Saturday, January 07, 2006

"All things" or "All [other] things"? Part II

*** The following is another response to TJ, a Jehovah’s Witness regarding Colossians 1. If you haven’t already, please read this and this, as well as each of the comments before continuing on, otherwise run the risk of being completely out in left field =)


Giving you the benefit of the doubt that you are going to provide the information I requested of you in a previous blog entry, I would now like to go a little more in-depth.

The main topic we are discussing is whether the NWT is justified for inserting “other” four times in its rendering of Colossians 1:16-17.

Your thesis

The only defense for the NWT’s rendering of Colossians 1 you have presented is in regards to prototokos, where you stated your thesis:

“every single instance in which 'firstborn' is used, the one being described as such is always a part of the group he/she/it is 'firstborn of.' Therefore Jesus must be a part 'of all creation”

More specifically, your thesis also involves the function of the genitive ktisis. Though you have not explicitly stated this, you appear to understand ktisis as a Partitive Genitive, which would mean that prototokos would be a part of all creation.

You’ve offered only one argument for your thesis, where you claim that every instance (both in the Old and New Testaments) where prototokos is followed by a genitive noun, the prototokos is always a member of a particular group.

I would like to point out that here we see your overriding presupposition: that prototokos followed by any genitive noun means “being the first in a particular group.”

If you would like to substantiate this particular argument for your thesis you need to address the following issues: Since your argument applies to the Bible as a whole, is it your position that syntax of Hebrew translated into Greek is the same as untranslated Koine Greek? If so, what relation does the syntax of the LXX (Septuagint) have with New Testament Syntax? In other words, how can the Syntax of Greek translated from Hebrew be properly compared with untranslated Koine Greek? And if the syntax cannot be compared, wouldn’t this leave your argument unfounded?

Defending ktisis as a Partitive Genitive

In order to defend your belief that ktisis (“of creation”) functions as a Partitive Genitive you need to prove that prototokos points to a point of origin.

Defending ktisis as a Genitive of Subordination

I, on the other hand, understand ktisis to function as a Genitive of Subordination, which means that Christ has preeminence over creation, and is not part of creation. I will restate the reasons for this, then defend each point:

(1) The context of the book of Colossians – the Apostle Paul was refuting Dualistic / Gnostic beliefs that taught that Jesus was one of many godlike creatures, called “aeons” by the Gnostics.

(2) The rich background of prototokos in the Septuagint, where the term was used as title communicating a special, privileged relationship, and even preeminence.

The context and background of Colossians

(Here I will be restating some things, emphasizing new things, and including some new concepts) –

The purpose of Paul in writing Colossians was to defend the superiority of Christ in response to Gnostic concepts. The Gnostics’ dualistic belief-system taught that the physical world (matter, flesh, the world) is evil, while the spiritual is good. It is important to recognize that the Gnostics had the problem of explaining how a good God could create a physical, and thus, evil world. Over time they developed the belief that from the one good, pure and spiritual God flowed a series of “emanations” which they called “aeons.” These aeons are godlike creatures, often identified as angels when Gnosticism encountered Jews and Christians. The aeons were less pure than the one true God. Eventually, a “Demiurge” emanated from the one true God. This Demiurge was sufficiently less pure so as to create, and come in contact with, the physical world. The Gnostics of the second century identified this Demiurge as the God of the Old Testament.

One other heresy springing from Gnostic dualism is Docetism, the belief that Jesus Christ did not have a physical body. They believed that Jesus “only seemed” to have a body, but really didn’t. Because Docetists were influenced by the Greek and Gnostic concept of Dualism, they didn’t believe that Jesus had an “evil,” physical body. It is plain that there were Docetics during the time of the apostles:

“2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.” (1 John 4:2-3).

So if we keep in mind that Paul is refuting the forms of Gnosticism that were coming into the Colossian church, we will see that the position taken by those who deny the deity of Christ fall into the same trap of agreeing with the Gnostics against the Apostle Paul! In other words, if we interpret this passage as saying Jesus is a part of the creation, and not the Creator himself, we are left with a Jesus who looks very much like the Gnostic “aeon” that Paul is arguing against.

TJ, I ask you then: how would ktisis, functioning as a Partitive Genitive, support Paul’s argument that Christ was not an aeon or a “godlike creature” (a creation that was godlike)?

The rich background of prototokos in the Septuagint

(Here I will be again restating some things, emphasizing new things, and including some new concepts) –

Before the New Testament was written there was already a rich background of “firstborn” in the LXX (the Septuagint … the Hebrew translation of the Scriptures into Greek). It appears about 130 times - half of those appearances coming from the genealogical lists of Genesis and Chronicles, where it uses the standard meaning of “firstborn.” But it has a much more important usage in a number of other passages. The “firstborn” was given a double portion of his inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17; Genesis 27), and received special treatment (Genesis 43:33).

“Firstborn” came to be a title that referred to a position rather than a mere notion of being the first one born. This is seen in many passages in the Old Testament.

In Exodus 4:22 for example, God says that Israel is “My son, My firstborn.” Israel obviously wasn’t the first nation that God had “created,” but is instead the nation He chose to have an intimate relationship with. While there were certainly other nations in existence, these nations were excluded from this special relationship with Yahweh. Here prototokos clearly describes the unique relationship Yahweh had only with His people.

Another example is Jeremiah 31:9, where God says: “For I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn.” This language is describing Israel’s relationship to God and Ephraim’s special status in God’s sight. This special status was exclusive, and did not include other nations. “Firstborn” again describes a unique and privileged relationship between Yahweh and Israel/Ephraim.

Perhaps the clearest example is Psalm 89:27: “I also shall make him My firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” This is a messianic Psalm (verse 20; also consider the use of “anointed”), and in this context, David, as the prototype of the coming Messiah, is described as God’s prototokos. The emphasis is clearly upon the relationship God had with David, not with David being made God’s “creation.” David had preeminence in God’s plan and was given the authority over God’s people. The future Messiah would also have preeminence, but an even greater preeminence.

It is very important that in each of these Old Testament examples, prototokos is not used to convey the “standard” meaning of birth, or a point of origin.

When we look at the New Testament, we find that the emphasis of prototokos is not placed on the idea of birth but instead upon the first part of the word—protos, the “first.” The word emphasizes superiority and priority rather than origin and birth.

Romans 8:29 is a good example of this. The Lord Jesus is described by Paul as “the firstborn among many brethren.” These brethren are glorified saints. Here Christ’s superiority is brought out, as well as his leadership in salvation.

Hebrews 1:6 is another example: “And when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says, "AND LET ALL THE ANGELS OF GOD WORSHIP HIM."” The idea of preeminence is clear, as all of God’s angels are instructed to worship Him (worship is to be given to Yahweh alone – Luke 4:8).

Another example is found in Colossians 1 … three verses after verse 15, we read in verse 18: He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.” Christ is again given the title of “firstborn,” but this time “firstborn from the dead.” Paul is not saying that Christ found his origin from the dead. Rather, Paul is describing Christ’s leadership role in the resurrection. He has primacy over salvation (like we saw in Romans 8:29) as well as leading the saints in the resurrection. Furthermore, doesn’t the context of verse 18 support this meaning of prototokos … “so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything”?

Therefore, the term prototokos is used in Colossians 1 as a title to communicate preeminence over creation, and not to include the prototokos as part of creation.

Some other things … =)

With reference to Exodus 4:22, you said: Great, Israel is called the "firstborn" of the nations. Now, was Israel a nation? Yes!”

Here is the text: Then you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the LORD, "Israel is My son, My firstborn.”” Israel is not called the “firstborn of the nations.” Israel is called Yahweh’s firstborn. This means Israel has no peers when it comes to having a relationship with Yahweh. Israel was in a privileged class all alone.

With reference to Jeremiah 31:9, you said: “Again, Israel/Ephraim is described as a "firstborn" of the nations. Is it a nation itself? Yes, it is part of the group of nations.”

Here is the text: "With weeping they will come, And by supplication I will lead them; I will make them walk by streams of waters, On a straight path in which they will not stumble; For I am a father to Israel, And Ephraim is My firstborn." The text does not describe Israel/Ephraim as the “firstborn of the nations” but rather as Yahweh’s firstborn. prototokos does not mean here that Israel was part of a group of nations. Rather, “firstborn” refers to a special relationship only Israel had with Yahweh. No other nations had this relationship, they were excluded. In the same way, Yahweh was a father to Israel alone and not to other nations.

With reference to Psalm 89:27, you said: “Okay, so is David a part of the group of kings? Yes, he is the "firstborn" among kings.”

Here is the text: "I also shall make him My firstborn, The highest of the kings of the earth.” David was Yahweh’s firstborn. No other king could call himself God’s firstborn. Yahweh exclusively chose David. His kingdom was the highest of the kings of the earth – this refers to David’s preeminence over their rule.

Notice that none of these examples point to birth or origin. Prototokos is used in a specific way to communicate an exclusive relationship with Yahweh, and preeminence over other nations/kings. This is repetitive, but good clarification.

Wrap Up

The Apostle Paul, in responding to the Gnostic heresies entering the Colossian church, was careful to refute the idea that Jesus was a created being. He did so by using a term which already had a rich background in the Septuagint: prototokos. Paul knew how the Jews would understand such terminology, especially following the first part of verse 15: “He is the image of the invisible God…” Such a statement cannot be directed towards ANY creature, no matter how highly exalted. The background of prototokos in the LXX as a title for an exclusive, special, intimate relationship with Yahweh, and even preeminence over others was how the Apostle used the term.

Paul would not mean that Christ was the “first created,” thus destroying his whole argument.

This is why ktisis functions as a Genitive of Subordination and not as you defend, a Partitive Genitive.




At 11:39 PM, Blogger TJ said...

Hi Casey,

I have not forgotten about you. :) I've been extremely busy as of late and have not found time to respond, but I will do so just as soon as I can.

I hope all is well with you.


At 11:41 PM, Blogger Rusty said...


Not a problem at all. Life happens =)

In fact, school starts up next week, so I know what ya mean. Things are going well. I hope they are for you as well.


At 1:26 PM, Blogger Rusty said...


If at all possible, send your response for our email discussion before posting your blog response, since it is more of a priority.

Thanks, Casey


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