On γαρ’d

Douglas Campbell’s Deliverance of God has generated lots of discussion, especially on Romans 1:18-32. The γαρ in 1:18 has been a problem for interpreters long before Campbell came to it. But Campbell’s work is making folks take another look at the particle in this verse.

Koine “traditionalists” (is there a better word?) assert that γαρ is a discourse connector which logically joins two parts of a discourse, normally in an explanatory way.  This sense is typically translated “therefore”. Example: I have a broken leg, therefore I will not be playing football. If one only reads the NT, then clearly this is the most frequent usage.

But there is other Greek literature out there. Consider Euripides’ Bacchae. In places like lines 477, 483, and 612, γαρ is used to signal a switch in speaker (like from Dionysus to Pentheus or the Chorus leader to Dionysus). This is evidence for how the particle could function in rhetoric, particularly in a Socratic dialogue. To be fair, just because Euripides used γαρ this way sometimes does not automatically mean that’s what Paul did in Romans 1:18. However, it is evidence that I don’t see many people consider before they dismiss it. A better question for the traditionalists might be Why can’t the γαρ in Romans 1:18 indicate a speaker change?

In addition to Euripides, there’s biblical evidence as well. Consider the translation Greek of the LXX. In Job, when he converses with his “friends”, γαρ is twice used in a change of speaker (Job 6:2; 25:2). Also, by my count there are over 45 instances of γαρ symbolizing a speaker change in LXX Isaiah (tweet me if you want the list and begin discussing who is speaking where in Isaiah). (Maybe this requires an intro to the various voices in Isaiah, but…) One of the clearest examples is Cyrus talking to Yahweh in Isa 45:15— συ γαρ ει θεος, και ουκ ηδειμεν, ο θεος του Ισραηλ σωτηρ (You are the God people cannot see. You are the God who saves Israel. ERV)

Long story short: γαρ is a very small form that gets used in lots of contexts. Identifying what the form means from context-to-context should be determined by those contexts, not by a lexicographic straight-jacket.

So does the γαρ in Romans 1:18 signal a switch from Paul’s voice to the Teacher’s voice? I think the evidence suggests so.




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7 Replies to “On γαρ’d”

    1. Paul writes the voice of a counter Jewish Christian teacher in 1:18-32. The same person he interacts with in ch 3.

  1. While certainly words should be generally understood from context to context, the more common understandings should be inferred, unless there is a clear evidence in favor of of the exceptional readings.

    Secondly, the Bacchae has clear markers of transition and change; hence, if gar could function in a transitional manner, there are markers available for the exceptional interpretation. However, I am not convinced gar is meant to function purely as a marker for transition: could not the word be used to convey an inference, that was taken up by the new person? While I could definitely see how ‘gar’ could imply a transition in certain circumstances in Socratic dialogue, much as a question often implies an expected response in a conversation, I have serious reservations that the main semantic domains would not be a part of the usage at the same time.

    Additionally, even if the transitory semantic/nuance is part of the usage of ‘gar,’ I would find it problematic to treat the ‘gar’ in 1:18 as a Socratic transition, whereas the two instances of ‘gar’ in 1:16-17 are not considered transitional. While we need not be too ready to force a frequently used word like ‘gar’ with the same semantic nuance in each instance of a context, when they are used in a regular, repetitive fashion (almost formulaic), it is more prudent to take each separate instance in a similar fashion. I think the better argument is to see 1:16-18 marking Paul’s thesis, as consistent with Greco-Roman rhetoric, and treat the ‘gar’ as delineating three separate but related propositions of Paul’s overall thesis and purpose for the letter (to proclaim and explain the gospel, as he mentions he is eager to in v. 15).

    I would be interested in the instances of ‘gar’ in LXX Isaiah you mentioned, but I do not use twitter much. Could an email be possible?

    1. Hi Owen

      We differ in linguistic approaches. There is no meaning apart from context. Cat means something in an apartment, something else in a jazz bar, and something else in the world of heavy machinery. I think a usaged-based approach is most appropriate for semantic description.

      Regarding Euripides- I’ve given specific examples where the particle is not doing a logical connector job but rather a rhetorical job within a text where more than one voice can be heard. Can you show me how I’m wrong about the particle in those instances? Also, I’m not claiming a semantic domain approach- so again we differ in method.

      I can appreciate your syntactic approach to 1:18, but one is hard pressed to explain how the wrath of God being poured out on these foolish Gentiles who should know better logically follows God’s righteousness being shown through Jesus’ faithfulness. 

      You’re not on Twitter?


  2. “Paul writes the voice of a counter Jewish Christian teacher in 1:18-32. The same person he interacts with in ch 3.”

    That’s really interesting never heard of that before. Can you recommend a resource that develops this interpretation?

  3. On prudence, γὰρ, and semantics. Thanks, Dagesh, for this brilliant observation. It is instructive to lay Romans 1-3 alongside other Hellenistic Greek literature. It is prudent to break free of a narrow, exclusive NT data set and see that Paul writes in a way that mimics conversation, likely due to (1) normal, scribal practice of writing down what was first spoken and (2) Paul’s own adopted style of argumentation. One might add that the sort of style looks like a particular kind of didactic conversation at that: diatribe, which includes “speech in character,” a trope that school boys learned in the course of basic study. This has been known for the past three generations at least, but forgotten and by-passed in each successive generation of NT scholars. Stan Stowers summarized and extended this knowledge for the past generation. Douglas Campbell is doing the same for our generation on 1:18-4:2. Diatribe style is widely recognized in 3:1-9. And “speech in character” is widely recognized in Romans 7. Once we see these tropes, it is prudent to ask, “Where else does Paul use these (and other) conversational tropes”?
    So, what sort of work does γὰρ do is a much better question to ask that the very narrow sort of question a domain approach to semantics suggests (which was already passè when John F. A. Sawyer published (http://www.amazon.com/Semantics-Biblical-Research-Study-Theology/dp/0334014875/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1373482221&sr=8-3&keywords=Semantics+in+biblical+Research),&tag=thechuofjesch-20 in the 1970’s when I read it. And “semantic domain” is notoriously—and extremely—unhelpful when dealing with particles! So there is not any “prudence” in assuming the same “meaning” of a Greek particle when it is used several times in a small space in discourse. In fact, prudence would also suggest that we should expect variation. That is what prudence does, take proper account of the possibilities as they become known.
    That said, one might expect a few other instances of γὰρ (or some other “inferential particle” like, say, οὖν marking participant switching. In either case, this statement should not be taken to indicate that either γὰρ or οὖν has a participant switching meaning (in the narrow, semantic sense). A better approach to particles is to see them as instructions to the reader about how certain chunks of text are to be processed. What might those instructions be? What goes before γὰρ or οὖν may be taken as the basis of an inference of the speaker (or writer). But context is important! So, if another speaker interjects with γὰρ or οὖν, one may take what is said afterwards as the second speaker’s inference (or even rebuttal, attempt to hijack the convesation, humorous rejoinder, participation in agreement with the author, etc.) but not necessarily the first speaker’s inference.
    One may argue that in Romans 3 we have just the sort of thing I’m talking about.

    Paul, asking Socratic questions:
    3:1 What, then, IS the advantage the Jew has (over non-Jews)? What benefit does circumcision bring us?
    3:2 “Much in every way! Well … first, [therefore=γὰρ], [they have an advantage} because they were deemed faithful enough to be trusted with the Oracles of God!”
    3:3 τί γάρ; =Well, what significance does this advantage have? Since some of them were unfaithful, this wouldn’t nullifiy God’s faith(fulness), would it?
    3:4 “Never! Let God be proved true even if every human being is proved a liar! Just as it is written, “So that you may be justified in your words,
    and prevail in your judging.”
    etc. Paul keeps asking questions until he reduces his interolutor to blather.
    3:5 But if the our unrighteousness makes the case that God is righteous, then what is our response as Jews? Might it be that God is unrighteous to rain down his wrath on us? I’m speaking like people we know.
    3:6 “NEVER!!”
    Otherwise how could God judge the world, right? 3:7 But if the truthfullness of God stands out more sharply because of my falseness so that God is glorified, why do people judge me as a sinner? 3:8 And why, in the same way are some people saying terrible things about us by declaring that we teach, “Let us do evil, so that good may come?”
    “THEY should be condemned!”
    3:9 Back to the question, then [Τί οὖν;=”what then/therefore”]. Are we Jews advantaged?
    3:10 “Not entirely …”
    For [γάρ], as we both now admit, both Jews AND Greeks are all slaves to sin.

    The inferential particles in this section (one after another, in almost formulaic manner) are notoriously difficult to translate and many translations just pretend they are not there. In fact, if you try to translate this whole section as if Paul were arguing in a straight forward manner with one voice the whole passage begins to sound nonsensical. But, on the reading I propose here, we have γὰρ or οὖν marking transition to another voice/speaker in close dialogue and one is being increasingly disadvantaged until he is reduced to silence and Paul’s voice wins the day. What is interesting is that the Jewish Christian voice here is so consistently and obsessively concerned with judgment and condemnation but ends up being condemned.

    And that is precisely what we have with the flaming, silly-sounding, pompous speech set off by γὰρ at 1:18-32. It is designed to be an argument that completely collapses on itself. And prudence will dictate that we really look at the contents of that speech and how it functions in Romans 1-3 and consider this option carefully before discarding it on the basis of a restricted, narrow, blinkered semantic approach.

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