Three times in his letters Paul used the noun diastolē (Romans 3:22; 10:12; 1 Corinthians 14:7). This noun is translated in the New International Version (NIV) as “difference” or “distinction” The cognate verb diastellō occurs more frequently in the New Testament, but primarily in the middle voice with the sense “give orders to, instruct strictly.” The writer of Mark’s Gospel used this verb most often (5:43;7:36(2x);8:15;9:9), followed by the writers of Matthew (16:20), Acts (15:24) and Hebrews (12:20). Paul, however, never employed the verb.
Let me comment first upon the use of the verb diastellō, particularly as it occurs in Mark’s Gospel (5x). One thing to note is that the form of the verb as it occurs in the New Testament is always in the middle or passive voice. What does this mean? The “middle voice” indicates usually that the subject is in some sense affect by or involved in the action in a more complex way than normally is the case. In the case of this verb the middle voice form may indicate how seriously or emphatically the subject is “giving instructions to someone.”1 The entry in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (third edition) suggests the more colloquial “spell something out to someone” may capture the force of the middle voice. In Hebrews 12:20 the passive voice is used to describe “that which was instructed/commanded,” referring to God’s command to Israel not to touch Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:12-13), which command is quoted in the Hebrews’ context. This is a direct command from Yahweh, in which He “spells out” how Israel should act at Mt. Sinai, lest they die.
In each case in Mark’s narrative the author is reporting how Jesus commanded some person or group not to talk about a miracle (5:43; 7:36(2x); 9:9) or was warning his followers to be on their guard against “the leaven” of the Pharisees and Herod (8:15). His demeanour in these contexts is very forceful and insistent. These instances are also confined to this middle segment of this gospel’s narrative (chapters 5 – 9). The only other occurrence in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 16:20) parallels Mark 8:30, but in this case Mark’s narrative has the verb epetimēsen which often means “rebuked”, but here seems to have the sense of “warned”, as the NIV rendered it. Luke agrees with Mark in this instance. So it seems a deliberate decision on Matthew’s part to use diesteilato here.2
In the Greek translation of the Old Testament the active form of the verb dominates and the normal sense is that of making some distinction. In 2 Esdras 10:11 the aorist passive imperative form is used to describe Ezra’s command to the Israelite men to “separate (diastalēte) from the peoples of the land and from the foreign women.”
There is one context in particular where the verb occurs in the middle voice and that is Ezekiel 3:18-21. In this short segment the verb occurs six times, all in the middle voice, and expresses God’s direction to the prophet that he is to “give strict orders (diasteilō)” to the lawless to cease their sinful ways or the righteous that they maintain their holy ways. The verb defines how God wants the prophet to address such people. The prophet is accountable to God to insure that his “precise, irrevocable and definitive directions”3 are communicated to the people.
This form also is used once in Judith 11:12 where reference is made to Yahweh’s instructions to Israel about what to eat (diseteilato) and the fact that in desperation, because of the siege of the city in which Judith lives, the Jews are compelled to violate Yahweh’s specific commands, i.e. not to eat the firstfruits and the tithes of wine and oil, which were preserved for the priests.
In the writings of the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo both the verb and the noun focus upon the sense of making a distinction, sometimes incorporating through quote the actual language found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. For example, he quotes several times Leviticus 10:8-10 where we read that God tells Aaron to distinguish (diasteilai) between that which is sacred and that which is profane.4 It does not have the sense of “give strict orders to.” This same sense of distinction occurs in Psalms of Solomon 2:34 where the writer says that God distinguishes (diasteilai) between the righteous and the sinner. Josephus in the Jewish Wars 5:62 describes the Roman general Titus, during the siege of Jerusalem, slashing his way through a fighting scrum by using his sword to disperse (diastellōn) people.
Mark’s usage of this verb in chapters 5-9 of his Gospel is somewhat unusual. Whether he intended to reflect the Greek Old Testament usage in Ezekiel 3:18-21 is another question. However, the verb in the middle form does seem to have a sense of very emphatic command and instruction which the speaker, i.e. Jesus, does not expect to be violated. Yet, several times the instructions Jesus gives are not followed (cf. 7:36). Hebrews 12:20 used the passive voice with the same emphasis.
The other context in the New Testament where the verb is used in the middle voice is Acts 15:24. In the letter that the leaders of the Jerusalem church compose to communicate to Gentile Christians following the conclusion of the so-called “Jerusalem Conference,” they deny that those Christians who “disturbed you with words, unsettling your minds” have been sent under their instructions (ou diesteilametha). Such people do not represent the perspective of the Jerusalem church and its leaders and should not be claiming such authority.
Paul’s use of the cognate noun diastolē follows the sense that we discerned in Philo’s writings, namely “a distinction” of some sort. In 1 Corinthians 14:7, for example, Paul used it to describe distinction in sounds that a musical instrument makes. However, the more significant usage occurs twice in Romans (3:22; 10:12). In both contexts Paul announces and celebrates that God has removed the distinction between Jews and Greeks when it comes to the matter of salvation and righteous status. Through the death and resurrection of the Messiah God has made one new way for all people to become reconciled with Him. Paul makes the negative point in 3:22 that everyone, whether Jew or non-Jew, has sinned and thus requires God’s action in Messiah Jesus if they are to enjoy righteous status. There is no distinction in the sinful status of human beings. However, in 10:12 an affirmation is made that Yahweh’s promises in Messiah Jesus apply equally to “Jews and Greeks”, without distinction because “the same Lord is Lord of all” (cf. his similar statement in 3:29 that God is God of Gentiles and Jews).
In the Old Testament Yahweh always seems to be making distinctions between his people, Israel, and all other peoples, as the usage of the verb indicates. His special instructions to Israel are designed to make them constitutionally different by virtue of his covenant with them. This distinction enables them to be his “kingdom of priests” among all the peoples of the earth (Exodus 19:5-6). Often holiness is identified as the basis for this distinctiveness. In some of the initial chapters of Exodus we read how Yahweh distinguished the region in which Israel lived in Egypt and preserved them from any of the affects of the plagues which all others in Egypt experienced (Exodus 8:23(19)). God “puts a distinction (diastolēn) between my people and between your people” with the result that the dog-fly only affects Egyptian people and animals.
Although in one context in the Greek Old Testament, i.e. Numbers 19:2, this noun has the sense of “instruction of the law (hē diastolē tou vomou)” (translating the Hebrew term meaning “statutes”), Paul did not use the term in this sense.
Given Paul’s particular interest in Old Testament theology in his letter to the Romans, his choice of diastolē in 3:22 and 10:12 may have been deliberate, a lexical choice that reflects the way God had in the past created intentional distinction between his people Israel and all other peoples. That this distinction is in some significant way altered by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus becomes then a most important principle in the matter of the Gospel and our understanding of God’s purposes beyond the cross for humanity. Jesus is Lord of all and the only means by which all humanity can receive righteous status from God. Perhaps this is another way that Paul articulates his point that in the Messiah there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, etc.” Paul deconstructs old distinctions in order to reconstruct the new distinction being established by God in the covenant made in the blood of his Messiah, Jesus.
- if God has removed all distinctions within humanity and now regards all on the same basis, what does this say about the way we should view every human being?
- if God does expect his new people in Christ to be distinctive in this world, what are the primary ways in which we are to express this distinctiveness? Is this distinctiveness evident in your life today? What needs to change?
- 1Apart from 5:43 and 9:9, the New International Version used a different translation for this verb every time it occurred in Mark’s narrative: 5:43 “gave strict orders”; 7:36(2x) “commanded…the more he did so”; 8:15 “warned”‘ 9:9 gave…orders.” In Matthew 16:20 the translation used is “warned.” I am not sure why this variety of renderings is used. There does not seem to be a requirement in the contexts to make this necessary.
- 2It should be noted that epetimēsen is read by some manuscripts (e.g. Vaticanus and Bezae) in Matthew 16:20.
- 3Rengstorf, “diastellō“, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume VII, 591.
- 4The verb is used with this quotation in Philo, De Ebrietate 127 and the cognate noun is used in De Specialibus Legibus 1.100 with reference to Leviticus 10:10.