May 21, 2006

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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.

Translating epieikes in the New Testament

I went today to the evening service at Tenth Presbyterian Church here in Philadelphia (not my normal church), and one of the evening's readings included Philippians 4:5. Tenth Pres. uses the ESV, which renders the beginning of this verse as "let your reasonableness be known to everyone." Now, I've definitely read Philippians several times, and never came across anything about letting your 'reasonableness' be known, so this immediately stuck out to me, and I looked it up in the NKJV New Testament I had with me. NKJV reads "let your gentleness be known to all men." Are gentleness and reasonableness the same concept? Are they even related? How can a verse which has no textual discrepancies associated with it result in such a wide variance between translations?

So, of course, now that I'm at home I've pulled my Greek out and discovered that the offending word is epieikes which, according to LSJ, is derived from eikos and has a very similar meaning: "fitting, meet, suitable." (Note that it's actually an adjective, but Paul uses it as a substantive in the neuter, so the meaning would be "your [fitting/suitable/meek] thing."), so the most literal possible translation of this text would be something like, "let your suitable thing be known to all people." That doesn't make any sense in the context (or out of it!). It seems that both translation teams have in mind instead of the primary definition LSJ definition 2.2a: "after Hom., ... of persons, ... in moral sense, reasonable, fair, kind, gentle, good." (Strangely, the word 'gentle' doesn't appear in the Perseus edition of the Great Scott - I'm quoting from my print edition of Middle Liddell.) LSJ cites James 3:17 in this connection: "but the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy" (NKJV - epieikes is translated 'gentle' again). This passage isn't much help, since it's a list of traits of wisdom, and any number of definitions of epieikes could make sense of it.

The grammatical usage is, as has been mentioned, strange. LSJ does mention it's usage as a substantive in the neuter in its moral sense at one place: Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus line 1127. The Richard Jebb commentary argues that this should be taken to mean "an equitable and humane disposition," citing Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and a fragment of a lost Sophocles play. At Plato's Laws, 6.757e, there is a similar usage of the word, where it seems to be intended to be synonymous with sugnomon, which means "disposed to pardon." So, it seems that when this word is used as substantive in the neuter, the implied thing is a 'disposition.' But what should the word be taken to mean? A thread running through several of the LSJ definitions fits very well with Paul's overall view of what Christians ought to be known for: not demanding the letter of the law. This is within the possible range of interpretations for either the ESV or the NKJV translation, I think, but neither of them says it very clearly. HCSB does substantially better with its word 'graciousness,' but there is still room for improvement. I think the ISV's 'forbearing spirit' is also very good, though I'm not sure I like the use of the word 'spirit' here. Perhaps we could say something like "let your forgiving character be known to all people." I'm not sure that's the best English, but I think it clearly communicates the meaning I'm looking for. Improvements, anyone? Objections to my interpretation? Koine citations to supplement my classical ones?

Posted by Kenny at May 21, 2006 11:34 PM
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Hmmm. Thats interesting. How about "hospitable character"?? It doesn't roll of the toung very well. I wonder how the amplified version translates the word?

Posted by: Vangelicmonk at May 23, 2006 8:15 AM

This is what the Amplified says,
5Let all men know and perceive and recognize your unselfishness (your considerateness, your forbearing spirit). The Lord is near [He is [a]coming soon].

Posted by: Anonymous at May 25, 2006 6:10 PM

Hi KennyPearce,
Are you still considering the understanding of the word epieikes? It's been a while since you posted this?

Posted by: Ron at May 16, 2010 6:38 AM

Hi Ron-
Can't say I've really looked at this recently; why do you ask?

Posted by: Kenny at May 16, 2010 6:32 PM

Hi Kenny,
I was looking into this concept as I was studying Ezra-Malachi, as God uses suffering to bring a son to a point of consideration; to yield their will to God and thus restoring then to a faithful son who serves God. I was looking at the concept of consider through Haggai, and many NT passages including Phillipians. Our church started studying through Phillipians so I decided to study the setting of the concept of consider in the midst of suffering and chart out Phillipians. I was intrigued in the TDNT the concept for epieiges focused on the administration of a king, or authority in the equitable display and appropriation of their power. I see how God strips us of our prideful self reliance and power, and also our idolarty/greed, and in restoring us to proper service as sons, strengthens us to abide under His word/power. Through longsuffering (the battleground where kingdoms collide-the worldly and the heavenly) God teaches a son to subdue this worlds power under his foot by relying on and bringing down the power of heaven- in Phillipians- resurection power- as God fulfills His call on a believer; as a Son who serves Me.

So I am mulling over this concept of epieiges, and desire to understand from the Lord how to properly administer my authority as a citizen of heaven as a son in gentleness.

Sorry if the above is a bit convoluted- I tried to give you the gist of a 2 year study.

I thought you may have discovered some insight into this word and thought maybe the Lord was creating an interest in you to mold this type of gentlness into your life.


Posted by: Ron at May 18, 2010 3:05 AM

Dear Ron,

This sounds like a very interesting study. Unfortunately, I don't think I have anything to contribute at the moment. Good luck!


Posted by: Kenny at May 18, 2010 10:26 AM

Hi Kenny-
Thanks for getting back to me-

Posted by: Ron at May 18, 2010 6:56 PM

The KJV gives the best translation: "Let your moderation be known unto all men." If you read from the beginning of Philippians 3, you will see that Paul is talking about having "no confidence in the flesh." And in verse 18 and 19 he rebukes Christians "whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things." He concludes by reminding us that "our conversation is in heaven." Thus, at the beginning of Chapter 4 he starts with "Therefore, ... stand fast in the Lord" and concludes his thought in verse 5 with "Let your [temperance] be known unto all men." Let your self-control or abstinence from excess be known unto all men. This is similar to what he wrote to the Christians in Rome: "But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof" (Romans 13:14).

Posted by: TSF at August 6, 2010 1:22 PM

Ummm, TSF, if you're still reading this because it's four years later...

Paul was rebuking Christians in that passage! Otherwise, how could it be that "their destiny is destruction"? And how can they be "enemies of the cross"? And how can it not be that "their citizenship is in heaven"?

Posted by: Anthony at March 12, 2014 1:52 PM

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