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Greek Prepositions and Careful Exegesis

December 11, 2017

In the current discussion about Paul and Jesus, it’s important to have a sensitive appreciation of how Koine Greek writers used prepositions.  One of the impressive features of ancient Greek is the development and use of a number of prepositions, which allowed for a rich variety of nuances in making statements.

Two prepositions in particular feature in the Pauline texts that receive a lot of attention on the question of whether Paul received tradition from other early believers, or got everything by “revelation”.

In Galatians 1:11-12, Paul affirms that the gospel message that he proclaimed (i.e., the full acceptance of Gentiles into the circle of believers without requiring male-circumcision and proselyte conversion) was not “kata anthropon” (which appears here to mean, “not of human origin” or “not humanly devised”).  Then, Paul continues by affirming “nor did I receive it para anthropou” and that “I was not taught it,” but “[it was/came] by a revelation of Jesus Christ” (di’ apokalypseos Iesou Christou; v. 12).

In essence, Paul here denies that his apostolic mission was of human design or that his message of Gentile enfranchisement had been taught to him by others.  Instead, these things came what he took to have been a “revelation” (from God, as v. 16 makes clear), the content of that revelation focused on Jesus (the genitive, Iesou Christou of v. 12 is therefore an “objective genitive”, God the revealer, Jesus the one revealed).  The experience conveyed to Paul Jesus’ validity as “the son of God,” and his error in previously opposing the Jesus-movement.

It appears also that from this experience Paul claims to have obtained his firm sense that he was given a divine mission to the Gentiles (vv. 15-16).  (Note, by the way, the statement in Acts that Paul received his “ministry” [diakonian] “from the Lord” [para tou Kyriou], i.e., his commission to the Gentiles portrayed as directly from “the Lord”.)

The expression in Gal. 1:12, para anthropou bears further scrutiny, however.  And it is important to compare this phrase with another phrase used in 1 Corinthians 11:23, where Paul says that he received “from the Lord” an account of Jesus’ actions and words set “on the night that he was handed over” (related in vv. 23-25).  The expression translated “from the Lord” in 1 Cor 11:23 is “apo tou kyriou“.  So, what does it mean here?  Is Paul saying that he got the account of Jesus’ actions/words in vv. 23-25 directly from the risen/glorified Jesus, i.e., through some sort of auditory/visionary experience?  Paul does relate such an experience in 2 Corinthians 12:1-9, so it’s a fair question to ask.

And here is where Paul’s use of particular prepositional phrases may help us.  If you check uses of para + genitive and apo+ genitive in sentences relating to giving or receiving information and related matters, it appears that the apo-phrases have a more general sense indicating origin of the information, whereas para-phrases often appear to have a somewhat more precise connotation, indicating more than apo-phrases a direct reception or communication of something.

As an example, note Philippians 4:18.  The Philippians had sent Paul support during his imprisonment, conveyed to him via Epaphroditus.  So, here Paul first says that he received what the Philippians sent para Epaphroditou (that is, handed to Paul directly by Epaphroditus).  But then, probably because Paul wished to emphasize the direct relationship between himself and the Philippians, he refers to “ta par’ hymon” (“the things/gifts from you”).  The latter expression seems intended to emphasize that the Philippians had sent the gifts to him personally.  Similarly, in Acts 28:22, the Roman Jews say that they’ve received reports from others, but they want to hear from Paul first-hand:  para sou akousai.

So, in 1 Cor 11:23, if Paul had wished to emphasize that what follows came directly from Jesus (e.g., in a vision experience), one would expect him to have stated that it came “para tou Kyriou“.  (See textual note below.)  That, instead, he refers to the following account as “apo tou kyriou” here suggests that he meant only to indicate the origin of the material, not its immediate means by which he received it.  So, it is dubious to treat vv. 23-25 as material that derived from some spiritual audition of the risen Christ.

Notes:

–On Koine prepositions and NT usage, see, e.g., C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963)

–On Paul’s use of traditional material, Anders Eriksson, Traditions As Rhetorical Proof: Pauline Argumentation in 1 Corinthians, Coniectanea Biblica, New Testament Series 29 (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1998).

–Textual note:  Though the likely original reading in 1 Cor 11:23 is “apo tou Kyriou”, there are textual variants suggesting that ancient readers, too, sought to grasp the precise sense of Paul’s statement.  Codex Bezae and some Latin witnesses have para Kyriou (perhaps suggesting a more direct reception of the tradition) and some other witnesses have “apo Theou” (“from God”,  ascribing more a divine origin).

–In another interesting statement, note Galatians 2:6, where Paul emphasizes that the Jerusalem leaders didn’t lay on him any obligation in his visit.  He starts a somewhat fractured sentence with the phrase “apo de ton dokounton einai ti” (literally, “from those regarded as something”), the use of apo here appropriate to his denying that the character of his mission derives from them.

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13 Comments
  1. Great and clear investigation on the different aspects of apo and para! Thank you for that! As far as the result of the investigation is concerned, it seems to strengthen the traditional view that Paul is talking about the chain of early church tradition which is both from and about Jesus, handed on to Paul by the disciples. Is it a fair summary?

    • Otto: Had Paul wished to claim a direct revelation from Jesus, we would expect him to have used “para”. So, I conclude that he meant only that the tradition stemmed (originally) from Jesus.

  2. David Madison permalink

    Let’s say that the wording alone cannot tell us whether the information mentioned in 1 Corinthians comes from revelation or from tradition passed on by intermediaries. Now let’s ask whether the information fits Carrier’s celestial Jesus theory. According to Carrier, it was believed that Jesus descended to the lower heavens where he was crucified. Also, the lower heavens was under the control of Satan and the demons.

    This would mean that in the lower heavens Jesus had a last meal at which he passed on instructions for a ritual. The idea of a meal being eaten in the lower heavens is peculiar enough, but who else was present at the meal? The only beings who could have been present were the demons. So not only did the demons share a last meal with Jesus, but they received instructions for a ritual which could be used to celebrate the sacrifice that Jesus made – the same sacrifice which is supposed to be the method for overthrowing the demonic powers.

    Perhaps the demons are still celebrating their own downfall to this day. Or perhaps Carrier is talking complete and utter nonsense.

  3. Robert G permalink

    Nuances from prepositions and word roots can be subtle but sometimes important, as you indicate here, and I agree with this example.

    But I also remember my Greek professors cautioning us not to put too much focus on prepositions, especially when prefixed to verbs, as they sometimes lost their significance in Koine Greek, and to avoid putting too much emphasis on word roots and etymologies. Given this precaution, I’m wondering nonetheless about the following interpretation of Phil 2,6 -11:

    Jesus was previously ‘ruling under’ (up-arxwn) God, not grasping after equality with God … Later he was ‘super-exalted’ (uper-upswsen), ie, exalted to a position even higher than he had before he emptied himself.

    Do you think these prepositions and etymology might have carried such a nuance, either in the text of Paul or in an earlier tradition? Note also the contrast between ‘ruling’ and becoming a ‘servant’.

    • Robert: Koine verbs compounded with prepositions have to be treated carefully. “Hyarchon” simply meant “being”. The “hyperhypsoo” of v. 9 does seem to carry an intensive sense. See my discussion of the passage in my book, “How on Earth did Jesus become a god?”

  4. Hon Wai Lai permalink

    Prof. Hurtado, I am searching through your blog to see if you have written on how best to understand the apocalyptic worldview held by Paul, hence indirectly, also held by Jesus. I am aware of other scholars’ work on the subject; my current interest is your stance – whether your position is closer to Sanders or to NT Wright. I would be grateful if you can point me to your relevant writings.

  5. Gene Bourland permalink

    Thank you Larry for your teaching on prepositions. What is your evaluation of Murray Harris’ work on prepositions in an appendix of Colin Brown’s Dictionary of the New Testament?
    Gene Bourland

    • I’m afraid I haven’t read Harris’ piece.

      • In Harris’ book Prepositions and Theology, he addresses both the Corinthians passage and the Galatians passage (pp 63-64). He implies (the way I read him) that paradidōmi and paralambanō may have played as much or more of a role than the preposition (which may have been substituted “to avoid a threefold use of para”), concluding that it may have been both a bit of tradition and a bit of revelation here. It’s nuanced, for sure.

  6. Thank you for the clarification, Larry. It brought back sweet memories of my undergraduate years two decades ago, when upon learning the various Greek prepositions I tried to memorize that “para” was usually “closer”, i.e. “nearer to” or “beside” the speaker, than “apo”, which is something like “(from) farther away”. I almost unconsciously connected the Greek “apo” with the Hungarian word “apó”. The latter is a noun meaning “old man”, including someone’s grandfather or great-grandfather, i.e. a relative not so close (in time and age) to you than e.g. your father, suggesting some sort of “indirectness”.

  7. Appreciate this entry! I have often thought on Paul’s words in the passage you discussed; my perspective varies a little from yours, not based on Greek, but on how the English reads, coupled with other contexts. Nevertheless, I will cut/paste your piece here and have it as a point for further study.

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