Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Some thoughts on Ephesians 4:9 (Part II): Some Comments on the Rhetorical Structure of Ephesians 4:9 and 10

Since grammar alone gives us only options for understanding Paul’s intent, perhaps the structure may help us narrow those options.  There is chiasmus (an A-B-B-A construction), centered around the verbs ascended and descended in verses 9 and 10.  If we look at the two phrases, the apostle first speaks of the one who ascended then equates him with the one who also descended.  Once this is established, he speaks again of the one who descended and then again equates him again with the one who ascended.  In other words we have the following order of ideas:  The one who ascended – the one who descended – the one who descended and the one who ascended.  The actual language of the structure is presented below.

A         το δε Ανεβη τι εστιν ει μη οτι
B                     και καταβη εις τα κατωτερα μερη της γης? 
B                    ο καταβας αυτος εστιν
A        και ο αναβας υπερανω παντων των ουρανων, ινα πληρωση τα παντα

The bold type indicates the main rhetorical features.  Even if you don’t know Greek, you can see the repetition of words.  In English it could be rendered something like this:

But the one who already ascended, what does this mean except that,
            B         he also descended to the lower parts of the earth? 
            B’        The one who descended is He
A’ who also ascended high above the highest heaven, so that he might fill all things. 

In a more simple form the structure can be presented like this.

A         το δε αναβη
            B         και κατεβη
            B'         ο καταβας
A'        και ο αναβας

A         The one who ascended
            B         also descended
            B’        the one who descended
A’        Also ascended

This rhetorical structure helps us in at least three ways. 

  1. First, it puts the emphasis on the descent rather than the ascent.  It is true that a chiastic structure can throw emphasis on its outer limits as easily as its inner context.  But since the context of Ephesians assumes that Jesus ascended, there is no reason to emphasize the ascent.  Hence, it is the descent that is emphasized here. 
  2. Second, the apostle seems to focus on an order of events.  Paul seems to be trying to clarify that there was a descent after an ascent.  This seems important to his argument.  It is subtle, but the order of presentation of events may be important here.  This will be especially true if Paul is talking about something other than the incarnation, because the incarnation requires a descent (incarnation) and then an ascent (ascension/exaltation).  Here Paul seems to be emphasizing the opposite, that there was an ascent and then a descent.
  3. Third, the one who ascended is also the one who descended.  Paul makes a special effort in verse 10 to show that the identity of the one who descended is the same as the one who ascended. 
That is about as much help as we can find from the structure of Ephesians 4:7-9.  It doesn’t clear much up but it gives us a little more insight and some more to think about.

To make further progress we have to return to our exegetical toolbox.


Unknown said...

Um... Part II is greatly appreciated and I'm hoping there will be Part III... You see, I'm not enrolled in Seminary, but I do love this teaching and am using it -- so if you could offer more useful tip on using my exegetical toolbox, I'd be grateful. Also, if you could readdress the following: "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."
That would be awesome, too. :)

Unknown said...

I am thinking ahead what those three passages might be to better explain or help with understaning Eph 4:9&10:
Acts 2:31
2 Peter 4:4
1 Peter 3:18-21
But I can't think of the fourth... Little help please!

The Mosse' Family said...

Hi Ty,
There will be a part three and maybe even up to six or seven parts. These are the results of a series of lecture I gave my intermediate Greek students to demonstrate to usefulness and the limits of using Greek in Exegesis.

The descent of Christ into Hades is the interpretation of many of the church fathers including Tertullian, Irenaeus and Jerome. It is also included in many of the copies of the Apostles Creed; There are at least five passages that I know of, Ephesians 4:8,9 being one, that are traditionally called upon to support this position. The others are:
1. Acts 2:27,
2. Rom 10:6-7,
3. I Pet 3:18-20
4. 1 Pet. 4:6.

Hope this helps and thanks for asking.