Monday, May 31, 2010

"Christ who is over all God blessed forever" (Romans 9:5)

One of my students sent me a question about the translation of Romans 9:5 (pictured above in Codex Sinaiticus, a manuscript from AD 350).

The phrase in question is ὁ Χριστὸς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα ὁ ὢν ἐπὶ πάντων θεὸς εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας. Here are the two possible translations, with some English translations that (more or less) follow this option.

1) Christ according to the flesh who is over all, God blessed forever (or "who is God over all, blessed forever"). KJV, NASB, NIV, NLT, ESV, NET, HCSB, NRSV.
2) Christ according to the flesh. God who is over all [be] blessed forever. RSV, CEV, NAB

Option 1 typically includes a comma, but the comma does not affect the meaning. Option 2 requires a period between κατὰ σάρκα and ὁ ὢν. It is legitimate for translators to insert periods where necessary, since ancient manuscripts used minimal punctuation. But it is important to note that no ancient manuscript inserted a period at that spot. The manuscript above is typical: there are punctuation marks after "promises" from Rom 9:4, and after "amen" in 9:5, but none after "according to the flesh" (line 4, fifth letter in the photo).

In favor of option 2: Although Paul elsewhere makes statements about the deity of Christ, he never does so in these words, equating Χριστὸς (Christ) with θεὸς (God). Elsewhere in the NT, the phrase "over all" and "blessed" (εὐλογητὸς) are used with reference to the Father, not the Son.

In favor of option 1: the phrase ὁ ὢν ("who is") is a participle phrase functioning as an adjective. Everywhere else in the New Testament and in the LXX, this phrase modifies a noun that precedes it. I cannot find any example of ὁ ὢν modifying a noun that follows. That means that ὁ ὢν must modify Christ, not God, resulting in "Christ... who is God." There are a few examples of other adjectival participles (i.e., not εἰμι) modifying a noun that follows, but they are quite rare.

I favor option 1 for three reasons.

  • Translation decisions should rely heavily on original grammar, and the grammatical support for option 1 is much stronger than for option 2.
  • The only real argument for option 2 is that Paul doesn't elsewhere use this kind of language to refer to Christ. But Paul often makes unique statements that have no exact parallel elsewhere in his writings. It is illegitimate to exclude a translation only because "it doesn't sound like Paul." If Paul wants to emphasize that Christ is God, it is only natural that he would use language that he has elsewhere used for God.
  • Option 1 best makes sense of the context. Paul is expressing his anguish that so many of his fellow Israelites, who had the patriarchs, the Scriptures, and Christ himself, have rejected Christ. Paul emphasizes who they are rejecting: Christ who is Jewish in his humanity, but is also God over all, blessed forever.


  1. Hi Gary,

    This is the scripture that A Catholic Dictionary calls "the strongest statement of Christ's divinity in St. Paul, and, indeed, in the N[ew] T[estament]."

    Even the NIV Study Bible (1985) in a note for Romans 9:5, calls it:

    "One of the clearest statements of the deity of Jesus Christ found in the entire NT, assuming the accuracy of the translation)."

    Every other text within the same epistle here in Romans finds “theos,” to be a reference to the Father some eighty-seven times. The weight of this point cannot easily be set aside. Context is king and the context clearly displays who Paul considered to be “God,” in this letter to the Romans. The following verse, 6, using “theos,” would be a reference to ‘the Father.”

    It would be difficult for one to raise a convincing objection to what is observed here, concerning the “unlikelihood” of Paul referring to Christ as “God.” This is so because in the book of Romans, Paul always distinguishes between “Jesus Christ” and “God.”

    It is not IMPOSSIBLE that Christ is called God here; it is, however, UNLIKELY in light of Paul’s regular manner of expression found throughout the whole of his writings as you bring out. Over 500 times in Paul’s letters Paul uses the word “God/theos,” and not a single UNAMBIGUOUS instance in which it applies to Christ.

    Even the Trinitarian United Bible Societies (UBS) makes the same admission:

    "In fact, on the basis of the general tenor of his theology it was considered tantamount to impossible that Paul would have expressed Christ's greatness by calling him `God blessed for ever'." And, "Nowhere else in his genuine epistles does Paul ever designate ho christos [`the Christ'] as theos [`God' or `god']." (p. 522, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, United Bible Societies, 1971)

    The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology which states: “Rom. 9:5 is disputed. . . . It would be easy, and linguistically perfectly possible to refer the expression to Christ. The verse would then read, ‘Christ who is God over all, blessed for ever. Amen.’

    Even so, Christ would not be equated absolutely with God, but only described as a being of divine nature, for the word theos has no article. . . . The much more probable explanation is that the statement is a doxology directed to God.”


  2. -continuing

    A footnote to Romans 9:5 in the New Oxford Annotated Bible points out: “Whether Christ is called God here depends on the punctuations inserted.”

    Similarly, the following observation is found in The Interpreter’s Bible: “The issue appears from a comparison of our two English texts. Is God over all, blessed forever (or the one who is over all, God blessed forever)…The question cannot be answered on the basis of the Greek since it is a matter almost entirely of punctuation, and Greek MSS in the early period were not punctuated. There is even another possibility, viz., ‘…flesh, who is over all. God be blessed forever’…”

    Respected scholar F. F. Bruce, although preferring the translation that applies “theos,” to Christ, nevertheless pointed out:

    “It is, on the other hand, impermissible to charge those who prefer to treat the words as an independent doxology with Christological unorthodoxy. The words can indeed be so treated, and the decision about their construction involves a delicate assessment of the balance of probability this way and that.”

    In the NIV’s translation of Romans 9:5 it translates the verse so that Christ is called God in the main text, but fairly and quite accurately in the footnote it attention is called to a legitimate alternative rendering: “Or, Christ, who is over all. God be forever praised!”

    Noteworthy too is in Galatians 1:4, 5 Paul speaks of “God our Father, to whom be the glory forever more. Amen.” I believe that Romans 9:5 is an obvious parallel.

    Whatever one chooses to believe, one thing for sure, Romans 9:5 is not acceptable as proper evidence for the “Jesus is God,” faith. I did appreciate your well-rounded remarks on this text.


    Nick Batchelor

  3. Hi Nick,

    Good analysis of some of the issues in this translation. F.F. Bruce is certainly right - the translation choices for this passage are very closely balanced, with lexical and grammatical evidence pointing in slightly different directions. And even the grammatical evidence does not point totally in one direction - I recently found examples of participle phrases like this one that functioned as predicate nominatives at the beginning of sentences, like option 2 above.


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