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.
Examples:
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.
Examples:
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.

Different Languages Wear Different Formal Attire

Perhaps a couple of formal pictures should go with this posting: A Three-piece Suit, a Grand Boubou, a Hakama. They are all radically different–foreign to one another. And yet they all mean about the same thing.

Structured text has form. And ancient languages utilize forms that are quite foreign to us. Just like a foreign word is not understood by someone, larger linguistic structures are also not understood. Or, sometimes, it’s worse. Sometimes they are misunderstood.

We use indentation and space between our paragraph units. It’s the form we use. People who lived and breathed the original languages were different. They used no space—even between words. They tie their paragraphing more tightly to the semantics of the paragraph. We rely more heavily on syntax. One such paragraphing technique they used was the chiasmus. I’ll use this specific formal structure to illustrate a point in just a moment.

Rarely do our translations translate these forms. They leave the larger formal structures largely untouched. When dealing at the word level, translations replace the original forms with ones appropriate to the destination language. But with the larger linguistic structures, at best, we do this replacement poorly.

The results are many: general misunderstanding of what the text says, a sense the text has a special, even secret, meaning, an unfounded assumption that the reason the text can be trusted is because it sounds special (in a novel way), the reader is not impacted by the text because he or she simply can’t understand it, the reader deems the text as irrelevant, they are frustrated, or they may even feel guilty. I think we could come up with more unwanted results.

The text of John 3:31 illustrates this. I’ve explicitly formatted it to show the original, formal structure.

GNT:

ὁ ἄνωθεν ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν

ὁ ὢν ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἐστιν

καὶ

ἐκ τῆς γῆς λαλεῖ

ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν

ASV (I pick this translation since it provides for easier analysis to the English reader):

He that cometh from above is above all:

he that is of the earth is of the earth,

and

of the earth he speaketh:

he that cometh from heaven is above all.

As many of our readers will readily see, the structure is a chiasmus. Even those who do not know Greek, with a little effort, can pick out the repetition of various phrases. I’ll also point out that each Greek line ends with a verb. This is a very structured text. It reads quite nicely if you put in your Greek brain. It’s even quite amenable to analysis, even in literal English translation. However, to the English mind, it doesn’t read well.

While English has a form of chiastic structure, it is more stylistic than semantic. In the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Bible the authors use chiasm to convey characteristics of meaning such as emphasis, contrast, conjunction, and even to explicitly state the topic of a paragraph (or larger) unit of text. They utilize the symmetry to convey meaning. I’ve seen cases where the main referent of a paragraph can be easily seen in the central, hinge-point of the chiasmus which formed the immediately preceding paragraph. It’s as if the apex of the paragraph forms the jumping off point for the next paragraph. With our more linear processing of the Biblical text, I think we too often miss these observations. The English formal structures don’t use symmetry for semantic effect. So, we quite naturally don’t “see” the semantics of the larger text.

In the above example, as it folds around the middle, we can see that οὐρανός (“heaven”) makes more explicit the ἄνωθεν (“from above”). The first and last clauses form a strong and explicit statement that there is someone who has come from heaven. The folding of the text is as if the repeated text overlaps the text it repeats, and it therefore becomes bold.

The middle clause—in fact, two clauses joined with the conjunction καὶ (“and”)—appear to be in contrast to its wrapper. This contrast becomes much clearer when the bolded “from heaven” statement is placed along side the truism in the text: “that which is from the earth from the earth is.”

This structure forms a common chiasm with its semantic symmetry, in this case, a contrast. The semantic symmetry focuses the attention on the meaning intended by the author. In this case, the paragraph talks about one person who is both from heaven and from earth, but the one from earth speaks. The formal structure intertwines the contrastive concepts into one holistic statement. A statement which is both coherent and dialectic at the same time. It’s clever how John has formed it–even elegant.

Recently, I was somewhat surprised by the incarnational meaning of the text. I hadn’t seen it before. A small group of us men were going over the above text. And I saw the chiasmus. When that happened the incarnation jumped from the page. I suddenly realized that the next sentence, when connected with the chiasm just read, should be understood as saying, “What He [the one who is of the earth] has seen and heard [which can only be seen and heard by one who is from heaven], of that [these heavenly things] He testifies; and no one [on the earth] receives His testimony” (NASB). So, it turns out that John 3:31-36 is a recapitulation of John 3:11-18 and also, somewhat more abstractly, to John 1:1-18 and John 1:51. And note that the first “he” naturally refers back to the subject at the center of the chaismus–“he, the of-the-earth one” is the one who testifies.

Why was I surprised? I hadn’t seen it before, that’s why. You would think the meaning would have been obvious. In fact, I’m now a bit embarrassed to admit I hadn’t seen it before. And yet, that is unfair of me to judge myself like that. The formal structure in all of our translations is not an English form. How could I readily understand it? It takes quite a bit of processing until one arrives at the obvious. And then I went through this halting, second-guessing routine since the formal structure sounds so special. Well, it is special to the English mind–it’s Greek, it’s not English. The syntax sounded profound. But it’s the semantics which was (indeed, is) profound. Something that is so profound can’t sound simple! Can it? Sure it can!

Why does profound truth have to sound like I can’t understand it? What if profound truth really is simple? What if the profound beauty of heaven can be stated in simple “of this earth” language? Following Christ as our example, I think it not only must be done, but it can be done. That’s Jesus’ point, isn’t it? He speaks plain, human language and people just don’t get the concepts. There’s something profoundly broken about we human beings when we miss the concepts plainly stated. But what if our translations obscure the meaning by using non-English forms? Should we not make the profound clear?

So, how should we translate this text? Why don’t we replace the original form with a form suitable for the English reader?

I think the chiasmus needs unwrapped in order to bring it over into English. The formal structure of the original needs replaced with an English formal structure which accurately conveys the meaning. The meaning needs gently lifted from the original and masterfully molded into English.

I make no claims of master craftsmanship; but, might I suggest something like:

Even though the one who comes from above is from heaven and is above all, he is also of the earth and so speaks as one from the earth.

What a beautifully simple verse! And such power! The one who is from heaven speaks to me as if he were from earth. He takes what is beyond and packages it for me here. He speaks human.

Shouldn’t a good translation be characterized by the same?

Is there chiasmus in Acts 20:32?

I continue to spend many hours checking the ISV and emailing the ISV team with my comments. (You, too, can <a HREF=”mailto:suggestion@isv.org “>email them with suggestions for changes in the ISV text.) I have finished checking the gospels, Romans, and Philemon, and am currently 2/3 of the way through the book of Acts.

Yesterday I came to ISV Acts 20:32:

I am now entrusting you to God and to the message of his grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all who are sanctified.

I wrote the ISV team:

Hmm, I’m not sure what the subject of “give” is. I would think that it is God who gives this inheritance. Might there be chiasm here, where God gives the inheritance and they are built up by the message?

Chiasmus was frequently used by Semitic speakers and there are chiastic relationships in a number of Bible passages, including in the New Testament whose Greek is often colored by Semiticisms.

I don’t think we can know with certainty if there is an intended chiasmus in Acts 20:32, but it is an intriguing possibility. I have checked other English versions and none of them translate a chiastic structure for this verse, while some do for other passages, such as Matt. 7:6 and Philemon 5.

What do you think?