1 Corinthians 13:1-4 (Scrivner’s Greek New Testament)
1 εαν ταις γλωσσαις των ανθρωπων λαλω και των αγγελων αγαπην δε μη εχω γεγονα χαλκος ηχων η κυμβαλον αλαλαζον
1 Corinthians 13:1-4 (NASB)
1. If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
2 και εαν εχω προφητειαν και ειδω τα μυστηρια παντα και πασαν την γνωσιν και εαν εχω πασαν την πιστιν ωστε ορη μεθιστανειν αγαπην δε μη εχω ουδεν ειμι
2. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
3 και εαν ψωμισω παντα τα υπαρχοντα μου και εαν παραδω το σωμα μου ινα καυθησωμαι αγαπην δε μη εχω ουδεν ωφελουμαι
3. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
4 η αγαπη μακροθυμει χρηστευεται η αγαπη ου ζηλοι η αγαπη ου περπερευεται ου φυσιουται
4. Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant.
Today’s post features the first four verses of the so-called famous “love chapter” of the Bible – 1 Corinthians 13. I am sure for anyone who has ever attended a wedding, 1 Corinthians 13 is either mentioned or used as a base text for the wedding sermon. Most people conceive of 1 Corinthians 13 extolling the virtues of human love. In as much as one could draw out a few applications pertaining to human love, the manner of love discussed in 1 Corinthians 13 is not-so-much human love as it is Divine. God’s love is the featured love in this text. His love, expressed through the Christian’s exercise of their spiritual gifts, marks the chief theme of Paul purpose in writing 1 Corinthians 13. If readers would prefer to skip the foregoing textual discussion of 1 Corinthians 13:1-4 in the English and Greek text, they can do so and go right to the closing remarks and application section of today’s post.
Textual commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-4 in Greek and English
Certain textual features of these first four verses (see the colored portions in the Greek and English texts above) will bear out this conclusion. To begin, when people begin to read 1 Corinthians 13:1, they are met with the curious mention of :
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels…” (NASB)
The blue conditional particle “if” in the Greek text εαν (e-av) begins a type of conditional clause in Greek (i.e if-then statements) that is called a “third-class conditional statement”. In short, in most cases, whenever we see this type of statement with this particular conditional particle (i.e “if” = εαν ) combined with what is called a “subjunctive verb” (verbs which present “possible” situations, normally translated with the word “might” or “may”), then we can take the author to be referring to some sort of hypothetical situation. The Apostle Paul uses such a verb (the green verb μη εχω = not have ) in presenting a hypothetical situation of “what if, say, one were able to speak with the tongues of men and angels”. The negative particle μη (may), translated “not”, is also used in sentences that negate subjunctive verbs in the Greek. All of these particular features are smoking guns for what is a series of hypothetical statements set up by Paul to communicate a form of “hyperbole” or “overstatement” to drive home the point of the need for God’s love in the exercise of the gifts.
We then focus our attention on the word “love” (αγαπην) in verses 1-3, and compare it to the same word translated “love” in verse 4 ( η αγαπη ), we notice the purple word “η” (“hay” = the nominative, singular definite article, translated “the”). For the purpose of good English, most English translations leave this definite article untranslated. Yet, when we see the word for love without the definite article in the first three verses, and see the definite article placed with the noun for love in verse 4 (which is a nominative feminine singular noun), an otherwise seemingly small point of grammar brings out the type of love discussed in the text.
In Greek, whenever a noun doesn’t have a definite article (i.e “the”), we call such a word “anarthorous” (i.e “without the article). In general terms, nouns without their definite articles in Greek can either refer to a general, non-specified person, place or thing (i.e a noun), or, the absence of the article can be stressing the “quality” or “essence” of the noun in question. In other words, Paul’s use of the word for “love” in the first three verses appears to be referring to a particular “quality” of love, rather than plain-old love in general.
Whenever we come to 1 Corinthians 13:4 and see the word “love” with its attendant definite article (“the”), we see the identification of the particular, quality of love discussed by the Apostle. This use of the definite article is what scholars call the “monadic” use, which simply means “one-of-a-kind” type of love. The grammar of 1 Corinthians 13:1-4 is intentional on Paul’s part in conveying the special quality and uniqueness of the love communicated in the chapter.
Moreover, in all four verses, the word for “love” is placed in the very front of all the sentences or clauses in which it appears. Such a placement of a noun at the front of a Greek sentence is called “fronting”, indicating some sort-of emphasis on the author’s part. In normal Greek sentences, the verb is placed first, followed by its subject (i.e the “doer” of the action). In the cases we encounter the word “love” in 1 Corinthians 13:1-4, the noun is “fronted”, communicating the special quality of this love.
Closing thoughts and applications
The aim of today’s post was to explore 1 Corinthians 13:1-4 in Greek and English. We noted how Paul sets up literary devices in the first three verses to communicate how useless it would be to achieve great virtuous and societal feats apart from God’s love. If such love is not exercised by the Christian, not only will extraordinary efforts be deemed ineffective, but their service to God in the so-called “ordinary” events of every-day life will fall short. We discovered how God’s love expressed through the Christian’s Spirit-given gifts is like a river flowing through an otherwise dry-river bed. If we think about it for just a moment, God’s love flowing through the Christian ought to impact others around them. In so far as spiritual gifts are vital, without God’s love in conjunction with our own – we will end up not achieving His purposes.