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
Return to blog.kennypearce.net