In the most recent JBL (as of this writing; the citation is JBL 126, no. 3 (2007): 579-593), is an article David Konstan and Ilaria Ramelli (henceforth K&R) titled “The Syntax of εν Χριστω in 1 Thessalonians 4.16”. If you are an SBL member, you can retrieve this article from the JBL website.
I’ve actually written a series of blog posts for the Logos Bible Software blog on locating prepositional phrases using a syntactically annotated edition of the Greek New Testament (The OpenText.org Syntactically Analyzed Greek New Testament) using εν Χριστω in 1Th 4.16 as a starting point. Those posts don’t directly interact with the material and argument of K&R’s article; they just work through approaches to sifting data.
I’ve been chewing on K&R’s article for awhile and it’s time to write some more about it. But first, for those unfamiliar with the article, let me provide an excerpt from their introduction:
Our concern in this article is with the final clause: “And the dead in Christ will rise.” Does the Greek mean, “those who are dead in Christ will rise,” as many have taken it, including Jerome in the Latin Vulgate: mortui qui in Christo sunt resurgent? Or is it preferable to take it as meaning, “the dead will rise in Christ”? The choice between the two versions is of considerable importance. On the first interpretation, only those who have died in Christ will be resurrected, whereas the second can be taken to signify that all the dead will be resurrecte din Christ—the necessary premise for the theses of universal salvation or apocatastasis defended by Origen and other patristic writers, including Gregory of Nyssa. In this article, however, we set aside the theological arguments and concentrate simply on the point of grammar: does the prepositional phrase εν Χριστω modify οι νεκροι, or does it more naturally go with αναστησονται? (K&R, 579-581).
So the article is an exploration of a point of grammar (attachment of prepositional phrase) that has theological/doctrinal implications. And that’s great, particularly in this instance, because the text is ambiguous as to point of prepositional phrase attachment. Here’s the text with the pertinent bit italicised:
ὅτι αὐτὸς ὁ κύριος ἐν κελεύσματι, ἐν φωνῇ ἀρχαγγέλου καὶ ἐν σάλπιγγι θεοῦ, καταβήσεται ἀπʼ οὐρανοῦ καὶ οἱ νεκροὶ ἐν Χριστῷ ἀναστήσονται πρῶτον, (1 Th 4:16, NA27)
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. (1 Th 4:16, NRSV)
If you examine the text, you will find (as K&R note in the excerpt above) that the prepositional phrase εν Χριστω does have two potential points of attachment: οι νεκροι and αναστησονται. The attachment is ambiguous, but after examining the question K&R conclude that it is best to read εν Χριστω as attaching to the verb.
The more I consider K&R’s article, the less I like it and the more it frustrates me. And it isn’t (necessarily) their conclusion that frustrates me, it is the methodology. While they duly examine all 84 NT instances of εν Χριστω (both arthrous and anarthrous), include some extra-Biblical instances in footnotes, and while they even throw in NT instances of εν κυριω for good measure, their approach is lacking.
Why? There are a few reasons.
1. Their approach seeks to classify everything and group like with like; these groupings (and derived trends) then serve as the lense to classify the instance in 1Th 4.16.
Now classification isn’t bad, but this doesn’t address the primary issue with 1Th 4.16: There are two decent possibilities for attachment in 1Th 4.16, but the vast majority of instances of the prepositional phrase are not ambiguous in respect to placement. Classifying all of these primarily unambiguous instances does not necessarily help one think about the ambiguous instances more clearly. It can actually muddy the waters. Trends are not rules. That’s why I don’t like this paragraph:
The phrases εν Χριστω and εν κυριω seem, then, to be regularly attached to a verb, a participle, or an adjective with verbal force (this last very rarely, however). If they do modify a substantive, they are either clearly enclosed in a nominal phrase, as may occur also with a participle (1Co 7.22: ο γαρ εν κυριω κληθεις δουλος), or else they are preceded by a repetition of the article. (K&R, p. 589)
Do you see that? They’ve properly identified the trends of the unambiguous instances. But how does this really help consider what is going on in an instance where there are two relatively probable possibilities? While one can examine all instances to see which is most common, knowing the most common does not necessarily help in trying to determine the proper reading of the ambiguous instance. To simply follow the most common option is to make grammar and syntax into a popularity contest; this does not do justice to the text.
2. Their approach only examines particular components of the clause in question in comparison with other clauses; the questionable clause as a whole is not considered.
What I mean by this is that their approach neglects the clause as a whole; it only examines the subject (οι νεκροι), the prepositional phrase (εν Χριστω) and the verb (αναστησονται). They neglect the adverb πρωτον. This is evident in their proposing of the question (pp. 579-581, excerpted above). There is no discussion regarding how πρωτον affects either of their two possible readings. This, to my mind, is a gaping hole in the argument.
3. The “If Paul would’ve meant to associate the prepositional phrase with the substantive, he’d have written it this way” argument is unconvincing.
K&R proceed to examine instances of εν κυριω in their attempt to better understand εν Χριστω in 1Th 4.16. And this is fine as well. But I just don’t buy the following argument:
The only non-Pauline occurrence of [εν κυριω] is in Rev 14.13, and it, like the passage in 1 Thessalonians, concerns those who are dead in Christ. To indicate the dead, however, John does not use the bare expression οι νεκροι εν κυριω but rather repeats the article before the prepositional phrase, and in addition encloses the phrase between the article an a participle, so that its syntactical structure and meaning are unequivocal: μακαριοι οι νεκροι οι εν κυριω αποθνεησκοντες απ’ αρτι ... ινα αναποστησονται εκ των κοπων. We have here, then, a construction quite different from that in 1 Thessalonians, which indeed suggests what Paul would have written if he had meant to say “those who are dead”—or rather, who have died (the phrase depends on the participle)—“in Christ.” (K&R, 589)
Do you see the subtle flaw with their argument? They’re taking an unambiguous instance in a different author and stating that if Paul wanted the reading to be attached to the substantive, he would’ve done it this way.
To be more precise, however, one must instead conclude that if Paul wanted to present the reading attached to the substantive unambiguously, he might have done it the way John did—but they don't have access to the mind of Paul. One cannot conclude that because Paul didn’t write it the same way John did (or the way George or Ringo wrote it, for that matter), Paul can’t have meant what John meant.
4. Their approach assumes that a prepositional phrase must definitely attach to one or the other clausal component.
Again, this is evident in the phrasing of the question. And this seems largely driven by the traditional method of thinking about Greek syntax and perhaps even driven by the practice of sentence diagramming. This is good to think about and even necessary when doing exegesis; but isn’t it possible that the ambiguity of the phrasing could imply ambiguity in attachment on purpose? I guess I’m saying that in my experience language is messy; to say the prepositional phrase must “attach” to one component or the other may be generally true but, as with other things, I can’t help but think ambiguity should be an option as well.
5. Their approach pays little to no attention to the context surrounding the clause; that is, the clause is read in isolation to the larger context (surrounding clauses, paragraph and discourse levels).
This follows on point 2 above. Because K&R don’t treat πρωτον, they have no need to ask the question “what follows after the first thing?”. Verse 17 discusses what happens after the ‘first’ thing and this can help in resolving the ambiguity. Indeed, the whole context of vv. 13-18 have to do with believers both living and dead; Paul is answering the issue of what happens to those (believers) who die previous to Christ’s triumphant return. To include and consider relevant context is not theological discussion (recall K&R intend to specifically avoid discussing the theological implications of the syntactic reading); it is treating the discourse as a discourse instead of a jumble of unconnected words and phrases.
When there is ambiguity in the interaction of clausal components, examination of the larger discourse may provide light on how to resolve the ambiguity.
6. For an article on syntax, there is no interaction with standard grammars on the point of syntax discussed.
Specifically, there is no interaction with BDF§272, which cites this instance in particular. This is a minor nitpick, but where standard grammars interact on this specific question, that evidence should be noted.
Those are the primary issues I have with K&R’s article. Please don’t get me wrong, I think there is valuable stuff in there but I don’t see how it helps make a conclusion as to what is happening with the prepositional phrase in 1Th 4.16.
Additionally, I have to say that I enjoyed pp. 591-593, where K&R delve into patristic evidence of how 1Th 4.16 was read in the early church—specifically, their examination of Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa. I thought this portion was actually a stronger argument for their view than all of the listing and classification of Greek NT instances.