Pronouns Matter

So let’s say that you’re the Apostle Paul, sitting down to pen Romans in the first century under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The theme of the book, the Spirit has instructed you, is to be the gospel of the righteousness of God (Romans 1:17). And as you ruminate on that theme, your rabbinically trained mind recalls Habakkuk 2:4, where the prophet connects righteousness and faith in a way that has direct connection to your current thesis.

Ah, but which version to use? The Masoretic Text, dating to Ezra’s time (5th century BC), reads like this:
The righteous man, by his faith, shall live.

The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament dating to around 250 BC, reads like this:
The righteous man, by my faith, shall live.

The change of pronoun makes complete sense, of course, when viewed through a missional lens. The Hebrews knew that God was the author of faith. The Greeks didn’t share that conviction. Hence the scribal emphasis: righteousness was not mustered up by hard work. It was a gift of Yahweh’s faithfulness. Pronouns matter.

Now you (remember, you’re Paul) are distilling the apostolic gospel for the church in Rome. Both of these textual traditions are at your disposal. Which do you use? The church in Rome, after all, has both Jews and Greeks. And part of the problem is that the two parties are often at odds with each other. Choose either side’s “preferred” text, and you’d be picking a fight. Obscure either pronoun and you risk compromising the gospel.

So, in the inspired wisdom of the Holy Spirit, you remove all pronouns:
The righteous shall live by faith (Romans 1:17).

By the righteous man’s faith? Sure. By God’s faith(fulness)? Sure. Opting for no pronoun at all preserves the carefully nuanced truth of both renderings, and frames the gospel in a most comprehensive fashion: I live by my faith in the faithfulness of God. That’s what the gospel is about.


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  1. Bob, I cannot tell you how much good it does a biblical language student’s heart to see you discussing these kinds of issues on your blog. Kudos to you.

    My only question is whether you are representing the MT accurately…

  2. Okay so let’s start with the Greek. Whenever you come across the word pistis in the New Testament you have to decide if it’s being used objectively (the body of doctrine believed. You’ll often see it this way in the Pastoral Epistles where Paul is talking about the teaching that he received and is passing on. See for example 1 Tim 3:9). Or if pistis is being used subjectively (of an individual’s conviction/belief) which is how it often comes up in Romans and is being used in chapter 1. The way it’s paired with pronouns (your faith, each other’s faith) plus it’s appearing parallel to belief in verse 16 makes this clear.

    So that’s the Greek word we have in the Septuagint’s rendering of Habakkuk 2:4, which is why the vast majority of English translations read “the righteous will live by faith.” The catch with that is that the Hebrew word emuna doesn’t (and can’t) function like that. Of the forty-something times it appears in the Old Testament (each of which I had to look at for a Hebrew word study last semester) it never has that meaning. It’s used substantively (as a noun) to mean truth as well as attributively of God (righteous), and man (faithfulness, integrity, reliability) but it’s never used objectively.

    All that to explain that the MT reads:
    The righteous man, by his faithfulness, shall live

  3. Mmm, yes, I see your point. Do you see any difference between the two in this context? Faith in God and faithfulness to God seem to go together, don’t they?

  4. Bob, I gues I’m just trying to get my head around where Paul’s getting subjective faith (i.e. the act of believing) from since in the MT (where the pronoun his is seen as refering to the righteous man) the word can’t mean that and in the LXX (where the pronoun refers to God) the Word doesn’t mean that when talking about God: they both read faithfulness. Since the Holy Spirit inspired Paul I figure he has a good reason, I just don’t understand it all yet–but that’s no big surprise.

    Evan-my apologies for the jargon, I didn’t mean to come off like such a linguistic student. By ubstantively I just mean that an adjective fuctions as a noun (like in the expression the good the bad and the ugly). Subjective and objective I meant in the grammatical sense of orientation to the subject (in this case the believing person) or the direct object.(such as the doctrine believed in).

  5. Hooley, I see your point linguistically, but I don’t see any difference theologically.

    You said the MT should be rendered: “The righteous man, by his faithfulness, shall live.” I ask: his faithfulness TO WHAT? To God, presumably.

    And theologically, isn’t faithfulness to God the same as faith in God? Paul seems to say as much in Romans 4 when he equates Abraham’s faith IN God with Abraham’s faithfulness TO God in believing the promise God made to him “against hope” (Rom 4:18).

  6. Unbelievable. I cannot believe that you folks at Coram Deo have managed to generate conversation around a post on “pronouns”. Now this is impressive…and nerdy too.

  7. Thanks Bob, that helps. I think with things like discussions on Pauline vs. James-ine (pretty sure that’s not a word) views on the nature of faith it’s easy for my perspective to get too narrow and disconnect things that really can’t be understood in isolation.

  8. Bob,

    Faithfulness in God seems to conote a continual lifestyle/behavioral pattern, while faith in God, although continual, seems to be intellectual/emotional reliance and less “action” oriented. I”m not sure if that’s important, 🙂 but that seems to be the difference, to me, in those two phrases.

    In other words,. . . Faith in God is the beginning of faithfulness to God. In Romans 4:18, it seems like Abraham’s fatherhood of many nations follows after his belief and hope.

    Your thoughts?

  9. i watched the graduate last week and it turns out that lane looks exactly like dustin hoffman did at 25. its seriously freaky. i know this has nothing to do with the current thread but i had no clue where else to post it.

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