the expression, but the Revised English Bible from 25 years ago has a somewhat less potent word — “subordinates.”  Seemed like a regression to me.

I figured, why not do a little more in a paraphrase?  I also noticed that you used of a form of symbasileuo — another uncommon word — in 4:8.  Maybe you were extending the idea of being both under and with Christ there by saying something like “reigning with.”  Just because Christian workers aren’t referred to in this manner anywhere else in the NT doesn’t mean you didn’t want the wording to stand out as a figure of speech, right?  It seems plausible — although obviously not the only possible reading — to say that ὑπηρέτας could mean “oarsmen who are subordinate to, and rowing with, Christ our captain.”  Am I right?  I’m only trying to do something meaningful here.  What I got was critique that was mostly helpful, but it brought on some other background stuff that was anything but helpful.  It got to me.

Paul:  Brian, don’t let all this steal your spirit.  I don’t honestly remember if I had the ship image in mind with hupēretas, but there’s a good possibility I did.  And you’re right, at least, that the word stands out since it’s so uncommon.  That mere fact means it’s more squirrel-ly, as you say, to try to translate it.  All I can say now is that I do remember how I felt when I left Corinth by sea, headed back toward Caesarea.  I might very well have been recalling my voyage when I wrote to them a couple years later.  You know, now that I think about it, I remember sitting on that ship and thinking about whether the Corinthians would be fulfilling their own missions with, and under, Christ.

Me:  Thank you so much.  This really helps.

Paul:  [pauses]  You know, it’s not really a big deal how you translate that one word.  It’s more important that you understand how I was working for, and with, Christ.  There are several ways you could say that.  You made one good choice by writing “an oarsman rowing with, and subordinate to, Christ,” and since I’m a “word guy” kind of like you, I might have even been thinking about the etymology of hupēretas — “under-rower,” or “one who steers under a master helmsan,” something like that.  But there are other options when translating that into another language.

Me:  Yeah, I know.  And I know one word isn’t a big deal, but the whole thing required so much of me.  I spent way too many hours on this comparatively tiny translation project.  And it all became a big deal because of relationship dynamics . . . related communications led to all sorts of hurtful stuff.  I probably shouldn’t go into that more here.

Paul:  Understood.  And what is it those later Italians started saying?  Que sera, sera?  Anyway, see you again soon?

Me:  Maybe sooner, yeah.  I think I’ll have more time in the near future.  I think I should probably read some OT history now, along with studying Mark, but I’ll try to stay in what we call 1Corinthians, too.

Paul:  Sounds good!

Me:  And may I just say that I love your letter to Philemon so much.  I think I have a better understanding of that (and your relationships with Philemon and Onesimus) than I have of 1Corinthians.

Paul:  [winks]  I loved both those Colossian guys so much.  Grace and peace to you.

1Cor 4:1 — applying etymology (2)

In considering etymology‘s place in biblical studies, my primary new source of instruction has been Moisés Silva’s book Biblical Words and Their Meaning:  An Introduction to Lexical Semantics (1983-1994).  Here is the conclusion to his chapter on etymology:

Modern studies compel us to . . . distrust a word’s history; at the same time, we must use the past history of a word in coordination with its present use by means of the notion of transparency.  (p. 51)

For Silva, “transparency”¹ refers to one of three varieties of an inherent relationship between the word itself and its meaning:

  1. phonological — meaning connected to the sound made when uttering the word
  2. morphological — meaning connected to the component parts
  3. semantic — meaning connected to words used figuratively and yet understandably without background knowledge of the combined figure (Silva’s example — “foot of the hill”)

1.  Now, I can’t resist #1 above, because it relates to my poetic/aesthetic and musical sensibilities and training.  Silva suggests that some words may be “phonologically motivated” — impelled by the very sound they make.  Think onomatopoeia here — words like “sizzle” and “shush.”  It’s probably too much of a stretch to think that the Greek eresso [etymologically a component of hupēretas] might have been onomatopoetic, sort of making the sound of the oars in the water, or the mechanical steering components of ancient boats, but maybe it’s not too much of a stretch after all, and that’s the kind of thing my weird head goes to sometimes.  (Say the word out loud, repeating it at intervals, and you might think I’m less crazy:  ehr – ESS – oh . . . ehr – ESS – oh.)  This human, at least, hears the sounds of words in addition to their derived meanings, and I suspect a segment of humanity has always noticed sounds in this manner.  The questions in this case are at least two:  could this word have been phonologically motivated?  And could Paul have been conscious of that connection on some level?  The odds of affirmative answers for both of those together, I suppose, are not good, but I still feel like asking Paul about it.  (Please see the next post on Friday — a highly unusual type/style for me. . . .)

2.  Beyond a possible sound-connection, #2 above is also potentially related to the meaning of Paul’s word hupēretas or eresso.  Morphology (the identification and consideration of  linguistic units such as roots and prefixes) is more directly tied to what most of us think of as etymology, and this was the root impetus for these recent blogs.  The word hupēretas has two components; whether Paul might have been consciously aware of those components as he wrote remains my essential question.  The problem comes in not knowing what was in Paul’s head.  (Again, please see Friday’s post.  It’s not as heavy and hard to wade through as this one; it might be just as significant; and it was more fun to write.)

3.  With #3, I think Silva has in mind the semantic relationship of whole words, not the smaller morphological components such as roots . . . but figures of speech are perhaps in the background with both hupēretas and eresso. 

Silva has also contrasted the following two etymological approaches:

  • diachronic — an approach that considers evolution of words, moving through time
  • synchronic — an approach that analyzes language in one era, not considering historical change

These labels initially threw me off the scent—ironically enough, because of etymologically analyzable components:  the prefix “syn” implies “together” — which initially might suggest considering the developmental/historical senses of a word together, but that’s not what Silva means.  For him, the diachronic approach is more like what is commonly conceived of as “etymology,” which works with the components that have arisen in any time period.

“Even in the closest ties between historical and descriptive studies, however, the priority of synchrony, the dominant function of usage, must be maintained,” concludes Silva.  (p. 51)

While he gives some credence to (diachronic) etymology in determining NT Greek meanings, he allows more such latitude in Hebrew studies, noting, “The relative value of this use of etymology varies inversely with the quantity of material available for the language” (p. 42).  Because of 1) the nature of Hebrew, and 2) the relative paucity of documents available in Hebrew, “diachronic” etymology will play a more significant role in OT studies than with NT Greek studies.

Here are some other, summary points, when considering the place of etymology in translating:

    1. Some terms may only be apparently connected to the historical meanings, or to meanings of their component parts. (49)
    2. Compounds (such as hupēretas) and derivatives may lose their associations with earlier elements if those elements are no longer used. (49)  So, if eresso was falling out of use by the middle of the 1st century, hupēretas might no longer have been consciously associated with rowing.
    3. “Greek — a rather synthetic language – is relatively transparent.”  A compound word that at one point was associated with a certain idea could possibly be recalling that idea although no longer directly associated with it.  (49)  So, a compound word like hupēretas could still be recalling the idea of rowing or steering, although it might have lost any conscious association with eresso.
    4. a. A derivative term that retains its spelled-out components might well undergo semantic changes over a period of years, decades, or centuries.  b. It is also possible for a word to take on a new sense, disconnected from its historical etymology. (50)

So, what should one do — one who is reading, trying to understand, and trying to arrive at a translation of a rather obscure Greek word or expression?

Should he go with a basic, “gloss” meaning for a word, perhaps intuiting a bit from the immediate context?

Should he zoom out to a book-level context to see what might be possible in the mind of an author who uses a word?

Should he zoom out even further to consider other authors’ (biblical or otherwise) uses of the same word?  Their uses of similar/cognate words?  Their uses of other words in the same semantic domain?

Should he investigate the etymologically attested meaning and/or the semantic development of the term?

Should he dump the best definitions into a hopper to see what the average, common, consensus rendering might be?  What happens if he inadvertently seasons the mixture with one or two of the second-best definitions?

(Merit is found in all the above.)

Might a reader and would-be interpreter/translator also be so bold as to “dialogue” intuitively with the apostle Paul — in this case, to ask him, in absentia, what he meant by hupēretas?

[To be continued — in hypothetical dialogue with Paul]



¹ The opposite of transparent is opaque; an opaque word would be one with no apparent relationship between spelling/sounding and meaning — an arbitrary meaning, if you will.

Brian Casey, 2/18-25/2015

1Cor 4:1 — probing the application of etymology in translation

I’m still exploring translation.  Following the sharing of my 1Cor 4:1-5 translations and abbreviated thoughts on the role and processes of lexical works, I want to consider the application of etymology in biblical studies.

[Caveat lector for the sake of any NB* or CB* or QQB* who may happen in here:  this is no seminarian blog; neither am I subject, by reason of salary or conscience, to any denomination.  Rather, I am a sincere believer who tries—among pursuits in Christian, musical, and other spheres—to study the original NT language, toward a more apt application, in this era, of well-attested, ancient texts.   * NB = non-believer; CB = closeted believer; QQB = questioning or quasi-believer ]

I confess this:  it is difficult for me to give up etymology.  I am a “word guy”often thinking about words, punning and teaching my child to pun, and looking for the perfect expression. . . .  When I began to realize that etymology would often steer me off course (eresso/hupēretas | row or steer reference intended!), it was painful.

In the last day of preparation of this post, I found someone else’s blog that’s even titled with the word eresso (the root etymological component of hupēretas).  On that blog, a single, etymologically derived definition has taken on a life of its own.  Says that writer, Brad Besson, “‘Eresso’ describes the galley slaves in the belly of the ship whose rowing propelled the ship through the sea.”  Besson has apparently taken as his jumping-off point this same text, 1Cor 4:1, but he has perhaps been a bit more careless than I:

  • he misspelled hupēretas (an easy mistake to make)
  • he conflated two related words as though they are one and the same
  • he advanced one etymologically derived definition (presumably Robertson or Thayer) to the exclusion of others

I think Besson was seeking to create, for the sake of his readers, an image of a dutiful slave, rowing a boat for Christ.  Devotionally speaking, that may in fact be a rich or helpful image, but it is less textually justified than my own translation.  The question may be one of purpose:  what is the purpose of this or that blog or translation?  Besson doesn’t appear to have text translation as one of his primary purposes, so he should probably be graciously excused from the requirement to adhere strictly to the most stringent translation principles.  Or should he not be excused?

How far afield from the text can one go in order to make a devotional point?

When one uses an etymologically based definitionin Besson’s case, sort of amalgamating definitions of two related wordsto support a preconceived point, he is in danger of saying something the text doesn’t say.  (For the record, I don’t think Besson has said anything remotely “dangerous.”  He has made a point in keeping with general NT thoughts about serving under Christ.)  On the other hand, when one uses appropriate resources appropriately, he is much more likely to say what the text actually says.)

Etymology’s berth in textual studies is not a particularly elevated one.  Yet etymology may at times be judiciously pressed into service.

Moisés Silva deems etymological research “the backbone of comparative linguistics” (Biblical Words and Their Meaning:  An Introduction to Lexical Semantics, 1983-1994, p. 41), but 1) the value of comparing cognates inside a family of ancient languages is more on-track than 2) attempting to determine the meaning of a single, Koiné Greek word based on its components.  In other words, etymology is not as valuable in NT Greek word studies as it is when an ancient, Semitic language is being compared, say, to Aramaic or Hebrew.

Many a time have I heard preachers and others make the points given as negative examples in Silva’s book.  ShootI have made those points myself!  Hermeneutically speaking, I have been guilty of the crime of stealing identitiesidentities of words, that ishijacking them without harmful purpose, but taking them where they didn’t want to go nonetheless.  It’s hard not to make connections, for instance, between 2000-year-old Greek and contemporary English when I’m a teacher who naturally searches for metaphors to communicate important ideas to students.  The Greek dunamis (dynamis), for example, may easily be connected by morphemes to the English “dynamic” and “dynamite,” but any real, conceptual linkage is tenuous at best.

In over-exuberance, I might be caught saying something like this to a music ensemble when they are being conservative with musical dynamics:

“You guys are playing more like hibernating rabbits than lions right now.  The dynamic shape here should be larger and more dramatic.  You know, the word “dynamic” comes directly from a Greek word that was sometimes used to describe powerful displays — miracles — beyond the naturally observable.  Let’s make the dynamic shape of this passage more powerful — almost miraculous.”

In saying all the above, I would have been

  1. mixing animal and language metaphors (whatever . . .)
  2. communicating fairly well about interpreting music (yay, me)
  3. treading on very thin ice with regard to comparative linguistics (ouch).  Connecting the English “dynamite” or “dynamics” backward to dunamis can “tend to create certain associations in the mind of the modern Bible reader that might have been foreign to the original writers.”  (Silva, p. 45)

Generally, as a teacher, I’m reluctant at times, yet I should probably be more careful than I already am when thinking and teaching about biblical words and their usage.

This has gotten too long, so I’ll continue in a second, summary post on “applied etymology.”

Brian Casey, 2/18-23/2015

1Cor 4:1 — probing translation processes and resources

Following the sharing of my 1Cor 4:1-5 translations, I’d like to explore a bit.

In one sphere, I have submitted to certain translation principles and goals — principles and goals that I support with heart and with gusto — by altering some wordings.  I do think additional considerations are sometimes germane, so I’d like to float some other thoughts here.  This is “thinking out loud” as part of my learning process, mostly; it is not intended to be paradigmatic or prescriptive for anyone else.

Considerable concern¹ has recently resulted from my rendering of the Greek word ὑπηρέτας | hupēretas in 1Cor 4:1.  Let’s investigate this word as an example.

This word hupēretas  is a compound noun.  The first part is, etymologically speaking, a preposition that means “under”; the second part is from a derivative of eresso, which means, roughly speaking, to row.   (See forthcoming comments on etymology and semantic change.)  This word (like most other words to be translated from one language to another!) has no single equivalent, but a range of possible meanings, including those shown below:

  • rower; underling, servant, attendant (Liddell-Scott-Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon)
  • officers, attendants of magistrates, officers who execute penalties; a king’s attendants, servants, retinue, the soldiers of a king (Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon)
  • under-rowers, subordinate rowers of Christ (Robertson’s Word Pictures)
  • general idea of “service” (Moulton & Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek NT)
  • servant (Louw-Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the NT Based on Semantic Domains)
  • an under-rower, subordinate rower; anyone who aids another in any work; an assistant.  A closely related verb, hupēreteō, is to act as rower, to row; to minister, to render service (Thayer’s A Greek-English Lexicon)
  • steerer who follows orders as a free person, not a slave (“Little Kittel,” Theological Dictionary of the NT)


While good translation-scholarship, as I understand it currently, will gravitate to certain principles (vis-a-vis choice and use of lexical resources, for example), those principles may not represent the whole picture as one seeks to understand and translate a text for one or more audiences and purposes.

Given my relative inexperience, it’s probably too bold of me to question lexicographers’ choices for specific passages.  By that, I mean that when Thayer (or Liddell-Scott, or whoever) suggests that a given meaning we’ll call “(b)” is the meaning that should be attributed to a word in a given, ancient text, I sometimes wonder what the choice is based on.  Word usage often falls into patterns, and grammatical constructions across a corpus of literature can give strong clues as to the contextual meaning of a word.  In other instances, though, the intended/original meanings might be more elusive.

My growing-but-elementary understanding has begun to put certain lexicons in a more “trusted” category; this trustworthiness stems, in part, from broader scope.  Case in point:  the current Bauer, Dänker, Arndt, & Gingrich or Moulton & Milligan lexical works are considered more trustworthy than some other works because they have taken into consideration a greater number of discovered usages of a given word from more literature, both secular and sacred.

But there is still opinion involved.  Informed opinion, and perhaps extra-informed opinion, but opinion nonetheless.  Based on grammatical construction and extra-biblical literature, a lexicon might suggest that (b) is the best meaning for textual instance #14.  For my part, I wonder whether such a suggestion might turn out to have been a trifle hasty.

Essentially, I wonder whether a lesser reference tool might get a thing right, while the more currently academically accepted lexicons may be found to have missed the boat (rowing reference intended), in their attempts to be more circumspect.  The percentage of likelihood in any given case is not the point here; rather, it’s just that the possibility exists that Robertson or Kittel or Thayer might “get” Paul’s mind in 1Cor 4:1 more than, say, Moulton & Milligan or BDAG (Bauer et al).

Like music-making, linguistic translation is both science and art.  They both involve principles and empirically derived data as well as judgment calls, taste, and aesthetic sensibilities.  One might well be admonished to go with the science when the art appears to conflict, but. . . .

In the next post, I’ll further consider the place (value?) of etymology and will also set up a hypothetical dialogue with Paul, intent on uncovering what he meant by hupēretas in 1Cor 4:1.

¹ “Furor”  was my first word-choice here, but that was too strong a word, inasmuch as it implies a whole horde of people wrangling.  I also rejected “angst” above, but that has certainly been present.  The “concern” is, I suppose, primarily in my head, despite an indication or three to the contrary.  In some senses and in some private instances, I have been misunderstood.  I have apparently not done very well in my attempts to be actively engaged in dialogue.  My own soul is somewhere between grieving and recovering.  There are actually ramifications for my potential work in and for the Kingdom.

Brian Casey, 2/18-23/2015

1Cor 4:1-5 — personal translations

As part of this month’s focus on scripture, I want to share some of my own translation work.  I am finding that the exercise (drill? work? practice?) of translation carries with it more power to get me closer to the text than any other activity I have experienced to date.  Therein lies the primary value, I suspect — it is very personal for me — although there could also be some insight gained by someone who reads and considers the way I’ve translated this or that.

I will also share my renderings of Philemon in a few days.  These translations are works-in-progress — always subject to revision.  The wordings shown below were last revised less than two weeks ago.

Below are my translations of 1Cor 4:1-5, followed by commentary and notes.  Comments are welcome, as is the re-use of these materials.

I. Relatively LiteralSo let everyone[1] deem[2] us subordinate partners of Christ and managing caretakers of God’s disclosed secrets.[4] 2 Furthermore, in our case, it is requisite[5] among the caretakers that one be found trustworthy. 3 But it is negligible[6] for me that I would be judged by you or by a human day in court[7] . . . for I do not assess myself, 4 and I myself am aware[8] of nothing [untrustworthy], but I do not stand justified in this [fact]; rather, judging me is [the prerogative] of the Lord.[9] 5 Therefore, do not assess anything prematurely, before the Lord should come;[10] he will both illuminate the secrets of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts . . . and then the commendation[11] will come to each one from God. [12]  II. Expansive ParaphraseSo let everyone take reality into consideration, regarding us as oarsmen[1] who are subordinate to, and rowing with, Christ our captain—and also as “household managers” of the God-matters designated for insiders.  In thinking of specifically of ourselves as managers, it is a requirement that we be found dependably faithful. 3  But as I myself consider things, it’s inconsequential[2] that we should be judged by you or by contemporary judgment . . . and, come to think of it, I don’t even assess myself; 4 in any event, nothing at all arises in my own consciousness[3] that would suggest anything other than faithful dependability, yet it is not because of this that I stand in an justified state. Actually, it is the Lord who has the prerogative of judging and approving me. . . .  5 Summing up, then:  you must not judge anything before its time—that is to say, not before the coming of the Lord.

He will turn the light on—revealing any hidden dark corners.

He will also display the motives of our hearts.[4]

Then God’s approval—the type that matters—will come to each one.

Rev. 2/10/15

© 2015 Brian Casey.  All rights reserved.  However, any sincere, reasonable request to use one or both of these translations, in whole or in part, or any information from the commentary/notes below, is hereby granted!  (I’d appreciate hearing from you if you save or use this in some way.)

Resource Key

  • BAG57 = Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich lexicon, 1952/57
  • L-N = Louw-Nida
  • MM = Moulton & Milligan
  • RWP = Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament

Commentary and Notes on Literal Translation

Brian Casey, Jan-Feb. 2015

[1] The general “mankind” sense of anthrōpos here is clearly different from, e.g., 7:1.  In keeping with current, common English usage, I’ve rendered the singular anthrōpos as the collective plural “everyone.”

[2] logizesthō, a present middle/passive imperative, seems to have the “intensive” middle sense of emphasizing the agent’s action more than participation in the results.  See above note:  I have opted for the plural sense in the case of the agency.

[4] mysterion—one of only three Pauline uses of this word in the genitive followed by a deity reference. MM provides some intriguing secular context, ultimately emerging with this meaning: “a secret which God wills to make known and has charged His Apostles to declare to those who have ears to hear it.”

[5] hōde loipon — A minority reading is ho de loipon.  ōde seems to denote a concept (“in this/our case”) rather than a locality (“here”).  Some strength in the Greek is to be found in this pairing of terms.  Burton’s Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek shows that the verbs zēteitai (from zēteō) and aphiēmi, usually followed by an infinitive, are each followed one each by ἵνα with the subjunctive,” as it is here in 4:2. BAG57 suggests the sense of “required” as opposed to “sought” or “demanded” here.

[6] elachiston—generally, but not exclusively, a superlative.  See L-N and MM, the latter of which points to 1Cor 15:9 as an example of the true superlative. Cf. 1Cor 6:2, also in a judgment context.

[7] L-N (§ 56.1, Courts and Legal Procedures |A Court of Justice”) gives this rendering: “I am not at all concerned about being judged by you or by any human court.” A differing view is seen in Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament, which suggests a rhetorical contrast between “human day” here and “the Lord’s Day” in 3:13.

[8] MM, LSJ, and Swanson’s Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) suggest that sunoida is a perfective verb used with a present sense.  The word can connote either conscience (NIV and NLT) or conscious awareness (many other English translations), among other subtleties.  Here, either sense (or both) might be indicated.  TDNT notes, apparently with the etymological components in view, that there are two egos at work here:  one that knows and one that shares in the knowledge or consciousness.  For further reading, see TDNT A.1.D. (“When reflection extends to one’s own deeds assessed in connection with human responsibility conscience arises in the moral sense”).

[9] From the last clause of v3 through v4, several facets combine to suggest a chiastic structure:  two reflexive personal pronouns (lines 1 & 2 below), three negations (lines 1, 2, and 3), two perfective verbs at the center (last word of lines 2 and 3), and the contrastive outer senses:  1) Paul’s not judging himself (line 1) and 2) the Lord’s judging Paul (line 4).

ἀλλʼ οὐδὲ ἐμαυτὸν ἀνακρίνω ·

4 οὐδὲν γὰρ ἐμαυτῷ σύνοιδα,

ἀλλʼ οὐκ ἐν τούτῳ δεδικαίωμαι,

ὁ δὲ ἀνακρίνων με κύριός ἐστιν.

[10] The conjunctive use of heōs followed by an and the subjunctive is a grammatical topic of some weight. Taken alone, the deponent erchomai might be said to connote an active sense of a coming-in-progress, whereas the particle and the aoristic aspect of the form elthē seem to suggest something different—combined with a deponent “middle” sense that emphasizes the subject:  ho kurios. The semicolon after this clause suggests a convincing pause after the imperative and the poetic “until the coming of the Lord,” while v5 is still well connected.

[11] epainos is a compound word often rendered “praise,” but in non-deity contexts (such as 1Cor 4:5 and 11:2,7), “commendation” or “approval” seems more apt.  Moreover, since the action of the verb is flowing from God to humankind, it seems better to avoid the connotation of “religious” praise.

[12] Thematic and verbal connections may be observed in Romans 2, viz. judgment in general, God’s judgment of the secrets of men (Rom 2:16, ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ὅτε κρίνει ὁ θεὸς τὰ κρυπτὰ τῶν ἀνθρώπων κατὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιόν μου διὰ Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ), and commendation from God (Rom 2:29, οὗ ὁ ἔπαινος οὐκ ἐξ ἀνθρώπων ἀλλʼ ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ).  Cf. also 1Cor 14:25: τὰ κρυπτὰ τῆς καρδίας αὐτοῦ φανερὰ γίνεται.

Notes on Expansive Paraphrase

[1] hupēretas is a compound noun, and the second part is from a derivative of eressō.  RWP gives this note on v1:  “The under-rower of Christ has a position of great dignity as steward. . . .”  The juxtaposition of word-concepts here, then, may be intentionally paradoxical: under-rower, dignified house-manager, and care of God’s secrets.  

[2] I suspect there is some Greek emphasis in the combination of estin (a “being” verb) and what RWP refers to as a predicate use of eis that is also found in Hebrew and in the papyri.

[3] Expanding on the suggestion of, e.g., MM and LJS, that sunoida is a perfect used as a present, I have in this paraphrase attempted to combine the aspects here in this paraphrase: “arises” serves as a present tense, while “consciousness” subtly implies a perfected awareness.

[4] The parallel construction here is evident in the two future tenses and the two prepositional phrases with genitives.

Commencing exegesis

Today is the first day of a new learning opportunity for me, and I’m enthused.  As part of this new endeavor, several will be studying Paul’s (and Silas’s and Timothy’s) letter known as “1 Thessalonians.”  Far from “devotional Bible study,” although that has its place from time to time, this is to be a serious, responsible, contextual study of the text.

One key factor in good exegesis is awareness of the literary context.  A sense of the entire document at hand aids in prevening unhelpful eisegesis.  Toward awareness of the contextual whole, those involved directly in this new study opportunity read the entire letter (some more than once, but I was pressed for time, and somewhat moody this week — forgive me).

Here are some thoughts related to themes, shared anonymously, from others in the group:

  • “How dear the Thessalonians were to Paul, how thankful he was for them, and the lengths to which he was willing to go for them—and perhaps they for him.”
  • “Themes?  Hope, grounded on Faith (objective), and lived out in a Loving manner.”  (This writer astutely ties in the hope, faith, love trifecta that appears twice in the book, as such.)
  • One student chose this sentence as the prime driving force for the letter:  “You saw it for what it truly is, the Word of God, powerfully active in you who are believers.”

My own ideas on themes in 1Thess, at this relatively early stage of studying the document, arise somewhat from how I’ve read and studied Colossians, Philemon in recent times.  So far, however, I’m relying more on rate of recurrence of phrases and words than on anything deeper in the structure of the document.  Here’s what I have, in no particular order:

Relationship (intimacy, face-to-face visits)
Living patterns, holiness
Last things/end times
Persecution & trouble/Jews

Let the studying begin, and let the message of this letter — one of the two earliest in Christian history — begin to be more clear than ever!


New Covenant document scholar Greg Fay has noted, “Paul’s letters are sometimes called ‘occasional documents’ to highlight the cutting-edge, real-life context of their production.”

For my part, I could meander through a bunch of epistles, stumbling around to finding tidbits as examples of occasionalness. Rather, I think I’ll ask this simple question:

When we “do Bible studies” that use Paul’s letters, do we fully comprehend the reality that each was written to a specific audience, at a specific time, in a specific historical context?  Context really does make a difference.