You and two hypothetical Jehovah’s Witnesses are having a discussion, and they’ve pointed you to Colossians 1.15, where Christ is said to be the “firstborn of all creation.” We’ve noted that the operative word here is the term firstborn, and we’ve set out to discover what it means.
Defining the key terms
Since words have multiple meanings, we need to gather a list of what this key term could possibly mean. We’ve noted that according to its etymology, it simply means that the person is the first one to be born, or to come into existence. That means that our Jehovah’s Witness friends are winning.
But we’ve also noted that etymology is notoriously unreliable as an indicator of meaning. We need to look further.
Step 3: Possible meanings–context
The best indicator of a word’s meaning is how it’s actually used. If Michael Jackson used the word bad to mean “good,” then we need to know that when one of his fans uses the word bad.
Similarly, we need to survey how the word firstborn is used. The most reliable indicator is typically how it’s used in “near context”—the same chapter, the same epistle, the same author. The word does appear just a few verses below this occurrence, in verse 18; we’ll come back to that later. For now, we notice that it appears 3 times in Paul, twice in Hebrews, and twice in the Gospels. If you’re being extra diligent and using Strong’s numbers to check the underlying Greek word, you find 2 more uses, translated “first begotten” in the KJV, both in Hebrews.
So 9 uses in the New Testament. That’s a problem in that 9 uses are nowhere enough to constitute a meaningful dataset; statisticians will tell you that you need 50 whatevers before you can start drawing statistical conclusions. Furthermore, the problem gets worse; of these 9 occurrences, 8 of them are simply calling Jesus the firstborn, which is the very thing we’re trying to figure out. We need verses that use the term to refer to other things, so we can see what the term actually means. Our one instance in the NT, Hebrews 11.28, is a reference to Passover, when the death angel destroyed the firstborn of Egypt, and that’s talking about people and animals that were literally the first ones to come into existence.
Too little evidence, and what little we have says that the Jehovah’s Witness is still winning.
But we do have another resource. The Old Testament, the Scripture of the same cultural group, was translated into Greek about 200 years before Christ, which is close enough in time to be useful as evidence. We can take a look at that Greek OT, the Septuagint, to see how much it uses the term.
Firstborn occurs in the KJV OT 110 times. Now there’s a dataset. (If you get more technical and count the number of times the Greek word prototokos occurs in the Septuagint, you’ll get 124. That number’s different for several reasons, which won’t make any significant difference in our work here.)
Of those 110 occurrences, about 97% are literal—that is, we’re talking about a human or animal that is literally the first one born. So 97% of the time, this word speaks of coming into existence.
Who’s winning? The Jehovah’s Witness. Still. And by a mile.
But 97% is not 100%. There are a few instances where the word is used of someone or something that is not the first one born:
- Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son (Ex 4.22).
- And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth (Ps 89.27).
- With weeping they shall come, and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble, for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn (Jer 31.9).
Next time we’ll take a closer look at one of those passages, and we’ll learn of a second possible meaning for our word.
And, more importantly, we’ll also learn how not to completely abuse the Scripture in the process.