τὸ δὲ Ἀνέβη τί ἐστιν εἰ μὴ ὅτι καὶ κατέβη εἰς τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς;
(Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?
Translations seem to be fairly well split. The two main options are:
1) Partitive genitive: as in the KJV —"parts of the earth."
2) Appositional genitive: as in the ESV — earth refers to the same thing as parts. "The equation, however, is not exact. The genitive of apposition [the earth] typically states a specific example that is part of the larger category named by the head noun [the parts]."1
The Expositor's Greek Testament lays out the arguments for each view nicely and eventually comes down in favor of an appositional understanding.2
However, the concept of μέρη (especially as prefixed with a comparative here) to me still seems like it would most naturally followed by a partitive genitive. 3
Are there other examples of this phrase (κατώτερα) μέρη τῆς γῆς that might help us understand what it means?4
Has there been a shift in the understanding over time, or were both views around (and debated) in the early history of interpretation?
Do we have enough information to make a decision?
1. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 95.
2. This appears to be the conclusion of most recent interpreters. I basically accept this (because these people are smarter than I am and because it works with my own doctrinal biases), but I'm having a hard time making it intuitive.
3. Dan Wallace (pp. 99-100) points out that there is a common idiom (although not otherwise attested in Paul as far as I can tell) using the plural τὰ μέρη followed by a genitive of apposition. However, the examples he gives all include proper geographical names (e.g εις τα μέρη της Γαλιλαίας in Matt 2:22, c.f. Matt 15:21, 16:13; Mark 8:10; Acts 2:10). In my mind this corresponds roughly to the English idiom "the region of Galilee" which doesn't seem to work without the proper noun and doesn't seem to work if a comparative is added — in both cases, my English mind immediately wants to make it partitive again.
4. I'm pretty sure not in the NT. I'm thinking of LXX and beyond.