God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Faith, Love, and What Matters in Galatians 5:6

A conversation started by J.R. Daniel Kirk at Stories Theology (picked up by BBB here), addresses two questions: What does energeo mean in Galatians 5:6, and have translators purposely mis-conveyed the relationship between faith and love?

Let’s take a look at the verb first.

Galatians 2:8 is as good a place as any to start. Paul’s claim there is that just as Peter was the means by which God energeod, so too is Paul himself. This is where the dictionary definition of “do, generally of supernatural activity” comes from. (I take issue with “generally of supernatural activity” being part of the definition, but that’s for another time.)

Activities and things, too, can energeo, as we see in James 5:16*, where prayer energeos.

Matthew 14:2 demonstrates another typical use of the verb. There it’s dunamis (“power”) that energeos. And in Galatians 3:5, God energeos dunamis.

Expanding our investigation into the OT, we see in Numbers 8:24 that the Levites are to energeo in the tent of meeting (“tent of witness” in the LXX).

In Proverbs 21:6, energeo is the translation of the general Hebrew verb pa’al, often just “to do.” We find the same pattern in Isaiah 41:4, where the Greek verb is in parallel with poieo for the Hebrew pair pa’al and asah. (In Proverbs 31:12 energeo is the translation of the Hebrew gamal — “to do in return” or “to reward” — but because the LXX and the Hebrew in that section diverge so frequently, they may represent different original texts.)

All of this suggests that energeo is what’s known as a light verb — a verb that gets its semantic content largely from the words around it.

Furthermore, a more careful look at James 5:16 shows us something else, because there energeo is used in conjunction with ischuo, leading to the NRSV translation, “the prayer of the righteous is powerful (energeo) and effective (ischuo).” In Wisdom 18:22 we see the related nouns ischus and energeia used in parallel for “…not by ischus of body nor by energeia of weapons…” (NRSV: “…not by strength of body, not by force of arms…”).

When we see energeo and ischuo together in Galatians 5:6, one very good possibility is that they are nearly synonymous, both because we already see them used in parallel, and because they are light verbs. If so, the point there is that un/circumcision doesn’t ischuo, but faith does energeo, where the two verbs are used essentially synonymously. The NRSV translation that un/circumcision doesn’t “count” but faith does “count” captures the semantics.

All of this is important because it points in a clear direction. The point of Galatians 5:6 is to contrast two things. The usual translations assume that the contrast is between un/circumcision and “faith working (energeo) through love.” But the second half of the sentence can equally be read, “… but faith through love works.” That is, the contrast may be between un/circumcision and “faith through love.”

One objection to such a reading might be that energeo here is a participle.

But we find the same grammatical construction of an active verb contrasted later with a participle in 2 Corinthians 8:8 (“I do not say [lego] … but … testing [dokimazon]”), for example. 2 Thesslonians shows us the same thing with ergazomenoi for “we worked.” And more generally, we know from passages like Romans 5:11 (“we take pride [kauchomenoi]…”) that participles can be used with the force of active verbs. (All of these participles as active verbs come after alla, which may be significant.)

To see the difference in the two possible readings, we can look at Luke 22:45, which has similar structure. There we find, aggelos ap’ ouranou enschon auton, “an angel from heaven strengthening him.” The point is not that the angel strengthened him from heaven (I don’t think), but rather that an angel from from heaven strengthened him.” Greek grammar, unlike English, allows for both possibilities, though.

Similarly in Galatians 5:6, the two possibilities are that “faith works through love” and that “faith through love works.” Because of the rest of the sentence, it seems to me that it’s hard to rule out the latter.

So one possibility runs along the lines of, “…circumcision doesn’t matter, nor non-circumcision; only faith through love counts.” And if so, the question becomes what is “faith through love”? Understanding the verb won’t tell us the (purposely vague?) connection between “faith” and “love” here.

[(*) UPDATE: Peter Kirk offers an exploration of James 5:16-17 and “effective prayer.”]

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February 21, 2010 - Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , ,

14 Comments »

  1. […] say X.” For example, in translating Galatians 5:6 (recently discussed here, here and by me here), some people try to figure out what Paul believed about circumcision, faith, and love not only to […]

    Pingback by How Not To Use Context « God Didn't Say That | February 21, 2010 | Reply

  2. I’m leaning more to

    “Circumcision doesn’t accomplish anything at all, nor does
    being [becoming?] uncircumcised; but faith [does] in providing impetus through love.”

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 21, 2010 | Reply

  3. Thanks for doing the kind of study which I wanted to do, to back up my concerns about Daniel Kirk’s exegesis of this verse. But you do miss the distinction between the active in Matthew 14:2, Galatians 3:5 etc and the middle or passive in Galatians 5:6 and James 5:16. So I find your conclusions lacking because they still assume that “faith” is the subject of the active verb “work”, and so the agent, rather than the subject of a middle or passive verb, which would give it the same semantic role as the object of the active verb, i.e. like the miracles of Galatians 3:5, which are what the agent of the verb has done.

    Of course one might suggest that this idea, that faith is the OBJECT of work and the subject is the believer, is to some people even more theologically objectionable than the idea of faith being the SUBJECT.

    In one of my BBB comments I suggested that an abstract noun cannot be the agent of a verb like “work”. Matthew 14:2 is not a counter-example because I’m sure the “powers” here were considered to be supernatural spiritual beings, as in other NT verses. In James 5:16 again the subject of the middle or passive verb is not the agent – I guess either God or the righteous person is.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | February 21, 2010 | Reply

    • But you do miss the distinction between the active in Matthew 14:2, Galatians 3:5 etc and the middle or passive in Galatians 5:6 and James 5:16.

      Thanks, Peter.

      I felt that my post was bordering on too technical as it is, so I didn’t want to introduce the notions of active and passive. You are, of course, right that the distinction is important for understanding individual verses.

      My point is comparing Galatians 5:6 and James 5:16, though, was to demonstrate the possible parallel use of ischuo and energeo. In James 5:15 the (active verb) ischuo is, perhaps, in parallel with the (passive/middle participle) energeo. At least, the NRSV think so. Similarly, we find nouns, not verbs, in Wisdom 18:22, but I still use them to help demonstrate that the verbs can be used in parallel.

      More generally, none of the introductory material (about parallel uses of the verbs and about possible use of the participle as a verb) proves anything. I just think it demonstrates the possibility of what I present. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I’m trying to offer a conclusively accurate new reading here.

      Comment by Joel H. | February 22, 2010 | Reply

  4. I missed the middle/passive… How about…

    “Circumcision doesn’t accomplish anything at all, nor does
    being [becoming?] uncircumcised; but faith, motivated through love, [does].”

    Comment by WoundedEgo | February 21, 2010 | Reply

    • Perhaps this is better:

      “Circumcision doesn’t accomplish anything at all, nor does
      being [becoming?] uncircumcised; but faith, empowered [by God] through love, [does].”

      Comment by WoundedEgo | February 21, 2010 | Reply

      • And in this context, would it be better to translate as “faithfulness” rather than “faith?” A static belief is not in view here, but rather action, no?

        Comment by WoundedEgo | February 21, 2010

  5. Thank you, WoundedEgo. I don’t think the text makes it clear whether it is God or the believer who motivates/empowers faith. So you could say that the verse sits on the Calvinist/Arminian fence. So safer to translate with a passive participle that can have either as subject, with no “by …” in brackets. So I think I prefer your “motivated” except that it sounds a bit too like modern jargon for a Bible.

    As for “faithfulness” vs. “faith”, I think that issue needs to be looked at in the light of broader Pauline theology and the discussions of the New Perspective on Paul.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | February 22, 2010 | Reply

    • >>>Thank you, WoundedEgo. I don’t think the text makes it clear whether it is God or the believer who motivates/empowers faith.

      Isn’t that the case in a “divine passive?”

      >>>So you could say that the verse sits on the Calvinist/Arminian fence.

      That the love of God motivates and energizes the faith of the believer is not a party issue.

      2Co 5:14 For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead:
      2Co 5:15 And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again.

      >>>…As for “faithfulness” vs. “faith”, I think that issue needs to be looked at in the light of broader Pauline theology and the discussions of the New Perspective on Paul.

      Such schools of thought are not a necessary part of a sound, exegetical hermeneutic.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | February 22, 2010 | Reply

  6. If I am not mistaken, the vowel pointing provided in the Masoretic text includes a stop after the initial YOD, completely precluding pronouncing as “YAHVEH.” It would have to be pronounced as “Ye-HoVaH” if we accept that Masoretic vowel pointing, yes?

    Yes and no. Yes, there’s a stop after the initial yud. But no, because the vowels are symbolic. Nothing in the 1,100-year-old symbolic vowels tells us much about how the tetragrammaton was pronounced 3,000 years ago. But having done considerable research on the tetragrammaton, I’m convinced that it was always symbolic.

    (In fact, the 1,100-year-old vowels even when they’re not symbolic don’t necessarily tell us how Hebrew was pronounced 2,000 years before the Masoretes lived, any more than current academic conventions for pronouncing Greek mimic how people spoke in Jesus’ Jerusalem.)

    Comment by Joel H. | February 22, 2010 | Reply

  7. […] summary of Daniel’s post as accurate, when in fact it wasn’t. Then Joel Hoffman posted twice on the same matter. See also interesting discussions in the comment […]

    Pingback by Semantics put to work on Galatians 5:6 « Better Bibles Blog | February 22, 2010 | Reply

  8. Making Sense of James 5:16-17…

    After much deliberation, I’m siding with Peter Kirk for two reasons:……

    Trackback by NEW LEAVEN | February 23, 2010 | Reply

  9. […] I discussed energeo (responding to discussions by J.R. Daniel Kirk and on BBB — then BBB followed up, as […]

    Pingback by Top Translation Traps: Relying on Structure « God Didn't Say That | March 8, 2010 | Reply

  10. […] that both are in split noun phrases, the specifically Greek construction “hyperbaton”). Joel Hoffman also comments on this verse in his post on Galatians […]

    Pingback by - Gentle Wisdom | March 5, 2011 | Reply


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