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Who Killed Jesus? (Acts 2:23)
When an adjective functions substantivally, generally we have to add in words from the context to make sense of the statement. Normally, it is not hard to do so, but it would appear that Acts 2:23 is somewhat troublesome. When Peters says that Jesus died by the hands of ἀνόμων, is he thinking of lawless people or non-Jewish people? And once more, can we stop saying Luke literally says "men without the Law, i.e. pagans" when Luke did not write English? Literally, Luke said ἀνόμων.
When an adjective functions substantivally, generally we have to add in words from the context to make sense of the statement. Normally, it is not hard to do so, but it would appear that Acts 2:23 is somewhat troublesome.
Peter is giving his famous Pentecost sermon, and at v 23 says “this Jesus, delivered up according to the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you, at the hands ἀνόμων, executed by nailing him to a cross.”
ἄνομος can mean “lawless” in the sense of being contrary to the law (note the alpha privative). More specifically, it can refer to a person who violates God’s moral law (BDAG 3a). This is how some translations understand it: “godless men” (NASB, ESV, NIV); “lawless people” (CSB); “wicked” (KJV).
At first glance, the NRSV sounds strange: “those outside the law,” until you realize that this is the meaning in BDAG 3b (which cites only this verse). The NLT reades, “lawless Gentiles” (see also the NET). The NASB frustratingly footnotes “godless men” with “Lit men without the Law, i.e. pagans.” This is wrong at so many levels.
- If this is what the Greek “literally means,” then say so in the translation. Others do.
- This is not what the Greek “literally” says. It is a simple construction of νόμος with an alpha privative. ἄνομος is simply the negated form of νόμος. It is an issue of interpretation as to what it refers to.
I must confess I have trouble hearing this any way other than “lawless.” Part of the issue is the question of who killed Jesus. A person may think is was Pilate and the Roman guards (hence “Gentiles”), but I suspect the primary blame lies with the Sanhedrin, who were most certainly not Gentiles. So why force the interpretation when it is not clear?
And why introduce “men” since there is not noun (contra NIV and surprisingly the ESV)? Were there no women whose voices joined in the protest against Jesus?
Let me come back to the point of “literal.” Can we stop saying that word-for-word translations are literal (and therefore in some sense more reliable)? It simply is not true. The NASB makes a bold claim that is 100% wrong. Luke literally says ἀνόμων; let’s keep claims of literalness to the Greek where they belong.
However, the real issue in this verse is that while Jesus dies due to the "determined purpose and foreknowledge of God," the human individuals who actually did it are held responsible. Whatever you think of God’s sovereignty, you still (and must) account for human accountability.
And in a day and age in which there is virtually no individual responsibility, this is an important message.