1 Cor 13:7 – the language of love

One of the most famous and beloved passages in the NT is 1 Cor 13. I have been digging into the Greek text of verse 7 recently and thought I might share my thoughts with you.

The Greek words are: πάντα στέγει, πάντα πιστεύει, πάντα ἐλπίζει, πάντα ὑπομένει.
RSV provides a fairly literal translation: Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

The verse is poetic in two ways: the rhetorical repetition of πάντα (panta) – all things or everything or all the way and a chiasm. Let me explain the chiasm.
The Greek word στέγει (stegei) is very close in meaning to ὑπομένει (hupomenei), so the first and last words are close. Similarly the word for believe and hope are close in meaning, so the two middle words correspond to each other.

στέγω only occurs 4 times in the NT and all in Paul’s letters. Let us look at them:
1 Cor 9:12 – we endure everything (NET), we put up with anything (NIV)
1 Cor 13:7 – bears all things (NET), always protects (NIV)
1 Th 3:1 – we could bear it no longer (NET), we could stand it no longer (NIV)
1 Th 3:5 – I could bear it no longer (NET), I could stand it no longer (NIV)

I like the NIV idiom ”I cannot stand it”. This idiom is mainly used in a negative construction, I believe, so for the positive usage NIV says ”we put up with anything.” Why NIV did not also say ”Love puts up with anything” in v. 7 I do not know. It would be consistent with 9:12 and give the meaning nicely. Why did they use ”protect” and why say ”always” instead of ”everything” or “anything”? Paul commonly used the standard word for always (pantote). I can only guess the reason for the NIV rendering. My guess is that it was to forestall possible misuses of the text. Because we have a long tradition of pretty unreadable Bible translations, Bible readers, including pastors, cannot stand to read many verses at a go before they get tired. Maybe that is one reason for their habit to take one or two verses out of context and meditate or preach on them. The result is often some strange teaching and ideas. Of course, we are not to ”put up with everything” in every situation. But this text talks about the characteristics of love. It must be set in the context of a relationship between people, especially the context of a natural and spiritual family. PANTA – everything/all things is a rhetorical hyperbole, it does not literally and absolutely mean everything, but it does mean a lot. A loving person puts up with a lot that an unloving person would not put up with. Another reason for the NIV may be that a text is supposed to be read aloud, and ”Love bears everything” might possibly be understood when spoken as ”Love bares everything.” Or maybe ”bear” is just too old-fashioned English?

The final word ὑπομένω (hupomenw) means to endure something, to stay put when others might have left. These words describe love very well, including the relationship between husband and wife. If I have love, I can put up with (almost) everything in my spouse, and I will stay put in the relationship through difficult times.

The two middle words are πιστεύω (pisteuw) and ἐλπίζω (elpizw). PISTEUW can have a semantic frame with three participants or with two. When pisteuw has three participants, it means that A entrusts P to G.
We see this in John 2:24 IHSOUS OUK EPISTEUEN AUTON AUTOIS – Jesus was not entrusting him(self) to them. Jesus is Agent, him(self) is Patient and AUTOIS is the Goal/Direction. It is normal for the semantic Patient to be encoded with the accusative case and the Goal with the Dative case or a preposition such as EIS and occasionally EN or EPI, and this is how PISTEUW is used.

In many instances of this verb, the Patient is not expressed openly, but assumed, and in that case it refers to the same person as the Agent. In John 3:15 we find hO PISTEUWN EN AUTWi and the next verse has the variation with the same meaning hO PISTEUWN EIS AUTON. John 4:21 has PISTEUE MOI – entrust (yourself) to me. This is the same as “put your trust in me” or “believe in me.”

This tri-valent APG verb is sometimes used in the middle-passive. One of the functions of passive is to make the Agent (or Goal) implicit. Usually the Patient takes over the subject slot in a passive construction, but in some cases the Goal can also be subject in Greek.
1 Cor 9:17 OIKONOMIAN PEPISTEUMAI – a stewardship has been entrusted to me or: I have been entrusted with a stewardship. Implied/assumed Agent is God, Patient (accusative) is OIKONOMIAN and Goal is me, expressed as subject.
Gal 2:7 PEPISTEUMAI TO EUAGGELION – the gospel has been entrusted to me (also 1 Th 2:4)
1 Tim 1:11 TO EUAGGELION…hO EPISTEUQHN EGW – the gospel which has been entrusted to me. (also Tit 1:3)
Rom 3:2 EPISTEUQHSAN TA LOGIA TOU QEOU – The words of God were entrusted to them. The implicit Agent is God, the Patient is TA LOGIA TOU QEOU and the Goal is represented by the plural subject – they/them.

Now, the verb PISTEUW can also have only two participants with the meaning “accept as true”. In this case, we have the Agent (or Experiencer) and the Patient (object). The Patient can be in the form of a clause introduced by hOTI (that) or it can be an infinitive (or participle) with accusative or it can be a noun that stands for a statement.
Mat 9:28 PISTEUTE hOTI DUNAMAI TOUTO POIHSAI – Do you accept as true that I am able to do this?
John17:9 (+21) EPISTEUSAN hOTI SU ME APESTEILAS – They accepted as true that you have sent me.
John 11:27 EGW PEPISTEUKA hOTI SU EI hO CRISTOS hO hUIOS TOU QEOU – I have accepted as true that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.
Acts 8:37b (v.l.) PISTEUW TON hUION TOU QEOU EINAI TON IHSOUN CRISTON – I accept as true that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Jn 11:26 PISTEUEIS TOUTO – Do you accept this as true?
Rom 14:2 hOS PISTEUEI FAGEIN PANTA – he who accepts as true that he can eat anything.
1 Cor 13:7 PANTA PISTEUEI – it (love) accepts all things as true

Quite often the verb is used without any object or prepositional phrases, and in such cases there is no way to know whether it is the tri-valent verb “entrust” or the di-valent verb “accept as true”. Context will usually clarify it, but not always.

So, “accept everything as true” shows the attitude of love. You accept that this other person (husband, wife, child, etc.) speaks the truth and can be trusted. It does not mean that we are to accept and believe every wind of doctrine that comes our way. The accusative object “everything” indicates that this is not a matter of believing in God or Jesus, but of accepting as true what the other person is saying.

ἐλπίζω (elpizw – hope) can be used with a semantic Goal in the dative case or a preposition like EIS (towards), e.g. John 5:45 ”Moses, in whom you have placed your hope.” (NET). Also 2 Cor 1:10, 1 Pet 3:5. Sometimes EPI (on) is used as in Rom 15:12 ”The root of Jesse will come, and the one who rises to rule over the Gentiles, in (EPI) him will the Gentiles hope.” (NET). Also 1 Tim 4:10, 5:5, 6:17, 1 Pet 1:13. Or an EN (in) can be used as in 1 Cor 15:19 and Php 2:19 ”I hope in the Lord Jesus” (KJV has trust here – I place my hope and trust in Jesus).

However, in most cases ἐλπίζω (elpizw) has the two semantic participants Agent and Patient (object). This object may be a clause introduced by hOTI (that) or it may be a noun that stands for something that you can hope and expect will happen.

In 1 Cor 13:7, the two words hope and believe are parallel in the sense that they are both used with an object (Patient). Love accepts everything as true and hopes for everything. A relationship has hopes and aspirations, but these hopes require acceptance and love to be realized.

19 thoughts on “1 Cor 13:7 – the language of love

  1. John Hobbins says:

    Hi Iver,

    I think you are right that 1 Corinthians 13 is full of poetry (though it is not poetry in the strict sense).

    As Suzanne McCarthy recently pointed out, the passage has iconic value for many of us whose native tongue is English.

    Like you, many of us feel most comfortable with a literal translation like RSV as a point of departure in 1 Cor 13:7.

    From there we may explicate along the lines you suggest, or some other.

    Here is a chart of the wording of RSV, where it comes from, and which translations have preserved it:

    KJV: Beareth all things,
    believeth all things,
    hopeth all things,
    endureth all things.

    HCSB: bears all things,
    believes all things,
    hopes all things,
    endures all things.

    So also: NASB.

    NRSV: It bears all things,
    believes all things,
    hopes all things,
    endures all things.

    So also: NAB.

    RSV: Love bears all things,
    believes all things,
    hopes all things,
    endures all things.

    So also: ESV.

    Innovating translations: NIV, REB, NLT, and NJB.

  2. Mike Sangrey says:

    I think I’d unwrap the chiasm and so make it more natural English. Also, Hebrew parallelism, and even non-Hebrew, tends to meld or blend together the two concepts. Unwrapping the chiasm helps to accomplish this in English.

    Something like:
    Love never gives up, enduring through everything. It never drops it’s trust, hoping in every case.

  3. iverlarsen says:

    Hi, John,

    Apart from the poetic aspects, my main interest was a study of the various Greek words. I quoted RSV to help readers who may not be able to understand the Greek directly.

    As far as translation goes, I am not comfortable with RSV, and I am not in favour of keeping old familiar phrases just because they are familiar. But then, I am not a traditional guy. I think an innovative translation can be refreshing, but it has to be based on good exegesis and good linguistics. NLT is my favorite English version, but there are places where I disagree with what they have done. Their translation of this verse is: “Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

  4. iverlarsen says:

    Thanks, Mike,

    You are quite right, it is often a good idea to break up a chiasm into parallel structure. I really like your translation.

  5. John Hobbins says:


    That is my experience too, if the goal is to “help readers who may not be able to understand the Greek [or Hebrew] directly,” RSV or ESV are better starting points than NIV or NLT.

    I also agree that NLT is an excellent translation. I think of it as a paraphrase which unpacks the source text in various ways, very often, though not always, in successful ways.

  6. Oun Kwon says:

    As to the English idiom ‘put up with’, it does not fit in the text. It has a sense of ‘tolerate’, as in ‘put up with something or somebody unpleasant’. The nuance is very different from ‘bear up’ or ‘endure’.

    As for the English word ‘bear’, it is clearer with ‘bear up’.

    BTW, the sense of ‘all the way’ for PANTA (accusative) as Carl Conrad offered in B-Greek list http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-greek/2011-May/056504.html seems to clarify this verse admirably. I don’t have to resort to the label ‘rhetorical hyperbole’ to explain away the difficulty in understanding the text.

  7. Theophrastus says:

    Because we have a long tradition of pretty unreadable Bible translations, Bible readers, including pastors, cannot stand to read many verses at a go before they get tired. Maybe that is one reason for their habit to take one or two verses out of context and meditate or preach on them. The result is often some strange teaching and ideas. Of course, we are not to ”put up with everything” in every situation. But this text talks about the characteristics of love. It must be set in the context of a relationship between people, especially the context of a natural and spiritual family.

    I’m sorry, I disagree with almost everything you’ve written in this passage.

    Bible readers, including pastors, cannot stand to read many verses at a go

    First, it is not difficult to read a long Biblical passage at length. On Saturday mornings, in Jewish synagogues 1 or 2 parhsos (representing at about 1/50th of the Torah — typically about 7 chapters of text) as well as a haftarah portion (typically about a chapter’s worth from the prophets or writing) as about 40 psalms. I have not heard any reports of exploding heads from individuals unable to handle this amount of text.

    Further, many Evangelical readers desire to the Bible quickly. Thus we have books such as Read Through Bible in a Year (ISBN 9780802471673) or Read the Bible in 90 Days (ISBN 031093351X) or even the The Light-Speed Bible (ISBN 1586400665) (which promises a full Bible experience in 16 hours plus 8 more for review and meditation.)

    I don’t believe you have any evidence for the claim that Bible translations unduly tire readers.

    I suspect the reason why some readers make only little progress in their Bible reading is that they are not given annotated editions that explain the many difficult passages and concepts necessary to read the Hebrew Bible.


    But this text talks about the characteristics of love. It must be set in the context of a relationship between people, especially the context of a natural and spiritual family.

    You are engaging in eisegesis here.

    The text talks about love as a spiritual gift, and how love is a more valuable spiritual gift than others (such as the gift of tongues or prophesy), and how those spiritual gifts are empty without love:

    Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

    And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

    In particular, I do not see support for your claim that this must be set in the … context of a natural and spiritual family. The text does not do talk about natural families in this passage (and Paul did not have a wife or children, according to the traditional account.)

  8. EricW says:

    I wish more translations would bring out the fronting of πάντα in 13:7. ISTM there’s an emphasis on “ALL things” that’s subdued when the verb is the first word in the English clause.

  9. Wayne Leman says:

    Nicely done, Suzanne. I like alliteration. We could use more of it in English translations of biblical poetry, if we believe in functional equivalence. (Of course, English has many other poetic devices.) I like to think of much of 1 Cor. 13 as poetry, or at least prose poetry.

  10. iverlarsen says:


    Yes, the paragraph you refer to was deliberately provocative and hyperbolic in order to make a point.

    I am not disputing that it is possible to read an unnatural and unclear translation. I believe the whole of KJV was recently read in public in the UK. But if you ask the men and women on the street if it was understandable to them, what do you think they would answer? Most would say: Sorry, I wasn’t listening. My point is that much of it cannot be read with understanding.

    I am not saying that everything must be immediately understandable, but the translation should not add a smoke screen and make it less understandable than the original, but this is what happens quite often in literal translations. One of the reasons for much of our Bible translation tradition is that it was part of the goal to make the translation obscure. This may not be the stated goal, but as long as the translators are theologians (or rabbis) rather than translators, they are acutely aware of all the many and different theological takes on many passages. In order not to offend anybody and allow the theologians, rabbis and pastors who read the translation to interpret the text the way they want to interpret it, it has to be rather obscure, vague and “open”.

    I have not seen exploding heads in a church congregation – I can see that you appreciate hyperbole – and it is very rare to see people in the congregation raise their hands to interrupt the pulpit authority and say that they did not understand what was being read. However, I do have evidence. I have asked many people about their reaction when they read the bible privately and come to a passage they don’t understand. The usual answer is: “This is too deep for me. Maybe one day I will understand it, but for now I will just skip it and forget it.” Unfortunately, the more common situation is that they have heard the passage read so many times that they are familiar with it and may even be able to quote it, but if you ask them to express the meaning in their own words or explain the meaning, they are at a loss. Not only did they not know the meaning, but they did not know that they did not know.

    Chapter 13 is not about love as a spiritual gift, because love is not a spiritual gift according to the NT. It is a fruit of the Spirit. What you can say and what Paul is saying is that the spiritual gifts must be used in an atmosphere of unselfish love. Yes, I agree that the major context is the spiritual family relationship as Christians interact with one another in their home meetings. But the exercise of love is not restricted to that environment. You think that Paul did not know about having a wife and children? Then I don’t see how he could have written chapter 7 and many other parts of his letters. I assume he was married when he met Jesus and his wife did not appreciate his new faith and left him. But I take your point, the text talks about the spiritual family, and the physical family is an application of the text that I used to illustrate it.

  11. iverlarsen says:


    You are right that there is an emphasis on ALL things. BUT, remember that English does not work like Greek. In many cases in an English sentence, the last position is the position of emphasis, so it is the opposite of Greek. Apart from word order, English usually expresses emphasis by the words chosen or by stress.

    If you remember Mike’s translation: “Enduring through everything, hoping in every case” would you not agree that the emphasis on ALL/EVERYTHING is expressed?

  12. Theophrastus says:

    Iver — I agree that often people don’t understand Scripture.

    These leaves open a question — what is the best way to help understanding? One approach, as you suggest, is translations that do “not add a smoke screen and make it less understandable than the original.” Another approach is to make supplementary materials available that help readers interpret the text, such as a commentary or annotations. (Of course, these approaches are complementary, and can be combined.)

    I know that in the US, students who are exposed to literature in early modern English (such as Milton or Shakespeare) usually encounter it with annotations, and that seems to work. I know that I studied both Shakespeare and Milton (with annotations) in high school, and I felt that I understood the text well enough.

    In fact, I just saw a production by children of Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream — with the actors aged from 5 to 15. Most of them seemed to understand the story quite well, despite the Elizabethan language. Perhaps they missed some of Shakespeare’s wordplay and puns, but they certainly got the main gist of the plot.

    If 5-15 year-olds can understand Shakespeare, then I believe there is hope that when properly educated, adults can understand literal translations. That is one reason I am so excited about the forthcoming Norton Critical Editions of the KJV (volume 1, volume 2). I think this version will make the KJV and its literary elegance available to a new generation of readers.

    As another example, I think that Tom Wright’s commentary and translations in his New Testament for Everyone series are relatively easy to follow for a broad audience. Perhaps some might disagree with points in his commentary, but I think he is a master teacher, and prepare his readers to read the material on their own.

    I know that when I read the Hebrew Bible in Hebrew, I read a version that has extensive commentary. I’m not sure I would be able to understand it well without that commentary.

    To summarize: I’m not arguing that in many cases Biblical translation language can be made better. But I think that education (in the form of commentary or annotations) is also an essential step.

  13. iverlarsen says:


    I agree with and use a combined method. When we translated the Bible into Danish, we had lots of introductory notes and footnotes. The two of us may not quite agree on the mix between the ingredients. A bishop made a Danish translation one hundred years ago. On most pages, the translation itself, which is very literal, takes up one third of the page or less. The rest of the page is devoted to explaining what the text is supposed to mean plus background information. What you choose depends on your audience. For students, it is fine with an annotated text, but for the average person, I am afraid they might not take the time or have the interest to dig into all those notes to try to understand the text. So, for such an average person, notes should primarily give background information rather than explain an obscure and poorly translated text.

    I also think there is a difference between reading a text in your own language, albeit a few hundred years old, like Shakespeare and Milton, as compared to reading a translation. (When I hear or read quotes from these two gentlemen, I quickly give up understanding it and move on. It is not worth the effort to me to try to understand them, but I might have enjoyed reading an understandable version.)

    We always end up with this dilemma. Where do the translators want to be on the spectrum from literal to free translations. I don’t think there is a simple answer that applies to all situations. It depends on your purpose and your intended audience. When our Danish version was published in a special edition for bikers, all the notes were scrapped, because the publisher was convinced that this clientele do not read footnotes. This is part of the reason for my practice as a translator that the text as much as possible should be understandable without notes, but notes can defend a certain translation choice, give other exegetical options and provide additional background. The notes in our Danish version has proven to be one of the main reasons behind its acceptance, as one person said: If we don’t agree with the translation of a disputed passage, we can always refer to the notes.

  14. EricW says:


    I agree with you in part. But it seems to me that English is constrained in print for emphasis to using italics or boldface or unexpected syntax – like putting “ALL things” first. When reading aloud one can raise one’s voice when saying ALL.

    And I’m not sure I like translating the adjective πάντα as an adverb. There’s a difference in my mind between “verbs all things” (or “all things verbs”) and “always verbs.”

  15. iverlarsen says:


    I agree, I would want to avoid “always”, but it is not a serious point in my mind.

    Danish is like English in how we mark emphasis, that is, mainly be intonation, although we have more leeway than English in terms of fronting words and phrases. So, what we did was to mark stress by italics in the translation.

  16. Scott Kramer says:

    Hi Iver,

    When you said “The accusative object “everything” indicates that this is not a matter of believing in God or Jesus, but of accepting as true what the other person is saying” I guess that kind of confuses me because if pisteuo means to have faith (in or with respect to, a person or thing). When I look at the context of 1 Corinthians 13:7. Since love believeth all things is surrounded by love beareth all things and love endureth all things. And if love beareth all things could be about something that happened like someones house burned down and not just about what others might do to you and the same for love endures all things. Couldn’t the context for love believes all things be about believing all things that are true, or all things that are in the bible instead of the context being about what others say and their conduct?


    Scott Kramer

  17. Iver Larsen says:

    Hi, Scott,

    I am not sure I understand your question. The meaning of pisteuo in Greek is in some ways similar to English “believe”. If you “belive in” a person you trust that person. If you “believe” a person, you believe what he is saying. So, the meaning of the verb depends on how it is used with other words.
    I don’t think the text should be limited to believing things that are in the bible, since the “bible” was not a fixed entity when Paul wrote the letter, and there is no indication in the context that the Scriptures is being referred to. Rather, I would say that the text describes the basic and constant attitude of a believer, an attitude of trust. That is why I don’t think there is any significant difference between “always believes” and “believes all things”.

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