A better translation of Rom 4:1?

Steven Lo Vullo doulos at merr.com
Thu Oct 25 21:24:31 EDT 2001

on 10/24/01 10:27 AM, Matt Eby at ebymatt at yahoo.com wrote:

> Your grammatical argument against Lenski (whose rendering is actually
> held by many scholars) breaks down because it assumes that the
> infinitival clause must be dependent on the _explicit_ main verb
> EROUMEN in the sentence.  Although it is true that an infinitival
> clause cannot stand independently, you leave out the grammatically
> legitimate option of having an _ellipted_ main verb starting a new
> sentence:

Good to hear from you, Matt.

While many *individual* scholars may hold the view of Lenski, we are
fortunate that most English translations are done by committees, which
practice tends to weed out peculiar positions such as Lenski's proposal for
Rom 4.1. :-)

Your general observation that not all clauses have explicit main verbs does
not prove that an ellipted verb is a "grammatically legitimate option" in
any one particular clause. There must be contextual indicators that make
such an option *probable*. And I don't think this is a probable option in
Rom 4.1 for the following reasons:

(1) A stop between EROUMEN and hEURHKENAI leaves us with an abrupt and
unnatural disconnect where there is a perfectly smooth connection between
EROUMEN as a main verb that expresses communication (speech) and hEURHKENAI
as an infinitive in indirect discourse, a common construction in Greek that
would be quite natural to a Greek reader or listener. Why complicate with a
conjectural ellipsis what is simple enough as it actually reads?

(2) There is nothing in the context that indicates an *elliptical* verb that
is *required* to make sense of the infinitival clause (see above). In order
to infer an ellipsis, we must detect some contextual indicator(s) that such
a verb is necessarily implied in order to make sense of the clause in
question (which, as I stated above, is not required here, since the
infinitival clause works quite naturally as the direct object of the
*expressed* verb of communication). The very next verse (Rom 4.2) offers an
example of what I mean. There we read, EI GAR ABRAAM EX ERGWN EDIKAIWQH,
ECEI KAUCHMA, ALL' OU PROS QEON. In this case ALL' (since it introduces an
opposing clause) along with OU and PROS QEON (since they most naturally call
for a verb to modify), lead us to conclude that there is an ellipsis here.
The two words in the context that best fill the ellipsis are ECEI KAUCHMA,
[ECEI KAUCHMA] PROS QEON. There are no contextual indicators in Rom 4.1 that
similarly compel us to understand an ellipsis there. The sentence works
quite well without the supposition of an ellipsis. Again, why complicate
> As you know, questions in any language are answered all the time with
> sentence fragments.  Ask a person, "What do you want to eat?" and he
> may respond with merely an object:  "ice cream"; it is understood that
> what he obviously means is "_I want to eat_ ice cream."  In Rom 4:1 it
> is grammatically legitimate to find Paul asking, "What then shall we
> say?  [Shall we say] to have found Abraham our forefather according to
> the flesh?"  Since hERUISKW can be used copulatively, Paul would be
> asking, "What then shall we say?  [Shall we say] to have found Abraham
> [to be] our forefather according to the flesh?"

First, the example you give does not speak to the issue at hand, since the
sentence in question in Rom 4.1 gives no indication of ellipsis, while "ice
cream" does.

Second, we are hopefully not seeking simply what is "legitimate" or
possible, but what is most probable.

Third, I'm not sure what your point is when you say hEURISKW "can be used
copulatively." What exactly are you contending it is joining? If you are
contending that it legitimizes the use of a copulative "to be" between
ABRAAM and TON PROPATORA, that would have nothing to do with hEURISKW being
copulative, but would rather assume that TON PROPATORA is in a double
acccusative relationship with ABRAAM. While this is *possible*, it does not
seem probable when other features of the syntax are examined. Rather, in
light of these features, it seems most natural to take TON PROPATORA as an
appositive of ABRAAM.

> That said, at this time I still agree with your rejection of Lenski,
> but not on grammatical grounds.  I believe the interpretation of 4:1
> must be arrived at contextually (and perhaps text-critically; cf. NA27
> textual apparatus).  If Paul was asking whether he has found Abraham to
> be his mere biological forefather, one would expect Paul to engage the
> question in the immediately following verses, first with a customary MH
> GENOITO and then explanation.  However, if Paul is asking what the
> Jews' biological forefather, Abraham, found (concerning the issue he's
> been discussing in 3:27-31--justification and its evidencing itself by
> PISTIS apart from circumcision and the Mosaic Law), we would expect
> Paul to discuss Abraham's discovery, bringing in textual support
> concerning Abraham's justification by faith/faithfulness apart from
> circumcision/Law.  It is precisely the latter that we find in 4:2-3.

I didn't want to deal with interpretational matters, since this does take us
beyond the scope of B-Greek. However, when you arrive at the conclusion you
do on *contextual* grounds--that it was *Abraham* who did the finding--you
unwittingly support what I have contended on *grammatical* grounds. Positing
Abraham as the "finder" is practically an admission that the readers would
have understood TI EROUMEN hEURHKENAI ABRAAM TON PROPATORA as indicating
that Paul was asking *what Abraham found*, not what the readers/hearers have
found. This requires that ABRAAM be the subject of hEURHKENAI. It further
requires that TI be understood as the object of hEURHKENAI, since Paul was
not concerned in this context with what *we* have found, but with what
ABRAAM has found. If TI is not the object of hEURHKENAI, the question is not
complete; there is no "what" for ABRAAM to have found. So this
interpretational conclusion only reinforces my contention that the
infinitival clause is most naturally taken as the direct object of the
explicit EROUMEN, and would have been soo understood by the original

Steve Lo Vullo
Madison, WI

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