“in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience”
(Eph 2.2, NET Bible)
In Ephesians 2.1-3, the apostle Paul describes the status of believers before they believed. He begins by painting a rather bleak picture, “you were dead in your sins”—that is, they were spiritually unresponsive to anything outside of sin. In v. 2, he goes on to speak of these pre-believers as living in such sins “according to the world’s present path.” That is, the unbeliever’s life is dictated more by culture and the age in which he lives than by any transcultural principles. Then, Paul delivers a double whammy: our lives used to be “according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience.” In other words, our lives used to be run by the god of this world, the devil himself, who ruled over both our external environment (the kingdom of the air) and over the spirit that energizes the rest of the unbelieving world.
The NET Bible here has a subtle difference from many, if not most, other translations. By adding ‘the ruler’ before ‘of the spirit’ it is explicitly denying that the ruler is the spirit. Listen to other translations on this part of the verse:
KJV: “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit”
RSV: “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit”
NAB: “the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit”
NIV: “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit”
NJB: “the ruler who dominates the air, the spirit”
NKJV: “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit”
TEV: “the ruler of the spiritual powers in space, the spirit”
NLT: “the mighty prince of the power of the air. He is the spirit”
NRSV: “the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit”
REB: “the commander of the spiritual powers of the air, the spirit”
ESV: “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit”
TNIV: “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit”
All twelve of these English translations take the ‘spirit’ to be in apposition to ‘the ruler’ or possibly in apposition to ‘the power,’ ‘the kingdom.’ That is, all of these translations regard the spirit as the ruler or as the kingdom. The NET, however, regards the ruler as over the spirit. It does this by repeating ‘the ruler’ before ‘of the spirit.’ The NET alone interprets the spirit as subordinate to the ruler. Two questions immediately come to mind with the NET translation: (1) On what basis does it do this? and (2) if the spirit is not the devil himself, then what is it?
Before we examine the basis for the NET’s rendering, it might be helpful to survey some representative commentaries on this verse for their input.
T. K. Abbott, Ephesians (ICC), 42:
“του πνεύματος is understood by some…as in apposition with τὸν ἁρξονα. Winer, while rejecting this view, admits that in this case the apostle might most easily have wandered from the right construction, namely, on account of the preceding genitives. It is, however, unnecessary to suppose this, although it must be conceded that the only admissible alternative, viz. that πν. depends on ἁρξοντα, is more harsh as to sense, although the harshness is lessened by the distance from ἁρξοντα. Adopting this, the sense is, ‘the ruler of the spirit,’ etc. Here πνεῦμα is not to be understood collectively, which it cannot be; it is what in I Cor. ii.12 is called τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ κόσμου, the spiritual influence which works in the disobedient. It seems to be a sort of explanation of the preceding ἐχουσία.”
F. F. Bruce, Ephesians (NICNT), 283:
“As for ‘the spirit which now operates in the disobedient,’ the noun ‘spirit (pneuma) is in the genitive case, and is therefore naturally taken as governed by one of the two preceding nouns—‘ruler’ or ‘domain.’ To speak of ‘the ruler of the spirit which now operates’ would be strange; if we translate the clause as ‘the domain of the spirit which now operates,’ then either this spirit is identical with the ‘ruler of the domain of the air,’ the malign power that blinds the minds of unbelievers, or else the ‘spirit’ is in apposition with ‘air’ and could denote (as ‘air’ would not) the atmosphere or climate of thought which influences people’s minds against God.”
Markus Barth, Ephesians (Anchor), 215:
“There are three ways to explain the function of the noun ‘spirit’ in Eph 2:2.
- a) It may be an expository apposition either to the remote noun ‘world-age,’ to ‘ruler,’ or to ‘atmosphere.’ One of these or all three are then marked as energetic, in their own way inspiring ‘spiritual’ forces….b) Or ‘spirit’ may be understood as a third name for the devil, complementing the preceding titles ‘world-age’ and ruler of the atmosphere. …c) Finally, if ‘spirit’ is understood as an apposition to the preceding noun only (‘atmosphere,’ lit. ‘domain of the air’), it may qualify the air as a substance that is breathed in by man and poisons his thoughts and actions. In this case the devil would be denoted as the ruler who poisons the atmosphere, producing a devastating stench or killing in the manner of the aftereffect of atomic explosions or industrial pollution.”
A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians (Word), 96:
“τοῦ πνεύματος τού νῦν ἐνεργοῦτος ἐν τοῖς υἱοις τῆς ἀπειθείας, ‘of the spirit that is now at work in those who are disobedient.’ There is much discussion about the syntactical place and the meaning of τοῦ πνεύματος, ‘of the spirit.’ Some take it as in apposition to τὸν ἁρξοντα, ‘the ruler,’ giving another name for the ruler and making clear that he is a spirit power… But why then the genitive case rather than the accusative which would be expected in agreement with τὸν ἁρξοντα? It could be explained as a genitive of apposition (cf. BDF 167) or as an unconscious assimilation to the two immediately preceding genitives, but it remains an awkward construction. Others take τοῦ πνεύματος as in apposition to its most immediate antecedent τους ἀέρος, ‘of the air’ (cf. Schlier, 104; Caird, 51). This interpretation can account for the genitive and appeals to a connection between spirit and air on the basis of the fact that in Hebrew and Greek one word could do service for spirit, breath, wind, air, and atmosphere. τοῦ πνεύματος, on this view, would be a further explanation of the air as the spiritual atmosphere which pervades those who are disobedient. There is one more syntactical option. τοῦ πνεύματος could be parallel to τῆς ἐχουσίας, ‘of the realm,’ and governed by τὸν ἁρξοντα, ‘the ruler’ (cf. Meyer, 98-99; J. A. Robinson, 154; Abbott, 42). This option again accounts adequately for the genitive and should be preferred as making better sense of the verse. On this interpretation, the personal power of evil is the ruler of the realm of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now at work in the disobedient.”
Ernest Best, Ephesians (ICC), 205:
“In relating the third phrase to what precedes it, it might appear easy to take τοῦ πνεύματος as a genitive in apposition to τοῦ ἀέρος (so Schlier, Huged) but “air” is used here with a spatial connotation not possessed by πνεῦμα. Nor is it easy to take the phrase as dependent on τὸν ἁρξοντα; “the ruler of the spirits”, i.e. the evil spirits, would be a possible phrase but not the singular, “the ruler of the spirit”. If “spirit” denotes the human spirit (so Haupt) it is tautologous to speak of it as energising the disobedient; in any case ἐνεργεῖν is normally used of supernatural and not human energy… It is better then to take πνεῦμα as in apposition to τὸν ἁρξοντα (cf Ewald, Grosheide, Masson, Abbott [sic], Gnilka), the genitive being occasioned by the preceding genitives (for appositions which transgress strict grammatical correctness see BDR 137.3; cf 167.2). The spirit is then an (the) evil spirit, a regular meaning of the word in Jewish Greek derived from its Hebrew significance.”
The Basis for the NET Rendering
The live options found in these five commentaries are thus: (a) ‘spirit’ is in apposition to ‘ruler’; (b) ‘spirit’ is subordinate to ‘ruler’ and in apposition to ‘kingdom’;1 or (c) ‘spirit’ is subordinate to ‘ruler’ and parallel to ‘kingdom.’ Of the five commentaries quoted above, option (a) is supported unequivocally only by Best;2 option (b) is supported by Abbott and Bruce; and option (c) is supported by Lincoln. The NET Bible can be read as having the ‘spirit’ either parallel to ‘kingdom’ or in apposition to ‘kingdom’ (options [b] and [c]), but it cannot be read as equating the ‘spirit’ with the ‘ruler’ (option [a]). Thus, Best’s interpretation is ruled out by the NET rendering, but the other four commentaries’ views are not. On the other hand, the majority of English translations allow for ‘spirit’ to be in apposition either to ‘ruler’ or to ‘kingdom,’ but not subordinate to ‘ruler.’ Thus, most English translations allow for either (a) or (b), but not (c). No translation is perfect, of course, and as the adage goes, something is always lost in translation. But the NET has preserved an interpretive option that is not allowed in other English translations, while alsopreserving an option that is not easily seen in other English translations. The objective of the translators was not to take a poll of the best scholarship and offer a consensus translation, however! But in difficult cases, a certain amount of ambiguity was found desirable, as long as the English reader still had the ability to discern the most likely possibilities. What has been omitted in the NET rendering is, in the judgment of the editors, the least likely option.
At issue here is essentially whether the genitive of apposition can involve two persons. Best notes that the standard Greek grammar by Blass-Debrunner-Rehkopf3discusses “appositions which transgress strict grammatical correctness.” BDR speak a bit more broadly than genitive of apposition, however: “Die übrigen Flle sind Anfügungen einer Apposition oder eines Ptz. im Nom. statt in einem obliquen Kasus” (“The remaining cases are instances of apposition or of a participle in the nominative instead of in an oblique case”). The passages cited in 137.3 are Jas 3.8; Luke 24.47; Acts 10.37; 26.2-3; Mark 7.18-19; 16.14; and 2 Thess 1.8. Of these texts, not one involves a genitive of apposition. Further, in many respects they would be considered a significantly less harsh break in syntax that what Best envisions in Eph 2.2. The other section of BDR that Best cites is 167.2, a section that deals specifically with the genitive of apposition. But this section of the grammar only lists normal examples, not exceptional examples. (To be sure, Best’s reference to 167.2 is probably meant to be simply informative, letting the reader know where the discussion of the genitive of apposition can be found in the grammar.) Indeed, the older BDF4 begins this section by noting that “The use of the appositive genitive, i.e. of the genitive used in the sense of an appositive, conforms in the NT to classical usage…”5 Essentially the same verses are found in both the German and the English Blass-Debrunner. In other words, although Best’s point that occasionally apposition in the New Testament does not follow strict grammatical concord is true enough, what he did not demonstrate is (a) that the genitive of apposition ever fit into this pattern of irregularity, and especially (b) that the genitive of apposition involving persons ever involved such grammatical incongruities.
There is a solid linguistic explanation as to why the genitive of apposition does not occur with two personal nouns (the head noun and the genitive noun). The semantics of the genitive of apposition can be contrasted with the genitive in simple apposition as follows:6
In other words, both the genitive of apposition and the genitive in simple apposition involve an embedded equative clause. But the kind of equative clause in each case is different. In a genitive of apposition construction, the genitive is semantically equivalent to a subject that designates a particular belonging to a larger group (predicate nominative). Thus, “the sign of circumcision” can be unpacked as “circumcision is a sign” (but not “a sign is circumcision”). In this example, the lexical field of “sign” is much larger than that for “circumcision.” For a genitive in simple apposition the two nouns are equivalent to a convertible proposition. Thus, “Paul the apostle” could be unpacked as “Paul is the apostle” or “the apostle is Paul.”
In light of these genuine semantic differences, it becomes evident that a genitive of apposition will not occur when both nouns are personal. “The apostle of Paul” does not mean the same thing as “the apostle is Paul.”
Consequently, the NET Bible has taken an approach to Eph 2.2 that allows for τοῦ πνεύματος to be read as parallel to or appositional to the genitive τῆς ἐχουσίας, but not as appositional to the accusative τὸν ἁρξοντα. This is because if it taken as appositional to τὸν ἁρξοντα, then both nouns are personal, making for a rather awkward and highly improbable construction, unparalleled in any other genitive of apposition in the New Testament. This is not to deny that such could be the case here, but the exegetical arguments put forth on its behalf—in spite of the fact that most English translations can be read as following this interpretation—make this the least likely interpretation. That is to say, ‘the ruler of the spirit’ cannot be taken to mean ‘the ruler is the spirit’ any more than ‘the father of John’ could mean ‘the father is John.’ To be sure, commentators who argue that this is indeed the meaning see the construction as awkward. But to date no actual parallels in biblical Greek have been produced to show that this kind of awkward construction is part of the conventions of the language. The NET translation thus goes with the more probable meanings, allowing either apposition to another genitive (τῆς ἐχουσίας) or parallel to it.
The Meaning of Eph 2.2 in the NET Bible
Lincoln’s statement is worth quoting again:
“It could be explained as a genitive of apposition (cf. BDF 167) or as an unconscious assimilation to the two immediately preceding genitives, but it remains an awkward construction. Others take τοῦ πνεύματος as in apposition to its most immediate antecedent τοῦ ἀέρος, ‘of the air’ (cf. Schlier, 104; Caird, 51). This interpretation can account for the genitive and appeals to a connection between spirit and air on the basis of the fact that in Hebrew and Greek one word could do service for spirit, breath, wind, air, and atmosphere. τοῦ πνεύματος, on this view, would be a further explanation of the air as the spiritual atmosphere which pervades those who are disobedient. There is one more syntactical option. τοῦ πνεύματος could be parallel to τῆς ἐχουσίας, ‘of the realm,’ and governed by τὸν ἁρξοντα, ‘the ruler’ (cf. Meyer, 98-99; J. A. Robinson, 154; Abbott, 42). This option again accounts adequately for the genitive and should be preferred as making better sense of the verse. On this interpretation, the personal power of evil is the ruler of the realm of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now at work in the disobedient.”
At this stage, I could mention my understanding of this verse. But the point of this exercise was to show that the NET Bible allows for the most reasonable interpretations, not that it is tied in to only one. Some would prefer that we commit more to a particular interpretive option, while others would prefer that we leave the text even more ambiguous (as the ASV and NASB do here). The task of the NET Bible translators, however, was to try to produce a translation that was readable, accurate, and elegant. And when an interpretive option is not very likely, this means that we tried to lean toward those that were more plausible. I believe that the NET Bible has succeeded in Eph 2.2.
1 As we will see, there is very little difference between apposition to ‘kingdom’ and apposition to ‘air.’ Both words are in the genitive, and take τοῦ πνεύματος could conceivably be either a genitive of apposition to either or in simple apposition to either. As for the expression, ‘the kingdom of the air,’ this is easily seen as a genitive of apposition construction: ‘the kingdom, that is, the air,’ or paraphrased, ‘Satan’s kingdom which is the air.’ Genitive of apposition is a live option here for precisely the same reason that it is not for ‘the ruler… of the spirit’: neither kingdom nor air is personal, while both ruler and spirit (if ‘spirit’ is in a genitive of apposition) are.
2 Peter T. O’Brien has also recently sided with Best in his Pillar commentary on Ephesians.
3 Blass-Debrunner-Rehkopf, Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Griechisch, 17th Auflage (Gttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1990).
4 BDF is here quoted, rather than BDR, because BDR lacks this full statement.
5 Blass-Debrunner-Funk, A Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).
6 The following material is taken from D. B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 96-97.