1 Corinthians 15:3 in the King James Version reads:
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.You can read here "first of all," which translates two Greek words, en protois. Some new late 20th century translations and their translators have changed that to "of first importance," also changing the meaning of the verse at that point. En is the often used Greek preposition and protois is the dative of a very often used Greek adjective, protos. You can see proto in a lot of English words, like "prototype," "prototypical," and "protocol." The understanding of "proto" within each of those English words, is "first in order." A "prototype" is a first model of something, the first to come along of something. "Protocol" is the original draft of a diplomatic document. Something "prototypical" denotes the first, original, or typical form of something.
En protois is found only here in the New Testament. Both words are used a lot, but only here together, so this is what is termed hapax legomena, once said. With a hapax legomena, you can't discern it's meaning by looking at other usage in the New Testament. You must go outside of the New Testament to get a larger sample size. It is also quite helpful to go back in history to see how others have used this phrase.
When you go back to the fourth century, you have John Chrysostom commenting on this phrase in his Homilies, and he says:
But what is this, "For I delivered unto you first of all?" for that is his word. "In the beginning, not now." And thus saying he brings the time for a witness, and that it were the greatest disgrace for those who had so long time been persuaded now to change their minds: and not this only, but also that the doctrine is necessary. Wherefore also it was "delivered" among "the first," and from the beginning straightway.Chrysostom says en protois is about time or chronology, as in first in order. That's how the text reads to me too, but that's how he viewed it way back, probably late fourth century. He doesn't understand en protois as "of first importance."
Plato used en protois in his Republic (7:522c):
“What?” “Why, for example, this common thing that all arts and forms of thought and all sciences employ, and which is among the first things that everybody must learn.”"Among the first things" translates en protois and Plato saw that exact phrase as first in order, that is, subject matter that was "among the first things that everybody must learn." The death, burial, and resurrection was "among the first things" that the Apostle preached when he was in Corinth, because it was foundational to everything else that he would teach them in Corinth. You've got to hear the gospel first for obvious reasons. Plato predates the Apostle Paul by around 400 years.
Aesthenes in Against Timarchus uses en protois (speech one, section four):
I am aware, fellow citizens, that the statement which I am about to make first is something that you will undoubtedly have heard from other men on other occasions.Here is another ancient Greek usage and it the meaning is first in order again. This was around the same time as Plato.
Aristotle in Metaphysics (book 3, section 997b) uses en tois protois with the addition of the definite article tois:
In what sense we Platonists hold the Forms to be both causes and independent substances has been stated in our original discussion on this subject.Aristotle uses en tois protois twice in his Nicomachean Ethics (bekker page 1125b):
It appears however that honor also, as was said in the first part of this work . . . . as we said in the first part of this work.He also uses en tois protois in his Rhetoric (book 2, chapter 25):
Signs and enthymemes based upon signs, even if true, may be refuted in the manner previously stated.Aristotle came after Plato, so he was a little closer to New Testament times. In all of these usages, we see the understanding of first in order.
You can find twenty more usages of en protois in the Septuagint (Rahlfs edition, 1935). The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew, but the way that en protois is seen to be used there is helpful. The Brenton English translation of the Septuagint (1844) translates the first usage of en protois in the Old Testament in Genesis 33:2:
And he put the two handmaidens and their children with the first, and Lea and her children behind, and Rachel and Joseph last.It's obvious that the handmaidens and their children were not first in importance to Jacob, but first in order in the welcoming committee of Esau.
The following usages are all the Brenton translation of the Septuagint, a standard translation, the next usage in Deuteronomy 13:9 (the translation of en protois underlined):
Thou shalt surely report concerning him, and thy hands shall be upon him among the first to slay him, and the hands of all the people at the last.Again, this can't be understood as any other way than, "first in order." The next usage, Deuteronomy 17:7, is an identical situation as Deuteronomy 13:9 with the first people stepping up to execute someone who has broken God's law.
As you work your way through the usages of en protois, it could be used in the way of prominence. That is a usage of protos in the New Testament as well. Since the most common usage by far of protos is order, one should expect an obvious usage of prominence. You get that in just two of the twenty usages of en protois (1 Sam 9:22, 1 Chron 11:6) in the Greek Septuagint. Brenton translates both, "among the chief." The only two usages of prominence in the Old Testament are identical usages that are not at all like the reading in 1 Corinthians 15:3. They speak of the most prominent place for chief men to be sitting together.
If someone is looking for the clues for meaning, he starts with what I have done above. He looks for the usage of language like the Septuagint. He looks at ancient usage. He moves forward from there, but usage in actual language buttresses meaning. Then you start looking at commentaries. You can look at Chrysostom with special favor because he doesn't have centuries of commentaries to bend his thinking. If you are going to take a meaning that is an exceptional meaning, based on the usage, you better have a clear, plain, persuasive basis. It should stick out of a usage that is typical of that specific usage. "Of first importance" doesn't fit what we see in the way of evidence.
Thomas Edwards adds in 1886 in his commentary on 1 Corinthians concerning en protois, "among the things to be stated first." H. L. Goudge in 1915 writes, "these facts formed the foreground of my gospel." James Morison in 1841 writes, "Amongst the very 'first' things that the Apostle delivered to the heathen Corinthians , after he entered their city was this -- 'Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.'"
When I read commentators on en protois, they rarely give their reasoning behind the decision. They just give an opinion. It's so infrequent that they give any explanation that you could say that they don't explain. Above, I've given you evidence. This is how someone should deal with a hapax legomena. In the few instances in history with a "first importance" understanding of that Greek phrase, it is very clear. I saw one historical usage, and it referred to the ranking of people, identical to the two examples in the Septuagint. This forms a precedent. You would look for en protois to mean "foremost" or "of first importance," when it relates to the ranking of people, such as chief men or kings in their chief places.
The King James says, "I delivered unto you first of all." The Bishops, Great, Tyndale, Geneva, and Coverdale Bibles all five read, "For first of all I delivered unto you." John Wycliffe in the fourteenth century translated, "For I betook to you at the beginning." Young's Literal Translation (1886) reads, "For I delivered to you first." This is how God's people took the meaning of en protois.
A gigantic new doctrine comes out of the "first importance" translation, that is, ranking doctrines and a modern evangelical and fundamentalist reductionism. I see it as a basis of fake and unbiblical unity in disobedience of biblical teaching on separation over these doctrines that they say are not "of first importance." The basis of the gospel coalition is this new translation and new understanding. It's such a big deal to John MacArthur, this one phrase, that he gives it as the title to the first chapter of his new book. His explanation is the following:
Verse 3 would be better translated, "I conveyed to you the principle matters." That's the true sense of what he [Paul] is telling them. Both the English Standard Version and the New American Standard Bible say, "I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received." What Paul clearly has in mind here are the elements of the gospel truth that come first in order of importance.That's all the explanation for that particular point. It is zero exegesis. It in no way gives any hint that he's basing this entire point on one phrase that he does not prove. It is classic reading into the text. He places his meaning in so that he can get it out. He uses buzz words like "true sense" and "clearly has in mind." He also relies on translators who have departed from the historic understanding of this terminology and without explanation. When you look at the Greek works, it isn't better translated, "I conveyed to you the principle matters." It is literally, "I delivered unto you among the first things." Paradidomi doesn't mean "to convey." It's much stronger than that.
The first thing Paul entrusted them with was a gospel that included bodily resurrection. They were saved based upon that preaching and teaching that he gave to them right away and foundational to everything else he had taught them. How could they eject from that now? They are betraying the gospel when they do that. Paul is not saying, "This is the most important thing that I conveyed to you." No. It's important, no doubt, but Paul isn't introducing a new and monumental teaching of ranking doctrines.
This first importance teaching has done much damage to the faith and work of God. It has resulted in widespread acceptance of false doctrine and greater disobedience to God's Word. All of that is justified by many by this one little phrase that doesn't mean what they say it does. Don't believe it.
You can read a few other posts I've written on this text are here, here, and here. This post is a one stop shop on the fallacy of ranking doctrines.