Brian Abasciano, “On the Translation of Acts 13:48”

, posted by SEA

Back in December of 2009, I wrote a letter to the NIV Translation Committee recommending a change in their translation of Acts 13:48. I have been meaning to make it publicly availabe on SEA’s site for some time now. I have revised it mildly to take out typos, some personal references, and some other unecessary elements for posting here. It is not a comprehensive treatment of the issue, but a brief one focused on translation in a semi-informal letter originally sent by email. But many seem to have found it helpful. Some day I hope to write a full-scale article on the verse, but do not have time for that now due to other commitments (including publishing commitments). However, on Monday I do plan to post an email dialogue that I had with a scholar who began skeptical of the translation I advocate of tasso as “disposed” in the verse but was won over to the view through our dialogue. But for today’s post, here is my letter to the NIV Translation Committee concerning Acts 13:48.

**********************

The present NIV has this for Acts 13:48 — “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.”

Of course, the main translation issue has to do with the translation of tetagmenoi, which the NIV translates (together with esan) as “were appointed”. This is such an important text theologically because it gives the impression that the people referred to believed because God first appointed them to eternal life. Some consider this a slam dunk proof for Calvinism/unconditional election. Indeed, some consider this to be the most powerful text in favor of Calvinism. So I would argue that it is especially important to take care to be fair-handed in the translation and indicate if there is any serious alternative. Now I don’t think this is the best translation, and a number of scholars have objected to it. But even if one disagrees with the alternative, I think it would be most fitting at least to indicate that there is a legitimate alternative.

An alternative has made it into a legitmate lexicon. Friberg’s has: (2) passive, with an abstract noun ὅσοι ἦσαν τεταγμένοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον as many as had become disposed toward eternal life (possibly AC 13.48) or all those who were appointed to eternal life (probably AC 13.48)

Now I note that Friberg does think “disposed” less likely, but that is essentially an interpretive decision. That then means context etc., not grammar or pure lexicography, must decide. And the context favors taking the Gentiles as being set on eternal life in contrast to the Jews of the same episode who judged themselves unworthy of eternal life. It is imperative to note that this alternative rendering is a rendering of the passive; it does not construe tetagmenoi as a middle.

Distinguished grammarian Max Zerwick also indicates an alternative translation as possible: in Zerwick and Grosvenor’s A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament, they say “perh. who had been set (in the way)“.

The distinguished biblical scholar Henry Alford argued for the alternative rendering, “as many as were disposed”, in his well respected 4 volume work, The Greek Testament. (John Piper of all people sings Alford’s praises thus: “When I’m stumped with a . . . grammatical or syntactical or logical flow in Paul, I go to Henry Alford. Henry Alford mostly answers-he . . . comes closer more consistently than any other human commentator to asking my kinds of questions.”) You can read Alford’s treatment at this link: http://www.google.com/url?sa=D&q=http://books.google.com/books%3Fid%3De74CAAAAQAAJ%26pg%3DRA1-PA153%26vq%3Ddisposed%2Bto%2Beternal%2Blife%26output%3Dhtml%26source%3Dgbs_search_s%26cad%3D5&usg=AFQjCNHAv9u1kPYTJk4sicH_0Odqn9oKiA .

Turning to BDAG, it is significant that this most authoritative lexicon for NT studies does not take tasso as “appoint” in Acts 13:48. It gives two major meanings for tasso: (1) to bring about an order of things by arranging — arrange, put in place; (2) to give instructions as to what must be done — order, fix, determine, appoint. BDAG places tetagmenoi in Acts 13:48 in the first meaning. Now BDAG happens to assign a specific sense within that meaning that would practically arrive at a similar theological place as “appoint”, but with a decidely different lexical meaning for the word: “belong to, to be classed among”. Nevertheless, it is significant that they conclude that the meaning of tetagmenoi in Acts 13:48 lies in the domain of placement/position, and specifically under the meaning of people being put into a specific position. It is also worth noting that BDAG places the use of tasso in 1 Cor 16:15 under this specific heading (people being put into a specific position), an instance that specifically means “to devote to” (speaking of the household of Stephanus: “they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints”, which obviously refers to an inward positioning of will or intent, a disposition/commitment or something along these lines). The use of tasso for disposition can be seen in non-biblical texts as well such as Philo Quod. Det., 166. One might want to see Daniel Whitby on this (you can find his treatment here: http://www.google.com/books?id=D809AAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_v2_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=&f=false).

The other main issue besides potential range of meaning that plays into one’s judgment about the lexical meaning employed in Acts 13:48 is the use of the passive. Many simply assume that a divine passive should be read. But I would argue that the typical notion of the divine passive is totally unwarranted. The typical reasoning for divine passives is that Jews were reluctant to actually mention the name of God and so would tend to speak about his actions without mentioning him as the agent. But this is quite easily dispelled by even a casual look at the NT. The authors of the NT mention God as the agent of actions very often! Cf. the comments of Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics, pp. 437-38. Any divine passives in the NT are, as Wallace concludes, simply an expression of the passive used without an agent due to one of the standard reasons for omission of an agent. With divine passives, I would say that God is often not mentioned because his agency in the context is obvious. But if tasso does not mean “appoint” in Acts 13:48, then God’s specific sole agency with respect to tasso is not obvious in the context. And this cannot therefore be used to establish “appoint” as the meaning in the verse; that would be circular reasoning (i.e., it’s a divine passive because the meaning “appoint” demands it; and because the meaning is “appoint”, we must have a divine passive).

Many also assume that a passive requires that the subject is acted upon by another. But this is a misconception, and can be demonstrated as false (for examples of the passive of tasso with the subject as the obvious agent, see e.g., Philo Quod. Det., 166 [“set in alliance with you”]; Virt., 211 [set in a better class]; or for a reference in which the subjects are the implied agent, but in which there is probably no specific agent really in view, see Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 3.78.1 [“the ones who were set against them”]). Don’t misunderstand me. The passive represents the subject as acted upon. But technically, the passive alone does not indicate who the agent of the action is, and does allow for the subject himself/herself to be the agent. I would very much suggest reading through Wallace’s treatment of the passive. One thing among others that is very helpful in Wallace’s treatment is his discussion of the reasons for why agency is sometimes left unexpressed when the passive is used. Acts 13:48 has more than one reason that invites use of the passive. And more than one of those is relevant for Acts 13:48. One is because the agent is obvious in the context, another is for the sake of simplicity (i.e., to avoid obtrusiveness or overcomplexity of presentation), another is to preserve focus on the subject, and another is rhetorical effect. Assuming that tasso refers to the positioning of certain Gentiles for eternal life (whether that has to do with preparedness, or disposition, or what have you), then it would seem obvious from the context that various things played into their coming into that position. The main thing would be Paul’s preaching of the gospel in Pisidian Antioch.  But other influences are undoubtedly to be seen as involved, including God’s work in the hearts of Paul’s hearers, and their own wills and consideration of the things preached to them. And there could be more. Indeed, I would argue that one reason for the omission of the agent in Acts 13:48 is because there was more than one influence that set certain Gentiles for eternal life. (So please note well, I am not even particularly arguing that the subjects are the only or main agents in view in Acts 13:48; grammatically that is possible, but is not what I am advocating.)

The most frequent use of the passive without an expressed agent is to keep the topic of the passage on the previous subject. The agent of the action is not stated because Luke wanted to indicate the salvation of specific Gentiles who were set on eternal life while keeping his broader narrative focus on God’s opening up of salvation to the Gentiles generally.

In light of all of this with respect to both the lexical meaning and passive form of tasso in Acts 13:48, I would suggest giving attention to these comments made by Greek scholar, Carl Conrad, who heads up the B-Greek email list (a scholarly Greek email discussion list of which you are probably aware; Conrad, a retired professor, is an incredibly knowledgable Greek scholar; he also happens to be an expert on Greek voice):

[Begin Quote] “I argued that HSAN TETAGMENOI EIS ZWHN AIWNION should be understood as a
“stative” construction. I did, in the summer of ’99, stick with “were
appointed/ordained to eternal life” as a translation that retains something
of the literal sense of the verb TASSW when TETAGMENOI HSAN gets translated
into English. But the more I’ve thought about it the more inclined I am to
think that in the English of our own time, a better phrasing might be,
“those who were ‘in line’ for eternal life believed.”

Now it occurs to me that we ought to pay more attention to the fact that
HSAN TETAGMENOI is middle or passive (I’d say middle and that might well
involve us in another discussion; some might even want to bring in that old
category of “divine passive” but I’d rather not. When I say we ought to pay
more attention to the fact that this is middle or passive, all I mean is
that the author clearly is not concerned to make a statement about how it
happened that these particular Gentiles were “ordained to eternal life” or
about WHO ordained them to eternal life–he wants to say only that they
were in this state of being “in line” and so believed.

I really don’t think anything more is meant by this phrase than we mean by
saying “All those who were prepared for the test passed it with flying
colors.” Nothing is said about who prepared the persons in question,
whether they had hit the midnight oil for several nights in a row or
someone had given them half a dozen help sessions to make sure that they
understood all the problems on which they would be examined. What the
phrasing says is nothing more than “those who were ready for the test
passed it” and of course it’s also implied that “those who weren’t ready
didn’t pass it.”

I would like to think that matters regarding this verse are that simple and
there’s no need to make this verse the buttress for more than it actually says.
[End Quote]

(Please note, even though Conrad actually thinks a middle should be read here, his real point there is that, whether middle or passive, the form of the verb shows that Luke did not mean to indicate the means or agent of the verb tasso.)

In Conclusion:

I believe that the current translation of Acts 13:48 in the NIV is inaccurate, and that the best understanding of tasso in Acts 13:48 is that it refers to Gentiles who were in position for eternal life / ready for eternal life / even intent on obtaining eternal life (particularly in contrast to the Jews of the same episode who opposed Paul and rejected the gospel, and so who judged themselves unworthy of eternal life [Acts 13:46]), and that the most accurate translation of the phrase in question would be something like: “as many as were disposed to eternal life believed” or “as many as were alligned for eternal life believed” or “as many as were positioned for eternal life believed”. However, I recognize that this would be to take a very specific view of the passage, and might not be approrpriate for the NIV. So, remembering that BDAG places the instance of tasso in Acts 13:48 not under the meaning of appointment but under the meaning of being placed in position, and that Friberg’s lexicon notes “disposed” as a possible meaning, I would suggest a more neutral translation: “as many as were set for eternal life believed”. This can readily be understood either of these Gentiles having gotten set in position for eternal life (by whatever means or agent[s] one infers from the context) or having been set (by absolute and effectual appointment) for eternal life by God. Thus this translation preserves the ambiguity of the Greek. I would then suggest adding a footnote along these lines: “or appointed or disposed”. This would probably be ideal for the reader to feel the sense of the Greek and know the two main ways it could be taken. If the committee is reluctant to change the present NIV translation, then I would urge that at least a footnote be added to the verse mentioning that it could be translated “as many as were disposed to eternal life”.