From a correspondent in Nottingham, England:
Q: Could you please help me out with the implications of the use
of the middle voice for the verb "obtained" in Hebrews 9:12?
The Christadelphians make great claims about
the use of the middle voice here, claiming that it unambiguously refers to the supposed fact that Christ obtained redemption
FOR HIMSELF PERSONALLY. They say that Romans 8:3 shows that he possessed "sinful flesh," which was mortal
and destined to die. Only after earning his own salvation could Jesus be said to have redeemed us.
believe that Jesus had no literal pre-existence, and despite being born of the Virgin Mary, he was nevertheless a member of
Adamic humanity, inheriting the full effects of Adam's transgression. They claim, therefore, that he was personally
in need of redemption, which he supposedly achieved by His own sacrifice. He had to die for himself first, before He
could be a sacrifice for us?
Are the Christadelphians wrong in their claims about Hebrews 9:12?
Thanks for your question and your interest in finding solid answers to the challenges raised by this group. Christadelphians
are not a common part of the theological landscape in my circles, but your description of their doctrines certainly sounds
like a heretical group.
The short answer is that they are grossly overstating their case on the basis of the middle
voice. They are correct in saying that "obtained" in Hebrews 9:12 is in the middle voice, but that certainly
doesn't prove their doctrine. The middle voice can be used to communicate a wide range of ideas, and some of those
other ideas make much better sense than their interpretation.
Here's how Dana and Mantey describe the middle voice
in their old but classic grammar book:
"We can never hope to express exactly the Greek middle voice by an English
translation. . . . While the active voice emphasizes the action [itself], the middles stresses the agent [the one doing the
action]. It, in some way, relates the action more intimately to the subject. Just how the action is thus related
is not indicated by the middle voice, but must be detected from the context or the character of the verbal idea."
(H.E. Dana & Julius Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament. Macmillan, 1957, p. 157)
other words, the middle voice puts extra emphasis on the subject, but you can only tell how it is emphasized by looking
at the context and paying attention to the meaning of the verb.
The Christadelphians evidently assume that is what grammarians
call an "indirect middle," where the subject acts for himself, or in his own interest. That's a legitimate
usage, and it is fairly common. However, I believe it is what some grammar books call an "intensive middle."
In this common usage, the middle voice is just emphasizing the subject. In English, we might say, "He himself did
it." Or you might underline the subject for emphasis. The idea is, "He, not anyone else, did it."
And in Hebrews 9:12, the context clearly supports the idea that it was Christ, not anyone else, who obtained our redemption.
example of this usage is in Acts 20:24, where Paul says, "I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself."
"Consider" is in the middle voice, indicating that, however others may regard the situation, this is what he
thinks about it. As Dana and Mantey point out, "The Greeks employed the middle where we must resort to italics"
Here's a principle I try to communicate with my students: There are some things in Greek that you
can know for sure, because the spelling of the word determines it. But when you go beyond those certainties, you are
doing some interpreting. That's OK as long as you know there is room for disagreement. You should aim to know
what is possible, based on Greek grammar, and then use context and common sense to discern which shade of meaning is in play
in the verse you're studying. In Hebrews 9:12, you know with certainty that it's middle, because the ending
proves it. But you have to use context and common sense to decide which of the possible grammatical usages is being
It seems to me that the Christadelphians came to this passage with their minds already made up. They had
already constructed their theology from other sources, and then brought it to this verse. As a result, they chose one
of the less likely alternatives because it seemed congruent with their doctrine.