Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Hebraic Genitives (1 Tim 1:11)

Paul is instructing Timothy (and his Ephesian opponents) on the proper use of the law, listing to whom the “thou shalt not” of the law applies, and concludes with this contrast: “and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted” (1:10-11). What is the “glorious gospel”? Word for word, the Greek says “the gospel of the glory.” “Of the glory” is in the genitive case.

As first year students learn rather quickly, the genitive case is much like the English “of” construction. It is a case that allows nouns to modify nouns. But just as the English use of “of” is flexible, so is the Greek. Is a “bowl of silver” a bowl made out of silver or a bowl full of silver? The ambiguity of English here is perfectly mirrored in Greek.

Wallace lists over 60 different uses of the genitive in Greek, some of them obscure and many of them important. Take for example James 1:20. “For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires” (TNIV). Word for word, the verse reads, “orge gar andros dikaiosunen theou ouk ergazetai.” dikaiosunen is “righteousness” and theou is “of God.” “For the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (NASB, “God’s righteousness,” NRSV). “For human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness” (NET).

But in what sense can human wrath ever produce “the righteousness of God”? Can we ever become righteous in the same sense that God is right? Of course not. The TNIV saw the need to interpret the genitive. Human wrath does not lead to the human righteousness that is required of a follower of Jesus. “Our anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (TNIV).

As you look at how translations handle the genitive, the normal range of translation is based on the translation’s philosophy. Do they leave a passage in a somewhat uninterpreted form using “of” and leave it up to the reader, or do they watch for possible misunderstandings and help the reader, as the ESV (and TNIV) do in this verse?

Genitives can be broken down into two basic camps. Does the word in the genitive perform the action of the head noun (which is the noun being modified by the genitive) or does it receive the action of the head noun? These are categorized as the “subjective” and “objective” genitives. The classic example is 2 Cor 5:14. “For the love of Christ controls us.” But what is the controlling factor in my life? Is it my love for Christ (an objective genitive, because Christ receives the love) or is it Christ’s love for me (a subjective genitive, because the love is produced by Christ for me)? Thanks be to God that the primary force in my life is not my fickle human love for Christ but rather his constant divine love for me.

But here is where grammar gets tricky. In a sense we think of the genitive (and other cases) as a pie that we slice into pieces based on how we see the grammar being used. So there is one slice we call the “objective genitive” and another slice we call the “objective genitive.” But what if a usage falls right along the crack. If I have no love for God, does his love still control me? No (at least in my theology). So what do we do? The normal (and perhaps only) answer is to create another slice of the pie (as Wallace does), and call it a “plenary genitive.” The “love of Christ” is not just one or the other, but both (again, with Christ’s love for me being dominant and controlling).

But notice how I am making decisions. Is it based on grammar? No. It is based on theology. I have always taught that Greek grammar doesn’t necessarily answer all the questions definitively. Sometimes it does, but normally it gives us the legitimate range of possible interpretations, and then context and theology make the final determination.

Okay, so how do we translate genitives? It gets back to our translation philosophy. Do we want to reproduce the ambiguity of the Greek (assuming it will not lead to significant misinterpretation) or do we help the reader understand the author’s intent? All translation involves interpretation, but where on the continuum do you want to place your translation. That’s your call.

But sometimes this isn’t possible. Sometimes you have to make a choice. 1 Tim 1:11 is such a case. Word by word Paul writes, “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” So why not leave it at that? Well, there is a use of the genitive called the “Hebraic genitive.” It is a reflection of a Hebrew idiom where you put several nouns in a series like this verse, but you want “glory” to function adjectivally. In this case, “glory” means “glorious,” which is why the ESV reads “glorious gospel” (see my commentary for discussion). If we had left it as “gospel of the glory,” is there any way an English reader would have seen that “glorious gospel” was a possible interpretation? No. In other words, we could not reproduce the Greek ambiguity in English, so we had to make a decision. And we went with a Hebraic genitive. (But I have submitted this verse for further review, so we will see what happens in later editions.)

The opponents in Ephesus were insisting on the law as the determining rule in the church. Paul agrees that the law’s “thou shalt not” applies to people who are not righteous (by faith — again, my interpretation). The list of sins that parallel the Ten Commandments are contrary to the healthy instruction that is found in the gospel, the glorious gospel of God. Or: The list of sins that parallel the Ten Commandments are contrary to the healthy instruction that is found in the gospel, which is concerned with the glory of the blessed God.

You be the judge.