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What Does “We are God’s fellow-workers” in 1 Corinthians 3.9 Really Mean?

Translations and Commentaries

The King James Version in 1 Cor 3.9 reads, “we are labourers together with God…” This unambiguously suggests that Paul and Apollos were considered in some sense on the same level with God. Of course, ‘in some sense’ covers a multitude of possibilities, but there nevertheless seems to be an underlying tone of synergism and mutual credit. (A similar translation is in the French Nouvelle Version2: “nous sommes ouvriers avec Dieu,” and in La Sacra Bibbia: “Noi siamo infatti collaboratori di Dio.”)

Most modern translations take a more neutral stance, translating 1 Cor 3.9a as “we are God’s fellow workers” (ASV [‘fellow-workers’], RSV, NASB and NASB 1995, NKJV, ESV, NIV), “we are God’s coworkers (HCSB, TNIV, and NAB2 [‘co-workers’; 2010]), “we do share in God’s work” (NJB), “wir sind Gottes Mitarbeiter” (Luther 1985), or “nosotros somos colaboradores de Dios” (Reina Valera2).

But some translations take a different interpretation. The NET Bible has, “we are coworkers belonging to God”; the REB says, “we are fellow-workers in God’s service”; the NIV 2011 reads, “we are coworkers in God’s service”; the TEV has, “we are partners together working for God”; the NRSV reads, “we are God’s servants, working together”; and “we are both God’s workers” is in the NLT2.

Thus, we see in the translations three different views: (1) Paul and Apollos are co-workers with God; (2) the statement is ambiguous, though tending toward the first view; and (3) Paul and Apollos are co-workers with each other in service to God.

Commentaries overwhelmingly fall into the third group, with some supporting the first interpretation. In the first group belong Theodore of Mopsuestia, Calvin, and Robertson and Plummer (ICC). In the third are Findlay (Expositors), Moffatt (Moffatt NTC), Barrett (BNT), Héring, Fee (NICNT), Kistemaker, Furnish (JBL 80 [1961]), Wolff (THKNT), Horsley (Abingdon), Collins (SP), Thiselton (NIGTC), and Keener (NCBC).

Significantly, if we were to chart out the translations and commentaries chronologically, we would see a tendency toward the neutral view (translations) and especially toward the third view (commentaries).

Table of Interpretations and Translations of 1 Cor 3.9

co-workers

with God

God’s co-workers

co-workers

for God

Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428)

Calvin (1546)

KJV (1611, 1769)

Findlay (1900)

ASV (1901)

Robertson and Plummer (19142)

Moffatt (1938)

RSV (1952, 1971; slight variation)

Reina Valera (19602)

NASB (1960–1977)

Furnish (1961)

Héring (1962)

TEV (1968–1992)

Barrett (19712)

Nouvelle Version2 (1978)

NKJV (1982)

NIV (1984)

Luther2 (1985)

Fee (1987)

NRSV (1989)

REB (1989)

NJB (1990)

Kistemaker (1993)

La Sacra Bibbia (1994)

NASB 1995

Wolff (1996)

Horsley (1998)

HCSB (1999)

Collins (1999)

Thiselton (2000)

ESV (2001)

TNIV (2001)

NLT2 (2004)

NET (2005)

Keener (2005)

NAB2 (2010)

Totals

6

13

19

Thus, of the 38 works perused, half see Paul and Apollos as co-servants only with each other, both working for God. The latest authority that sees them as co-workers with God was in 1978, a French translation of the Bible. The latest source for this view in English was the ICC commentary by Robertson and Plummer in 1914. From 1938 on, every commentary consulted regarded Paul and Apollos to be in the service of God. To be sure, this is hardly a representative sampling; it represents only the works I have at hand in my personal library. I understand that Weiss (1910), Davies (1972), and H. D. Betz (1986) all adopted the first view (according to John G. Lewis [DPhil, Oxford, 2003] who also takes this position), but I have not verified it yet. See also Victor Paul Furnish, “Fellow Workers in God’s Service,” JBL 80 (1961) 364 (whole article, 364–70), who adds Lightfoot and Wendland as supporters of the first interpretation, and Heinrici and Parry as supporters of the third.

Issues in Greek Grammar

Fee, Thiselton, and Furnish give some of the strongest arguments for taking the genitive θεοῦ as possessive or purpose (‘for God’) here, which center on the flow of argument in the context. But not one of the works examined gives any grammatical parallels to this understanding of the text. The normal Greek rule is that a genitive attached to a συν-prefixed noun/substantive will be a genitive of association, and thus translated ‘with.’ In order for the third view to gain some traction, at least some clear examples need to be produced of a genitive dependent on a συν-prefixed noun which is other than associative. Otherwise, it is just wishful thinking. So, are there any instances of such a genitive?

(Excursus: The Role of Syntax in Exegesis)

The role that Greek syntax plays in exegesis is often neglected in exegetical literature. I would say, in fact, that for most exegetes, any meaningful discussion of syntax seems to be wrenched out of them, if discussed at all. Too frequently, commentators will appeal to the “context,” almost as though just uttering that word magically settles all issues. It’s as if the first one to utter this incantation wins the argument! But context is not a given; it must be construed. And if no syntactical parallels can be found to support an interpretation which may seem probable from the context, then the interpretation cannot be certain. Exegetes have long seen this when it comes to lexical studies. They know they can’t simply invent a meaning for a word that it never has elsewhere just because the context seems to favor it. They know they are on much more solid footing if they can find some parallels lexically, especially if they are in Hellenistic Greek. It would seem that syntax should play the same role, but curiously it almost never does. In this brief paper, my purpose is to illustrate, with parallels as close as I can determine, of συν-prefixed substantives with non-associative genitive modifiers. Only if such parallels can be produced can one then bring in the contextual arguments for 1 Cor 3.9.

Genitive of Association in Hellenistic Greek

New Testament

(All parallel references are in bold for ease in locating them.) In Rom 11.17, Paul speaks of the Gentiles as συγκοινωνὸς τῆς ῥίζης (“fellow-partakers of the root”). The Gentiles are seen as fellow-partaker with their Jewish counterparts of the root. The genitive is objective (‘partake of the root’). In 1 Cor 1.20 we read ποῦ συζητητὴς τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου; (“where is the debater of this age?”). The word ‘debater’ means, loosely, dialogue partner. The genitive is temporal. In 1 Cor 9.23 we read ἵνα συγκοινωνὸς αὐτοῦ γένωμαι (“so that I may become a participant in [the gospel]”). Again, an objective genitive. In 2 Cor 1.24 again the associative genitive is implied (συνεργοί ἐσμεν τῆς χαρᾶς ὑμῶν: “we are fellow-workers [with you] for your joy”). In Eph 3.6 the head noun takes an objective genitive once again: εἶναι τὰ ἔθνη … συμμέτοχα τῆς ἐπαγγελίας (“in order that the Gentiles might become … fellow partakers [with the Jewish believers] of the gospel”). In Acts 21.30 we read that the whole town was in an uproar and ἐγένετο συνδρομὴ τοῦ λαοῦ (lit., “there became a rushing together of the people”). The idea here is most likely subjective (“the people rushed together”). In 1 Peter 3.7 the men are instructed to treat their wives with all due respect because they are “fellow-heirs [with their wives] of the grace of life” (συγκληρονόμοις χάριτος ζωῆς).

In 1 Thess 3.2 we have a very interesting illustration. There Paul declares that Timothy is τὸν ἀδελφὸν ἡμῶν καὶ συνεργὸν τοῦ θεοῦ. This passage, like 1 Cor 3.9, has been understood in two different ways. Some take τοῦ θεοῦ as a genitive of association (“fellow-worker with God”), while others see it as possessive/purpose (“fellow-worker [with us], belonging to God/for God”). Many important witnesses read διάκονον τοῦ θεοῦ (“servant of God”) instead of συνεργὸν τοῦ θεοῦ; others have διάκονον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ συνεργὸν ἡμῶν (“servant of God and our fellow-worker”); both of these would eliminate the possibility of θεοῦ being an associative genitive. Assuming that the Nestle-Aland28’s text is autographic (in spite of it being poorly attested), the variants may have come about because of a desire to clarify the meaning while simultaneously eliminating one possible interpretation. In spite of the argument of some exegetes, it seems to be saying too much to argue that the variants arose because scribes were offended at the idea that Paul put himself and his colleagues on the same plane with God. An equally plausible interpretation is that here the scribes wanted to clarify that this was not Paul’s meaning, since the context was more ambiguous than 1 Cor 3.9’s context, and the scribes there saw clearly that Paul did not see a synergism between God and men. Since there are no variants listed there in the NA28 apparatus, scribes may well have seen Paul’s meaning here, as well, to be clearly against a divine-associative view.

Now, except for Acts 21.30 and 1 Thess 3.2 (both of which could possibly be construed otherwise), none of these is an illustration of a συν-prefixed noun with a personal dependent genitive. Yet this is precisely what we see in 1 Cor 3.9, which begs the question as to whether θεοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν συνεργοί really can mean “we are fellow-workers [with each other] for God.” But at least what the parallels have shown is that the genitive of association may, at times, be implied rather than stated, even when another genitive is related to the συν-prefixed noun. And this would be in line with seeing θεοῦ in 1 Cor 3.9 as non-associative. But are there any unambiguous illustrations of a συν-prefixed noun with a non-associative personal dependent genitive? Most of the illustrations used in the previous paragraph are all found in my book, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (130). But more are needed, especially those that are closer parallels.

Consider the following:

Josephus:

Antiquities of the Jews 8.133 (8.5.2): σύνοδον ἀνθρώπων (“a gathering of people”). σύνοδος is translated ‘fellow-traveler’ or ‘traveling companion’ in Ignatius, Ephesians 9.2, but such a meaning will not work here. The genitive ἀνθρώπων probably is a genitive of apposition/content (“a gathering made up of people”).

Antiquities of the Jews 16.351 (16.10.9): συνθῆκαι τῶν δανείων (“covenant [between the two men] concerning the debt”). Here the implied genitive is personal, while the genitive stated is a genitive of reference.

Antiquities of the Jews 17.51 (17.3.1): εἰς τὴν σύνοδον τῆς Ἀντιπάτρου μητρός (“for the meeting [arranged] by Antipater’s mother”). One might normally assume that after σύνοδος the genitive would indicate association. In this instance, however, Antipater’s mother arranged the meeting between others. Similarly, Josephus, Vita 311 (60), and Josephus, Vita 368 (66).

Antiquities of the Jews 19.107 (19.1.14): τοῖς συνωμόταις κινδύνων (“to [his] co-conspirators in the risk”). The implied genitive is personal while the stated genitive is a genitive of reference.

Jewish War 4.148 (4.3.6): συνεργοὺς τῶν ἀσεβημάτων (“fellow-workers for their ungodly acts”). The implied genitive is personal while the stated genitive is a genitive of purpose.

Jewish War 4.240 (4.4.3): τὴν σύνταξιν ὑμῶν (“your army” in the sense of “the army in service to you”).

Philo:

Philo, Somniis 1.193: πρὸς τὸ τῶν φίλων ἔλθῃ συνέδριον (“when he comes into the assembly of friends”).

Philo, Specialibus 1.29: συνεργοὺς τῆς ἀπάτης (“co-workers [with each other] in deception”). Same word as is found in 1 Cor 3.9. The implied genitive is personal and associative, while the stated genitive is reference.

Philo, Contemplativa 40: τὰς κοινὰς συνόδους αὐτῶν (“their common assemblies”). The common assemblies which consists of them; thus, a genitive of apposition or content.

Greek Pseudepigrapha:

Rechabites 11.7: συνηθείᾳ τοῦ γάμου (“companionship [between them] of marriage”). Not personal, but the personal is implied.

Psalms of Solomon 4.1: συνεδρίῳ ὁσίων (“council of holy men”—that is, council comprising holy men, not a council in association with holy men).

Justin Martyr:

1.63 (27): τοῖς Μωσέως συντάγμασι (“the collected writings of Moses”—i.e., Moses wrote these collected writings).

Conclusion

It seems to be sufficiently established that a genitive dependent on a συν-prefixed substantive can indeed be other than a genitive of association in Hellenistic Greek. And this is even found in some instances in which (a) either a genitive of association is not stated or in which (b) the genitive that is present is personal. In the first category are the following texts: Rom 11.17; 1 Cor 1.20 (possibly); 1 Cor 9.23; 2 Cor 1.24; Eph 3.6; 1 Peter 3.7; Josephus, Ant. 16.351; Josephus, Ant. 17.51; Josephus, Ant. 19.107; Josephus, Jewish War 4.148; Philo, Specialibus 1.29; and Rechabites 11.7. (Both 1 Cor 3.9 and 1 Thess 3.2 may belong here, too, but since the former is our target passage and the latter is equally disputed, they should not be counted.) In the second category are Acts 21.30; Josephus, Ant. 8.133; Josephus, Ant. 17.51; Josephus, Jewish War 4.240; Philo, Somniis 1.193; Philo, Contemplativa 40; Psalms of Solomon 4.1; and Justin Martyr 1.63. One text in particular is doubly parallel: Josephus, Ant. 17.51. All of this paves the way for both 1 Cor 3.9 and 1 Thess 3.2 to indicate association between men in the service of God.

Having established the syntactical parallels, we now need to proceed to look at the context of 1 Cor 3.9. Fee succinctly states the argument: “In the Greek text, the emphasis is altogether on God: ‘God’s we are, being fellow workers; God’s field, God’s building, you are.’ Some have suggested that Paul here intends, as the KJV has it, ‘we are laborers together with God.’ But everything in the context speaks against it: the emphatic position of the genitive (‘God’s’) suggests possession, as do the following, equally emphatic, genitives, which are unambiguously possessive; the argument of the whole paragraph emphasizes their unity in fellow labor under God, an argument that would be undercut considerably if he were now emphasizing that they worked with God in Corinth; and finally, these new ‘slogans’ serve as the climax of the whole paragraph, in which the emphasis is decidedly on God’s ownership, not on Paul’s and Apollos’s working with him in Corinth” (G. D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987] 134).

To sum up, the translation of 1 Cor 3.9 as “we are co-workers belonging to God” (NET) or the like is strongly justified in light of the most probable construal of the context, and is legitimate in light of the syntactical parallels.

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10 comments on “What Does “We are God’s fellow-workers” in 1 Corinthians 3.9 Really Mean?

  1. What a post Dr. Dan… I’m excited to read it….

  2. Thanks for the post. I preached 1 Corinthians 3:1-17 yesterday but didn’t focus on that particular phrase. I took the position you stated but for contextual reasons.

  3. […] The rest and chart are at http://danielbwallace.com/2014/03/17/what-does-we-are-gods-fellow-workers-in-1-corinthians-3-9-reall… […]

  4. I’d be interested in seeing the distribution of views in patristic commentators and medieval commentators. Surely more commented on this verse than Theodore of Mopsuestia.

  5. […] fellow-workers. Daniel B. Wallace responds, on his blog, to the question, “What Does ‘We are God’s fellow-workers’ in 1 Corinthians […]

  6. Thank you for your blog Dr. Wallace. Yesterday I discovered your website while studying your “beyond the basics” book. I was so fascinated with your writing and so I spent almost 6 hours reading through all of your previous blogs.

    I am a seminary student from Suriname, Caribbean, and I am really passionate in NT textual criticism. Can you maybe share with us what kind of rigid training you went through to get to your level of expertise?

    Thank you so much for your passion for God’s word. We are very blessed by your ministry as well! Blessings!

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