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Unable or Not Allowed to Speak? - 2 Cor 12:4 (Monday with Mounce 184)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday with MounceIn talking about his ecstatic experience, Paul says that this “man” (i.e., himself most likely) “was caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable (ἄρρητα) words that a person may (ἐξὸν) not utter.

There are two ambiguities in this verse. (1) ἄρρητος can mean “that cannot be expressed, since it is beyond human powers, inexpressible” (BDAG), or “of someth. that must not be expressed, since it is holy, not to be spoken” (BDAG). It is a NT hapax

(2) ἔξεστιν likewise can mean “to be authorized for the doing of someth., it is right, is authorized, is permitted, is proper,” or, “to be within the range of possibility, it is possible.

So was Paul unable to express what he saw, or was he not permitted to tell?

The commentaries and translations are all pretty convinced it means “impermissible,” that God had forbidden Paul to describe what he saw. Some compare it to the injunction in the Mysteries that the initiate was forbidden to speak of the cultic practices, but that is hardly a parallel here since Christianity is not a Mystery religion and Paul is not talking about initiation. Others refer to the “divine passive,” but ἐξὸν is active

It is true that BDAG only lists one reference to ἔξεστιν meaning “possible”: Acts 2:29. “Fellow Israelites, I can (ἐξὸν) tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day” (NIV). But one reference is one reference

For some reason I can’t pinpoint, I find myself wondering if the problem is really the inadequacy of words. There is nothing in the context that suggests God told Paul to keep it a secret, and I would argue that the inadequacy of language only serves to heighten the very point that Paul is making: the ecstatic experience was so great, so far beyond human words, that a messenger from Satan was sent to keep him humble

I wouldn’t want to stake anything on this decision, but it is interesting to me and I would argue the more ambiguous “may” (ESV) is preferable to the interpretive “permitted.” What do you think?

MouncewWilliam D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for 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. Learn more about Bill at, and visit his other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at

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