Ephesians 5:21 in Translation -- By: Wayne Walden

Journal: Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood
Volume: JBMW 12:1 (Spring 2007)
Article: Ephesians 5:21 in Translation
Author: Wayne Walden


Ephesians 5:21 in Translation1

Wayne Walden

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (TNIV).

“subjecting yourselves one to another in fear of Christ” (ASV).

̔Υποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ Χριστοῦ (27 Nestle-Aland).

As our samples above show, texts (and commentaries) cannot decide just what this verse has to do with its environment, some formatting it with the preceding paragraph, some with the following, and some as a separate paragraph all to itself (this wee little verse of only five words in Greek!). The present proposal is that a fourth option, rare among texts, is the correct one, namely that the verse is related to both what precedes and what follows, which should be shown in translation.

Three components of the clause call for comment. The first (which is the primary reason for the confusion) is the so-called “reciprocal” pronoun ἀλλήλων, which has suffered from a lexical deficiency resulting in a mis(-leading) translation. Contrary to grammars and dictionaries of both Greek and English, “reciprocal” constructions are not always to be taken literally (i.e., showing mutuality in the usual sense of exchange of an activity between parties). We know this from our own expressions such as “trampling one another” and “killing one another.” The Greek concordance turns up the same idioms, the former in Luke 12:1, and the latter in Rev 6:4 (of course, mutuality is possible in such cases, but that is not generally what is meant). If not mutuality, then, what does “reciprocal” mean in such expressions? Via Hellenistic concordances, we formulate more precise rules:

  1. When only two parties are involved, ἀλλήλων usually expresses mutuality. Herod and Pilate became friends “with each other” (Luke 23:12) during the Jesus episode.

Christians and God have fellowship with each other (1 John 1:7).

  1. When a larger group is envisioned, “reciprocal” often indicates random or distributive activity within the designated group as appropriate.

In this sense people “envy one another” (Gal 5:26), or pagan gods may be “born from one another” (Josephus, Ag. Ap. 2.240). Greek...

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