Re: Rom 12:3 -- FRONEIN and hUPERFRONEIN

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Wed Sep 24 1997 - 20:38:09 EDT

At 8:44 AM -0500 9/24/97, James H. Vellenga wrote:
>On August 5, in response to a hasty conclusion on my part as to the
>meaning of FRONEW, Carl Conrad wrote:
>> I'm afraid I'd have to dissent from this. FRONEW is a verb of long and
>> venerable history in Greek, even if one want to argue that much of that
>> history is irrelevant to NT usage. In the archaic era and in tragedy it
>> tends to mean "to exercise moral wisdom"--in which case it is synonymous
>> with SWFRONEIN, "to be of sound mind." FRONEIN is what, according to
>> Aeschylus in the Agamemnon, Zeus leads humanity toward through suffering.
>> In Aristotle, FRONHSIS is the word for moral virtue as an exercise of
>> intelligence in the consistent choice of the mean between excess and
>> deficiency. In the NT FRONEW more or less consistently means "to think" in
>> the sense of "focus one's thinking." FRONHMA is fundamentally a "mind-set."
>> In my view all the genitives that Eric has asked about are subjective
>> genitives. It should not be so puzzling that SARX has a FRONHMA, if one
>> considers that SARX is not itself the "material" aspect of selfhood so much
>> as it is the MENTALITY of a selfhood alienated from one's PNEUMA as a
>> consequence of sin. Gal 5:19-21 is a loose catalogue of ERGA THS SARKOX
>> from which it can be seen that most of these ERGA are clearly identifiable
>> as self-destructive and other-destructive urges--they are aspects of a
>> self-destructive mind-set.
>I have found this to be very helpful, and have again gone through the
>NT usages of FRONEW, this time thinking of it as having the meaning of
>"to focus on." This does seem to work a lot better than my original
>working hypothesis.
>My questions have to do with its usage (and that of hUPERFRONEW) in Rom.
>12.3. BAGD (my wife got me one for my birthday this month) divides the
>basic meanings of FRONEW into three parts. The second basic meaning --
>"set one's mind on, be intent on" -- corresponds to the idea of
>"focusing on." BAGD relegates Rom 12.3 to the first basic meaning of
>"think, for or hold an opinion, judge" -- as in
> not to keep thinking of yourselves more highly than you ought to
> think, but to keep thinking with sound thinking.
>But it seems to me that, since Rom 12 -- at least vv. 1-8 -- have to
>do with presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice and exercising
>CARISMATA (gifts, charters), one might easily read the FRONEINs above
>as having the second basic meaning of "to focus on," as in

Jim, I think you're right about this: And I would agree with you that it is
that SECOND basic meaning that we should see in play in Rom 12:3. I also
think your "focus on" works well, although it seems to me to be a
peculiarly American English colloquialism (meaning I wonder how clear it is
to someone from the UK or New Zealand or Australia--and I suppose we have
some list people in those areas who will tell us just how clear it is to
them). If you're thinking in terms of translation into a different
vernacular, you might have trouble finding an equivalent of "focus on" in
our usage.

> not to keep high-focusing beyond what you have to keep focusing
> on, but to keep focusing on keeping a clear focus
>That is, in Rom 12.3, Paul would be urging us to focus in our personal
>responsibilities without getting distracted by the responsibilities of

I think the sense is right in the above version, but it does seem a bit
strained in order to retain FIGURA ETYMOLOGICA with the FRON- words. Dare I
say that I had some difficulty in keeping the whole thing in "focus"
because of the distracting focality? It sounds so slangy-American--to me at
least. If you could make the beat come out right, you might set it to
music. ;-)

>So Question 1 is
>1) Is this alternative interpretation of Rom 12.3 possible, reasonable,
>and/or even likely? What other factors influence the choice?

Except, I think for the "high-focusing." Anticipating your next paragraph,
I really think the sense of hUPERFRONEIN in 12:3 is, to use some more
American colloquialisms, "to go overboard," or "to go off the deep end," or
maybe "to overshoot the mark."

How about: " . . . not to overshoot the mark of what you should focus on
but rather to focus on holding a clear focus"?

>My other question has to do with hUPERFRONEIN. It occurs (I think) only
>once in the NT. The traditional interpretation treats the prefix hUPER-
>as denoting high or lofty. But in many words the prefix seems to be
>like "over-" in the sense of excessive. So question 2 is
>2) Could hUPERFRONEIN mean "overly focused" (that is, "too intense")
>rather than "loftily focused" (that is, "ambitious")? Why or why not?

I think the notion of excess is very definitely expressed by the prefix
hUPER- in hUPERFRONEIN. I'm thinking of an Aeschylean passage describing
the trajectory of Zeus's thunderbolt of justice aimed at Troy so carefully
that it neither fell short of the mark nor went "beyond the stars"
(something like hUPER TOUS ASTERAS). More pertinent perhaps to our context
(and I don't have the tools with me to check on the appearance of
hUPERFRONEIN in texts of roughly the time of Paul), would be Aristotle's
use of hUPERBALLEIN and hUPERBOLH as an ethical term to express excessive
behavior, behavior that misses the "golden mean" between too little and too
much. I'm not saying by any means that Paul had that usage in mind, but
Aristotelian ethics had a powerful impact still in late antiquity, and
there might just be some indirect influence of the way hUPER- works in
hUPERBOLH (which of course becomes the English word "hyperbole" for
rhetorical exaggeration.

But to "focus" more sharply on 12:3, my sense of MH hUPERFRONEIN PAR' hO
DEI FRONEIN in the context of the several verses that follow is more
simply, "don't hold too high an opinion (of yourself)"--the context seems
to underscore, does it not, the need to see one's own role in the whole
community of believers as a role having its own place in a total
organism--or to shift into Paul's not uncommon athletic metaphor -- but to
shift it into American football -- one ought to be a team player, and not
be so "hyped up" that one imagines he's on the field only for himself.

Does that seem to fit in the context?

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

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