RE: Romans 1:17

From: Michael R. Beetley (
Date: Fri Feb 09 1996 - 03:31:20 EST

I'm new around here, and want to introduce myself before responding to this. My name is Michael Beetley, and I'm an MA student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. I'm almost done (in June, thank the Maker) and am working on two degrees: one in New Testament, one in Semitics. Glad to be a part! And now. . .
On Feb. 7, Ken Litwak wrote:

It seems as though we must do exegesis BEFORE we can translate when it comes to many prepositions, which I am very uncomfortable with, since I assume that Paul's original hearers/readers just "heard" EK and EIS and knew what they most probably meant. How can we go about deriving a translation without having to do exegesis firsxt?

First, I'm assuming that you understand that "just hearing a word and knowing what it probably means" is nothing other than doing exegesis. The meaning of any preposition (or any other word), whether determined by translation or simply "understanding," is a function of what we would call exegesis, or interpretation, since numerous contextual and linguistic factors come into play. If I'm understanding correctly, you're in search of the _intuitive_ way (as I will call it) of understanding language which the original hearers/readers would have had.

Perhaps the only way to have this sort of "intuition" is to be a fluent speaker of a language. Why a speaker, not just a reader? Because it seems to me that the only way to be certain of your intuitions of a language is to use them daily and see them function (or fail to function) as you intend them. I'm sure that we all have friends or acquaintances who have difficulty from time to time with figurative expressions, or particular grammatical constructions, etc. These folks are often quite intelligent, but simply have not heard a particular phrase used enough to be able to accurately use it themselves. So even if they understand it every time it is used in context, they may well not understand it sufficiently to avoid misusing it in a given context.

My point? Simply that it may be impossible (or virtually so) for us to have this type of first-hand knowledge of a dead language. The closest we can come is to acquaint ourselves as fully as possible with the language, to see how certain words, prepositions, etc. are used and _not_ used. The problem is with the "not used" part, since it is quite difficult to find a place where we can test theories about the uses of certain prepositions. If I am learning, say, German, and I want to see how the preposition "auf" may be used, I can consult grammars for examples of _accurate_ usage, and possibly even examples of inaccurate usage, but I have a better resource: ask a German-speaking friend if I can say such-and-such. This really cannot be done with a language which is no longer spoken, at least not as it was 2,000 years ago. Hence, we may never be able fully to obtain the sort of immediacy of understanding which you describe (and we all would like).

A further problem is the necessary ambiguity of many prepositions (as well as case endings) in any language. Even native speakers, functioning "intuitively," still must make interpretive decisions based upon context, hence doing exegesis PRIOR TO their understanding of a given word, phrase, etc. Some of this exegesis may be based upon social or even literary context to which we are no longer privy, hence making our job much more difficult. Using the example in discussion here, it may be that in certain churches a given understanding of the phrase EK PISTEWS or even of this verse from Habakkuk may have existed, but to which our only access is through Paul's letters, which were assuming this prior understanding. The phrase may have been (potentially) just as ambiguous to the first century hearer/reader as it is to us, or nearly so. So even for a first century reader, without the cultural/social context from which and to which Paul was writing, the phrase may have been difficult to understand. Our only ho
pe, as theirs, would be to consider what it could possibly mean, then look at the rest of Paul's writing in this letter (and others?) to determine which meaning is most likely.

This rather lengthy response simply to say that the intuition with which we assume that first century hearers/readers would operate when they encountered this text may be unaccessible to us today. The better we know Biblical Greek (or any other ancient language), the closer we come to such intuitions, but we will never arrive at that point, for reasons stated above. At least, that's my take on the whole issue of exegesis vs. intuitive understanding.

Michael Beetley

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