Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Big Ideas in Small Words

The Greek grammarian A.T. Robertson wrote, “All language was originally pictographic. The picture was first seen and then the effort was made to describe it . . . . Prepositions are essentially words of location employed to help out the meaning of the oblique cases . . . . One cannot afford to slur over the prepositions in the sentence if he wishes to understand the Greek New Testament” (The Minister and His Greek New Testament, page 43).

1 Timothy 1:19 suggests an intriguing picture using a preposition translated in the New American Standard Bible (NASB) as in regard to (περί). Grammatically, this preposition used with the objective (accusative) case primarily has spatial reference and is translated around. Although historically it began to take on a more general reference notion (i.e., NASB), in the New Testament period the spatial concept was still the most prominent function with the accusative. See Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition, pages 797-98. Since usage determines function the question needs to be asked, “Is a spatial idea possible here?”

The NASB translation of 1 Timothy 1:19 reads, “keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith.” The interpretation takes a dramatic twist when the spatial concept is applied to the prepositional phrase and translated “around the faith” (περὶ τὴν πίστιν). In this instance the phrase expands the pictorial visualization of the maritime picture imbedded in the verb translated “shipwreck” (ἐναυάγησαν). “Faith” can represent a harbor into which the ship sails, but for safe passage the pilot must navigate around the obstacles that could sink the vessel. In the context of 1 Timothy, rejecting a good conscience is one of those obstacles.

The relative pronoun “which” (ἣν) grammatically identifies the conscience (συνείδησιν) as its antecedent. English translations frequently demonstrate difficulty in clearly defining the referent of pronouns. The New International Version is a case in point as Guthrie points out, “In the next clause, NIV has rejected these, but the Greek relative is singular and refers directly to conscience” (The Pastoral Epistles, 78, bold mine to point out the issue at hand).

Adding further data to strengthen this point, the chiastic development of the verse points to the same conclusion. Lund offers this definition, “Chiasmus (or chiasm) is a term based on the Greek letter chi (χ) which refers to an inverted parallelism or sequence of words or ideas in a phrase, sentence, or any larger literary unit” (Chiasmus in the New Testament, vii). Bullinger quotes Bengel who says that “its employment is never without some use: viz., in perceiving the ornament and in observing the force of the language; in understanding the true and full sense; in making clear the sound interpretation; in demonstrating the true and neat analysis of the sacred text” (Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, page 374). In 1 Timothy 1:19 the chiastic arrangement of words are: A = faith, B = conscience, B' = which (conscience), A' = faith. The composition adds emphasis to the central position the conscience plays in regards to the faith.

The pictorial representation in this verse stands out in bold relief when the preposition is given a spatial translation/interpretation. Those who reject a good conscience may founder in the harbor of faith. Guthrie comments again, “Since a nautical image is introduced it is possible that Paul is thinking of conscience as a stabilizing factor which when rejected renders the ship unstable” (Ibid.).

In this instance, the spatial concept not only makes good sense but adds drama to the imagery suggested by Paul’s expressive term “shipwreck.” Not infrequently in the Bible there are “Big Ideas in Small Words.”