This post is extracted from some research I’m doing related to the kingdom.
φθάνω (Matt 12:28; Luke 11:20)
A host of clear biblical passages teach that the kingdom is literal and earthly. Two obscure passages that have become key to overthrowing the plain meaning of the text are Matt 12:28 and Luke 11:20, both of which record Jesus telling unbelievers that the kingdom ἔφθασεν ἐφ᾿ ὑμᾶς, which the KJV translates, “is come unto you” in Matthew and “is come upon you” in Luke. To the assertion that Jesus made it plain that the kingdom had already come, Millar Burrows responds:
When all the evidence in the sayings of Jesus for “realized eschatology” is thoroughly tested, it boils down to ἔφθασεν ἐφ᾿ ὑμᾶς of Matthew 12:28 and Luke 11:20. Why should that determine the interpretation of Matthew 6:10 and Luke 11:2? Why should a difficult, obscure saying establish the meaning of one that is clear and unambiguous?1
A summary of these passages is that Jesus was announcing the postponement of the kingdom by telling the unbelieving Jewish leaders that the kingdom had passed around them. This narrative will receive more thorough exegetical support later, but the immediate task is a word study of ἔφθασεν ἐφ᾿ ὑμᾶς to demonstrate that it carries here the connotation of “to pass around.”
The basic meaning of the verb, φθάνω, is “to come first,” “to do first,” “to be first,” “to overtake.”2 This connotation of “overtake” or “surpass” is evident in the most famous rapture passage of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Paul encourages the church that those who are asleep in Christ will rise first, surpassing those who are still alive, then those who are in Christ that are alive and remain will join them. Speaking in litotes, Paul tells the Thessalonians that the living οὐ μὴ φθάσωμεν τοὺς κοιμηθέντας, which the KJV unfortunately translates, “shall not prevent them which are asleep.” A proposed improvement to 1 Thess 4:15b is, “the living, the remaining until the Parousia of the Lord will by no means surpass those who have fallen asleep.” This interpretation is echoed by the ESV translators who render οὐ μὴ φθάσωμεν as “will not precede.”
The φθάνω with ἐπί construction only occurs thrice in the Greek New Testament to include the two kingdom-related passages under question and 1 Thess 2:16. The translators of KJV and ESV take the phrase “come upon” from Luke 11:20 and apply it here:
κωλυόντων ἡμᾶς τοῖς ἔθνεσι λαλῆσαι ἵνα σωθῶσιν, εἰς τὸ ἀναπληρῶσαι αὐτῶν τὰς ἁμαρτίας πάντοτε. ἔφθασε δὲ ἐπ᾿ αὐτοὺς ἡ ὀργὴ εἰς τέλος.
Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost. (KJV)
by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last! (ESV)
This interpretation can fit if Paul’s intention is that God’s wrath had come upon the Jews εἰς τέλος, “to the uttermost” in KJV or “at last” in ESV. Elsewhere, Paul writes that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom 1:18) and he specifies the debaucherous sinner and clarifies that there is no distinction between unbelieving Jews and Greeks (Rom 2:10-11). Accepting these Jews as the intended object of ἐπ᾿ αὐτοὺς in 1 Thess 2:16 implies that earlier, God’s wrath had not “at last” come upon them or had not come “to the uttermost.”
Alternatively, ἔφθασε δὲ ἐπ᾿could be treated as “but has passed around” and the object αὐτοὺς could be shifted from the Jewish hinderers to the Gentiles whom are being evangelized. This shift to the end would provide another plausible interpretation:
Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles, that they would be saved unto this: their sins to be fulfilled always [forgiven of all sins committed], even the wrath passed around them [the Gentile believers]. (my translation)
The “passing around” understanding of φθάνω with ἐπί fits in 1 Thess 2:16, perhaps even more comfortably than with the “come upon” interpretation that is often transferred from Matthew and Luke.
An interesting detail from Herodotus’ account of the Scythian Campaign in the Persian Wars sheds light on the Greek usage of φθάνω with ἐπί and casts doubt on the common interpretation of the ἐπί prepositional phrase as the stopping point for the subject. In the fourth book of The Histories, Darius is confronted by Scythian cavalry, whom he sneaks away from at night with the better part of his infantry, heading toward a bridge which they intend to cross and destroy. The next morning, the remaining Persian infantry realize that they had been deserted, inform the Scythians, and the Scythians race toward the bridge. The Scythians are on horseback and know the territory better, so they beat Darius to the bridge. Describing the race to the bridge, Herodotus writes:
ἅτε δὲ τοῦ Περσικοῦ μὲν τοῦ πολλοῦ ἐόντος πεζοῦ στρατοῦ καὶ τὰς ὁδοὺς οὐκ ἐπισταμένου, ὥστε οὐ τετμημενέων τῶν ὁδῶν, τοῦ δὲ Σκυθικοῦ ἱππότεω καὶ τὰ σύντομα τῆς ὁδοῦ ἐπισταμένου, ἁμαρτόντες ἀλλήλων, ἔφθησαν πολλῷ οἱ Σκύθαι τοὺς Πέρσας ἐπὶ τὴν γέφυραν ἀπικόμενοι.3
Alfred Dennis Godley translates into English:
And as the Persian army was for the most part infantry and did not know the roads (which were not marked), while the Scythians were horsemen and knew the short cuts, they went wide of each other, and the Scythians reached the bridge long before the Persians.4
Of most interest to the current study is the phrase, “ἁμαρτόντες ἀλλήλων, ἔφθησαν πολλῷ οἱ Σκύθαι τοὺς Πέρσας ἐπὶ τὴν γέφυραν ἀπικόμενοι.” Three verbs are present: ἁμαρτόντες, ἔφθησαν, and ἀπικόμενοι. Godley avoided redundancy by only translating “ἁμαρτόντες ἀλλήλων” as “they went wide of each other” and “ἐπὶ τὴν γέφυραν ἀπικόμενοι” as “reached the bridge long before.” In Godley’s translation, the verb φθάνω (in its form, ἔφθησαν) is swallowed by the concepts of the Scythians going wide of the Persians and arriving to the bridge first, such that the English equivalent to φθάνω is skipped in his translation. The word order in the phrase, ἐπὶ τὴν γέφυραν ἀπικόμενοι, is noteworthy as the word order implies an emphasis on the verb ἀφικνέομαι. If φθάνω with ἐπὶ uses the ἐπὶ prepositional phrase to tell where the subject arrives, then Herodotus’ use of ἀφικνέομαι5 would have been redundant. On the other hand, if the ἐπὶ prepositional phrase tells a point where the subject crosses over or around, then φθάνω with ἐπὶ would be inappropriate here as the Scythians did not actually go across the bridge, but only beat the Persians up to the bridge. To Herodotus, φθάνω with ἐπὶ does not mean “unto,” or else he would not need ἀφικνέομαι. Likewise, it is likely that φθάνω with ἐπί in Jesus’ phrase does not mean “came and stayed,” but rather probably means “came and passed around.”
To further demonstrate the connotation of passing that comes with φθάνω with ἐπί, it is necessary to look beyond the biblical text into other Greek sources of antiquity. The Loeb Classical Library records a saying by Philo:
οὐ μὴν διὰ τοῦθ’ ἡσυχαστέον, ἀλλ’ ἕνεκα τοῦ θεοφιλοῦς καὶ ὑπὲρ δύναμιν ἐπιτολμητέον λέγειν, οἴκοθεν μὲν οὐδέν, ὀλίγα δ’ ἀντὶ πολλῶν, ἐφ’ ἃ τὴν ἀνθρωπίνην διάνοιαν φθάνειν εἰκὸς ἔρωτι καὶ πόθῳ σοφίας κατεσχημένην.
We shall fetch nothing from our own store, but, with a great array of points before us, we shall mention only a few, such as we may believe to be within reach of the human mind when possessed by love and longing for wisdom.6
Charles Duke Yonge offers the translation:
Not having as much, or indeed anything to say of our own, but instead of much, just a little, such as it may be probable that human intellect may attain to, when wholly occupied with a love of and desire for wisdom.7
Both translators apply a dynamic approach to render Philo into a beautiful, albeit almost idiomatic, English version. Both accept τὴν ἀνθρωπίνην διάνοιαν as an accusative absolute, which was “rare in the N.T. [and by extension, in Philo, who was a contemporary of the New Testament authors] as compared with the earlier Greek.”8 Applying the proposed interpretation of “surpass around” for φθάνω with ἐπί, the prepositional phrase ἐφ’ ἃ points back to οἴκοθεν μὲν οὐδέν, ὀλίγα δ’ ἀντὶ πολλῶν, which is that, “around which” (ἐφ’ ἃ) τὴν ἀνθρωπίνην διάνοιαν φθάνειν “the human intellect surpasses” εἰκὸς ἔρωτι καὶ πόθῳ σοφίας κατεσχημένην “when possessed by love and longing for wisdom.” This seems to fit Philo’s intention, as the things which he wants to expound are not simply on the outskirts of what an appropriate intellect could approach, but rather, with the proper attitude of love and desire for wisdom, the human intellect may “surpass around” these concepts and grasp them fully.
Likewise, Philo writes of Moses’ wisdom:
Μωυσῆς δὲ καὶ φιλοσοφίας ἐπ’ αὐτὴν φθάσας ἀκρότητα καὶ χρησμοῖς τὰ πολλὰ καὶ συνεκτικώτατα τῶν τῆς φύσεως ἀναδιδαχθεὶς ἔγνω δή, ὅτι ἀναγκαιότατόν ἐστιν ἐν τοῖς οὖσι τὸ μὲν εἶναι δραστήριον αἴτιον, τὸ δὲ παθητόν, καὶ ὅτι τὸ μὲν δραστήριον ὁ τῶν ὅλων νοῦς ἐστιν εἱλικρινέστατος καὶ ἀκραιφνέστατος, κρείττων ἢ ἀρετὴ καὶ κρείττων ἢ ἐπιστήμη καὶ κρείττων ἢ αὐτὸ τὸ ἀγαθὸν καὶ αὐτὸ τὸ καλόν,
Moses, both because he had attained the very summit of philosophy, and because he had been divinely instructed in the greater and most essential part of Nature’s lore, could not fail to recognize that the universal must consist of two parts9
When Philo says that Moses φιλοσοφίας ἐπ’ αὐτὴν φθάσας ἀκρότητα, the intention was less likely that he had merely “attained the very summit of philosophy,” but rather exceeded or “surpassed”10 all philosophers, being “divinely instructed in the greater and most essential part of Nature’s lore.”
If Philo, Paul, and Jesus had intended to use φθάνω to express “reaching unto and stopping,” then perhaps φθάνω with ἕως and the genitive could have sufficed. 2 Chronicles 28:9 contains the phrase, בְזַ֔עַף עַ֥ד לַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִגִּֽיעַ (in a rage that reached heaven). The rage certainly did not surpass heaven, so the Septuagint translators translate ἐν ὀργῇ· ἕως τῶν οὐρανῶν ἔφθακεν, such that ἕως with the genitive τῶν οὐρανῶν puts the limitation on how far the rage went. Perhaps another alternative for using φθάνω with the sense of “reaching but not surpassing” could be εἰς with the accusative, as Paul writes in Rom 9:31:
Ἰσραὴλ δὲ διώκων νόμον δικαιοσύνης εἰς νόμον οὐκ ἔφθασεν.
but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.
Paul is not saying here that Israel did not pass around the law of righteousness, but rather that they did not even come close to attaining.
Conclusion and Respectable Alternative
Understanding φθάνω with ἐπί to mean “pass around” not only fits the biblical occurrences nicely, but also makes sense in extrabiblical texts as well. There are other ways to use φθάνω to express “arrive to,” but the evidence indicates that the word choice of ἔφθασεν ἐφ᾿ ὑμᾶς was chosen specifically to indicate that at this point the kingdom had passed around unrepentant Israel, that is, the offer of the kingdom was legitimate but upon the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, the offer had been removed. Two of the main proof texts for realized eschatology crumble with this linguistic conclusion, so it is not anticipated that the proposed definition of “pass around” will be accepted without a fight. While the proposed definition does level the realized position, the postponement position still stands, and has long stood, from the more popular (albeit less supported) perspective that φθάνω means “to arrive,” as it is possible for Jesus to be speaking of the reality of the Kingdom Offer and the reality of its withdrawal. In the 19th century, Elijah Richardson Craven penned:
Matt. xii. 28; Luke xi. 20. The original in both cases is ἔφθασεν ἐφ᾿ ὑμᾶς, not ἔρχεται (Luke xvii. 20), nor ἀναφαίνεσθαι (Luke xix. 11)… the passages under consideration aptly accord with the idea of a near approach of the Basileia to the Jews in the person of Christ, implying an offer of establishment which might be withdrawn; they are equivalent to the declaration of Luke x. 9, 11.11
Likewise in the 20th century, Toussaint advocated:
Actually φθάνω simply means to come or to arrive. The fact that the Lord uses it in a first class conditional sentence shows that He assumes the kingdom had come. Whereas the perfect tense had before been ued to refer to the condition of the kingdom, the aorist tense is now used. In view of the evident rejection of the King, the kingdom could not now be said to be in the condition of remaining at hand. In fact the kingdom is never again preached as having drawn near.12
While the evidence presented above seems to define ἔφθασεν ἐφ᾿ ὑμᾶς in a way that describes the kingdom offer passing around the unbelieving Jews of the first century and unto Israel of the Tribulation, postponement theology still stands of the author’s intention was hat the kingdom offer came to Israel, was rejected, and then was pulled away for a future generation.
- Millar Burrows, “Thy Kingdom Come,” Journal of Biblical Literature (March 1955): 5, cited by Clayton Sullivan, Rethinking Realized Eschatology, ii, 80-81.
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Geoffrey Bromiley, trans., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), vol ix, 88.
- A. D. Godley, Herodotus, with an English translation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1920), The Histories, 4.136.2.
- A. D. Godley, Herodotus, with an English translation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1920), The Histories, 4.136.2.
- Such occurrences of ἀφικνέομαι with ἐπὶ can be seen elsewhere, for example Homer writes, δὸς δὲ πάλιν ἐπὶ νῆας ἐϋκλεῖας ἀφικέσθαι (Illiad 10.281) and ἀλλ᾽ ὅτε δὴ τὸ τέταρτον ἐπὶ κρουνοὺς ἀφίκοντο, (Illiad 22.208). Another option is εἰς with ἀφικνέομαι. The Apostle Paul uses the preposition εἰς with ἀφικνέομαι and ἐπὶ with χαίρω in Rom 16:19a ἡ γὰρ ὑμῶν ὑπακοὴ εἰς πάντας ἀφίκετο· ἐφ’ ὑμῖν οὖν χαίρω.
- Philo, On the Creation, I.5, F.H. Colson, trans. in Philo, vol. 1, in The Loeb Classical Library, G.P. Goold, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
- Philo, On the Creation, I.5. Charles Duke Yonge’s translation available here
- A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), 490.
- Philo, On the Creation, II.8, F.H. Colson, trans. in Philo, vol. 1, in The Loeb Classical Library, G.P. Goold, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
- Even without ἐπί, φθάνω can carry a transferring notion, such as in The Syntax of Apollonius Dyscolus: ἡ δὲ κλητικὴ τῶν ὀνομάτων φθάνει κατὰ δεύτερον πρόσωπον, which has been translated “But the vocative form moves a noun into the second person” Fred W. Householder, trans., The Syntax of Apollonius Dyscolus (Amsterdam: John Benjamins B.V., 1981), III.40. With ἐπί, Householder seems to accept the translation of “attained,” but needs clarification which perhaps would be unnecessary if he held to the proposed definition of “surpassed.” Apollonius Dyscolus also supplies, “τὰ τούτοις ὅμοια, ὡς διὰ τὸν προειρημένον λόγον τῆς μεσότητος οὐκ ἀνθυπήλλακται κατὰ τὴν διάθεσιν, κατὰ δὲ τὸν δέοντα λόγον τῆς συντάξεως ἐπ᾽ ἀμφοτέρας τὰς διαθέσεις ἔφθασαν,” which Householder translates with bracketed commentary, “[[In all these examples so-called ‘middle’ forms, which frequently have a passive sense, have a transitive, active use]], there is no hyphallage of voice, given this explanation of the ‘middle’ but these forms have attained the sense of both voices by the necessary logic of the structure. [[This is hardly a satisfying account of the middle; but it does specify it in a distinct way.]]” Ibid., III.30.
- Craven, E. R. “Excursus on the Basileia” in Revelation of John, J.P. Lange, ed. (New York: Charlses Scribner & Co., 1874), 96. Available online here
- Stanley Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1981), 164.