Doesn’t ἀντί Always Mean “Instead of”? (Heb 12:2) – Mondays with Mounce 289
I came across a really strange use of ἀντί the other day. It serves as a good example of semantic range.
Speaking of Jesus, Heb 12:2 says, “For (ἀντί) the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” The most common meaning of ἀντί, by far, is the idea of replacement. BDAG’s first two definitions are: (1) “indicating that one person or thing is, or is to be, replaced by another, instead of, in place of”; (2) “indicating that one thing is equiv. to another, for, as, in place of.”
This would give a strange interpretation of verse 2. Jesus replaced “the joy set before him” with “enduring the cross.” I am not sure what that would mean, which is the major clue that I need to spend more time with BDAG. But notice the footnote in the NLT: “Or Instead of the joy.”
Definition 3 is: “indicating a process of intervention. Gen 44:33 shows how the sense ‘in place of’ can develop into in behalf of, for someone, so that ἀ becomes=ὑπέρ” (see Heb 12:16; Matt 17:27; Mark 10:45).
Definition 4 is similar: “indicating the reason for someth., because of, for the purpose of.” The only other biblical use of ἀντί in this category is Eph 5:31. “For this reason (ἀντὶ τούτου) a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.”
Either of these categories gives the normal translation, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross.”
All words have a semantic range, in all languages (I would assume). I like to refer to words as having a bundle of sticks, with each stick representing a different (but perhaps related) meaning (but perhaps not related). Certainly, one of the sticks may be larger than the rest, representing the core idea of the word or what we teach in first year Greek as the “gloss,” but it is only one among many.
My friend Mark Strauss uses the English word “key” as an example. “Did you lose your key?” “What is the key to the puzzle?” “What is the key point?” “What key is that song in?” “Press the A key.” “He shoots best from the key.” “I first ate key lime pie in Key West in the Florida Keys.”
So I teach my students to start with the biggest stick in the bundle, the gloss. If that does not fit the context, then go back to a fuller dictionary and start scanning the other definitions. When I first learned Greek, I was always uncomfortable doing this; I thought I should be able to hold all the definitions in my head. But then reality struck and I bought my first BAG (as it was back then). Then BAGD. Then BDAG.
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William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language and exegesis on the ZA Blog. He is the president of BiblicalTraining.org, a ministry that creates and distributes world-class educational courses at no cost. He is also the author of numerous works including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek and a corresponding online class. 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.
Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.