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Near the end of Romans there are details about financial relationships between churches. It's never really occurred to me to read it as anything but the face value in English:

Romans 15:25-26 (ESV)
25  At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. 26  For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.

However today I was studying the passage in another language and ran into an issue with the way the translation of the phrase "poor among the saints" (highlighted above) tied in with this and other passages. I was offline, but the one commentary I had access to at the time surprised me by taking this a different direction than just a reference to a subset of the believers in Jerusalem that were hard up financially.

My question is, is there anything going on in the original language at this point that makes it less obvious than perhaps the English rendition shows? Is there any reason to connect the idea of "the poor" here with other passages that do not directly relate to financial standing?

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The NET Bible has no translation note indicating any difficulty. –  Jack Douglas Sep 22 '12 at 13:59
    
@JackDouglas: The answer to this question may very well be that there is not anything going on here other than the obvious and the translations and commentators I ran across were pulling things out of their sleeve. That's what I am trying to determine. –  Caleb Sep 24 '12 at 7:04

3 Answers 3

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Well, there is some ambiguity around the meaning of the phrase τοὺς πτωχοὺς τῶν ἁγίων, although the correct choice appears to be mostly a settled issue among modern translations and commentaries. To define our terms:

  • τοὺς πτωχοὺς = the poor = head noun

  • τῶν ἁγίων = the saints = genitive (in the genitive case as a reflection of its relationship with τοὺς πτωχοὺς)

The phrase could be interpreted as:1,2

  • "the poor saints in Jerusalem"
    • An attributed genitive construction: the head noun τοὺς πτωχοὺς functions semantically as an adjective modifying τῶν ἁγίων.
  • "the poor among the saints in Jerusalem"
    • A partitive genitive: the genitive τῶν ἁγίων denotes the whole of which the head noun τοὺς πτωχοὺς is a part. This is a natural choice for English speakers who would like to gloss the genitive as “the poor of the saints.”
  • "the poor, that is, the saints in Jerusalem"
    • An appositional construction: the basic meaning is to indicate an equative relationship between the two substantives.

Each of the first two renderings shares the implication that an economic sort of poverty is in mind. The primary difference between them is that the first suggests that all of the Christians in Jerusalem were included as the recipients of the collection and were considered "poor." The second indicates a subset relationship, but still most naturally denotes economic poverty.

The last rendering suggests that "saints" is a restatement of "poor," in which case they should share a similar scope. In this formulation, "poor" is likely a theological rather than an economic designation. Herein, I suppose, lies the explanation given by whatever commentary you were reading. The same term is used with a theological nuance elsewhere (e.g. most obviously, Luke 6:20).

For the reasons outlined in other answers and particularly given the context of a money collection, the economic reference seems more likely. Between the first and second options I have listed with that implication, only the KJV and Geneva chose the first. Most more recent translations (NIV, ESV, NASB, NRSV, etc) chose the second. Commentaries seem to agree. In addition to Moo who makes this conclusion after laying out the options I have summarized, the Pillar commentary states simply, "The genitive τῶν ἁγίων is partitive."3


  1. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 903-904.

  2. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).

  3. Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (PNTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 525.

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+1 James Denney likewise assumes a "partitive genitive", as well as the financial understanding. I noted in a comment to a related question that there is now a fascinating feature film on this whole question. Several facets of Paul's collection are quite intringuing! –  Davïd Dec 13 at 21:23

It seems to me that there could scarcely be much question about the meaning once we take into account the multiple references to the Jerusalem collection project throughout both Acts and Paul's letters (see e.g. Acts 11:27–30; 24:17; 1 Cor 16:1ff; 2 Cor 9 etc; cf Gal 2:10).

In the immediate context, Paul makes a parallel between how the Gentiles have received the "spiritual things" of (τοῖς πνευματικοῖς) of the Jerusalem saints, and the "flesh-things" (τοῖς σαρκικοῖς) with which they correspondingly can serve the Jerusalem saints. Paul uses the language of participation, koinoneo, which has the idea of partnership and along with the related (and familiar) noun koinonia carries the idea of material/financial partnership in many places throughout the NT (e.g. Rom 12:13; 2 Cor 8:4; 9:13; Gal 6:6; Phi 4:15; probably also Acts 2:42; Heb 13:16).

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The phrase 'poor of the Saints' (πτωχους των αγιων) is just what it means from the most reliable sources I have looked up.

Kittel notes that this 'collection for the poor' without indicating there was any debate about its meaning in the original Greek:

The accent is to be placed on the fact, not that they are poor saints at Jerusalem, but that they are poor saints at Jerusalem. Paul saw here an obligation. He did not act merely out of caritas, though this is undeniable. Nor are we to speak merely of his diplomacy or tact. The point is that he is conscious of an obligation to those at Jerusalem who represented the first assembly of God in Christ. (TDNT, Kittel, Volume 3.508)

In addition, as the church in Jerusalem seems to have suffered first and foremost by the authorities, it only makes sense that they would be the first group needed such a collection and it would be surprising not to see a collection being made in accordance with Christian love. (Ref Acts 8:1,12:1, etc.)

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Good answer, Mike. I'm going to edit it a bit but you're right - there's nothing in the text that would indicate any sort of difficulty. –  swasheck Sep 28 '12 at 15:00

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