Who's Who? How Biblical Authors Describe Other People and God

Author: Steven Runge

If a friend of mine said, “How’s the kindest, most generous person I know doing today?” I would likely smile and say, “What are you buttering me up for? What do you want?” We generally use a person’s name when speaking to them, only using other descriptive words for special purposes. The New Testament writers often use the same technique to shape how the reader thinks about a particular person or thing. Check out the words Paul uses to refer to different people in his letter to Philemon verses 9b–12, adapted from the Lexham High Definition New Testament: Esv Edition. All descriptive references are bracketed and include this symbol:

“I, Paul, (an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus)

10 I appeal to you for (my child,) Onesimus, (whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)

12 I am sending him back to you, (sending my very heart).”

Why does Paul refer to himself as “an old man” and as “a prisoner for Christ Jesus”? Why not just settle for “Paul”? It evokes sympathy for him. It may even help soften up Philemon, the master of Onesimus, since Paul is going to request that the runaway Onesimus be released from slavery and received as a brother in Christ.

How about the references to Onesimus? Paul could have called him “the slave who ran away from you.” Instead, he characterizes him as a close family member who has played a crucial role serving him in prison. Paul is not sending Philemon a runaway slave, but his “very heart.” Descriptive words play a crucial role in shaping the way we think about people and circumstances.

Remember the disagreement that Paul and Barnabas had in Acts 15 over whether or not to take John Mark with them on the Second Missionary journey? Take a look at how John Mark is described in Acts 15:37–38:

“Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John (called Mark).

38 But Paul thought best not to take with them (one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work).”

It would have been more clear to call him “John Mark” or “him” than the “one who had withdrawn.” Not a very flattering description, but think about how it justifies Paul’s decision not to take him. How would your view of the situation change if Luke had called him “the one who Paul refused to forgive for wanting to leave?”

Think about how the character descriptions in the following passages influences your thinking:

1 Cor 8:6: “Yet for us there is one God, (the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist,) and one Lord, (Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist).”

2 Cor 1:3–4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, (the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God).”

Eph 1:3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, (who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places).”

This extra information is not necessary to figure out which god Paul is referencing, but plays a significant role in moving the audience to think about God in a particular way. Paul uses these kinds of character descriptions regularly.

In Gal 1, Paul is defending his calling as an apostle, fending off apparent accusations that it was not divine in its origins.

Gal 1:15: “But when he (who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace,) was 16 pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone.”

The extra description in Eph 3 comes right after Paul has encouraged the believers not to lose heart over his imprisonment, but instead to place their hope in God’s provision.

Eph 3:20:(Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us,) 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

So while extra descriptions like these may be unnecessary for us to know who is being written about, they serve an important purpose for the author of Scripture. They are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Rather than narrowing down from a list of potential people, these extra descriptions are intentionally used by the New Testament writers to influence and shape our thinking. Noticing authorial techniques like this can make our own Bible study and preaching more focused and thoughtful.

Learn more about The Lexham High Definition New Testament at Logos.com/HDNT

Bible Study Magazine delivers tools and methods for Bible study, as well as insights from respected Bible teachers, professors, historians, and archaeologists. Take over 30% off the cover price—subscribe now!

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 4.