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Wes Williams and Rob Bowman discussion concerning Prwtotokos:

Rob Bowman and the Lexical Meaning of PRWTOTOKOS

Rob Bowman wrote in response to my earlier post:

: You wrote:

: >>>Another point to note is that the firstborn of a person means the firstborn of the "sons of" that person.>>>

: But in the LXX, "the firstborn of so-and-so" means that the person or animal called the firstborn is actually produced or fathered by so-and-so. For example:

: >>>LXX Genesis 25:13 And these are the names of the sons of Ismael, according to the names of their generations. The <b>firstborn of Ismael</b>, Nabaioth, and Kedar, and Nabdeel, and Massam,>>>

: NOTE: The firstborn of Ishmael is fathered by Ishmael.

: >>>LXX Exodus 11:5 And every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the<b> first-born of Pharao</b> that sits on the throne, even to the <b>first-born of the woman-servant </b>that is by the mill, and to the first-born of all cattle.>>>

: NOTE: the firstborn of Pharaoh is fathered by Pharaoh; the firstborn of the woman-servant was produced from her; the firstborn of all cattle were produced from cattle.

: Virtually all of the rest of your listed verses are similar.

: Now, what relevance does this have to Colossians 1:15 (which is the point, I assume)? None that I can see, since neither you nor we believe that the Son was fathered or produced by "all creation" or by any part of creation.

: This would seem to mean that the usual literal use of the partitive genitive with PROTOTOKOS in the LXX is irrelevant to Colossians 1:15.

: --Rob Bowman

Dear Rob Bowman,

Much of what you say is correct about the expression "firstborn of [a name]" and I you will find me in agreement with you on a pragmatic plane of understanding (the field of linguistics dealing with sense). For those following this discussion, please allow me to share how we each reached our varied understandings and what the issues are. At first my explanation may appear tedious, but it is important to carefully follow to understand HOW and WHY we disagree. Once these are understood, the issue and answer becomes clear.

The Meaning of Firstborn - The Issue

The central issue here is that Rob is arguing that the way a word is used changes its basic core meaning. I argue firmly that it does not except in figurative language. What follows is a summary discussion of word meaning and word usage with the word "firstborn."
When Rob read the LXX expression:

"the firstborn of Ismael" (Gen 25:13)

Rob made a leap of understanding (but he was correct) that "firstborn" here is a son that was parented by Ishmael. We read Rob's leap of logic when he argues, "NOTE: The firstborn of Ishmael is fathered by Ishmael."

Rob made his leap from "firstborn of Ishmael" to "fathered by Ishmael" by a plane of understanding known in linguistics as "pragmatics." What process did Rob go through to make this leap of understanding?


Rob, as we all do, possesses a certain knowledge of the world around us. Rob read the expression "the firstborn of Ismael" and with his knowledge of the world, Rob knows that the "firstborn" is also a son in this context. So, Rob asks mentally: In the expression

"the son of Ismael"

What is the relationship between a son and Ismael? He answers: The relationship is that of fathering, parenting, and he thus correctly concludes, and I agree with him:

"NOTE: The firstborn of Ishmael is fathered by Ishmael."

Rob notes that the relationship between "creation" and "firstborn" is different than "[a name] and "firstborn." Is he correct? Yes.

However, his conclusion

"This would seem to mean that the usual literal use of the partitive genitive with PROTOTOKOS in the LXX is irrelevant to Colossians 1:15."

is flawed because he did not consider of another important plane of understanding. The plane of understanding from which I argued.

Lexical Semantics

In addition to our own knowledge of the world (Rob's leap above), words themselves carry force. In other words, the word "firstborn" (Greek: PRWTOTOKOS) MEANS something. The LEXICAL and biblical meaning of the word "firstborn" requires a comparison with something else. A comparison with what? A comparison with others who come later in time. The very meaning of the Hebrew BaQaR (verbal form of "firstborn") is "to be born first."

Therefore, LEXICALLY, the phrase "firstborn of" requires:

(1) temporal priority over others in a given group and

(2) that the firstborn is A MEMBER of the very group that he preceeds in time

To illustrate, there is a lexical difference between the expressions:

Ruben, the son of Jacob and

Ruben, the FIRSTBORN of Jacob.

On a pragmatic level (what makes sense to us), they both express that Jacob parented Reuben.

However, on a LEXICAL level, the latter requires that Reuben's birth PRECEED in TIME any other sons Jacob had or may have AND that Rueben is himself one of the sons of Jacob!

Therefore, the very word "firstborn" REQUIRES, LEXICALLY, (1) a temporal comparison with others of Jacob's sons AND (2) that "firstborn" is himself ONE of JACOB'S SONS! The lexical force of the word phrase "firstborn of" is UNCHANGED by pragmatics, i.e. our understanding of how the firstborn relates to the object of the preposition (e.g. "Jacob" or "creation"). Thus, "firstborn of all creation" still requires that the firstborn has temporally priority over the rest of creation AND that the firstborn himself is a member of "creation." This is true even though the nature of the noun changes in "the firstborn of [noun]." The only time this is not true is in the case of figurative language.

This is specifically the piece of information that Rob Bowman did not deal with, and is precisely the reason why his conclusion is in error.


In conclusion, we agree with Bowman's observations that, speaking pragmatically, the firstborn of [a name] also descends from [a name]. However, we point out that Rob Bowman's conclusion is in error because he assumes that the LEXICAL requirement of the phrase "firstborn of" can be removed by "an understanding of the world" (pragmatics). These lexical requirements are:

(1) temporal priority over others who ALSO descended from [a name]" and
(2) that the firstborn is a member of the very group that he preceeds in time.

Only in the case of figurative usage do we ever see the requirement of temporal priority unmet (e.g. "the firstborn of death", but still a figurative member of group "death.").

In the specific case of Colossians 1:15, it is Mr. Bowman's "understanding of the world" that is called into question by the expression "firstborn of all creation." Biblical words themselves show Mr. Bowman's "knowledge of the world" to be out of harmony with their consistent use and meaning in scripture.

Thus, in the expression "the firstborn (PRWTOTOKOS) of all creation" we would not say that creation fathered the firstborn, because pragmatics (our knowledge of the world) forbids it. We know that "creation" is not a proper name and cannot literally parent in this context. However, the LEXICAL requirement still exists, that the PRWTOTOKOS, Jesus:

(1) has temporal priority over others who also are part of creation (including angels) and
(2) that Jesus is a member of the very group that he preceeds in time, namely, creation

These requirements consistently and unyieldingly cry "first in time" and "part of the group" from Septuagint usage. And the sense relations between "firstborn" and "creation" do not change this lexical requirement, Mr. Bowman. Unless you take the position that the "firstborn" at Col. 1:15 is figurative, which I believe you do not.

In short Mr Bowman, your observations are true but they fail to take into account the lexical requirements of "firstborn" (Hebrew: BeQoR/ Greek: PRWTOTOKOS). This is a significant omission, as Moises Silva concludes in "Biblical Words and Their Meaning" 1994, p. 169, "It appears, then, that sensitivity to lexical structure --- paradigmatic resources, syntagmatic patterns, neutralization [my note: structures discussed in his book] --- can have a direct and significant effect on exegetical decisions." Thus, I submit that a lack of sensitivity to lexical structure lead to your exegetical decision to disregard similar lexical structures in the Septuagint, which is an error in interpreting meaning.

Jehovah's Witnesses seek to avoid the kind of scholarship that alters basic lexical requirements that do not meet a preconceived concept of God. Rather, Jehovah's Witnesses strive to achieve an honest and knowledgeable scholarship of the scriptures. This requires that our concepts of God come from scriptures AND THE WORDS OF SCRIPTURE and not the other way around.

Thus, there is no need for Jehovah's Witnesses to redefine the meaning of PRWTOTOKOS at Col 1:15 to fit a preconceived theological view. Rather, we accept what the words themselves tell us without altering the plain and consistent meaning of that word phrase. That plain meaning is that Jesus is pre-eminent over all creation because he was created (figuratively "born" in Hebrew idiom) first in time. Next, through this highly exalted one, all things came into existence through his agency, as Col 1:16 lays before us.

I warmly appeal to you, Rob Bowman, and to other readers of this information, to consider this information prayerfully and meditatively, to the honor and glory of God and his pre-eminent firstborn Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Your thoughtful questions for clarification are most welcome.


Wes Williams

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