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The NASB renders Galatians 2:16 as follows:

nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus . . .

The way this is rendered, it sounds like "Not A, but rather B!" I was just reading this in the original Greek though and it says the following:

εἰδότες δὲ ὅτι οὐ δικαιοῦται ἄνθρωπος ἐξ ἔργων νόμου, ἐὰν μὴ διὰ πίστεως Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ . . .

So here is my question: Does εαν μη here really mean "but"?

  • Could εαν μη here be literally rendered "if not", suggesting that a man is not justified out of works if he has no faith in Christ? (In other words, the central issue is a lack of faith during works, not whether or not there are works of the Law.)

  • If memory serves, either εαν μη or ει μη is the standard way of saying "except" in Greek. Could it be saying that a man is not justified out of works of the Law except that he have faith in Christ? (In other words, this is the general rule with only one exception.)

If "but" truly is the correct rendition of εαν μη here, please explain why this is acceptable grammatically. (As opposed to simply citing context or theology. I'm mainly wondering why this Greek construction was used here.)

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  • Yes, ἐὰν μὴ does mean "except," but the English translation in question isn't necessarily wrong. It's all a matter of how you're reading the "but," as the conjunction "but" may be used as "except" or it can be used adversatively ("on the contrary; but rather; yet"). See dictionary.com entry #1 and #2.
    – user862
    Sep 15, 2015 at 1:12
  • This has been discussed at length on b-greek 15 years ago. ibiblio.org/bgreek/test-archives/html4/1999-05/31448.html Sep 15, 2015 at 4:14
  • lots of discussion of this in the late 90s, for example: Translation and Interpretation of ἐὰν μή in Galatians 2:16 William O. Walker, Jr. Journal of Biblical Literature, Another Look at ἐὰν μή in Galatians 2:16 A. Andrew Das Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 119, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000), pp. 529-539 Vol. 116, No. 3 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 515-520http://www.jstor.org/stable/3266673?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents Sep 15, 2015 at 15:07
  • @C.StirlingBartholomew Thanks! Would you be able to summarize those resources in an answer?
    – Jas 3.1
    Sep 16, 2015 at 15:10
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    @Jas3.1, I don't access to SBL, NTS … journals. Having reviewed the issue looks to me like a translation question. I defer qustions like that to professional translators, so I would recommend Iver Larsen: lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-greek/2002-March/020485.html Sep 17, 2015 at 20:40

2 Answers 2

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A quick scan of the results on BlueLetter for G3362 will suffice to clarify the sense of the Greek as, "only if".

Some examples:

  • You shall enter the kingdom of God only if your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20)

  • You shall be forgiven your trespasses against the Father only if you forgive men their trespasses against you (Matthew 6:15)

  • A man shall be blessed (by the Father – implied) only if he is not offended by me (Matthew 11:6)

  • You shall enter the kingdom of God only if you are converted and become as little children (Matthew 18:3)

  • A man can come to me only if the Father draw him. (John 6:44)

  • You have a part with me only if I wash you (John 13:8)

  • A man can see the kingdom of God only if he is born again (John 3:3)

  • A man can enter the kingdom of God only if he is born of water and of the Spirit (John 3:5)

  • The Comforter will come to you only if I depart (John 16:7)

  • That which is sown is quickened only if it dies (1 Corinthians 15:36)

These examples have not been cherry-picked, as each of the references can be phrased in similar style.

So, Paul's meaning in Galatians 2:16 is clear: a man can be justified only if he comes to Christ Jesus by faith.

Faith in what? Faith in Jesus ABILITY/AUTHORITY to justify (i.e. to argue your case before the Father and give Him cause/reason to want save you). Paul even suggests in the verse that follows (v.17) that he is actively seeking "to be justified by Christ"

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Because the English "except" causes ambiguity and confusion, as you pointed out, it may be interpreted as "not by works, except if he also has faith". Richard Longenecker addressed this erroneous interpretation of James Dunn, in his Galatians WBC commentary, p.123

The contracted conjunction ἐὰν (the conditional εἰ and the particle αν) with the negative μὴ is properly exceptive in force (cf. 1:19), though it can at times be used in an adversative fashion (cf. 1 Cor 7:17; also Matt 12:4; Luke 4:26–27). As an exceptive, ἐὰν μὴ introduces a qualification either (1) to the whole preceding statement (―a person is not justified by the works of the law except …‖), or (2) to its principal part (―a person is not justified except …‖). The former is linguistically possible and has been read here by many (so, e.g., J. D. G. Dunn, BJRL 65 [1983] 112–13). It yields the idea that one can be justified by the works of the law (understood not as ―good works‖ but simply as circumcision and the Jewish dietary laws) if these ―badges of Jewish covenantal nomism‖ are accompanied by faith in Jesus the Messiah (cf. ibid.). Such a reading, however, is totally contrary to what Paul says elsewhere about the relation of faith and the law—even contrary to what he says in the latter half of this same verse (as acknowledged by Dunn, who rather lamely suggests that ―in v 16 Paul pushes what began as a qualification on covenantal nomism into an outright antithesis,‖ ibid., 113). So if ἐὰν μὴ is exceptive, the latter reading must be the case: ―a person is not justified except. …‖ Yet since in English ―"except" always is taken to qualify the whole of what precedes, we must here resort to some such paraphrastic translation as ―but only‖ (so Burton, Galatians, 120–21) or read ἐὰν μὴ simply as an adversative (so H. Räisänen, NTS 31 [1985] 547), the former being preferable.

The phrase ean me ἐὰν μὴ only shows adverse exclusive contrast, and it translated unless, if not, but only, and except. None of those mean "except also". There is no reason to consider the Dunn's interpretation, especially when it contradicts the verse, and whole epistle which repeatedly explains that the law cannot justify after the coming of the new covenant of faith in Christ. Using "but" would avoid potential ambiguity.

In addition to the repeatedly unambiguous context that justification out of the law is impossible, we also have the adversative particle δὲ (which Longenecker ignores, and translates as conjunctive "and"). This particle is essentially contrastive or adversative: yet, however, even though, in spite of. The text says, "We are Jews by birth, not dirty sinners, in spite of this, we know that a man is not justified out of the law, but through faith of Jesus". Ἡμεῖς φύσει Ἰουδαῖοι καὶ οὐκ ἐξ ἐθνῶν ἁμαρτωλοί, εἰδότες δὲ ὅτι οὐ δικαιοῦται ἄνθρωπος ἐξ ἔργων νόμου ἐὰν μὴ διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.

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