Augustine and the Aramaic of Romans 5:12

Somewhat to my surprise, I’m learning that there is still lively debate about the meaning of Romans 5:12, particularly the thorny clause at the end: ἐφ’ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον. Here are a variety of translations:

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—” (NIV)

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— “(ESV)

“Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:” (KJV)

“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned—” (NKJV)

“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all mankind, because all sinned—” (NASV)

“because of this, even as through one man the sin did enter into the world, and through the sin the death; and thus to all men the death did pass through, for that all did sin;” (Young’s Literal Translation)

One can see the translators’ confusion about the syntax. Historically, this verse and the particular translation “in whom all sinned” played an important role for Augustine and his theology of original sin, because that reading means all people sinned in Adam’s own. A fairly recent article on Romans 5:12 identifies three schools of thought regarding how to translate the last, sticky bit:

(1) “because all sinned”
(2) “in whom all sinned” (referring to Adam)
(3) “with the result that all sinned[1]

Although it will probably not sway anyone who is especially confident of what the Greek means on its own terms, the Peshitta version of the New Testament adds its own twist. Composed about the same time that Augustine would have been dueling with the Pelagians over these issues, the Peshitta is the standard Syriac (i.e., Syrian dialect of Aramaic) version of the Bible—a bit like the Vulgate for Latin. To misquote a line from Star Trek VI: “You have not experienced Paul until you have read him in the original Aramaic.”

Here’s Romans 5:12 in the Peshitta and my somewhat over-literal translation:

ܐܝܟܢܐ ܓܝܪ ܕܒܝܕ ܚܕ ܒܪܢܫܐ ܥܠܬ ܚܛܝܬܐ ܠܥܠܡܐ ܘܒܝܕ ܚܛܝܬܐ ܡܘܬܐ ܘܗܟܢܐ ܒܟܠܗܘܢ ܒܢܝ ܐܢܫܐ ܥܒܪ ܡܘܬܐ ܒܗܝ ܕܟܠܗܘܢ ܚܛܘ

For just as through a single human (lit. “son of man,” which is somewhat ironic considering this is Adam) sin entered the world, and death through sin, even so death passes in all human beings, in which all sinned.

Of course, my English rendering doesn’t really help us with that tricky ἐφ’ ᾧ business. Fortunately, the Aramaic itself adds one interesting detail. The “which” of “in which all sinned” is ostentatiously feminine (b-hay). That’s notable considering that the original Greek relative pronoun ᾧ is either masculine or neuter. In other words, the translator made a very deliberate choice here. Why?

As far as I can tell—better Semiticists may correct me—the translator took the “which” as referring to “death,” which is feminine in Aramaic (mawtha) but masculine (thanatos) in Greek. If this were an attempt to mimic the consecutive clause translation of ἐφ’ ᾧ (“wherein,” “because”), I believe the relative pronoun would need to be masculine (b-eh).

In any reading, however, it certainly cannot mean Adam.


I’m gratified to see one of those “better Semiticists” chimed in on Twitter. Apparently, Syriac can indeed use the feminine relative pronoun to refer to an abstraction. And sure enough, from the online Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon, the construction before us (b-hay d-) is described as follows:

in that, inasmuch as, by virtue of the fact that  Syr.  TB 3:13.3 : ܒܗܿܝ ܕܐܡܿܪ ܐܠܗܐ ܕܢܥܒܕ ܒܪ ܐܢܫܐ ܒܨܠܡܢ ܐܝܟ ܕܡܘܬܢ‏  inasmuch as God said: Let us make man in our image like our form.  ISSW 6:13 : ܒܗܵܝ ܕܲܠܟܽܠܵܗܿ ܨܒܽܘܬܸܗ ܥܠܲܘܗ̱ܝ ܫܵܕܸܐ‏  inasmuch as He ascribes its entire matter to him.

My thanks for the feedback. Assuming this in fact was the intention of the Syriac translator, then it would seem he was attempting to reproduce something akin to the Greek consecutive clause: “even so death passes in all human beings, inasmuch as all sinned.”

  1. James W. Haring, “Romans 5:12, Once Again: Is It a Grammatical Comparison?,” Journal of Biblical Literature 137, no. 3 (2018), 739.


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