RE: PROTOTOKOS, meaning, translation

From: Rolf Furuli (
Date: Thu Feb 27 1997 - 08:59:29 EST

Dear Lee,

The way you write shows that you are able to discuss matters
related to Christian faith in a balanced and logical way
without being emotionally involved, so it is a pleasure to
exchange opinion with you.


>> 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.
>I think you are contradicting your own principles here with >your use of "meaning." Words do not have a meaning; they >may have "senses" within individual contexts, and >"Preeminence" is one of the senses attached to
>PROTOTOKOS, especially if it is being used figuratively.

Technical words such as NOMOS and EVANGELION are references
in themselves, but common words may be more elusive. When
translating I often use a trapeza with SIGN, SENSE, CONCEPT
and REFERENCE representing each corner to `map` the word.
Example: Messiah, SIGN (void of meaning) m-e-s-s-i a-h,
SENSE: the one smeared with oil, CONCEPT: annointed to be
king or priest, and REFERENCE: a particular king or priest
or `the coming one`. Such a mapping helps me to realize what
I am doing and why.

The SENSE-corner is important in our discussion. The theory
that words are used as `semantic signals` is based on the
evidence that when we see a word, our mind relates it to
some prototype-concept (Cf Jean Aitchison, 1993, Words in
the Mind), which is hard to define if we are asked. The
range of meaning of this `prototype` may be quite broad, and
(this is important) the context usually does not give new
meaning/sense to the word, but only makes visible a part of
the meaning it already has. In other instances the context
shows that the word is used in a different meaning/sense
than usual.

Example: KOSMOS. The `prototype` has some relation to order
and beauty. Both idiomatic and concordant translations
usually use the English `world` as `semantic signal`. Only
one place in NT do I find a possible reference to the
universe (Acts 17:24). Usually the word refers to `mankind`,
`people outside the Christian church` and `the environment
in which mankind live`. Even though these references are
quite different, the one Greek word and the one English word
could signal them. There is one passage, however, where all
kinds of translations deviate from the usual rendering,
namely 1 Pet 3:3. The reference here is beautiful apparel.
Because the Greeks had the verb KOSMEO, their prototype
concept could also entail this reference. This is impossible
in English, so we need a new sense/meaning: adornment.


<On the other hand, my culture (in the USA) does not attach
<anyimportance to the child that is born first. They have
<no special position. Therefore, the English "firstborn"
<and the Greek PROTOTOKOS are synonymous only when the sense
<is literally "the first to be born," as in Luke's reference
<to the nativity. Any kind of figurative or extended
<meaning would require further explanation in American
<As I said above, "firstborn" does not allow the reader to
<do the interpretation, because the sense of "firstborn"
<does not include all the senses of PRWTOTOKOS, especially
<the figurative ones. To translate the word as "firstborn"
<is biased toward etymology which you have argued against.

Your observation here is that we moderners have a different
`presupposition pool (=knowledge and view of the world)`
than the first Christians.
Translations based on `functional equivalence` use the
sentence structure of the target language, and translates
both the text and the presupposition pool of the original
readers, i.e. the text is interpreted and processed so
modern people can apprehend it with their presupposition
Concordant translations use the sentence structure of the
source language, but translates only the text and not the
original presupposition pool. Thus the bare `semantic
signal` is given and the reader himself must work with the
text to find all its meaning.
The choice of a literal rendering or not, therefore, depends
on the target group. Regarding PRWTOTOKOS there is no
evidence of another prototype-concept than the one resulting
in the rendering `firstborn`, even though the fullness of
the word is not conveyed by this English word.
The real problem with the translation of the word is not
philological but theological. The rendering `firstborn`
strongly suggests aa partitive genitive, which seems to
conflict with dogma, and therefore another meaning or sense
is sought.

<If we start defining words only by how they are used
<"most," then we will be in big trouble.

<If you translate literally, then you must ask "When was
<Jesus born?" Before Genesis 1:1? I thought he was born in
<Luke 2. Luke 2 didn't come before creation. (I may be
<missing your point here).
`Literally` is found in the quote from Bratcher/Nida. It
means to render the words in their normal sense without the
addition of interpretative elements.

<What happened to your doctrine of accepting the obvious?
<"All things"in heaven, in earth, visible and invisible, is
<obviously speaking of the whole created universe.
Agree, except that I think only persons are
included.However, it does not tell us whether Jesus first
was created by God and then was used as an instrument in the
creation of that which is mentioned.

<It means the whole created universe. Cf. Rom. 8:22,
I agree that looking at the words alone,the most natural
interpretation is to include both angels and men. But this
conflicts with the words that only those being enemies of
God due to sin need to be reconciled with him by means of
the blood of Jesus.



Rolf Furuli
Ph.D candidate in Semitic languages
University of Oslo

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