biazomai in the New Testament

From the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volume 1, pages 609-612 [edited].


A. biazomai in Ordinary Greek.

Like bia and its Sanskrit cognates, (1)biazomai always denotes a forced as distinct from a voluntary act. peithein is expressly contrasted with it. The acts as an unwilling conscript. The exercise of force does not have to be by an external act, but may find expression in self-willed utterance (Demosth., 21, 205) or the heretical representation of views (Gelas. Hist. Eccl., II, 17, 1; 20, 1). Yet in the use of the word these refinements are exceptional. The active is rare. The mid., which easily passes over into the pass., has usually the sense of “to force,” “to compel,” “to overpower” (sometimes militarily and sometimes sexually) ; the pass. means “to be constrained or oppressed.” Whether the reference is to compulsion by higher powers (nature or fate), or whether man compels himself or natural forces, there is always the effective achievement of an act of force, or an attempt at such. In the rich use in relation to military action, maltreatment, compulsion of various kinds and even religious constraint, we can see clearly this basic sense of the exercise of hostile force.

B. biazomai in the NT.

The two NT passages in which biazomai is used (Mt. 11:12; Lk. 16:16) demand special treatment in virtue of their differences in linguistic structure and context.

1. Mt.11:12 belongs to a series of related sections dealing with John the Baptist, his position in relation to the merciful readiness of Jesus to help as the heart of His Messianic action (11:1-6 ) , his human character (v. 7-8 ), his place in the divine history of revelation (v. 9-15), his reception by the people (v. 16-19). The concluding woes on the cities of .the lake (v. 20-24) are part of the call to repentance issued to the people, who in these sayings are shown to be fickle and impenitent sensation-mongers. The greatness of the Baptist is first indicated ; he is more than a prophet, for he is the angelos (v. 10) who precedes the Messiah according to Mal. 3:1 and Ex. 23:20, he is Elias (v. 14 ) , and he is greater than any born of women (v. 11) . His limitation is that he does not belong to the age in which the deploys its power. Rather, in v. 13 f. he is set in the time of the Law and the prophets, which comes to its conclusion in him. Hence, when it is said in this context: apo de ton hemeron Ioannou tou baptistou heos arti he basileia ton ouranon biazetai kai biastai harpazousin auton, these words obviously characterize the dominion of heaven as it has presented itself since the turn given to affairs by John.

A first possibility a. is to take biazetai in the sense of an intr. mid.: “the rule of God breaks, in with power, with force and impetus.” (2) It might be argued against this interpretation that it truncates the basic eschatological reference of the basileia concept. But shortly after the same Mt. has ara ephthasev (12:28, as at Lk. 11:20) . The triumphs against demons are regarded by the Synoptists as decisive indications of the new situation which consists in the coming into effect of the divine rule. At the same time, the kai biastai harpazousin auton causes difficulty, since it is construed most naturally as an interpretation of the first part of the statement, biastai agreeing with biazetai. Since the reference is obviously to a powerful hostile action, it seems better to seek an explanation which will better harmonize the two parts of the saying.

b. This is not achieved with the mid.: “The kingdom of heaven compels or forces” ; indeed, this is out of keeping with the whole conception of the basileia in the Synoptists.

c. The pass. is hardly more successful. Adopted since Cl. Al., its interpretation in bonam partem was popularized by Luther. biazesthai is here taken to denote the ardent pressure of needy souls from the time of the Baptist to “seize the kingdom as a prey”. (3)  biazesthai, however, is not used for laudable striving, but for hostile acts of force.

Again, we have already seen that in the whole series of sayings (Mt. 11:1-24) the assessment of the relation of the people to the kingdom of God is exactly the opposite. Against this interpretation, however, the main argument is provided by the other sayings of Jesus concerning entry into the kingdom. In view of Mk. 10:17 ff.; Mt. 5:3 ff.; 7:21, and also the present chapter (27-29), it is hardly conceivable that He should have spoken of men deliberately and successfully seeking to wrest the kingdom to themselves. The Synagogue can certainly speak of the forceful initiation of the days of the Messiah by penitence, the keeping of the commandments and especially the study of the Torah and almsgiving. (4) But this is diametrically opposed to all that is said by the Synoptists concerning entry into the kingdom of God. It can be required in Lk. 13:24: agonizesthe eiselthein dia tes stenes thyras. But this is hardly in the sense of pious seizure. The inner difficulty is only increased by the second part of the verse. harpazein can certainly mean to attain something by resolute appropriation. But when it is linked with biazesthai and biastai, it merely serves to give added emphasis to the basic thought of hostile seizure by violence. d. It would be linguistically possible to decide for a pass. in bonam partem as follows : “The dominion is powerfully advanced by God.” (5) Materially, this would amount to much the same as a. But the second part of the verse then confronts us with the same difficulty.

e. The only option is to consider the possibilities of a pass. in malam partem. This would at least correspond to current usage. The saying might be pronounced against the Zealots : (6) the rule of heaven is sought by unprincipled enthusiasts in violent action. The difficulty here is that Mt. is concerned with the prophets, the Law, the Baptist, Jesus and the basileia. It is thus hard to see the point of a special reference to an irrelevant subject when we naturally expect an important insight on the situation depicted. In any case the Zealot movement had already been started before the appearance of John. The conjecture that something of this kind is in view, at least in the source of the utterance, is perhaps better supported by the form of the saying in Lk., which draws on the same source.

We are thus brought f., to the pass. interpretation in malam partem which refers the biazesthai to the enemies of the divine rule, i.e., that it is contested, attacked or hampered (7) by contentious opponents. (8) This explanation has a twofold advantage. It corresponds to most of the linguistic parallels. And the second part of the saying can be construed in the same sense as an elucidation of the hostile biazesthai, namely, that it is taken from men by the violent. The surest key to what is meant by harpazein is given by Mt. himself in the only other place in his Gospel in which this word occurs: ho poneros harpazei to esparmenon en te kardia autou (13:19: “the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart” [seed sown on the path]). In this context it means taking the seed away from someone. Hence in our present saying, if we are to use a similar instance for the purpose of interpretation, the meaning is that by harpazein violent enemies close the kingdom to men, not allowing those who desire to enter to do so (Mt. 2:13). (9) If this is correct, then in the description of the present state of the divine rule we have urgent emphasis on the fact that it is hampered by all the hostile forces which in the days of Jesus seek to foil His work. The strongly negative tone of the utterance is striking. It is partly explained, however, by the first passage in this whole series of sayings concerning John the Baptist; for we are told at the outset that John as a biazomenos is in the prison of the biastes, and this dominates the whole section. Indeed, as we have seen already, the note of repentance is found right on into the story of the sulking children, so that in the context there is a special reason for this reference to the forces which hamper the basileia. All that we read elsewhere in Mt. shows that Jesus has in view the forces which were opposed to Him in the Judaism of His day.

Gottlob Schrenk

1. Walde-Pokornv, Vergl. Wört., I, 666 ff.

2. So Melanchthon, F. C. Baur, Zahn and Harnack.

3. Cl. AI. Strom., IV, 2, 5; V, 3, 16; VI, 149, 5; VI, 17, 149; Quis Div. Salv., 21, 3; Iren., IV, 37, 7 (MPG, 7, 1103c); Orig. in Joh., VI, 19, 105; Erasmus, Luther and many moderns.

4. H. Scholander, 172 ff.; Str.-B., I, 599 f.

5. Magna vi praedicatur : C. A. F. Fritzsche Mt., ad loc.

6. Alex. Schweizer ; B. Weiss ; J. Weiss ; Wellhausen ; Windisch.

7. biazesthai as “hamper”: Ju. 13:15 ; 13:16 A ; Jos. Ant., 1, 261.

8. So esp. the Syr. sys syc; Eth. and old Latin ; It.: vim patitur ; Wulf. Of the moderns, Bretschneider, Schneckenburger, Hilgenfeld, Merx, Dalman, Schlatter ; M. Dibelius suggests regents in the spirit world.

9. That men may hamper and delay the Messianic age by their sin is also taught by the Rabbis : b.Ket., l l la; Midr. HL, 2, 7; cf. H. Scholander, ZNW, 13 (1912), 172 ff.; Str.-B., I, 599 ff.

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