Translating Romans 1:21

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21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

I have a question about translating Romans 1:21. The KJV, Holman Bible, NKJV, NIV all say, “… but became vain in their imaginations.”

Calvin’s Institutes and Matthew Henry’s Commentary all say the same thing “became vain.”

However, when I look at the grammatical (parsing) construction of ἐματαιώθησαν, I find Aorist Passive Indicative 3rd Pr. Pl.

Aorist Indicative = “in the past” referring to an action taken in the past.

Aorist Passive Verb = Action of the Verb happens to the subject (Nominative Case) of the sentence.

I translate it as “they were made vain.”

I understand the end result is that they ended up in a state of “vain imaginations” (thinking, reasoning). However, the word “became” seems to hint at a Middle Voice (the subjects acted upon themselves) and not Passive Voice.

The way I see it, if they “were made vain,” this clearly shows that God (or someone/thing outside of themselves) made them vain as part of the “wrath of God revealed” (v. 18).

I know I am a novice at translating Greek (and I should defer to Calvin & Henry), therefore my question is this: Why is ἐματαιώθησαν not properly rendered “were made vain”? (For Rm 1:21) Especially in light of the fact that its lexical entry is not deponent?


My own translation is

… ἐματαιώθησαν ἐν τοῖς διαλογισμοῖς αὑτῶν,
… they were rendered worthless [/fruitless /meaningless /futile] by [/in] their own ▪reasonings {about God},

καὶ ἐσκοτίσθη ἡ ἀσύνετος αὐτῶν καρδία·
and their senseless [/non-comprehending /unintelligent /undiscerning /without conscience] ▪heart [//mind – generic] was [/became] darkened.

Senseless, literally without (mental) ability to put things together, erratic, directionless.

“They were rendered worthless” is about the same as “they were made vain.”

They are both passive renderings, and they can be taken as theological passives — God could be the unnamed agent.

If we render the preposition ἐν with “in,” then God could still be the agent. I render the preposition ἐν with “by” because that seemed to me to fit the context, and that makes their own reasonings the agent.

A middle voice would suggest that they themselves were the agent.

“Became vain” is considered a passive rendering, but it also suggests that a change has occurred, but without naming an agent, at least in some contexts it seems to turn back to the subject as the agent. I was tired — the kids wore me out. I became tired — I worried myself to exhaustion.

Later in the verse, “their senseless heart became darkened” doesn’t seems as suggestive of a middle voice — at least not to me.

I chose “were rendered” rather than “became” — the Lexicon suggested it, and it seemed good to me.

Harvey Bluedorn


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