Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, March 21, 2021

What does “I Could Wish” Actually Mean? (Romans 9:3)

Paul often gets a bad rap for seeming to be too caustic and judgmental. It’s too bad that this opinion is not more often balanced by Paul’s other statements of love and concern for his churches. But I think a proper translation of Romans 9:3 might help a little.

Paul is starting a new section in his letter, focusing on the Jewish nation and eventually their relationship to the Gentile nations. He begins by saying,

“I am telling the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears witness with me in the Holy Spirit — that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Rom 9:1–2).

It was v 3 that caught my attention this morning.

“For I could wish that I myself were accursed, cut off from Christ, for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”

What word is “could” translating? None. Even the NASB says “could” but without italicizing it.

In English, to say that “I could wish” sounds to me that he could wish, but he is not willing to make the wish, which of course makes no sense. “Could wish” is just weird English, even though most of the translations say this.

When I checked the Greek, I assumed there would be a specific word translated “could” or perhaps a subjunctive verb. To my surprise, I found a simple imperfect indicative: ηὐχόμην, from εὔχομαι, meaning to make a request (from God) or to make a wish. Where does the “could” come from?

Wallace categorizes this imperfect as a voluntative/tendential imperfect (552), indicating “an attempt was about to be made or one that was almost desired to be made.” Paul certainly wouldn’t be saying that he attempted to make the wish — that wouldn’t make any sense. Neither would he say that he desired to wish. That doesn’t make sense to me either. What would it mean to desire to wish as opposed to wishing? Does he not desire it, but wishes that he could?

Wallace cites Fanning (Aspect, 251) that the “desiderative imperfect” is used “to contemplate the desire, but fail to bring oneself actually to the point of wishing” (552n27). This seems to be the best understanding as Paul, ultimately, knows that he could not accomplish what he was wishing. He could not chose to go to hell so his Jewish brethren would all go to heaven.

Despite all the hateful and hurtful things his own people had done to him, he truthfully desired to see them saved, no matter what it might cost him. But I would prefer a translation more like “I am willing to be accursed,” or the NLT, “I would be willing to be forever cursed.” I think this is closer to his intent.

Either way, this is a great example of what it means to love your enemies.


¶ "For same I have been vowing (middle voice - "...such as to have been entering myself into a vow") to be being αναθεμα [see discussion below] from [alt. mss: υπο ("under") D G ¦ υπερ ("over") ψ] the anointed..." ¶ Not bothering with all the invented verb sub-classification gymnastics (e.g. "voluntative/tendential imperfect" -- Oh my! Let me look that term up in the grammar of Apollonius Dyscolus...), why not keep the imperfect simple and let context prevail? ¶ Yes, "middle voice," rejecting the so-called "deponency" doctrine as well, as is also maintained in the academics by scholars as A.T. Robertson, Jonathan Pennington, and Danny Zacharias. You vow such as to enter the vow; that's what's "middle" about it. ¶ Then, consider that ειναι is present tense, so it helps to give it that currently continuing sense as well, especially as it goes along with the imperfect verb, so I say "to be being," instead of an aorist sense that would simply be "to be" (fact, not act). ¶ But I see the resolution not in the verb but in the term αναθεμα, which is habitually and simplistically translated "curse," even leading you to your comment "...go to hell...go to heaven...." ¶ First, the root meaning of αναθεμα comes from something "devoted," a "votive offering" and, assuming the verb form is ανατιθημαι (hyper-literally "place-up"), then you see that this also has something fundamentally to do with a "vow," making αναθεμα consistent with the verb, ευχομαι. ¶ Next, we cannot miss the -μα ending, which speaks of an effect, result, or manifestation of a thing. Now the picture becomes a bit clearer, how we simplistically assume "cursed," because the "votive offering" in most cases is typically burned up in sacrifice, lost to the one originally possessing it. But he is speaking of the effect of a vow, not the vow. So, now you see that, putting ηυχομην with αναθε-μα, he has been vowing (such as to enter into that vow) to be the offering from Christ, offered up for his Israelite brothers! Still pretty strong language, hyperbole for sure, but it makes more sense.

Dr. Mounce, I’m curious why you prefer the “I am willing to be accursed,” or the NLT, “I would be willing to be forever cursed” translational phrasing? I sometimes use the Mounce NT Interlinear in Accordance (2011 publication) and it translates it as “ For I could wish that I myself were accursed...”. Is this a change since its publication or something else? Anyway, thank you for your work and ministry. It’s helpful to me and my family.

Isn’t it quite obvious that the addition of the word “could” is of a bias necessity in order to protect against certain implications the translators dare not allow the reader to entertain? When reason is employed such as “Well we know it *couldn’t* mean THAT so we must add a word in order to keep the reader from thinking THAT” then aren’t the translators acting as theologians at that point, or yet even doctrinal watchmen rather than impartial ears to the original voice? I notice more and more of such tricks as I continue to add to my 30+ years of study.