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New Testament Words and Verses
Eph. 4:2, New Testament Moral Terminology

Though most scholars, myself included, don’t accept the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, it definitely reflects a worldview compatible and sympathetic to Paul. One of those compatibilities is evident in the moral terminology briefly broached in Ephesians 4:2.  In this essay I will explore three terms in this verse to open the broad vocabulary of the New Testament moral universe.


The author urges his hearers: 


2 μετὰ πάσης ταπεινοφροσύνης καὶ πραΰτητος, μετὰ μακροθυμίας, ἀνεχόμενοι ἀλλήλων ἐν ἀγάπῃ,


“With all humility, and gentleness, with patience, bearing with each other in love.” 


Not bad advice, to be sure.  I like to use various translations to get a flavor of English translations before diving into the Greek world that they illumine.  In this case the majority have the three nouns I use, but the American Standard Bible has “Lowliness, meekness, long-suffering,” and one version goes for “quietness” for πραΰτητος. 


                                                       Repeating and Expanding the Virtues


Interesting to me is that this triad of virtues is the same as listed in Col 3:12, but that passage includes a few more. 


12 Ἐνδύσασθε οὖν, ὡς ἐκλεκτοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ ἅγιοι καὶ ἠγαπημένοι, σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ χρηστότητα ταπεινοφροσύνην πραΰτητα μακροθυμίαν, 13 ἀνεχόμενοι ἀλλήλων καὶ χαριζόμενοι ἑαυτοῖς


“Clothe yourself then, as the chosen of God, both holy and beloved, with the deepest affection of mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with each other and extending grace/showing forgiveness to each other.”


The parallels between the Ephesians and Colossians texts are remarkable and not in any way happenstance. Especially probative of literary dependence is the appearance of ἀνεχόμενοι after listing the virtues. I argue elsewhere that Ephesians seemed to be using the argument of Colossians, and we have good reason to say the same thing here.  The goal of the author of Ephesians in this passage is not to list or encourage the development of certain virtues but to stress the nature of the gifts given to the church; hence the briefer catalogue of virtues  Colossians 3, however, is focused on the fuller expression of personal attributes or virtues.  Thus, it makes sense that the author of Ephesians “abbreviated” what was before him in Colossians.  


If we add the virtues in Colossians we have the following (I list the words as they appear in the text):


1. σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ— deepest affection of mercy/bowels of mercy

2. χρηστότητα —kindness

3. ταπεινοφροσύνην —humility

4. πραΰτητα—gentleness/meekness

5. μακροθυμίαν—patience/long-suffering


                                                   Even More Virtues in View


But let’s expand our list of moral terminology outside those words listed in Ephesians and Colossans. If, for example, we looked at the fruit of the spirit in Gal. 5:22-23, we notice that μακροθυμία χρηστότης and πραΰτης are already there, but we add six more more:


6. ἀγάπη—love 

7. χαρὰ—joy

8. εἰρήνη—peace

9. ἀγαθωσύνη— goodness

10. πίστις—faithfulness

11. ἐγκράτεια—self-discipline/self-control/temperance/self-mastery/self-restraint.


But this isn’t all. Though the focus of this essay so far is on Pauline terminology, we see that sometimes the Pauline words are intertwined with words that just appear in other texts.  For example, I Peter urges its readers to be ταπεινόφρονες or “humble,” but he also includes a rich list of other terms:  ὁμόφρονες, συμπαθεῖς, φιλάδελφοι, εὔσπλαγχνοι, ταπεινόφρονες (I Peter 3:8).  So, now we also have:


                                                                                        More Moral Terms


12 ὁμόφρονες—single-minded/harmonious/agreeing/of one mind

13 συμπαθεῖς—sympathetic/having compassion

14 φιλάδελφοι—loving one another/having brotherly love

15 εὔσπλαγχνοι—tenderhearted/compassionate


Notice that a few of these are what one might call “compound virtues;” perhaps it is a function of what I denominate the “abundance” mentality of early Christian writers that they not just list a virtue, but add a prefix or preposition to it to give the impression of a ‘hyper” virtue that Christians should have. What is starting to become evident to me as this list grows is that the lines separating these virtues from each other is getting more and more blurry.  And, it isn’t clear not only how they differ from each other, but what they really imply in terms of a person’s life and behavior.


Well, this might go on a bit further, but I will just list five more (because about twenty virtues are more than enough to stomach, much less try to imitate).  We continue below with the “hyper” Christian virtues, first with one mentioned in James 5:11 and then the very common ἔλεος.  Interesting to me is the absence from the New Testament of a “hyper” ἔλεος (πολυέλεος), that is quite common in the LXX.  For example, the memorable verse of Jahweh’s self-identification in Exodus 34:6 describes himself as follows:  ὁ θεὸς οἰκτίρμων καὶ ἐλεήμων μακρόθυμος καὶ πολυέλεος καὶ ἀληθινὸς or “the merciful and gracious God, patient and abundant in mercy and true.”  Then, there is one from Phil. 4:5 (and four other places), ἐπιεικής,


16 πολύσπλαγχνος—very full of mercy/very compassionate

17 ἔλεος—mercy/compassion/pity

18 πολυέλεος—(not in NT, but frequent in LXX; e.g., Ex. 34:6)—full of mercy 

19 ἐπιεικής—seemly/equitable/gentle/mild/forbearing/fair/reasonable/moderate


Several of the moral terms have similar forms.  So, we see ἐλεήμων, which is closely related to ἔλεος.  We have χρηστός, which is the adjectival form of χρηστότητα, quoted above.  Most interesting to me is the word that gave birth to this entire essay: ταπεινοφροσύνη, which implicates the world of something lowly or humble (ταπεινός) or the verb ταπεινόω, to make low or to humble someone.  Then, finally, we have πραΰς, again rendered “gentle” or “meek” and forming a winsome hendiadys with ταπεινός in Jesus’ words in Matt. 11:29, where Jesus emphasizes how he is “gentle and lowly in heart.”


                                                                             A Question Arises


Most interesting to me is that the moral terminology isn’t always a virtue!  That is, the word ταπεινοφροσύνη, which heretofore has been only something positive, is something that people should avoid in Col. 2.  How so?  Paul encourages his readers to avoid certain religious practices that won’t do his hearers any good. The one to avoid?  Those who emphasize (Col 2:23):


λόγον μὲν ἔχοντα σοφίας ἐν ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ καὶ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ [καὶ] ἀφειδίᾳ σώματος,


“a word having (the appearance of) wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety and humility and severe treatment of the body”

Hmm. . .it makes one start to question what is the essence of “true” piety or “true” humility or “true” treatment of the body.  In any case, this passage opens up the moral virtues to the question of what they really are and what value they possess. . .which is an invitation to another essay.

Moral Terminology II

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