June 18, 2006

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Hebrews 2:2

I'm leading a Bible study this summer on the book of Hebrews, and I've just switched to using the HCSB as my primary Bible translation, so right now I'm studying Hebrews in preparation, and comparing the HCSB (and some other translations) with the Greek. There will probably be more posts related to the translation of Hebrews over the course of the summer. Today, I want to deal with Hebrews 2:2, and maybe some of you can help me figure out what it means!

The HCSB renders vv. 2-3a as "For if the message spoken through angels was legally binding, and every transgression and disobedience received just punishment, how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?" NKJV says, "For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedeince received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" An ultra-literal translation might be, "For if the message, having been spoken through angels, became certain, and every departure [from it] and [every] disobedience received just wages, how will we escape, [when we are] neglecting so great a salvation?"

The HCSB and NKJV have two problems in common: first, neither of them makes sense of the use of ginomai: it is sometimes ok to translate ginomai as "is," but usually in the perfect tense (gegona), remembering that it literally means "has become." However, in this case, ginomai is in the aorist (simple past), and it should mean "became." So, on the HCSB's translation, where it is translated "is," it should read "if the message spoken by angels became legally binding..." I guess that makes sense. Perhaps it became binding by virtue of having been spoken by angels? The NKJV rendering should be "the word spoken through angels became steadfast," but their translation of "proved" is probably ok: bebaios (the word for "legally binding" or "steadfast" or "certain," which we will get to next) has epistemic ideas attached to it, so the idea would then be that the hearers became certain about the word, even though bebaios technically matches case with the word.

The second problem is the word bebaios itself. In modern Greek, the adverb is very common and means "of course" (the adverb is spelled with an omega and pronounced veh-VAY-ohs). The adjective generally means "certain" in ancient Greek, for which the NKJV's "steadfast" is ok (that is another meaning of the word, and the meaning "certain" probably began as a metaphor based on this). The HCSB's "legally binding" seems to be based on the parallel text Hebrews 9:17 about the legal force of wills. This meaning is not found in LSJ (I don't have access to BDAG - does anyone know if that lexicon has citations for this meaning?), and I can't find any other parallel text for it, so we should probably try to interpret the more normal meaning into both passages, even though that is difficult in 9:17. In 9:17 the word "reliable" might work.

Of course, there is another level of interpretive difficulty. What on earth is the message "spoken through the angels?"

To solve all of these problems, I propose that we might take egeneto and elaben as "gnomic aorists" (Smyth 1931 - "[the gnomic] aorist simply states a past occurence and leaves the reader to draw the inference from a concrete case that what has occurred once is typical of what often occurs: pathon de te nepios egno 'a fool learns by experience' Hesiod, Works and Days, 218") or something along those lines. This would treat this clause as a sort of proverb (which is where the term "gnomic" comes from). In this way we can successfully deal with the above difficulties, leading to an 'essentially literal' translation like this: "For if a message spoken by angels becomes certain, and every departure [from it] and disobedience [to it] receives [its] just wages, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" or a looser translation like this: "no one doubts the truth of something he's been told by angels, and if anyone disobeys messages from angels, he will be justly punished. If this is so, how can we expect to escape punishment if we ignore the message of salvation?"

This translation also makes a lot of sense in the context, since the author has just been talking about Jesus (who is later identified as the bringer of salvation) being greater than the angels. One objection will be that the gnomic aorist is a rare construction even in classical Greek, and Smyth's examples come from Hesiod, some 800 years before the writing of the New Testament. This does indeed concern me, and I would like to know how many other examples of gnomic aorists there are out there, and when they date from. It seems likely that, even if there were a lot of them, because they relate to proverbs Smyth would be likely to cite Hesiod as his prime example of Greek proverbs.

Alternative interpretations: All the commentaries I looked at, including John Wesley, the Geneva Bible, and John Gill, think that the word spoken by angels is the Mosaic Law. They cross-reference Acts 7:53 and Galatians 3:19 for support.

The only problem I see with this interpretation is that we don't start really talking about the Law in earnest until significantly later in Hebrews. This makes the big question, "when Greek-speaking Jews in the first century saw the phrase 'the word spoken by angels,' did they immediately connect that with the Law?" and this is a question I can't answer. If the answer is yes then the standard interpretation is definitely better than mine, since it uses the plain and simple grammar which is the norm in the NT, but if this phrase wasn't common as a reference to the Law, then my gnomic aorist idea may be better, depending on whether there are, in fact, many gnomic aorists after Hesiod. I have more questions than answers. Any help?

Posted by Kenny at June 18, 2006 4:43 PM
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Some other people's thoughts for your list-

"2. Steadfast, or "firm," or sure, etc.; that is, it was the word of authority, for God required it to be believed; and that it was authoritative, was made more evident by its sanctions; for no one despised the law with impunity. Then firmness means authority; and what is added respecting punishment ought to be understood as explanatory; for it is evident the doctrine of which God shows himself to be the avenger, is by no means unprofitable or unimportant.

3. If we neglect so great a salvation, etc. Not only the rejection of the Gospel, but also its neglect, deserves the heaviest punishment, and that on account of the greatness of the grace which it offers; hence he says, so great a salvation. God would indeed leave his gifts valued by us according to their worth. Then the more precious they are, the baser is our ingratitude when we do not value them. In a word, in proportion to the greatness of Christ will be the severity of God's vengeance on all the despisers of his Gospel.2

And observe that the word salvation is transferred here metonymically to the doctrine of salvation; for as the Lord would not have men otherwise saved than by the Gospel, so when that is neglected the whole salvation of God is rejected; for it is God's power unto salvation to those who believe. (Romans 1:16.) Hence he who seeks salvation in any other way, seeks to attain it by another power than that of God; which is an evidence of extreme madness. But this encomium is not only a commendation of the Gospel, but is also a wonderful support to our faith; for it is a testimony that the word is by no means unprofitable, but that a sure salvation is conveyed by it.3

Which at first began, etc. Here he sets the Son of God, the first herald of the Gospel, in opposition to angels, and also anticipates what was necessary to remove a doubt which might have crept into the minds of many; for they had not been taught by the mouth of Christ himself, whom the greatest part had never seen. If then they regarded only the man by whose ministry they had been led to the faith, they might have made less of what they had learnt from him; hence the Apostle reminded them, that the doctrine which had been delivered them by others, yet proceeded from Christ; for he says that those who had faithfully declared what had been committed to them by Christ, had been his disciples. He therefore uses the word, was confirmed, as though he had said, that it was not a random report, without any author, or from witnesses of doubtful credit, but a report which was confirmed by men of weight and authority."

So Calvin seems to at least think this includes the Mosaic Law, and probably agrees that it is the Mosaic Law.

Matthew Henry-
He clearly agrees that it's the law, although he says: "How the law is described: it was the word spoken by angels, and declared to be stedfast. It was the word spoken by angels, because given by the ministration of angels, they sounding the trumpet, and perhaps forming the words according to God�s direction; and God, as judge, will make use of the angels to sound the trumpet a second time, and gather all to his tribunal, to receive their sentence, as they have conformed or not conformed to the law."
He seems to have a very loose idea of "spoken", if blowing a trumpet alone can count.

Alas, he doesn't have a sermon on this passage. He does, however, have two sermons on 2:9, in which he might discuss 2:2, but neither of which (#771, #1509) I couldn't find online (even at ccel). If anyone else knows where to find them I appreciate it...

Regarding the interpretation of the word of the angels being the Mosaic Law-

This interpretation does make sense in that the "word of the angels" is that "every transgression and disobedience received just punishment", and God's punishment of sin is clearly evident in the Law. I would say that it's not that problematic that the author doesn't talk about the Law until later in Hebrews. He does this elsewhere- for example, he tells us he has a lot to say about Melchizedek in 5:10-11, but then goes off on a (divinely-inspired) tangent until chapter 7. Indeed, a lot of things from chapter 2- like Christ becoming a merciful and faithful High Priest in things eprtaining to God, aren't fully explained until elsewhere. (He sidetracks about God's rest for a while until he gets back to Christ's priesthood in 4:14).

In general I must confess, though, that I still don't fully understand precisely how the angels are involved in giving the Law, which is clear in Acts and Galations, since a big point in Exodus is that Moses met with God Himself (Exodus 34:29 and 34 does say that Moses talked WITH God) and most (all?) sections of the Law begin with "Now the Lord spoke to Moses...". Gill's remark that 10,000 angels spoke the Law so that God's voice was not also heard relieves this difficulty, but it's strange that wasn't mentioned in there somewhere. Or it could be and I just can't remember where, although since he sights Josephus that seems unlikely. At rist of being off on a tangent, I've wondered before if it is at all possible if these verses refer to the Angel of the Lord (for example, present in Judges 6:11-27 andinterestingly mentioned in Exodus 23:20), since that seems to be a common way that God interacted with people in the Old Testament, and if Moses met with the Angel of the Lord face-to-face then it would be technically true that the Law was given through an Angel. However we still have the issue that it says angels, in the plural. I suppose that could be explained by included the prophets in the law, since some of them received messages from angels other than the Angel of the Lord. Or we could accept Gill's/Henry's explanation. Regardless, that's enough of my random tangent.

Posted by: Lauren at June 18, 2006 9:23 PM

Lauren, thanks for all the info! Actually, it doesn't say that "every transgression and disobedience received just punishment" is the CONTENT of the "word of the angels." There is an 'and' separating them: it says, "the word spoken through angels became certain AND every trangression and disobedience received just punishment." I think the implication is that whatever the angels say, if we don't obey it we will be justly punished (which could still work with the Law interpretation), rather than that the content of the angels' speech has to do with just punishment.

Something else I realized after posting (while preparing for Bible study with Rod) was that since, according to Smyth, the gnomic aorist "simply states a past occurence and leaves the reader to draw the inference from a concrete case that what has occurred once is typical of what often occurs," it could be taken as having this kind of general content even if there is a reference specifically to the giving of the Law, but I'm not sure.

Posted by: Kenny at June 18, 2006 10:00 PM

I agree that is the most straightforward interpretation, and since you discussed that in your post I didn't bother typing up my thoughts on that one. (Sorry- I thought it was long enough already.) However, I think you could also interpret the "and" as introducing the next step in the author's argument. For example, I might say something like "If everything Newton says about physics is true*, and for every action there is an equal and opposide reaction, then when I push on this key this key is pushing back on my finger." As a philosopher you probably find that a really sloppy use of the word "and", but it's something that I thought about and you did ask for other interpretations of the verse- sorry if I wasn't clear that was what I was trying to give you. Anyway, in that case you would end up saying that part of what the angels said was that "every transfression and disobedience received just punishment", and you'd still get back to the law again.

*- It's not.

Posted by: Lauren at June 19, 2006 8:06 AM

I took a look in William Lane's Hebrews commentary, and there seems to be a fair amount of reason to think 1st century readers would associate this with the law. Deut 32:2 says God came at the giving of the law "with myriads of holy ones". [This appears to be a typo for Deut. 33:2 -Kenny] The LXX adds "angels were with him at his right hand". The Book of Jublilees several times refers to the Torah dictated by the Angel of the Presence. Stephen mentions an angel who spoke to Moses on Sinai Acts 7:38). Lane also cites Josephus and several rabbinic writings saying the same sort of thing. So it was a fairly common idea at the time that the law was mediated by angels.

Lane treats egeneto bebaios as a legal idiom for something being proved to be valid. Paul Ellingworth's commentary says it could mean "came into effect" or "proved trustworthy". He says it doesn't mean "become" but "be", but he gives no reason except to say that there's no future reference. He says it's about the past because of the historic fact of the law, and the aorist points to this.

Ellingworth takes bebaios as "valid" or "effective" and echoes Lane that there is juridical language here. He thinks it's just "that God's word is amply confirmed by the evidence of word and deed".

I don't know how much any of that helps, but it's what two of the most recent in-depth commentaries on the Greek text have to say.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at June 22, 2006 10:01 PM

Jeremy, yes, the Deuteronomy reference is quite decisive, I think. Surprising none of the commentaries I looked at mentioned it...

Posted by: Kenny at June 22, 2006 10:43 PM

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