[B-Greek] KATABOLH SPERMATOS/WN (was "Translating Hebrews11:11")

Iver Larsen iver_larsen at sil.org
Mon May 4 05:07:16 EDT 2009

Thanks, Yancy. Since you brought up some additional points, let me interact with them below:

----- Original Message ----- 
From: <yancywsmith at sbcglobal.net>
To: "B-Greek" <b-greek at lists.ibiblio.org>
Sent: 4. maj 2009 00:02
Subject: Re: [B-Greek] KATABOLH SPERMATOS/WN (was "Translating Hebrews11:11")

>I can see Iver's point. As a Bible translator, I am sympathetic to
> favoring LXX background and NT usage for understanding difficult
> phrases and concepts in the NT. Here, however, I suggest all the other
> uses of KATABOLH in the NT are irrelevant. They all form part of the
> set phrase "KATABOLH KOSMOU," referring to the creation. The same is
> true about KATABOLH in the LXX (only once, 2 Macc. 2:29). This
> context, BTW seems to be the only one where KATABALLW means "to found"
> something in the LXX).
> On the other hand, In Iver's favor, SPERMA
> could suggest a collective for descendants. Heb. 11:10 already brings
> up the image of "foundations"--"For [Abraham] was waiting for a city
> with foundations whose builder and designer is God.
> ἐξεδέχετο γὰρ τὴν τοὺς θεμελίους
> ἔχουσαν πόλιν ἧς τεχνίτης καὶ
> extending the metaphor of city to "seed" as Iver is suggesting.

The immediate and most relevant context is the Letter of Hebrews. We don't know who the
author is, but any author may use words that are less common with other authors, or he may use them
with a certain personal slant. That is why the context of Hebrews itself is the most relevant
context, followed in order by the wider context of the NT and the LXX, lastly followed by
non-Biblical sources.

Heb 6:1 - μὴ πάλιν θεμέλιον καταβαλλόμενοι μετανοίας ἀπὸ νεκρῶν ἔργων καὶ πίστεως ἐπὶ θεόν

So, Hebrews is the only book of the Bible that uses KATABALLW/-OMAI in the sense of laying a
foundation, but BAGD lists a number of other sources, and I don't think their list is exhaustive:
"QEMELION KATABALLESQAI lay a foundation (Dionys. Hal. 3, 69; Jos., Ant. 11, 93; 15, 391) Hb 6:1."

The word QEMELION refers to the foundation as already in place and the thing to build on. The Rabbis
in the time of Jesus were often referring to Abraham as the QEMELION, even to the extent of having
borrowed this word from Greek. He was the foundation, primarily for the faith, but also for the
whole Jewish nation. In the parable of the two builders, the rock foundation is an allusion to the
kind of faith and obedience that Abraham had.
Paul uses QEMELION a number of times, but he prefers to connect it with another word TIQHMI (1 Cor
3:10,11). maybe because he uses KATABALLOMAI in a different sense from Hebrews (2 Cor 4:9).

While QEMELION refers to the actual foundation, usually on stones or rock, the activity of laying a
foundation is what the author of Hebrews refers to by KATABALLOMAI, where the noun form is KATABOLH.
It refers to the action of laying the foundation. That the word otherwise is only found together
with KOSMOU only shows that there are few things that are considered to be founded in the Bible. It
does not mean that the noun can ONLY be used with KOSMOU. One striking similarity between KATABOLH
KOSMOU and KATABOLH SPERMATOS is that both words are without the article.
You have also noted the semantic link to foundation in Heb 11:10 although that is a future
foundation of the new world.

> Otherwise, I confess that I see the phrase "founding seed" using
> KATABOLH as quite a collocational clash especially when KATABOLH with
> SPERMA[-TWN/-TOS] is well understood as planting seed either as an
> agricultural or a sexual act. It is not so rare as KATABOLH SPERMATOS
> meaning "found posterity."
> In the New Testament we find for this idea:
> ἐξανάστημι σπέρμα EXANASTHMI SPERMA

This phrase from Matt 22:24 and parallels is a slightly different idea. The verb here refers to
"bring lineage into existence", not "lay a foundation for lineage".

> That is, the metaphorical direction for "establishing seed" is UP. The
> metaphorical direction for planting seed (agriculturally or sexual) is
> DOWN. If the writer of Hebrews intended his readers to understand
> KATABOLH as "founding" in the sense of laying down a foundation of
> future posterity, I get it but only with considerable explanation. In
> other words, I wonder if the processing necessary to get to this
> understanding is so difficult, that it becomes unlikely. If this is
> the intended meaning, it appears to have left his readers somewhat at
> a loss, to say the least.

You are now referring to insights from Relevance Theory, which is also part of my background for
doing exegesis.
In this line of thought, what immediately would come to the mind of the reader when seeing SPERMA is
"offspring" either referring to a single child, or to children or to a whole lineage. Whenever
SPERMA is used in the Bible without any other context, this is the meaning intended. When you hear
SPERMA ABRAAM, the thought will immediately go to the lineage started by Abraham, not his "seeds".
It takes additional clues in terms of words and context to get any other sense. One way of supplying
such additional clues is by using the plural in which case it would refer to plant seeds or you
could add another word as in the LXX KOITH to refer to a sexual context.
So, the question is: What requires less processing effort in the context of Hebrews? Would the
reader see the two words "KATABOLH SPERMATOS"  as a unit and a non-biblical t.t. including a
collocational clash with Sarah as subject, or would he rather process them individually first before
combining them, i.e. take SPERMATOS in its normal and expected sense, a sense introduced in Hebrews
already at 2:16 and taken up again in 11:18, and then take KATABOLH in the sense of laying a
foundation as the word is already used in Hebrews 4:3 and 9:26, remembering that the corresponding
verb was used in the same sense in Heb 6:1?
I take it that the second option required less processing for the original reader, and the fact that
you take more processing to get there is because of your different background and the history of
English translations of this verse, something that the original readers were not aware of.

Finally, I mentioned that SPERMA is rarely connected to a woman. This is partly because the society
was paternalistic. So, we hear of SPERMA ABRAAM (Jhn 8:33ff, Rom 4:13, 9:7, 11:1, Gal 3:29, etc),
SPERMA DAVID (Jhn 7:42; Rom 1:3, etc). I have only found two cases where we have SPERMA connected to
a woman, namely Rev 12:17 and Gen 3:15. SPERMA ADAM is not a Hebrew concept and is not found in the
Bible. Instead "sons of Adam" is used.
In the list of faith heroes, only two women are mentioned: Sarah and Rahab.
I think the author was intending to give Sarah a place in the hall of fame as the co-founder of the
Jewish nation, not at a par with Abraham, but still worthy of mentioning (KAI AUTH SARRA!). If her
faith and obedience had not conquered her logical skepticism as a 90-year old, barren lady, Isaac
would not have been born, and there would be no Jewish nation.

Iver Larsen

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