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Ephesians 4:9

SBLGNT:

τὸ δὲ Ἀνέβη τί ἐστιν εἰ μὴ ὅτι καὶ κατέβη εἰς τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς;

KJV

(Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?

ESV

(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.

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Short Answer: We can be fairly certain this is just saying that before Jesus could go back up to heaven, He first had to go down to the earth, which is lower.


The variants

There are two major textual variants in this verse listed by the UBS4, and they shed some light on what is going on here. 1) A large number of later sources added "first" so that it literally said

But what is the "after going up" except that He also first went down . . .?

The earlier sources (e.g. P46, Irenaeus) do not have this, so it probably was not original, but it does suggest that the later sources wanted to clarify the Greek. To them, Paul was simply saying "He ascended which suggests that He first descended". In other words, in the minds of these later sources, the Greek was not saying that you have to go to Hell before you can go to Heaven, but that He had to go down to the earth before He could go back up to heaven.

2) There is another variant in which many later sources added "parts" so that it literally said

. . . He went down into the lower parts of the earth.

The earlier sources (e.g. P46, Irenaeus) do not have this, so it probably was not original. The question is, why was it added? What did the later sources think that this clarified? In English it sound partitive, as if He went down to the "earth's lowest parts", but in Greek the "of" is simply a genitive, and so it could have just as easily meant that the earth was the "lower parts" (i.e. relative to heaven.)

What I want to point out here is that many of the later sources that added "parts" also added "first", which suggests that they did not take "parts" as "parts of the earth" but rather, the earth itself as the "lower parts".

The history

I am not an expert in Church History, but I am told that there is a huge misunderstanding on the part of modern-day Christians about the creed which supposedly teaches that Christ descended to Hell. I am told that although this is what the creed sounds like to our modern ears, this is not at all what it meant at the time. It might be worth investigating that further if you're interested in where the "Hell" idea came from.

The logic

The strongest argument in favor of "the lower" referring to the earth is Paul's logic here. Just look at these two different paraphrased takes on Paul's logic and ask yourself which one makes more sense:

Option A: Earth Scripture says He ascended. What could "He ascended" mean except that He had first descended to the lower place, namely, the earth? And the one who descended is also the one who ascended so that He would fill all things.

Option B: Hell Scripture says He ascended. What could "He ascended" mean except that He had first gone to Hell which is in the lowest regions of the earth? And the one who went to Hell is also the one who went to Heaven so that He would fill all things.

The second option doesn't really make much sense. How could Paul expect the readers to make the leap that "He ascended" meant He went to Hell first? And what could Paul possibly mean by saying that He had to go to Hell so that He could fill all things? Does Jesus fill Hell?

Intertextuality

The only other place I'm aware of that discusses "the lower parts of the earth" is Isaiah 44:23, which reads as follows in the NASB:

Shout for joy, O heavens, for the Lord has done it!
Shout joyfully, you lower parts of the earth;
Break forth into a shout of joy, you mountains,
O forest, and every tree in it;
For the Lord has redeemed Jacob
And in Israel He shows forth His glory.

Here it is clearly referring to the earth as the "lower parts". (Perhaps this is why later sources added "parts" in Ephesians 4:9, recognizing Isaiah 44:23 as the background and wanting to align the text more closely with it...?)

Summary

The evidence seems to weigh heavily in favor of taking it as an appositional genitive; "the lower region, that is, the earth".

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  • Thank you! Regarding: recognizing Isaiah 44:23 as the background and wanting to align the text more closely with it...? LXX has θεμέλια τῆς γῆς so if he was adding a word it doesn't seem like he got it from here (unless he translated from Hebrew himself).
    – Susan
    Nov 9 '14 at 4:43
  • Re: later sources that added "parts" also added "first", which suggests that they did not take "parts" as "parts of the earth" but rather, the earth itself as the "lower parts" I don't quite follow the logic, although I suspect it's there. Would you mind adding a sentence to explain?
    – Susan
    Nov 9 '14 at 4:45
  • @Susan Regarding the variants, my logic is as follows. The history of Variant 1 seems to suggest that later tradition took it as appositional, not partitive. Variant 2 appears in many of the same later documents, suggesting that even though they added the word "parts", such an addition did not suggest that they took the genitive as partitive.
    – Jas 3.1
    Nov 9 '14 at 22:54
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Are there other examples of this phrase (κατώτερα) μέρη τῆς γῆς that might help us understand what it means?

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?

Yes, there are other places, like Psalm 63:9 and Psalm 139:15, as well as Ezekiel 32 (a lot in this chapter).

I think Psalm 139:15 is most relevant as this Psalm is speaking about the presence of YHWH in both the heavens and in sheol - two of the "outer limits" of cosmic geography. I think Paul envisions Christ's incarnation, descent into hades, resurrection, and ascension, as portraying the same dynamic because he says the purpose of this descending and ascending is "to fill all things."

The TDNT 3:640 has a good entry on the Greek word for "lower" in Eph 4:9 - katoteros. But strangely, the Greek word for "parts" i.e. meros, in Eph 4:9 is no where to be found in the LXX in conjunction with katoteros or its derivatives. So in that sense, the exact phrase "lower parts of the earth" is no where to be found in the LXX.

Also, the initially strange thing about katoteros in Psalm 139:15 is that, in that verse, it seems to be referring to the woman's womb where the baby is formed. This however, upon closer research, is not so strange as the Hebrew word for womb is also used in synonymous fashion with the Hebrew word sheol, as the previous post highlighted in relation to Jonah being in the belly/womb of the whale.

Also, by way of contrast, the Hebrew word for death - MUWTH - has an apparent correlation to the Canaanite god MOT, who is said to open its lips to receive the dead into its mouth at the surface of the earth. The imagery is that death swallows the body into the earth like a hungry beast hwo can never be satisfied, never to come out again. I think what Paul may be doing in Eph 4:9, if he is drawing from Psalm 139:15, is imaging the grave as a womb (think Jonah) where at resurrection the lower parts of the earth (womb) give birth to a new resurrection body.

This would sync up well with Romans 8:19 where Paul envisions the creation like a woman, in the process of giving birth, stretching out her head in "earnest expectation" (Greek word apokaradokia) to see the child come out of her own womb. Paul sees the earth/creation, in relation to those who will participate in the glorifying resurrection of the body, as a womb that gives birth to the "sons of God". Circling back to Eph 4:9, he may have added the word "parts i.e. meros to make sure we did not just limit his descent to the womb of Mary, but actually extended that descent into hades.

Regarding history of interpretation, I cannot add any historical data, but I can say that the history of interpretation regarding "led captivity captive" as being a setting of some group of captives free has led interpreters to steer away from the "descent into Hades" interpretation of Eph 4:9 because it poses a dilemma about possibilities of post-mortem conversion. However, the only other place in the Bible this phrase is used is Psalm 68:18 - a reference to the conquest battle in Bashan against King Og and his population, and Judges 5:12 - a reference to the battle of Deborah and Barak against Jabin.

It should be noted that in both these battles, NO CAPTIVES were taken in battle. Everyone is completely destroyed. As such the phrase "led captivity captive" cannot mean to take captives and lead them in a triumphal procession. Instead, it seems to be an idiom that expresses complete and utter victory. As such, it is likely that Paul is saying that when Christ ascended from the grave to the right hand of God, it was complete and utter victory over both the forces of evil in the underworld i.e. the Rephaim/Nephilim (but also to include death - MUWHT/MOT) and the principalities and powers that he locates, from a cosmic geographical perspective, in the "heavenly places".

The overriding message being communicated by Paul, then, is that Christ has overcome the forces of evil at the very depths, as well as at the very heights - he fills all things. I mention this to say that the descent into hades interpretation does not have to imply a post-mortem conversion of either humans or spiritual beings.

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  • Hi, Tim. Welcome to BH.SE. I have added paragraphs to break up the text of your answer. You can modify my edit, or roll back to you original if you prefer.
    – enegue
    Aug 12 '20 at 3:42
  • Hey Eugene, thanks for doing that! Reads much better! Sep 10 '20 at 10:59
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(this is why I called myself 'Hello', I like to start by saying it, )....Hello!

I would like to reply to your question with this additional information that I came across because I have pondered what you are pondering.

Do you recall what Jesus said when talking about his upcoming death, to his disciples? He said, "for three days and three nights will the Son of Man be in the 'belly' of the earth., and then He said, "like Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the fish".

This may not immediately seem like it helps, but it really does.

Some of the word roots about Jonah can be lent to also mean 'prison' , Jonah was in a kind of prison, and scholars go farther to suggest that the 'prison' meant isn't the fish's belly, but actually that Jonah may have died, and even gone to hell, (for disobedience) hence he was in the great prison. (a great motivator)

Therefore this analogy can be somewhat used to trace 'where did Jesus go?'

I will add this, before including the text, that just because the text says Jonah was 'in the belly of the fish', doesn't mean he couldn't be 'elsewhere as well', ie. If Jonah died, his body was still in the fish, but he could have gone to the Great Prison, in the 'belly of the earth'.

TEXT The Sign of Jonah …39But He answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; 40for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.(some translations use the words 'belly of the earth'). 41"The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.…

Bible Jonah 2:1-10New King James Version (NKJV)

2 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the fish’s belly. 2 And he said:

“I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, And He answered me.

“Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard my voice. 3 For You cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the floods surrounded me; All Your billows and Your waves passed over me. 4 Then I said, ‘I have been cast out of Your sight; Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.’ Thee Deep closed around me; Weeds were wrapped around my head. 6 I went down to the mooringThs of the mountains 5 The waters surrounded me, even to my soul; The earth with its bars closed behind me forever; Yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord, my God.

7 “When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; And my prayer went up to You, Into Your holy temple.

8 “Those who regard worthless idols Forsake their own Mercy. 9 But I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.”

10 So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

New King James Version (NKJV)

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  • Thanks, you may want to check out our formatting help, particularly for blockquoting.
    – Susan
    Sep 21 '14 at 23:43
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LOWER PARTS OF THE EARTH OR LOWER PARTS THAT IS THE EARTH?.

Most of our translations are undertaken by persons with theological training. Many of them have theological biases and since it is a common belief held by all of them or the vast majority of them,, on the translation committee, the biases were not recognized and so filtered into their translations. And this I believe is why most translations render the verse as shown by the NASB below.

Ephesians 4:9 (NASB)

9 "Now this expression, “He ascended,” what [a]does it mean except that He also [b]had descended into the lower parts of the earth?"

The definition of "κατώτερος" is from Biblehub. From the definition given below by STRONG and the other bible translations , all point to the fact that the correct translation should read:

"Now this expression, “He ascended,” what [a]does it mean except that He also [b]had descended into the lower parts , that is the earth?"

STRONGS NT 2737: κατώτερος

κατώτερος, κατώτερα, κατώτερον (comparitive of κάτω, see ἀνώτερος) (Hippocrates, Theophrastus, Athen., others), lower: (ὁ Χριστός) κατέβη εἰς τά κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς, Ephesians 4:9, which many understand of Christ's descent into Hades (τόν τόπον τόν κάτω καλούμενον, Plato, Phaedo, p. 112 c.), taking τῆς γῆς as a partitive genitive (see ᾅδης, 2). But the mention of tiffs fact is at variance with the connection. Paul is endeavoring to show that the passage he has just before quoted, Psalm 67:19 (), must be understood of Christ, not of God, because 'an ascent into heaven' necessarily presupposes a descent to earth (which was made by Christ in the incarnation), whereas God does not leave his abode in heaven. Accordingly, τά κατώτερα τῆς γῆς denotes, the lower parts of the universe, which the earth constitutes — τῆς γῆς being a genitive of apposition; cf. Winer's Grammar, § 59, 8 a.; Grimm, Institutio theol. dogmat. edition 2, p. 355ff

Ephesians 4:9 New English Translation (NET Bible)

9 "Now what is the meaning of “he ascended,” except that he also descended to the lower regions, namely, the earth?"

Ephesians 4:9 Easy-to-Read Version (ERV)

9 "When it says, “He went up,” what does it mean? It means that he first came down low to earth."

Ephesians 4:9 International Children’s Bible (ICB)

9 "When it says, “He went up,” what does it mean? It means that he first came down to the earth."

Ephesians 4:9 Expanded Bible (EXB)

9 "When it says, “He ·went up [ascended],” what does it mean? ·It means [L …except] that he first ·came down [descended] to the ·earth "[or lower regions, namely the earth; or the depths of the earth; C probably refers to (1) the Incarnation, though possibly (2) Christ’s descent to Hades after his death (1 Pet. 3:19–20), or (3) Christ’s descent through the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts

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When it’s stated lower parts of the earth during the area of the writings it was believed that hell was in the center of the earth 🌍.and in layers: the worst of sin was at the bottom.

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  • Hey Kenneth, welcome to BHSE, glad to have you with us! If you haven't already, please make sure to take the tour to see how this site works, and how we are a little different than other sites you may know. Thanks!hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/tour
    – sara
    Sep 17 '19 at 6:08

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