5

I was reading an article by Martin Luther on the wonder of Christ not being ashamed to call his people “brethren”, dealing with Hebrews chapter 2. Then he quoted verse 16 as

“For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren…”

The A.V. agrees with this but other translations do not. For example, the N.I.V. says

“For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants” [though the footnote adds, “Christ assumed not angelic nature, but human nature.”]

Y.L.T. reads “For, doubtless, of messengers it doth not lay hold, but of seed of Abraham it layeth hold.”

The N.W.T. reads “For he is really not assisting angels at all, but he is assisting Abraham’s seed.”

The Greek phrase in question is ‘epilambanetai’. Young’s Concordance only gives ‘epilambanomai’, for which it lists, take on/take hold on x2; take hold of x 2; lay hold upon x 1; lay hold on x 2; catch x 2; take x 7; take by x 5.

Now, the problem as I see it, is that the A.V. and the N.I.V. (for example) say two different things about Christ becoming man. To say that Christ did not take on him the nature of angels (but took on the nature of men), is not the same as saying it is not angels he helps (but men).

This has doctrinal impact because the A.V. shows that, prior to becoming man, Christ could not have been an angel because he could not take on himself something he already had. If Christ had the nature of angels prior to becoming man, then the text would have had to say that he added to his angelic nature, human nature. Or, it would have had to say that he abandoned his angelic nature in order to become man (reducing him to no more than a man, as some believe). But to say that Christ did not take on him the nature of angels proves that he could not have been an angel prior to taking on himself the nature of man.

Can clarity be obtained by delving into this Greek word in the text, “epilambanetai’?

1
  • 3
    Robert Young correctly translates the lambano part of epilambano : for, doubtless, of messengers it doth not lay hold, but of seed of Abraham it layeth hold , Up-voted +1. But epi needs careful handling.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 12:01

3 Answers 3

2

συλλαμβάνωm sullambano, Strong 4815 is the word used by Gabriel to express to Mary that she shall 'conceive in thy womb', Luke 1:31.

The word expresses 'take hold with' or 'take hold together with' and conveys a union.

It is also used by Jesus himself when men came to arrest him, another form of personal union being expressed, Mark 14:48.

ἐπιλαμβάνομαι epilambanomai Strong 1949 is the deponent form and is therefore a reflexive (or responsive) condition. It is not active, nor passive, but 'middle'.

And the prefix epi lends a different shade of meaning.

Acts 23:19 - the chief captain took him by the hand [Paul].

It is a matter of authority taking hold for authoritative purposes : it is a response to some situation when authority must act. The authority responds to a necessity by 'taking hold'.

In this passage I see that 'he' responded to the necessity of the condition of his brethren and he 'took hold' of the seed of Abraham for the purpose of salvation.

But what he took hold of was not angelic.

ου γαρ δηπου αγγελων επιλαμβανεται αλλα σπερματος αβρααμ επιλαμβανεται [Tr, undisputed]

For not indeed of angels taketh he hold but of seed of Abraham he taketh hold [Englishman's Greek New Testament, Literal]

The idea of 'help' is strange to me. What would be the purpose of saying that Christ 'helped' the seed of Abraham and did not 'help' angels ? The whole of the introduction of the epistle to the Hebrews is a contrast of the Person of Christ and the nature of angels.

The argument develops through comparisons not with what aid was given to whom but with the testimony of the Hebrew scripture to the Person who was promised and his superiority to all that had been before, whether angels, Legal administration or Levitical priesthood, all associated with the covenant now become 'old'.

1

I would literally translate Heb 2:16 as:

for surely not angels [He] helps/takes hold, but seed of Abraham [He] helps/takes hold

The verb ἐπιλαμβάνομαι (epilambanomai) has the meaning, according to BDAG:

  1. to make the motion of grasping or taking hold of something, take hold of, grasp, catch, eg, Matt 14:31, Luke 23:26, Acts 17:19, 21:30, 33, Mark 8:23, Acts 23:19, Heb 8:9, etc
  2. to take into custody, arrest, eg, Acts 21:33
  3. to pounce on something compromising, catch, Luke 20:20
  4. take hold of in order to make one's own, take hold of, eg, 1 Tim 6:12
  5. be concerned with/about, the context of ἀγγέλων, σπέρματος Ἀβραὰμ Heb 2:16 suggests take an interest in, probably in the sense of help

It is immediately clear that many modern versions accept the BDAG meaning and translate the verb "help" or similar. This is reasonable. However, the extraordinary and careful wording of the rest of Hebrews suggests a slightly broader meaning as well.

I would not exclude the meaning of "help/aid" in ἐπιλαμβάνομαι (epilambanomai). However, I would also include the meaning of "take hold of" simultaneously. The Amplified Bible attempts to grasp the double meaning when it gives this:

For, as we all know, He (Christ) does not take hold of [the fallen] angels [to give them a helping hand], but He does take hold of [the fallen] descendants of Abraham [extending to them His hand of deliverance].

Possibly, the CSB is a little better by being more succinct:

For it is clear that he does not reach out to help angels, but to help Abraham’s offspring.

The inclusion of "nature" (as per KJV) in the translation is understandable on the basis of V14 but is absent from V16. The NKJV is more accurate rendering of the the text that the KJV in this case.

For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. [NKJV]

The position of Jesus before and during His incarnation is clarified in Phil 2:5-8 and uses similar language as well:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross.

The NIV is even more pointed:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature a God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Ellicott sums this up well:

(16) He took not on him the nature of angels.—The rendering of the margin approaches very nearly the true meaning of the verse; whereas the text (in which the Authorised version differs from all our earlier translations) introduces confusion into the argument. Having spoken in Hebrews 2:14 of our Lord’s assumption of human nature, the writer in these words assigns the reason: “For surely it is not of angels that He taketh hold, but He taketh hold of the seed of Abraham.” Though the words “take hold,” which occur twice in the verse, probably cannot directly signify “help” (as is often maintained), they distinctly suggest laying hold for the sake of giving help; and a beautiful illustration may be found in some of the Gospel narratives of our Lord’s works of healing (Mark 8:23; Luke 14:4). It is probable that the language used here is derived from the Old Testament. In Hebrews 8:9, a quotation from Jeremiah 31, we read, “In the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt.” Isaiah 41:8-9, however, is perhaps a still closer parallel (for the word used in the Greek version is very similar, and no doubt expresses the same meaning): “Thou Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend; thou of whom I have taken hold from the ends of the earth.” If the writer had these verses in his thought, it is hardly necessary to inquire why he chooses the expression “seed of Abraham,” instead of one of (apparently) wider meaning, such as Hebrews 2:7-8, might seem to require. But even apart from this passage of Isaiah, and the natural fitness of such a phrase in words addressed to Jews, we may doubt if any other language would have been equally expressive. For as to the means, it was by becoming a child of Abraham that the Saviour “took hold of” our race to raise it up; and as to the purpose, St. Paul teaches us that “the seed of Abraham” includes all who inherit Abraham’s faith.

1

epilambanomai as Incarnation, embodiment

The translation "help" or assist, by anyone on any ancient Greek text seems very interpretative conveying the intention behind the action, and it is not literal. Neither the context nor the word imply "help". The literal translation is to seize, take hold of, overpower, undertake, overtake.

Without the prepositional prefix epi (on, in, over) the root word is lambano, which literally means to take or take on: See Thayer's entry for lambano λαμβάνω:

  1. to take i. e. to admit, receive: τινα ῤαπίσμασιν, Mark 14:65 L T Tr WH (cf. Latinverberibus aliquem accipere), but see βάλλω, 1; τινα εἰς τά ἰδίᾳ, unto his own home (see ἴδιος, 1 b.), John 19:27; εἰς οἰκίαν, 2 John 1:10; εἰς τό πλοῖον, John 6:21. to receive what is offered; not to refuse or reject: τινα, one, in order to obey him, John 1:12; John 5:43; John 13:20; τί, properly, to receive, Matthew 27:6; tropically: τόν λόγον, to admit or receive into the mind, Matthew 13:20; Mark 4:16 (for which in Luke 8:13 δέχονται; τήν μαρτυρίαν, to believe the testimony, John 3:11, 32f; τά ῤήματα τίνος, John 12:48; John 17:8. In imitation of the Hebrew פָּנִים נָשָׂא (on the various senses of which in the O. T. cf. Gesenius, Thesaurus, ii., p. 915f), πρόσωπον λαμβάνω, to receive a person, give him access to oneself, i. e. to regard anyone's power, rank, external circumstances, and on that account to do some injustice or neglect something: used of partiality (A. V. to accept the person), Luke 20:21; with ἀνθρώπου added, Galatians 2:6 (Leviticus 19:15; Malachi 2:9, etc.; θαυμάζειν τό πρόσωπον, Deuteronomy 10:17; Job 32:22); (cf. Lightfoot on Galatians, the passage cited).

  2. to take, equivalent to to choose, select: τινα ἐκ τινων, passive Hebrews 5:1.

  3. To the signification to take may be referred that use, frequent in Greek authors also (cf. Passow, under the word, B.

d. at the end; (Liddell and Scott, II. 3)), by which λαμβάνειν joined to a substantive forms a periphrasis of the verb whose idea is expressed by the substantive: λαμβάνειν ἀρχήν to take beginning, equivalent to ἄρχομαι to begin, Hebrews 2:3 (Polybius 1, 12, 9, and often; Aelian v. h. 2, 28; 12, 53, and in other authors); λήθην τίνος, to forget, 2 Peter 1:9 (Josephus, Antiquities 2, 6, 10; 9, 1; 4, 8, 44; Aelian v. h. 3, 18 under the end; h. anim. 4, 35); ὑπόμνησιν τίνος, to be reminded of a thing, 2 Timothy 1:5; περιαν τίνος, to prove anything, i. e. either to make trial of: ἧς namely, θαλάσσης, which they attempted to pass through, Hebrews 11:29; or to have trial of, to experience: also with the genitive of the thing, Hebrews 11:36 (in both senses often also in classical Greek; see πεῖρα, and Bleek, Br. a. d. Hebrews 2:2, p. 811); συμβούλιον λαμβάνειν, to take counsel, equivalent to συμβουλεύεσθαι, to deliberate (a combination in imitation apparently of the Latin phraseconsilium capere, although that signifies to form a plan, to resolve): Matthew 12:14; Matthew 22:15; Matthew 27:1, 7; Matthew 28:12; θάρσος, to take, receive, courage, Acts 28:15; τό χάραγμα τίνος, equivalent to χάρσσομαι τί, to receive the mark of, i. e. let oneself be marked or stamped with: Revelation 14:9, 11; Revelation 19:20; Revelation 20:4.

See LSJ, Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon of Classical Greek entry:

ἐπιλαμβάνω , A.take or get besides, “ἐπὶ τοῖς πεντήκοντα ταλάντοις ἑκατόν” Arist.Pol.1259a28: c. gen. partit., ἐ. τοῦ χρόνου take a little more time, M.Ant.1.17; “τῆς ἀρχῆς” Paus.9.14.5.

  • 2.. simply, take, receive, PEleph.10.1 (iii B.C.), OGI179.18 (Egypt, i B.C.), etc. II.. lay hold of, seize, attack, as a disease, Hdt.8.115, Hp.Aph.6.51, Th.2.51; of an enemy, Luc.Nav.36:—Pass., “ἐπείληπται νόσῳ” S.Ant.732; τὴν αἴσθησιν ἐπιληφθείς becoming unconscious, Plu.Flam.6; ἐπελήφθη had an epileptic fit, Gal.11.859. b.. of events, overtake, surprise, μὴ . . “χειμὼν τὴν φυλακὴν ἐπιλάβοι” Th.4.27; νυκτὸς ἐπιλαβούσης τὸ ἔργον ib. 96; “ταχὺ ἐπιλαβὸν γῆρας” Pl.Epin.974a: impers., ἐπιλαμβάνει, c. acc. et inf., it befalls one that . . , Paus.6.22.4, 7.21.1.

  • 2.. attain to, come within reach of, reach, X.An.6.5.6; ἔτη ὀκτὼ ἐ. πολέμου live over eight years, Th.4.133; “ἡμέρας ἑπτακαίδεκα τῆς ἑβδόμης ὑπατείας” Plu.Mar. 46: c. gen. partit., ἐ. τετάρτου μηνός arrive at, of the foetus, Arist.HA 583b22 (but ἐ. τοῦ ἑνδεκάτου μηνός, of the mother, ib.584a37); ὥστε καὶ τοῦ χειμῶνος ἐ. Thphr.HP1.9.6.

  • 3.. seize, stop, esp. by pressure, “τὴν ῥῖνα” Ar.Pl.703; “ἐ. τὸ κλύσμα τῆς ὀπίσω ὁδοῦ” Hdt.2.87; ἐ. τὸ ὕδωρ stop the water-clock in court, Lys.23.4, Is.3.76; “τὸν αὐλίσκον” Arist.Ath.67.3, cf. Pr.866b13, Plb.10.44.12; “τὸ στόμα τοῖς ἐπικαλύμμασιν” Arist.HA527b21.

  • 4.. occupy space, μηδὲν τῶν τῆς πόλεως . . οἰκοδομήμασι ἐ. Pl.Lg.779c (Med.); “πλείω τόπον” Arist. Cael.305b19; “πλατύτερον τόπον” Plu.Cat.Ma.5: metaph., πολὺν χῶρον ἐ. get over much ground, traverse it rapidly, Theoc.13.65.

  • 5.. c. gen., undertake, τῆς κινήσεως, τῆς νήξεως, Ael.NA5.18, 13.19.

  • 6.. c. dat., assist, App.BC4.96 (nisi leg. <συν>επιλ.).

  • 7.. intr., succeed, follow, Arist.Pr.860a7.

Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary defines it as:

[2138] ἐπιλαμβάνομαι epilambanomai 19× to take hold of, Mt. 14:31; Mk. 8:23; to lay hold of, seize, Lk. 23:26; Acts 16:19; met. to seize on as a ground of accusation, Lk. 20:20, 26; to grasp, obtain as if by seizure, 1 Tim. 6:12, 19; to assume a portion of, to assume the nature of, or, to attach or ally one’s self to, Heb. 2:16 [1949] See arrest; seize; take hold.

So the translation of Hebrews 2:16, especially from the immediate as well as overall context of Hebrew 1-2 should be preferred the KJV he took not on him the nature of angels or the Geneva Bible, For he in no sort took on him the Angels’ nature. Even more precise translation could be incarnation or embodiment, which may not be absolute literal but really convey the meaning accurately in the modern language. I don't know why the Bible versions turned from nature (KJV), to "take hold" (Revised version) then to the confusing "help" in the modern versions. I see that this reading should be very hard for the JWs position.

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.