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In Col 1:17, συνέστηκεν is in the perfect tense. However, it seems very common for translations like NIV to treat συνέστηκεν as if it were present in tense:

"He is before all things, and in him all things hold together (συνέστηκεν)."

The NIV here chose to express that the all things are engaged in an ongoing act.

Conversely, συνέστηκεν could be translated more consistently with the perfect tense such as:

"He is before all things, and in him all things have come together (συνέστηκεν)."

Is this a legitimate way to translate the verse?

Had Paul, in the verse, intended to refer not to an ongoing act but instead a completed event such as the peace-making reconciliation of all things that occurred through the blood of his cross in verse 20?

Should our translations more accurately communicate the tense of συνέστηκεν as perfect instead of present in Colossians 1:17 or does the present tense somehow better communicate what Paul was getting at?

Note: Apparently, the plural but neuter "all things" can have a singular verb since, according to ntgreek.net/lesson13.htm, "A neuter plural subject may have a singular verb."

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  • Using 'tense' to grasp scripture is fraught with problems. There is a persistent now but not yet through much of the NT.
    – Steve
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 7:50
  • @steveowen, "There is a persistent now but not yet through much of the NT." True. Is our best chance to understand the tense that the authors intend found in translating over the original tense or by expressing it and meditating on its depth of meaning?
    – Austin
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 7:55
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    and himself is before all, and the all things in him have consisted. Young's Literal. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 8:54
  • How is the idea that NIV chose to express that the all things are engaged in an ongoing act justified, please? More seriously, how did "all things" get morphed into "the all things"? Commented Aug 26, 2022 at 23:32

3 Answers 3

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Not so fast - in Col 1:17 the subject of the verb συνέστηκεν (singular) cannot be "all things" (plural) because of the mismatch of grammatical number. The subject of συνέστηκεν is αὐτός = "he".

That is, whatever else this text tells us, it explains that it is Christ who holds all things together.

Tense - perfect or present?

Technically, the OP is correct that the tense of the verb συνέστηκεν is perfect tense and thus we might most correctly translate Col 1:17 as (based on the BDAG meaning)

And He is before all things, and all things in Him, He has brought to a condition of coherence, or, has come to hold together

Thus, the perfect tense is maintained but only at the expense of grammatical clumsiness. Given the above awkward translation, most versions simply use the present continuous tense to give exactly the same meaning as above.

Barnes observes:

And by him all things subsist - Or are sustained; see the notes at Hebrews 1:3. The meaning is, that they are kept in the present state; their existence, order, and arrangement are continued by his power. If unsupported by him, they would fall into disorder, or sink back to nothing. If this be the proper interpretation, then it is the ascription to Christ of infinite power - for nothing less could be sufficient to uphold the universe; and of infinite wisdom - for this is needed to preserve the harmonious action of the suns and systems of which it is composed. None could do this but one who is divine; and hence we see the reason why he is represented as the image of the invisible God. He is the great and glorious and everactive agent by whom the perfections of God are made known.

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  • So... I almost made this point on my question however it seems that neuter nouns are weird: "A neuter plural subject may have a singular verb." ntgreek.net/lesson13.htm
    – Austin
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 14:34
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    @austin . A neuter plural noun may have a singular verb when it is a collective noun. He modifies holds. All things don't hold together. Greek grammarians referred to this rule as “the animals run” [τὰ ζῷα τρέχει], which was itself an example of the rule). Because a neuter plural noun often referred to something impersonal, the noun was considered as a collective whole. For instance, Acts 2:43 “And many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles” (πολλά τε τέρατα [neut pl] καὶ σημεῖα [neut pl] διὰ τῶν ἀποστόλων ἐγίνετο [sg])
    – Michael16
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 17:34
  • @Michael16, thank you. That makes sense.
    – Austin
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 19:21
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The aspect of the perfect is stative, so whether it is the Present simple or the Perfect tense form doesn't make any difference in the stative verbs. It is better to use hold, control or sustain, than to use helping verbs (have held, come to hold) to make it perfect tense. It is better for readability & simplicity. Compare Hebrews 1:3 φέρων (present participle) τε τὰ πάντα, sustains/upholds all things. Don't get confused with the tense forms, it doesn't make any difference.

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  • So from what I learned from one of my recent questions is that the tense of participles can only be meaningfully understood if relative to an associated indicative verb. Since the surrounding indicative verbs in reference to Hebrews 1:3 are aorist and refer to past acts the present participle should be understood as contemporary to the aorist and so relative to a completed act in the past.
    – Austin
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 14:39
  • So changing when an act takes place or whether it continues to take place completely changes the possible range of meanings and points of a text. I think it matters a great deal.
    – Austin
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 14:47
  • What are you referring about "changing"? Greek is an aspect prominent language compared to English. Aorist is translated as simple past, it's like the imperfect, but technically it's a timeless form. Don't have a fixed time based understanding for the Greek tenses, this is the most basic thing to remember. The tense form doesn't necessarily represent the time at which action takes place. Kenneth Mckay : “Aspect in ancient Greek is that category of the verb system by means of which an author (or speaker) shows how he views each event or activity he mentions in relation to its context.”
    – Michael16
    Commented May 13, 2022 at 17:14
  • thank you for your comments. I understand that aspect is important, but so is tense. I feel like the overall thrust of your comments is that time isn't communicated at all with these verbs and we can interpret them with the tense that makes the most sense in light of our system of theology. And that just seems wrong. I get that Greek perfect is a little different than English perfect. It tends to communicate a persistent state, but also that this state was the result of a past completed action. If we focus on just one or the other we lose information in translation.
    – Austin
    Commented May 14, 2022 at 6:51
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My research is as a bible reader that does not know Greek, ancient or otherwise. Also, I do not understand tenses within my own language, I simply use them oblivious to grammatical analyses that may percolate in the minds of the more thoroughly educated. THAT SAID. My simple answer from the beginning is both. If "all things have come together" in Christ, this is a subset of "all things hold together" in Christ. We know that Jesus Christ is the lamb slain before the foundation, which is pretty early on... It looks like "all things have come together" is an Omega statement, and "all things hold together" is an Alpha and Omega statement, which may explain why many translators (including David Stearn in the CJB) are content with "he holds everything together." THAT SAID I hope we allow him to hold us together as we discuss this question.

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    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 17:37

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