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How a Greek Story Corrects a Translation Misstep

Have they stumbled that they should fall? - Romans 11:11

Every four years the eyes of the nations focus on the Olympic Games. This celebrated athletic competition, with a three-thousand-year-old history, dates back to foot races held quadrennially in Olympia, Greece. But its origins can be traced even earlier, to a mythic story preserved in Homer’s Iliad—a tale curiously enough that may shed light on a challenging passage in the New Testament.

The text in question is found in Romans 11. It has long been the source of lively scholarly debate among translators and commentators. The following translation highlights disputed words in italics.

(v 11) So I ask, have they [Israel] stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their misstep [fall KJV, RSV; transgression NIV, NASB] salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. (v 12) Now if their misstep means wealth for the world, and if their defeat [diminishing KJV] means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their completion [fullness KJV] mean!

Translation Confusion or Bias?

The King James translation of the text suggests a subtle but significant bias against Israel and prejudices the reader’s orientation.

I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? [A] God forbid: but rather through their fall [B] salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. Now if the fall [C] of them be the riches of the world much more their fullness? [KJV] (Romans 11:11–12)

Notice that according to the KJV, the Apostle Paul says first that Israel did not fall – God forbid! – but then adds that, yes, by their fall salvation and riches came to the nations. These statements seem contradictory. Did Israel fall or did it not?

The Greek text clarifies the confusion and highlights the bias in translation. Three times the KJV uses the same word “fall” but in Greek they are not the same word. The first “fall” [A] does speaks of falling down, such as falling from one level to another – and this Paul says Israel did not do. The second and third “falls” [B] and [C] speak instead of a misstep or a false step that leads to stumbling – something that can be corrected according to Paul.

The scholarly adage that translations are de facto commentaries is indeed true.

Athletics as Metaphor

Sporting events were an elemental part of Greek and Roman societies, with athletic metaphors commonly employed in their ancient literature. Not surprisingly we find an abundance of them in Paul’s letters, from wrestling and boxing to chariot races and footraces. This Jewish apostle to the Gentiles was a citizen of the Roman Empire and fully conversant in the common Greek language and prevailing Greco-Roman culture. He naturally would employ language and imagery common to the culture of his Gentile readers.

Professor Stanley Stowers and other scholars of classic literature have noted that one iconic story known to Paul’s Roman audience concerns a famous race that Odysseus (Ulysses) wins with divine help.

In his epic poem, The Iliad (Book 23), Homer recounts the time when Achilles calls for athletic competitions to honor his slain friend, Patroclus. In the foot race of three mighty warriors, Ajax takes the lead and appears headed for victory when Odysseus calls upon Athena (Minerva) for greater speed. The goddess causes Ajax to stumble and fall, enabling Odysseus to pass him and take the prize. Ajax manages to right himself however to finish second, sharing in the riches.

Romans 11:11–12 has a similar racing metaphor in view, with parallel themes of divine intervention, stumbling and unexpected results.

Here Paul continues with the footrace metaphor employed in 9:30–33, where Israel stumbles over a stone put in place by God himself! The disputed Greek word (paraptoma) in 11:11 often translated as fall (KJV) or transgression (NIV) was a common term to Paul’s audience for a runner taking a false step or a misstep in a race.

And the term behind defeat (heitta) was used to denote a competitor’s defeat or failure in a race. The text then becomes clearer and coherent when we recognize the racing metaphor behind the Apostle’s language.

Race for Righteousness

As Paul sees it, Israel has every advantage in the ‘race for righteousness’ as it were: “to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, and the patriarchs” (9:4–5). Whereas the Gentiles are “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).

Unlike the fickle Greek gods, the God of Israel cannot play favorites. Justice utterly befits Him.

So He sends the Messiah – not to judge the other nations as was the Messianic expectation of the time – but to extend His mercy to them as well. Salvation comes to the Gentiles through the faithfulness of Jesus unto death. Israel stumbles over this suffering Messiah, to the advantage of those in the nations, but they are not forsaken or rejected by God. Rather they are provoked to jealousy, to catch up in the race.

For Paul, Israel’s election remains sure, their calling irrevocable. They will run the race to its completion so that in their fullness “all Israel shall be saved” (11:26). The covenant-keeping God who abounds in mercy assures a win-win situation for the faithful.

At the end, all the righteous of Israel and the nations will share together in the riches of God’s glory. With one voice all will worship the true and living God and rejoice over His Messiah. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! (11:33).


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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.

Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.

Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.

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