Collective or individual reward? Adventures in NT Greek

One of the things you have to get used to when studying another language academically is the sometimes bewildering number of modifiers placed on nominal cases, which themselves may be overwhelming in their own right. Not only must you learn to distinguish the accusative from the dative, and the dative from the genitive (etc.), but then you have to grapple with things like a dative of means as opposed to a dative of manner. I think my all-time favorite is genitive of time within which.

Initially I questioned if some of these categories weren’t just being made up for the novelty of it or, since I was studying NT Greek at a conservative Christian college, because some exegetes with a mystical bibliology were going overboard trying to milk every last drop of meaning from a God-breathed text.

I was wrong, and moreover regarding the latter conjecture, I would that every person trying to milk every last drop of meaning from the Bible were so properly thorough in their linguistic analysis, rather than utilizing the type of “exegesis” that consists of throwing a verse against the wall and seeing what sticks.  By no means am I saying that overwrought dissection isn’t possible, but as I learned more about how language works, I began to appreciate its complexity and have consequently concluded that we do indeed usually need such categories to properly describe what’s being said.

But anyway, I was reminded of the usefulness of these categories recently as I came across this statement by Jesus in Mat 5.12:

χαίρετε καὶ ἀγαλλιᾶσθε, ὅτι ὁ μισθὸς ὑμῶν πολὺς ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς·

Rejoice and be glad, because your compensation will be ample among the heavens.

Now, it is true that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and there is a chance that one could make the argument that the following observation is an illustration of just that!

The thing I wanted to point out was that “compensation” is singular but “your” is plural. So it appears he’s talking about a single compensation for multiple people. Most translators would note the possibility that the possessive pronoun is distributive (there’s one of those fancy categories). In other words, is Jesus saying, “You guys are going to share in something great” (the literal reading) or “You will each find your (individual) compensation to be ample” (a distributive relationship between the possessive pronoun and the object)? Without the very real category of distributive, someone taking a mechanically literalistic reading might conclude that there is one collective reward. But if the possessive is distributive, things make more sense according to our own way of understanding how wages are supposed to work. The distributive reading is indeed the conventional reading, and it makes sense; there do seem to be cases in which the object is clearly not shared as a collective heap but must rather be conceived of as parceled out among the possessors.

This might be one of those cases; surely each persecuted individual deserves his own share. Right? But wait: are we justified in choosing the reading that makes the most sense to us without verifying that we’re not reading our own cultural views back into the text? Scholars commonly remind us that the people of Palestine, as those in the East reportedly do even now, thought much more corporately than individualistically, the latter outlook being commonly claimed as an heirloom of Greek thought that only later influenced Christianity. When we blindly assume that, for instance, the OT prophets were making individualized promises to each of us (Jer 29.11 comes to mind), we run the great risk of personalizing more than we were ever intended to. Matthew was certainly the Gospel the least influenced by Hellenism and the most reflective of Hebraic modes of thought and expression. (And if Goodacre et al. are correct, Luke’s version in chapter 6 that has this exact phrase is borrowed directly from Matthew, not Q…)

Honestly, on this one, I’m not sure. For one thing, wages (a possible translation for μισθὸς) were, then as now, typically given to individuals. And there’s something to be said for the distributive sense when considering the adjective πολὺς ‘much, many, great, plentiful’ with the singular noun. But is it at least possible that Jesus wasn’t promising everyone “wages”, or that they would have their own personal pan pizza, but that he’d deliver a large sheet pizza for us to share? The Sheep and the Goats judgment later in Matthew 25 is certainly pictured as an en masse affair.

Oh, there’s certainly a sense in which this is an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin question (what’s it matter so long as we get what’s coming to us?), but I’d still like to know what you think. Would a “collective reward” picture have any interesting implications or advantages over the more typical “individual reward/wage” view?

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  • Anonymous

    i enjoyed that post lots. you should do more like it! 😀

    the distributive singular is something of a semitism, Paul is also a fan. i think the answer to this specific question,theologically, is “both and”, the reviled and persecuted receive their reward which is participation in the life of eternity, so the reward for the individual is inclusion in the communal life of God’s eternity.

    • Glad you enjoyed it! I always enjoyed doing grammatical exegesis as a
      BIble and Theology major in undergrad. In fact, it’s one of the
      biggest reasons I went into linguistics in graduate school.

      Obviously from the weakness of this post, I’m a little rusty. 😉

  • …it’s cliche but I’ll say it anyway: It’s all Greek to me [smile]. Interesting stuff to think about… but so far over my head I don’t have any insights to offer.