[b-greek] Re: 1 Thess 5:10 - answering my own question

From: Iver Larsen (iver_larsen@sil.org)
Date: Sat Feb 02 2002 - 04:28:34 EST

Thanks to those who have responded to my query both on and off list.

Several have argued for option 2, and by doing so indirectly supported my
claim that the dictionaries made an error in suggesting that the two words
in this particular context could have a sense that is not attested
elsewhere. The words are fairly common, so we have a good feel for the range
of senses. That range is well presented in the dictionaries - if we ignore
what they say about 1 Thess 5:10.

Now, let me explain my position as briefly as I can.

Both Kittel, Louw & Nida and BDAG have been mentioned as unanimously
supporting the hypothesis that KAQEUDW in 1 Thess 5:10 has the special sense
of "be dead" in spite of the fact that the Pauline word (euphemism?) for
this is clearly KOIMAOMAI. KOIMAOMAI is used 18 times in the GNT. In four
instances in the Gospels and Acts it has the literal sense of "be asleep",
but in all the letters of the NT it is only and consistently used to refer
to Christians who have died. If Paul had wanted to express this sense in
5:10, he had an obvious choice. Since he didn't, this sense is probably not
what he intended to communicate.

Neither Kittel nor L&N give reasons for their hypothesis. BDAG suggests that
the two usages in LXX (Ps 87:6 and Dan 12:2) support the sense of "be dead"
for KAQEUDW "lie down, sleep". Since the argument is very weak, they add
"certainly". However, this is an example of the linguistic error which James
Barr (in "Biblical Semantics") aptly termed "illegitimate totality
transfer". Let me explain:

(Context from English translation: For my soul is filled with troubles, and
my life has drawn near to Hades. I have been reckoned with them that go down
to the pit; I became as a man without help; free among the dead, as the
slain ones cast out who sleep/lie in the tomb...)

It is the whole phrase "lie down/sleep in the tomb" that refers to death. To
claim that KAQEUDW in itself without the context of "tomb" refers to death
is an error, just like if one would claim that "lie down" in English means
"be dead". I lie down to sleep in my bed (almost) every night but only once
do I lie down to sleep in the tomb.

Again it is the whole phrase "sleeping in the soil/dust of the earth" that
carries the meaning of death, especially the "soil of the earth" part. This
is clear from passages such as Job 17:16 and Job 20:11 where the same word
CWMA occurs (17:16 - Will it go down to the bars of Sheol? Shall we descend
together into the dust? 20:11 - Their bodies, once full of youth, will lie
down in the dust with them.) Doesn't the English burial ritual talk about
"dust"? That does not mean that every time someone lies in the dust, he is

A careful look at biblical semantics brings us to the conclusion that
KAQEUDW in itself does not refer to death, and can only contribute to that
special sense if the sense is carried by other words in the clause it is
part of. Such words do not occur in 1 Thess 5:10, so it is unreasonable to
suggest that the original audience in Thessaloniki would get this meaning
out of KAQEUDW, especially since they were used to KOIMAOMAI for this sense.

Now, let us look at the companion word GRHGOREW.
BDAG suggests that GRHGOREW in addition to its normal range of senses can
have the sense of "be alive" in 1 Thess 5:11 and only because it co-occurs
with KAQEUDW which means "be dead".
Since the only reason they give for this special sense is based on a false
premise, the conclusion is false.

To do proper exegesis, a lexical analysis must precede arguments from
context. Otherwise, arguments "from context" can easily lead to
contradictory conclusions. And reading an unusual supposed contextual
interpretation back into the lexicon is dangerous.

This leaves us with two options:
1) KAQEUDW may refer to being physically asleep and GRGGOREW may refer to
being physically awake and alert
2) KAQEUDW may refer to being spiritually asleep and GRHGOREW may refer to
being spiritually awake and alert.

Both senses are well attested and 2) is a natural extension of the basic
sense 1).

In 5:6 Paul says: "Let us not sleep as the others but stay awake/alert and
be sober/self-controlled."

No one would take this to mean that he has to stay up every night and never
sleep in sense 1). The context makes it clear which of the two potential
senses is intended.

In 5:7 he says: "For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get
drunk, get drunk at night." This is a nightmare for translators, because
Paul plays on the double meanings of the words. Here "sleep" is used in
sense 1) but Paul wants the reader to make the association between a series
of words connected with darkness in both of its senses as opposed to a
series of words connected to light. He has built up the context carefully
through vss. 1-9 by using two contrasting groups of words:
a) day, peace, (sons of) light and day, be awake/alert, be sober, salvation
b) night, destruction, (sons of) darkness and night, be asleep, be drunk,

In 5:10 he draws the conclusion as an encouragement to those of us who
belong to group a):
Those who believe that "Jesus Christ died for us" shall obtain (eternal)
life - future of ZAW - whether we happen to be awake or asleep at the very
moment when Jesus returns in an instance as a thief in the night (v. 2).

Now, why would Paul say that? Would any one in Thessaloniki think that if he
happened to be asleep, the Lord would come, and not wake him up? Is it
possible for a Christian to sleep through the parousia without noticing it
and "miss the boat"? Can one be left behind, simply because he happens to be
in bed sleeping?
This may sound strange to us who have waited for Jesus to return for almost
2000 years and who have read the Gospels and all of Paul's letters over and
over. But when Paul was writing this letter, probably as early as 51 AD, he
was expecting Jesus to return any day and he taught this to the Thessalonian
church. The church did not have access to all of Paul's letters as well as
all the Gospels. Apparently, some people drew the conclusion that Jesus had
appeared unnoticed and the majority of Christians, if not all, were left
behind. In 2 Thess 2 he tells them: Don't be alarmed by those people who
wrongly claim that Jesus has already come and you didn't notice, so were
left behind.

ISTM that Paul is saying two things in the discourse unit 5:1-11:
1) Be alert spiritually. Don't get drunk and live a life of sin, because
that is not a life that is fitting for the children of light. Also, expect
the Lord to return anytime.
2) When Jesus actually does come like a thief in the night, nobody will know
the time. It will be unexpected whether you are spiritually alert or not.
But don't worry if he is your Saviour. Even if you happen to be in bed
sleeping at the time, you will still be taken up to be with the one you have
come to believe in.

Both of these themes have been taught by Jesus. I am confident that Paul had
access to Matthew's Gospel or a forerunner of it in some form, whether in
Hebrew or Greek, so let me refer to the places where we find GRHGOREW in
Matthew (quoting from NRSV):
24:42 "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is
coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what
part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would
not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready,
for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

Matthew continues with the parable of the Faithful or the Unfaithful Slave
which is too long to quote here, but involves the theme of drunkenness.

The next time we find GRHGOREW in Matthew is in
25:13 "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
This is the conclusion to the parable of the 10 virgins, which followed
after the parable above.

The second theme is found in Matthew 24:41-42 and more fully in Luke
"I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken
and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will
be taken and the other left. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken
and the other left."

So, two (men or women) will be asleep in bed at night. One will be left
behind, but not because he or she is sleeping. Two women will be doing their
women's work, and two men their men's work. So, some will be taken up, but
not because they are awake rather than sleeping.

Finally, some have connected 5:10-11 closely with 4:15-18, and used chapter
4 as a context for chapter 5. This is a mistake, because there are two
different discourse units here.
The first unit is from 4:13-18 and alleviates the fear in Thessaloniki that
those who died before Jesus returned, would miss the parousia. Paul
concludes that section at the end of chapter 4 by saying that whether you
are dead or alive when Jesus comes, it doesn't matter. Even the dead will be
raised to life. (1 Cor 15 has more details about this.)
The second unit is 5:1-11 and alleviates the fear that those who might be in
bed sleeping at the unexpected minute that Jesus returns, would miss the
parousia. Paul concludes that section in 10-11 by saying that whether you
are in bed sleeping or awake working when Jesus comes, it doesn't matter.
Even those who sleep will be taken to be with Jesus and live forever. We
need to remember that Paul at this time in AD 51 probably expected Jesus to
return while he was still alive himself. He would be teaching this, so the
fear of being left behind if you happen to be asleep is not as far fetched
as it may seem to us today. Elijah was taken to heaven when awake. Jesus was
taken up when he was awake and while the disciples watched.

Does this make sense, even if it is against tradition? At least this option
makes good sense to me in the textual and situational context, and does not
violate lexical semantics.

Iver Larsen

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