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What does the Greek word "prototokos" mean in English as used in Colossians 1:15?

Col 1:15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn [prōtotokos] over all creation. [NIV]

There are many interpretations of this verse but not many of these interpretations consider the Greek word "prototokos" in context of the writing of the letter at the time.

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We have difficulty, in our typically "Western" way of thinking, understanding the biblical concept of "firstborn," particularly in how the word functioned in the history of the Jewish people. To understand why and how the apostle Paul used the term firstborn in Colossians 1:15 we need first to consider what the Hebrew Scriptures have to say about the term.

Not surprisingly they have a great deal to say. From the nascency of the nation of Israel in the person of Abraham (who, by the way, was the firstborn of his father Terah), to the time of our Lord Jesus, the Scriptures framed the concept of firstborn in terms of privileges and responsibilities.

PRIVILEGES and RESPONSIBILITIES

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the privileges of the firstborn son are encapsulated in the word birthright. Esau, we are told, was the firstborn son of Isaac. As such, to him were accorded the privileges of the birthright. By rights, to Esau would belong a double portion of his father's estate when his father died (see Deuteronomy 21:15-17).

Along with the double portion came a special relationship between the firstborn and his father. While the Bible does not condone favoritism, it did accord to the firstborn a position of honor within the family, such that when his father died, the firstborn was expected to take up the reins of leadership within the family. He was expected, for example, to provide for his grieving mother and for his siblings. Even while his father was still alive, the eldest son was expected to lead by example within his family.

The elder son in Jesus' story of the "prodigal son" (which could just as accurately be called the story of the firstborn brother) gave his father all the reasons why he thought the father should be feting him and not his wastrel of a brother.

"Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him" (Luke 15:29-30 NASB.

Notice how the father in Jesus' parable responds to his elder son's complaint:

"Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found" (vv.31-32).

Now obviously, the purpose of Jesus' parable was not to teach us about the cultural significance of being the firstborn in a Jewish family in the first century. The subtext of Jesus' parable originated in the reaction of the Pharisees and scribes to the popularity of Jesus among the "tax collectors and sinners" ).

Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1).

Jesus wanted the grumbling Pharisees and scribes to understand the privilege which was theirs by virtue of being God's firstborn.

Paul, in summarizing that privilege and the accompanying advantages, asked,

Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God (Romans 3:1 NASB).

In other words, God had entrusted his holy word to a people who, ironically enough, failed to recognize the living Word of God when he was in their midst. Like the firstborn son in the parable, they resented Jesus for turning to the Gentile "dogs" with his message of love and forgiveness, not realizing that in their rejection of Jesus they were forfeiting the privileges of their firstborn status.

Just as a firstborn could forfeit the privileges of his status as the firstborn, whether through sin, as happened with Reuben, Jacob's firstborn (Genesis 25:32; 49:3-4), or as a result of either the sovereign choice of Almighty God (see Genesis 25:21-26) or by the will of the earthly father, as in the case of Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 48:13-22), so did the religious Jews of Jesus' day forfeit the privileges of being, as it were, God's firstborn nation by not believing in God's Firstborn Son.

APPLICATION AND CONCLUSION

While some of the firstborn sons we read about in the Tanakh lived lives worthy of firstborn status, not one lived a perfect life. Even the gods have feet of clay, as the saying goes. Only one firstborn fulfilled his role as the perfect Firstborn Son of the Father, and that of course was Jesus Christ.

Notice that Paul, in the section of Colossians Chapter 1 entitled "The Incomparable Christ" in the NASB, describes Jesus first as God's "beloved Son," the one in whom all true believers have "redemption, the forgiveness of sins (v.14). Being the only begotten and eternal Son of God, Jesus' relationship to his Father came first, so to speak.

After the Son brought everything into being and thus became "the firstborn over all creation" (Colossians 1:15), with his Father's blessing he began to put into motion the plan of redemption by which he would one day become

. . . the firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8:29 KJV).

In conclusion, the honorific title of firstborn belongs first and foremost to the Son of God. As the writer of Hebrews expressed that thought,

For to which of the angels did He ever say,

“You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You”?

And again,

“I will be a Father to Him
And He shall be a Son to Me”?

And when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says,

“And let all the angels of God worship Him” (1:5-6 NASB).   
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Various Church Fathers explain why the particular word πρωτότοκος is used here and not something else. Generally the explanations observe that the term "first born" and not "first created" is used, to distinguish the Son - Who has no beginning - from something with a beginning that is created.

Athanasius wrote:

Not then because he was from the Father was he called “Firstborn,” but because in him the creation came to be; and as before the creation he was the Son, through whom was the creation, so also before he was called the Firstborn of the whole creation, the Word himself was with God and the Word was God.30 … If then the Word also were one of the creatures, Scripture would have said of him also that he was Firstborn of other creatures; but in fact, the saints’ saying that he is “Firstborn of the whole creation” demonstrates that the Son of God is other than the whole creation and not a creature.1

Ambrose similarly writes:

The apostle says that Christ is the image of the Father—for he calls him the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. Firstborn, mark you, not first created, in order that he may be believed to be both begotten, in virtue of his nature, and the first in virtue of his eternity.2

John Chyrsostom also wrote a long dissertation on this theme in his 3rd Homily on Colossians.


1 Discourses Against the Arians II.63
2 Of the Christian Faith I.VII.48

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Colossians 1:15

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn* over all creation.

* πρωτότοκος


πρωτό—

prōto

—τοκος

tokos

First—born: Firstborn.


This term of “firstborn” in Semitic/Biblical vocabulary meant the prime person—the favorite, the one with the rights of a firstborn, who had a better inheritance or birth right than the other children (if and when there are any).

We know that it also means a primacy of status, of favor. Which by God may be assigned, rather than derived from actual giving birth:

Psalm 89:27

And I will make him my firstbornhigh above the kings of the earth.

We also see this on some level equated with being “high above” or “the highest of” in other translations. That language of primacy again.

Hence, being God and man (John 1:1,14) He is the Creator as to His being God, and as to His human nature, in which He is a real and true man—Jesus Christ—He is lord over all other lords, and as to His divinity, which is inseparable therefrom (His human nature), He is LORD of all lords and King of all kings—them and “all creation.”

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In general, to better understand the range of meaning for a translated word, it's helpful to look at all translations of that word (in this case πρωτότοκος) in the New Testament, which would qualify as contemporary usage at that time. The references are Matthew 1:25, Luke 2:7, Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:18, Hebrews 1:6, 11:28, 12:23, and Revelation 1:5. They all mean "firstborn."

As pointed out previously, the application of the word in a cultural context is vital. But also important is the range or scope of meaning in context of the statement. My point is that translations do not map one-for-one between languages. Probably the most famous example is the word "love" in English can be translated in Greek to agápe, éros, philía, and storgē, but usages such as "I love ice cream" certainly fall outside the four Greek words.

According to Strong's Concordance, it's a compound word that came from prṓtos, "first, pre-eminent" and /tíktō, "bring forth."

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  • I'd appreciate understanding what someone thinks is so awful about this answer. Thanks. – Dieter Nov 4 '17 at 21:36
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Christ has multiple origins and therefore is described in multiple ways in various places and it behooves the expositor to consider the context in which a particular description appears. For example Jesus is spoken of as the "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world":

Young's Literal Translation Revelation 13:8 And bow before it shall all who are dwelling upon the land, whose names have not been written in the scroll of the life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world;

In that passage Jesus is "notionally" slain long before he is metaphysically slain. Micah even says that notionally his "sorties" (ventures) are "from everlasting":

King James Bible Micah 5:2 But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

As the embodiment of God's wisdom he is said to have been the first of God's creations and thus is an absolute sense is the first born of all of God's creations:

New Living Translation Proverbs 8:22 "The LORD formed me from the beginning, before he created anything else.

Adam and Eve were created, not born. Cain was the firstborn of Adam and Eve.

Jesus is said to be "the firstborn from the dead" indicating that he is the first of a completely new "regime" aka the "new humanity":

New International Version 2 Corinthians 5: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation [regime] has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

This is the context of the Colossians passage of the original question:

BLB Col 3: 9Do not lie to one another, having put off the old man with his practices, 10and having put on the new, the one being renewed in knowledge according to the image of the one having created him, 11where there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, slave, and free; but Christ is all and in all.

Colossians 1 is all about the new regime, NOT about the Adamic race or Genesis 1:

NIV Colossians 1: 12and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy

Does any of that sound like the creation of Genesis 1 or the old humanity?:

  • the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light
  • rescued from the domain of darkness
  • brought into the kingdom of the son God loves
  • the firstborn over all creation
  • thrones, powers, rulers, authorities created through him and for him
  • head of the body, the church
  • beginning and firstborn from among the dead

Not really; it is all about the new regime.

So in 1 Colossians 1:15, per the original question, Paul refers to Jesus as the firstborn from the dead and of the new regime.

Notice that Hebrews also says that Jesus obtained the new and better title of "son" and "heir". "Heir" is the privilege (and responsibility) of the firstborn:

NIV Hebrews 1: 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name [title ("son")] he has inherited is superior to theirs.

5For to which of the angels did God ever say,

You are my Son; today I have become your Father” ? Or again,

I will be his Father, and he will be my Son” ? 6And again, when God brings [reintroduces] his [resurrected] firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.”

This is what Colossians 1:15 is referring to.

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  • Clossians 1:15-17 says. 15 who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him; 17 and he is before all things, and in him all things [a]consist. These verses say "all creation" and "he is before all things". Is he the firstborn of the dead only, or is he the firstborn of the dead and of all creation? Revelation 3:14? – user35499 Jun 3 at 0:26
  • @AlexBalilo As I read it, he is the first born of the new creation which is essentially the same thing as being the first born from the dead. Adam was first in death, so the second Adam was first in life (πρωτότοκος). – Ruminator Jun 3 at 13:35
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I think there is something more to this Greek word that we are missing. The Apostles were using ordinary words to describe extraordinary events. In English, the word prototype, taken from the Greek, prototokos, means the first of a new type, or the basis for a new design. I propose that the begotten, not created, Son was the basis of the material creation, which was intended by God from the beginning. The Gnostics say materialism is naturally evil and could have not been intentionally created by a holy God. Materialism is is not inherently evil; God’s creation, like Christ, was perfect. Adam and Eve were holy, created in the image of Christ. It was their willful sin that corrupted it all. This is why Christ was slain from the foundation of the world. When God breathed life into Adam, he knew what he and we would become and had already determined to send His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem us from the curse of the law.enter image description here

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    The English word 'prototype' does not mean the same as the Greek word 'Prototokos'. 'Tokos' is usury. – Nigel J Dec 26 '17 at 4:11
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    "Proto-type" means "πρωτό-τυπο" and not "firstborn" I agree with Nigel so the answer is incorrect as it is solely based on this meaning and not on the scriptures. No scriptures have been cited as proof. – Ozzie Ozzie Dec 31 '17 at 20:44
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I believe from prophecy inflections that it relates to the coming resurrection of the dead as foretold in Daniel 12:2.

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  • Answers should be more substantial than this. What are 'prophecy inflections' ? How does 'prototokos' connect to your Daniel reference ? – Nigel J Jun 28 '18 at 11:20
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Is it not correct that the "tokos" part of prototokos comes from tikto, / inf. to bring forth? Edit... Nevermind found this above already stated.

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  • Welcome to BHSE! Make sure you take our tour. Meantime, go ahead and delete your own answer. Thanks – John Martin Dec 2 '19 at 22:41
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BDAG gives two basic senses for “firstborn”, a literal (1. lit. pert. to birth order, firstborn) [a1] and a figurative extensional of the literal (2. pert. to having special status associated with a firstborn, firstborn, fig. ext. of 1) [a2]

However they don't support the common argument that these two senses are mutually exclusive. They say the opposite.

At the end of the literal sense, they include:

The special status enjoyed by a firstborn son as heir apparent in Israel is an implicit component of πρ. in ref. to such a son and plays a dominant role in [a1 end]

And,

This expr., which is admirably suited to describe Jesus as the one coming forth fr. God to found the new community of believers, **is also used in some instances where the force of the element -τοκος appears at first glance to be uncertain, but s. comment on status at end of 1 (cp. ...Col 1:15...)

Why is this significant? The word can and does have both the sense of temporal priority and preeminence at Col 1:15 according to BDAG!

And, when one looks at the word in the OT usages this is true of the vast number of instances.

A good example is Deuteronomy 21:17:

But he shall acknowledge the first-born, the son of the hated, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath; for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the first-born is his.

When one adds Greek syntax to the analysis, every tone “firstborn” is the head noun of a genitive phrase in biblical Greek, where the word is a reference to a person, the same syntax as Col 1:15, the firstborn is a part of the group in context. This is called the partitive genitive.

So, in Colossians 1:15, however one the creation of which the Son is “firstborn” he is both the first in time and preeminent of the group.


[a] 6425 πρωτότοκος • πρωτότοκος, ον (πρῶτος, τόκος; Sb 6647 [5 BC; s. WMichaelis in 2a: p. 314f]; Kaibel 460, 4; 730, 3; PLips 28, 16; PGM 36, 312; Anth. 8, 34; 9, 213; LXX; TestReub, JosAs; SibOr 3, 627 Philo, Cher. 54 al.; Jos., Ant. 4, 71; Just., Tat., Mel., Iren.) ‘firstborn, heir apparent’.

1. lit. pert. to birth order, firstborn ὁ υἱὸς ὁ πρ. (PLips loc. cit. υἱὸν γνήσιον καὶ πρωτότοκον; Gen 25:25 al. LXX; JosAs 1:11; Σὴθ τρίτος, οὐ π. ἐστίν Did., Gen 147, 7) Mt 1:25 v.l.; Lk 2:7 (JFrey, La signification du terme πρ. d’après une inscription juive: Biblica 2, 1930, 373-90; CIJ II 1510, 6; Boffo, Iscrizioni 156-65; New Docs 163); cp. B 13:5 (Gen 48:18). τὰ πρ. the firstborn=all the firstborn (τὰ πρ. Ex 22:28; Num 18:15 al.; Just., D. 84, 1; 111, 3) Hb 11:28 (cp. Ex 11:5). τὰ πρ. τῶν προβάτων the firstborn of the sheep 1 Cl 4:1 (Gen 4:4).

The special status enjoyed by a firstborn son as heir apparent in Israel is an implicit component of πρ. in ref. to such a son and plays a dominant role in

2. pert. to having special status associated with a firstborn, firstborn, fig. ext. of 1 a. of Christ, as the firstborn of a new humanity which is to be glorified, as its exalted Lord is glorified πρωτότοκος ἐν πολλοῖς ἀδελφοῖς Ro 8:29. Also simply πρωτότοκος Hb 1:6; cp. Rv 2:8 v.l. This expr., which is admirably suited to describe Jesus as the one coming forth fr. God to found the new community of believers, is also used in some instances where the force of the element -τοκος appears at first glance to be uncertain, but s. comment on status at end of 1 (cp. the originally polytheistic Naassene psalm in Hippol., Ref. 5, 10, 1 and also Ex 4:22; Ps. 88:28) (ὁ) πρ. (ἐκ) τῶν νεκρῶν Col 1:18; Rv 1:5. πρ. πάσης κτίσεως Col 1:15 (cp. Orig., C. Cels. 6, 17, 38; Theoph. Ant. 2, 22 [p. 154, 18]; s. JGewiess, Christus u. d. Heil nach d. Kol.: diss. Breslau ’32; ECerny, Firstborn of Every Creature [Col 1:15]: diss. Baltimore ’38; Romualdus, Studia Cath. 18, ’42, 155-71; WMichaelis, D. Beitrag d. LXX zur Bedeutungsgeschichte von πρ.: ADebrunner Festschr. ’54, 313-20, ZST 23, ’54, 137-57; AArgyle, ET 66, ’54, 61f, cp. 124f, 318f; NKehl, D. Christushymnus im Kol., ’67, 82-98).

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