Grace

Paul introduced the notion of grace into the discussion of the Christ. It is used frequently in both the letters written by Paul, and those ascribed to him, such as Timothy, Titus, & c.

The odd thing, however, is that the word is completely absent from both Mark and Matthew.  It reappears in Luke/Acts, appears only twice in John, and then is taken up by the other writers of epistles, including James, Peter, and Jude.

Of the dozen or so of times the term <<χάρις>> is used by Paul, or his disciples writing as Paul, the vast majority of them are translated as ‘grace’.  There are a few times when it’s translated as ‘thanks’ or ‘favor’, or even once as ‘gift.’  We really have to ask ourselves what Paul meant by this word.

[ Note: here is where the Great Treasures Bible site comes in really handy. If you click on a word in the Greek text, you are provided with a complete list of every time the word is used in the NT.  And it provides the snippet of the sentence in which the word occurs, so it’s possible to get at least some sense of context. ]

http://greattreasures.org/gnt/main.do

It bears repeating that the basic meaning of the word is ‘favor.’  What is interesting is that in a large number of these occurrences, if you were  to translate <<χάρις>> as ‘favor’, the sentence would still make perfect sense. Thus, we have to ask ourselves why it gets translated as ‘grace’?  It is crucial to ask this question because substituting ‘favor’ for grace gives something of a different reading.

Or does it?

If you look up the term ‘grace’ in the Catholic Encyclopedia, one is confronted with a fairly long, rather technical discussion. Included in this discussion is a distinction between actual grace, supernatural grace, sanctifying grace, and probably others. The OED Online defines the Christian of grace concept as

  • the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.

One perfectly logical reason for translating <<χάρις>> as ‘grace’would be because it was rendered in Latin as ‘gratia.’  From here, it’s but a step to ‘grace’.  However, I have to question the process here. An entire edifice of Christian theology is built upon the concept of ‘grace’, as can plainly be seen from the entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia. However, it strikes me that something happened, that the word, the idea of  ‘favor’ underwent a metamorphosis and turned into something that simply wasn’t there in the original.

However, I could be dead wrong about this because I am completely misunderstanding the idea of ‘grace’, both in its later Christian form, and as the word is used in both Greek and Latin.

So let’s look at the uses of the word in Galatians. I will provide the translation as ‘grace’, then simply change the word to ‘favor’.  Let’s see if the meaning is distorted.

Galatians
1:3 χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ,

Upon you the grace and peace from God our father and the lord Jesus Christ…

Upon you the favor  and peace from God our father and the lord Jesus Christ…

IMO, there is no difference in meaning between these two sentences. Or, if there is, we have to ask what the word ‘grace’ means in English.

1:6 Θαυμάζωὅτι οὕτως ταχέως μετατίθεσθε ἀπὸ τοῦ καλέσαντος ὑμᾶς ἐν χάριτι [Χριστοῦ] εἰςἕτερον εὐαγγέλιον…

I marvel how quickly you have turned from the one calling you in/by the grace [of Christ] to another gospel.

I marvel how quickly you have turned from the one calling you in/by the favor [of Christ] to another gospel.

Here we get a slightly difference meaning, but only if we accept that ‘grace’ means something different than ‘favor’ in English.  Of course, the two words are not identical; otherwise, there would not be two words.

However, we then have to ask if the different meanings of ‘grace’ and ‘favor’ are not the result of 2,000 years of being told that they are different, so that ‘everybody knows’  what ‘grace’ means in this context. Let’s look at those definitions I cited above. There s absolutely no reason to believe that Paul intended his word to mean anything like what either of these two sources define as ‘grace’.

One reason I believe this is because the term disappeared from usage for a couple of decades, until it was revived by Luke, for reasons unknown.  Now, we can posit differences in what Paul’s communities believed, and what Mark’s and Matthew’s communities believed, and this would be a reasonable inference. There likely were differences. But ‘grace’ as the Catholic Encyclopedia defines it would have been rather important, and probably would not have disappeared for a couple of decades.  Would it?

1:15 ὅτε δὲ εὐδόκησεν [ὁ θεὸς] ὁ ἀφορίσας με ἐκ κοιλίας μητρός μου καὶ καλέσας διὰτῆς χάριτος αὐτοῦ…

However, it pleased [God], he separating me from my mother’s womb, and calling me through his grace

However, it pleased [God], he separating me from my mother’s womb, and calling me through his favor

IMO, ‘favor’ works perfectly well here, unless we’re going to argue there is a connotation of ‘sanctifying’–or something–included in the word as Paul uses it. Or, that Paul was somehow talking about actual or sanctifying favor.

In fact, the OED definition shows us that the two words are interchangeable, as it defines ‘grace’ as ‘favor’.

2:9 καὶ γνόντεςτὴν χάριν τὴν δοθεῖσάν μοι, Ἰάκωβος καὶ Κηφᾶς καὶ Ἰωάννης, οἱ δοκοῦντες στῦλοιεἶναι, δεξιὰς ἔδωκαν ἐμοὶ…

And recognizing the grace given to me, James and Peter and John, those seeming to be the pillars (of the assembly) gave their right hand to me.

And recognizing the favor given to me, James and Peter and John, those seeming to be the pillars (of the assembly) gave their right hand to me.

IMO, there is no difference between these two translations.

2:21 οὐκ ἀθετῶ τὴν χάριν τοῦ θεοῦ: εἰ γὰρ διὰ νόμου δικαιοσύνη, ἄρα Χριστὸς δωρεὰν ἀπέθανεν.

I do not reject the grace of God; for, if through the Law I am sanctified, Christ has died in vain.

I do not reject the favor of God; for, if through the Law I am sanctified, Christ has died in vain.

IMO, there is no difference between these two translations.

I’m going to take the last two together.

5:4 κατηργήθητε ἀπὸ Χριστοῦ οἵτινες ἐννόμῳ δικαιοῦσθε, τῆς χάριτος ἐξεπέσατε.

You have been made useless from/for Christ, whoever by the Law is justified; you have fallen from grace.

You have been made useless from/for Christ, whoever by the Law is justified; you have fallen from favor.

6:18  Ἡ χάρις τοῦ κυρίουἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ μετὰ τοῦ πνεύματος ὑμῶν, ἀδελφοί: ἀμήν.

The grace of our lord Jesus Christ (be) with your spirit, brothers. Amen.

The favor of our lord Jesus Christ (be) with your spirit, brothers. Amen.

At first glance, these two seem rather similar to 1:16.  But–and this is a big caveat–these all seem to fit into somewhat of a similar pattern.

Substituting ‘favor’ for ‘grace’, does give us a slightly different meaning; however, in most of these instances, it’s because we (or I) have come to believe that ‘grace’ is not the same thing as God’s favor. It is, of course, but, to my mind, ‘grace’ has the sense of something like pixie dust (!) that God sprinkles upon us. These are both ‘things’, but ‘favor’ is decidedly non-substantial. It can be granted, but it is an attitude. ‘Grace’, OTOH, has the sense of something closer to ‘spirit’; it’s not tangible, perhaps, but that has an existence independent of the grantor. Favor does not. A favor, or ‘favor’ cannot exist independently of the grantor.

Maybe this is it: God can give grace, but only grant favor.

All of this, however, is based on an understanding based on 2,000 years of Christian exegesis and interpretation.

And it must be stated that the concept of ‘grace’ can and probably did develop as time passed. Luke may not have understood the term in the same was as Paul did, and by the time we got to the writer, of say, The Epistle to the Hebrews, it may have meant something very different. So I’m not saying that all that exegesis is wrong, or without foundation. Rather, what I’s saying is that we cannot necessarily read all of these later developments into the word as Paul wrote it and used it. Here in these early usages, translating the Greek as ‘favor’ may not be wrong.

Let’s look at the twice that <<χάρις>> is used in 1 Thessalonians.

1:1 Παῦλος καὶ Σιλουανὸς καὶ Τιμόθεος τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ Θεσσαλονικέων ἐν θεῷ πατρὶ καὶ κυρίῳ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ: χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη.

Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, to the assembly of Thessalonika, in God the father and our lord Jesus Christ: grace and peace.
 
Paul and Silvanus and Timothy, to the assembly of Thessalonika, in God the father and our lord Jesus Christ: favor and peace. 
 
 5: 28 Ἡ χάρις τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ μεθ’ ὑμῶν.
 
The grace of the lord Jesus Christ (be) with you.
 
The favor of the lord Jesus Christ (be) with you.
IMO, in both instances, ‘favor’ works perfectly well.  Feel free to disagree.Chronologically, the first use of  <<χάρις>> by someone not named Paul comes in the first chapter of Luke.1:30  εὗρες γὰρ χάριν παρὰ τῷ θεῷ

The KJV translates this as “thou hast found favor with the Lord.”

As a final note, let’s take a look at the definition of the Latin term ‘gratia.’  This is obviously the root of ‘grace.’  Is it possible that the bifurcation of grace/favor came about because of something in the Latin term?

The Lewis and Short definition is as follows:

grātĭa , ae, f. gratus; lit., favor, both that in which one stands with others and that which one shows to others.

I. (Acc. to gratus, I.) Favor which one finds with others, esteem, regard,liking, love, friendship

Answer: not really.  If anything, the Latin is even further away from from what ‘grace’ has come to mean in Christian theology.

So we’ve talked about words that evolved between Classical and Biblical times.  This word–and especially the concept based on it–certainly developed in between Paul’s writing and the time when assemblies of Jesus’ followers became the Christian Church.

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on November 18, 2012, in epistles, Galatians, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Very interesting analysis of the relationship between “favor” and “grace”. Several questions to be ask at this point: From what you have covered so far, Paul was preparing his followers (what did he call them?) by helping them to achieve a state of purity that makes them ready for something better (conquering death?, heaven? a new age?). It seems this state is “grace”, or is it that the state may only be achieved by getting “grace” (and knowledge?). My Catholic teaching also implied its pixie-dust like existence, but also implied it was bestowed by God’s “favor” towards us from actions or thoughts – though the details are left a mystery as to whether it happens automatically or whether it happens through direct action. The two ideas become conflated when you assume that God is everywhere and that all actions of the universe are directly generated by God in the NOW – which forms the basis of much theology and natural philosophy (science).
    Possible ways to tease out the answers to how it was understood then – is the word “gratia” used in Roman religion or the cults of the genius (Caesar and others)? how is the Greek word used in the Septuagint and do Old Testament kings or Messiah bestow favor? How did early gnostics describe those with the state of knowing? Were inductees who participated in the Eleusian mysteries in a state of favor by the gods?

  1. Pingback: 1 Corinthians Chapter 1:1-17 | Commenting on the Bible

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