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The word in question is ἱεροσυλέω, a hapax in the NT.1 It’s a compound from ἱερός (temple) and συλάω (rob), and most modern translations indicate that "rob temples" is the appropriate meaning here. However, it doesn’t make much sense to me in the sequence of rhetorical questions. Starting in verse 21:

ὁ οὖν διδάσκων ἕτερον σεαυτὸν οὐ διδάσκεις;
You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? 2

ὁ κηρύσσων μὴ κλέπτειν κλέπτεις;
While you preach against stealing, do you steal?

ὁ λέγων μὴ μοιχεύειν μοιχεύεις;
You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?

ὁ βδελυσσόμενος τὰ εἴδωλα ἱεροσυλεῖς;
You who abhor idols, do you [X]?

It seems to require that ἱεροσυλεῖς involves doing the opposite of βδελυσσόμενος τὰ εἴδωλα, i.e. worshiping idols. Something close to this is listed as the second definition (after "rob temples") in BDAG: commit sacrilege. This is the meaning chosen by the KJV and Geneva Bible. I suspect that modern translations had a reason to shift away from that, but I'm wondering what it is.

How should ἱεροσυλεῖς be understood here?


1. The gist I get from the lexicon entry is that it's well attested elsewhere, but I have neither the resources nor the Greek to go through those.
2. Greek is NA28; English is ESV.

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ὁ κηρύσσων μὴ κλέπτειν κλέπτεις;
He who preaches to not steal, do you steal?

ὁ λέγων μὴ μοιχεύειν μοιχεύεις;
He who says to not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?

ὁ βδελυσσόμενος τὰ εἴδωλα ἱεροσυλεῖς;
He who abhors idols, do you [X]?

As you mentioned, there is a clear opposition between the former clause and the latter clause in each verse. The individual who preaches against a certain act hypocritically commits the same or similar act.

ἱεροσυλεῖς is conjugated from the verb ἱεροσυλέω in the 2nd person, singular number, present tense, active voice, and indicative mood.

BDAG (p. 471) defines ἱεροσυλέω as follows:

ἱεροσυλέω (s. ἱερός, συλάω, and next entry; on the terminal formation s. DELG s.v. συλάω; Aristoph. et al.; Polyb. 30, 26, 9; Artem. 3, 3; Heraclitus, Ep. 7, 4H.; SIG 417, 8; 10 [273/272 B.C.; cp. ἱεροσυλία 1017, 18; in tales of Alexander: PSI II, 1285 col. I, 38; col. III, 42; col. IV, 9 [II A.D.]; 2 Macc 13:6; ἱεροσύλημα 4:39; ἱερόσυλος 4:42]; 2 Macc 9:2; Philo; Jos., C. Ap. 1, 249, Ant. 17, 163)

  1. to take objects from a temple by force or stealth, rob temples (Manetho: 609 Fgm. 10a, 249 Jac. [=Jos., C. Ap. 1, 249], w. vandalism against sacred images) prob. to be taken literally of temple plundering Ro 2:22 (w. κλέπτω and μοιχεύω as Philo, Conf. Lingu. 163; cp. also Herm. Wr. 12, 5; JDerrett, NTS 40, ’94, 558–71 w. focus on violation of conscience). Some interpret ἱ. in this pass. as meaning

  2. to commit irreverent acts, commit sacrilege (in Isaeus 8, 39 ἱεροσυλία is used of conduct relating to burial rites).—EKrentz, The Name of God in Disrepute—Romans 2:17–29: CTM 17, ’90, 429–39.—DELG s.v. συλάω. M-M. TW.

LSJ (p. 822) defines ἱεροσυλέω as follows:

ἱεροσῡλέω, pf. ἱεροσύληκα SIG417.8 (Delph., iii B.C.):—rob a temple, commit sacrilege, Ar.V.845, Antipho 5.10, Pl.R.575b.

II. c. acc., ἱ. τὰ ὅπλα steal the sacred arms, D.57.64, cf. Lycurg.136; ἱ. τὰ ἱερά rob or plunder the temples, Plb.30.26.9; θεούς Phalar.Ep.84.1.

Thayer (pp. 299-300) defines ἱεροσυλέω as follows:

ἱερο-συλέω, -ῶ; (ἱερόσυλος, q. v.); to commit sacrilege, to rob a temple: Ro. 2:22, where the meaning is, ‘thou who abhorrest idols and their contamination, dost yet not hesitate to plunder their shrines’; cf. Fritzsche [and Delitzsch] ad loc. (Arstph., Plat., Dem., al.)*

While ἱεροσυλέω is a hapax legomenon, the related noun ἱερόσυλος also occurs in Acts 19:37.

There was a "silversmith" (ἀργυροκόπος) named Demetrius, and he made "silver temples" (ναοὶ ἀργύρεοι)(1) for the goddess Artemis (Ἄρτεμις) (Acts 19:24). By that business, he and other such silversmiths made their "wealth" (εὐπορία) (Acts 19:25). Therefore, the silver temples were very costly, and Demetrius and his fellows opposed any effort that would have deprived him of his income received from making the silver temples (Acts 19:27). After an uproar, a crowd of people take Paul's companions Gaius and Aristarchus into the public theater, where eventually the townclerk of the city declares,

For you have brought these men who are neither [ἱεροσύλους] nor blasphemers of your goddess.

ἠγάγετε γὰρ τοὺς ἄνδρας τούτους οὔτε ἱεροσύλους οὔτε βλασφημοῦντας τὴν θεὰν ὑμῶν

So, the people accused Paul's companions of blaspheming Artemis, but what does ἱεροσύλους mean? Well, the meaning of the word is literally "temple robber." It's possible that his companions were accused of robbing the great temple of Artemis in Ephesus, but the other alternative is they were accused of robbing the silver temples or idols of Artemis. Why rob them? Simple. They were expensive and thus a great source of εὐπορία.

The Meaning in Romans 2:22

Returning to Rom. 2:22,

ὁ βδελυσσόμενος τὰ εἴδωλα ἱεροσυλεῖς;

He who abhors idols, do you [X]?

There simply seems to be no reason why we shouldn't translate it according to the word's simple meaning.

He who abhors idols, do you rob temples?

Of course, the reason for robbing temples was to sell the costly idols therein, often made of silver or gold. But, the hypocrisy lies in the fact that one acts righteous by hating idols, yet he sins by stealing the same idols to sell them.

Consider Josephus' statement in his Jewish Antiquities:(2)

Let no one blaspheme those gods which other cities esteem such; nor may anyone steal what belongs to strange temples; nor take away the gifts that are dedicated to any god.

Βλασφημείτω δὲ μηδεὶς θεοὺς οὓς πόλεις ἄλλαι νομίζουσι. μηδὲ συλᾶν ἱερὰ ξενικά, μηδ ̓ ἂν ἐπωνομασμένον ᾖ τινι θεῷ κειμήλιον λαμβάνειν.

Whiston translated συλᾶν ἱερὰ ξενικά as "steal what belongs to strange temples," but it's simply "rob strange temples." Thus, robbing temples (for the costly items therein) was apparently something that occurred during that era.


Footnotes

(1) In his commentary on Acts 19:24, St. Chrysostom writes,

And how were they made into silver temples? Perhaps as small boxes.

Καὶ πῶς ἔνι ναοὺς ἀργυροῦς γενέσθαι; Ἴσως ὡς κιβώρια μικρά·

(2) Jewish Antiquities, 4.8.10 (4.207)

References

Bauer, Walter; Danker, Frederick William. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Josephus; Whiston, William. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987.

Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. with supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Thayer, Joseph Henry. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. New York: American Book, 1889.

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  • This was a great answer. The only thing is that I don't think they thought Paul had broken into the coffers. Instead I imagine that there were altars or bowls set up where people could make offerings of coins. What an easy target for a thief! Please see: [Act 17:23 CSB] (23) "For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: 'To an Unknown God.' Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. – Ruminator Nov 20 '19 at 5:07
  • [Act 17:24-25 CSB] (24) "The God who made the world and everything in it ​-- ​he is Lord of heaven and earth ​-- ​does not live in shrines made by hands. (25) "Neither is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. – Ruminator Nov 20 '19 at 5:09
  • I just came across this interesting verse: [2Ch 24:7 NLT] (7) Over the years the followers of wicked Athaliah had broken into the Temple of God, and they had used all the dedicated things from the Temple of the LORD to worship the images of Baal. – Ruminator Nov 25 '19 at 19:28

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