From: Rolf Furuli (email@example.com)
Date: Sun Feb 23 1997 - 06:14:35 EST
We have had friendly exchanges of meaning on B-Hebrew and I
could not resist this opportunity because I have made a
thorough study of how theology and bias influence Bible
translation, including Col 1. Your list is the most complete
and interesting I have ever seen, and I would like to put it
to a critical test by the following principles of lexical
semantics in order to find the translation of Col 1:15 which
best serve the interests of the readers:
(1) Etymology has little importance for word studies. (James
Barr, 1961, The Semantics of Biblical Language)
(2) Theology should not be mingled with philological and
linguistic data (ibid, Barr)
(3) A differentiation between word MEANING and word
REFERENCE ( and concept, application, figurative use and
connotation) must scrupulously be sought (P Cottrell, M
Turner, 1989, Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation).
(4) What is of primary importance, is by philological means
to establish the meaning of the word at the time of writing.
THE SYNCHRONIC STUDY
The most important material is the NT and contemporary
In Luke 2:7 and Heb 11:28 the meaning of PRWTOTOKOS MUST be
`the child who is born first`. There is no hint of another
meaning in Heb 12:23, a possible background is that God took
the Levites instead of the firstborn. The other 5
occurrences refer to Jesus, and of these, Romans 8:29 has
the forementioned meaning because `firstborn` and
`brethren` collocates - he is the firstborn in the group of
<Hebrews 1:6, Prototokos is used here in the eschatological
Eschatology does not add meaning to a word but the word adds
meaning to eschatology.
<Revelation 1:5 This verse does not simply refer to
<priority in time. The succeeding "`o <archon ton basileon
<tes ges" (chief in relation to the kings of the earth) is
<reminiscent of Psalms 89:27. Rev. 1:5, then, refers to the
<rank of firstborn which accrues to Jesus <with his
The firstborn son of a king had the right to the throne
because he was born first. Does `the rank of firstborn`
refer to something else?
<Col. 1:18, Priority in time is involved here, but there is
<more.This verse carries with it a reference to the superior
<rank and dignity of Christ, the more so as the succeeding
<"hina" clause has this implication, and the preceding
<"arche" points in the same <direction. Furthermore, the
<preceding prototokos (v.15) supports a hierarchical
<understanding. As Christ is the prototokos in relation to
<every creature, so he is the <prototokos especially as the
<risen Lord (TDNT, 6:878).
This is pure theology, which may or may not be true.
However, the use of theology in word studies was the very
reason of Barr`s extensive criticism of TDNT. From a
philological point of view, the use of PRwTOTOKOS here need
not mean more than that the imagery of birth is used in the
sphere of resurrection. (ARXH together with PRWTOTOKOS with
the meaning `the son who is born first` is found in Gen 49:3
and Deut 21:17)
A word such as PRWTOTOKOS has many connotations and the
firstborn had certain priviledges and obligations. In
different contexts some of these may be more visible than
others, but this does not add new meaning to the word.
THE DIACHRONIC STUDY
The study of the etymology of a word and how it was used
through time may be interesting, but is not so important as
a synchronic study for establishing the MEANING of a word.
The USE of the word in the OT may however throw light on its
use in the NT.
<In both 1 Chron. 5:12 and 1 Chron. 11:11, the Hebrew word
<in question is rosh. And in both cases the wider meaning
<of prototokos is expressed: "Joel was the chief" (5:12);
<"Jashobeam, the chief of the thirty" (11:11). Rosh
<basically means "head," and it is <commonly used to
<indicate superiority of position or authority (BDB,
The two passages show that the LXX translator used
PRWTOTOKOS in another meaning than the one above, but it
seems rather exceptional because it is not the normal
rendering of ROSH in LXX.
<Exodus 4:22, "Israel is my son, my firstborn." This is a
<figurative use, indicating a special relationship between
<God and Israel. "The firstborn here is not seen, then, in
<relation to other brothers but solely as an object of the
<special love of his father" <(TDNT, 6:874).
The comments may be correct but no new meaning is added to
the word, jus a possible connotation.
<Psalms 89:27, "I also shall make him firstborn, the the
<most high above [para] the kings <of the earth." Whether
<this refers to David or the Messiah, or both, it clearly
<establishes <prototokos as a term indicating preeminence.
<This is especially true if the two lines are <viewed (in
<terms of Hebrew poetry) as synonymous parallels.
<"Firstborn" would then <be synonymous with "most high."
<Three facts are of special note here. First, it is not in
<relation to others that the king is called firstborn. He
<is in a unique relationship, without any contrasting
<entity. Second, the king is not the highest among the
<kings of the earth < the one most high above the kings of
<the earth. Third, this verse does not set forth the <idea
<of even a figurative birth; "thesomai" rules that out,
<suggesting adoption instead.
The child who was born first already had preeminence in
relation to his brothers, thus `preeminence` is a
CONNOTATION of PROTOTOKOS and not a meaning of the term. We
should also note that the passage uses the word as a
REFERENCE, and therefore no new meaning of the word can be
Example: When God in Ex 4:16 said that Moses should serve
as God for Aron, he did not add a new meaning to ELOHIM; it
is a reference: Moses should have the same position in
relation to Aron as God has to man.
The diachronic study shows two examples of the word used
with the meaning `chief` or `head`, in the other instances
there may be different connotations and different stress,
but most of the examples in the Bible must mean `the child
who is born first` and the others are compatible with this
While theology should be avoided in word studies, it has a
legitimate place in translation. But discretion is necessary
to serve the interests of the readers.
As a translation of PRWTOTOKOS PASHS KTISEWS. A Translators
Handbook on Pauls Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon
(1977:22) by R G Bratcher&E A Nida suggests either `he was
born before all creation` or `the begotten one is superior
to all creation`. Such renderings (without footnotes
illustrating the alternatives) force a certain theology upon
the poor readers without their knowledge and are
But why not a concordant rendering? The same source
says:`Translated literally (as RSV) it implies that Christ
is included in the created universe, which is inconsistent
with the context of the whole passage.` This is important.
If PRwTOTOKOS is taken in the normal meaning, the genitive
of the verse can hardly be interpreted as anything else but
partitive, just as in Romans 8:29, ` firstborn among many
brethren`. `Firstborn` and `brethren` collocates just as do
`firstborn` and creatures (creation).
You also use the context argument:
>(4) If vv. 15 and 16 speak of Christ as the mediator of <all creation, they cannot at the >same time be saying that <Christ was the first created being.
To separate theology from philology, we must ask for the
premise of this statement. It is the assumption that TA
PANTA has the same reference as PASHS KTISEWS, but this is
open to question. A study of all occurrences of the phrase
shows that it only functions as a linguistic signal (a bunch
of meaning with fuzzy edges), which the reader in each case
must ascertain by help of the context. Wes Wiliams (his post
of 15 oct 1996 ) reached almost the same conclusion, though
using other words. The word PAS is quite tricky. Paul said
in 2 Tim 1:15 that `all who are in Asia turned away from
me`. However, `all` referred only to Christians, and not
even to all of them, because the next verse tells that
Onesiphorus did not leave him. Even in Col 1 the references
of TA PANTA seems to be different. In v 20 for instance it
can hardly include more than those who are in need for
reconciliation through the blood of Jesus and not all
>(5) If birth were in view, it would conflict with the <concept of creation. How could Christ be firstborn and <also first-created? The two concepts are not synonymous. <Some >have suggested that Christ alone was begotten but all <others were created. Prototokos, does not mean <"only-begotten."
In the 2. and 3. century CE there was no clear difference
in meaning between GENNHTOS = begotten and GENETOS= having
come into existence. The difference between the two words
came over night and was a theological invention which can be
traced back to the council of Nicaea and Athanasius. In the
OT `to bear` and `to create` may refer to the same event.
Thus there neither is a philological nor a biblical reason
for contrasting `firstborn` with `first-created`.
The only rendering of the phrase which allows the readers to
do the interpretation is `the firstborn of all creation`.
This accords with the normal meaning of PRWTOTOKOS, and
gives THE READER the opportunity to ponder on the question
of the nature of the genitive and whether TA PANTA has the
same reference as PASHS KTISEWS.
Ph.D candidate in Semitic languages
University of Oslo
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