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Appendix 9: The Middle Voice of 1 Corinthians 13:8

There are some today who maintain that the New Testament Greek has abandoned the classical use of the middle voice in which the subject is acting in relation to himself or itself in some way. Such a view undermines the argument, in part, at least presented by Ryrie. For instance, in a footnote Bill Mounce writes:

Many grammars say the middle is “reflexive,” but we are uncomfortable with the term. The “direct reflexive” was common in Classical Greek but not in Koine. The only one in the New Testament is at Matt 27:5, but Moule ( Idiom Book, 24) disputes even this one.249

In another footnote he writes:

A good example of the problems caused by assuming that the classical use of the middle is always present is found in 1 Corinthians 13:8, where Paul says that the gifts of tongues “will cease” ( pauvsontai). It is argued by some … Paul is saying the gift of tongues will cease in and of itself.

Regardless of one’s views on the topic of spiritual gifts, we feel this is an incorrect use of the middle. It assumes that the middle here has the classical usage, even though BAGD lists no self-interest meaning for the middle of pauvw. And when one looks at the other eight occurrences of the verb, it is seen that the verb is a middle deponent and not reflexive. The best example is in Luke 8:24, where Jesus calmed the sea. “Jesus rebuked the wind and calmed the water, and they ceased and became calm” … The wind and water certainly did not “cease” in and of themselves. The middle of this verb does not designate “self-interest”; it is deponent (deponent means the verb is middle or passive in form, but active in meaning).250 (Emphasis mine.)

But Mounce’s arguments, and those of others, are unwarranted and simply do not fit all the facts. In Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Dan Wallace does an excellent job of answering the arguments that deny the force of the middle voice in the New Testament and especially in 1 Corinthians 8:13. Wallace writes:

One’s view of the nature of NT Greek has strong implications for this use of the middle voice. If one thinks that NT Greek has abandoned the rules of classical Greek, then h/she would not put much emphasis on the force of the middle voice in a given passage. Moule, for example, argues that “as a rule, it is far from easy to come down from the fence with much decisiveness on either side in an exegetical problem if it depends on the voice” (Moule, Idiom Book, 24).

However, if one thinks that the NT Greek has, for the most part, retained the rules of classical Greek, then he/she will see more significance in the use of the middle voice. On this side of the fence, Zerwick writes: “The ‘ indirect’ use of the middle voice … especially shows the writer to have retained a feeling for even the finer distinctions between the sense of active and middle forms” (Zerwick, Biblical Greek, 75).

It is our contention that a careful examination of the usage of a particular middle voice verb in Hellenistic Greek will shed light on how much can be made of the voice. What is frequently at stake, grammatically speaking, is whether the middle is to be considered indirect or deponent …251

In discussing debatable and exegetically significant texts, Wallace has this to say about 1 Corinthians 13:8:

If the voice of the verb is significant, then Paul is saying either that tongues will cut themselves off (direct middle) or, more likely, cease of their own accord, i.e., “die out” without an intervening agent (indirect middle). It may be significant that with reference to prophecy and knowledge, Paul used a different verb ( katargevw) and put it in the passive voice. In vss. 9-10, the argument continues: “for we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial shall be done away { katarghqhvsontai}.” Here again, Paul uses the same passive verb he had used with prophecy and knowledge and he speaks of the verbal counterpart to the nominal “prophecy” and “knowledge.” Yet he does not speak about tongues being done away “when the perfect comes.” The implication may be that tongues were to have “died out” of their own before the perfect comes. The middle voice in this text, then, must be wrestled with if one is to come to any conclusions about when tongues would cease.

The dominant opinion among NT scholars today, however is that pauvsontai is not an indirect middle. The argument is that pauvw in the future is deponent, and that the change in verbs is merely stylistic. If so, then this text makes no comment about tongues ceasing on their own, apart from the intervention of “the perfect.” There are three arguments against the deponent view, however. First, if pauvsontai is deponent, then the second principal part (future form) should not occur in the active voice in Hellenistic Greek. But it does, and it does so frequently. Hence, the verb cannot be considered deponent. Second, sometimes Luke 8:24 is brought into the discussion: Jesus rebuked the wind and sea and they ceased ( ejpauvsanto, aorist middle) from their turbulence. The argument is that inanimate objects cannot cease of their own accord; therefore, the middle of pauvw is equivalent to a passive. But this is a misunderstanding of the literary features of the passage; If the wind and sea cannot cease voluntarily, why does Jesus rebuke them? And why do the disciples speak of the wind and sea as having obeyed Jesus? The elements are personified in Luke 8 and their ceasing from turbulence is therefore presented as volitional obedience to Jesus. If anything, Luke 8:23 supports the indirect middle view. Third, the idea of a deponent verb is that it is middle in form, but active in meaning. But pauvsontai is surrounded by passives in 1 Cor 13:8, not actives. The real force of pauvw in the middle is intransitive, while in the active it is transitive. In the active it has the force of stopping some other object; in the middle, it ceases from its own activity.

In sum, the deponent view is based on some faulty assumptions as to the labeling of pauvsontai as deponent, the parallel in Luke 8:24, and even the meaning of deponency. Paul seems to be making a point that is more than stylistic in his shift in verbs … 252

Obviously, this does not tell us when tongues will cease, but it certainly gives credibility to Ryrie’s argument as expressed earlier, and it answers the arguments of those who try to deny the force of the middle voice of the Greek text in 1 Corinthians 13:8.

249 William Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1993, p. 224.

250 Ibid.

251 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1996, p. 420.

252 Wallace, p. 422.

Related Topics: Tongues, Grammar

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