A Return to Bible Blogging: Romans 1

I’ll admit it: I allowed my Greek New Testament reading to lapse for a few weeks. Returning to it this morning, I decided that I would cut straight to Romans, which is the book of the New Testament that most interests me. The fact that the Greek is more difficult also makes it more appealling, and already in the greeting I’ve found some strange stuff. For instance, look at the first three verses:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh… (NRSV)

ΠΑΥΛΟΣ δοῦλος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, κλητὸς ἀπόστολος, ἀφωρισμένος εἰς εὐαγγέλιον θεοῦ ὃ προεπηγγείλατο διὰ τῶν προφητῶν αὐτοῦ ἐν γραφαῖς ἁγίαις περὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ, τοῦ γενομένου ἐκ σπέρματος Δαυεὶδ κατὰ σάρκα…

The straightforward translation of that middle part seems to be “set apart for a bringing of God’s good news which was promised by the prophets in holy writings about his son,” rather than “set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son.” I’m basing this on the lack of definite articles, which may be a Pauline thing — but it seems to me that if we were expected to know that “περὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ” referred back to “εὐαγγέλιον,” there would be a “τον” there, and similarly, he would have used a definite article before “γραφαῖς ἁγίαις” or “εὐαγγέλιον” if he wanted to emphasize that they were the Holy Scriptures or the Gospel. (The fact that both are indefinite may actually soften the blow of implicitly relativising the Scriptures, insofar as it makes this good news of God a particular instance of good news, leaving room for the particular promises given to Israel — but that might be overreading.)

10 thoughts on “A Return to Bible Blogging: Romans 1

  1. Yes, interesting. It has been too long since I’ve been in the habit of reading Koine, so I apologize if I’m wrong on this, but I seem to recall that it’s quite common to find prepositions that are followed by anarthrous nouns that are nevertheless definite in meaning, or else that are qualitative in meaning. The noun isn’t definitely definite, of course, but it certainly leaves open the possibility. In Rom 1.4, for example, “en dunamei” is probably not definite but maybe qualitative, whereas I think “ex anastaseos nekron” probably is definite.
    I wonder if the plural “nekron” here refers not to the resurrection of Jesus, as the NRSV has it, but to the story of the resurrection of the saints that followed Jesus’ resurrection in Mt. 27.52-53. If so, then what declares Jesus the Son of God is not his individual resurrection but the communal resurrection he effects (at least in this verse). Since the story in Matthew is a possible reference to the idea of the communal resurrection of Israel in Is. 26.19 and Ez. 37.1-14, rendering “nekron” in the plural would also link the resurrection in 1.4 to the prophets in 1.2.

  2. Yes, I was thinking of pulling out the Agamben text, too — I may inadvertantly be remembering what he said, though that seems unlikely since my lack of Greek knowledge at the time I read it would mean I wouldn’t have been able to follow his argument.

  3. Carson, Thanks for the pointer on the definite/indefinite issue. That’s a very interesting point on the plural in “resurrection of the dead” — it seems to me that it also potentially ties in with “and so all Israel shall be saved.”

  4. A few points to consider: “euangelion theou” lacks a define article, but “theou” is certainly definite (God, not “a god”) so it needs to be translated as a single definite phrase, as when you might read a headline over an advertisement: “Good News from Apple: The IPad is available!” So, Paul is “set apart for good new from God.” Of course, this good news is not just the day’s good news, but the latest and greatest good news because it “concerns his son who was born …” Yes, I am taking euangelion to be modified by the “peri” phrase. Why? Because if it modified the “holy writings”, it would have to be “holy writings about his son who was going to be born …”, that is, it would require “genesomenos”, the future participle, but what you have is the aorist, “concerning his son who was born …”. That does leave the question about “holy writings” or “the holy writings.” Maybe Paul does not assume that his readers would know exactly what “the holy writings” exactly were (= the writings venerated by the Jews, but which?), so he simply says “holy writings.”

  5. I would not say your Greek grammar sucks, but in fact you are doing exactly what a good reader of Greek should do, namely, attempt to read what is there rather than what they expect to be there. I wrote a whole (really boring) dissertation trying to take seriously Plato’s use of the neuter substantive (“the just”) as not having the same meaning as the abstract noun (“justice”) so I would encourage you to be no less obsessive-compulsive when you read Paul.

  6. Thanks for the encouragement. I’m going to keep up with my spot reading, especially when I’m teaching New Testament next quarter — but I’ve decided that this summer is going to be the Summer of Greek.

    I’ve gotten lazy because Romance languages (even including Latin) are so easy for me after I got obsessed with Spanish in high school — it’s now become clear to me that I actually need to go back and memorize the paradigms for Greek. And man, is that going to suck.

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