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Introduction Wholesale Minnesota Vikings Jerseys

Every language contains “figures of speech”; that is, methods of speaking that are not literally true, but which are used to convey a point. For example, in the English language, the phrases “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse”, and “He has two left feet”, are very obvious idioms. That is, those statements are not literally true; rather they are colloquialisms used for emphasis.

One figure of speech that is used in Hebrew is called “prolepsis”. With that idiom, events that will occur are spoken of as if they had already occurred. In other words, future events are referred to as if they were past events.

The idiom of prolepsis is used quite extensively in Scripture. As a result, when Scripture refers to an event as if it has already occurred, it is necessary to determine if prolepsis is being used in that verse – in order to determine if the verse is entirely literal or not.

Also note: the books of the New Testament were translated from Greek manuscripts; but almost all of those books (all but two of them) were written by Jews. As a result, the idiom of prolepsis is also present in the New Testament writings.

From what I can see, there are at least two different “types” of prolepsis used in Scripture. In other words, there are two different reasons why a writer will use the idiom of prolepsis, when he is referring to events.

 

Prolepsis type 1: “Writer’s perspective”

In one case, a writer will speak of a future event in the past tense, simply because at the time the author wrote the passage, the event had already occurred. In other words, from the writer’s perspective, the event is in the past. However, from the passage’s perspective, the event is still in the future.

Here are a few examples of this type of prolepsis:

John 11:1-2 (ESV):

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.

The above passage states that Mary “anointed” the Lord, and “wiped” his feet. Since those verbs are in the past tense, that would seem to imply that Mary had already performed those actions, at this point in Scripture. However, that is not the case – Mary did not perform those actions until about three months after the events described. So, in order to be “technically correct”, the passage could read: “Mary is the one who would anoint the Lord, and would wipe his feet, three months later”.

This is a very obvious case of “type 1” of prolepsis. Basically, even though the events in question are still in the future from the standpoint of Scripture, they are in the past from the writer’s perspective. So, the writer refers to those events in the past tense – because at the time he wrote the passage, the events were actually in the past.

Genesis 3:20 (ESV):

20 The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.

The above passage states that Eve was the mother of all living – but at this point in Scripture, Eve did not have any children yet. So, one could say that a more accurate rendering would be “Eve would become the mother of all living”. (This is especially true because Eve’s name in Hebrew – Chava – means “to cause to live”.) However, at the time that the author wrote that passage, Eve had already had children – and many generations had passed since then – so the past tense is used.

The reason why this type of prolepsis is important to understand is because if it is not understood, then it can lead people to incorrect conclusions. For example, consider the following passage:

Genesis 4:16 (ESV):

16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch.

The above passage states that when Cain left Eden, he settled in the land of Nod; and then he had a son (Enoch) with his wife there. Some groups assert that that passage tells us the following: At the time Cain left Eden, there was already a settled region called Nod – i.e., that Nod already had other people living in it.

In other words, some groups believe that other people – unrelated to Adam and Eve – were already present in the land of Nod; and it is from those people that Cain found his wife.

Of course, that belief contradicts Genesis 3:20, above – because that verse tells us that Eve was “the mother of all living”. That certainly appears to indicate that every human being is descended from Adam and Eve – including the people of Nod.

It appears to me that the above passage is another example of “type 1” of prolepsis. In other words, the passage states that Cain settled in the land of Nod – but of course Nod was not an existing community, at the time that Cain settled there. In other words, Cain was the “original resident” of Nod.

However, at the time that the author wrote this passage, Nod had long since been settled – so the author refers to “the land of Nod” as an established community. In other words, this passage contains another example of “type 1” of prolepsis – and it is important to understand that idiom, in order to avoid confusion when reading the passage.

 

Prolepsis type 2: “God’s Promise”

There is another, completely different reason why prolepsis is used as well. Basically, in some cases, a future event will be spoken of in the past tense, because God has explicitly promised that the event will occur. As a result, the Hebrews will refer to that promised event in the past tense – because since God has promised it, it is “as good as done”, so to speak.

In other words, since God is true to His word, when God promises an event, it is guaranteed that the event will occur. As a result, the Hebrews refer to that event in the past tense – to express their confidence that God will bring about the event in question.

Here are a couple of examples of this type of prolepsis:

Genesis 17:5 (ESV):

No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.

In the above passage, God tells Abraham that He made – past tense – Abraham the “father of a multitude of nations”. Of course, at that point in time, Abraham did not have any children; so Abraham was not literally the father of anyone yet.

Not only that, but even from the writer’s perspective, Abraham was not yet the father of a “multitude of nations”. In other words, at the time that the author wrote that passage, Abraham was only the father of two “nations” – the Israelites (through Isaac) and the Arabs (through Ishmael).

Of course, after that passage was written, Abraham did become the father of a multitude of nations – through his descendant, Jesus. For example, in Genesis 22:18, God tells Abraham that “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed”. In addition,  Romans 4:16 refers to Abraham as “the father of us all” – which refers both to his faith, and to the fact that he eventually became the forefather of Jesus.

So, this passage is an example of “type 2” of prolepsis. That is, it refers to God’s explicit promise that a future event will occur – and as a result, the event in question is written in the past tense.

Ephesians 2:4-6 (ESV):

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,

The above passage is an even more dramatic example of prolepsis type 2. As shown, that passage tells us that God has “made us alive with Christ”, and “raised us up with him”, and “seated us with him”. Of course, the followers of Christ have not been raised from the dead yet – that event is still in the future.

In other words, even at the time when the author wrote that passage, the event in question still had not yet occurred. However, since God has promised that the event will occur, the event is referred to in the past tense – as if it had already occurred. This is a prime example of the idiom of prolepsis.

 

“Hidden” Cases of Prolepsis

The idiom of prolepsis is very widespread throughout Scripture; it is a very common figure of speech. In some cases, though, that idiom is “hidden” in English translations of Scripture. In other words, in some cases a passage in Scripture will be written in the past tense – but the English translation of the passage will be written in the future tense! As a result, with those translations, the prolepsis in the passage will not be visible to English speakers. For example, consider the following English translation:

Genesis 17:15-16a (ESV):

15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her.

Almost all English translations of that passage are very similar. In particular, virtually all English translations render most of the verbs in that passage in the future tense. For example, the last part of that passage from the ESV, above, reads: “and moreover, I will give you a son by her.” In other words, in almost all English translations, God tells Abraham that in the future, He will cause Abraham to have a son with Sarah.

There is a significant issue with that translation, though. Here is the Hebrew in that phrase, along with its pronunciation:

וְגַם נָתַתִּי מִמֶּנָּה לְךָ בֵּן

v’gam natati mimenah l’cha ben

Now, here is a transliteration of the above phrase:

and moreover I gave from her to you (a) son

In other words, the Hebrew actually states that God gave – past tense – Abraham a son from Sarah. As mentioned, God made that statement before Isaac was born (even before he was conceived). So, that statement is not literally true – at least, not in the sense that our culture judges literal truth.

So, this passage is a very good example of prolepsis “type 2”. Basically, God promised Abraham that He would – in the future – give Abraham a son with Sarah. However, since it is God who made the promise, the Hebrew is actually written in the past tense – as if the son in question has already been born.

As mentioned, almost all English translations render the above passage in the future tense – and as a result, this example of prolepsis is “hidden” from English speakers. One of the very few translations that renders that passage accurately – in the past tense – is Young’s Literal Translation:

Genesis 17:16 (YLT):

16 and I have blessed her, and have also given to thee a son from her;

 

One Final Passage

There is one final passage that is important to mention – because that passage has significant theological implications. Here is the verse in question; in which Jesus is praying to our Heavenly Father:

John 17:5 (ESV):

And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

As listed above, Jesus refers to the glory that he hadpast tense – with God, before the world existed. That particular verse has led many, many groups to conclude that Jesus personally existed with God, even before the world was created. In other words, many people reason that since Jesus used the past tense in that verse, that proves that Jesus must have literally existed before the creation of the world.

Of course, as noted above, the Hebraic idiom of prolepsis is extremely common in Scripture – and as a result, whenever Scriptural events are listed in the past tense, it is necessary to carefully examine all of the available evidence, to determine if the event literally occurred in the past or not.

So, rather than “jumping” to a conclusion about John 17:5 immediately, consider the two passages listed below first – because those passages also refer to Jesus, and they use very similar language:

Revelation 13:8 (KJV):

And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him [the beast], whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

The above passage states that Jesus (the Lamb) was slain “from the foundation of the world”. So, was Jesus literally slain, all the way back at the foundation of the world? No, of course not – Jesus was not actually slain, until about 2,000 years ago. So, this passage is definitely not literal – instead, it is an example of prolepsis. In other words, the sacrifice of Jesus was part of God’s plan of salvation – and God initiated that plan all the way back at the creation of the world.

So, since the sacrifice of Jesus was part of God’s plan – and since God is true to His word – the sacrifice of Jesus is spoken of, as if it had occurred all the way back at the foundation of the world. As a result, this passage is certainly not a literal statement, but rather a figurative one.

(Also note: some English translations render Revelation 13:8 as “everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain”. In other words, those translations refer to the “names being written in the book of life” as the event that occurred from before the foundation of the world. Of course, that event did not literally occur before the foundation of the world, either – so even with those translations, prolepsis is still being used.)

1 Peter 1:20 (ESV):

20 He [Jesus] was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you

The above passage is extremely similar to the other two passages in this section. Basically, the above passage tells us that God “foreknew” Jesus, even before the foundation of the world – but that Jesus was made “made manifest” in the “last times”. In other words, God knew that He would create Jesus, even before the world existed – but He did not actually create Jesus, until about 2,000 years ago. That is, Jesus “existed” in God’s plan before the foundation of the world; but Jesus did not personally exist until God caused Mary to conceive.

 

So, from all of the information listed in this post, it appears that John 17:5 does not prove that Jesus personally existed before the world existed. Instead, it appears likely that this is another example of prolepsis. Basically, it appears that Jesus was referring to the glory that God had planned to give to him, from before the foundation of the world.

In other words, even before God created the world, He planned to glorify Jesus in the future – and it is that promise of future glory that Jesus is referring to. However, due to the idiom of prolepsis, the verse is written in the past tense – as if God had already glorified Jesus, before the world existed. That is, since God, Himself, decided to glorify Jesus, that glorification is spoken of as if it had already occurred.

 

Conclusion

This overall subject – of non-native speakers misunderstanding local jargon – reminds me of an old joke. A German citizen is visiting the United States for the first time; so he is not very familiar with the local lingo. At one point, he hears an American mention that he is going to have a hamburger for lunch. At that, the German exclaims – in horror – “I am a hamburger!” (Residents of the German city of Hamburg are known as Hamburgers…)

In any case, it is definitely necessary to understand Hebraic idioms, in order to properly understand Scripture – and the idiom of prolepsis is one of the most important of those idioms, due to its theological implications.

 

One Response to “The Idiom of “Prolepsis””

  1. on 24 Nov 2013 at 12:59 pmJas

    “The reason why this type of prolepsis is important to understand is because if it is not understood, then it can lead people to incorrect conclusions. For example, consider the following passage:

    Of course, that belief contradicts Genesis 3:20, above – because that verse tells us that Eve was “the mother of all living”. That certainly appears to indicate that every human being is descended from Adam and Eve – including the people of Nod.”

    Brian
    The passage in Genesis 3:20 was a written history which does not reflect the opinion of the writer. Eve was not and could not ever be the Mother of All living because all living beings were created before Eve. But you are right that a figure of speech is imployed in verse which many hebrew names employ. Adam named his wife after the Chavvah who was the mother of ALL LIVING. Even if this verse is only pertaining to humans it can not be because she could not ever be the mother of Adam. It is very easy to see that Gen 1 creation is very very different from Gen 2 creation of The Adam . For your conclusion to be true you must invent a sister that is not mentioned and ignore the fact Cain was exiled to a named land.

    Genesis 17:5 (ESV):

    5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.

    This one is just a promise but because of the incorrect translation you see it as one.

  

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