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Sunday, May 13

Spiritual “Gifts” or “Things” (1 Cor 12:1)

Usually adjectives used substantivally (i.e., as nouns) are pretty easy to figure out. Between the meaning of the adjective and the context of the passage, the translator can figure out how to treat the word. But every once in a while things can confuse the picture, and one of those things are headings in modern Bibles.

The most notorious heading is the one before Eph 5:22 andI have already blogged on that, but another bothersome heading is the one at 1 Cor 12:1. The NIV has “Concerning Spiritual Gifts” and then starts with, “Now concerning  spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed.” “Spiritual gifts” is a translation of the adjective πνευματικῶν, a masculine or neuter plural adjective from πνευματικός, meaning “spiritual.” But spiritual what?

By the time you get to verse 4, you can see Paul is speaking about Spiritual gifts, but nothing in vv 1-3 is necessarily about gifts. But because Bibles put a heading before v 1, the assumption by many is that the entire chapter is about the gifts of the Spirit. “After all,” many would respond, “the Bible says, ‘Concerning Spiritual Gifts.’”

The ESV alerts us to an issue here. Their footnote on “gifts” reads, “Or spiritual persons,” reading πνευματικῶν as a masculine and not a neuter. The fact is that πνευματικῶν is an adjective used substantivally, and it is a matter of interpretation as to whether Paul is speaking of gifts of the Spirit 9 (cf. 1 Cor 14:1) or spiritual people (cf. 1 Cor 2:15; 3:1; 14:37).

Gordon Fee has long championed a third view, that Paul is talking about the “things of the Spirit,” almost a blending of the two views. He writes, “When the emphasis is on the manifestation, the ‘gift’ as such, Paul speaks of charismata; when the emphasis is on the Spirit, he speaks of pneumatika, and then concludes by translating, “the things of the Spirit” (note the capital “S”).

Wherever you settle on this question, be sure to ignore headings as much as possible. In fact, the best exegesis experience I ever had in the gospel of Mark was using a text without headings, paragraphs, or verses. Just 40 pages of a block of text with page and line numbers. A wonderful teaching tool I used for years and highly recommend.


On the subject of titles added to the biblical text, I remember reading Josh McDowell's book "Evidence that Demands a Verdict" back in the 1970's where he argued against annotated bibles because people remember that they "read it in the bible" but forget whether it was in the text or the notes--a process that strikes me as not unlike that whereby scribes marginal notes became interpolated into the text when being copied. I like your idea for the exegesis experience. I must admit that when I was learning Koine (from your BBG) I really enjoyed thrying to translate the text from the pictures you included of the early manuscripts. It is wonderful that we can now all see and use resources such as the Codex Sinaiticus for practice. One question: The greek texts we use are not the originals, not because they do not pretty accurately reflect the original words, but because the originals were not  punctuated nor accented. How much of that stuff comes down to interpretation? Sentences are pretty fluid, especially in translations, and perhaps less important, but accenting can change whole meanings, can't it?

We don't use the originals because we do not have any. As far as punctuation is concerned, it was all added later and therefore not part of inspiration, but there aren't that many places where the puncutation would bring the interpretation into dispute.