Re: PRWTOTOKOS--KTISEWS a genitive of subordination

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Mon Nov 09 1998 - 07:09:54 EST

While this already lengthy thread has not realized my WORST fears--the
emergence of a flame war between "orthodox" and "sectarian" interpretations
of the passage in question, I cannot rid myself of the overwhelming
impression that the thread has been driven by theological rather than by
grammatical concerns. That is, it has seemed to me that posters have let
their theological presuppositions govern their conceptions of how the Greek
of Colossians either can be or must be construed. I'm not sure that this
could have been avoided, given that this passage in Col 1 is the one being
discussed, and the fact is that it was originally brought to the list with
the intention of sorting out the grammatical reasons for preferring a
"sectarian" or "orthodox" interpretation of the passage. I do think myself
that the passage is of major importance in the development of NT and early
Christian theology, but I'm inclined to think that it is being used as a
"proof text" for theological positions that did not harden until
considerably later than the time of its writing, and that what might be
ambiguities in this passage are the very kinds of ambiguity which those who
are deeply concerned for "right doctrine" find particularly disturbing. I
will go no further down the primrose path of hermeneutics here than to say
that I believe that there are real ambiguities in this passage, and that
these ambiguities are the very ground of continuing disputes as to what the
passage "MUST mean"-- according to one's own theology. There is no
danger--nor is there hope--that the controversial nature of this passage
will be dissolved by the present discussion.

I just want to say about the argument of Wallace herebelow cited by Kyle
Dillon that it is very interesting, but it too seems to me to be driven by
a theological stance already adopted. It does get into the lexical field (I
was wondering when all the possible meanings of the combination PRWTO-TOKOS
was going to emerge this time around as it has in previous discussions of
this passage), and it has been noted earlier that "primogeniture" and its
metaphorical political-social-legal implications, albeit metaphorical, are
very much involved in the phrase PRWTOTOKOS PASHS KTISEWS. And now this
argument that PASHS KTISEWS is a "genitive of subordination." I'll check my
grammars when I get to the office (I have the questionable habit of reading
and responding to mail generally in early morning hours at home), but I
think we are talking about verbs and nouns (and perhaps adjectives too)
that govern genitive complements. This is an interesting category and
raises a perhaps (perhaps not) significant grammatical question: whether
the "genitive of subordination" is in origin itself partitive ("rule over
the group to which one belongs") or ablatival ("be superior to/than--more
authoritative than the group over which one holds authority"). Personally
I've puzzed over this question several times and cannot resolve it to my
own satisfaction, in which situations I tend toward a conclusion that the
ambiguity is really there between partitive and ablatival usage and that
this ambiguity is probably a fundamental reason why the genitive case
endings came to be associated with both these PIE original case functions,
along with the simple "possessive" or "pertinentive" functions of an
original PIE genitive. The upshot of this is that while I find the argument
that Kyle reproduces from Wallace very plausible, I don't find it cogent
enough to decide the case for one interpretation over the other for myself.
I think the ambiguities are really there in the Colossians 1 passage, and I
am still very much inclined to think that one's preferred interpretation of
the passage will very likely be the one consistent with one's other
theological predispositions.

At 1:13 AM -0600 11/9/98, Kyle Dillon wrote:
>I haven't been following this thread much, but maybe I could give some of
>the little input I have to offer. Daniel Wallace talks a little bit about
>Colossians 1:15 on pages 104 and 128 of his grammar "Greek Grammar Beyond
>the Basics." He classifies KTISEWS as a genitive of subortination, not a
>partitive genitive, on the basis of the lexical uses of PRWTOTOKOS and the
>use of the following causal clause (1:16). He states:
>"Though some regard this gen. to be partitive (thus, firstborn who is a part
>of creation), both due to the lexical field of "firstborn" including
>"preeminent over" (and not just a literal chronological birth order) and the
>following causal clause ("for--hOTI--in him all things were created")--which
>makes little sense if mere chronological order is in view, it is far more
>likely that this expresses subordination. Further, although most examples of
>subordination involve a verbal head noun, not all do (notice 2 Cor
>well as Acts 13:17). The resultant meaning seems to be an early confession
>of Christ's lordship and hence, implicitly, his deity."
>Wallace's points seem very sound and convincing. In the footnotes, he lists
>some of the Biblical passages where PRWTOTOKOS refers to preeminence--1
>Chron 5:1; Ps 89:27; Rom 8:29; Rev 1:5.
>And the use of hOTI in the following clause is extremely convincing that
>KTISEWS is a genitive of subordination. Christ's lordship, or preeminence
>(being PRWTOTOKOS), is on the basis that he took the active part in the
>creation of all things.
>I hope I'm not repeating things that have already been said. :)

No, I think you've simply brought in yet another aspect of the ambiguity!
Or so I think.

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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