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Do Christians Have Peace with God? A Brief Examination of the Textual Problem in Romans 5:1

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“Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…” —NET Bible

Like virtually all verses, Romans 5:1 can be variously translated. But apart from some minor tweaking—for example, “Since we have been justified” vs. “Having been justified” and the like—there is one substantive variation in how this verse has been translation. The main verb “we have” involves a textual variant, “let us have.” At issue is not two different translations of the same word, but two different words—or, rather, two different forms of the same Greek word. The difference in spelling is one letter (either an omicron or an omega—that is, either a short ‘o’ [o] or a long ‘o’ [ω]), but the difference in pronunciation, as far as we can tell, was nil in the first century AD.1 This is not to say the difference in meaning was nil! Spelled with an omicron, the verb is in the indicative mood—“we have peace”; spelled with the omega, the verb is in the subjunctive mood—“let us have peace.”

One can easily see how such a textual problem could come into existence. A scribe is listening while someone else is reading the manuscript to him; since the two words would be pronounced virtually identically, he has to make a choice. The question is: Which one is the original reading? And how can we know?

This particular problem requires a bit of detective work, along with some speculative historical reconstruction (which, however, we will reserve for the end of the discussion). Although some might get nervous about such an endeavor because its results are less than certain, it is important to keep in mind that to refrain from historical reconstruction is to leave a matter as something of a mystery. Often, the options left to us, when trying to reconstruct history, are as follows: (a) X is what we think happened, (b) Y is what we think happened; or (c) we don’t want to think. Certainly, there are times when it is neither prudent nor helpful to attempt a historical reconstruction. But in the case of solving textual problems, such an attempt often involves only a small pool of viable options. And though conclusions from such will by their nature be less than certain, this does not make them certainly untrue.

With this in mind, we now approach the problem. (Some of our discussion will be rather technical, but for those who have some training in Greek and textual criticism, the technical information should be valuable.) A number of important witnesses have the subjunctive ἔχωμεν (“let us have”) for ἔχομεν (“we have”) in v. 1. Included in the subjunctive’s support are א* A B* C D K L 33 1739* lat bo and many other witnesses. But the indicative is not without its supporters: א1 B2 F G P Ψ 0220vid 1241 1506 1739c 1881 2464 and many other witnesses. If the problem were to be solved on an external basis only, the subjunctive would be given the palm. Clearly, the “A” rating (for the indicative!) in the UBS4 is overly generous.

However, the indicative is probably correct. First, the earliest witness to Rom 5:1 has the indicative (0220). Although given a probable vote in this direction (“vid”) by the editors of the standard critical texts, this is due to the fact that the fragment is shorn right in the middle of the letter in question. An examination of the manuscript, with attention to how the scribe shaped his omicrons and omegas, indicates that the letter could only be an omicron. Second, the first set of correctors is usually of equal importance with the original hand. This is because the first corrector would have usually been the same scribe or someone else in the scriptorium, looking over the MS before it was sold. He would examine it against its exemplar and make corrections, often if not usually in the direction of that exemplar. This is not always the case, of course. But in light of the fact that the earliest witness to this textual problem had the omicron and that אis in dispute suggests that in this case we should probably listen to the voice of the corrector. Hence, א1 should be given equal value with א*. Third, there is a good cross-section of witnesses for the indicative: Alexandrian (in 0220, א1 1241 1506 1881 et alii), Western (in F G), and Byzantine (noted in the Nestle text as pm—that is, the Byzantine text is split, half reading for the indicative and half reading for the subjunctive). Thus, although the external evidence is strongly in favor of the subjunctive, the indicative is represented well enough that its ancestry could easily go back to the original.

Turning to the internal evidence, the indicative gains much ground. First, the variant was more than likely produced via an error of hearing (since, as we mentioned earlier, omicron and omega were pronounced alike in ancient Greek). But it is doubtful that such was produced by early scribes in scriptoria. This is due to two things: (1) In the earliest period of copying, most manuscripts were not done professionally in a scriptorium. Rather, they were copied by individuals who simply wanted a copy of the scriptures. Thus, presumably they would be done predominantly by sight. Since both readings evidently existed at the very earliest stages, the variant was evidently not created in a scriptorium. (2) Even the later Christian scriptoria do not show nearly as much evidence for errors of hearing as is generally supposed. That is, they do not suggest an error of hearing between the lector and scribe (although of course scribes would read to themselves). Exploitations of various scriptoria by Lake, Blake, New and others show that the extant manuscripts were not directly related to each other. This means that each scribe apparently worked at a desk, with an exemplar MS in front of him, rather than in a ‘classroom’ listening to the scripture being read.

So what is to account for the error of hearing? Evidently it was produced when Paul’s amanuensis or secretary (in this case, Tertius—cf. Rom 16:22) misheard what the author, Paul, had said. Confirmation of this is the fact that even in classical Greek omicron and omega were pronounced alike. Thus, unlike many other so-called errors of hearing which could only have occurred in later Greek (because the phonological system was evolving), this instance looks to be at the earliest stage of development. This, of course, does not indicate which reading was original—just that an error of hearing produced one of them.

In light of the indecisiveness of the transcriptional evidence (what a scribe would be likely to have produced), intrinsic evidence (what an author would be likely to have written) could play a much larger role. This is indeed the case here. First, the indicative fits well with the overall argument of the book to this point. Up until now, Paul has been establishing the “indicatives of the faith.” There is only one imperative (used rhetorically) and only one hortatory subjunctive—the “let us” exhortations—up till this point (and this in a diatribal quotation), while from ch. 6 on there are sixty-one imperatives and seven hortatory subjunctives. Clearly, an exhortation would be out of place in ch. 5. Second, Paul presupposes that the audience has peace with God (via reconciliation) in 5:10. This seems to assume the indicative in v. 1. Third, as Cranfield notes, “it would surely be strange for Paul, in such a carefully argued writing as this, to exhort his readers to enjoy or to guard a peace which he has not yet explicitly shown to be possessed by them” (Romans [ICC] 1.257). Fourth, the notion that εἰρήνην ἔχωμεν can even naturally mean “enjoy peace” is problematic—yet this is the meaning given to the subjunctive by virtually all who consider the subjunctive to be original. This point is elaborated on below.

The subjunctive here has often been translated something like, “Let us enjoy the peace that we already have.” Only rarely in the NT does the verb mean “enjoy” (cf. Heb 11:25), and it probably never has this as a primary force in the subjunctive. Thus, if the subjunctive were original, it probably would mean “let us come to have peace with God,” but this notion is entirely foreign to the context, particularly to the fact that justification has already been applied. As for the rest of the NT, the subjunctive of ἔχω occurs 44 times. John 10:10 comes close to the idea of “enjoy,” but the connotation of enjoyment is not in the verb but in περισσόν (“abundantly”). Note also John 16:33 (εἰρήνην ἔχητε [“you might have (enjoy?) peace”]), but the parallel in the second part of the verse does not help (ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ θλῖψιν ἔχετε [“in the world you have tribulation”), for otherwise Jesus would be saying that his disciples “enjoy tribulation”! Likewise, John 17:13; 2 Cor 1:15; 1 John 1:3 have similar glitches. Elsewhere the subjunctive (even present subjunctive) nowhere seems to suggest the enjoyment of something already possessed. For example, in John 5:40, Jesus in speaking to unbelievers (note v 38) says, “You do not want to come to me that you might have (ἔχητε) life.” This cannot mean “that you might enjoy the life you already have,” for then Jesus would not be offering life absolutely, but only the enjoyment of it (a contradiction of what he says in John 10:10, where both life and the enjoyment of it are granted by him)! Thus, if enjoyment is part of the connotation, so is acquiring it. (Compare further Matt 17:20; 19:16; 21:38; John 3:16; 6:40; 13:35; Rom 1:13; 15:4; 1 Cor 13:1-3; 2 Cor 8:12; Eph 4:28; Heb 6:18; Jas 2:14; 1 John 2:28.)

The point of the preceding paragraph is simply this: if the subjunctive ἔχωμεν is what Paul wrote in Romans 5:1, then the meaning almost certainly would be “Since we have been justified by faith, let us acquire so as to enjoy peace with God.” To my knowledge, no commentator who takes the subjunctive to be original would argue that this is the meaning; yet, on a linguistic basis, there seems to be no easy way around this.

In summary, although the external evidence is stronger in support of the subjunctive, the internal evidence points to the indicative. In conclusion, it might be helpful (finally) to attempt something of a historical reconstruction. Although not necessary to come to a decision about the textual problem, one may nevertheless legitimately ask, “How could the subjunctive end up having such overwhelming external support?”

Our suggestion, although speculative, fits the data well.2 Tertius, Paul’s amanuensis, may have anticipated Paul altering his course at the beginning of chapter 5. Paul’s characteristic οὖν (“therefore”) is often used to gather up the preceding indicatives and use them as the basis for action. It would have been a natural thing to anticipate after the phrase, “therefore, having been justified by faith,” some sort of command. At this juncture, Tertius naturally heard ἔχωμεν. But the letter did not go out that way. Paul’s custom was to look over his letters before sending them on to the churches. He would have corrected the subjunctive before the manuscript was sent.3 Once it arrived in Rome, the Christians there would have made copies and sent them on to other churches. Each church apparently had its own practices: some would keep the original and send copies; others would keep a copy and send the original for copying. In the process, it is probable that the original was copied frequently, but that scribes did not realize that the correction at 5:1 was the author’s. Hence, they would retain the subjunctive. In this instance, the original seems to have been copied fairly extensively without the copyist recognizing that is was Paul who corrected Tertius’ error (how could they discern his handwriting from just one letter, especially if that letter was an ‘o’?). Thus, most copyists would naturally retain the subjunctive, thinking that Paul’s omicron belonged to an overzealous scribe, not the author. But the fact that 0220 (the earliest manuscript for Rom 5:1) has the indicative suggests that it may have come from one of the early copies which Tertius was able (at least indirectly) to comment on, to the effect that the indicative was correct. Obviously, this is quite speculative. But it fits the known facts of what churches and scribes did. As a final note, it should be mentioned that the canon of the harder reading is nullified when one of the readings was patently an unintentional creation. Thus, although the subjunctive is the harder reading, since it can easily be explained as arising unintentionally, this canon cannot be applied with conviction in this instance.

Epilogue

Do Christians have peace with God? The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’! And why do we? Because we have been declared righteous by faith. The implications of this for the Christian life are vast: We ought not to wait around for the other shoe to drop, thinking that the Almighty is sitting on his throne, just waiting to pounce on us! The great truth of the gospel is not that at the moment when we embraced Christ as our Savior we were completely changed, but rather, that at that moment we were completely forgiven. And because of that forgiveness, we now have peace with God—a peace that can never be taken away. Further, as Paul goes on to elaborate in Romans 5-8, because we have this peace with God, we now can grow in grace. In other words, since we have been completely forgiven, we now have the potential to be changed into the likeness of God’s Son.


1Most teachers of Koine Greek make a distinction between omicron and omega in pronunciation, viz., omicron is a short ‘o’ as in ‘rot’ while omega is a long ‘o’ as in ‘rote.’ Classical Greek teachers, on the other hand, generally make no distinction in pronunciation. Most scholars are agreed that in the first Christian century there was little if any difference in the pronunciation of the two letters. (Thus, the Koine pronunciation may be somewhat artificial, owing more to pedagogical/phonetic causes than historical.)

2Indeed, an embryonic form of this suggestion is already mentioned by Metzger in his Textual Commentary; he suggests that Tertius created the subjunctive reading, but leaves it at that.

3Note that in 2 Thess 3:17 he indicates that at the end of all his letters he takes the pen from the amanuensis and writes a note to the readers (sometimes with his name attached, sometimes not). The purpose of such a gesture was to show that such letters were authentic and therefore authoritative. If so, then Paul was also taking responsibility for the contents and, as such, must surely have read the contents and made corrections before the document was sent out.

Related Topics: Comfort, Soteriology (Salvation), Textual Criticism, Theology Proper (God)