Some terms found in the New Testament seem to get rendered with quite diverse and unrelated terms. prothesis is one example. In Matthew 12:4 it occurs in the phrase tous artous tēs protheseōs and is rendered as “consecrated bread” in the NIV or “bread of the Presence” in the ESV (see Mark 2:26; Luke 6:4 and Hebrews 9:2). However, in Acts 27:13 the NIV has rendered this noun as “opportunity” and in Acts 11:23 we have the dynamic rendering “remain true to the Lord” for tēi prothesei tēs kardias prosmenein tōi kuriōi (literally “to continue in the resolve of the heart to the Lord”). And then in Paul’s letters it is rendered as “purpose” (Romans 8:28; 9:11; Ephesians 3:11; 2 Timothy 1:9; 3:10) or “plan” (Ephesians 1:11). The cognate verb protithēmi is translated in the NIV as “planned” (Romans 1:13), “purposed” (Ephesians 1:9) and “presented (as an offering)” (Romans 3:25).
I am not critical of these renderings because the translators have attempted to discern how the term’s meaning should be expressed in specific contexts. However, what this does illustrate is the need to pay close attention to context in order to discern what a respective writer or speaker was intending to communicate when using a specific term.
The cognate verb protithēmi has several meanings depending upon the way the prepositional prefix affects the sense. The preposition could carry a spatial sense and so the verb can mean to “place before, put in front of” and the object could be a variety of things. This sense could also express the idea of a public presentation, i.e. place before people for their observation. Alternatively, the prepositional prefix can have the temporal nuance of “prior, previous” and the verb connotes “set in advance, propose.”
The noun prothesis in the New Testament can convey these various concepts. Within the temple the “bread of the presence” is translated in the Greek Old Testament as hoi artoi tou protheseōs (e.g. Exodus 40:21(23 Hebrew text); 1 Kings 21:6(7 Hebrew text) — “the loaves of the presentation,” i.e., that which is set before. This becomes a set phrase and so in the Synoptic Gospels this is the phrase used to refer to these sacred loaves (Matthew 12:4; Mark 2:26; Luke 6:4). In Hebrews 9:2 we have an alternative expression hē prothesis tōn artōn, i.e., the presentation of the loaves, rendered in the NIV as “consecrated bread.” The noun is used in secular Greek to describe offerings placed before the gods (Maurer, TDNT VIII, 164-65).
This sense of presentation, public display, something that is public, occurs in secular Greek literature. For example, Plato (Leges 947b.3) gives instructions about the funeral arrangements for “the examiners” of his proposed state. When they die, “their laying-out (protheseis), funeral and internment shall be different than ordinary citizens.” He uses this term in this sense several more times in this section of Leges. Aristotle uses the term for the public posting (peri tas protheseis) of the names of those accused of criminal activity (Politica 1322a.9).
The author of Acts uses the noun twice. When Barnabas goes to Antioch on behalf of the Jerusalem church to check out the spiritual activity happening in that city, he sees “God’s grace” at work (11:23). So he urges everyone “with resolve/purpose of heart (tēi prothesei tēs kardias)” to adhere (prosmenein) to the Lord. The sense suggests something that has been set or appointed beforehand, i.e. purposed, planned, deliberated. When Paul is being transported by ship to Rome, those in charge encounter bad weather. They make plans to winter at Phoenix, a port in Crete. The text says that “when a gentle south wind began to blow, thinking to attain their plan/purpose (doxantes tēs protheseōs kekratēkenai), they weighed anchor” (27:13). Here again the idea is of something laid out in advance as a plan.
Paul employs this term in Romans, Ephesians and 2 Timothy. In 2 Timothy 3:10 Paul reminds his protogé that “you have followed my teaching, way of life, purpose (tēi prothesei),…” Some translations render this as “my aim in life,” but I think Paul is emphasizing his resolve, his decision to remain loyal to Christ, the same sense found in Acts 11:23. This sense of “purpose” also occurs in secular literature. Demonsthenes, a 4th century BC Athenian orator, quotes a letter from the Macedonian king, Phillip. In the letter Phillip commends the people of Thebes for remaining loyal to him and urges them “to adhere to this purpose (menēte tēs protheseōs)” (De corona 167). This sense of “purpose, resolve, plan” occurs in 2 Macc. 3:8 where we read about the Seleucid king’s plan to rob the Jerusalem temple. Heliodorus is assigned this task and he “carries out the king’s purpose (tēn tou basileōs prothesin).” A similar usage occurs in 3 Macc.1:22 to describe how people carried out the purpose of the Ptolemaic king. In the Septuagint when the noun has this sense it is always applied to human purpose, not divine plans.
All of the other uses of this noun in Paul’s letters refer to hē prothesis tou theou (the plan/purpose/resolve of God) (Romans 8:28; 9:11; Ephesians 1:11; 3:11; 2 Timothy 1:9). In other words Paul employs this term to describe the purposes of God in salvation history. Paul first uses the term in Romans 8:28 to assure the Christians in Rome that “for those who love God, he works all things together for good, for those being called in a planned/purposeful manner (kata prothesin)” (this verse can be translated in several different ways). The prepositional phrase kata prothesin has an adverbial function, describing the manner of this “calling” (klētois), i.e. it is purposeful, planned. This noun klētois occurs in Romans 1:1 to describe Paul’s assignment as an apostle and in Romans 1:6-7 to describe the Christians in Rome (where we find such people called agapētois theou “beloved of God”). The logic in Romans 8:28 seems to be that if God invites people to participate in his mission, then he will take responsibility for them — nothing can separate them from his love. They receive this invitation precisely because God has a purposeful plan and they by his gracious salvation can participate in this plan.
In Romans 9:11 Paul is discussing how God constitutes his people (9:6-9). The “children of promise” are not determined by ethnicity, but by the operation of God’s mercy, a choice that he makes in himself (9:14-16). God’s prothesis (plan or purpose) is implemented by selection or election or choice (kata eklogēn). This choice of individuals through whom to accomplish his plans does not depend upon their personal merit. In this context Paul uses prothesis to refer to God’s plans for salvation history, which includes all of creation and was initiated prior to that creation.
The context surrounding Ephesians 1:11 is rich in terms that describe God’s purposes (1:9 proetheto), God’s will (1:9 thelēmatos), God’s counsel (1:11 boulēn) and God’s predestining ability (1:11 prooristhentes). Paul argues that our inheritance as believers in Christ has its foundation God’s predetermination, something he does purposefully (kata prothesin) in full harmony with his will. Again the sense is of God’s pre-existent plans or purposes being worked out in human history.
The other text in Ephesians 3:11 speaks about “the purpose/plan of the ages (kata prothesin tōn aiōviōn)” which God is implementing and making known in the church. This plan displays his “diversified wisdom (polypoikilos sophia)” and is accomplished primarily in the life of “Messiah Jesus, our Lord.” Again the reference is to a plan or purpose that God puts in place before anything is done. However, it is being worked out in human history.
Lastly, Paul incorporates this term in his description of God’s action for human salvation in 2 Timothy 1:9. God acts to provide salvation and invite us to receive its benefits and this is all “based upon his own plan/purpose (kata idian prothesin) and grace.” This provision, which comes through God’s actions in Christ Jesus, was made “before the beginning of time (pro chronōn aiōniōn).” The temporal phrase specifies that this plan or purpose is in place prior to the beginning of time, i.e. human history.
Paul seems to be the first writer to use this term to define the “primal decision of God” (Maurer, TDNT VIII, 166) which he fulfills by establishing the church in Jesus Christ.