In the early part of Romans 9, Paul speaks fervently of his hope and anguish concerning his fellow-countrymen, even contemplating losing his own salvation if it could gain theirs:

1I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—2that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 1To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.ESV

In verse 3, ηὐχόμην is almost always translated "I could wish" rather than simply "I wish" or, literally, "I was wishing".

ηὐχόμην is the imperfect indicative form of the verb εὔχομαι, "to wish, pray for, long for, vow". Would it not be better translated "I wish" and leave the interpretation of whether or not Paul is speaking metaphorically or superlatively to the reader, at least in supposed word-for-word translations?


3 Answers 3


Technically, ηὐχόμην is deponent which is a middle conjugation that is translated as active. The imperfect tense is an incomplete action. It's up to the translator to interpret whether it is iterative (periodic), inceptive (the beginning of the action), durative (a constant, ongoing action), etc. Translation of the imperfect is usually accompanied by the helping verb "was."

Tense provides insight into the temporal aspect of the verb.

Voice provides insight into the object of the action.

Mood provides insight into the reality of the situation.

Person provides insight into who is performing the action.

Since Paul used the imperfect, middle-passive (deponent), indicative, 1p singular, this means that it was him who was performing the action (person).

Indicative (mood) is a statement of reality and not some future hope or wish (which will be important when using the looking at the verb εὔχομαι).

The middle deponent (voice) which is tempting to translate as a middle reflexive but that would render "I was wishing for myself that ..." In the case of a deponent we render the verb as an active "I wish." We also see that αὐτὸς is placed in a reciprocal configuration just a few words later which would make a middle voice verb out of place, and give us a nonsensical translation.

The tense, as mentioned above, provides temporal aspect to the verb --- when it happened. Also as mentioned, imperfect indicates that the action is not yet complete (as of the time of writing).

Now, with this verb it is most likely that the focus is on Paul performing the action, given the indicative mood. It really happened that he was wishing. If the focus was on the curse, then he probably would have used the subjunctive or even optative mood which would indicate a level of uncertainty about the reality of the verb. He probably wouldn't have even used εὔχομαι if this was the case. The real sticky part of this, as Bob Jones identified, is the use of the imperfect. So, is it iterative, durative, inceptive? We must make a decision.

Durative would render "I was constantly wishing"

Inceptive would render "I began wishing"

Iterative would render "I was regularly wishing"

I prefer "I was wishing" because it holds truest to the parsing and separates the theological endeavor from the translation (which does require a degree of reading one's theology into the text - but I seek to minimize that at the translation step).


My guess is that the later use of δὲ which links what follows with what preceded (usually through antithesis) leads translators to use "could" because it cedes priority the the will and word of God which is not dependent on the object of a curse or on the wishes of a person.

  • +1. One Greek grammatical correction: there is no middle/passive voice. The "middle/passive" refers to a set of endings that can be used either by the middle or passive voice. Paul is here using the middle.
    – Kazark
    Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 5:10
  • Yes, sorry. The / was a lazy way of writing that either middle or passive voices can be deponent. In this case it is clearly a middle (though in other instances it is not so clear as to whether or not it is middle or passive). I updated to just have "middle" (though there are passive deponents in the GNT).
    – swasheck
    Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 8:29
  • I will note however, that middle/passive is quite a common convention in most academic circles.
    – swasheck
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 21:04
  • +1 and thanks. re you edit, can you give an example verse of the later use of δὲ changing the translation of a preceding verb in the way you suggest? Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 18:18

As an imperfect it has a sense of continuation "I wished and continued to wish". Middle is usually translated as active, so Paul is doing the wishing. Indicative indicates it is an actual fact.

"I, Paul, really did wish and continued to wish..."

So is a conditional simple "I could wish" an equivalent? I could wish for a better one. It kind of loses the indicative sense of being a fact and makes it sound conditional.

This is the essence of true intercession as practiced by Adam (willing to give up his life to be with his wife), Moses (willing to lose his place so that Israel was not destroyed), David (willing for God to take his life rather than continue to punish Israel), and Jesus who was made to be sin so that we could become the righteousness of God.

We are lightweight intercessors when we tack on a few more lines to our prayer to make sure God knows we're serious.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. —John 15:13

  • +1 good analysis of the Greek. Your references to other parts of the Bible are also helpful, tho I would hardly say Adam's action was "true intercession". FYI deponent is an imposition of Latin grammar on Greek and doesn't do a great job of describing the particular phenomenon in Greek; "passive deponent" is really "middle" (edited accordingly).
    – Kazark
    Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 19:39
  • I know what you mean about Adam literally, but as a type of Christ, he gave his life to be with his bride. Need more space to justify it fully.
    – Bob Jones
    Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 20:15

I've found Alford's and Vincent's observations helpful: Henry Alford commented that…“The imperfect is not historical, alluding to his days of Pharisaism... but quasi-optative, as in I was wishing had it been possible… the sense of the imperfect in such expressions is the proper and strict one: “the act is unfinished, an obstacle intervening.” Marvin Vincent explains that the "imperfect here has a tentative force, implying the wish begun, but stopped at the outset by some antecedent consideration which renders it impossible, so that, practically, it was not entertained at all." So I translate it, "I could almost wish..."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.