Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Some thoughts on Ephesians 4:9 (Part I): The Usefulness of Greek Grammar?


One of the things I like to teach seminary students is that knowing Greek doesn’t answer all your questions.  In fact, sometimes it brings up more questions than it answers and you find yourself wondering why you didn’t just stick with your favorite translation.  Anyway, a good passage to illustrate the point is Ephesians 4:9.

Paul's language in Ephesians 4:9 has been the object of much debate.  But, no matter where you land in the debate, this verse is an excellent example of how Greek grammar often gives you only options and not clarity.  In other words, Greek is not the ultimate key to understanding a text.  Sometimes it gives you insight that you cannot get from a translation but other times it only brings up more questions.  Ephesians 4:9 is one of the latter cases.  Based on this verse, really based on one genitive noun, many argue that Jesus descended into hell.  Even if one doesn’t know the technical terms, if one attempts to study, translate or teach this passage, the decision one makes about the grammar (specifically the genitive), determines the interpretation of this phrase.

The Genitive of Ephesians 4:9

In Ephesians 4:9 Paul uses the phrase, “κατωτερα μερη της γης (the lower parts of the earth).”  The phrase itself is not hard to translate but the meaning is ambiguous.  Our main concern is the meaning of the genitive, «της γης» (of the earth).  There are two primary grammatical options for this noun.  The noun may be a genitive of material content (also called a partative genitive) or a genitive of simple apposition.  To further complicate matters, each option can be understood in two ways.

  • The genitive may be a Partative Genitive.  According to Dana and Mantey, the partative genitive "may be defined by indicating in the genitive the whole of which it is part".  In other words, a partative genitive is connected to a primary noun and indicates the whole that the primary noun is part of.  If this is a partative genitive then “of the earth” is connected to the primary noun "the lower parts" and “of the earth” indicates the whole that “the lower parts” are part of.  Under this understanding, “of the earth” may refer to Hades (the place where departed spirits live)  or the grave where Jesus was buried.  Both were considered part of the earth.

  • The genitive may also be a genitive of simple Apposition.  The genitive of apposition is connected to a primary noun but this time it renames the noun or makes it more specific.  It works as an "i.e." construction.  If Ephesians 4:9 is a genitive of simple apposition then the "the lower parts” are still the primary noun but “of the earth” is understood as a renaming of “the lower parts”.  What Paul means is that Jesus descended to “the lower parts” that is “the earth.”  Under this understanding the genitive has two more possible interpretations.  “Of the earth” may be referring to Jesus descent in the incarnation or the descent of the Spirit of Christ at Pentecost.

The Greek grammar of Ephesians 4:9 has given us at least four options of possible meaning.  “he descended to the lower parts of the earth” may mean either:
  •  Christ descended into Hades.
  • Christ descended from the cross to the tomb (the tomb is the lower part of the earth).  
  •  Jesus descended to the earth in the incarnation. 
  • Finally, the Spirit of Christ descended to the earth on the day of Pentecost.

Unfortunately, this is as much help as the Greek grammar can give us.  How do we decide which option Paul had in mind?  We must turn to other tools in our exegetical toolbox.

It should also be noted that the understanding Ephesians 4:9 does not fully answer the theological question about Jesus descent into hell.  To fully answer the theological question, one must exegete at least four other passages.

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