Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, March 18, 2024

Pauline Shorthand and Our Humility (Rom 7:2–3)

My assumption is that Paul’s use of Greek would have been relatively easy for a native speaker to understand. Peter‘s objection (2 Peter 3:15), I assume, would have more to do with Paul's concepts than his use of Greek. But when I see passages like Romans 7:2–3, I am reminded how much is lost by not being a first-century Jew. Our distance from Paul's context should encourage an element of humility as we attempt to exegete his writing.

Paul continues his discussion of the relationship between the believer and the law, and he makes the point that “the law is binding on a person only so long as he lives” (7:1). To illustrate this, he talks about the law of marriage. He starts by referring to a married woman (ἡ ... ὕπανδρος γυνή). The etymology of ὕπανδρος is significant in this case, ὕπο meaning “under” and ἀνήρ meaning “man.” In Jewish law, this is certainly an accurate assessment of marriage in which the woman has no rights and is totally under the jurisdiction of her husband. It also ties into the fourfold use of ὑπό in 6:14–15 where Paul talks about not being under law but under grace. The verbal connection is certainly intended but lost to the English reader.

Paul writes in 7:2, “A married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage (ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου τοῦ ἀνδρός).” “The law of the husband”? Translations interpret it to mean “the law concerning the husband” (NASB, CSB, NRSV) or “the law of (the) marriage” (ESV, NET). The NIV interprets it to mean “she is released from the law that binds her to him,” drawing from the use of “bound” (δέδεται) earlier in the verse. Whatever direction you go, you can’t be “literal” — there’s that word I dislike. Moo cites Turner that “the genitive τοῦ ἀνδρός after τοῦ νόμου is probably objective: ‘the law directed towards the hubsand.’” All translation is interpretive.

V 3 also has its own set of difficulties. “Accordingly, if she is joined (γένηται) to another man while her husband is alive, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is not an adulteress if she marries (γενομένην) another man.” This is certainly an odd use of γίνομαι, but one that a native speaker would understand, I assume.

But this is where it gets interesting. You certainly should translate γίνομαι the same way in both places, but if you translate the first one as “marries,” you have an unusual situation in which Paul is saying that the second relationship is a marriage, which is difficult to understand. If you're married to one man but have a sexual relationship with another, you're not married to that second person, nor can you be married to two people at the same time, at least not biblically. The CSB confusingly writes, “if she is married to another man while her husband is living.” For this reason, I would prefer to translate the verb in both places in terms of a sexual relationship. At least that makes sense. The NET uses “joined” in both places and leaves interpretation up to the reader.

But again, if you were a first-century Jew, you would probably understand Moo’s comment that “the Greek phrase γίνομαι ἀνδρί means “be married to” in the LXX, where it translates הָיָה לְ (Lev. 22:12; Deut. 24:2; Hos. 3:3; cf. Fitzmyer).” But I am not a first-century Jew, and I would not have known that without the help of a commentary. The ESV (and NRSV) breaks concordance and hence the flow of Paul’s logic by translating, “if she lives with another man ... if she marries another man.” The NIV is clearer: “So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.”

The point in all this is humility. Greek does not always come into English smoothly and easily. It's why all translations are interpretive, none are “literal,” and why we need commentaries, and why we should be thankful to have so many good and varied translations. The differences among translations are not a problem. They are part of the answer.