What is in an in? – part three

One of the most common and elusive uses of “in” by Paul is found in the phrase ἐν Χριστῷ (in Christ).

The BDF grammar (§219 (4)) says in frustration: “The phrase ἐν Χριστῷ (κυρίῳ), which is copiously appended by Paul to the most varied concepts, utterly defies definite interpretation.” So, I would be well advised to say no more. I won’t heed the advice, though, and comment anyway, first more generally about ἐν.

In its basic locative sense ἐν can refer to position inside something in a 3-dimensional space or at/on something in a 2-dimensional space. English normally uses “in” for the first and “on” for the second. (The Greek ἐπί is also used for the 2-dimensional space).

In an extended locative sense ἐν is used to point to the context or environment of a state or activity (often called “sphere”), and it can also indicate a reference for a predicate or modifier (Lk 16:10; 2Co 10:3; Eph 2:4; 1Pe 4:11). (For these citations, I am indebted to Pam Bendor-Samuel’s thesis: The Exegesis and Translation of Prepositional Phrases in the Greek New Testament – a semantic role analysis. See the table of contents here: http://www.sil.org/acpub/repository/43841_front.pdf). The full text is available here.

Sometimes ἐν can refer to the target (or goal, direction), although the more usual preposition for this is εἰς. I made some comments on this in connection with πιστεύω in an earlier post (http://betterbibles.com/2010/03/07/genitives-and-the-semantics-of-love-and-faith).

Another common function of ἐν is temporal, either as time-when or the situation/circumstances in which something happens (English can do the same: in sickness and in health).

A common function of ἐν is “means”, which can be either an instrument or a method used by an agent to accomplish something. Closely related to “means” is “manner”. They both answer the question “How?”

Turning to the phrase ἐν Χριστῷ (κυρίῳ/Ἰησοῦ), Pam Bendor-Samuel says: “It is Paul’s short-hand formula, a formula which encapsulates and summarises the unique, close, living, dependent relationship between the believer and Christ, with all the implications which flow from that.” She then suggests the three main semantic roles behind the preposition to be sphere, agency and target. Concerning “sphere” she says: “The term ‘Sphere’ is itself figurative, and implies context, framework, environment, setting, conditioning, hence also description, reference, and even definition.”

When she discusses ἐν Χριστῷ in the section about sphere the focus is on the state of being in a close relationship with Christ. The GNB often translates it as “in union with Christ”.

In the section about agency she notes that the more usual preposition for this is διά, but Paul often uses ἐν Χριστῷ in the sense of agency. In that sense ἐν Χριστῷ can be understood as a shorthand expression for “by way of or as a result of what Christ has done.” In such contexts, the English “through” or “by way of” may be the most appropriate translation, but “because of (what) Christ (has done)” is also a possibility.

Sometimes the focus is on the state that is a result of what Christ has done and then it shows the close, dependent relationship between Christians and Christ. To be “in Christ” is almost the same as being a Christian. In other words, it is often difficult to decide whether the focus is on the agency of Christ in bringing about the state or whether the focus is on the resultant state. It is quite possible that Paul did not intend to make such a distinction.

In her third section, Pam B-S. discusses the less common semantic role of target. She says: “Christ is the object of faith, hope and joy for the believer. The role of Target is commonly expressed by the prepositions εἰς and ἐπί.” And she continues: ”Target is also a role of ἐν Χριστῷ, though much less frequently than the other two.” She lists the following examples, but also notes that there is not agreement about the function of the preposition in several of these: John 3:15; Gal 3:26; Eph 1:15; Col 1:4; 1 Tim 3:13; 2 Tim 3:15.  There are other examples of ἐν showing target (or direction) with a different noun than Χριστῷ, for instance: Mark 1:15; 1 Cor 2:5; Rom 3:25.

Since I have been studying Galatians for the last month, I’ll try to look briefly at some of these ἐν phrases in Galatians:

1:13 you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism – temporal, circumstantial, my life as a Jew.

1:22 churches of Judea that are in Christ – remembering that ἐκκλησία is a general word for assembly, the phrase ”in Christ” indicates the sphere or more specifically specification. It describes these assemblies as Christian assemblies.

1:24 And they glorified God in me (KJV) – they praised God for me. The ἐν indicates “with reference to” or “with respect to”, but there is a metonymy, where ”me” stands for what happened to me or what Jesus accomplished in me.  L&N calls it ”with regard to (specification)”. NIV says: ”they praised God because of me” and GW says: ”they praised God for what had happened to me.”

2:4 the freedom we have in Christ Jesus (NIV) – both agency and sphere may be seen here. The freedom has come about through what Christ did, and we are now in the state of being free. GNB says ”the freedom we have through our union with Christ Jesus.” CEV says ”the freedom that Christ Jesus had given us.”

2:17 we seek to be justified in Christ (NIV), we seek to be justified by Christ (KJV) – It is the same idea of both agency and state: through what Christ did and the resultant state of being united with him (because of our faith in him) we are justified. The concept of faith is implicit and made explicit by the NLT:  “seek to be made right with God through faith in Christ.”

2:20 The life I live in the body, I live in faith in the Son of God – temporal, circumstantial and descriptive of my current life.

3:8 In thee shall all nations be blessed (KJV) – by means of you and through you. Instrument and method.

3:11 no one is justified before God by (ἐν) the law – same as above: instrument and method.

3:16 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus – the target or direction of faith, although some prefer to take it as agency+state. (NIV2010 changed the old NIV here.)

4:14 And my/your temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not (KJV) – in reference to my bodily condition, which could have tempted you to despise me.

4:20 I am perplexed about (ἐν) you – with regard to you.

5:10 I have confidence in (εἰς) you through (ἐν) the Lord (KJV) – probably agency + state, through what Jesus has done for you, you are now in union with him, and that gives me confidence in you that you will come to agree with me. However, some prefer to take this as describing Paul’s confidence in himself and his authority as an apostle.

18 thoughts on “What is in an in? – part three

  1. Wayne Leman says:

    Nice summary, Iver. You didn’t heed some advice, so I won’t either: I’m not convinced that English uses the preposition “in” for the “sphere” relationship.

  2. iverlarsen says:


    I suppose you mean that “in X” where X is a person is not normal English. If so, I agree. I quoted NIV several times while realising that NIV has a lot of Biblish language. It also depends on the context, and some of these expressions may well be understandable, even if they are not everyday language. I tried to count how many “in Christ”s I could find in NIV (87), in NLT (58), GNB (42) and CEV (25). For the CEV, most of these had Christ as target for hope or faith. Would you like to give some examples and how to express them in common English?

  3. Wayne Leman says:

    I’ll try, Iver, but it is my bedtime now. And if I get started with this difficult area of Bible translation, it will be difficult to shut my brain down and I won’t be able to sleep well tonight. If I don’t respond in a day or two, please remind me.

    For now I’ll just say that I’m not sure I can agree with the traditional Greek grammar label of “sphere” for a usage of ἐν if the object of the preposition is a human. If I’m right, perhaps it applies even more widely than humans, maybe also to animate beings. Much more work needs to be done in (!) this area.

  4. JKG says:

    Pam Bendor-Samuel says: “It is Paul’s short-hand formula

    One thing is for sure: it’s neither the LXX translator’s formula nor some short-hand of the gospel writers. And it’s not in Luke’s Acts and not in the anonymous writer’s Hebrews.

    Nonetheless, it’s not just Paul’s short hand is it? Peter, John the epistle writer, John the Apocalypse writer, and Jude all use the formula:

    1Pt 3:16, 1Pt 5:10, 1Pt 5:14, 1Jn 5:20, Rv 1:9, Jude 1:1.

    How? Why? Does Bendor-Samuel address this? Did Paul perhaps get his phrase by reading the others? Or are they going with something he started?

  5. iverlarsen says:

    Yes, she does. I think what she meant was that this phrase is characteristic of Paul, not that it is only used by Paul.

    She made the following table of occurrences (Apendix B):
    ἐν κυρίῳ
    Romans 16:2
    Romans 16:8
    Romans 16:11
    Romans 16:12
    Romans 16:12
    Romans 16:13
    Romans 16:22
    1Cor 1:31
    1Cor 4:17
    1Cor 7:22
    1Cor 7:39
    1Cor 9:1
    1Cor 9:2
    1Cor 11:11
    1Cor 15:58
    1Cor 16:19
    2Cor 2:12
    2Cor 10:17
    Gal 5:10
    Eph 2:21
    Eph 4:1
    Eph 4:17
    Eph 5:8
    Eph 6:1
    Eph 6:10
    Eph 6:21
    Phil 1:14
    Phil 2:24
    Phil 2:29
    Phil 3:1
    Phil 4:1
    Phil 4:2
    Phil 4:4
    Phil 4:10
    Col 3:18
    Col 3:20
    Col 4:7
    Col 4:17
    1Thess 3:8
    1Thess 5:12
    2Thess 3:4
    Philem 1:16
    Philem 1:20
    Rev 14:13

    Total = 44

    ἐν κυρίῳ Ἰησοῦ

    Romans 14:14
    Phil 2:19
    1Thess 4:1

    ἐν Χριστῷ (Ἰησοῦ)
    Romans 3:24
    Romans 6:11
    Romans 6:23
    Romans 8:1
    Romans 8:2
    Romans 8:39
    Romans 9:1
    Romans 12:5
    Romans 15:17
    Romans 16:3
    Romans 16:7
    Romans 16:9
    Romans 16:10
    1Cor 1:2
    1Cor 1:4
    1Cor 1:30
    1Cor 3:1
    1Cor 4:10
    1Cor 4:15
    1Cor 4:17
    1Cor 15:18
    1Cor 15:19
    1Cor 15:31
    1Cor 16:24
    2Cor 2:17
    2Cor 3:14
    2Cor 5:17
    2Cor 5:19
    2Cor 12:2
    2Cor 12:19
    Gal 1:22
    Gal 2:4
    Gal 2:17
    Gal 3:14
    Gal 3:26
    Gal 3:28
    Eph 1:1
    Eph 1:3
    Eph 2:6
    Eph 2:7
    Eph 2:10
    Eph 2:13
    Eph 3:6
    Eph 3:21
    Eph 4:32
    Phil 1:1
    Phil 1:13
    Phil 1:26
    Phil 2:1
    Phil 2:5
    Phil 3:3
    Phil 3:14
    Phil 4:7
    Phil 4:19
    Phil 4:21
    Col 1:2
    Col 1:4
    Col 1:28
    1Thess 2:14
    1Thess 4:16
    1Thess 5:18
    1Tim 1:14
    1Tim 3:13
    2Tim 1:1
    2Tim 1:9
    2Tim 1:13
    2Tim 2:1
    2Tim 2:10
    2Tim 3:12
    2Tim 3:15
    Philem 1:8
    Philem 1:20
    Philem 1:23
    1Peter 3:16
    1Peter 5:10
    1Peter 5:14

    Total = 76

    ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ

    1Cor 15:22
    2Cor 2:14
    Eph 1:10
    Eph 1:12
    Eph 1:20
    Eph 2:5

    Total = 6

    Did Peter, John and Jude get it from reading Paul? Maybe. It is interesting that it does not occur in John’s Gospel or letters, only in Revelation, and only twice.

    She mentions 3 examples of ἐν (τῷ) Ἰησοῦ (Acts 4:2; Eph 4:21 and Rev 1:9) and treats them as “sphere”.

    Concerning Acts 4:2 she says: “they were preaching the resurrection of the dead based on the resurrection of Jesus. ‘not … “through Jesus”, but in the person (or example) of Jesus, alleging him as an example of that which the Sadducees denied’ (Alford 1865:41).
    JB: they were extremely annoyed at their teaching the people the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead by proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus.”

    I would probably take it as “with regard to” Jesus which amount to more or less the same. They preached that Jesus had indeed resurrected, and that proved that resurrection is a possibility. However, I think the focus is more on the resurrected Jesus than resurrection in general. But I won’t argue the case, since both were and are crucial. The Sadducees were opposed to both.

  6. Mike Sangrey says:

    I suppose you mean that “in X” where X is a person is not normal English.

    Just one very quick comment (at least quick for me 🙂 )

    What we’re dealing with here is not so much ” ‘in X’ where X is a person”. What we’re dealing with here is ” ‘in X’ where X is a title.” There are a few exceptions (as you noted). But, then again, why are they exceptional? The marking (saliency) of the exceptions makes the other occurrences normal (ie normal within their context, particularly Pauline context).

    So, I don’t think we’re really talking about “in Louie” being bad English. We’re talking about, “in King Louie” being bad English. Subtle, but I think important.

  7. J. K. Gayle says:

    We’re talking about, “in King Louie” being bad English. Subtle, but I think important.

    With what sort of English does Ms. Bendor-Samuel propose translating “this [Greek] phrase [that] is characteristic of Paul”? If it’s a neologism, a “characteristic” phrasing, then why is it so important to make it “good” English (if by good one means “democratically approved” or popularly “fieldtested”)?

    (On a very sad note, Bendor-Samuel’s husband, Dr John Bendor-Samuel, Director-Emeritus of Wycliffe UK, passed away all-too-unexpectedly just a few days ago:


  8. iverlarsen says:


    What Pam and many of us are reacting to is a mechanical translation of ἐν Χριστῷ (Ἰησοῦ) as “in Christ (Jesus)” without much consideration as to whether this phrase communicates in English what is communicated in Greek. I am not saying that even KJV always translated it mechanically, but far too often literal translations have done so in too many contexts. The problem is that the semantic range of “in” in English does not at all correspond to the semantic range of ἐν in Greek, so translating it with “in” will often betray the meaning of the Greek text. The challenge is to understand the meaning in Greek in the contexts where it occurs.

  9. J. K. Gayle says:

    If we were “to understand the meaning in Greek in the contexts where it occurs,” does that mean we shun a “literal” rendering, as a nonce compound?

    Yes, of course. Nonce compounds, when translated literally, can often be just ridiculous. But assume we all can decide what Billy Joel means by “up-town” (in “Uptown Girl”) or what Peter Mallory means by it (in Killing Matter, writing, “The area had… its own rough charm, but it was as remote as Mozambique… to your educated Uptowner”). Well, then, we’re not getting that meaning from a lexicon or from the OED, which has:

    A. adv.
    In, to, or into the higher or upper part of a town, or (U.S.) the residential portion of a town or city.

    B. adj.
    Situated or dwelling up-town; of or pertaining to the upper (also, U.S., residential) part of a town.

    B. n.
    The higher or upper part of a town or city, spec. the residential or more prosperous area. U.S.

    Rather, the meanings added are from the nonce, or if you’ll let me make one myself, “from the more-complex nonce compound”, or “from the noncing.”

    Now is something literal (and playful) like “fille jusqu’à la ville” so bad, or should we avoid French wordplay and go with a strictly non-literal, figural rendering of the lyric, as if it must be (for Billy Joel), “jeune fille des quartiers chics”? And does it have to be “um residente da cidade alta” (for what Peter Mallory means)? Or can’t somebody in Portuguese in Mozambique nonce too? (And now I’m playing with English again).

    Many translators so play, and not only get away with it, but also form words that mirror what’s going on in the L1. For example, Dante Gabriel Rossetti famously translates from French to English, François Villon’s Grand Testament, Ball. i., and makes-up a nonce word from the French: “But where are the snows of yester-year?” Yesteryear is the rendering for antan, which is a rendering from the Latin, ante annum. Yes things change from language to language to language; and yet what’s shown is the playfulness, the novelty, the nonce, of language.

    Isn’t Paul playing with Greek? Isn’t Peter, John, and Jude? Yes, there’s an intended meaning in each context. But once we decide what it means, do we have to avoid the meaningful nonce compound brought over into English? Does that have to be “mechanical” or even thought of as “mechanical”?

  10. Mike Sangrey says:


    why is it so important to make it “good” English?

    In order to communicate.

    Isn’t Paul playing with Greek?

    Whether or not I were to answer that question ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would not change anything with respect to the two questions:
    1. What does it mean in Greek?
    2. How do you say that in English?

    Both of these questions are complex, multivalent questions where the different dimensions of meaning have different priorities mediated by the communicative quality of the text with respect to the relevant audiences.

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    In order to communicate.

    Well, of course, Mike. But which communicates better what Villon means when he wrote “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?”

    Would that be “But where are snows of the prior year?”

    Or “Where are the snows of yesteryear?”

    The phrase yesteryear was not good English when Rossetti used it for d’antan. And d’antan was Villon’s peculiar French. (Isn’t ἐν Χριστῷ, likewise, for the nonce?)

  12. White Man says:

    μένων ἐν is a Johannine usage that is traditionally translated by some form of ‘abide in’. It carries the idea of ‘stay with’ in the meanings of ‘stay faithful to” or “keep trusting in’. As in:
    “Stay with me here, it gets better.”
    “The course was tough, but he stuck with it and came out in the top ten per cent.”

  13. Rich Rhodes says:

    There’s a great metaphorical analysis of ἐν Χριστῷ in Bonnie Howe’s (outrageously expensive) book on I Peter, Because You Bear This Name.

  14. iverlarsen says:

    Thank you, White Man, for pointing out John’s μένειν ἐν which is found both in the gospel and John’s letters. I guess it is a reflection of a Semitic thinking person speaking Greek, or a translation of a Semitic expression, and in that way the semantic range of ἐν has been extended beyond what would be normal Greek. It has traditionally been translated as “abide/dwell in”, but not always. I like the English idiom “stick with”, but we don’t have that in my language. So for John 6:56 you might say: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will stick with me, and I’ll stick with them.”

    The expression may well go back to the parable Jesus spoke about the vine and its branches.
    It starts in John 15:2: “Every branch in (ἐν) me.” Now, in Danish we say that a branch is on a tree, not in it. I am not sure about English. The dilemma is that if we say “on” here, we have lost the connection to verse 4: “(You branches,) remain in me (the tree), and I will remain in you.” In this connection, I suppose a better English preposition would be “(together) with”. But if we do that, do we lose the organic connection of unity between tree and branches? CEV says: “Stay joined to me, and I will stay joined to you.” In an extended metaphor or parable, you can stretch the language to some degree, but how much? I don’t think there is a simple answer. Translation is an art. In our version we said for this verse: “Afbryd ikke forbindelsen til mig, så vil jeg heller ikke afbryde forbindelsen til jer!” (Don’t cut off the connection to me, then I won’t cut off the connection to you.) I admit I was inspired by bad Internet connections where I live, and I am often confronted with the “connection lost” message. Of course, I wouldn’t put the Internet idea into the translation, but I will allow the reader to make such associations if they want to. But I was also considering the vital flow from the root and stem of the vine to the branches. If a branch does not bear fruit, it has in effect lost that vital connection and will eventually be cut off. We did put the literal, traditional rendering in a footnote.

  15. Wayne Leman says:

    Iver, I have continued to think about your request that I suggest natural English wordings to express the meanings of Greek ἐν plus a human object of the preposition. It looks to me that the longer I think about it and delay commenting here, the longer others are making those suggestions. Maybe if I delay long enough others will get the job done!! 🙂

    I am so busy checking translation now that I don’t have time to do the extensive study needed to suggest natural English translations. However, I can say that over the years I have thought that “belong to” is one option. At least one translation, perhaps it was the Living Bible, translated ἐν Χριστῷ as “a Christian”. I’m not keen on TEV/GNT’s “in union with Christ”. It doesn’t seem to me to improve much on the literal, but unnatural, translation of “in Christ”.

    I guess we might need to imagine that we are trying to translate the Bible into English for people who speak and write English well, but are not familiar with Biblish. In such a case, how would we translate ἐν Χριστῷ for them so that they would get as much as possible of its original meaning? I think there are several reasonable options, some of which have already been mentioned in comments to this post:

    “connected to Christ”
    “belong to Christ”
    “joined (up with) Christ”

    I hope that we can continue greenlighting on this for other options, as well.

    Of course, for those who prefer a more literal English Bible, the literal translation of “in Christ” seems to work, at least as a starting point for further understanding. It’s not a natural English phrase, but it’s one which many preachers and Bible teachers explain to people so those who hear them do build up an understanding of the concept the N.T. authors were trying to convey.

  16. Dan Sindlinger says:

    Wayne, I think you had mentioned that “in the sphere of” is not a natural expression in relation to a person. I agree, but it conveys to me the sense of someone being a follower of someone else, e.g, Martin Luther or Martin Luther King Jr. So would you consider adding “a follower of Christ” to your list of natural English wordings?

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