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Through a Classical Lens: Hebrews 2:16

Michael E. Gudorf

Through a Classical Lens: Hebrews 2:16 Michael E. Gudorf Journal of Biblical Literature , Vol. 119,

Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 119, No. 1. (Spring, 2000), pp. 105-108.

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JBL 119/1 (2000)105-1 08




Few verses have presented more difficulty to translator and commentator alike than Heb 2:16.' The majority of the discussion has centered on the translation and inter- pretation of knthapPavezat, which appears twice, antistrophically, in this brief paren- thetical remark. When viewed syntactically, however, through a classical lens, a solution emerges that appears to fit quite nicely with the argument being advanced in this section of the epistle. The text:

06 yap Gfinou ayy~hovEnthaypaveza~ahha m~ppazoq'APpaap knthap- P' aveTaL

In classical Greek, the particle 6fi (combined here with nou), typically follows closely on the heels of the word or clause with which it is interacting.2 As a result, one is initially led to search for the subject of tnthappavezat within the immediately preced- ing relative clause:

ooot $oPq eavazou 6th navzo~TOG(fiv ~vo~otqoav 6oubiaq

In his commentary for the Hermeneia series, H. W. Attridge provides an excellent summa- tion of the work heretofore: "A terse ~arentheticdcomment enca~sulatesthe reflection on the sol- idarity of Christ and his brethren. The remark sounds like a truism and this impression is reinforced by the introductory 'of course' (61'lnou).Christ's act was thus obviously aimed not at angels but at the human 'seed of Abraham.' The verb used to describe Christ's act, tnthcrppave~at,basically means 'lay hold of,' and there is no need to see any other metaphorical sense involved. The term certainly does not mean 'assume the nature of [Ambrose,~h<sostom,Theodoret, Oecumenius, Calvin].Nor does it mean specifically'prefer' [Buchanan]or even 'help' [most common interpreta- tion among both patristic and modem commentators]. The picture of Christ, the ap~qy6qtaking hold of his followers on the way to glory is in perfect conformitywith the imagery of the whole pas- sage. That action is not simply; of~hrisispast but, as the present tense suggests,one in which he is yet engaged. The present perspective is further highlighted by the designation of the object of Christ's act as 'the seed of Abraham' (dpparoq 'Appaap), a phrase that encapsulates the specifi- cation of the 'many sons and daughters' developed in vss 12-13. The many children whom Christ leads to glory are, as elsewhere in early Christianity, the true heirs of the promise to Abraham. As 6:1%17 will make clear, the numerous descendants promised to Abraham are those who are now the 'heirs of the promise,' and the promise is principally embodied in the new covenant (8:6) that has nothing to do with fleshly externals (9:lO)"(Harold W. Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews:A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Philadelphia:Fortress, 19891 94). WH.W. Smyth,Greek Grammar (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956)$2840.

Journal of Biblical Literature

For a variety of reasons (which shall become clear), $ope Bavazou emerges as the logical ~hoice.~Its case is nonproblematic. Our author, obviously aware of a variety of both classical and Hellenistic literary conventions (readilyapparent from a read through the entire epistle), is simply employing a form of brachylogy, where the subject of a sen- tence is taken from a preceding noun in an oblique case without a referential pronoun to aid in the transition. H. W. Smyth provides another example of this phenomenon.

k~~$o~qoavp6v zouq nohhouq OUK ei6ozaq za xpaooopeva, ~ai&$euyov(oi nohhoi)

they frightened away

and began tofly (Th.8.44)4

most of the citizens, who were in ignorance ofthe plot

The classical particle combination of yap 6fixou is most commonly found in Plato, and it is worth noting here that the full combination of 06 yap Gfinouis used by him to support positive statements by appealing to the impossibility of their opposites (Grg. 459A; Chnn. 171B; Smp. 187b);precisely what is at work here in Hebrews 2:16.j Our subject now determined, a working translation ofv. 16would be the following:

(For it [the fear of death] clearly does not seize angels, but it does indeed take hold of the seed of Abraham.)

Other renderings are of course possible such as:

(For it clearly does not take hold of angels, but it certainly does grip the seed of Abraham.)

The use of the verb Enthappavo to characterize fear as "seizing" or "taking hold of' or even as "gripping" someone is completely within its normal semantic range. Its use by the author also dovetails quite nicely with the enslavement motif of the preceding clause. One is typically "seized or "taken hold of' by someone or something prior to

becoming enslaved by it. In a somewhat related

passage (semantically speaking), Plato,

in book 3 of his Laws, discusses how fear ($opo~,6605) can seize (napetpt happavw) individuals and how this relates to their being subject (6ouhezio),both to the laws and to the performance of heroic deeds:

[699b] ~ai~azaBahazzav 6' a6 nfioav axopiav ~ojpovoozqpiaq, ve6v ~thiov~ai&xtnheovov tn~$epap~vov.piav 6fi oozqpiav ouvevoouv, knfiv pbv ~aianopov, povqv 6' o6v, ph6wavzeq xpoq TO npozepov yevo- ~EVOV,Oq 65 anopov ~aiTOTE t$aivezo o~oupevotzauzqq ~~~LOKOV ~aza$uyfivauzoi~eiq abzo6q povouq elvat ~aizouq @eob<.[699c] zaOz' obv a6zoi~xavza $~hiavahhfihov Evenoiet, 6 $oPo~6 TOTE naphv o TE EK z6v vopov z6v &ynpooBevyeyovh, ov 6oukBovze~TOISnpooBev voyo15&KK~- vzo, ijv ai66 xohh6~tq&vzoiq avo hoyo~~E~O~EV,fi ~ai60uhebetv &$ayev

3 The Peshitta version provides a somewhat similar, though differing, take on this verse, accepting "death as its subject. For a fuller treatment, see A. Bonus, "Heb. ii.16 in the Peshitta S,yriac Version," ExpTim 33 (1921-22) 23-136. Smyth, Greek Grammar, g3018j. 9.D. Denniston, The Greek Particles (Oxford:Clarendon, 1954) 268.

Critical Note


[699b] By sea, too, they [the Athenians] saw no hope of safety, with more than a thousand war-ships [Persian] bearing down against them. One solitaly hope of safety did they perceive-a slight one, it is true, and a desperate, yet the only hope-and it they derived from the events of the past, when victory in battle appeared to spring out of a desperate situation; and buoyed up by this hope, they discovered that they must rely for refuge on themselves only and on the gods. [699c] So all this created in them a state of friendliness one towards another-both the fear which then possessed them, and that begot- ten of the past, which they had acquired by their subjection to the former laws-the fear to which, in our previous discussions, we have often given the name of "reverence," saying that a man must be subject to this if he is to be good (though the coward is unfettered and unaffrighted by it). Unless this fear had then seized upon our people, they would never have united in self- defence, nor would they have defended their temples and tombs and father- land, and their relatives and friends as well, [699d] in the way in which they then came to the rescue; but we would all have been broken up at that time and dispersed one by one in all directions. (LCL)

How do our translation and interpretation of bnthappcive~a~fit with the argument being advanced in this section of the epistle? Quite well. In Heb 1:5-14, the author pre- sents a catena of OT citations comparing Christ to the angels. This same theme is devel-

oped further in 2:5-18 by way of an exegetical argument designed to demonstrate the superiority of the Son. One of the concepts the author feels compelled to handle for the reader is the suffering death of Jesus. In other words, how could Jesus, who died by cru- cifixion, be superior to angels who, by their vey nature, do not even die? The author argues that Jesus' partaking of human nature (including its ability to perish) enabled him to destroy the one who held the power of death-that is, the devil-and to free those

of death (w. 14, 15). At this juncture (v. 16),

our author interjects the obvious reality that the fear of death does not affect angels at

enslaved throughout their lives by the fear

all, but it certainly does human beings (i.e.,the "seed of Abraham"). This statement brings into sharp focus the difference between the hvo natures and strengthens the author's argument as to why it was necessaly for Jesus to have a mortal, human nature. The author concludes in v. 17 that Jesus' human nature further facilitated his becoming a merciful and faithful high priest, able to make atonement for the sins of God's people. It also enabled him to be able to identify with and help those who suffer and are tempted because he, possessing a human nature, likewise suffered and was tempted

(v. 18).

With the inclusion now of our corrected translation of v.16, it becomes possible to appreciate more fully the author's purpose in inserting this brief, parenthetical truism.

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has


Journal of Biblical Literature

the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. 16 (For it [the fear of death] clearly does not seize angels, but it does indeed take hold of the seed of Abra- ham.) 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (RSV)

As is not infrequently the case in Greek, in order to appreciate more fully the rhetorical force, balance, and symmetry of a given passage, the eye must be set on the original. Such is the case here, and for that reason I conclude with the Greek text of the above, noting the pulling fonvard of our subject, the sudden shift to the present tense with our verb, its antistrophic positioning-all in all a very tightly knit constr~ction.~ One can only presume that these factors, in addition to those already stated, led our author not to suspect any confusion as to the intended subject of bxthappavezat.

14 brcei oljv za rcat6ia ~e~otv(svq~evaipazo~~aioap~og~aia6zo~rcapa- xhqoioq ~EZE~XEVz6v a626v, 'iva 6ta zoii 8avazou ~azapyqogzov zo ~pazo~Exovza zoii Bavazou, 7067' Eoztv zov Gtapohov, 15 ~aiarcahhatq zoi)zou~,Boot $opq 0avazou 6ta xavzo~zoii Sijv Evo~otioav 6ouheia~. 1606 yap Gfircouayy~hovtrcthappavezat, ahha mtppazo~'Appaap bnthap- paveza~.17 oeev &ethev ~azarcavza zoi~a6eh$oi~opoto@ijvat, 'iva tb- fipov ydvqzat ~aixtozo~apxtepe6~za rcpo~zov Oeov, eiq 70 ihaoxeoea~zaq apapzia~TOO haoii. 18 bv 4 yap ~tnoveeva6zo~rcetpaoeeiq, 6Bvazat zoi~


As to the confusion that has ensued, I can only assume that our author considered the meaning to be perfectly clear; an assumption that can occasionally plague even the most gifted of writers.

Michael E. Gudorf Billings, MT 59102

J. D. Denniston, Greek Prose Style (Oxford:Clarendon, 1952) 41-47,88