New Testament Words and Verses
Romans 1, Two: Focusing on 1:29-32
We are still just getting warmed up in Paul’s screed. What else do these God-rejecting folk do? Well, they are (as we continue in Rom 1:29-32):
“Whisperers/gossips, slanderers, people who hate God, violently insolent, arrogant and boastful”
Well, this is another six characteristics, and truth be told, we are now presenting some characteristics that also appear elsewhere. We saw in II Tim 3, for example, that “arrogant” and “boastful” (uperephanos/alazon) go together but they are reversed in the Pastorals (perhaps as a way to conceal the author’s literary indebtedness to Paul). There are only so many evil things that people can do before they start repeating themselves. But we have arrogant and boastful people. They are here; they are in the Pastorals; they still exist today. And God is going to clobber people because of this arrogance and boastfulness. Well, they also are “whisperers”—it really is a great word— ψιθυριστὰς—-where we can actually “hear” the meaning as we say it. The word in this form is a hapax, as is the word ψιθυρισμός, the act of “whisperings.” Perhaps because of the success of this Romans list (or, if II Cor. was written earlier), Paul picks up in both locations for “whisperers” and “slanderers.” In II Cor. 12:20 they are “evil-speaking” (καταλαλιά), whereas in Romans they are “evil-speakers” and so it is put in the masculine. The word is derived from the experience of “speaking down/speaking against” people. II Cor. 12;20 also has other words but I will return to them in another essay, after finishing Romans. It just seems that people can’t get their act together. . .
The two words from the list so far that remain are memorable: people who hate God and those who are insolently violent. Well, a little more attention on each. The former is a hapax, and is taken from the words for “God” and “abhor,” and so we don’t need to say much more. These folk just totally turn against God. I don’t know if he puts all people in this category, but certainly there are a lot of folk out there who just hate God.
Well, the other word is ὑβριστής, an incredibly rich word in Greek literature. We often think of hubris, the underlying noun, as “overweening pride” (that was how Prof. John Rowe Workman defined it for me in the Fall of 1970 at Brown University), but the word has a much wider range of meaning. It appears with uperephania, which is in Romans 1, also in some classical authors. We just have to get used to the phenomenon that these lists of undesirable traits were probably just sitting there “on the shelf” and could easily be brought down for one’s own purposes. There are three hubris-type words in the NT, hubris, hubristes, hubrizo (the verb), and all of them have to do with some kind of insolent, arrogant or even violent behavior. We have no idea if Paul has anyone specifically in mind as he writes these lists—I think he got them on special at the ancient literary equivalent of Walmart, and now he uses them.
More Words. . .
Well, we’re not done yet. We only have six more to go, before Paul’s conclusion that these people not only do these things but they are pleased with/approve (συνευδοκοῦσιν) those who do. Let’s just divide these into the two that remain, and then the “great four” of verse 31. These two consist of two two-word phrases, ἐφευρετὰς κακῶν, γονεῦσιν ἀπειθεῖς, or “inventors of evil, disobedient to parents.” We see the disobedient to parents trope also in II Tim 3, so that author must have considered it valuable, even though he didn’t include the first: “inventors of evil. But the word for the first is interesting (naturally a NT hapax), consisting of the preposition epi and the common verb for “find.” So those who “discover” evil are those, in fact, who devise all kinds of evil schemes. These people have to receive the judgment of God. No question about it. How could anyone dissent from that judgment?
Paul finishes his 20 or so word list with a wonderful flourish in verse 31, as it employs four adjectives each with an alpha privative, which gives a kind of rhythmic finality to the verse. These poor, poor people who reject God by not realizing that the grandeur in creation should lead them to embrace Israel’s God (with Israel perhaps .1%, if that, of the world’s population at the time) and the one who came from Israel—Christ—for us.
But these amazing four adjectives in verse 31 are: “without reason, without covenantal relations/unreliable/break their promises, without love/heartless, merciless.”
As just mentioned, Paul finishes this section with a flourish, and the reader is supposed to have a sense that these people aren’t worthy of living—they are “lacking” (that is the purpose of using an alpha privative), but let’s look at each word briefly. The first two provide euphonic pleasure (ἀσυνέτους ἀσυνθέτους), even though this euphony is lost in English. σύνετος comes from συνίημι, which means “I understand.” Thus, someone without σύνετος is someone without understanding or reason. Yep, I know the feeling—running into people who just don’t seem to be wired with the same capacities or interests in reason as am I. Paul, however, gets to consign these people to eternal oblivion, whereas the rest of us have to live with them.
The pleasant euphony continues with the ἀσυνθέτους, which, without the alpha privative, stresses the notion of coming together. In more technical theological jargon this act of coming together may be a covenant. Thus, when we negate or reverse the term we have a vivid picture if we say “not with covenantal relations” (i.e., a person who is bound by no covenant; a faithless person). Such are these people. But we aren’t done yet. They also are ἀστόργους, which means “without affection” or, more specifically, “without the natural affection engendered by close familial relationships.” Note in this passage that we had two verbs implicated that sound very similar but which have opposite meanings. We have stor/stug. . .the “stor” stresses love, but the “stug” stresses hate. Great words to use and, especially if one has some rhetorical interests or capabilities, as Paul certainly does. They are great to put in close proximity. These people have the unadulterated arrogance to hate both God and the natural loving connections of family. How can people be so worthless? Well, the final word is a combination of the alpha privative and the word for “mercy.” So, these people have no mercy; they are merciless.
We see how quickly this behavior can get out of hand. Reject God by not accepting God’s glory in creation and it quickly turns you into an insatiable sexual machine, usually directed towards someone of your gender, and then results in twenty adjectives or nouns of the most execrable conduct imaginable. I love this kind of passage because it forces me to spend a lot of time sorting through word roots and imagining, or actually understanding, the contexts in which they would naturally have been used in the Hellenistic world. As a guide to understanding people or the world, or a likely end for the world or for people—well, let’s just say the list isn’t that convincing.
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