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Question:

In Romans 2:4, is καταφρονέω more properly translated into English as 'presume' or 'despise'?

Details:

This is a key point that Paul is making, but since 'presume' and 'despise' are two related, but not identical, concepts I would really like to understand the choices behind these two translations. In English there is a relationship between the words, i.e. to presume upon something or someone is to show contempt for them, however this link is not automatic or even the default.

In my preferred translation, the ESV, Romans 2:4 is rendered:

Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

In contrast, the KJV translation renders it:

Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?

The NIV renders it:

Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?

The Dictionary of Biblical Languages defines the word as:

2969 καταφρονέω (kataphroneō): vb.; ≡ Str 2706; TDNT 3.631—LN 88.192 despise, look down on, scorn, show contempt (Mt 6:24; 18:10; Lk 16:13; Ro 2:4; 1Co 11:22; 1Ti 4:12; 6:2; Heb 12:2; 2Pe 2:10+; Tit 2:15 v.r. NA26)

Additionally the ESV Study Bible has this note on the verse:

Do you presume is probably directed against Jews who thought that their covenant relationship with God would shield them from final judgment. After all, they had often experienced his kindness and forbearance and patience. They thought such blessings showed that they were right with God and had no need to trust in Christ, but Paul says the opposite is true: God’s blessings should have led them to repent of their sins.

Given these items, I am not sure how to properly view Paul's use of this word.

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This is a good question. Of the following Lexicon's, only the Liddell-Scott has "presume" as a possible translation. Louw-Nida has "to reckon something as being worthless" which could be short hand to say "presume" but in that entry it cites Rom 2:4 to mean "contempt for (God's) patience." Gingrich cites Rom 2:4 as "Entertain wrong ideas about" which maybe short hand may mean "presume". Below are a few different entries on καταφρονέω (taken from BibleWorks 8)

Friberg Lexicon

15404 καταφρονέω fut. καταφρονήσω; 1aor. κατεφρόνησα; (1) as treating with scornful contempt look down on, despise, disparage (1T 4.12); (2) as treating with neglect disregard, slight, despise (HE 12.2)

Louw-Nida Lexicon

88.192 καταφρονέω: to feel contempt for someone or something because it is thought to be bad or without value - 'to despise, to scorn, to look down on.' καὶ τῆς μακροθυμίας καταφρονεῖς 'and do you have contempt for (God's) patience' Ro 2.4; ὁρᾶτε μὴ καταφρονήσητε ἑνὸς τῶν μικρῶν τούτων 'see that you do not despise one of these little ones' Mt 18.10. In a number of languages the equivalent of 'to despise' is 'to think that something has no value' or 'to reckon something as being worthless.'

Liddell-Scott (Abridged) Lexicon

23233 καταφρονέω f. ήσω, to think down upon, i.e. to look down upon, think slightly of, τινός Hdt., Eur., etc.

2. c. acc. to regard slightly, despise, Hdt., Att.:-Pass. to be thought little of, despised, Xen., etc.

3. absol. to be disdainful, deal contemptuously, Thuc.

4. c. inf. to think contemptuously that, to presume, καταφρονήσαντες κρέσσονες εἶναι Hdt.; καταφρονοῦντες κἂν προαισθέσθαι Thuc. II. c. acc. rei, only in Ion. writers (cf. κατανοέω), to fix one's thoughts upon, aim at, Lat. affectare, τὴν τυραννίδα Hdt.: also to observe with contempt, τι Id. Hence καταφρόνημα

Thayers Lexicon

2859 καταφρονέω, καταφρόνω; future καταφρονήσω; 1 aorist κατεφρόνησα; (from Herodotus down); to contemn, despise, disdain, think little or nothing of: with the genitive of the object (Buttmann, sec. 132, 15), Matt. 6:24; 18:10; Luke 16:13; Rom. 2:4; 1 Cor. 11:22; 1 Tim. 4:12; 6:2; 2 Pet. 2:10; Heb. 12:2.*

Gingrich Lexicon

3539 καταφρονέω—1. look down on, despise, scorn w. gen. Mt 6:24; 18:10; Lk 16:13; 1 Cor 11:22; 1 Ti 4:12; 2 Pt 2:10; Tit 2:15 v.l. Entertain wrong ideas about Ro 2:4; 1 Ti 6:2.—2. care nothing for, disregard, be unafraid of Hb 12:2.* [pg 105]

  • (+1) for consulting the lexicons. From what I understand, Liddell-Scott aka "Middle Liddell" is not concerned with Koine Greek but with earlier Greek and so may introduce usages that don't appear in Koine or omit usages that do. The primary source, Herodotus' History is from the 5th century BCE and not an example of usage contemporary with Paul. The relevant and most authoritative lexicon for Koine is BDAG. Unfortunately (very unfortunately) it is not available for free online that I can tell. – user10231 Aug 19 '16 at 11:24
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There is no solid precedent in Scripture or in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers for translating καταφρονέω as "presume on".

The word appears 21 times in the Greek Septuagint and is translated by Brenton as "despise" (Judith 10:19; Tobit 4:18; 2 Maccabees 4:14, 7:24; Proverbs 18:3, 19:16, 23:22, 25:9; Wisdom 14:30; Habakkuk 1:13; Zephaniah 1:12); "slight" (Proverbs 13:13); "scorn" (Proverbs 13:15); "transgress" (Hosea 6:7); "be contemptuous [of]" (Jeremiah 2:36); and "be ill-intentioned" (Genesis 27:12).

The word occurs in 7 other verses in the New Testament: Matthew 6:24, 18:10; Luke 16:13; 1 Corinthians 11:22; 1 Timothy 4:12, 6:2; Hebrews 12:2; and 2 Peter 2:10. In each of these the ESV translates the word as "despise".

It may be that the ESV is following the RSV, which also uses the term "presume". The NASB also chooses a related phrase, "think lightly of".

The ESV Study Bible comment is completely off the mark. The preceding verses clearly relate to the sin of judging others and Romans 2:4 and the verse that follows clearly indicate that the verse relates to repentance and not the Jews.

The late Orthodox Archbishop Dmitry Royster explains the verse as follows:

Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?

Those who reject repentance either because they do not acknowledge the need to turn to God penitently, that is, that it is necessary to seek forgiveness of their day to day sins, thinking of themselves as already "saved," or because they may have been led to think that some sins are too grave and heavy to merit forgiveness. Both attitudes reflect a disdain (kataphroneo) for God's will to forgive.

St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans: A Pastoral Commentary, p. 51

Archbishop Dmitry's explanation is consistent with that given by Church Father John Chrysostom (4th c.):

For after praising God’s long-suffering, showing the gain thereof to be very great to them that heeded it (and this was the drawing sinners to repentance); he adds to the terror. For as to them, who avail themselves of it aright, it is a ground of safety; so to them that slight it, it is conducive to a greater vengeance. For whenever you utter this common notion, that God doth not exact justice, because He is good and long-suffering, he says, You do but mention what will make the vengeance intenser. For God showeth His goodness that you may get free from your sins, not that you may add to them. If then thou make not this use thereof, the judgment will be more fearful. Wherefore it is a chief ground for abstaining from sin, that God is long-suffering, and not for making the benefit a plea for obstinacy. For if He be long-suffering, He most certainly punisheth. Whence does this appear? from what is next said. For if the wickedness be great and the wicked have not been requited, it is absolutely necessary that they should be requited. For if men do not overlook these things, how should God make an oversight? And so from this point he introduces the subject of the judgment. For the fact of showing many who, if they repent not, are liable, yet still are not punished here, introduces with it necessarily the judgment, and that with increase. Wherefore he says,

But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath.

Homily V on Romans

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The context is clear that the purpose of the riches of God's kindness, forebearance, and patience is that these characteristics would lead man to repentance.

It would seem that whether a person realizes it or not, when they choose to continue to live in their sin after they have become aware of the character of God (ie. His kindness, forebearance, and patience), they not only commit hostile (Rom. 8:7) action against God through their sin but they also show by their actions that they consider God's kindness and patience a trivial thing that is not worthy to be esteemed, but rather despised or thought lowly of.

The reality is that our sin is hostile action towards God and does create a separation between us and God (Isaiah 59:2) and this is in fact the reason that apart from the applied atonement of Christ to a man, man is seen as an enemy of God (Romans 5:10).

If man fails to reconize this truth, it makes it very difficult for them to see how their refusal to repent is actually an act of "presumption" towards the creator of the universe. Through repeated sinful behaviors, their heart has grown callous (Ephesian 4:18,19) to the horrific power and consequences that sin has and they don't see their sin as actually being an offense directly towards God. The result of these continual sinful actions are listed in the following verse:

Romans 2:5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.

One definition from the Oxford Dictionary defines presumption as, "Behavior perceived as arrogant, disrespectful, and transgressing the limits of what is permitted or appropriate".

This definition along with the previous points made can shed some light on how the word 'presume' was chosen in the ESV. In addition, the host of other words that are used to translate in other lectionaries like "to look down on, think little of, despise, show contempt, etc, also serve the purpose of accurately displaying the affront towards God that a man demonstrates when he chooses to 'take advantage' of God's kindness and patience rather than choosing to call on God in repentance.

  • Your 3rd paragraph is a very useful explanation of how acting licentiously and presuming impunity is an expression of contempt. Elaborate on that and omit the rest and I think you'll have a +1 answer. Thank you for posting and welcome to the site. – user10231 Aug 19 '16 at 11:30
  • I will develop it a bit more, It's just not a good time for me at the moment. – Gunk Aug 19 '16 at 15:11

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