Monday, February 16, 2009

Tracking Down the Antecedent

10 But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. 11 Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. 12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. 13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13, New American Standard Bible [NASB])

Recall that universally applicable dictum “The devil is in the details,” and revise it to read “Accurate interpretation and application are in the details.” It appears to be fashionable these days to diminish the exhausting nature of biblical interpretation as though certain exegetical processes are unnecessary. The end result of an emasculated methodology is a failure to see all of the details of the text under scrutiny, details that point to accurate interpretation. The only real solution for avoiding this blindness is an interpretive methodology that passionately refuses to ignore any process that looks for data in the text, no matter how “pedantic” the process may seem to the weary interpreter. Philippians 4:10-13 hammers this truth into stone!

A standard rule of Greek grammar is that a pronoun agrees with its antecedent in gender and number. Sometimes this “standard rule” does not seem to work out. Philippians 4:11 is a case in point where the prepositional phrase “in whatever circumstances” (ἐν οἷς) includes a neuter plural pronoun that has no clear antecedent in the context.

The pronoun in this apparent grammatical incongruity “connects w[ith] the situation described in what precedes under which circumstances = under these circumstances” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament [BAGD], 727). In short, the antecedent is not a word but a situation.

The situation preceding Paul’s relative clause is want (literally, need, lack, poverty, ὑστέρησιν, BAGD, 1044). Therefore, the prepositional phrase literally means, “because of the circumstances of poverty . . . .”

The discovery of poverty as the antecedent for the pronoun helps explain other issues needing explanation in verses 12-13. First, the initial two clauses of verse 12, I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity (οἶδα καὶ ταπεινοῦσθαι, οἶδα καὶ περισσεύειν), repeats a conjunction usually translated as “and,” and does so in the above translation once while ignoring the first occurrence. This conjunction is placed second in its clause instead of its normal placement at the beginning of its clause affecting the understanding of the passage (note the bold words in the Greek text). Second, verse 12 consists of three repeated contrasts between poverty and excess with two summary phrases in the middle (in any and every circumstance, more literally in any and in all circumstances). Third, verse 13 necessarily connects with the preceding economic context but the NASB translation (and most others) seem to remove it to the periphery. This connection establishes itself strongly with the first word in the verse, a focus word, “all things” (πάντα, fully paraphrased “with respect to all the preceding economic matters”). The NASB translation “I can do all things” does not connect readily with verses 10-12 because “doing” is not a contextual concern for Paul.

Issue #1—Paul limited himself by the pronoun whatever circumstances (οἷς) to matters relating to poverty when actually he wanted to discuss a more extensive topic, all financial circumstances. The use of the “strangely placed” conjunction “and” (καὶ) carefully balances out the clauses (Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 1181), “We may indeed have καὶ [“and”] in both parts of the comparison, a studied balancing of the two members of the sentence” (italics mine). One can envision Paul laying down his pen and musing about how he would restructure his words, since erasing a papyri page was not an option!

Issues #2 and 3—The preceding conclusions open up the text further. Verse 11 contains three items that are expanded in verses 12 and 13. (1) Poverty circumstances are expanded to include “all economic circumstances.” (2) Learned is reiterated in verse 12 with a mystery religion term literally translated “I have learned the secret” regarding money matters (μεμύημαι, perfect aspect, “I have learned the secret and am living in the light of it”). (3) The favorite Stoic term “self-sufficiency/content” (αὐτάρκης, see posting titled “Money Matters”) is expanded in verse 13 by ἰσχύω, translated “I can do” in the NASB, but contextually it is intransitive, not requiring a direct object, and means to be strong (BDAG, 484).

Finally, these conclusions are confirmed by the presence of the introductory “not that” (οὐχ ὅτι) at verse 11 and the omission of the expected balancing term “but” (ἀλλὰ, see verse 17 for the full format). When Paul penned in whatever circumstances (ἐν οἷς) a number of internal changes were needed, and these changes resulted in the omission of the “but” clause. When understood, the above-mentioned grammatical and lexical changes illumine the text in a dramatic way and lead to far-reaching applications! To repeat, “Accurate interpretation and application are in the details,” and seeing all of the details requires an exhaustive methodology.

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB).