“The”–Visible and Invisible

Some data in the Greek New Testament necessary for accurate interpretation is invisible to the English reader. Since English and Greek differ in grammatical usage some data in the Greek New Testament is untranslatable, blurred or omitted. Even a skilled translator can only with difficulty render the entire substance of the Greek New Testament into English.

The use of the Greek definite article, “the” in English, represents a major problem for translators. A.T. Robertson notes (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 756), “The article is never meaningless in Greek, though it often fails to correspond with the English idiom. . . . Its free use leads to exactness and finesse.” Wallace ties its significance to New Testament interpretation (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 207-08):

“One of the greatest gifts bequeathed by the Greeks to Western civilization was the article. European intellectual life was profoundly impacted by this gift of clarity. By the first century CE [Common Era], it had become refined and subtle. Consequently, the article is one of the most fascinating areas of study in NT Greek grammar. It is also one of the most neglected and abused. In spite of the fact that . . . the article is used far more frequently than any other word in the Greek NT (almost 20,000 times, or one out of seven words), there is still much mystery about its usage. . . . In the least, we cannot treat it lightly, for its presence or absence is the crucial element to unlocking the meaning of scores of passages in the NT. . . . In short, there is no more important aspect of Greek grammar than the article to help shape our understanding of the thought and theology of the NT writers.”

Not only does the presence of the Greek definite article pose problems for the translator, its absence can be downright confounding! Some of the positive data in the Greek New Testament focuses on a part of speech that is absent! Moulton in his Grammar of New Testament Greek, Volume I, 83, states, “For exegesis, there are few of the finer points of Greek which need more constant attention than this omission of the article when the writer would lay stress on the quality or character of the object.”

As crucial as this matter is for interpretation, the English Bible reader can never know if the Greek text has or does not have a definite article. Where English requires it, Greek may not; where Greek requires it, English may not. And perhaps most difficult, when the Greek article is absent to stress the qualitative nature of the noun, English may turn the word into an indefinite noun by inserting the indefinite article “a” or “an” or by adding “the” laying stress on its identity instead of on its quality, nature, or essence.

With this introduction, one of the most startling if not one of the most misinterpreted passages of the New Testament puts the importance of the presence and absence of the Greek definite article on display. The significant portions of Colossians 2:2-3 in popular English translations along with the Greek text (Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th edition) are:

  • New American Standard Bible (NASB)—“God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
  • New King James Version (NKJV)—“the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
  • Christian Standard Bible (CSB)—“God’s mystery—Christ. In Him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.”
  • Young’s Literal Translation (YLT)—“the secret of the God and Father, and of the Christ, in whom are all the treasures of the wisdom and the knowledge hid.”
  • Greek New Testament—“τοῦ μυστηρίου τοῦ θεοῦ, Χριστοῦ, ἐν ᾧ εἰσιν πάντες οἱ θησαυροὶ τῆς σοφίας καὶ γνώσεως ἀπόκρυφοι.”

Focusing on the Greek text, the definite article occurs with the word “mystery” (τοῦ μυστηρίου). An article’s presence predominantly points to the person or subject under discussion, and the previous reference function “is the most common use of the article and the easiest usage to identify” (Wallace, Ibid., 209 and 217-18).

In Colossians 2:2, the article ties “the mystery” to its previous mention in 1:26 and 27 where Paul explains that the Church, the Body of Christ, is indwelt by Christ Himself (Colossians 1:18, 24; Ephesians 1:22-23; 3:2-6). Bornkamm, commenting on Colossians 1:27, states that “the content of the μυστήριον [mystery] is stated in the formula Χριστὸς ἐν ὑμῖν [Christ in you]. That is to say, it consists in the indwelling of the exalted Christ in you, the Gentiles” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume IV, 820). Paul takes this one step further by adding that “Christ in you” is “the hope of the glory,” “the self-revelation” of Christ in the world through His spiritual Body, the Church. (For additional materials relating to this interpretation of “glory” see my blog “The REVEALING of God–His GLORY.”) Therefore, in Colossians 2:2, , “the mystery of God” is the “Christ-indwelt Church” referred to by the simple word “Christ” (Χριστοῦ) without the article illuminating the essence of “the mystery.”

Fifteen different variations occur in the text at the end of verse 2 (“of the God, of Christ,” τοῦ θεοῦ, Χριστοῦ)! Clearly this impacts both the above-mentioned English translations and the foregoing interpretation of the mystery. Without detailing the variations, the conclusion of the textual editorial committee reads (Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 555):

“Among what at first sight seems to be a bewildering variety of variant readings, the one adopted for the text is plainly to be preferred (a) because of strong external testimony . . . and (b) because it alone provides an adequate explanation of the other readings as various scribal attempts to ameliorate the syntactical ambiguity of τοῦ θεοῦ, Χριστοῦ.”

The absence of the definite article before “Christ” focuses upon the quality, nature, or essence of the noun. If the article were indeed present, the focus would have been on identifying the Person of Christ. But here and in the immediately preceding references to “Christ” (1:27-28) the emphasis is on the mystical union between the heavenly Person and His earthly Body. And in this matter, every one of the above-mentioned English translations misses the point:

  • The NIV  identifies the Person of Christ with “in whom.” “Whom” in English refers to an individual.
  • The NASB likewise states “in whom,” but it also adds “Himself,” a term not in the original text and inserted to punctuate the translators’ preferred interpretation.
  • The NKJV bases its translation on one of the textual variants, and by paralleling “Christ” with “the Father” it focuses attention on the individual Person of Christ.
  • The CSB refers the relative pronoun of verse 3 (ᾧ, “In Him”) to “Christ” and stresses personal identity.
  • The YLT agrees with the NKJV regarding the text but also adds the definite article to the English translation, “of the God and Father, and of the Christ” (italics added).

But the discussion does not end here. The prepositional phrase beginning verse 3 (ἐν ᾧ) refers to “Christ” (Χριστοῦ) as the antecedent of the pronoun. This fact coupled to the rest of verse 3 means that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are “hidden” in the Church! No one disputes the fact that the Person of Christ does have all wisdom and knowledge, but He disseminates these through His earthly Body, the Church. To be “hidden” does not mean being inaccessible but accessible in and through the Church. This has enormous theological and practical implications.

Theologically, Colossians 2:2-3 makes a major contribution to the doctrine of the Church because the Church Universal is seen as the earthly repository of Christ’s wisdom and knowledge. Granting the preceding statement as true, individuals who cut themselves off from the Church in its local manifestation quarantine themselves from much of Christ’s wisdom and knowledge impeding their spiritual growth.

So, the interpretive value of analyzing all of the textual data, including the absence of the definite article, cannot be exaggerated. And to apply this to practical ministry, reading the Greek New Testament is the only way the Bible translator/interpreter/teacher/preacher can see and analyze all the data so that accurate interpretations can rise to the surface and be disseminated to the people of God.

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