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.”]

February 21, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 14 Comments