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All translations seem to render ἀρχαὶ in Romans 8:38-39 as 'ruler' or something similar, for example:

ESV:

38For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

KJV:

38For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
39Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

NIV:

38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(the NIV has an alternative translation in the footnotes: "heavenly rulers")

Would it not be more natural to group ἀρχαὶ with ἐνεστῶτα and μέλλοντα in a triplet translated something like "nor past nor present nor future", using what I understand is the more common sense of the word ἀρχαὶ as "beginning"?

To my mind this would also fit the tempo of the verse better as the pattern of opposites is otherwise broken in a jarring way by δυνάμεις

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It looks like arche is most often translated as "beginning" in the KJV. I wish I understood Greek grammar well enough to know if that translation works because it does seem more natural to me too. Strange that I never encountered that before... (+1) –  Jon Ericson Jul 20 '12 at 23:02
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1 Answer

As novice "translators", we are used to seeing ἀρχῇ in passages such as John 1:1 and associating it with the English word, "beginning".

However, it is inaccurate to think that ἀρχῇ (in all of its various forms) means "beginning". That is one meaning of some forms of the word in some cases. There isn't really a good direct translation into English that would work for all forms of the word. For example, it can mean:

  • the beginning

  • the origin or cause

  • the first in a series

  • the leader

  • the magistracy / principality / rule

  • the extremity of a thing

The form used in Romans 8:38 is ἀρχαὶ. It is a plural noun, which immediately restricts the possible meanings. It is only used twice in the New Testament; Here is the other case:

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. -Colossians 1:16

Clearly it would not make sense to insert "pasts" or "beginnings" here. The plural nouns being referred to here are "leaders" / "magistracies" / "rulers" - whether individuals or offices.

Romans 8:38 uses the same form in the same way, except that given the context, it is clear here we are not talking about the good kind! We do not see "things past" in the Greek, but rather a plural noun used negatively to identify a group of individuals/offices/things that are in a sort of primary position, which will not stand between you and the love of God.

In summary, all of the translations you quoted can be considered faithful to the text. To attempt to force "pasts" or "things past" would not seem to be a sound interpretation.


As a side note, it seems to make sense to encourage believers with the fact that nothing can separate them from the love of God, including the things in their lives now, as well as those things yet to come. I'm not sure what the value would be in saying nothing in the past could separate you from the love of God that you already have in the present.

But I suppose the point is that it doesn't matter what we think makes sense, so much as what the Bible actually says.


For more information on common exegetical fallacies, see here.

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+1 and many thanks. 2 comments: 1) a sample size of 2 is not very large - leaving more doubt than if the word were widely used, and 2) You say "It is a plural noun, which immediately restricts the possible meanings.", without specifically saying that it could not be "beginnings" because it is plural - does it prevent that translation? iiuc, it is worth noting that ἐνεστῶτα and μέλλοντα are both plural too. –  Jack Douglas Jul 21 '12 at 12:17
    
@JackDouglas (a) ἐνεστῶτα and μέλλοντα are plural, but they are also verbs. ἀρχῇ is a noun. (b) ἀρχῇ does not mean "past", it means something closer to "primary" or "first". (c) In the Greek what we see is a series of things that will not be allowed to come between you and the love of God, and then a couple of verbs being used to emphasize that this is not merely talking about what is happening to us, but also what is about to come upon us. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 21 '12 at 17:15
    
@JackDouglas ...I suppose I should probably edit my answer to clarify that stuff - will do when I get time. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 21 '12 at 17:17
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