The Many Faces of γάρ (1 Cor 14:23) – Mondays with Mounce 269
We all know that a word has a range of meanings. In fact, I am not sure there is a word that only means one precise thing. And while a word may have a dominant meaning, that doesn’t preclude it having secondary meanings that are sometimes used. After all, what’s the point of a secondary meaning that is never used?
We also know that Greek wants to start sentences with a conjunction that indicates the relationship of the second sentence to the first.
For example, δέ can mean “and” or “but.” It can also be translated by a period. After all, with the way English works, if you have two sentences in the same paragraph, we naturally read the second sentence as being in relationship to the first.
Take γάρ. Its dominant meaning is “therefore.” BDAG gives this as its first definition: “inferential, denoting that what it introduces is the result of or an inference fr. what precedes, so, therefore, consequently, accordingly, then.”
But this is not its only meaning. γάρ can lose its inferential sense and merely be a “marker of continuation of a narrative, so, now, then” (BDAG).
But it is their fourth definition that caught my eye this morning. “It has also been proposed that οὖν may be used adversatively … in some NT pass., e.g. J 9:18…; Ac 23:21; 25:4; 28:5; Ro 10:14 … in the sense but, however.” Of course, one has to be careful at using unusual translations for a Greek word, but when the dominant meaning makes no sense in a specific context, then you have to look at secondary meanings.
Consider Romans 10:13. Paul quotes Joel 3:5, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” However, in v 14 he writes, “How, then (οὖν), can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” οὖν is not indicating a logical inference but is an adversative. Everyone who calls on the Lord will be saved, but how can this happen unless someone preaches the gospel? The NLT reads, “But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him?”
This solves a conundrum for me in 1 Cor 14:23. Paul has just stated that tongues are for nonbelievers and prophecy is for believers, and then in vv 23–25 he appears to be saying just the opposite, that prophecy is for nonbelievers. “So (γάρ) if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (NIV).
The use of “So” in the NIV confuses the issue as it makes vv 23–35 a logical inference out of v 22, which it clearly is not. But if γάρ is an adversative, the problem is solved. This is what the NLT is trying to say with “even so.” “Even so, if unbelievers or people who don’t understand these things come into your church meeting and hear everyone speaking in an unknown language, they will think you are crazy.”
The primary function of prophesy is to “strengthen, encourage, and comfort” believers (1 Cor 14:3). However, if a nonbeliever hears prophecy, they too can benefit because they are “convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare” and they “fall down and worship God (1 Cor 14:25).”
I know that first year students can’t memorize all the meanings of a word, but at some point in our Greek education we all need to fill out our basic glosses for a Greek word, especially conjunctions, particles, and prepositions.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics on the ZA Blog. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. The Mounce Reverse-Interlinear™ New Testament is available to freely read on Bible Gateway.
Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.