Uncommon But Critical Word Studies

Word Studies constitutes one of the most popular Bible interpretation processes. By “word studies” one usually means evaluating the historical meaning of words as it changes through time or at a particular juncture in time or both. Obviously the interpreter cannot do this for every word in the text so a choice must be made about the “significant” words needing deeper study. But how can significance be determined apart from some level of study? At some level every word needs to be examined. Every word plays a role in the author’s communication. No word stated or implied can be ignored or interpretive error may exist. This posting consists of two common conjunctions found in Ephesians 3:14-19 that are rarely considered “significant” enough for in-depth study.

First, the conjunction “and” (τέ) occurs in verse 19 but the necessary context must include verse 18. The essential verse portions from the NASB and its flow of thought follows:

“that you, . . . 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and (τέ) to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge . . . .”

The presence of “and” (τέ) creates two parallel but separate infinitive complements for the verb translated “may be able”—parallel in that they both complete the meaning of the verb but separate in that each apparently has a different direct object. The first infinitive complement, “to comprehend,” has as its object “what is the breadth and length and height and depth;” the second, “to know,” has “the love of Christ” as its object. If “and” (τέ) were absent, the second infinitive could be understood as appositional presenting a further explanation or restatement of the first infinitive idea. This occurs in some English translations and popular theology.

Consider the ISV , “18 you will be able to understand, along with all the saints, what is wide, long, high, and deep — 19 that is, you will know the love of Christ . . . .” By translating the conjunction “and” (τέ) as an appositional conjunction and rendering it “that is,” verse 19a effectively interprets verse 18.

The NIV reads like this, “that you, . . . 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love . . . .” Without translating “and” (τέ) as appositional, the NIV interpreted the two infinitives as having the same direct object (1) by reordering the text, placing “the love of Christ” as the object of the first infinitive, and (2) adding the extra-textual phrase “this love” after the second infinitive and apposition has taken place.

Notice the NKJV, “that you . . . 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height— 19 to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge . . . .” Here a different method of creating an English appositional interpretation occurs—by not translating the “and” (τέ) at all! As such it departs from the time-honored KJV that does contain the conjunction “and (τέ).”

At this point two interpretation questions need to be asked. First, can τέ function appositionally and be translated “that is” or does the text exhibit some other form of apposition while leaving τέ (“and”) in the text? Second, what contextual data explains the measurement language serving as the object for the first infinitive if the “love of Christ” cannot represent that object grammatically?

With regards to the first question, neither Robertson (The Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 1179), nor Danker (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition, 993) include an appositional function for τέ (“and”). Consequently, if no other meaningful rational for the presence of τέ in the text can be grammatically validated, the appositional use must be viewed as a last resort but with serious exegetical reservations.

Concerning the second question, the measurement language of verse 18 may be referring to: (1) the dimensions of love as illustrated in the above translations, or (2) the measurable concept or concepts in the earlier portions of Paul’s prayer.

Regarding option (1), “love” occurs before and after the infinitive “to comprehend.” However, the mention of “love” in verse 17 clearly serves to set the spiritual basis for one’s relationship to Christ and the ability “to comprehend” whatever verse 18 references. It does not serve as an object or explain the measurable concept. Also, and most importantly, the presence and use of the conjunction “and” (τέ) at verse 19 effectively separates “the love of Christ” as the sole measurable object of comprehension in verse 18. As Robertson, p. 1179, further states, τέ (“and”) introduces “something additional, but in intimate relation with the preceding.” In other words, ” to know the love of Christ” certainly adds “something additional” to what precedes it but does not define it. This leaves option (2) to be discussed. What constitutes “the breadth and length and height and depth” of which Paul speaks in verse 18?

Ephesians 3:14-19 records a prayer of Paul for the Ephesian Christians. In translating this prayer the English uses the ambiguous conjunction “that” (ἵνα) three times. This conjunction is ambiguous because it could introduce an object clause, a purpose clause, or a result clause. The interpretation of the overall prayer changes with the function of “that” (ἵνα) and an accurate understanding of Paul’s prayer is at stake.

  • Note: In the English translations the word “that,” unrelated to the Greek conjunction ἵνα, occurs sometimes once sometimes twice but are not part of this analysis.

Clearly the first “that” (ἵνα) clause in verse 16 is an object clause of an implied verbal, probably the participle for praying (προσευχόμενος). At verse 17, however, the NIV takes liberty with the punctuation and flow of the Greek text by translating, “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, . . . . ” The original wording (1) does not end the sentence after “faith,” (2) does not include “And I pray that you,” and (3) transposes “that” (ἵνα) from verse 18 into verse 17. These changes make the second “that” (ἵνα) clause an object clause and a second prayer request. The third reference to “that (ἵνα)” in  verse 19, however, remains ambiguous.

The NASB maintains the same sequence of clauses as the NIV without changing the punctuation of the text. It does, however, transpose “that (ἵνα)” from verse 18 into verse 17 preceding it with “and” which is not in the Greek text. This results also in two petitions but leaves the second infinitive and third “that (ἵνα)” in verse 19 ambiguous. The KJV and NKJV translates ἵνα simply by “that” in all three occurrences but also moves the “that (ἵνα)” conjunction into verse 17.

For the knowledgeable Bible student, one indicator that a translator’s interpretation may be suspect is the felt need to change the translation by adding words or phrases that are not in the original text or by rewording the passage. In the translations cited this has been the case. A key interpretation question must be asked: Can the text be understood as is apart from rewording or adding words not found in the Greek text? If so, that translation must be given first interpretive priority.

The text as it stands makes good sense when all three that clauses are seen as object clauses. In addition, the second and third clauses are not separate requests but can be understood as expansions or clarifications of the initial request of verse 16 by adding details, moving from the general to the specific. The asyndeton, the absence of conjunctions, in the Greek text such as “and,” supports this interpretation. Bullinger (Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, 138) calls this “Explanatory, when [clauses] explain each other.” This can also be called epexegesis “where what is added is a working out and developing what has been said” (Bullinger, 398). Such an interpretation can be laid out like this:

  1. General: “that [God] would grant you to be strengthened with power according to the wealth of His glory.”
  2. More Specific: “that is, that you may be able to comprehend the dimensions of God’s Self-Revelation and to experience the love of Christ (see posting “The Revealing of God–His Glory.)
  3. Most Specific: “that is, that you may be filled with the fullness of the divine being.”

In this paraphrase the insertions of “that is” reflects one way in which English communicates appositional or explanatory statements. Of the above-mentioned translations, the NKJV and KJV is preferred in this passage by not forcing the interpretation in a particular direction.

To be sure, this interpretation of the sometimes ambiguous  that (ἵνα) clauses is only one available option, but it does have the important advantages for the interpreter of (1) acknowledging the principle of authorial clarity—the writer wrote to be understood, (2) coherence—all elements fit together as is without requiring supplementation or text reorganization, and (3) implementation of the logical principle of “Occam’s Razor”—The translation/interpretation that requires the least number of hypotheses for a view to become viable is the one most likely to be correct. Ephesians 3:14-19 develops Paul’s prayer using three interconnected object clauses descending from general to specific. The driving finality of the prayer is that the Ephesian Christians would be filled “to all the fullness of God.”

Word studies are essential in biblical interpretation and every word must come under scrutiny by the conscientious exegete, even words that are implied. They all present data critical to the most reasonable interpretation of Scripture.

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